Anne Marie and I leave bright and early to head south to Lerryn, and on the way I hear about Transition Lostwithiel and how from an original core group they are now working away at their own projects after finding some challenges in working together too closely, a tale as a comparative newcomer to the town and the group Anne Marie is not able to embellish further, but she does tell me about Lost Threads, the make do and mend group which Lesley holds and which is really successful, and the website which keeps track of all the different projects activities which Cat maintains.
Having worked on many collaborative projects Anne Marie is well aware of the challenges of working in group and I talk too about the challenges I have experienced in Totnes with the Education group and Transition Tales’ very active school’s project, and we both agree that very often it’s a person from outside the group who is objective that can help things run smoothly again.
At Lerryn Anne Marie persuades me to cross the river Fowey by the stepping stones, something I do not to want to do, but by following her, very slowly, stepping stone by stepping stone I am able to get across and then feel quite proud of my achievement, and realise that this is a very effective analogy for transition. Some can see and feel safe in the bigger picture and are not afraid to cross, others are very afraid of the bigger picture and find the overview quite alarming and unsafe and they feel safer by following others step by step.
A woman watches us from the other side and later when Anne Marie and I have taken leave of each other and I approach the shop I realise that Anne Marie has shared the tale of my walk with the woman for she invites me to have an ice cream and I sit with her and her husband Noel, and he and Jane tell me they are from Nantwich, in Cheshire, where I have passed through though failed to meet up with the transitioners there, and Noel and Jane tell me about their personal activities there, how they have joined freecycle (http://www.uk.freecycle.org ) and discovered the joys of giving and receiving for free, and about U3A (the University of the Third Age http://www.u3a.org.uk ) the giant countrywide skills share for older people, and how Noel is teaching French as his contribution to it.
I arrive at my first destination for the day, a little later than I had anticipated, and meet Addie at Plants for a Future. I have arranged to work for a couple of hours to help out at this amazing project I have known about for so long but never visited. Plants for a Future set out in life in the 80’s when Addie and Ken Fern bought acres of very depleted barley field that had been converted from 13 small hedgrowed fields into one big field by means of one of the last government subsidies to enable farmers to do this (you may well be aware of course of the current government subsidies available to put the hedgerows back in again and be beginning to understand why it is that governments and councils are in so much debt, and be wondering why it is that they have made such short sighted decisions). Once de hedged the large field was ploughed and planted up with potatoes. Then the rain came and washed all the soil away, most of it ending up in the neighbouring villagers’ back gardens, and the land was infertile.
Addie and Ken took it on and began to plant trees. Now, some 20 years on, the land is a forest of fruit trees, and full of wildlife; moles, badgers, rabbits and deer. It is incredibly diverse and incredibly beautiful. The tragedy of this story is that although Addie and Ken achieved so much, they were never given permission to live on their land, so they could tend it properly, and were made to leave their small converted shed that was more work shed with a kitchen and sleeping room than anything else, and re-housed in a council house in Lerryn. A living tale of the absurdity of government policy today; a couple who were quite happy to live in quite basic conditions in order to realise this dream of creating a haven of edible plants for all of our futures, being made to live in the village taking up a home that someone else could have lived in. I would very much like to know when our planning policies were brought into force; are they a legacy of the Enclosures Act of more than 200 years ago I wonder? It wouldn’t surprise me, considering the very short sighted nature of recent government spending decisions, to learn that no one has bothered to look at where this grotesquely useless bit of policy that prevents people from living on the land they are cultivating came from, and why we are still enforcing it.
Little by little Addie and Ken continued their work, now having to commute in from Lerryn every day, but the dreams of the land eventually housing a small community of vegans who would care for the trees had to be left behind and now Ken, author of the incredible database of all our edible plants, and the publication ”Plants for a Future: Edible and Useful Plants for a Healthier World” does not even go the land, but is working on a database of tropical plants and hopes he and Addie can move to Addie’s native Brazil and set up there. I have a feeling they will not be so thwarted in their good work there as they have been in our land governed by petty beaurocratic rules. The Brazilian way is not to deter those who would get on and do something; it is very much a land of “where there is a will there is a way”, and I wonder why it is that we in England have been so handicapped by our laws and when we are going to wake up and effect a serious reform.
Addie and I pick eleagnus berries. There are thousands of the tiny superfood on just one tree and I can understand why it was that the dream had been to work with several people on this land. As we walk back towards the shed we pass the cornus kousa tree and stop to pick the raspberry candy tasting berries growing there that are so abundant.
Addie takes me past the sea buckthorn, and I am delighted to see them in full fruit and tell the tale of the sea buckthorn sapling that I carried from Sidmouth to Lyme Regis as a gift from transition town to transition town. Addie gives me a frond of berries to take on with me as seed. I say I will come back to work again and that Anne Marie has said she will come too if it is for a whole day’s work, and Addie talks about the plans for a work week in October and how there is space for 6-10 to come and camp and work, so if anyone fancies spending a bit of time working in an edible forest now is your chance. (http://www.pfaf.org ).
With two sweet smelling apples from the early fruiting apples trees in my pockets, having refused to take more having no space in which to carry them, I walk on, and at the nearby cluster of houses around the Penpol creek fall in love with the red coloured ivy that has coated the phone box and everything around it. One of my favourite sights in all the world is seeing nature reclaim back her own, oblivious to human kind’s puny and arrogant attempts to lead the way.
I have a lovely walk to Polperro; the road turns east along leafy lanes and I am really aware that I am walking back home now. Homeward bound; it is a nice feeling and yet there is an element of unknown about it too. People say it will feel strange, and maybe it will, and maybe it won’t, I am very much looking forward to having time to write my book. This has always been about a year long project to me, six months of walking and collecting, through the good weather, six months of reflecting and writing through the short days of wintertime. It feels very much to me like the way life should be lived, in tune with what the seasons tell us.
I walk down into the epitome of picturesque fishing village, Polperro, and as I make the harbour my host Ashley Dobbs meets me and takes me to his home on the cliff side overlooking the water and the boats. We walk up the steep, steep stone steps and reach the flat where I meet Ollie and Chloe, his children.
Over tea and biscuits Ashley tells us about his Green Cities project and how his transition training did not convince him and how he feels that the building of new green cities across the world is the only way, and though it does not feel my way I am struck by the stepping stones analogy and also by the beautiful image of life as multi coloured prism someone described to me a few days ago, and decide that Ashley and I are obviously seeing different angles of the prism, and are looking at the challenge from different perspectives and we let go of having different opinions and just accept that they both exist.
For Ashley the need for new totally green cities, built to pattern language specifications and modelled on nature’s shapes, is essential to his particular world view that society will crumble and the old cities will be left behind, for me the only way to build a healthy future is on the roots of the old, honouring and respecting what had gone before, and building organically and slowly on from that, gradually letting go of what doesn’t work and absorbing new ideas that blend in with the old harmoniously. I realise as I write that these two descriptions of a new way of living are much like the way some choose to live in intentional communities, trying out new ways, setting up their own way doing things, largely experimental, whereas the transition way is to build from where we are already, starting with what we have, including everyone, and doing it together, piece by piece, forging links between old and new as it moves. I am a part of both of these things, and learn much from my involvement in both, and nowadays realise greater unity with transition for it gives me far more hope of what can be achieved on a large scale whilst at the same time completely grounded in the reality of what is already in each of our local communities, inclusive and tolerant and striking forward all at the same time.
Ashley too sees the value in the two ways for he is part of PEG (Polperro Environmental Group, waiting for website link) the local transition group that set out in life last November. The group have so far organised awareness raising talks, set up a recycling project, planned a community forest garden, and the many working groups they quickly split up into to avoid having to have lots of committee meetings are avidly pursuing their passions for tree planting, and reclaiming allotment spaces.
There are longer term plans for wind turbines as the best source of energy for the village, having done studies examining all the possibilities and worked out that three wind turbines can power the entire village. I wonder how many of the population of Polperro have been included in this research and decision making, and again grapple with the bottom up –top down see saw on which we sit in our times and how it is we remain completely inclusive as long as we are making decisions without everyone on board, whilst at the same time be moving forward quickly enough to be able to make a difference in time.
Sue Pybus and Jackie come round and join us for a lovely local dinner that Ashley cooks up with the aid of Sue’s chicken eggs and her courgette, and Chloe’s expert bread roll making.
Before we eat we walk to the harbour to enjoy watching the high tide which has covered the road and though I enjoy experiencing this spectacle I am aware at the same time of how potentially dangerous this could be and wonder, not for the first time, why so many villagers and townsfolk have built their cottages so close to river estuaries over the centuries.
We have delicious pasta with garden cherry tomatoes and sea spinach picked from down the lane (which Ashley says can be picked all the year round) followed by courgette Spanish omelette, and then freshly cooked foraged blackberries and apple from the neighbour’s tree.
Sue tells us of her love of foraging and how she is now learning about the seaweeds that can be collected and cooked, and Jackie and I say we both want to learn too. We learn that the tide will be low enough this weekend to walk across to nearby Looe island and make provisional plans to do this.
I hear too about the School of Lost Arts where they teach each other skills like foraging, knitting, and anything anyone would like to learn that another can teach.
The big local concern in Polperro right now is the plan to build new affordable housing in a grade 2 listed field that could be used for growing food and then the double edged concern that new housing is needed and my sense is that in these times we really need to be stopping encouraging any second home ownership to free up homes for locals so that new affordable housing wouldn’t be needed. As I have walked the country the one thing that has stood out like a blight on the landscape as markedly as industrial sites, has been the new housing built on edges of settlements with no facilities and no meaningful connections with the settlement.
The belief that we need to build new affordable housing is a myth born of the belief that it is OK for one person to own more than one property. If we lived in one home each there would be plenty of housing in and amongst our settlements. What needs to change first is the notion of making a profit from dealing in property, and an acknowledgement that housing is a basic human need, and that until everyone is housed adequately there should be no speculation on housing, no second home ownership, no making profit from charging rents, and from there the notion of family planning at an individual and at a community level could begin to be looked at seriously, and gradually there would be no need for new affordable housing. Change the story, ask a different question, and see different solutions.
Sue and I learn of a shared experience of having been brought up in SE Lancashire and hating it and of having spent time in Brazil and loving it. It is interesting that having experienced these two very different ways of life and climates, we have both chosen to settle in the SW of England, and to have tried community living.
It feels lovely to have met like minded people here in this lovely Cornish village I have visited many times, but never known anyone in.