All in a Day's Walk

A month-long slow food walking performance

Archive for Talk

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.

Carless and carefree

Old Lane, Gorsley

After walking the dogs, I leave them in the house with Callum and walk along the many, meandering lanes through Gorsley and over the old Hereford and Gloucester canal at Oxenhall  to Brown and Green, an award-winning farm and local food shop at 3 Shires Garden Centre that my internet searching has turned up. (Word of mouth is slower to work; though writing this retrospectively, it would have come onto my radar soon enough from the number of people who seem to be aware of it.)

I am, unsurprisingly, hungry this morning, but to the worrying extent that I am hyperaware of all signs of food, including that which has already passed through other creatures: I find myself photographing cherry stones and wheat husks in poo – the latter badger, the former I’m not so sure. An unripe crab apple, fallen onto the road and squashed makes me feel momentarily mournful.

I’m also thinking more and more about foraging. Having read both Food for Free (Richard Mabey, of course) and Wild Food (Roger Phillips) years ago, I’ve long been obsessed with scanning hedgerows whilst riding and running, particularly in the spring when the first succuluent greens start coming through. I have been making all the obvious things for years: nettle soup and tea, Jack-by-the-hedge salad, elderflower fritters and cordial, blackberry crumble and sloe gin and giant puffball steaks. But otherwise, my interest in foraging has been more of an academic one: feeding my brain rather than belly. Revisiting those books now, I’m struck by how many of the recipes require significant amounts of additional produce – potatoes, butter, milk, eggs, flour, meat and fish – to make the foraged leaves into meals substantial enough to be filling. Quite often they’re more about flavouring and interest, and possibly texture, rather than calorific sustenance. (This is an observation that JoSh also wryly makes in his video blog, after a very difficult week of trying to survive purely on foraged (‘bitter’) leaves. I write an email in response to his blog, offering sympathy and agree ‘Like you say, foraging for sustenance came before we had full-time jobs – foraging WAS a full-time job, together with resting to preserve energy! ). Nevertheless, today I find myself drawn – by its scent, very sweet and almondy in the hot sun – to meadowsweet. I’ve just been reading about its use as a flavouring and sweetener, in tea, puddings and custard. There is something about its frothy heads of flower that is redolent of the richness of cream. A kind of synaesthetic olfactory-visual onomatopoeia.

After a quick duck under the shade of Cold Harbour Bridge on the disused Hereford and Gloucester canal at Oxenhall (sections of which are currently under restoration), I plod on to the main road and pass a series of sprawling garden centres (including Gloucestershire’s most inspirational plant centre apparently: I walk past). I arrive at Brown and Green. It’s like a traditional delicatessen-cum-farm shop, personal and homely and well-stocked but somewhat incongruously set in a massive, department-store style garden centre. I explain to the sales assistant what I am doing and she is instantly friendly and takes time to talk me around all the produce, making recommendations and knowing where every single thing has come from and how it was grown.

 

It’s very impressive and I fill a basket with as much as I think I can carry back: mushrooms, carrots, beans and peas, apple juice, May Hill ale (though I later realise that possibly the hops weren’t grown quite within my walking radius, sigh) and nettle-coated Charles Martell cheese (May Hill Green), made up the road in Dymock with their own Old Gloucester milk. I sit on a bench outside and wolf down the cheese with my salad leaves and broad beans.

On the way back, I fall into step with another walker, who’s joined my route from a different footpath. Slighlty awkwardly, we fall into conversation and she tells me she has lived rurally without a car for over three years. She cycles everywhere and when she can’t she walks, as she explains in the following audio (apologies for the poor audio quality; there was a breeze and I forgot my wind-jammer):

And finally within a few miles of home and passing back through Withymoor Farm, a dairy  at Aston Crews, I stop to ask if they sell any of their products on the farm. They don’t, but we fall into conversation anyway and I find myself being shown around the space-age tardis-like wood-chip water heater that runs two houses and a whole dairy unit. Now an audio documentation geek, naturally I record it:

Cherry poo Orchard near Gorsley Meadowsweet in Gorsley hedgerow Honeysuckle in Gorsley hedgerow Stoney Road, Gorsley Squashed apples Meadowsweet again Butterbur? Butterbur? 2 Three Choirs Way Hot sheep Last year's corn Last year's corn 2 Badger scat in the wheat Hereford and Gloucester canal above Oxenhall Really? La la la... Brown and Green Fresh local berries Between Newent and Gloucester May Hill ale

And then walk the dogs again when I get home…

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

All change

Tonight marks the start of the second, summer performance of All in a Day’s Walk. It was first performed in the incessant rain of a cold, dark and muddy winter, from midnight on 6th December 2012 to midnight on 6th January 2013 (coincidentally Epiphany). Very coincidentally the current performance finishes on the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ. And currently it is, of course, very very coincidentally Ramadan.

It’s a different season and I’m in a different place, so I’m anticipating a new and different set of problems and provocations. I am living in a cottage not a caravan (albeit with a yurt in the garden). I am living with others not alone. I am cooking on a storm kettle not a woodburner. I am, as a result of the last performance, a reluctant and uneasy ‘ethical’ meat-eater (a flexitarian, apparently) and I now seem to tolerate a certain amount of dairy. I’m still an auto-immune arthritic avoiding potatoes. I am now a dog owner (more limiting than it might sound, because a four month old puppy can’t walk very far, or isn’t meant to). I am still a horse owner. I have spent the last three and very intense weeks being an aerial dancer.

I’m a bit tired, to be honest.

And I’m not sure how prepared I am for any of this. But let it begin anyway…

Cai

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