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

Library Community Garden and Bungay Gardens Art Trail – Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th July, 12 noon – 4pm

5124818We’re on the Trail! This weekend the Library Community Garden is taking part in the Black Dog Arts Garden Art Trail. We’ll be here to guide you round the permaculture garden Sustainable Bungay created in 2009, where we keep a showcase bed and run a progamme of events around different themes, from bee-friendly flowers to medicine plants.

This year we have focused on dye plants and Mary Sprake from Black Dog Arts – who gave a great talk here on woad in April – will be displaying some of her true blue fabrics in this very green courtyard.

Each year Black Dog Arts organises a Garden Art Trail around some of the hidden gardens of Bungay. Here is their invitation: “You can stroll round the town and discover great garden gems and the garden art and craftworks inspired by them.

There are approximately 9 gardens open this year mostly within the town centre but a few will be on the outskirts making this more of a diverse tour. The gardens are picked because they are all well hidden and have their own interesting features.

There will be art in all the gardens consisting of sculpture, ceramics and paintings/drawings and textile work. Also included is our Allotment Society.

BCLG 13.7.2014Refreshments will be provided at one of the gardens.

Proceeds to Black Dog arts to fund workshops in much of the art media.

Cost:
£2.00 for entry to all gardens (though entrance to the library is free)

How to get event passports:
Leaflet maps available from Bungay library in Wharton Street or shops, businesses and community buildings throughout the town.

Further information:
Phone: 01986 893 550

Website: http://www.opengardens.co.uk/open_gardens.php?id=226

THE DYE GARDEN True Blue – a talk about the culture and craft of woad with Mary Sprake – Sunday 20th April, 11am

385px-38_Isatis_tinctoria_LOur first talk in the Dye Garden season will be about the ancient dye plant woad, once the principle source of blue in Europe, before indigo arrived from the East, and artificial dyes were discovered in the 19th century.

On 20th April Mary Sprake of Black Dog Arts will talk about this useful and unusual member of the brassica family and show how the blue dye can be extracted from its leaves and used to dye yarn and cloth. Woad was cultivated extensively in East Anglia (the famous ‘Lavenham blew’ from the medieval wool centre at Lavenham was made from these plants), and woad is still being grown commercially in Norfolk.

Many artists, textile designers and crafts people use woad, as it creates extraordinary hues of blue, as well as being entirely natural and sustainable.

db_2d-scan05_71What is The Dye Garden?

The Dye Garden is part of the permaculture-inspired Library Community Garden, created by Sustainable Bungay in 2009. The showcase central bed changes each year and during the growing year the Garden hosts plant and produce exchanges, events and workshops around its chosen theme. This year we are growing dye and textile plants, and there are already several in situ – including of course a woad plant now getting ready to flower!

Our 2014 programme will be looking at several key plants from different angles: from the perspective of artists, makers, curators and growers. Each event will provide a practical and imaginative insight into our relationships with fabrics and colour through time.

During the growing year of 2014, we’ll be journeying into the myths and culture behind certain plants: visiting the flax and hemp fields of the Waveney Valley; the silk weavers and madder sellers of Norwich; discovering archaic woad, African indigo and how to make paints from local wild flora.

Arts, culture and wellbeing

1a-woadspoolThe Dye Garden is being curated by Sustainable Bungay’s Arts, Culture and Wellbeing group. The project aims to celebrate the  beauty of ordinary things and our place within the fabric of life, within a frame of ecological and social change.

Plants can act as a wonderful bridge between people, a springboard to our imaginations, and open a door to other places and times, knowledge and wonder. So as well as a skill and knowledge-share about plants and textiles, the garden and its events are also an exploration of creativity and wellbeing within the community.

Everyone is invited!

True Blue – a talk about the culture and craft of woad will take place at Bungay Community Library on 20th April at 11am. Free entry (donations welcome).

Images: botanical drawing of woad plant; woad balls being stacked in Norfolk; woad-dyed wool (from www.woad.org.uk/)

Green Drinks – Give and Take Fashion – Tuesday 4th March

knitting 2The fashion and fabrics business is one of the largest and most polluting industries  on the planet.  How can we have a more sustainable relationship with the people and plants who make our clothes and other materials?

At this month’s Green Drinks, ex-fashion editor and curator of this year’s Dye Garden Project, Charlotte Du Cann, will be looking at ways we can individually  and collectively ‘downshift the wardrobe’, including running sewing circles, clothes swaps and Give and Take Days. Do come along and join in the conversation.

Meanwhile here is a great article on textiles  published in our winter issue of Transition Free Press.

Textiles in Transition

by William Lana

Textiles is a truly global industry. In many ways it was the starting point of the industrialisation of the world, kicked off in the 18th and 19th centuries by Britain’s cotton industry and trade. Labour-intensive garment production was one of the earliest to adopt the ‘logic’ of globalisation and in the last 50 years has been moving from the high-wage countries to lower and lower wage countries in a so-called race to the bottom…

The globalisation of the textile industry has meant that companies have shifted focus away from production and instead ‘bigged-up’ brand and marketing.  Production is merely supply a management issue. This has led to a systemic exploitation of workers, including excessive hours, lack of job security, poverty wages, ill-health and denial of trade union rights.

To a transitioner this feels very unsatisfactory. We want to know where the raw materials have been grown, raised or made. We want to know what the energy input has been, how far the garment has come, and what toxic outputs have been created through its production. Who has made it and under what conditions?  Quite apart from the concern that our bum doesn’t look big in it.

When we opened our Greenfibres shop in the mid 1990’s I remember some people walking by, saying “Organic textiles?! You don’t eat your socks!”. Apart from being incorrect (60% of the cotton harvest is cotton seed used for animal feed and vegetable oil) it made me realise just how disconnected we are from our textiles. They are all around us (literally), internationally employ over 26 million people (not including over 100 million farmers who grow cotton and other materials), and yet we have a very distant relationship to them.

sewing-sessiontara-et-alasdairHow far have we come in 20 years?  Hmmm…. not terribly.  I’m heartened to see the real growth of the make and mend movement, that £13 million worth of organic textiles were sold in the UK in 2012 and that documentaries about the industry (such as Dirty White Gold investigating the high suicide rate of Indian cotton farmers). But it still feels like early days. Who’s asking questions about energy use?  (one t-shirt requires approx. 1.7 kg of fossil fuel and generates approx. 4 kg of CO2). Can we even return to a less energy intensive textile industry? Who remembers how to ret or scutch flax?  Where are the businesses who know how to process these fibres?  Why is 95% of the cotton grown in the US from GM seed?

So what if we wanted to start bringing fibres and fabrics back home, what might that look like?  Well, for starters …

  • we’d get busy planting some hemp (and make it easier to get a licence – mine took 18 months)
  • we’d re-introduce basic sewing into the primary school curriculum
  • we’d pass legislation requiring historical information to be included on the barcode of garments, e.g. where the raw materials came from, and where the garment was made (a pair of Lee jeans can travel 40,000 miles from field to shelf).

Meanwhile what can the average transitioner do to side-step fast fashion?  We can swap clothes with friends, purchase outerwear from charity shops, and if we do buy new items (for example underwear) consider an ethical supplier. If you buy textiles that you love and respect, you’re much less likely to add them to the 3 million ton annual pile which ends up in our bins.  In a nutshell, we should be buying fewer textiles, of better quality, which can be mended.  Now back to my tasty organic cotton socks.

William Lana co-founded the organic textile company Greenfibres in 1996 and is a trustee of Transition Network. He was Chair of the Soil Association’s Organic Textile Standards Committee from 2001-2012 and helped found the Organic Trade Board in 2008.

For further reading: John Thackera on Routledge’s upcoming Handbook on Fashion and Sustainability http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-01-07/a-whole-new-cloth-politics-and-the-fashion-system

Charlotte Du Cann will be introducing The Dye Garden on Saturday 22nd March, 10am at the Bungay Community Library (before Sustainable Bungay’s Eighth Give and Take Day)

Images: girl at knitting workshop at Transition Kensal to Kilburn Reskilling Day by Jonathan Goldberg : Transition reskilling.

Introducing The Dye Garden 2014

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Each year Bungay Community Library Garden has a different theme for the central bed and revolves a series of events around its showcase plants.

In 2010 when Sustainable Bungay first created the garden we grew a host of nectar and pollen flowers for Butterflies and Bees (with Bungay Community Bees). The following year Mark ‘in Flowers’ Watson curated a year long programme of walks, talks and workshops around Medicine Plants and gave ‘plant surgeries’ during the summer underneath the shade of a giant burdock.

Last year Lesley Hartley planted a wonderful array of coloured veg (purple peas, crimson broadbeans) and edible flowers for the 2013 theme of The Edible Garden. Pumpkins, potatoes and apples were served up at Happy Mondays, window boxes and hot beds were constructed and all manner of seeds, plants and produce (and garden knowledge) swapped at our bi-annual Give and Grow days.

This year the theme is The Dye Garden and the bed is being planted up with all kinds of wild and mostly native dye and fibre plants, that will provide the creative inspiration for this year’s programme of events starting on 22 March alongside our next Give and Take Day.

Image2013-650exhibit-color-explosion5Here I am in the garden takeover period, pointing to our signature plant, woad (blue), transplanted from our fellow Transition Library garden in Halesworth. Along with Mark and Lesley and chief dye plant advisors, Rose Titchiner and Jenni Jepson, we have taken down the last of the frost-bitten beans and nasturtiums and planted up a robust rainbow gang of dyer’s greenweed, yarrow, St John’s wort, indigo and madder. The spikey leaved plant  in the pic is artichoke (cardoon, and the neighouring purple beetroot, are both vegetable dyes).

Watch this space for some colourful action this year! Charlotte Du Cann

Images: Bungay Community Garden; naturally dyed wool at the Guildhall Museum, Lavenham; chemical dyed fabric from exhbition Colour Revolution: Style Meets Science in the 1960s at the Lowell Musuem, USA