It’s down to us

Terrence McKenna said something like ‘if you’re fortunate enough to be have born into a place and time where you have access to good healthcare, communications and other resources, then I’m sorry, but it falls to you to change the world for the better’.

Yep, it’s down to us.

Unless you have allowed yourself to be swallowed by the spurious spectre of popular culture, believe everything you read in the paper or are content to whittle down your time fixating on some strangers life, you’ll know that things need changing, And in a hurry. Choose any strand of natural or societal life and you’ll come across some sort of hump (or indeed looming abyss) before too long.

It’s not necessary for me to spell out why, besides I haven’t the time or inclination to regurgitate that which is so readily available elsewhere, I merely wish to point the finger, slap your face, shout in your ear or whatever else is necessary to get your brain in to gear.

You have the ideas, you have the time, you have the inspiration, the resources, the lust, the hunger, passion, ego, belief, faith and panache to change the world.

Yep, we’re constantly trying to be shut down, anaesthetised and bashed into submission by a routine of daily responsibilities and immersion in others manipulations.

The issues I’ve alluded to may not exist to you because of that. Or perhaps they seem too big to bother to tackle. I know how hard it is to wake up. We’re just not that used to thinking for ourselves about the big stuff.

At the very least, you should learn to stand on your own two feet though.

The real price of food

The price of food seems to increase with every passing year but when you take the chance to grow your own (or gather and forage) you’re soon up close with the reality of how much it really costs. Temperature, moisture, soil type, local conditions, seed quality and an endless, and ever changing, array of hit and miss variables that can make the whole thing as unpredictable as a teenage girl. If you had to depend on your efforts rather than enjoy the privilege of getting everything you could want from the supermarket, the fine line we walk would rise up so sharply it would cut you.

We took on an allotment earlier last year and so, on a snowy, blowy February day, we struck the sodden and overgrown ground with our forks and spades – our first effort to clear a patch neglected for some three years. Three years’ worth of brambles, thistles and grass to penetrate and remove; leaves, weeds and detritus from the previous holders added other layers to be stripped.

As you’d expect the work was back breaking and laborious but patch bay painful patch we chopped and shredded, dug and turned over and came ever close to a square stripped of vegetation, prepared for fresh plantings. Physical labour is tiring but you can at least see tangible results for every swing of the arms.

After 3 or 4 days digging we stood down and waited for the time when the season would complete its well-worn circle, waited for the late winter to give way to early spring. We waited days and then waited a few more weeks. Months passed. By June we had to come to the conclusion that the winter would never actually end – after the endless rain and cold of 2012 it looked as if we were again set to miss out on summer. A scenario that left us as chilled as the never ending north wind.

Regardless, we designed our planting plan, started our seeds on the windowsill (aubergine, courgettes, cucumber, chillies, butternut squash, beetroot, broad beans, runner beans, coriander, basil and verbena), and ventured to stick our spuds (pink fir apples) in the ground. They (those nameless and never named authorities quoted from unknown books and second-hand articles), warned against being too ambitious in your first year as an allotment owner but of course, we had no intention of listening to any of that talk. If there was a chance to grow food there’d be no merit in timidity.  And if there was to be scant summer there’d be no time to faff. The opportunity has to be taken. We were hungry for home-grown

When the seedlings sprouted we quickly put them in to the ground with a lot of care and an equal dose of hope. The days got longer and the temperature increased ever so slightly. Our broccoli was bitten by birds and the beans poked their heads through the dirt but all else seemed dormant in the enduring chill.  We wondered if it was going to happen for us. June came and went but just as we started to give in something remarkable happened; all at once we got slammed with a full blown, blue skied, dry and warm English summer.

There can be nothing like it; suddenly you’re allowed to leave the series of rooms, you’ve been forced to inhabit for months on end, out under a denim blue sky flecked by silver crystal wisps. The insects swarm and bumble and with them come the birds and their hopeful seasonal songs. You’re free to do what you want and all the limits that have clung in the dark seem to dissolve. Even the most jaded city cynic will warm to the possibilities of an English summer (apart from those intransigent losers who whine about it being ‘too hot’).

The heat was the all the invitation every one of those plants on the allotment needed to get growing. Of course, this included some pretty tenacious weeds. Thistles seemed immortal, brambles immune, we spent whole days weeding in an effort to give our vegetables the best chance to grow. Shying away from absolutely any and all chemicals, we manually made good and brought things to harvest. The potatoes still failed completely, the broad beans mostly succumbed to Blackfly and the broccoli was boring but who could be happier? We had four months of squash, spinach, beetroot, courgettes and all the rest. But we’ve also learned the cost of food. What it costs in time, labour and effort; what it costs the Earth in terms of input; and how valuable the lifeblood we’re given in every single living thing is. The possibilities are scary: growing food in an indulgence, a pastime, but if we depended on the plot for everything, had no other options, then we’d walk the path that most of the world still walk. It’s a responsibility and indeed a burden that should be taken seriously.

Everyone should grow something to make sure they don’t forget the real price of food.

Three wild books…

What is it about wilderness and the seeker? Exhausted from all the possibility of our way of life, the empty consumption and lie of career, many turn their gaze to the foothills and the horizon wondering if the answer is to be found in a simpler way of life. Others simply yearn for authenticity and the uncomplicated yet stern hand of nature’s hand. The three books below capture the stories of those that have found it impossible to ignore an irresistible call.


The Wild Muir

John Muir

If you’re going to write anything about the spirit of adventure, the great outdoors, communion with nature and tenacity of spirit you have to start with John Muir. Rambling the wild woods of the west, mountain climbing in winter ranges with pockets stuffed only with hard tack and tea, Muir was a man seldom seen, or indeed made, in our current age or perhaps any age.  The product of a strict Presbyterian parents and a ludicrously harsh upbringing, Muir was normalised against a background of incessant toil and service.

Although this hardship was not unique in nineteenth century terms (and still is now for many), Muir’s writing, and indeed entire spirit appears to transcend the typically masculine and common evocations peculiar to such earlier times that proclaimed ‘man as master over nature’ (I love Jack London but his work is full of misguided proclaim) preferring instead to celebrate his adoration of the morning birdsong, the blissful moonlight in the hills and each gift, no matter how small that each day in the wilderness bought him. Romantic? Sure, but perhaps it is his abundant humility and enthusiasm that keeps his prose so fresh and accessible to the modern reader.

I discovered ‘The Wild Muir’ in a store within the confines of Muir’s own ‘earthly paradise’: Yosemite national park. Whilst you don’t necessarily need to have seen first-hand what he so vividly portrays in its pages, to have had its vast granite ranges, majestic rivers and endless forest etched into your retinas certainly does provide an epic accompaniment to these absorbing tales. Nevertheless the words fully stand by themselves and even a casual read puts your right there on some lonely precipice or fast rushing river at his brusque shoulder. His writing manages to not only communicate the tiniest of details of his environment but fully immerses the reader in the emotional impact of it too; the lasting effect is of real experience rather than second hand report.

Therefore, I’ve chosen to attempt to relate the flavour of this book rather than give you an overview of the numerous events, occurrences and sometime disasters that keep you turning pages. In it you’ll discover as much of Muir character as you will the resplendent Californian landscape.


Call of the Wild

Guy Grieve

Mr Guy Grieve sat at his desk year after year in the marketing department of the Scottish Herald and lamented for his lost liberty; at the peak of his physique and mental abilities his power was ebbing away under the pressure and grind of tedious office life, daily commutes and ever ballooning debt. Unlike the rest of us he decided to do something about it.

Taking the hard decision to leave his family to survive in the wilderness, Grieve took his cue (and of course the title of the book) from a former obsession with Jack London and chose Alaska, one of the least populous places on the planet, as the backdrop to his challenge; the land, no stranger to those seeking similar liberation from the strangle of modern society. After opening a dialogue with a native Alaskan family – who’s patriarch Don, would prove to be absolutely vital to the success of the entire scheme – and cannily convincing his boss, the Editor, to allow him to write a weekly column about his adventures, everything was set. Or so it seemed then. For it was only upon entering the sub Arctic domain that his wild fantasies and deepest illusions about existing their day-to-day were ground up, knocked down, washed away and buried knee deep by the prevailing environment. Harsh lessons needed to be quickly learnt.

The book then follows his steep learning curve from ‘tenderfoot’ to capable and self sufficient (more or less) back woodsman. Perhaps indicative of the wilderness’ power to speak instruction only to those who have ears to listen, Grieve quickly adopts a position of utmost humility reminiscent of Muir. Recognising that his own life is just one of many in the grand scheme and that it could, and would, be forfeit if he became nonchalant he quickly moulds himself to the pattern of the land; an animal like any other who must do what he can with what is available.

Managing to build a cabin, hunt food, chop trees and feed himself from meagre provision, Grieve sees through a long winter virtually alone but supported by Don and his family, their knowledge proving more effective than anything a manual could divulge.

Equal parts confessional, travelogue and manual, Call of the Wild is an entertaining and insightful look at how there really are no easy escapes. In the world outside of our ‘civilised’ bubble natural laws are non-negotiable. Acceptance of our real place in this world is the only true liberation.


Into the Wild

Jon Krakauer

Another wanderer and seeker searching for his place out there was Chris McCandless. A young man from Virginia, he decided early that the usual route from college grad to wage slave wasn’t his path and so set out across the vast lands of the US to discover what life could hold for him.

Krakauer charts his course from disaffected youth to farm hand in the Dakota’s, ‘leather’ (as in on foot) tramp in the arid South west all the way across the continent to his final adventure in the Alaskan interior, peppering the tale with autobiographical details of his own exploits and those of others who chose to turn their backs on established ‘norm’ (Everett True being an interesting example).

What differs McCandless from others with the same ideas is that he seems to have been extremely ill prepared to survive by himself in such a place. He took little provision, no compass, inadequate clothing and did little research into the area within which he found himself existing. His naivety and lack of experience seem to have led him to an unfortunate turn of events.

He fended for himself for three months living in an old bus that had been left by a former mining company as a shelter but by July decided to leave. However, as he attempted to cross the Teklanika River that he’d crossed earlier in the year (before the thaw had increased its flow), he found it impassable. Again, his lack of knowledge worked against him as there was a hand operated tram to cross the river just a quarter mile along.

The book is a sympathetic look at McCandless’ life that manages to describe his motivations and background whilst juxtaposing it with startling images of the land that he came up against. Others give MacCandless short shrift for the seeming stupidity of his demise but the book, whilst covering a potentially bleak subject matter, manages to be as inspiring as it is eye opening. A cautionary tale but one which thankfully manages to avoid condemnation of its subject.


Woodland our responsibility to protect – and create

Sloshing through the autumn woods last Sunday, birch leaves piling up in the muddy tracks; it occurred to me how lucky I was to be among the trees. I had a quiet place nearby to leave behind the chaos of the city I worked in five days a week, where I could immerse myself in another world – a world every bit as important to our health as sleep and more real than anything any book or TV programme could conjure up.

I had moved from Wandsworth to Surrey with the specific intent of taking more opportunities to spend time outside all year round and now live within a quarter of a mile of four separate open spaces – I got more than I had wished for and, having spent 14 years living in New Cross and Wandsworth, I don’t take it for granted. I see the importance of trees; for local ecology, for human health and for environmental harmony.

Besides, I’ve always been a child of nature (we all are) and can’t help but take any kind of abuse of it somewhat personally. Why wouldn’t I, everything we do always circle back to each and every one of us?

That’s why I am dismayed to hear about the latest problem affecting the health of our Ash trees. That, alongside existing diseases affecting our Horse Chestnut and native Oak, not to mention certain parties all too apparent intention to turn the trees we have left in to some kind of cash crop, puts an unacceptable strain on our woodland. We need to find a way to protect and replenish these vital areas.

Of course, as there are so many issues affecting the health of our planet on such a huge scale, individual action can seem hopeless, but I don’t think inaction is a choice those yet to come (or only just arrived) will celebrate us for  – each of us should at least do what we can now.

Start with an issue that resonates with you and do all you can.

Personally, I feel a responsibility to protect and cultivate trees; do I have the right to absorb their magic if I am complicit in their destruction; if I deny future generations that magic; if I deny other species their perfect right to live within them?