Love, Food and the Whole Damn Thing
Sunday 30 October 10.15pm Not my planned intro but... I’ve just read Tamzin’s extraordinary account of her family’s (successful) two and a half year fight to bring her 8 year old daughter back to health from leukaemia, which introduces our week on food and health. I was totally gripped, both by its clarity and strength of purpose and by Tamzin's direct gaze at the chilling disconnect in the hospital system between what patients are fed and the affect it has on their health. (Friends who work in school kitchens tell me similar stories of bad food).
It also brought back a memory. Twenty years ago several of my lymph glands swelled up and I felt exhausted all the time. I moved out of my Camden flat and went to live with Charlotte in Westbourne Park Road. I went for medical tests, and on the insistence of a hospital doctor, agreed to a biopsy.
Two main things I remember about this time. One, Charlotte took charge of my meals over many months, and with attention and love made sure I ate plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit. Two, I was bolshy with the doctors. I demanded to know EVERYTHING! I told the surgeon if the gland under my arm would do for the biopsy then I didn’t want him cutting the one in my neck as I’d heard it could be disfiguring, even though that was the gland the doctor had recommended be cut. I missed my premed and was wheeled fully conscious down to the operating theatre and the anaesthetic.
In the end all the tests were clear. And we sold everything and went to Latin America. Six weeks later in a swimming pool in Guatemala I suddenly knew I’d recovered from whatever it was. I also knew my health could have gone either way. Something about Charlotte’s care, along with my own stubborn awareness that it was my body I’d been living in for twenty nine years, not the doctors’, helped me get better.
This was the start of my own reconnection with the natural world. Over the next ten years I lived and worked in Mexico, the Andes and the Arizona desert, studied with herbalists and medicine people and got to know the landscapes and (some of) the plants that grew in them.
But it was whilst living in Oxford at the end of the 90s that I really started taking notice, going out to meet the neighbourhood plants. In wastegounds and meadows, churchyards and botanical gardens – yarrow, St. John’s wort, evening primrose, willows and willowherbs and two hundred more. Each with its own ‘properties’ and character, its story to tell if I just got still and listened. I made teas and tinctures, perfumes and poultices. Plants would come into my dreams and give me clues as to how to sow their seeds or even negotiate a personal difficulty. In short I immersed myself in plants and became infused with their essence – and loved it!
These were the days where I learned to pay attention.
So, back to the future. How to organise ten thousand experiences and thoughts from the past three and a half years in Sustainable Bungay and Transition Norwich and say one or two things about Food, Health and Transition that might be nourishing. They’re all related. So where do I start?
Food, and the awareness of it, is as integral a part of transition for me as a basic grasp of fossil fuel constraints, social (in)equality and justice, the collapse of the current economy and a feeling for the living systems of the planet. That’s the bigger picture stuff and what my involvement in Transition has taught me about in these years.
In practical terms in our initiatives, food weaves itself through everything - through the growing and the swapping, the shared meals at meetings and the CSAs, the transition circles and the carbon conversations.
In Sustainable Bungay it’s the apples and pears Cathy and Lesley bring from their trees to the Autumn Produce Swap at the Library Community Garden. It’s the Growing Local conference at a local church. It’s the whitecurrants, runner beans, burdock root and chard that Charlotte and Nick bring to the monthly meetings along with Gemma’s cake. It's the Transition Cafe at the Waveney Greenpeace Fair and the beetroot and foraged sea buckthorn salad we eat at home together afterwards.
It’s also Happy Mondays, the community café we hold down at Bungay community centre every six weeks using produce grown and foraged locally, including from our own gardens and allotments.
And it’s the medicine jellies and soups I make with local wild and garden herbs, and take along to transition events and meetings to help clear a blocked sinus or to warm against a late winter chill. And which taste delicious. And the Spring Tonic walk Charlotte and I led a few years ago to connect fellow Bungay and Norwich transitioners (note embedded shared lunch) with the food/medicine plants growing around us.
And here's where the boundaries between food and medicine start to blur. It's about relationship and connection - as far away as you can possibly get from the left-hemispherical medical obsession with weight (stats) and disregard for the living human being Tamzin speaks about in her piece.
Relationship and connection - to the people we're with, the plants and animals we grow and eat (and those we don't) and the places we live in. At the same time keeping awake to the bigger planetary picture. These are perhaps the most important things to engage in, given what happens when they are left out of the equation.
Yesterday I went up to Bungay Library Community Garden to start preparing the central bed for next year's Medicine Plant theme. In true permacultural style we're working with many of the plants already there, so starting isn't really the right word.
"Leave the greater celandine, it's a major detoxifier, wart remover and beautiful native member of the poppy family," I called out. And so too we're leaving the dock, mugwort, feverfew, thyme, calendula, vervain and herb robert. I'll be adding chickweed, nettles and dandelion in time, aswell as organising talks and conversations for 2012, welcoming stories from people about their own relationship with medicinal plants, exploring resilient herbs - and borrowing some label inspiration from Transition Finsbury Park's Edible Landscapes project!
And if anyone in or around Bungay is reading this and has some Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) plants spare which will flower next year, please get in touch!
Pics: Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Bungay; Feel the Beet, Carrot and Parsley; Picking Yarrow 2010 Suffolk; Charlotte, Margaret and Nick at the Transition Cafe, Waveney Greenpeace Fair 2011; Happy Mondays Community Kitchen Crew - Nick, Christine, Lesley, Gemma and Josiah Oct 2011; Medicine Jelly; Library Community Garden Oct 2011; Herbs for Resilience All photos: CDC and MW