Tag Archives: health

A New Way to Say…

…How Stories Affect Our Minds, Culture and Relationships

Today’s world is full of issues, headlines which seem to demand our attention, problems which seem to call for us to solve them, all of the international confluence of human activity which seems to clash, sometimes messily, with our own unfocused day-to-day affairs.

Most of it seems unrelated: people want to build dams along the Mekong and different people to cross ‘sacred land’ with an oil pipeline; somewhere forests are being cut down and in many more places land is being slowly degraded with the blight of monoculture farming.  All of these and more global issues do actually have something in common, though. They are all part of our human culture, and as such, if we wish to change them the first thing we need to do is change the stories which are, whether we realise it consciously or not, the basis for much of our current action.

What Stories Are You Telling Yourself?

“It would not be too much to say”, said Joseph Campbell,

“That myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.” (1)

All of our conceptions of how to relate to each other – “Religions, philosophies, arts…prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.” (1)

Our “myths” – the stories of our culture, both conscious and subconscious – make up who we are: our personalities and our means of communicating with the rest of the world.  When they are helpful they can help us to express more of who we want to be, to “follow our bliss”. When they are not helpful they can underlie all of our problems and distort our perception of reality to the point where we are not even sure what is real anymore. In modern industrialised culture which is based on phonetic language we managed to create abstract concepts and thus artificially extract ourselves from the world around us. Are you still living that story? Do you really think it’s helpful to cut yourself away from the “potentized field of intelligence” (2) of all living things?

The Myths We Carry

We are all walking parts of myth, whether we realise it or not. Our psyches carry the stories of our ancestors and play the out in our own lives – creating situations we do not want, if we do not take control. Though many modern societies are now secular they are still based on Judeo-Christian mythology, much of which, as Campbell says, confuses a tribal god-figure with a world saviour. In the Bible, humans live in Eden until they are banished for committing original sin and even if we do not follow a faith based on this story we may still carry the feelings associated with it. These feelings could be guilt or shame about our bodies and natural impulses, or an idea that we do not belong in paradise, so anytime we find a pristine natural place, we need to change it in order to live in it. As I pointed out in my article Language and Permaculture part 2, (3)

“Some people think the word “Eden” comes from the Urgaritic base meaning “place that is well-watered throughout” (4). Toby Hemenway explores how the great deserts of what we now know as the Middle East used to be some of the most fertile places on Earth and it was only with the development of agriculture that the soil began eroding and water loss began to occur (5). In this sense the Garden of Eden story can be seen as an excuse for the development of agriculture and the subsequent effects of agriculture on the land being not something which we can control or are responsible for, but which are simply the punishments put on us by a vengeful tribal God-idea (1)”.

On a more physical level, the stories of our childhood and even of our time in our mothers’ womb are held within our bodies. This means that  if there are beliefs we want to change it may be as simple as moving or holding ourselves in a different way.

Why Are You Where You Are?

Mark Lakeman, founder of the City Repair Project (5) in Portland, Oregon, USA, tells this story:

“An indigenous man once said to me, he said,

Ha! You think that we are the ones that’ve been hurt, you’ve taken our land and we’ve been devastated‘ and he’s like  ‘Yeah it’s true we have a lot of problems but at least we know who we are, and you do not know your own story.

He said,

You don’t know what brought you to this place you’re at right now, you don’t know what it is you’re looking for, you say you wanna help the world but you don’t even know your own story within the continuum of all of these challenges…

He said, ‘So until you know where you’ve come from, the story of yourself in relation to your family, you don’t know what you’re capable of or even what your challenge is‘.” (7)

Starting Where We Are

My own roots are in the roots of the yarrow, the oak and rowan and birch, though my family now is scattered throughout many different types of ecosystem. The traditions of storytelling and generosity have been passed down to me from my mother, a giver, connector, and fun-lover. Skills and passion for designing systems have come from my father; healing and plant wisdom from my ancestors.

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The concrete and tarmac of the city was my cradle and within it the green spaces which first started to call to us, my sister and I, that there is something more out there. My story is that of a refugee in their homeland and of a native in all parts of the world. Of learning to be sensitive to the feelings of my body and to come home into it more and more. Of trying to connect the deep compassion I felt for the humans, plants and animals ‘out there’ who I perceived as needing help with the raging silence within of my own disconnection between body, soul and energy; of experiencing the deep psychological fissures within the landscape of my soul first as mental illness, through a painful sensation to be numbed and buried, to a wrenching hallucination and out, as it were, the other side of the labyrinth seeing them now as scars of power, aids to my healing work.

I come from a family of explorers; father, mother, sister and I living on 4 different continents. Mixing our fractured cultureless culture with the cultures of those we find around us; nourishing our own sense of who we are as a comparison to others. For me, remembering our roots is as important as learning from the new people and environments we find ourselves in and my sister helps me with this, as well as helping my deep, unshakeable sense of the world as being nowhere near as serious as people make out, and of life as something to be enjoyed. My sister, space-holder for people’s creative expression, fun-lover, giver and receiver of wisdom.

So many people have helped me on my journey to where I am now and one of my best guides has been and continues to be my true love and fellow adventurer, the sound healer, entheogenic escort, language magician, midnight explorer, uncompromiser, relentless clown, player of games and facilitator of sacred spaces within and without. Through him I have become connected to a whole new family, also communicators and storytellers, healers and space-holders, like my sister-in-law, constant reminder of the joy of playing, connector, healer, relisher of the drama of life.

I carry all of these stories within me, and I cannot change where I come from. What I can change is how I perceive my place in my family and in the wider ecosystem, as well as how I weave my own stories together. Only by doing this can I hope to improve any other part of the world.

As Lakeman put it,

“Any planetary repair has to be predicated on local action.” (7)

The way our global human society interacts now, it is not enough to submit to local myths. We are part of a new “creative mythology” as Joseph Campbell put it (1); a culture where every individual’s experience and their own personal quest is respected within the wider acknowledgement of our connection to the animals and plants around us and the cosmos as a whole. Where the mystical experience of our own joyous reality is not a fairytale to be forgotten or a status to be passed down by an authority figure, but an intimately self-discoverable sensation.

If we have the courage to start, then

We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path.

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And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.” (1)

References

1. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Chapter 1: Myth and Dream. Pantheon Books: New York City

2. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage: New York City

3. Haworth, C, 2016. ‘Language and Permaculture Part 2: Practical Ideas for How We Use Terminology’. Permaculture News, 22/12/16. http://permaculturenews.org/2016/12/22/language-permaculture-part-2-practical-ideas-use-terminology/

4. Online Etymology Dictionary, 2016. ‘Eden’. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=Eden

5. Hemenway, T, 2010. ‘How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth, but not Civilization’. Talk given at Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, North Carolina, USA and uploaded 9/2/13 to Films For Action: http://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/how-permaculture-can-save-humanity-and-the-earth-but-not-civilization/

6. City Repair Project, 2017. ‘Mission’. http://www.cityrepair.org/mission/

7. Lakeman, M, 2007. ‘City Repair – Permaculture for Urban Spaces’. Peak Moment TV, 2007. Available on Films for Action here: http://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/city-repair-permaculture-for-urban-spaces/

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Sacred Dance to Reawaken our Truth

With thanks, love and appreciation to David Ashwanden and to all my fellow space-holders.

Many people have written about the various themes which underlie all of human society and culture, regardless of how far back in history you go or how far-flung from each other the societies are.  Among the things which unite us all as humans we have myths and stories (1), transcultural symbols (2) and even intoxicants, which have been used in one form or other by the vast majority of societies in human history (3).

As fundamental as all of these is our need to express ourselves with our bodies, an expression which comes out in dance. Having been following this need as a professional artistic pursuit for the past three years (as well as a social enjoyment activity for much longer!) I decided to take it further by doing some kind of training. But what kind? I am not really interested in learning formal steps or a particular style, but more in the free expression. And there are plenty of dance courses which encourage this out there, from 5 Rhythms (4) to Biodanza (5). Such styles seem interesting, if a little prescriptive, yet I did not feel drawn to actually training in them. Perhaps because as important as the free expression is the recognition that dance is a form of healing, an integral part of human enjoyment and therefore as such can be recognised as a sacred act.

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Dancing as a Sacred Act. Photo by Catherine Brogan.

Maybe it was too much to hope for to find a training which combined all these things: healing, enjoyment and recognition of the sacred. Yet find it I did when I discovered Daisy Kaye’s  5 Element Dance Teacher Training (7) – a training which focuses on using cacao as a key part of the ritual and ceremony in order to enhance the experience. This meant I got the added bonus of being able to practise and expand my love and knowledge of herbalism. Oh, and the course was being held on a tropical island in the Gulf of Thailand. Somehow, it just had to happen.

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Arrival on the island. Photo by David Ashwanden

And it did. And I got out of it a sense of healing and reconnection with my body, renewed enjoyment of dancing, and many more tools for welcoming the sacred into my everyday life, as well as much more knowledge of different medicinal plants from around the world.

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Some of the herbal medicines we were learning about, including, of course, cacao. Photo by David Ashwanden

However, I also got more even than all of this. Because part of what the course helped me and the other participants to gain was a sense of deeper truth. What do I mean by this? Read on to find out…

Dancing Alchemy – Mixing Up the New Human Culture 

Though the course was a teacher training which eventually gave us the tools to run our own ceremonial dance meditations, the first week was simply an introduction to Daisy’s Five Elements dance, which uses a system of symbols to understand the relationships between things in the world, including our bodies. These are used in various ways by different cultures globally, though one of the interesting aspects of Daisy’s style is that she does not focus on one system only. While she is very experienced in and influenced by Chinese medicine, Taoism and Qi Gong, ‘her’ Five Elements are not based exclusively on the Chinese interpretation but also use Ayurvedic, Native American and Daisy’s own ideas.

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Connecting with the Fire element. Photo by David Ashwanden

Indeed, this amalgamation of ideas from different cultures was a recurring theme throughout the course and was one of the most beautiful aspects of it to me. Though much of the actual action we were engaging in can be seen as an ancient practise – breathing and breathwork, gathering together, sitting in circles, sharing herbal intoxicating brews and of course dancing – the fact that Daisy was bringing together traditions from many cultures across the world meant that this course was encouraging the development of an entirely new practise. Importantly, as Daisy puts it, her ideas are not fixed and we are all encouraged to create our own personalised versions. Thus we are engaging not in a rigid system but in the growth of a transglobal new human culture.

Listening to Our Bodies

Five Elements dancing is not just a dance, it is a “manifestational movement meditation” (8). By dancing to clear our minds, we become clear about what it is we actually want. By sharing this with others in a circle we help to crystallise it and make it even clearer. Then we dance through the five elements: grounding with the Earth, flowing with Water, enlivening with Fire, soaring with Air and connecting with Ether. This has the effect not only of helping us to achieve a meditational state but also with helping us connect deeply with our bodies. And when we do this, perhaps surprisingly for some, our bodies usually have some messages for us.

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Listening for the messages. Photo by David Ashwanden

As I’ve quoted before (9),

“We may never have been conscious of our life energy, but our bodies can feel it. We may never have been conscious of our suffering in childhood, but our bodies can remember. We may never have been conscious of the suffering of our parents, but our bodies received it in the womb and carry it. We may never have been conscious of the pollution of the planet but our bodies feel it and manifest the effects…

So if we inhabit our bodies and let them speak to us, we can become aware of transpersonal energy, and in welcoming it, we heal not only ourselves, but our families, our communities and our planet” (Hayes, 2007) (10)

This ‘inhabiting’ is a practise which is often so overlooked in modern culture that it can be a bit of a shock to begin doing it once more. The Five Elements seem a very effective way for helping to tune to what our bodies are telling us, as each element connects us to different emotions, so any emotions which our bodies “remember” can be released. However, we do not dwell on any element in particular, so the emotions can also be let go of.

Magic Circle

Holding space is a key part of helping make a place sacred. It can help to create your own sacred space like this Magic Circle, though the first sacred space to create and recognise is within you. Photo by David Ashwanden

Mind-Truth and Body-Truth

In the circle we are encouraged to speak the truth and part of the art which the course helped me to learn was holding space in a way which facilitates and fosters this. However, sometimes our minds may get in the way of what we’re saying so that even we are not sure if it’s really true.

The dance meditation connecting us to our bodies, encouraging us to be “at home in our bones” brings out a kind of truth which is even deeper, more subtle and perhaps more difficult to define – the truth our bodies and senses are sharing with us. It seems as though once we connect to this the whole way in which we speak takes on a different significance, as well as the way in which we act and move around in our lives.

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Circle Dance. Photo by Tianna.

Because one thing which the course helped with was in making it easier to connect to our  deeper truths – to be honest with ourselves. The radiating effect of this is that it’s less easy to lie about anything in life, whether it’s participating in an activity that you do not really enjoy or agree with, or speaking your mind about something.

Bringing the dance out

In the sacred dancing circle we are all human beings, fresh personalities poised and ready to listen to our guiding desires and to begin the delicious journey of manifesting them.

Outside the circle, we may pick up different characters here and there to help us in our journeys. One of the main teachings of the course for me was being able to tell which of these characters are beneficial to us and which help us to develop healthily in body, mind and spirit. The dancing meditation makes it easy to differentiate – but once we go back into the world, it may also be easy to forget. The fact that the course was on a secluded beach on a tropical island meant that it felt very much like a holiday. Many of the other course participants defined themselves as living double or triple lives and seemed unhappy with the lack of integrity this seemed to be giving them.

Hopefully by the end of the training they were more sure about where their integrity lies, and strong enough to follow it: why leave holiday behind when we can embody it as part of our lifestyle?

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Creation of altars – one way of making a space sacred. Photo by Tianna.

Tune in now

You don’t need to participate in one of Daisy’s courses in order to connect to your deeper truth or help you to make every day sacred, though it has certainly aided me in re-finding my path. There are so many ways to do it: maybe you find it through yoga, qi gong, mindful walking; from practising circus skills or martial arts; by learning about the Tao, the Chinese medicine system or Buddhism, or simply by standing still and focusing on your breath. None of these things are exclusive and the most important thing in practising them is probably your own enjoyment.  Sacred spaces are all around us, and the sacred dance is within us all the time. We can let it out however we like…

Just remember to keep dancing…

Notes

If you are interested in reading more about the course, feel free to check out my fellow participant Debbie Bird’s experiences here: Bird is Travelling.

References

  1. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books: New York City
  2. Corbett, L, 2012. Psyche and the Sacred: Spirituality beyond Religion. Spring Journal Books: New Orleans
  3. Walton, S, 2003. Out of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication. Three Rivers Press: New York City
  4. 5 Rhythms, 2016. ‘Who We Are’. https://www.5rhythms.com/who-we-are/
  5. The Art of Biodanza, 2016. ‘About Biodanza’. http://theartofbiodanza.com/origins-of-biodanza/
  6. Daisy Kaye, 2016. ‘Live a Holiday Lifestyle’. http://www.liveaholidaylifestyle.com/
  7. The Sanctuary Thailand, 2016. ‘Sacred Cacao 5 Element Dance Teacher Training’. http://www.thesanctuarythailand.com/sacred-cacao-5-element-dance-ceremonies-teacher-training-with-daisy-kaye.html
  8. Daisy Kaye, 2016.
  9. Haworth, C, 2016. David Bowie: Helping us Dance to Heal. Abundance Garden, 4/2/16. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2016/02/04/david-bowie-helping-us-to-dance-to-heal/
  10. Hayes, J, 2007. Performing the Dreams of Your Body: Plays of Animation and Compassion. Archive Publishing: Chichester

Rejoicing in Abundance

Occasionally I encounter someone who refers to our planet as being one on which scarcity is a problem. It is understandable how you could arrive at this viewpoint; after all, the media in this country often mentions food security issues and there are many people who are hungry, even right in our own home towns.

Institutions such as the idea of global aid seem to exacerbate this view; relying as they do on people in one country or region giving away some of the resources they have to another, seeming to imply that we cannot have all the resources we need right where we are. But is it helpful to see our world like this?

There is a lot of sentiment that scarcity is an illusion; and even an ever-growing body of evidence to show that wherever you are, abundance is a possibility.

The beauty of the world: something we can all esperience. Photo by David Ashwanden

The beauty of the world: something we can all esperience. Photo by David Ashwanden

Possible abundance

Back in 1980, architect, innovator and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller wrote of how thinkers such as Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin and Karl Marx had managed to influence global conceptions to the point where

“All books on economics have only one basic tenet – the fundamental scarcity of life support. The supreme political and economic powers as yet assume that it has to be you or me.” –R. Buckminster Fuller, 1980 (1)

However, having undertaken a lifetime of research and experiment, he concludes that this conception is based simply on not looking at the wealth of the world in a holistic manner. If we account for all of our resources using what Fuller calls “cosmic accounting” (1) then we are all billionaires.

In the 2012 report to the UN Right to Food, Oliver de Schutter estimated that there is enough food being produced in the world to feed 12 billion people (2). This, even in spite of the fact that our farming methods are so inefficient that in many cases the inputs of oil-based products outweigh the outputs of food (see for example 3), and the current trend of ‘high-yield’ intensive monoculture farming is destroying habitats, ecosystems and soils (soils being something which is generally regarded as a useful substance for growing things in) to the point where, in some places in the UK, soil structure has completely broken down in over 75% of maize fields (4).

The UN Conference on Trade and Development’s 2013 report Wake Up Before it’s Too Late: Make Farming Truly Sustainable Now (5) explores how changing our agricultural systems will help to build more stable food sources, community development and – crucially – more food production (5). Even before that change is fully implemented, however, there are ways in which we can help to redress the balance.

For if we are all billionaires, and are producing enough food for 12 billion people, why are some still going hungry? Perhaps there are some who are taking more than they need, but there’s only so much excess you can eat, even if you are huge. When we begin examining this, we find that much of the commercial food produced in the world actually does not even get eaten – or come close to being eaten.

Food production for…humans?

                The Institute of Mechanical Engineers estimated in their Global Food Report Waste Not, Want Not that

“30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach” (6)

There are many factors affecting this, from weather patterns to supermarket quotas and the global economy to local fashions in taste, and it is not only the producers who could be more efficient in their production. In many places, the industrialised, ‘high-yield high-input’ farming system means that crops are designed to be intensively grown in monoculture systems aimed at producing a large amount of crops at the same time. This method inherently carries a high risk of waste in it; for a large number of reasons, from higher risks of disease, pests and lack of nutrition involved in monoculture farming (see for example 5) to the practicalities of successfully harvesting and processing what is usually several thousands of individual crops at one time. These are compounded by supermarket regulations on size and quota, which here in the UK are quite specific in a way in which growth is usually not (7). The Soil Association estimate that 20-40% of UK Fruit and vegetables are rejected on “cosmetic grounds” (although who decides these cosmetic grounds is unclear) before they reach the consumer.

Even the slightest deformities may be enough for fruits and vegetables not to make it to the supermarket.

Even the slightest deformities may be enough for fruits and vegetables not to make it to the supermarket.

For more (and more extreme) examples of unusual crops check out the Guardian’s gallery  here

Turning problems into solutions

Luckily, the very complicatedness of the factors affecting why we are wasting so much food is also a fantastic opportunity. These factors show that often producers feel as though they do not have a choice about having to throw away vast amounts of their crops. And sometimes, they may not wish to throw them away. This leaves ample opportunity to take this abundant overflow of stagnating energy and utilise it.

This is exactly what the Gleaning Network (8) are doing. The Network is a campaign made up of volunteer ‘gleaners’, who get into contact with farms which have a surplus of unsellable (but still perfectly edible) crops, and go and pick said crops, distributing them to local charities and community groups who are in need of fresh food through Fareshare (9), a redistribution organisation who intercept food from going to waste all over the country, giving it instead to people who would like to eat it.

The Gleaning Network could only collect the surplus food from the farms if farmers were sympathetic, showing that the food production wastage problem is not as simple as just being the responsibility of the producers. At least there are some producers who see the incongruence, and are taking proactive steps to address it.

But what is this ‘Glean’?

The idea of gleaning is not a new one but dates back, as far as I can tell, to feudal times, or just after the concept of land ownership rather than common land which everyone can use became prevalent in England. I have heard a number of stories of who the original ‘gleaners’ were, and my favourite variation is this: that once the idea of land ‘enclosures’ as a pose to ‘common land’ began becoming steadily more and more popular, in particular around the 14th century (10), suddenly a large amount of the population, who had previously been farming using semi-communal resources on land which was owned by no-one, found themselves instead deemed as trespassers on someone else’s land. Yet the land owners recognised that the people living on what was now their land still needed to survive somehow; and indeed, it would be beneficial to them, the landowners, if the peasants continued to exist, since the landowners needed them. If there were no workers to farm the landowners’ land, the land would not be much use to the landowners. With this in mind the landowners would always purposefully leave a proportion of their crops unharvested in the fields. This would then be gleaned – that is, collected – by those who needed it.

So the Gleaning Network is reviving this practise – with all of the modern twists that the supermarket quotas, the ‘high-yield, high input’ farming systems, and the global economy bring with it. The Gleaners are back: but now instead of a few villagers picking their way across some small be-hedged fields, the Gleaning Network now regularly co-ordinates surplus harvests of upwards of 1 tonne of crops at one time.

Why is this happening?

The extent to which food waste has become commonplace is an indicator that it is perhaps not just one thing which needs to change, rather, that our entire culture could do with looking at from a slightly different perspective. Why do people find it acceptable to throw away what is clearly edible food in the first place? Some may feel it is beyond their control; but even so, it could be seen that this very attitude indicates a marked disrespect for, and lack of connection to, our food.

In his book Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature, Jules Pretty explores the idea that many in our culture may have lost (or temporarily forgotten) the deep significance of the role which food plays in our lives, and how with the simple act of eating, we are communicating in a vast number of ways to the environment, other people and creatures, and of course, our own bodies (11). “As consumers”, Pretty says,

The choices we make send strong signals about the systems of agricultural production that we prefer. We may not realise that we are sending these messages, but we are.” (Pretty, 2002) (11)

Just the simple act of realisation can be incredibly empowering. When you sit down to eat your dinner, do you listen to your body’s reaction to your food to gauge what is the right thing to feed it? Do you rejoice in sharing food, and in the power of the simple act of eating with others? When you procure your food, do you think about the effect this will have on the environment around you, and the other people, plants and creatures in it?

When we begin thinking about these things, it may well transpire that our own strategies of feeding ourselves, from sourcing our food to getting rid of waste, begin changing dramatically. In this way our whole culture of attitudes to food can begin to become healthier, more efficient and more beneficial to us.

One of the key aspects of creating a new culture is to create new stories as part of the culture. In this way we can strengthen our ties to each other, the planet and our food. In order to do this we do not have to disregard everything which comes before us; indeed, this is what makes us up so we have to integrate it in order to move forwards. All of our favourite stories and inspirations will probably be what is most useful here. As Joseph Campbell puts it, we can all make our own myths to help enrich our lives, and when we do,

“We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path.” (Campbell, 1949) (12)

For me this means following whatever stories I feel I can shape constructively into my own personal mythology in order to create a world of true abundance. With this in mind I began my foray into the world of gleaning. Intrigued? Stay tuned for the next post, where I explore this activity at farm level…

References

  1. Fuller, R.B, 1980. Critical Path. St Martin’s Griffin: New York
  2. Schutter, O, 2013. Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food. United Nation General Assembly: New York
  3. Lamberley, P and Oakeshott, I, 2014. Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat. Bloomsbury: London
  4. Monbiot, G, 2014. ‘The farming lobby has wrecked efforts to defend our soil’. Guardian, 5/6/2014. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2014/jun/05/the-farming-lobby-has-wrecked-efforts-to-defend-our-soil – retrieved 10/10/14
  5. UN Conference on Trade and Development, 2013. Wake Up Before it is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. United Nations: Geneva. Online copy can be found here: http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf
  6. Institute of Mechanical Engineers, 2013. “Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not.” IMECHE: London. Available as a PDF here: http://www.imeche.org/docs/default-source/reports/Global_Food_Report.pdf
  7. Lawrence, F, 2004. Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on your Plate. Penguin: London
  8. Feedback Global, 2014. ‘Gleaning Network’. http://feedbackglobal.org/campaigns/gleaning-network/ – retrieved 22/10/14
  9. Fareshare, 2014. ‘About Us’. http://www.fareshare.org.uk/about_us/ – retrieved 22/10/14
  10. Fairlie, S, 2009. ‘A Short History of enclosures in Britain’. Land Magazine, Issue 7, Summer 2009. http://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/articles/short-history-enclosure-britain – – retrieved 22/10/14
  11. Pretty, Jules, 2002. Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature. Earthscan: Oxford
  12. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Fontana Press: London

How to Preserve Vegetables using Self-caught Cultures

All Photos by David Ashwanden

With the current global food system being the vast network of producers, suppliers and consumers that it is, sometimes ideas of preserving food may seem a little irrelevant. Before planes, lorries and fridges became so prevalent, if you wanted carrots any time other than carrot season then you either had to wait, or you had to somehow capture that carroty goodness in a way that meant that you could still eat it weeks or even months later.

Why would you wish to preserve it, though, when you can simply walk to your nearest supermarket for year-round carrot availability?

A Carroty Question

A Carroty Question

 

Reasons to be preservative

For me, the reasons for food preservation are numerous, and effect and are affected by not just the food but all that is going on around me in my life. For example, it is not just my own body that I am affecting when I buy food. As mentioned in my ‘The Simple Art of Lacto-Fermentation: An Introduction, when we buy food which is imported, we are engaging in a complex web of energy which we may never be fully able to calculate, but which we can pretty much guarantee has contributed to extra carbon emissions being added to our atmosphere. For example, the Food Climate Research Network estimates that in the UK alone, 19 million tonnes of carbon are released into the atmosphere from our food industry and transport; 40% of this comes from current agricultural methods (1).

                If you feel that we need to decrease the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere, the action you can take to facilitate this can be as simple as changing what you eat.

As someone keen to put into practical reality the transitions which are necessary to ensure a sustainable future of abundance, I decided to limit the amount of food I eat which is imported and instead preserve food when it is in season so that I can enjoy its freshness all year round.

Keeping food fresh

                A simple way to prolong your food’s shelf-life is to put it in the freezer; but this will mean it loses nutrients. You could also heat it up to a very high temperature and can it; again, nutrients are lost in this process, and both of these methods are quite energy-intensive. Luckily, people have been preserving food for much longer than freezers or sterilisation has existed, and there are many other low-impact methods. For more details, I can recommend Claude Aubert’s Keeping Food Fresh: Old World Techniques and Recipes (2).

Lacto-fermentation does not involve heating your produce to high temperatures, or indeed cooking it at all, and neither does it involve cooling techniques or sterilisation. All of these methods have been developed in order to kill bacteria, but the whole point with lacto-fermented foods is that you are getting the beneficial bacteria to work for you. In this way, lacto-fermentation very neatly turns the problem of bacteria which could make food unsafe to eat into the solution of utilising it to create a tasty and nutritious preserve. You may not have heard of lacto-fermentation before, but you have probably heard of sauerkraut and kimchi – both of these are lacto-fermentated foods.

Yes, not only does this method of preservation keep pretty much all of the nutrients from the vegetables you are preserving, but the very act of preserving actually adds nutrients. The presence of lactobacillus and other bacteria in the same family help aid digestion and are a significant source of vitamin C and protein (see for example 3, though if anyone can find a more exact nutritional analysis I’d be very interested to know it!).

Method

                So now you know some of the reasons why you might want to lacto-ferment, and some of the benefits it can give to not only you, but the entire planet. Presumably, your appetite has been whetted; so what comes next should be a recipe. However, I am reluctant to term my skill-sharing as such, as the word ‘recipe’ implies a set amount of ingredients, a strict method and a limited amount of things you can use. Yet the joy of lacto-fermentation is that (as far as I have found) the only limit is your imagination. What I am going to share with you, then, is more like a set of simple guidelines; starting points and advice from which you can make a springboard towards your own fermexperiments.

Some loose steps to follow

  1. Getting started

First, you need to choose what you are going to lacto-ferment. I have tried a vast number of fresh foods, the majority with a high degree of success. Vegetables are what I have the most experience with so I am going to share my vegetable method with you here. You can also lacto-ferment fruit, or even combine this method preservation with another low-impact, high nutrient saving one: that of drying. For more information on this, you could try visiting Annie Levy’s fantastically inspiring blog here(4).

As it is October in the UK there are still quite a lot of locally-grown carrots and beetroots available, so these are what I chose for my example ferment.

  1. Veg preparation

I washed all the veg I was going to use, which ended up being one and half carrots and half a beetroot for one medium-sized jar. Then I peeled the beetroot as it was a big one and the skin was quite thick. If you are using non-organically grown beetroot then you may prefer to do this, as the chemical residues are thickest in the skin (5), though the fermentation will still work even if you do not.

Peeling the Beetroot

Peeling the Beetroot

 

                Now you can choose how you are going to cut up your vegetable. There are many ways to do this – as many ways as you can think of to make things smaller, really. Some traditional recipes call for a particular way of cutting; for example, in most sauerkraut and kimchi recipes I have found they say to shred the cabbage before fermenting it (see for example 2). You can also chop your veg into cubes, strips or chunks, however; I have found that the choice is really down to your own personal preferences.

The key to deciding what to do with your veg is knowing what conditions it needs to be kept in. in order for the correct bacteria to colonise you need it to be moist, and in order that the wrong bacteria (that which could be detrimental to your health) does not inhabit your vegetables, you need to make sure they stay covered with both salt and water. In ensuring this, your chance of success will be greatly enhanced if you pack the vegetables tightly into your chosen container, in whichever form you choose to cut them into.

The reason for this is so that you can make sure that your food stays covered with the water and salt: if it gets exposed to the air, then it is no longer part of the preservation process and the normal process of air-exposed fresh food, i.e. rotting, will begin. You want your veg to stay nicely preserved so squeeze it in tightly!

With all of this in mind, I decided to make my example lacto-ferment using grating. After washing them and peeling the beetroot I used a grater to make them into very small pieces.

Grating the veg

Grating the veg

  1. Packing it in

I then picked up the grated carrot a handful at a time and, taking my clean (but not sterilised) glass jar, I covered the bottom of it in a layer.

Putting the carrot in

Putting the carrot in

 

                Now comes the important part: having placed the carrot into the jar, I pushed it down to make sure it squashes in really tightly. I have found that using fingers here is fine, as long as they are clean; the whole point of the lacto-ferment adventure is to create an environment where any bacteria except the ones you want will perish.

Squeeze

Squeeze

 

  1. Fill it up

As I had carrot and beetroot to ferment I decided to pack them into the jar in layers. This is more of an aesthetic thing than anything else, though it is good to be conscious of what order you will feel like eating things when you come to open your fermenting jar. If you are preserving two different vegetables, are you happy to only have access to one at a time? Or do you wish to mix them up in the jar so that when you open it you have an immediate variety of flavours?

To some extent whatever you put together in the jar will give its flavour to the whole mix anyway; this is especially true with very strong-flavoured foods. With this in mind I added a little bit of chopped garlic to the jar. Though only about one clove, it will end up imparting a delicious pickled-garlicky taste to the entire ferment.

Preparing the garlic

Preparing the garlic

Adding the garlic

Adding the garlic

                Then I made sure I packed the jar full with the rest of the carrot and beetroot.

                It is very important that you do not fill the jar to the brim. Firstly, you are going to add water, so there needs to be enough space for the water to come in. Secondly, during the fermentation process your mix will expand so it needs the volume to do this. Thirdly, if the mix ends up touching the lid of the jar it could become exposed to air and thus contaminated.

                This is about the right level.

Good level

  1. Just add water…

Now you can carefully pour in enough water to cover the veg mix. When I first learned about lacto-fermentation during my PDC with Tree-Yo at Permaship, Bulgaria, I was advised to use spring water with all ferments if at all possible. Indeed, many sources insist that if you use tap-water the fermentation may not work at all (see for example 6). For about a year I followed this strictly, which was not difficult as at the time I lived on a mountain-side and all of our water came from springs. However, when confronted once more with chlorinated tap water I decided to continue my experiments anyway, and have found no marked difference between texture, taste, or length of time for fermentation when using tap water.*

*The tap water I used came from mains water in the South of England. Many chemicals are added to this water to treat it but not as many as in other countries such as the USA and Australia, so readers from these countries may want to find alternative water sources.

  1. …And salt

This step is really what differentiates your lacto-ferment as a preserve rather than just some vegetables in a jar; that magical ingredient of salt. For a medium sized jar (the jar I am using in the pictures originally held 454g of honey) you do not need more than 1 teaspoon of salt. You probably need even less than a teaspoon but this is the measurement that I have found is safe and effective. Place the salt into the jar with the vegetables and water.

  1. Shaking with excitement

In order to mix the ingredients thoroughly and ensure that the salt and water is covering all parts of the vegetables, it is probably a good idea to close the lid of the jar tightly and shake it up.

Serious shaking

Serious shaking

 

  1. Get ready to catch some culture

The idea of lacto-fermentation is that even though all you have put in your jar so far is water, salt and vegetables, you will be using this bait to catch some bacteria culture which will preserve the veg for you. In order to do this you need to leave the bacteria a way to get in. However, you don’t want anything that isn’t a kind of lactobacilli colonising your beautiful preserve, so you need to make sure that the vegetables are packed in tight and completely covered with water.

I usually place the lid of the jar loosely on top of it without screwing it closed, and then leave the jar in an out-of-the-way place for two or three days in order to catch the bacteria.

It is also a good idea to put the jar on a plate, as once the fermentation process begins it can potentially become quite volatile and subsequently messy.

In warmer weather the colonisation will be quicker so if it is winter and you never turn the heating on in your kitchen, don’t worry if there is no sign of bacteria after a couple of days. Keep waiting; it will probably turn up.

  1. Recognising your new friend

You can tell when the culture has arrived in your jar in a number of ways. One is if you lift the lid of the jar to find that it is fizzing. No need to run away here – this is a perfect sign that you have successfully caught some bacteria. Another is to look into the jar to see if there is a milk-like residue. This is the culture itself inhabiting the new home you have made for them; again, a very good sign.

A New Culture is Here!

A New Culture is Here!

                Once you have captured your bacteria (giving a whole new meaning to the idea of reviving hunter-gatherer techniques), you can close the jar’s lid fully to seal it. This is not a necessary step as the lacto-ferment does not need to be airtight; however, as mentioned above in step 4, you do need to ensure that the veg are completely covered with water at all times and so if you are going to put the jar in storage, one of the easiest ways I have found is to simply screw the lid on and put it away; remembering to label it, of course.

                Before packing it into your cupboards, it may be a good idea to keep the jar out with the lid on for a few more days, just to check on the fermentation process and make sure that everything is fitting alright.

When I came back to mine four days later I found this:

ferment explosion

ferment explosion

                What had happened was that the fermentation was so vigorous that there wasn’t enough space for it in the jar. This does not always occur, and I have found it is more common with foods with a higher sugar content, such as carrot and beetroot. When lacto-fermenting less sugary foods such as celery and cucumber the ferments are generally much better behaved.

If this happens to your ferment, simply take out the excess vegetables, which will probably be tasty and good to eat, as long as they have not been exposed to the air for too long. Then re-pack what’s in the jar and re-fill it with water. You will probably also need to wash the lid of the jar before replacing it.

10. Using the cultures as Mothers

If you have already lacto-fermented something previously, you can skip step 8 because you already have the bacteria culture captured. All you need to do is take a teaspoon of the liquid from a previously opened lacto-ferment, and add it to your newest batch along with the water and salt. Then you can simply close the jar immediately, because you have colonised the jar using your own Mother Bacteria.

Adding the mother 1

Adding the Mother

Adding the Mother

 

  1. Fermenting Frenzy

Congratulations on your fermenting. Now that you have joined me on this preserving adventure, I’m sure you will be brimming with ideas for the next one. What will you ferment now? Whatever it is, remember to always use your sensitivity when preparing food in this way. For some people the taste, smell and volatile fizziness of a lacto-fermented food may seem so alien that it at first cannot be trusted as edible. But your body knows what’s good for it, as long as you listen to it. Anytime you are not sure about whether or not it is safe to eat some food which you’ve had a go at preserving, it’s probably best to leave it alone. At the same time, the more of a feel you gain for this kind of thing, the more your confidence will grow, so just keep trying.

 

References

  1. Climate Choices, 2014. ‘Food Miles and carbon Dioxide’. http://www.climatechoices.org.uk/pages/food3.htm – retrieved 17/10/14
  2. Aubert, C, 1999. Keeping Food Fresh: Old World Techniques and Recipes. Chelsea Green: London
  3. Livestrong, 2014. ‘What are the benefits of raw sauerkraut?’ http://www.livestrong.com/article/430458-what-are-the-benefits-of-raw-sauerkraut/ – – retrieved 17/10/14
  4. Kitchen Counter-Culture, 2014. http://kitchencounterculture121.wordpress.com/about/ retrieved 17/10/14
  5. Dellorto, D, 2014. ‘Dirty Dozen produce carries more pesticide residue, group says’. CNN, 2014. http://edition.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/06/01/dirty.dozen.produce.pesticide/retrieved 17/10/14
  6. Meredith, L, 2014. ‘Lacto-fermented Carrot Recipe’. http://foodpreservation.about.com/od/Fermenting/r/Lacto-fermented-Carrot-Recipe.htm retrieved 17/10/14

The Simple Art of Lacto-Fermentation: An Introduction

The Simple Art of Lacto-Fermentation: An Introduction

Eating food: one of the simplest activities we do, yet one of such joyous importance to us that it can be seen as a celebration every time we do it. Why not? Wherever we are, we all understand the significance of eating together as a group: from the days-long Eid celebrations of the Muslim world (1) to the Thanksgiving feasts of the USA, originally a Native American tradition and now celebrated by people who descend from many different races across the planet (2).

There is something special about sharing food with others, especially when that food has a significance which can connect us in more ways than just physically. Most of us have memories of visiting family members when we were children and enjoying a particular kind of food whose meaning goes far beyond the simple nutritional value. One of my own examples is my grandfather’s home-made bread. Though I have gone through many dietary evolutions over the past few decades, from vegetarian and vegan to only raw food, and stranger combinations such as the GAPs diet (grain and starch-free) and have made many investigations into both literature on these subjects and the reactions of my own body, coming to the conclusion that for me, at least (though perhaps for many others as well), wheat can have quite a detrimental effect on my digestive system.

When I visit my grandparents, however, this conclusion goes out of the window. I have long maintained that my grandpa’s bread is the best in the world and even though my diet is pretty strictly gluten-free at any other time, I have to admit that his bread still remains the best now. The interesting thing is that when I eat it now (he still bakes, though over 90 years of age) it does not feel heavy and uncomfortable in my stomach like other gluten products. This seems to be an example of an experience where the cultural or personal significance of food can give it a greater meaning than the simple physical properties, and that our relationship to our food is probably just as important to the food’s effect on our bodies as choosing what it is that we eat.

The messages we send

That is not to say that the choosing itself is not important; and with the current global food system being the complex network of relationships that it is, this can sometimes get a little confusing. It may be the case that all we want is a simple particular vegetable – a carrot, say – but where that carrot comes from and the methods in which it was grown all affect things far beyond ourselves, though they also directly relate to how healthy the carrot will be for us as well. As Jules Pretty says in her book Agri-Culture (3), when we buy food,

“As consumers…the choices we make send strong signals about the systems of agricultural production that we prefer. We may not realise that we are sending these messages, but we are.” (Pretty, 2002)

Even when we are aware of these messages to some extent, we still may not be able to always obtain our ideal diet. One simple way I have found to send messages about food production systems which benefit the earth as well as people is to buy organic food; then at least you know that it has been produced without chemicals. Yet this is neither possible nor practical all of the time. It may be the case that my local shop here in Brighton has a choice of organic and non-organic apples; the organic ones flown in from New Zealand and the non-organic ones grown right here in the local area. If I buy the non-organic ones I am helping improve soil health in New Zealand, but causing more pollution to the air of the entire planet.

These issues are complex and highly intriguing to consider when rethinking our relationships to food and culture, and you can be sure I will touch upon them again in future posts here (you can also check out my article ‘The Importance of Eating Food’ here). One thing which I would like to concentrate on now is a particular way I have found of boosting my own nutrition level whilst encouraging a healthy and beneficial culture and relationship to our food. In a happy coincidence (coincidence?) the method used to make such food involves the creation of culture itself.

Cultural awakenings

There has been quite a lot of literature suggesting that in order to strengthen our relationship to each other and redress the balance of mutual beneficial actions on this planet, there is a need to create a whole new culture (see for example 3, 4, 5). That is not to say that we cannot use aspects of what we have now, but in order to grow healthy relationships with ourselves and the rest of the planet there can be seen a need to grow whole new ways of acting. For me, these new ways involve looking holistically at all aspects of life, utilising efficient methods and designs to benefit as many people/plants/things as possible, sharing in the joy and celebration of life with others through frequent communal meals, singing and dancing, and recognition of the true abundance of our beautiful world. This list is not exhaustive; merely a taster, if you will.

One way in which we can efficiently use the food which the abundance of nature gives us is by preserving it, and my favourite way to do this is the simple yet highly effective (and tasty) art of lacto-fermentation.

Lacto? So you’re preserving with milk?

Well…not exactly. In fact – vegans, you can come back! – there isn’t actually any milk involved in the process. It is way of storing vegetables so that they stay fresh for months or even years, retaining their nutritional value and even gaining in it (see for example 6, 7). In this way it is excellent to do with vegetables which have not been produced organically. Such vegetables may well be lacking in nutrients; but you can, as it were, re-nutritionalise them by fermenting them.

In order to do this you do not need to cook the vegetable – in fact, it won’t work if you do. You do not need fancy equipment – just a bowl or pan would suffice, though I prefer to use glass jars. And you do not need to sterilise any equipment – indeed, this will also stop the process from working.

Here in Brighton fermentation has become something of a ‘hot topic’, with many very eager to find out more about this intriguing and somewhat forgotten art. Of course, anything that you don’t know how to do can seem mysterious and difficult, but lacto-fermentation is so simple that you may well be surprised how quickly you can become, like me, a lacto-fiend.

Just a few examples from my collection.

Just a few examples from my collection

You see, what you need in order to lacto-ferment a vegetable is: the vegetable. Some water. And a tiny bit of salt.

That’s it.

Sound do-able? Read on…

The fermentation which happens is actually the process of a particular class of bacteria which colonises your chosen receptacle. These are ‘lacto bacillus’ and various friends (6, 7); which are the same bacteria used to turn yoghurt into milk, hence the milk connection.

The salt in the water acts as a barrier against any other cultures; hence how you can just leave the vegetables in water and instead of rotting they become deliciously pickled.

Lacto-fermentation has been used as a traditional way of preserving food for thousands of years, and is still very common in many cultures. You may be familiar with the term sauerkraut; this is lacto-fermented cabbage, a traditional German delicacy.

In Korea, lacto-fermentation is a key part of the culture through the highly popular kimchi. Apparently, a meal without this spicy pickled vegetable dish in unthinkable in Korea, as well as “lacking in style and grace” (8).

However, in spite of the fact that the knowledge for how to do these things has been around for many thousands of years, we in this time and place may be forgetting it. In spite of being such an important national dish that the entire country eats it on a daily basis, a lot of kimchi in Korea now is imported from China, and the actual art of making it yourself appears to be dying out (9). As an activity of great social and cultural import this is quite alarming; a few years ago kimchi-making itself was recognised as having world cultural heritage status by Unesco, a telling fact on the importance fermentation can have for ourselves and our communities (9).

Revive the ferment!

When bringing back this art it is very important to exercise caution and (of course) common sense when attempting your own lacto-ferments. The method which I am about to share with you involves catching the bacteria from the air to encourage it to colonise your jar. I have been using this method on a weekly basis for over three years now and have never got sick from eating the produce of my labour.

In spite of this, it is important to note that when you are catching bacteria from the air it is inevitable that every batch will be different and, unless you happen to have a biology lab in your kitchen, you will never be able to identify exactly every single bacteria and their ratios within your food. But can you do this anyway? Even if you have a label on your vegetables with their nutritional breakdown, it probably won’t include the amounts of chemical fertiliser, pesticide, soap or other random elements which will all be affecting your body probably far more intrusively than the simple fermenting bacteria. Even so, if you do not feel comfortable making your own experiments, I advise against you trying my lacto-ferment recipe.

If you do, check it out!

References

  1. Martin et al, 2003. Encyclopaedia of Islam and the Muslim World. Macmillan Reference USA: New York City
  2. Plimoth Plantation, 2014. ‘Thanksgiving History’. http://www.plimoth.org/learn/MRL/read/thanksgiving-history – retrieved 10/10/14
  3. Pretty, Jules, 2002. Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature. Earthscan: Oxford
  4. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon: New York City
  5. Campbell, J, 1991. The Masks of God IV: Creative Mythology. Arkana: New York City
  6. Rameley, Dr. D, 2008. ‘Benefits of Fermentation’. Seattle Natural Health, 2008. http://www.seattlenaturalhealth.com/fermentation.html – retrieved 10/10/14
  7. Katz, S, 2012. The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World. Chelsea Green: London
  8. Homestay Korea, 2014. ‘Kimchi and Koreans’. http://www.homestaykorea.com/?document_srl=30429 – retrieved 10/10/14
  9. McCurry, J, 2014. ‘Crisis in Korea as younger generation abandons kimchi’. Guardian, 21/3/2014. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/21/crisis-in-korea-kimchi – retrieved 10/10/14