All in a Day's Walk

A month-long slow food walking performance

Archive for Food

Activism in tracktivism 2

Walk don't drive

Once upon a time, I walked around the Welsh countryside and talked to people about landscape, life choices and climate change. It was an activism-by-stealth because it was a sharing of political ideas (mine and other peoples) in unexpected places (rural landscape) via the conviviality of conversation, sometimes recorded sometimes not. Then I renamed and reframed this tracktivism, an overtly activist practice, and immediately the doubt set in, as I pondered in Activism in Tracktivism? last week.

As I said then, thinking of what I do and re-imagining contemporary activism through ‘gestures’ has been really helpful to me. But what I hadn’t considered, in the context of All in a Day’s Walk specifically, was how this performance could be considered a protest gesture in and of itself through exercising and publicising my right to exist and subsist outside of our broken down rural food infrastructure and the dominance of and dependence on supermarkets, or indeed  motorised transport which is the usual refrain from people living rurally. For this I must extend a huge thank you to Laurence Malt for this Mask – Part 2 blog yesterday. I agree that it’s not a sustainable gesture – and the idea of sustainable activism that creates sustained not temporary change is an important one to me – but I’m empowered by the thought that it’s subversive in its own, domestic, pedestrian way.

Duck eggs and sunset

Ash and Cai in the Warren Farm wheat

walk in the evening cool and the setting sun with the dogs to Aston Crews to get duck eggs, passing fields of wheat and maize and wild strawberries in the hedge. It’s all excitement here.

Warren Farm wheat Sunset over Warren Farm maize Maize at Warren Farm Duck eggs from Aston Crews

Fasting, foraging and food theft

Beans

An incredibly hot day and a walk up May Hill with Rachel and the dogs. (By the evening, the garden thermometer has recorded a maximum of 39 degrees Celsius. In the vicinity of the shed, that is.) On the way out of Lea, the first fields of the footpath are full of dwarf beans. Hungry for something more stodgy and sustaining that salad, I feel like taking some but don’t want to steal. It makes me wonder, as I haven’t before, if food theft is a problem in the UK. Do people steal food straight from the field? As a child I remember occasionally scrumping apples or damsons from branches overhanging a hedgerow onto a footpath or road. But, always having had enough money to buy food of one kind or another, this was for pleasure or naughtiness, not necessity. It’s never occurred to me that some people might be so desperate, even here and now, to feed themselves or their families that they have to go out and forage or steal.

Talking of foraging, back on the first day of the project, I was ‘virtually introduced’ (via email from mutual acquaintance Roz Brown of the Mid-Wales Permaculture Network) to JoSh Rogers who, very coincidentally, is spending July only eating foraged or otherwise found food and spending no more than £1 a day on his everyday life. (This is part of an ongoing series of month-long projects, life challenges and experiments, as recorded in his excellent and very honest vlogs.) This is far, far more hardcore than this ‘performance’ of mine (it makes me feel pretentious even using the word), especially when he’s doing it on top of his everyday (physical) work as a gardener and commuting to work.

And, while we’re on the hardcore fasting front, it also occurred to me earlier in the week, that it’s very coincidentally Ramadan. (I seem to have a knack of accidentally coordinating my projects with key events in the religious calendar.) Then, reading about religious fasting, I was alerted to the Guantanamo Bay hunger-strikers and led me to this very disturbing, important protest video made by the charity Reprieve. In it, US actor and rapper Yasiin Bey volunteers to be filmed undergoing the same force-feeding technique that is being used on the hunger strikers. It is intensely humbling and my nausea (and shame that I couldn’t even watch it all the way through) makes me dismiss my grumbling middle-class stomach immediately.

Against all this my ‘polite’ activist art (and dog-walking) in idyllic rural Herefordshire is pretty pathetic.

Respect y’all.

Consciousness and courgettes

Bath Vale harvest

My friends Rach and Dom come to visit from Congleton. I prepare a local lunch: a salad of leaves and beans from Crooked End, herbs from our garden. But it seems a bit insubtantial so I add chickpeas for them, and make a balsamic dressing that I don’t add to mine (though the honey is the stuff I collected from the Forest of Dean).

We eat up in the garden next to the herb spiral. Rach and Dom, experienced and conscientious growers with a productive garden (the photos are theirs) verging on smallholding, give me advice on our newly established vegetables. Then, unprompted (and sadly unrecorded) Dom gives an impassioned speech about growing food as the ‘ultimate form of responsibility…of consciousness’: the tending of plants to yield a crop that sustains us, gives us life, as a fundamental connection that underscores our relationship with the natural world: ‘if you don’t do it right, you don’t eat’. We’ve relinquished this responsibility increasingly throughout history but more so in recent decades well beyond the tipping point at which it makes sense (functional differentiation), passing it on to (often) large-scale producers and supermarkets and so distancing ourselves from food and the environment in very fundamental ways. A bit like Rob’s speech about the ‘spiritual’ practice of cooking that I recorded in the first All in a Day’s Walk, it’s both profound and profoundly obvious, when you think about it. (Though I sense from the proliferation of food-growing programmes and documentaries, and the many vegetables gardens I’m passing as I walk, that the pendulum is swinging back. A symptom of austerity culture perhaps?)

Later in the evening, after walking the dogs in the comparative cool, Rachel and I transplant the gifts she’s brought from their garden: a yellow courgette plant, two tomatoes and some herbs for the spiral.

Bath Vale harvest 2

Crooked End

Crooked End, Ruardean Deer in the Forest

A walk south to Ruardean where I’ve been told about Crooked End Organics. I still have the dogs and no-one to puppy-sit for me, but I’m pretty desperate to get hold of something more sustaining than strawberries. I also have friends visiting tomorrow and would like to offer them some decent, local sustenance. My guests don’t have to adhere to my ‘regime’, as my visiting friend Rachel is already referring to it (as a down-to-earth daughter of a Lincolnshire farming family, this performance art is decidedly self-indulgent and not to be indulged), but it’s a matter of artistic pride for me to demonstrate that I can respond creatively to the score and serve up some delicious, local ingredients.

Cai is four-and-a-half months old and the counterintuitive rule of thumb for puppy-walking is five minutes for every month, up to, but not more than, twice a day. I self-justify wildly, take this with a pinch of (illegal, non-local) salt and estimate that Ruardean is a seven-ish mile round trip. (It’s more like ten I later discover, oops.) IF we take it slowly, IF it’s just a one-off, IF we have lots of breaks… will this be OK?

It takes us a good two and a half hours to get there: walking with puppies is excessively punctuated with sniffing, pooing, lead-clipping-on/offing, whereabouts-determining, recalling, treating, disciplining and, most challenging of all, stile-negotiating. It’s also about finding a common rhythm, especially when they’re both on the lead and we’re all effectively attached to each other. We’re all a little different and true to stereotype: bristlingly alert husky Ash is a no-nonsense worker who wants to stride ahead and get on with it; ganglingly elegant saluki Cai is a dreamer who wants to drift and loop between scents and sights. I’m inevitably somewhere (in location, physique and personality) in between. (For more on the rhythms and responsibility of dog walking – and its relationship to writing – it is well worth visiting Tony Williams’s excellent blog.)

Today Ash has been ceremonially fitted with her panniers so she can carry the dogs’ water and help me bring some produce back. It might be anthropomorphism, but she always seems pleased with this responsibility, strut-trotting more delightedly and purposefully than usual as soon as they’re on.

We walk up Lea Bailey, into the Forest, along the edge of Harechurch Wood and drop over and down into Ruardean. As I browse for home-grown vegetables (borlotti beans, chard, spinach, cucumber, mange tout and mixed salad complete with nasturtiums), local butter, eggs and yoghurt, Cai lies in the shade under the raspberry bush and Ash stands in the puddle under the water tap, howling plaintively.

On the way back, a few hundred yard from home, we pass the village allotments. I stop to ask someone if any of the allotmenteers sell their excess produce and she begins to tell me about their first six months on the site. They’ve just picked the first broad beans of the year and very kindly give me a handful to take home for my supper recommending the young pods to be cooked whole and eaten with butter. Delicious…

On the way to Crooked End Crooked End 4 Crooked End 3 Hounds at Crooked End 1 Hounds at Crooked End 2 Crooked End 2 Crooked End 5 Be a responsible dog owner Lea Bailey honey Broad beans for supper

Activism in tracktivism?

Today it’s the Activist Blogging Event at MadLab in Manchester. I can’t be there (it’s not quite within walking distance of Lea) so I plan to email a video response to be shared there, using some of my audio and video footage from yesterday’s walk.

The event is part of the Activist Performance: Gestural Notes series (curated by Jenny Hughes and Simon Parry at the University of Manchester) which is considering protest and activism in terms of ‘gestures’. The initial provocation to frame our practice in this way came from Simon and Jenny came via Giorgio Agamben’s ‘Notes on Gesture’ (2000) ‘which explores an idea of gesture as ‘pure means’ – refusing the separation of action into means and ends, as categorised for this or that proper use. We have also discussed and thought about gestures as a series of verbs: camp, occupy, march, strike, swarm, dance, disguise, impersonate, play, stage, chant, network, blog, hack, tweet etc. You are welcome to follow this principle or challenge it as you see fit. As Simon goes on to explain in the blog:

“Gestures of protest in recent times – camping, occupying, marching, striking, moving in cells (to avoid kettling for example), swarming, dancing, going in disguise, impersonating, playing, staging, chanting, networking, blogging, hacking, tweeting – carry traces of former activist modes, and extend the domains of activism from the public life of the street and the theatre stage, to the private domain of the mobile phone and laptop.This blog explores both the historical traces and contemporary practice.”

This is helpful to me, riddled as I am with activist guilt (another one for yesterday’s list). Having set up my practice as an explicitly activist one, I’m constantly questioning how exactly (on Earth) I suppose that might be. But thinking of one’s activism in terms of the gesture that might be at its core does provide a useful frame within which to bring the elusive activism into sharper focus. When talking at the first activist performance seminar at Manchester back in February, I used the first performance of All in a Day’s Walk to define tracktivism via three related gestures: eat, fast, walk.

Now this performance is feeling so different already, I’m not sure if those verbs are truly where the activism lies after all. So, in the film that follows, I’m thinking out loud (rather slowly) about exactly what the principal ‘gesture’ of my practice might be, troubled again by the inadequacy of what I’m doing to achieve anything (and by the frozen beef in my rucksack). I conclude, for the time being at least, that maybe the activist essence of my practice is talking…

Meanwhile, puppy-bound again, I walk the dogs in the evening, and pick up sticks for the storm kettle from the woods.

 

Guilt and food miles

Walking through wheat

Guilt seems to be such a fundamental part of being human, that we are constantly needing to categorise it: Catholic guilt, Jewish guilt, Non-conformist guilt (my mother’s), survivors’ guilt, climate guilt and now, for me, (lapsed) vegetarian guilt. I experience plenty of the latter today.

As a former vegan (yes, I’ve worn that badge at the same time as self-reflexively laughing at the brilliant joke: ‘How do you know if someone’s a vegan?’ ‘Don’t worry: they’ll tell you’), I’m aware that lacto-vegetarianism is itself a half-way house in the compassionate farming stakes: even a very conscious and conscientious organic dairy farmer I know has admitted to me that the necessary removal of young calves from their mothers so we can drink the milk that is meant for them is ‘the guilty secret of the dairy industry’. So, I was already battling with some uncomfortable truths in being vegetarian. When I was diagnosed with a serious and potentially debilitating auto-immune arthritic condition 6 years ago and  told it was highly recommended I eat fish, I did so, and felt both better and deeply hypocritical. When I completed the last performance of All in a Day’s Walk and heard about the carbon sequestration benefits of local, pasture-fed meat and how this offset methane emissions and provided a source of (local) protein that was not reliant on soya flown in from the other side of the world (and was an important part of maintaining diverse mixed pastoral/arable landscapes), I was forced to weigh up my environmentalism against my vegetarianism. The former won (it had always confused me that even some of the most ardent and eminent environmentalists I know are meat eaters) and I became a slightly reluctant flexitarian. (That is, occasionally eating only local, ethical, usually organic, free-range, pasture-fed meat.) I have also since read Jonathan Safran Foer’s pro-vegetarian treatise Eating Animals – perhaps a strangely counter-intuitive, retrograde choice of book after 22 years of vegetarianism – and, more recently Jay Rayner’s article about a a day in the slaughterhouse. So I remain deeply, deeply uncomfortable by the thought of being part of the meat industry and the killing chain, even in the most (oxymoronically?) ‘humane’ of abattoirs.

However, I am also hungry and in search of local food.

Today my partner’s son is dog-sitting for me, so I plan to do a decent walk to the nearest market town Ross-on-Wye as a reasonable starting point to encounter local growers and sellers. I am following the first part of a route I last walked during the winter performance to interview woodsman Dan at Deep Dean woods (the source of my winter fuel), now crunching and sliding through drying hay (as slippery as winter mud, I’m discovering).

Emerging from the woods below the poetically- (and, for me, autobiographically-) named Dancing Green, I encounter a group of workmen clearing a culvert and in conversation with someone who, from the back, I see is wearing an Open Farm Sunday T-shirt (a good sign, I now realise)… A little nervously – this will be my first true ‘tracktivist’ encounter with strangers to engage in conversation this performance – I stop and ask them if they know of any places selling local food, vegetables, eggs or honey and explain I am new to the area and what I am doing. As usual (because synchronicity is so surprising as to be unsurprising), it turns out this – food miles, local food – is a subject at the very heart of (who I later discover to be) Robert’s beef and dairy farming ethos, and one which he’s been explaining to a group of primary school children just that morning. Not only that but he tells me of a place just back through the woods selling eggs and honey. Success. And if I make a quick detour to get some (sadly they’re no longer selling either but I am kindly given one of the last remaining jars and shown around the magnificent vegetable garden) then head up to his farm on the hill above us, he will talk me through the food miles of the cattle fodder in his grain store. Here is the audio tour of our conversation which ranged from soya to fuel via sugar beet and weather:

Afterwards, and unable to carry a whole Hope’s Ash beef box home, I buy some frozen steak and mince from Rachel in the farmhouse and walk home as fast as possible before it defrosts in my rucksack in the afternoon heat. But as I go, I’m pondering again: I want to support these passionate, articulate local farmers but I’m carrying meat that has been finished with imported soya. If my only reason for eating (pasture-fed) meat is an ecological one, then I’m contradicting myself and might as well eat the imported soya myself (I was tempted, in the grain store). Then again, I think of the eggs that sustained me throughout the last performance and realise (as I hadn’t before) that most free-range hens are fed grain and layers pellets from well outside the county. And so the layers (no chicken pun) of our globalised local food infrastructure peel back and back. All these hidden food miles marching away from me as far as the eye can see – a lifetime’s walking in every mouthful… Food for thought and fodder for guilt.

Stacked bales Freshly cut hay at Lea Garden at Hope Mansel/Bailey Lane End Hope's Ash Soya and sugar beet IMG_5192 Hope's Ash wheat Hay at Pontshill Dancing Green Butterfly at Pontshill Orchard at Pontshill Wheat and heat

Storm in an egg cup

Storm kettle eggs

Hungry, I visit the village shop for an urgent breakfast. I can buy local eggs (Ross), onion, carrots, beetroot (Over/Gloucester) strawberries and raspberries (Newent and Weston-under-Penyard). Phew. I still want to aim to buy direct from the growers themselves, however. And I still have to walk to wherever the produce came from, so I already have a developing list of places to visit. I just need enough energy to make the journey. And, importantly, to talk to people. (In the winter, my hunger was isolating: sometimes I felt too locked in with it to initiate much conversation with strangers.)

Frustrated, I boil the eggs on my storm kettle. We have never got on, me and this kettle. It boils water OK, but I can’t seem to feed it enough to cook on (The YouTube videos of people calmly making ‘proper’ dishes totally baffle me). I miss my trusty woodburner. We could do anything, me and that Clear View.

Hot, I walk the dogs through the wheat to the cool of Lea Line woods and back through whispering barley (I try to stop Cai jumping in and out of the crop: I’m suddenly painfully aware of waste and damage. That wheat could be my supper…) and the village allotments (no-one around this evening). I pick elderflowers on the way back, and combine it with mint from the garden to make tea.

Puppy-minding, I will be limited in the distance I can walk for food over the next week because my partner has had to go away and the dogs can’t be left alone too long in the cottage either. Cai’s puppyish personal horizon had become mine: my own edges defined by his (or the ones we have to impose to care for developing joints: otherwise he would bound for miles even at four months old.)

Elderflower and mint tea Storm kettle 1 Dogs in the wheat

Empathy and wild strawberries

Wild strawberries Cai licking his chops Cai unimpressed

Mads, a good friend and wonderful walking artist I know, recently introduced me to his concept of  landscape  e m p a t h y:  the sensitive, receptive, mutually-supportive relationship we can allow ourselves to cultivate with place as well as people. I love this: it resonates perfectly for me as a much-needed explanation of the way in which the landscapes to which I’ve developed a commitment make a tangible tug on my heart strings, as if I’ve woven myself into them, viscerally. When I first left Aberystwyth for Herefordshire 10 years ago last spring, I felt like I was being unfaithful to Wales by developing a new relationship or love for the (as I saw it then) much tamer and more inhabited landscapes of this ancient border county. I’m ashamed to say I even scoffed at the statistic (true) that Herefordshire is the most rural county in England. To me rurality was directly equivalent to emptiness.

My first job here was a two and a half year stint as a project officer on the Herefordshire Rivers Lifescapes project, attempting to connect wildlife habitat mapping at a landscape scale, with community aspirations for the biodiversity enhancements they wanted to see locally, with the ultimate intention to facilitate community-led landscape-scale conservation. (It was very new, sexy and ambitious and only partially successful: it inevitably needed much more time.) After a full time dance-training hiatus, this was followed by a six year sojourn in local government as a landscape officer, with a colleague both passionate and knowledgeable about these intricate landscapes: ancient and planned, wild and cultivated. Her enthusiasm was infectious and slowly wore away at my deeply ingrained landscape snobbery (and ignorance) as did running, walking, riding and cycling across the county. One day, I was travelling back from a (landscape) conference and seeing the road sign for Hereford, felt a strange pang of both yearning and relief. Then, I knew: this county had surreptitiously made itself my home. Now, I know: (in my appropriation or interpretation of Mads’s term) I have landscape empathy with Herefordshire.

Key to this was my particular relationship with the eccentric, remarkable place that is Caplor Farm in Fownhope (South Herefordshire) where I have lived with my horse Merlin for nearly nine years. It’s a surreal community of people, horses and creatures, randomly juxtaposed in a range of dwellings (yurts, trucks, flats, caravans) to form a bizarre post-modern collage of humanimals. While it had been my intention to leave this year, to move back to Wales and reconnect my empathy strings for those landscapes, I had not expected that the first performance of All in a Day’s Walk would deepen my relationship – my empathy – with this place and reveal to me, as if in neon (or something more ecological perhaps), a vibrant, vital web of passionate and inspiring people I wanted to know better. I also had not expected to fall in love with one of them, nine miles down the road.

So I did leave. Just nine miles down the road, where I find myself now.

I’m a bit in limbo: after three weeks away being an aerial dancing ladybird in north Herefordshire, I’m only just landing. I arrive with a bag of sweaty dance clothes and even sweatier PhD reading, and most of my stuff is still at Caplor awaiting the end of this performance in a month’s time when my yurt will go up in the garden here. Merlin is going to join me next week. I know almost nothing about this area (Lea, Ross-on-Wye). But this time, I do have someone else’s ready-made landscape empathy to rely on.

So, my first walk of the project is with The Pack – my partner and our dogs – up the lane, past Rock Farm (potatoes and raspberries, when they’re ready) to Adam’s Cot (organic or local veg boxes) to arrange livery for Merlin. There, Martin tells me that due to the unseasonal spring, the veg is almost three weeks behind this year and they won’t have anything for me ’til the end of the month. Gulp. But horse livery sorted, we walk on past raspberry polytunnels (won’t fruit ’til next year), down Green Lane to Warren Farm (wheat and potatoes: not ready yet). With Cai, I walk on alone to Aston Crews in search of duck eggs. So far I’ve only drunk some Dragon Orchards apple juice (a gift for a talk at the Ledbury Food Group Ox Roast event) and eaten a head of elderflower (‘are you sure it’s not cow parsley?’ my partner, remembering a blog about a foraging malapropism on Ten Mile Menu that’s been a great source of amusement recently). We find some tiny wild strawberries in the hedge and I graze. Cai is curious but, as a  hunter is largely unimpressed by my gathering. No duck or hens eggs left at Aston Crews. I’m hungry. And a bit scared.

So here I am walk-fasting again…

All in a Day’s Walk (Again)

All in a Day’s Walk is a month-long tracktivist walking performance. It was first performed in the winter, from 6th December 2012 to 6th January 2013. It is now being repeated in the summer, from midnight on 6th July to midnight on 6th August. During this time, I will live entirely within the distance I am able to walk away from home in a day, sustaining myself only on the food that is grown, harvested, processed and obtainable within this distance. I will walk as far and as frequently as I can, measuring out by foot the new limits of my new month’s (and new home’s) existence-subsistence-persistence. I will travel only on foot, accepting no lifts and using no public transport. I will not accept hospitality or food from hosts or visitors that does not meet these criteria. I will try to follow all the rules even if I can’t answer all the questions. And I will be curious about seasonal difference.

Tracktivism is about talking and listening, and I hope my walks will facilitate plenty of that: conversational encounters with the people I meet, either randomly on my route or pre-arranged at a specific destination… walkers, farmers, growers, millers, bakers, apiarists, artisan cider-producers, foresters, road-workers, yurt-makers, hauliers, butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers. We might talk about the weather. We might talk about talking. We might talk about walking. But we will most probably talk about  f o o d , where it comes from, and why it matters…

It’s slow food meets slow activism meets slow performance. So, please take some time to meander through these pages if you wish, and leave some slow comments…

Jess Allen 06/07/13
Lea, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, HR9 7JZ