All in a Day's Walk

A month-long slow food walking performance

Archive for July, 2013

Wild sleeping

Hounds sleeping

You know when you should have a day off walking when… yesterday the path in front you looked like an appealing place to lie down and sleep. (A couple of years ago on a sunny August morning in the middle of a ten month bout of insomnia, I stopped on a journey from Hereford to Bristol and walked up May Hill looking for somewhere to sleep. In my sleep-deprived madness, I wondered if I could write a lavishly-illustrated coffee-table book on Wild Sleeping to add to the glut of wild swimming and cool camping ones…)

Today I’m tired: the sudden arrival of starchy carbohydrates (oats) in my diet has replaced hunger with a heavy, profound tiredness. The sudden arrival of clouds, cool weather and a breeze has replaced the artificially energising effects of sunlight and revealed an exhaustion I didn’t know was lurking.

So we’re sleeping (me and hounds) and I’m writing. By which I mean blogging retrospectively.

I’m not very disciplined when it comes to writing: not doing it at all, and then doing too much. As my supervisor says, I write like I talk, wanting to say it all – everything about everything – all at the same time (parentheses within parentheses) interrupting the flow in the process.

I find documenting walking through writing (as in this blog) is incredibly counterintuitive. While I know that writing and walking are both forms of thinking (writing is the best form of thinking, my supervisor tells me; walking is the best form of thinking argues Robert Macfarlane; walking and writing are compatible forms, with walking providing a reflective space to contemplate one’s writing, balances Tony Williams) to me they are mutually exclusive. Perhaps this is because they both take my energy in different ways.

Walking stimulates thought but ultimately brings me to a quiet stillness. It’s a linear, directional, space-eatingly satisfying, multi-sensorial engagement with the world. It gives me energy at the same time as it exhausts me.

Writing is an attempt to tether and order that thought, but it agitates me in the process. It’s a non-linear chaos of words in my head emerging through the dam of my fingers, the sluice gate of the pen or keyboard, as a tamed stream of communication. It makes me restless at the same time as it saps my energy.

They tire me in different ways but equally, so I can only do one or the other. I don’t have the energy for both.

It’s an imaginative leap over the stream of poetic license, but as I’m always going on about dichotomy and disconnectedness as lying at the root of our inability to do more about impending climate doom, I wonder if maybe this writing/walking conundrum is representative of those fundamental dichotomies. And that they are more deeply scored in all of us and harder to reconcile than we think.

Vegan roadkill

Vegan roadkill at White House Farm

A walk through Dymock to Brooms Green, home of Charles Martell cheeses. I’ve been intrigued by this cheese-makers-cum-distillery ever since I’d heard my friend Hugh (himself of the inspiring artisan cider-producing Dragon Orchard) waxing lyrical about them back in December. I wasn’t eating cheese or dairy then of course due to a suspected allergy, but this time around and in the absence of allergy, their delicious nettle-wrapped May Hill Green has been very sustaining on long walks. I set off late today with a belly full of it. I haven’t called ahead to arrange a meeting, optimistically hoping to bump into someone when I arrive. Or simply for the walk to guide me into an encounter with someone else.

I don’t and it doesn’t. In fact, I barely see anyone closer than waving distance: two farmers mending a trailer and a lone dog walker. So much for talking activism today.

I pass through a sinister concrete bridge under the M50 that looks like it should house a 1960s concrete troll and join up with the Daffodil Way, round the edge of Dymock Forest. I pass an equally sinister looking mansion which instantly makes me think, with a goosebump frisson, of  Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger. For miles it seems to be watching me with coolly blank eyes, and I wonder why we anthropomorphise houses when really, they are just hemmings-in of space for us to shelter in.

In Dymock I find myself following the Poets’ Paths to Brooms Green. It’s not intentional. In fact, there’s something vaguely embarrassing about it. Perhaps this is because I’m always achingly conscious that walking seems to have a tendency to turn everyone into a navel-gazing poet or philosopher of varying degrees of awfulness, something I’ve been anxious to avoid through informing my walking practice with my environmentalism and other political concerns, of varying degrees of gentleness. By this, I mean that I’m permanently hyperconscious that, for all that I was at pains to put activism in tracktivism, I know there’s still nothing overtly, tub-thumpingly political about it. And inevitably, in the luxurious engagement with natural world that rural walking offers, the political is not present for me in every step. I am not a pilgrim. I can allow my mind and senses to wander.

What I remain conscious of, however, is that this is no rural idyll. These farmed landscapes are constantly changing and responding to the challenges of economy and climate. Less obvious, dramatic and dizzying than the melting ice-sheets to be sure, but still more fragile than we think. As our oil dependency continues and rural infrastructure falters, maybe we should all be walking these paths and writing bad poetry while we still have the chance? In less time than has passed since Edward Thomas, Robert Frost et al. were walking here, who knows what these landscapes will look like as a consequence not only of changing weather patterns and climate but also resource depletion and population explosion.

On the way home, I’m really hungry. I only brought a small sorrel and beetroot salad with me (no cheese or oatcakes), it’s 7 pm and I’ve walked about 17 miles, 5 more to go. Then I see on the side of the road a whole broad bean plant that’s been pulled up and dropped (by a creature? off a trailer? I’m not sure). Some of the pods are broken, but some are intact and I liberate the beans. Vegan roadkill, I think. At a green activists’ event earlier in the year, I’d been speaking on a forum about local food, revealing my epiphany that I’d suppressed my ethical concerns over killing animals to eat in favour my environmentalist understanding that pasture-fed (and finished) meat was a more carbon-neutral form of local protein (and very likely also a healthier one, than grain-fed meats). A vegan member of the audience had disagreed: with enough planning, she said, we were more than capable of growing enough beans to make enough protein to feed ourselves locally and ethically. The beans dont give me much oomph, but in my ongoing unease with eating meat and dairy, I wonder if she’s right.

My how you've grown, maize Maize at Warren Farm Dexter cow Ford at Brockmoor Farm Ford at Brockmoor Lane Hay Wood Stop the cull M50 footpath tunnel Lake at Timber Hall Farm Boyce Court Slow sign, Dymock Slow signs, Dymock Dymock Poets Path II Dead rat Dymock poets path again Charles Martell cheese Pears at Hunt Court Lintridge Green Put the money in the pipe Morris Men Beauchamp Arms, Dymock Lake at Boyce Court

Mumpet nostalgia

Beetroot patch kid

Some of you (if anyone’s reading this) may remember the infamous mumpets, the improvised fat-less, sugar-less stove-top beetroot cake of the last performance. I have since made and taken a batch of mumpets to every talk I’ve done about All in a Day’s Walk around the county and country: Putley, Manchester, Ledbury, Staunton-on-Arrow. While the usual comment is that they match the colour of my hair, the response to mumpets has been mixed…

At the Manchester activism event, someone thought I was subversively handing out raw liver.

My supervisor said they could do with some sugar.

A brave visitor in the spring requested to try some and politely, euphemistically described the experience as ‘like eating a garden’.

At Ledbury Ox Roast someone came up to me afterwards and said that, despite really not liking beetroot, they were very tasty. Others have been less enamoured. But I – locked in with my hunger as I was in winter – have a kind of Stockholm syndrome style relationship with them: to me, they are and always will be utterly delicious.

So, imagine my delight that our first crop of beetroot is harvested and ready. May the mumpets commence (when I can get my hands on some local flour again…)

'It's hard to tell which is which...' Hm, Jess or beetroot?

Meanwhile, with the garden so productive, it’s only a domestic dog walk and some oat-based baking today.

Oats (on cheating and eating)

Oat cakes 1 Oatcakes 2

Reader [if there are indeed any out there], I’ve cheated.

I’ve flagrantly, badly, hungrily, unwisely cheated. I have, (only in deeply hungry moments), eaten food that I shouldn’t. That was grown outside of Herefordshire, and quite possibly the UK. Mostly it was as local as I could make it, but sometimes, in the spur of the moment, it wasn’t.

I am sorry.

The clues were all there when I was talking about how challenging it was living with the food and gentle concern of others. I’ve made an important realisation that maintaining and defending a serious, quasi-political performance practice in a domestic setting with others requires a difficult balance between light heartnedness and commitment. I seem to have failed on both counts over the past few weeks. I think to myself, I bet Tehching Hsieh never had this problem.

By way of excuse and explanation, I’ve been getting ridiculous, bent-double, Ministry of Silly Walks stomach cramps (in fact, for about 3 miles solid along the Stank between Hampton Bishop and Mordiford the other day). Seemingly my metabolism is not cut out for surviving without some form of starchy carbohydrate. The last performance, being vegetarian and dairy allergic (I thought), I staved off total starvation by allowing myself flour locally milled from a local wheat grower (even though they’d run out of their own and were actually milling grain from Doves Farm in Hungerford, as I explained at the time). This time, thinking that eating both meat and dairy would give me more than enough variety and calories to survive on, I haven’t allowed myself flour. So, no sourdough, no mumpets and really, no complex carbohydrates. A recipe for disaster.

The last, winter performance was all about the eating, even if I felt too weak to walk that far. And my weight fell under 7 stone. This summer repeat has been (excuse frivolous language) all about the cheating. It’s been more walking, less starving and less tolerance of voracious hunger in the process. My body doesn’t want to return to that extreme of leanness, clearly.

I could console myself that any accomplished improviser ultimately plays with subverting the score. And as friends Rob and Sally said ‘if we weren’t meant to cheat, we wouldn’t have a word for cheating’. But it’s how you cheat that matters. So, drilling down to the essence of activism in tracktivism as being about consumer choice as a gesture of protest, then I allow myself one clear consumer choice to prevent any future frivolous cheating: o a t s.

Pimhill organic oats are the only traceable complex carbohydrate that I know that is grown and processed in (and I seriously hope) distributed from a single place in neighbouring county (Shropshire) and sold in local shops. Oats are incredibly versatile and once I’ve given myself permission to use them, I make porridge, oat cakes (local butter) and flapjacks (local butter, local honey) and, my partner’s idea (I’m such a bad meat-eater; it doesn’t occur to me to cook it) beef-oat-herb burgers with the Hope’s Ash mince.

Instant carbohydrate. Instant ability to walk in an upright position.

What remains mad and bad – and that all this confessional waffle about ‘cheating’ is ultimately hiding – is that I’m walking through acres and acres and acres of wheat, oats, barley, maize. The wheat and oats are nearly ready to harvest, so where do they go? And why can’t I buy or eat them? Is it really more economic sense to ship them elsewhere? And if food processing contributes to the embedded carbon footprint of foods and means that a focus on food miles alone ‘is missing the point‘, how do we reconcile all this into a food system that makes social, environmental and economic sense?

Maybe that – our skewed rural infrastructure – is where the cheating’s really at.

What I think about when I walk about talking

Capler Camp trigpoint

A walk back from Caplor to Lea. It’s a rite of passage: having lived at Caplor for a decade but moving to Lea, I’m leaving home and walking home at the same time. It’s a walk I first did back in early January, and repeated a week or so later in thick snow. Now I’m carrying strawberries and wearing shorts and sunglasses.

I’m carrying the strawberries (from Holme Lacy, purchased at the Caplor Farm Shop) because I can’t fit the punnet in my rucksack. It’s annoying, carrying them in my hand, so I’m attempting to eat them, but I don’t feel that hungry. What a conundrum: to carry in my hand or my stomach? It reminds me of something our fitness trainer once told us in dance training, that our stomachs are as big as our two hands cupped together, and that this is the amount we should eat in any one meal. Suddenly that makes even more sense: surely as naked, unpocketed, unrucksacked hunter-gatherers, we would only have been able to eat as much as we could carry in our cupped hands?

Yesterday, I bumped into friends in the Rocket Cafe in Hereford. I explain the project to them and they ask ‘what do you think about then, when you’re walking?’. They want to know if I remain constantly conscious about what I’m doing – the wider, activist ethos of the performance – or if my mind wanders onto other things. It makes me smile because only yesterday morning I was furiously composing an email rant in my head.

The relationship between walking and thinking, walking and writing, running and thinking has been so often discussed – and far more articulately and sophisticatedly than I can hope to – that I’ll leave it to the experts. But, while in my own practice I like to think I’d be able to keep the intention of the walk and the overarching performance running through my head, inevitably the rest of life intrudes. (To empty my head, I speak phenomenally long to-do lists into my phone and that seems to help.) That said, I’m so often passing through fields of food crops, there are constant visual, aural (rustling wheat and barley, tractors droning in the distance, cows snuffing and huffing as I pass), tactile (maize leaves whipping my face) reminders of what I’m doing which serve to tether my attention to food and farming.

Poppies in the oilseed rape Raspberries at the Falcon 1 Raspberry scrumping Leaf A trout? Caple Forge Cobrey land as far as How Caple Purple crop? Clouds over Lea Harvested and ploughed since I passed yesterday

Hereford

River Wye

A walk to Hereford, for a meeting at All Saints Cafe about an installation and walking performance for h.Energy this autumn. (I’m going to be walking in circles around Hereford city, carrying water with an antique milkmaid’s yoke, but that’s another story.)

It’s a long way, and I’m walking halfway back again too before this evening, so I give myself permission to ‘just walk’. I need to get there on time, in time for our meeting at 2. I set off at 7.30 and arrive at exactly 1.30, I seem to be better at timing my arrival when walking even across unfamiliar terrain than I ever am when travelling by other means. Maybe that’s because, on foot, my soul is travelling at the same speed as my body.

I’m bothered by a steady stream of commuter traffic on the road up to Crow Hill, but once I cut across Eaton Park wood and drop down to the Wye Valley Walk, it’s idyllic and tranquil and I’m suddenly the disruptive force: my feet send up butterflies and damselflies from the long grass with every step.

I arrive into the bustle of the city to find it’s the weekly farmers’ market. I speak to Dave who, I read somewhere, refers to himself as ‘the man with the hat’. He tells me that market has been going about 13 years, waxing and waning and waxing in size over that time. I ask if people – customers – ask where the produce or plants come from and he tells me that they often do, and are pleased when they hear that they are his own plants. Because then he can answer questions about them.  There are lots of what he calls ‘secondary producers’ here – people selling pies, cakes, preserves or other delights which are made locally and with mainly local ingredients but necessarily combined with others sourced from further afield (like sugar or spices for preserves and confectionary of course). All these are outside my current rules so I can’t buy anything today. But I see that the vegetable stall is from Kidderminster in Worcestershire: he says they set a radius of 40 miles ‘which is quite far’ (I agree, outside my daily walking distance) but that they get enquiries (which they turn down) from sellers as far afield as London wanting to attend. It strikes me that this – the London enquiries – is ‘local’ retail gone mad. It reminds me of a criticism I’ve heard in the past, that many farmer’s markets (but not this one, which is excellent) are far from that; selling over-priced artisan produce and crafts aimed at a monied middle-class market, pricing genuinely local food out of most people’s range. It strikes me that it’s doing more damage than good to people’s faith in the concept of local food, and working in supermarkets’ favour.

Which is a massive shame, because where else than a genuine farmers’ market can the farmers, growers and makers connect directly with their customers and their customers with them? And have important conversations, literally over the produce itself, that allow them to explain the real cost of producing food: prices that reflect a difficult winter, a late spring, more expensive grain, a poor harvest, or the time, effort, love they invest in making it… Then we understand that when we buy food others have grown, we are paying for more than taste and calories: we’re rewarding the growers appropriately for genuine craft, commitment and consciousness.

Combine at Warren Farm M50 at Crow Hill Peas at Gayton Farm Wheat and poppies at Gayton Farm Eaton Park Wood Eaton Park River Wye at Hole-in-the-Wall River Wye, Ingestone River Wye, Ingestone 2 Wye Valley Walk bridge Brockhampton sign Capler Camp Wye viewpoint Brockhampton bench Brockhampton bench 2 Fownhope rec ground: 'for the enjoyment of all' Fownhope pond Fownhope footpath Old Mill, Nupend Lugg at Mordiford Bridge Cow on Lugg Meadows Maize at Hampton Bishop Stank at Hampton Bishop Damselflies Outfall into Wye at Rotherwas/Hampton Bishop Hereford Bull Hereford Farmers' Market

Slow activism gone viral?

Cobrey berries

A day at home walking dogs, feeding the horse.

A daily commitment to the animals is easy to incorporate into a life practice. A domestic commitment to and existence with other humans is more difficult to interface with a performance practice, I am discovering. When I first performed this score, I was living alone. I was encountering – socially and otherwise – lots of other people. But the duration and nature of our encounters provided a frame – an imaginary minimalist conceptual proscenium arch – through which I could perform and they could observe. There was a great deal of curiosity, interest, sometimes concern, and sometimes antagonism about what I was doing. But once I was alone, I was alone with the score and I adhered to it rigidly. I had a commitment to the practice.

I didn’t even eat salt.

Now I am living with others – my partner, his son – and the frame has shifted and there are reluctant co-performers inside it. While I know there is a fundamental respect for what I do and am doing, there is also a concern for my well-being and a healthy, affectionate amusement with the whole concept of conceptual eco-art. They want to support me at the same time as they want to subvert the score, which is ultimately compromising me. And my hunger doesn’t take much persuading.

So I’m finding it hard to adhere to rules #2 and 4 of the score when I’m surrounded by the concern as well as the food of others. I’m also an inherently polite activist: I don’t want to be rude or ungrateful. The other day, Callum walked the 5 miles back from Ross-on-Wye with a bag of food from a specialist local-food delicatessen Truffles. Concerned that I was ‘walking everywhere eating nothing’ and with some time to spare, he’d been in, explained what I was doing and bought as much local produce they could determine was grown within walking distance: strawberries, blueberries, raspberries from Cobrey Farm, cheese and spinach pie with ingredients from Newent and they’d even thrown in a small quiche in sympathy with the apparent craziness of what I was doing. He’d got them to write down where everything came from ‘so you’d believe me’ and then he’d walked home from Ross, ‘so it wouldn’t compromise the rules’. It was really touching. So, there was no way I was going to point out that the pastry of the spinach pie was made from flour that undoubtedly was milled if not grown outside the county. I ate it and it was delicious.

It also made me think, on a carbohydrate high, that maybe it’s these conversations that people are having about what I’m doing – even if that’s expressing consternation about craziness – that are what the practice is about. If the score is intended to provoke thought and conversation, then it doesn’t matter who’s having those conversations or why, does it? In fact, it’s even stealthier than I thought : slow food-slow activism gone viral (in a rural kinda way)…

Truffles goody bag