from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Sunday, 26 February 2012

living within our limits, and the forest garden

This morning: sun sun sun. A handful of buzzards in the thermal over the valley. Clusters of blue- and coaltits on the feeders. A tree sparrow – they're endangered now, astonishingly, this most common of British birds only a decade or two ago. The daffodils on our north slopes are out now, and the bright-blue-eyed borage family alkanet, too. Pussy willow, catkins. Lambs. And I'm crashed out on the bench in the courtyard, exhausted after walking the dog, and helping The Man carry a number of 16-foot lengths of larch – unbelievably heavy! – up the very steep field to the flat horseshoe where our veg garden is sited, to make our fourth raised bed, this one for the potatoes currently chitting indoors in their boxes. This year, half our crop will be Sarpo Mira – very resistant to blight and slug damage, tasty cooked in all ways, and good for storing. The late-planted garlic has come through now, too – along with the dwarf irises.

February in England is so often a sunny soft month, contrary to our expectations and beliefs. I remember many occasions when my daughter and myself would eat outside our cottage high up on the Bere peninsula, overlooking the river, on a sunny February day. As I think this I remember, to my shock, how so often I was ill and wrapped up in the weak sunshine. February seems to be an annual lowpoint, at least for me; the year's equivalent of the nadir of diurnal biorhythms; and once again I'm at a very low ebb physically. Stress and continual exhaustion take their toll, and flu has wiped me out.

I recognise that I have a problem with living within my own personal limits, energetically speaking. I'm not good at being sensible with my own internal resources – I'm too enthusiastic for too many things – which is another way of saying I'm greedy with life and don't recognise when I've hit the end of my rope. I put out a lot of energy, but don't take the time to let my well refill itself.

I have been thinking a great deal, as I have for many years now, of what living within our limits means. I'm speaking ecologically, not personally, now. We have exhausted this planet, and we're at a tipping point. It's as if we believe we have divine right to take what we want, from where we want, simply by virtue of being human, 'top of the tree', as we mistakenly, in my view, see it. The planet may or may not survive; ecosystems simply won't, humans included, if we don't change things. I know this is a view that many people find hard to swallow; some of the changes are unpalatable. But I believe we urgently need to address this –  the issue is too desperate to be dressed-down (or do I mean dressed up?). If we don't reduce our consumption, it will be drastically reduced for us. We worry about the economy: without an ecology there is no economy.

We need – and I am saying nothing new – urgently to revision our relationship to the planet and the needs of her other inhabitants. We need to understand, really understand, what it means to live genuinely ecocentrically rather than anthropocentrically – to live as if every other species which shares this planet with us has the same inherent rights as us within their own different sphere. We need to perceive and relate horizontally, for a change, instead of heirarchically. We need to stop seeing other beings and other parts of the planet as 'resources', and instead as integral and crucial parts of a healthy functioning ecosystem. Think it doesn't matter that we are losing species at the rate of – what, three a day? It does. Everything has a place in the web of being, even if we can't see it.

Globally, I have a reasonably low impact – it matters hugely to me to walk lightly, and I'm continually looking to shave my footprint. The way of living to which I'm drawn is extremely simply, in tune with natural rhythms, in a wild place, with very few 'conveniences': I'd be genuinely happy in a small wooden cabin in a clearing in woodland or perched on a wild coast, with a solar panel, candles and a woodburner, big enough simply to house my books (OK it's true I'd need a small study/studio), with no or few gadgets or 'white goods' (a solar powered computer would be essential, though), no debts (I don't have any money but I also don't use a credit card or have loans or mortgages), and minimal overheads, so that one is not hooked in to working forever simply to pay for 'stuff'. It'd be good if there were others living out an eco-vision nearish – communities, sharing vision, work, ideas and bartering skills, sharing harvests, co-operating with each other as well as the natural world. 'You can call me a dreamer...'

Last night I watched again Martin Crawford's DVD 'A Forest Garden Year'. Building on the work of Robert Hart, Crawford, who lives close by, promotes a permaculture lifestyle based on agroforestry, where the natural conditions of a woodland garden are followed to provide a genuinely sustainable method of food production based on perennial crops that work in synergy with each other. (Crawford is also developing any number of fruit and nut species that yield well in the British climate; the increase in which is one advantage of global warming.)

There are many benefits, to both us and the planet, of this system: for a start, the input for upkeep on the part of the human is much less demanding than a high-production veg bed, once the system is up and running; although the yield is less. For the planet, there are many positives: by using a diversity of plants one can accommodate and mimic a natural and healthy ecosystem where shade-loving and sun-loving plants can work together, where heights are 'matched', where bees and hoverflies and butterflies and other wildlife are an integral part of the scheme, and where trees can contribute moisture and act as a carbon-soaks.

What's more one can use a very small space effectively for us, wildlife and the planet: Hart's pioneering approach worked in just one eighth of an acre – a very small garden. This seems to me to be a wise way to go; and if the deep green views are correct, it may be that our survival as a species might depend on small groups of people buying up land for the forest garden method of local production, with its returns to the eco-sphere as well as to the human.


  1. I can hear the song 'Imagine' as I read this. I have just bought a hectare of land to plant a forest garden! Living lightly is the best. We get surrounded by things. So many things, when all we really need is just enough. Remember when we used to mend our socks and jerseys? And the pantry was full of good things in jars and tins?
    Woolen cloth doesn't need to be washed every day, you can wear it for weeks before it really needs a wash. My daughter and her household wash their clothes every day... So much water, soap, electricity. Sigh.
    I wonder how long it's gonna take till the population wake up to the end of cheap energy as we know it. And forget nuclear, that is madness.
    I've just invested in solar hot water, and it's magic! Hot water using no gas or leccy. Mind you we do get 300 days of sunshine here...
    So yes, the simple life. I'm with you there!

  2. Yes. It's easy to mistake 'things' for meaning, isn't it? So glad to hear you're doing what you are - and not surprised!

    Each time I go and stay in the very simple shieling in the Hebrides before or after leading my annual retreat up there, I am reminded of how little I need to feel fulfilled and happy: a few books, the sea out of the window, hare in the meadow, a notebook, red deer in the garden at night... no noise. No light pollution (not that there's much here); a fire; and OK there is electricity, but I prefer to use that minimally and to use firelight and candlelight and natural light, including star- and moonlight, and follow the day's rhythms.

    At home we have solar thermal for hot water, tho it doesn't do it all in the winter; but despite good feed-in-tariffs on voltaics here in England at the moment we haven't been able to afford the outlay for pvs, and TM is understandably I guess not keen to have the Elec Company own the panels instead. So that's a shame. Yes - well _ I am not a frequent clothes-washer! ;-) And we mostly run on recycled chip oil instead of diesel; and I keep car use to a minimum. Living in the sticks though here public transport's pretty rubbish and v expensive, which doesn't help the green cause.

    If only we'd divert some of the money used on nuclear fission and on arms to nuclear FUSION and renewables... People will wake up when the fossil fuel runs out. Unless of course we start seriously exploiting tar sands.

  3. Hi Roselle
    this post made me smile. I have just sold my flat and we're planning to buy a narrowboat to live on. In the process of getting rid of all our stuff - I didn't think I had many things until now. It's an interesting exercise, having to decide what really is important and can be kept. And yes, that includes most of my books too...

  4. Hi Jinny - what fantastic news! (See if you can convert the engine to run on used chip oil! ;-)) What a wonderful life, living on water! Roof garden?? - I have two lots of friends who've lived on narrowboats, tho both are back on terra firm now :-(.

    Which canal? Kennet and Avon? I wish you much joy! Rx

    1. The boat we want to buy is on the K & A - we have spent many months prowling the towpath and watching herons! Don't know about the chip oil, but we are looking into solar panels, and we will definitely be growing things ! Jx


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