Glamourising the nettle

Dissatisfaction with indigenous foodtuffs is a growing problem for those among us who believe that i

The question of food security seems to be very alive in the community at the moment. This is an area where I think it is fair to say that there has been a pretty high level of satisfaction with our efforts over the years.

Our Earthshare scheme was the UK’s first organic, community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, providing weekly local, fresh veggies to the equivalent of 200 families every week of the year. (CSA is a now widespread model in which the subscribers divide the harvest between them, thus sharing the risk with the farmer.)

Moreover, the 2006 ecological footprint study of our community found that our food footprint is about one third of the national average due to the relatively high level of local, organic, seasonal and vegetarian food in our diet.

However, it has become clear in recent months that all is not as rosy in the garden as appears at first sight and that there remains much to be done.

An internal study found that while 32 per cent of the vegetables served in the community kitchens are organic and 27 per cent are locally-sourced, only 18 per cent are both. Most of us were surprised and a little shocked by how low these figures were.

They can be explained partly because of the large number of mouths that need to be fed – remember that we host in the region of 3,000 guests per year in addition to the resident community; partly because of the higher cost of local, organic food in a global market so heavily weighted towards large-scale, industrial production systems; and partly because of an appetite for foodstuffs that the local climate and soils cannot provide.

Photography by Adriana Sjan Bijman

Dissatisfaction with indigenous foodtuffs is a growing problem for those among us who believe that it is important to increase our local food security. Christopher, one of the mainstays of our gardening team over the years, notes: ‘for every cabbage that gets sold in the community shop, we sell 20 aubergines’. The Mediterranean diet is going global.

This is certainly a factor in the reduction over the years in the number of subscribers to Earthshare. It is currently around 20 families short of its optimal level.

Every so often I hear of a community in France or Italy boasting of the fact that it has decided to increase its consumption of local, seasonal food. They really want recognition for that, I think? Let them try it here!

So, in this context, we need to be clever in our efforts to increase production and consumption of food that truly nurtures us without depleting ecosystems on the other side of the world.

The main avenue we are exploring at the moment is the introduction of greater food storage and processing facilities – and the Climate Challenge Fund mentioned a couple of blogs ago may just be a useful source of funding for this.

Doesn’t root vegetable pâté with chives sound so much more appetizing than another plate of beetroot and parsnips? Doesn’t a good, local apple and blackberry pie can beat the pants off any fancy, Mediterranean fruit picked before it is ripe and squished by the journey?

Meanwhile, in the week’s Rainbow Bridge (our weekly community newsletter), I note that we are receiving a visit from Frank Cook from Schumacher College who has studied with ‘herbalists, shamans, vaidyas, sangomas, green witches, doctors, professors and medicine men’. Great stuff!

Frank will be giving a talk on ‘Community as Food and Medicine Security’ and leading afternoon workshops on identifying and eating wild weeds and food fermentation techniques. I will certainly be attending both. We need all the help we can get in our efforts to glamourise the nettle and the humble broad bean.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism