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Book Review – ‘The New Wild’ by Fred Pearce

I loved this book. It challenged my preconceptions about ecosystems, the balance of nature, invasive species, biodiversity …

Japanese knotweed, giant hogweed, himalayan balsam, rhododendrons in the UK, kudzu in the USA: these are the enemy, right? Well, this book gives a new perspective on them all.

Alien species reduce biodiversity, right? They are bullies that elbow out native species and take over the prime spots? Well maybe not. In fact, Fred Pearce makes a strong case that japanese knotweed, water hyacinth, zebra mussels and other invaders clean up polluted sites.

Large parts of the rainforests of Amazonia, central Africa and Borneo were undisturbed by humans until the loggers and developers moved in, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, right? Maybe not. In fact the author gives evidence that there is no such thing as pristine rainforest.

Brownfield sites are ecological deserts, right? The author makes the case that they often host more species than areas we try to preserve.

From the final paragraph of the book:

” The old wild is dead. But the new wild is flourishing, and will do better if we allow it to have its head. It is there in hybridizing rhododendrons, in rare bees and spiders appearing amid the badlands of the Thames Estuary; on Ascension Island’s Green Mountain; in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone; across the bushlands of central Africa and the regrowing rainforests of Borneo …. Nature never goes back; it always moves on. Alien species, the vagabonds, are the pioneers and colonists in this constant renewal. Their invasions will not always be convenient for us, but nature will rewild in its own way.”

 

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Book review – The Hidden Life of Trees

This book is enchanting and subversive. It is a sociology of trees. The author takes it for granted that the trees have feelings. He shows how they express pain or thirst. He shows how they communicate and care for each other, and look after their young. He also shows how they learn from experience.

The book is subversive because it shows how the trees form a sentient, coherent community, just as humans or a herd of elephants would do. Without specifically naming it, the author asks us to have respect for this community.

However, there are clear differences between a forest and a herd of elephants. Obviously, the trees are rooted to the ground. Their movement is by species, at the rate of a mile or so a year. This means the trees develop different strategies from animals when protecting the rising generation from predators. He tells how the beech and oak trees agree among each other when to produce the next generation – about once every five years. These years are known as mast years (after the beech fruit, the mast). The animals that feed on the masts and acorns can’t rely on a regular supply each year. In the glut of a mast year, some of the young trees get through.

The main difference from us humans is speed. Trees do everything more slowly than us. The author quotes a researcher who measured the speed of electrical transmission through a tree – about an inch in three minutes. That means a foot or so in an hour. It means the crown is in a different timezone from the roots. They plan next year’s buds now, a year in advance. We have difficulty enough registering an elephant’s vocalisations, which are outside our range of hearing. A tree’s will be much slower than that, requiring even greater effort on our part.

A final satisfaction in this book is that the author is poacher turned gamekeeper. He trained as a forester, which meant seeing trees as commodities: lumber to be felled. He takes us through the transition he has made from exploiting the trees to working with them. He acknowledges and regrets his past ignorance (and the pain and damage he unwittingly caused) as he uncovers the complicated networks and clever strategies the trees use. He shows us that they are much better at managing their ecosystem for optimum conditions than any forester. He learns from them, and shows us his notes.

I loved this book. Highly recommended.

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What is a successful business?

How do you measure the success of a business? Is it the fact that it pays its way? And does that mean that if it makes more money it is more successful? These are questions I keep coming back to.

Running a business is not too different from running a household. It is an enterprise, with incomings and outgoings. With the place you live there are bills to pay: electricity, gas, rates and rent or mortgage payments. If you are able to pay the bills, does that mean the household is a success? Sure, if you don’t keep up with the bills there will be problems. Is it even more of a success if I add extra rooms? For me, these are not valid measures. For me, the success of the place I live is that it is my home.

If a tap leaks, why do I want to fix it? If I am a property speculator it may be to protect my investment. However, in my case I do it because I want the settlement of knowing the house is sound. The house looks after me and I look after it.

In the same way, a business has to pay its bills, and it has to make a profit in order to do so. But if that is its primary purpose then it is not very attractive. There was a local plumber who was like that. He had apparently been told that plumbing was a good way to make money. I haven’t seen him around here recently. A good plumber understands water. The plumber we use (when we can book him – he is ever so busy) has a respect for water and the way it flows. In his spare time he goes fishing – he can’t keep away from water. He is a lovely man.

So, how do you measure the success of a business?

Looking at the businesses I deal with, the ones I enjoy mixing with the most are where its people are proud of what they do. They know they are making a contribution. They have a service they can offer, and the business is their way of doing so. It seems to be a human characteristic that we want to feel useful.

All this does not mean that the business doesn’t grow. However, just as there was a reason for launching the business in the first place, there has to a reason for the growth. Has the volume of work increased to the point where we have outgrown our premises? Are there new products that we want to add to our range? Are there new ideas we want to explore? Personally, I hate going into debt, so I try to fund any expansion out of profits. Growth itself is neither good nor bad. Sometimes it’s needed and sometimes it isn’t. It is the pursuit of growth for its own sake that for me is an issue.

The reason I am writing this is because I regularly receive offers of business loans and other incentives to grow and expand our business. The people calling me seem to assume that all businesses want to get bigger, and all that is holding them back is lack of funds. I often feel that the people who call with these offers inhabit a different universe from the one I live in, so I tried to understand their point of view.

This ‘go-for-growth’ way of thinking permeates our world, from individual to national level. Companies will consider making redundancies in departments or sectors that are not profitable. Surely, then, making more money equals success? Otherwise you may lose your job.

The government measures the success of the economy by how much more money it turned over this year compared to last year. When large businesses, or countries, make less money than previously they are deemed to be in trouble.

It is a fact that when China’s growth rate drops by one or two percent, there will be repercussions worldwide. Some people will lose their jobs and have difficulty keeping going. But is the corollary equally true: that when its growth rate increases this is a mark of increasing  success?

I know people have questioned this many times before. Bhutan briefly hit the news headlines when their government decided to measure gross national happiness rather than gross national product as their criterion for success. But old habits die hard, it seems.

For me, the fact that a business (or a country) pays its way is necessary, but is a one-dimensional measure of its success. Just as paying the bills does not make a house into a home, the purpose of a business has to lie somewhere other than profitability. That calls for more sophisticated measures of success than whether it made more money this year compared to last year.

I also think that what is valid at the macro level (governments and large companies) may play out differently at the level of a small business like ours. The first dividing line seems to come when you take on employees. As a principle, we prefer to work with people, rather than employ them to work for us.

The next time someone phones or emails to offer me ways to grow our business that is what I will say to them.

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The water’s tribute to Viktor Schauberger

For Viktor Schauberger, the water was alive. If he was right and if the water could speak, maybe this is what it would say of him.

He saw us. Not many of your kind are able to do that.

He saw the complexity of who we are. He marvelled at the intricacy, beauty and simplicity of the shapes we form and move out from as we flow.

He loved us.

He was able to feel the swirls within swirls within swirls that are our joy and reflection of the movement of our Mother, the Earth.

He knew that our movement is our life, our expression, our buoyancy.

When he was a child, he sat on the bank and played with us.

We felt him as he followed our flow with his mind. This was a rare treat for us.  We loved it when he moved with us in that way.

When as an adult he came to us in a moment of need, how could we not respond? We felt his desperation as he stood by the bank of a stream. He asked for our help. We showed ourselves to him. For him, it was a moment that changed the course of his life. From then on, we were joined.

In his free moments he drew what he saw of us in his mind. He made many drawings, and pondered on them.

He was saddened that most humans did not see us as he did. He saw that their actions made us sick and reduced our vitality, our healing quality. He wanted to do, to make things better. He built devices. They were beautiful, like us, their inspiration.

Some of his devices over-stimulated us. But we still loved him, as he loved us.

He looked for a formula and was disappointed when he couldn’t find one. We wanted to tell him, “We are very good at what we do already. Your love is enough for us. That makes us sparkle with joy. And when we sparkle with joy then we are enlivened and all is well. Your love is precious to us.”

But even though we were with him always, he couldn’t hear us.

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Three levels of business

 

Can businesses be categorised as sun, moon or planet level?

Let me explain.

moon-5day-1807-600  A moon-level business has a very specific and singular aim: to grow.

Of the heavenly bodies we see in the night sky, our moon has the smallest orbit. It circles around our planet in about 25 hours, always showing the same face. It has no appreciable atmosphere of its own. Just as a child holds on to its mother, it stays in the orbit of planet Earth.

And like a child, a moon-level business is hungry for growth, by whatever means at its disposal. An idea can be copied, it can move into a new market – whatever it takes to maximise growth. It can measure its success by turnover or profits, but the ultimate question is: is it growing? If yes, it is successful, otherwise it is seen by itself and others to be stagnant or failing.The aim is not to be big, but to grow bigger.

This is how our culture measures our national economy, as well as any business or even individual success. The financial pages of the newspapers obsess about it.

Of course, the moon-level business is aware of a larger world beyond itself. This outside world imposes the rules by which it must operate. So it is policed and must pay its taxes (although some moon-level businesses avoid them where they can). It knows that it moves in the orbit of something larger and more powerful than itself.planet-earth

And so we start to move towards planet-level.

A planet-level business looks for other criteria of success beyond money. Are we making a contribution to the society in which we live? Are there ways of working together that are fulfilling to all? Do we need to look after our employees? Perhaps this is the level that gave rise to the co-operative movement, and more recently, Christian Felber’s Economy for the Common Good.

Financial success is now a necessary ingredient for the success of a business, but not the only one. It now has a moral and ethical dimension.

(From the perspective of a moon-level business, this presents another hoop to jump through. And so it might develop and present an ethical policy, or employ a PR firm to develop one for it. It might change its logo and strapline to include the word ‘eco’  or the phrase  ‘save the planet’.)

And what about sun-level?

Sun

Sun-level business is about something new, about innovation. It is about introducing an idea that will bring benefit for all. The world-wide web, the personal computer, the telephone … all of the new ideas that have been brought to life by some far-sighted individuals. The risks are high. Many new ideas never make it. A few do, and they change our world.

Curiously, when the time is right, a similar new idea often occurs to more than one person at the same time.

 

The trouble is, all of our training is moon-level. So the sun-level business, whose fuel is big ideas and possibility, is shoe-horned into the limited criteria of moon level in order for us to evaluate it. We and the people who run it measure the success of this enormous potential by moon-level standards of financial growth, and usually bypass planet-level altogether. We give fabulous financial rewards to the people who run the business, because by moon-level criteria they are fabulously successful. The people who run the sun-level business have cornered the market in a way that moon-level can only dream of.

The innovators are good at innovation. Is it reasonable of us to expect them to resist the measurements of success that the society we live in exists by?

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A naturalistic business model?

A paragraph from our autumn newsletter:

“Implementations will be fourteen years old next year. No signs yet of a turbulent adolescence. In fact, from our experience so far, we wonder if we can propose a new business model. Viktor Schauberger’s daughter-in-law, Frau Ingeborg Schauberger, has a favourite saying: a good thing looks after itself. Our focus has been to make sure the business stays good so that it can look after itself (and us in the process). Then we can all feel clear in what we do. After all, the different elements of the natural world are mutually supportive, so why not copy the system that sustains us all?”

More thoughts on this theme:

1. Money. The purpose of a business is to make money, right? Well, sort of. In the naturalistic model, money is necessary but not sufficient. The fact that it turns a profit is an indicator that the business is alive, but no more. If that was all there was to it, I’d find it hard to get out of bed in the morning. It’s the japanese knotweed business model – rampant smothering growth without thought for the effects on anyone else. We prefer the oak tree model- a rich, steadily growing  ecosystem bringing enhancement to all.

2. Sales. I had a jaundiced view of sales before launching Implementations. I saw salespeople as crooks, out to get the best deal they can. Maybe some are, but there are others, the ones who stay. I now think a good sale is an honourable exchange, in which both parties feel they have done well.The oak tree shelters the squirrels, who plant the acorns and then forget some of them … and everyone can thrive.

The tools are hand-made of expensive materials, so they are not cheap. We price them to be as affordable as possible. This means that you will not see them in many shops, because we cannot offer enough discount for the shops to justify the shelf space. On the other hand, our resellers are people who have a value for the tools and what they represent, and who can talk from experience of using them.

3. Marketing. I regularly receive emails from people offering ways to ‘drive more business to your site’. I do not want to drive visitors to our site like a herd of sheep. Nature works by invitation, not imposition. (That was a major insight for Viktor Schauberger. More about him on the ‘concept’ page of our site.) I want to invite interested adults to engage with us.

So on our website it is not assumed that you will want to receive our email newsletter. If you want it, the invitation is there.

There is much more that could be said on this – about employment, for example. And probably others have said it before me, so I might be reinventing the wheel. But this is how I like to think about a business.

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Bronze tools and arthritis

Many people report that wearing a copper bracelet helps to ease  arthritis. I have often seen  gardeners and farmers with copper bands on one or both wrists, presumably because the cold damp conditions they sometimes work in aggravate the symptoms. However, it never occurred to me that using bronze (mainly copper) garden tools could have a similar effect.

A few years ago I received an extraordinary letter from a customer, a professional gardener in mid-Wales (known for its damp climate). She had been given a Mira Trowel as a gift, and had noticed that the arthritis in her hand and arm had eased. She did not link the two phenomena until she lost her trowel – and the arthritis came back. Her letter accompanied an order for a new trowel.

This was such a strange story that I put it in my mental  ‘mystery box’ of curiosities, pending further information. Then I received a phone call from another professional gardener in the south of England. The Vega Hand Fork was the only tool that did not trigger her colleague’s repetitive strain injury in their hand and wrist, and they needed another one.

However, two stories do not make a trend. With a copper bracelet the metal is in direct contact with the skin. With our tools the gardener holds the wooden handle rather than the bronze tool head, so I still can’t see how using it would make a difference. Maybe it’s because the tools are sharp and smooth, so there is less resistance from the soil as the gardener works. Or maybe somehow the metal itself does have an effect even through the (electrically insulating) wooden handle. Or maybe it’s just coincidence.

The stories are still in my mystery box!

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Gardening versus farming

It is my experience that farming and gardening don’t mix. For the farmers I know, gardening is a pastime, a small-scale hobby, not a proper job like theirs. Although I grew up on a farm, I view myself as a gardener these days. The arable land around our village is a barren wasteland for a large part of the year after the crops have been harvested, and I often wonder whether our relationship with planet Earth has to be so brutal.

Our aim with our garden is that it should provide some interest all year round. The winter flowering jasmine are now in bloom, and some marigolds are bravely holding out after the frost. The kale will provide leaves through the winter, and the shoots of autumn-sown onions are peeping through the soil.

A successful garden provides nourishment for all the senses. It looks beautiful to the eyes, both overall and with particular plants and flowers at different times of the year. Through the year there are different perfumes, from lily-of-the-valley in the spring, to honeysuckle to jasmine later on. There is the buzz of insects and the sound of birdsong. The feel of the grass, and of course the taste of home-grown vegetables and fruit.

The success of a farm is determined by the surplus it produces. Historically the development of farming is linked with that of trade, the growth of cities, and ultimately of what we term modern civilisation. Cities have always needed farms for their existence, so that the city-dwellers could give their attention to other matters than finding food. The other matters ranged from making war to making beautiful objects, to exploring what it means to be human, to developing the technology that enables the internet.

Is there a middle way? Can we keep the benefits of civilisation and also keep the holistic perspective that gardening offers? Permaculture and biodynamics both explore this intermediate territory. As do many others, I am sure.

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What is a garden?

Obvious, you might say: the place where you mow the lawn, grow flowers, shrubs and vegetables and protect them from weeds and pests. Is that it?

Curiously, the origin of the word ‘garden’ defines it by what is around it, not what is in it. It has the same origin as the words ‘yard’ and ‘garth’: an enclosed piece of ground. Even more curiously, the word ‘paradise’ has a similar origin. ‘Para’ means ‘around’ and ‘dis’ is a shape or form. So paradise also first meant an enclosed space.

The description of the biblical garden of Eden has both the enclosing and planting senses of the word:

“And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food …” (Genesis chapter 2, verses 8-9)

qum_c2

A garden, then, is an intervention by humans, a construct in a defined space, a manipulation of what planet Earth does naturally by selection, arrangement and alteration of plants and landscape in that enclosed area. There was also a trend from the earliest times of bringing plants and even animals from far away to cultivate and display in the garden.

All of which leads to further questions, such as:

– Why do we do it?

And, related:

– What is the difference between gardening and farming?