Category Archives: Green Living

World building in fiction and real life

The advice to ‘write what you know’ is good advice because writing in ignorance can lead to a lot of unconscious assumptions and prejudices. I’m very much in favour of imagination, but for your imagination to take you somewhere, it needs to engage with reality in some way.

I’m world building at the moment and most of my Tuesdays have gone over to pieces that relate to that. The world I am building with Dr Abbey is post-war, post environmental disaster. My aim is to write something hopeful, something in the hopepunk genre perhaps. To do that well I need to think both about what might go wrong and what might be restorative. So, I’m playing with ideas and I’m also reading around and looking at what people are already doing to find solutions for climate chaos.

Fantasy is not enough – in fiction and in life. We’re all engaged with world building as an everyday issue. The choices we make, the dreams we pursue, the things we value and the things we reject all go into making the future, into building the world we inhabit. Or tearing it apart. The crisis we are in has a great deal to do with wilful ignorance and denial of truth. We’re living in the fantasy of an economic system that says you can have infinite growth with finite resources. We’re living in the fantasy of lies created by a fossil fuel industry that has long known how dangerous it is for life on Earth. We’re living in the fantasy of people who believe that we can have a viable future without making radical changes.

World building is important. Fiction writing is a place to explore that, but even fictional world building has massive implications. We have so much dystopian fiction out there, on the page and on the screen. Our shared imaginative worlds feed us doom and gloom, and do not offer us much we can use for building our own future.

Dreams and ideas are the places we begin to come up with change. What’s true for authors is also true for the rest of life – if you imagine with no basis in reality, it will be full of assumptions. People who are not writing from a place of knowing tend to regurgitate what they’ve seen without questioning it. And so you get yet another faux-white-medieval-Europe  fantasy world with elves and dwarves and orcs. You get another dystopian future in which people have to fight each other for resources. If you start to ask about what happened, and what is happening, if you enrich yourself with better information, you are likely to tell different stories. Those stories will have more room for diversity, and for different outcomes.

Perhaps one of the most important stories to know about, is the one about how humans cooperate in face of adversity. There are lots of those stories out there, in our history and in current life. Cooperation isn’t as self announcing or dramatic as conflict, but wherever there is conflict, there are always people working together trying to come up with something better.

I don’t know why people are persuaded that in a dystopian setting, it would all be about weapons and fighting over scraps. It would be about basic skills – being able to grow food, and keep warm and sheltered.  I don’t know why people are so often persuaded that they would magically grow combat skills in face of disaster and not that they would wake up one morning with some ideas about potatoes. Why is one more persuasive than the other?

What kind of world are you building? Do you notice when you are doing it? Is this a deliberate process or are you just going along with whatever flow has caught you?


What if we had 15 minute cities?

The idea of the 15 minute city appeared last year, in part I think as a response to lockdown.  It’s a simple principle – that if you live in a city, most of the things you need should be within 15 minutes walk of where you live. Work and schools, health care, food, leisure, green space and so forth.

Most of us can walk for 15 minutes, and those of us who can’t, would benefit from fewer cars on the roads. Many people would benefit from being more active. Reduced travel in our daily lives would cut carbon use, and give us more time back. So many people sacrifice so many hours of their lives to commuting, which is a joyless and literally toxic thing. We’d have better air quality for not doing that.

In a 15 minute city people would get to know their neighbours. There would be more social connectedness. We’d only travel for fun and to do unusual things that aren’t on our doorsteps. While it might be hard to organise towns and villages in the same way, the principle of having access to essential things with as little need to drive as possible, backed up by decent public transport, would make a lot of odds.

If most of us could walk or cycle to do most of our everyday things, we would need far fewer car parking spaces. As it is, the average car is only used for an hour or two every day. The rest of the time it sits somewhere, taking up space and requiring tarmac. What could we do with all that urban space? Imagine if we halved the number of car parking spaces and replaced the tarmac with plants. Imagine green and shady streets, fruit trees, and play areas woven into our urban spaces. Imagine benches, and sheltered spaces for sitting out in inclement weather. Imagine social spaces that don’t depend on paying to access them. Outdoor gym equipment, street pianos, safe places for children.

Children would benefit greatly from fifteen minute cities. With school close enough to walk to, children could exercise and socialise going to and from school. That’s much better than being trapped in a car each time, with no scope to let off steam. Children would be healthier and less stressed if they had a short trip to school in a green and playful environment. Take out some of the car parking and every child could have a safe play area really close to where they live. Every child could cycle and walk safely without the fear of traffic. With more people present in the streets, children would be safer from stranger danger, from bullying and generally less vulnerable.

Take out car parking spaces and put in green spaces, and we’d bring more wildlife back to our towns and cities. More trees and other plants means more insects, supporting more birds. It means biodiversity, and more space for wild things. We wouldn’t have to travel to encounter nature – instead nature would be something we’d encounter every day and that would be living and thriving around us.


The trouble with clothes

Fast fashion is a major source of plastic pollution and a driver of climate chaos.  Clothing is often made in terrible working conditions by people – usually women – who are sorely underpaid. Buying more expensive clothes does not guarantee that there wasn’t sweatshop labour involved.  It’s quite hard to take an ethical, eco-friendly approach to clothing, and a tight budget makes it even harder.

Buying second hand isn’t always the answer. You need to be time rich to do that, and you need an average sort of body. Less usual body shapes, sudden health related shape changes, and limited mobility can have a huge impact on your clothes options.

Part of the environmental impact of clothing comes from how we wash and dry it. If your budget is tight, you probably don’t wash clothing after one wear anyway. Air drying is cheaper and greener than a tumble drier. Fewer washes means putting fewer plastic particles into the world. Repeat wearing helps reduce impact. The worst problems are caused by buying something, wearing it once or twice and then throwing it away – there’s a terrifying amount of clothing that ends up in landfill.

The cheap solution to sweatshops is to make your own clothing. This is an answer that does however require time and skill. Skirts are easy. Trousers are not. It’s taken me years to get the hang of anything resembling viable trousers. I favour cobbling things together from dead items of clothing to keep as much as I can out of landfill, but that also takes time and skill and won’t be available to everyone.

The trouble with clothes is that we’re surrounded by stories about how we should look. That our clothes should look new is considered key to looking smart, professional and successful.  To be tatty is to court accusations of being not only poor, but unwashed. We are encouraged to read low personal standards into old, faded, tatty and mended clothing.

Most people historically have patched and mended clothing to extend its life. This is often easier to do with natural fibres than it is with synthetic fabrics.  In a culture that takes pride in carefully maintained, patched and repurposed garments, it’s much easier to be someone who does that. If you were going to be judged for the skilfulness of your repairs, not for looking like your clothes are brand new, there would be more incentive to learn how to repair things.

We’ve told ourselves a story about what looks good and what is most desirable. It goes along with other stories about the expression of material wealth being a good thing to do, or emulate. It is not a coincidence that this helps people sell clothes to us instead of us maintaining what we have. There’s not much profit to be made from clothes lovingly maintained over many years. There’s a lot to unpick here and a great deal that needs to change.


Adventures in patchwork

I really like unique clothing. I also hate waste, and these two things often result in me making patchwork clothes out of otherwise dead items.

When jeans wear out, it tends to be at the ankle, the knee and the front of the thigh. This leaves a lot of fabric still in good condition in the calves and backs of thighs. So, when a pair of jeans die, I take them and I salvage the usable bits.

In this waistcoat project I’ve been using the small scraps left over from making a jacket for Tom. I used an old waistcoat as a pattern, and a lot of pins to get the small pieces into shape. The sewing is rough – it just needs to hold the denim together. I am now in the process of embroidering the whole thing – the embroidery will do most of the structural work and makes the garment solid and durable.

The resulting garment will be unique. It doesn’t matter how many waistcoats I make, no two will ever be the same. That cheers me. There’s something so very sad and drab about one size fits no one  supermarket clothing, and so many people are stuck wearing that for lack of anything better that’s also affordable.

Throw away fashion is incredibly harming to the planet. Anything we can do to slow down our consumption of clothing is a good idea. For me, this kind of repurposing is a way of doing that while also having clothing that is original, and interesting. I find joy in making things, and in remaking. There’s a pleasure in keeping clothing out of landfill and in getting to use skills I have developed. Nothing in this waistcoat is especially difficult to do nor did it require much specialist kit – pins, scissors, sewing thread and needles, fine wool and an embroidery needle. Mostly it calls for patience. It’s an affordable hobby alongside being useful and eco-friendly.

This is all based on boro patchwork and sashiko sewing.


Birch tree insights

A Guest Blog from Ellen Evert Hopman

Birch Tree (Betula spp.)

Beneath you birch with silver bark

And boughs so pendulous and fair,

The brook falls scattered down the rock:

and all is mossy there.”

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Beltane fires in Scotland were ritually made of birch and oak, and a birch tree was often used as a, sometimes living, maypole. As birch is one of the first trees to come into leaf it would be an obvious choice as representation of the emergence of spring. Deities associated with birch are mostly love and fertility goddesses, such as the northern European Frigga and Freya. Eostre (from whom we derive the word Easter), the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring was celebrated around and through the birch tree between the spring equinox and Beltane. According to the medieval herbalist Culpepper, the birch is ruled over by Venus – both the planet and the goddess. According to Scottish Highland folklore, a barren cow herded with a birch stick would become fertile, or a pregnant cow bear a healthy calf.” 1

1 Trees for Life, Birch, https://treesforlife.org.uk/forest/mythology-folklore/birch2/    

In many cultures, but not all, Birch is considered a feminine tree sacred to the Earth Mother and other Goddesses. Meditate in a grove of Birches to form a mystical bond with female deity.

Birch is protective when placed in the cradle, in the coffin, or planted in the graveyard.

Make your own set of Runes

Birch is a traditional wood to make runes for divination. Enter a Birch wood during the Waxing Moon. Place your left hand on a Birch tree and ask her if you may cut a branch (or even better, go out after a storm and find a branch on the ground). If the tree says “yes” then leave her a gift and saw your branch.

Dry the wood slowly, sealing the ends of the branch with wax, to hold in moisture as long as possible. On the next Waxing Moon, cut your branch into small round sections, sand them, and then carve or paint a rune on each piece.

Here is the Elder Futhark, the oldest Runic alphabet from Scandinavia and other Germanic areas.

Elder Futhark  2

2 Omniglot, the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages, Runic alphabet https://www.omniglot.com/writing/runic.htm

Herbal Uses

Birch sap wine was considered medicinal in Britain and Ireland and was taken to relieve rheumatism. 3

3 Allen, David E. and Gabrielle Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition, P. 88

The sap is collected in the spring from mid-February to mid-March and I would suggest tapping a River Birch, Black Birch, Yellow Birch, or any Birch other than the White Birch, because the latter has no flavor.

A recipe for Birch sap wine from 1676:

To every Gallon whereof, add a pound of refined Sugar, and boil it about a quarter or half an hour; then set it to cool, and add a very little Yeast to it, and it will ferment, and thereby purge itself from that little dross the Liquor and Sugar can yield: then put it in a Barrel, and add thereto a small proportion of Cinnamon and Mace bruised, about half an ounce of both to ten Gallons; then stop it very close, and about a month after bottle it; and in a few days you will have a most delicate brisk Wine of a flavor like unto Rhenish. Its Spirits are so volatile, that they are apt to break the Bottles, unless placed in a Refrigeratory, and when poured out, it gives a white head in the Glass. This Liquor is not of long duration, unless preserved very cool. Ale brewed of this Juice or Sap, is esteem’d very wholesome.” 4

4 Worlidge, John, Vinetum Britannicum: Ora Treatise of Cider and Other Wines and Drinks … Fruits Growing in this Kingdom … Propagating All Sorts of Vinous Fruit-trees … Making Metheglin and Birch-wine. The Second Impression. To which is Added, a Discourse Teaching the Best Way of Improving Bees, Thomas Dring, London, 1678, PP. 175-176

Herbal Uses

The inner bark of White Birch (Betula alba) has no flavor but it is loaded with gamma linoleic acid and useful in cancer treatments. The wintergreen flavor of the bark is found in Black Birch (Betula Lenta), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) and River Birch (Betula nigra) and other Birches with a yellow or brownish bark. Gather the inner bark in spring when the sap is flowing.

Birch bark tea is a great grease cutter and can even be used to clean your kitchen stove – I believe it probably will do the same for your blood when taken as a spring tonic.

Simmer the inner bark for 20 minutes and then steep Elderflowers (Sambucus spp.) in the brew for another 20 minutes, to make a spring tonic.

The inner bark of Birch is a mild sedative and very useful for insomnia.

Externally the bark tea is used as a soothing wash or bath for skin conditions and can be rubbed into the scalp to benefit thinning hair.

The spring-gathered leaves can also be made into a tea and rubbed into the scalp for thinning hair.

Cautions: avoid during pregnancy and breast feeding. Birch pollen could cause allergies in people who are sensitive to Wild Carrot, Mugwort, Apples, Soybeans, Hazelnuts, Peanuts and Celery. Birch leaves are high in sodium which could elevate blood pressure. 5

5 WebMD, Vitamins & Supplements BIRCH, Side Effects & Safety https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-352/birch

Method of Preparation

Leaf tea: steep 1 tsp. per ½ cup of freshly boiled water for 20 minutes

Bark tea: simmer 1 tbsp inner bark per ½ cup water for 20 minutes. Take ¼ cup, 4 times a day, not with meals.

https://www.innertraditions.com/books/the-sacred-herbs-of-spring


Green hearts show the love

Every year in February, the Climate Coalition runs an online campaign called Show The Love which is about creating a voice for change. Green hearts feature heavily, and it’s a chance to talk about what we love, and what we want to protect. I’ve been involved with this for some years now, in a small way.

I like soft campaigning. While there’s most assuredly a place for harder hitting stuff, I don’t have the emotional resilience to do it. I’m better deployed on awareness raising  and trying to draw people in. My contributions to fighting climate change are made in my personal life and in trying to engage and enthuse other people in gentle ways.

This year I am drawing green hearts and using them to talk about things I want to protect.

If you’d like to get involved, visit https://www.theclimatecoalition.org/show-the-love


Imperfect Allies, Flawed Leaders

This week, Jack Monroe was central to the push to get shoddy food packages for hungry children sorted out. Almost at once, Twitter was full of people who wanted to talk about how if Jack was serious about tackling child poverty, she would have supported Jeremy Corbyn.  It’s a typical story – someone does something well meaning and genuinely good and is shot down over something else.  It may be deliberate trolling, it may be a cultural problem, I suspect it’s both and I see it a lot.

There will never be a perfect leader, charity, organisation or ally who does absolutely everything you want in the totally perfect way all of the time. If you wait for that perfection, you’ll never do anything. If you decide that only your perfection will do, you’ll likely run into how imperfect other people find you. Lots of people trying to start their own revolution because no one else’s revolution is quite good enough does not get much done. We need to work together, and to do that we have to accept that none of us are perfect.

How imperfect can we cope with? It’s an important question. If someone is at odds with a key value, you might struggle to work with them no matter how good the work is. The questions of when, where and how to compromise are incredibly personal and specific, there’s no way to map a generalised answer for this.  My favourite strawman for this is the fictional group Nazis for Sustainable Farming. I would not work with them.  But what about the person who is doing amazing, frontline work on child safety but isn’t very good on some gender issues?  Or the person who is a brilliant champion against plastic use, but flies off on holiday? At what point does a flaw become an issue of hypocrisy? It can be hard to say.

It can be helpful to ask whether anyone else is doing the work – if there’s a selection of people/organisations tackling an issue you may be able to find the one that is the best match for you.  If the issue is important and the only person leading on it is problematic, you have to balance how important the work is against how problematic the person is. Also ask who they are – there’s a world of difference between a problematic person working for a cause they are dedicated to, and a high profile person making noise when you aren’t sure what their real motives are.

The movement to save wild otters in the UK had a great deal to do with otter hunting and it was otter hunters who first identified the population decline. This is a good example of a difficult scenario.  People may be allies over one issue but coming to it from such different angles as to have nothing else in common. Can you make that work? Should you? What’s the most important issue?

It would be hard to name an area of human activity that isn’t urgently in need of a rethink right now.  There is so much that needs doing, tripping up people trying to do the work because they aren’t as perfect as we want them to be, isn’t helping. We’re becoming polarised, and we need some degree of compromise and a spirit of co-operation. At the same time we need to think carefully about the issues we’re prepared to ignore for the sake of getting things done, and to consider carefully the balance between means and ends.


What If?

What if we planted trees

Our urban spaces aren’t places for people

We get sick and sad, we go mad

Sucking in polluted air from grey streets

We need to leave the cars, make room for leaves

Turn our urban jungle from grim to green

Make it live, make it breathe, be serene.

What if we planted trees?

Scientists in studies the world over

Show us with numbers we need to hear

We’re better people with trees.

We hurt less, suffer less, do less harm

We’re calmer, kinder, cooler in the shade

No need for the air conditioning

That ironically helps us heat the planet.

Safer in the shade, cut down the cancer

Grow more trees. Forest our minds

Towards better mental health.

We need nature to feel whole and well

But what we do to ourselves

Is build hell, deny what gives us life

We make our strife, unhappiness is rife

Pouring tarmac over everything, we wonder why

Our souls are hungry

For a softer way, a gentle route through our days

Walk slowly to your job, enjoy the view

Live a few minutes distance from everything

That makes a daily life for you

Amble there sweetly, saunter beneath trees.

What if we stopped telling stories

About the gadgets we hope will save us

Rescued ourselves from our mistakes

With orchards where car parks used to be

And playground groves for children

Cities where people can live peacefully.

What if we plant more trees?

(Rob Hopkins has been asking ‘What If?’ which led me to write this. More on his website https://www.robhopkins.net/ )


Embroidery and Upcycling

Carrying on with the craft theme, here are some images from the embroidery I’ve been working on. As you can see in the image below, I’m using the kind of hoop that is traditional in British embroidery. I can’t manage the denim without it, and the layers of fabric would make a sashiko needle impossible to manage, I think. So, nothing authentic about any of this, but, I’ve been really inspired by what I’ve learned about sashiko and boro.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Form follows need as the embroidery reinforces seams and helps me deal with the otherwise rough and vulnerable edges of the denim. Working with such a heavy fabric, folding the edges of each piece to make a hem isn’t feasible, but means the patchwork pieces are otherwise likely to unravel. I’ve learned by experiment how best to secure seams and edges of cloth.


Craft, culture and boro

Back in the winter, Pinterest lured me in with images of boro. At the time I had no real idea of what I was seeing only that I found it very attractive. If you get in there with a search engine, the internet will give you a lot of images of mostly denim patchwork, visible mending techniques and embroidery. As an enthusiastic needlecrafter and upcycler, this all had instant appeal. I dug in.

I like to have some idea of where things come from and what their significance is. Partly because I delight in such knowledge and partly because accidental cultural appropriation is not my idea of fun.  Here’s a brief synopsis of what I found out when I dug in. Boro means rags, and it is a tradition from Northern Japan, inspired by poverty and necessity, that takes what little fabric is available and keeps it in sound, wearable, protective condition. It fell out of favour after the second world war because of the poverty associations, but is having something of a renaissance. Of course traditionally it wasn’t done with denim but currently that seems to be the fabric of preference. There is also an embroidery tradition that goes with it, called sashiko.

We really need these kinds of traditions right now – we need the inspiration and to reclaim cultures of re-use. To take our throwaway culture towards something more sustainable we need to start valuing re-use, repairing, upcycling, and keeping whatever is usable in use. This of course is what poor people have always done, of necessity, and that’s part of the problem. While we see these techniques as being about poverty and insufficiency, many people will be actively put off them. Who wants to look poor? Who wants to do what poor people do? Affluence means discarding things whenever you like.  It means never looking shabby, or ragged, or even mended. We equate smartness with newness and wealth.

It will take a bit of a shift to see the value in what is old and repaired. But, there is a great deal of beauty and innovation in these traditions. Off the peg clothing is bland stuff that seldom lasts long. It means looking like everyone else and having limited scope for self expression. The upcycler on the other hand gets to play and make over, and has adventures in clothing unavailable to other people. There are plenty of things to find attractive here.

Over the coming few days I’m going to be writing a bit about my adventures with boro, so, watch this space. To be clear, I am not making boro – I’m using the wrong materials and the wrong tools. It’s not my cultural heritage, and my grasp of it at this point is fairly superficial. However, there’s a lot I’m excited about and inspired by, and there’s a world of difference between being inspired by something, and misrepresenting it by claiming to be doing it.