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What can a garden be?

This post is a ponder about what a garden can be – for us, and for the other inhabitants of planet Earth that live in the area. This is a big and sometimes controversial subject, so please take this writing as exploration rather than answers. All discussion that opens up the area further is welcome.

The word ‘garden’ originally meant ‘enclosure‘ and shares its origin with ‘yard’, ‘orchard’ and ‘garth’, among other words. The first recorded garden is probably the Garden of Eden, which from the description in the book of Genesis was just that: an enclosed space. Into such an enclosed space selected plants (and sometimes animals) were brought, maybe from the local area, maybe further afield. It puts me in mind of the images of Persian gardens one sees depicted in carpets and paintings.

Lightly skipping over 3000+ years of human history, it is clear we are in a different world now. Those original gardens were for a select few, the elite, and now most people have gardens to be in and engage with, including you and me. Our gardens, private and public, take up a lot of space. There are few wild places left. This means that our gardens have a new job to do.

There may be some clues as to a way forward in the rewilding movement. In several crowded and not-so-crowded countries, large tracts of land have been allowed to revert. A famous instance in the UK is the Knepp estate in Sussex. 3500 acres of marginal farmland have gone back to scrubland, with fascinating consequences. Birds, bats and insects, not heard or seen for a generation or more have come back of their own accord. Interactions and intricacies of interdependence in the ecosystem have been understood. It is an inspiring story, not least because the land is still productive, but in a way which does not involve eradicating whatever is deemed not to fit.

What is possible depends on the size of the piece of land. On a larger scale than Knepp, at Yellowstone Park in the US, wolves were reintroduced a few years ago. The effects rippled down through the whole ecosystem. The wolves ate the elk, which soon learned to avoid areas where they would be vulnerable. Those areas regenerated, as the vegetation was able to grow back. The willow trees came back and with them the beavers. The beavers’ dams provided more pools in the rivers: more space for the fish. And so the effects cascade through the system.

Can what has been learned in such large spaces be applied to our gardens? My suspicion is, yes in principle. One principle being that Mother Nature has a good track record of looking after her own affairs if we don’t get in the way too much. There is no need to plant native trees on reclaimed land, for example, at least in the UK. Don’t mow it for a few years and the trees will plant themselves. So, note to self: don’t micro-manage.

Another principle for me is that I am custodian of the garden, not its owner. Other species: birds, rodents, rabbits and insects also have their part to play. Leave them to get on with it. Again, don’t micro-manage. Leave the seed heads on the plants over the winter. Better than a birdfeeder!

Thirdly, my needs are valid too. I’ll still cut the hedges, for two reasons. First, the large herbivores that would browse on their leaves haven’t been around here for a long time. Our garden is not on the scale of Knepp or Yellowstone, so I will have to fill that gap, do the job those animals would do if they were here. The second reason for clipping the hedge is that I have my own notions of what is attractive. And a clipped hedge provides a great background for a small garden like ours. I’ll do it when the birds aren’t nesting in it, however.

So, because our world is so crowded, our gardens have become a valuable resource. This presents opportunities for new learning, new understandings of the delicate interactions that we have blithely blundered through for so long. I’m sure we’ll all get on fine in the new regime.

However, there are some adjustments to be made.

For example, there is a big discussion going on in the rewilding world about whether to eradicate non-native species. This is a complete about-turn from the views of gardeners a century, or even a few decades ago. For Victorian gardeners, a garden was a showcase for exotic species. Our garden centres and seed catalogues offer us plants from all over the world, descendants of those brought back by plant-hunters from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Tulips and snowdrops from Turkey, peonies from China, fuchsias from South America: the list is endless. And as for vegetables: potatoes, runner beans and tomatoes from south America, carrots and onions from Asia .. clearly some perspective is needed here.

Here is a comma butterfly feeding on the aster flowering in our garden a few weeks ago, in October. Aster is native to North America – but I don’t think the butterflies and the bees were concerned about that. So I won’t worry about it either. I won’t eradicate human-introduced species for the sake of it, because I have noticed that Nature is pretty robust and adaptable. Having said that, however, I’ll think carefully before introducing anything from outside into the garden from now on. I’ll try to check beforehand, in whatever way I can, with the non-human residents. I’ll also set aside spaces for the vegetable beds, cut most of the lawn and pull back whatever gets in the way. I live here too, after all.

In the end, for me what counts is the love. Do I love this space, do I want it to thrive? What does it call for?

For more about garden-scale rewilding, here is Mary Reynolds’ website: http://wearetheark.org/

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The statuette’s story

Bronze figurine, Ashmolean Museum

Yesterday we visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The Ancient Cyprus section was lovely – soft and gentle. I was drawn to a small figurine in a case in the corner. This is what it said to me.

“The men go into the ground, following the seams of green stone. With stone hammers they break up the seams to remove the lumps of rock. Sometimes they come across a nugget of pure copper: solidified strands of tangled pink metal. These they keep. They put the lumps of rock into baskets which they bring to the surface.

Back at the surface, the green stone is crushed and then heated over fires. The heat releases the liquid pink metal which is then poured into oxhide-shaped ingots. Oxhide-shaped in recognition of the time of Taurus, recently passed, when this activity began.

When the men have come out, it is the women’s turn. I do not know if the figurine was made by a man or a woman, but it is the women who take it back into the chambers recently cleared by the men. The women come with value and respect for what has been given by the Earth. They give back something of their own making, in order to reset the balance. A bronze figurine, standing on an oxhide ingot, naked, not hidden, her hair braided, her neck adorned with a precious necklace. They place the figurine in a safe place where the green stone has been removed. They bring food and have a party, a feast. Because of their genuine value and gratitude for the gift from the Earth, the rift is healed. All parties benefit.”

P.S. I have no idea if this is factually accurate. I am sure the humans living in Cyprus over 3000 years ago had their problems. However, I am also sure that living with the consequences of damage to the earth from industrialised extraction of minerals was not one of them. If they travelled to our time and saw the gaping holes that we have made in the ground, I have no doubt they would find such behaviour difficult to comprehend.

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The Wood-Wide Web

From our latest newsletter:

In the last few years there has been a fundamental shift in how scientists view the way the plant kingdom works.

Take trees, for example. The old view was that woodland trees grow tall because they compete for light – and the strongest win. That view has been questioned. Researchers like Suzanne Simard have shown the level of co-operation, not only between species (she demonstrated how paper birch trees support douglas fir) but also between kingdoms. The fungi underground allow themselves to be used as a food bank. They store surplus nourishment for the trees in the good times and give it back in leaner periods. They also provide minerals which the trees can’t access for themselves, and they act as a woodland communication system. The world in a woodland has been shown to be a distributed network, with hubs (the ‘mother’ trees) and links.

This is the diagram Suzanne Simard used in her TED talk. The darkest circles are the ‘hub’ trees, the paler ones younger trees. It looks like a diagram of the internet. It has been called the wood-wide web.

That was the preamble to my ponder. My ponder is – if that is happening in woodland, what is going on in my house and garden? How can I best work with this intelligent, caring, interconnected world?

One immediate response from us was to think differently about potplants. For a single plant in a pot, life must be like solitary confinement. So, nowadays we put more than one plant in a pot, or we make sure that their leaves are touching other plants nearby. And we brush the leaves as we walk past them.

A lot of good gardening practice makes sense in the context of the wood-wide web. If you take something out, put something back, whether it is a bit of compost or a sprinkling of fish, blood and bone. Minimum-interference gardening practices like ‘no-dig’and permaculture are in tune with this view. The biodynamic approach sees the entire piece of land as a single entity, an ‘organism’. That also makes sense. And of course, our view is that the bronze tools help. Copper is a connector. Like the fungi in the forest floor, it links things up. It’s in our wiring. In our bodies, copper is to do with energy transfer. So at the very least, bronze tools should be less disruptive in the garden.

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No pressure …

When someone is at high pressure, conversation with them is not easy. There is a certain glazed look in their eye, as they try to manage the intensity of what they are trying to express. And you can’t get a word in edgeways. You open your mouth to reply – and they are off again. You just have to wait and sit out the onslaught. When children are excited and at high pressure, it is wonderful to witness. Plus, you know they won’t maintain it for long. But adults – that is not so much fun. It can go on – and on.

It’s like the weather. With high pressure weather systems the winds go one way – outwards from where the pressure is the most intense. When the high pressure system is over your area, there are the same conditions for days or weeks. If it’s cloudy, it stays cloudy. If sunny, it stays that way too. But on the outer edges of the system it is a different story. There are winds and turbulence as the high pressure equalises itself out, dumping its excess on the surrounding area in the process.

Given that being on the receiving end of someone else’s high pressure can be an endurance test, why do businesses inflict it on us? You know the sort of thing …

LAST FEW IN STOCK!!

or

HURRY! OFFER ENDS SOON!

It’s usually associated with exclamation marks, capital letters and gaudy red or orange notices.

It’s more subtle, but equally irritating, online. All those ads on Youtube or Spotify, whose main effect is to send me reaching for the ‘mute’ button. And the providers know the ads are irrritating, because they tell me that if I pay for their service, I won’t be bothered by ads. What incentive is that for an advertiser? I promise you, here and now, you will never be interrupted by an ad from Implementations when you are watching a film or listening to a piece of music.

What is the alternative? Is there another way of interacting with potential customers? What is the low-pressure approach?

As I see it, the low-pressure approach has three stages. First, I have to let you (and anyone else who might be interested) know that we exist. When the business was new and young, we had to go high pressure to do this. We went to shows. We pestered journalists. Jane gave talks. We said the same things, over and over again. Nowadays, we don’t have to be at such high pressure, so we have a Facebook page, and more recently, a Facebook group.

We run a small ad in some magazines, something like this.

It says who we are and how to contact us. That’s all.

That’s the first part.

In the second stage, we have to make sure that the lines of communication are open, that nothing will prevent the people who want to engage with us from engaging with us. Does the website work smoothly? Make sure someone is there to answer the phone if it rings. If someone has a problem with delivery or anything else, get on to it. If we get it right, this part is rather like a swan gliding on a lake: serene and smooth above water and paddling furiously in the part that can’t be seen, below the water.

The third stage looks simple but is actually more tricky – for us, anyway.

We wait. We go low-pressure.

We trust that there are people who love the concept of the tools as much as we do. To use the analogy of ‘Field of Dreams’, we’ve built it. Will anyone come?

The low-pressure approach has some hidden bonuses. I have some amazing conversations with customers, for example. I like them. I relate to them. We find we have common values. Interactions are a transaction, an exchange rather than a persuasion. A human-to-human affair.

So we will stay low pressure.

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How I view my relationship with Planet Earth

A January ponder. Something I wrote in 2014. It still rings true, although I might add a bit more now.

  1. Planet Earth gives me a body and maintains it during my existence here. Thus will I trust in her and study her ways in order to understand them better.
  2. Planet Earth gives a home to our companions here – the tribes of animal and plant life, all mutually upholding and maintaining. Thus will I value each for its unique contribution to the whole.
  3. The different regions of planet Earth resonate with distinct frequencies. Thus will I pay respectful attention to the expression of each place, both as I feel it direct and as I witness it through its people.
  4. Planet Earth lives through cycles of days, seasons, years and more. These have their theatre through the elements: the air, water, fire and earth. Thus will I take note of her rhythms and adjust accordingly.
  5. Planet Earth moves within a larger domain, which I have been given the faculty to register. Thus will I develop my sensitivities to what is at play at any time, so that I can find my own expression within it. This expression then becomes my offering and contribution back to the Great Mother.

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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.