All in a Day's Walk

A month-long slow food walking performance

Archive for climate change

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

Heat and honey

May Hill trig point tracktivist

An admittedly gruelling walk in 30 degree heat from Lea over May Hill to Highnam and Over Farm. It’s only about 25 miles, but it takes me 8 hours: I’m fast heading out but weighed down by vegetables, fruit and sun-weariness on the way back. Even as I set off in the morning, the waves of heat are palpable: we talk about the sun beating down, and all day I feel it like a slow hammer thudding me into the ground. I seem to be sweating all I’m drinking from my water reservoir straight back into the padding of my rucksack, so the weight is constant. Even ‘SPFd to ye max’ (as my friend Lewis sensibly advises – we have an acronym thing going on), my skin feels like it’s cooking. But, for all this whingeing, I’m not complaining. After the extreme rain and mud of December this is a welcome contrast. Though I do find myself musing about my canny knack of inadvertently planning my walking to coincide with extreme weather events – perhaps an unconscious climate change consciousness after all. That said, just the thought of ‘global warming’ in this heat makes me feel claustrophobic and nauseous. Walking across one particularly dry and scratchy field (I’m finding the long vegetation at this time of year is as difficult to walk through as December mud, plus I’ve developed an exaggerated allergic reaction to nettle stings) then grateful for momentary cool and shade passing through a thick treed hedgerow, I think about a future with less water, less shade, less space, less land area, more drought, fewer crops and more people to feed. It’s frightening…

Heading up towards May Hill, I pass a garden full of loganberries, fields of ripening oats, wheat and potatoes. Herefordshire is like a glowing, rounded expectant mother. This year feels like it will be a good harvest. But right now it’s locked in and inaccessible to me. And even when it bursts forth, how much of that crop will be shipped away from here to be ‘made’ or processed into food?

Striding up the lane, I pass a parked vehicle. ‘You’re off somewhere in hurry!’ a friendly passenger remarks. I explain I’m headed over to Over and have to get back within the day. I explain why and we get talking about local food. ‘You’ll be proud of me,’ she says ‘I took 100 litres of honey off my hives last week’. We then work out that it was her honey – ‘Happy Honey’ – that I’d bought at Brown and Greens two days ago, though she lives in Gorsley not here, so this really is coincidence. I’m curious about her perspectives on honey and the much-talked-about plight of the bees and she kindly agrees to share them:

I join the Wysis Way to walk up onto May Hill proper. Grasshoppers are chorusing in the long grass

I pass Taynton farm shop, the bottles of apple juice displayed on doilies (I thought they were extinct). I would like to buy some duck eggs but agree with the proprietor that in this heat ‘they’ll be cooked by the time you get home’.

I get lost after Taynton but find some bulrushes (reedmace) in a pond. I don’t pick any but I do know their rhizomes are a year-round source of carbohydrates (I’m not quite brave or hungry enough to try).

I pass High Leadon, Highnam, have a conversation with an elderly woman about cherries and am followed by curious cattle along the banks of the River Leadon.

A few miles off Over Farm and I know I’m on the right track: there is a strawberry-shaped helium balloon tethered above the pick-your-own fields. I contemplate picking-my-own and then decide, it’s a four hour walk back and I might save myself for today. Inside Over Farm market is a local food treasure trove: this is what they are passionate about and all the produce has a ‘food miles’ label. Satisfyingly, much of the produce is coming from the farm itself, so the labels read ‘less than 1 mile’ or ‘0’. I want to punch the air and whoop, but that’s a bit geeky. Then at the cheese counter (some more May Hill Green) I interview two young members of staff, Tom and Hannah. Both in their very late teens or very early twenties (I guess), they have some admirable perspectives and knowledge on local food, community and animal welfare. I ask them, is this typical of their peers?:

I slog home eating strawberries, grateful for the cool as the sun drops. As I curve around the contours of May Hill, heading directly west into the sunset, I pull the May Hill Green cheese out of my rucksack and ceremoniously eat the whole block. It’s rather poetic: eating a nettle-wrapped Gloucestershire cheese on May Hill with nettle stung legs.

Oats on the way up May Hill Potatoes on the way up May Hill  Loganberries   May Hill May Hill signs May Hills signs 2  Take care Grasshoppers on the way up May Hill May Hill canopy May Hill shadows May Hill sign May Hill elephant May Hill trig point May Hill shadow  Gloucestershire Way Wysis Way Food waste Rural neighbourhood watch Glasshouse to Taynton Taynton Farm Shop Air source heat pump installed near Taynton Bullrushes Wysis Way footbridge The Grove, Tibberton Cows at High Leadon Tibberton Pond Barley at Bovone Oxenhall apple juice consumed at Highnam Disused railway boundary marker River Leadon Highnam village Helium strawberry and pylon at Over Farm PYO IMG_5437 PYO 2 Over Farm carrots Over Farm peas Over Farm broad beans Over Farm onions Over Farm cauliflower Over Farm cherries Cairn on the Wysis Way Byfords Farm, Taynton Ardennes horses (possibly?) and Byford Farm Hidden lake in Castle Hill Wood, Glasshouse Setting sun along May Hill Sunset over the Lea

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

Hooves and health

Merlin's Legs

Merlin’s equine podiatrist comes to trim his hooves. He’s been barefoot – i.e. unshod – since April 2004 when I first became involved more intensely with the discipline of natural horsemanship and began to train as an equine podiatrist myself. This before dance training made me too precious about my body to want to consider standing underneath big horses all day, as they thrashed their legs around and I vainly attempted to hold onto the ends of them whilst wielding various sharp instruments (knife, rasp etc.)… But I remain a passionate advocate of ‘whole horse hoof care’, a relatively new (certainly, in the last decade or so) way of thinking about horses’ hooves as part of the whole beast and a key physiological marker of the health and well-being – nutritional/metabolic, cardio-vascular/musculo-skeletal fitness, even psychological – of the whole animal.

This may seem blindingly obvious, but traditionally, as British horse-owners, we have practiced a heartily devolved responsibility when it comes to our horses’ feet, entrusting their care – these distal points of their four precious limbs – almost exclusively to the farrier. (Not, as it happens, unlike our disconnected relationship to our food which is produced ‘somewhere else’ by ‘someone else’ and purchased from the supermarket, neatly packaged (in a protected atmosphere) in sterile plastic.)

‘No foot, no ‘oss’ the famous saying goes. And yet, few of us questioned if a man (for their invariably are) visiting every 6 weeks and nailing rigid metal to this (actually surprisingly mobile) proteinaceous tissue was perhaps the healthiest thing for the natural function of the foot. (Or even the less natural uses we might put it to – in that riding a horse is already inherently unnatural.) Suffice to say, it is now increasingly recognised that it is not. Though it is not as simple as simply removing the shoes. Barefoot horse husbandry – for high-functioning working/sport horses at least – requires a commited attention to the environment in which the horse lives, its nutrition and the ‘conditioning’ that one is prepared to do. In other words, if you want to drag your horse out of a muddy field once a week and go on a ten mile ride on the road or a cross-country competition, then you should probably stick to metal shoes. (Or get a quad bike. Or reconsider whether you have a respectful and meaningful relationship with that animal at all…)

My journey through the landscape of having a shoeless horse has necessitated and given rise to some big leaps of faith and understanding, not least that Merlin’s metabolic health – as evidenced by and echoed in his hooves – is in delicate balance, that it fluctuates seasonally, that British lowland pasture (largely now now rye-grass monoculture to maximise dairy production – and Caplor is a former dairy farm) is too rich in summer sugars for horses, whose digestive systems are still in time-lag, adapted to the dry grasses of the vast, arid plains where they evolved (and where their hooves were healthiest), and that hoof-infesting yeasts thrive in the warm, wet mud of climate-changed British winters.

If we listened to our own bodies as intently as I ‘listen’ to Merlin’s hooves, we might have a better understanding of our own nutritional – and seasonal – needs. And if we took greater responsibility for those needs – not handing them over to the supermarket ‘farrier’ – we might have a better sense of the whole systems in which we live, eat, breathe, participate.

Amazing, really, how I can now manage to bring every conversation, blog post or social encounter round to climate change, food and our relationship to it…

(And Debbie, Merlin’s trimmer, brings me some vegan Christmas cake too. Only 6 more days before I can eat it…)

Vegan Christmas cake

A conversation on my doorstep

Home sweet home

Some old friends whose pony is on loan at the farm call by on their way past to visit him. We stand and chat on my doorstep and I tell them about the project. It’s a long conversation and Jan makes some interesting observations about the resistance there could be (in terms of visual intrusion) if we were to reintroduce more (and modern) food processing facilities into very rural landscapes (we’re talking specifically about the grain mills and presses that could have allowed me to eat locally grown oats and use rapeseed oil). I’m not sure I necessarily agree (processing facilities would not need to be large-scale industrial eyesores if they were run at a local/community level and/or made use of redundant farm buildings…) but it does make me return to the thoughts I had during a previous project Tilting at Windmills, where I questioned whether our responses to change in rural landscapes should be aesthetically driven if they are helping us lower emissions and address climate change. Especially considering the very real changes to landscape that climate change could make, and one could argue is already making through changed/extreme weather patterns and our responses to that.

I also tell them about slow activism and the idea that face-to-face conversation (though typically in a context specifically framed as an arts or performance practice) is the true site of real, sustainable behavioural change. And then I also realise that I am engaged in slow activism with them. And the nub of a life practice is just this: even the conversations we have on our doorstep.

There’s no such thing as inappropriate clothing, only bad weather

When I first heard the (apparently Scandinavian) phrase ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing’ I immediately, gleefully and smugly adopted it as my new life mantra.

This winter, I’m not so sure. It doesn’t seem to matter how much Gore-tex I layer onto my body, the water is still finding a way in. Even in wellies. This does not make a December walking performance very comfortable. It slows me down – and not in a good slow-food-slow-activism way either. I’m not sure if drawing my own minute attention – through the immediate discomfort of soggy feet – to the changing patterns of weather and climate is particularly useful in an activism sense, but still…

I’m reminded of my conversation last week with Caplor farmer Gareth on his experiences of extreme weather events in Africa and Fownhope, and how his farming practices are, finally, changing:

Audio Track: AIADW Gareth on weather and climate change

 Caplor lake 2  Flooded footpath 2 Wellies 2  Wet footpath  Flooded ditch below Caplor Marcle Ridge path underwater Wet walk home from Alfords Mill I fell on my arse Be safe, be seen 2 Stanier gaiters for hobbits There's no such thing as bad weather: the arsenal Christmas (walking) stockings  Christmas stockings 2 Be safe, be seen Drying Inov8s

SLOW flooding

Flooded footpath 1

It’s the eve of the winter solstice which this year will be at 11:12 tomorrow.  Ignoring the Mayan/world’s end predictions, I walk into the village to post some Christmas presents, through fields wetter than I’ve ever seen them, latticed by runnels and new rivers. Maybe this is the end of the world after all and this project is remarkably prescient but for a lost consonant: not so much slow food as slow flood.

Foolishly I decide to wear my wellies again which might keep my feet dry but have no grip. I fall twice before I’ve even reached the village and have almost made it to the shop when I slip coming off the slope into the rec ground and slide on my back, laughing, down the bank thick with wettest mud. I walk through the village like a swamp beast, much to the amusement of the Post Office queue where I stand, dripping mud onto the counter, making it worse in my pathetic attempts to clean it up, which only succeed in smearing it further.

I fell on my arse

The postmistress sympathetically wipes my parcel “It will cost more if you weigh it muddy…”. Then weighted down with mud and apple juice and cider I walk home like a cross child with my unbearably caked-in-mud arms held out stiffly to the sides gritting my teeth. I tell a friend about the fall-Post Office palaver and ask “Should I be doing a PhD in clowning?”. “Or drowning?” he responds.

River down Banky Field

Caplor lake 2

Flooded ditch

Flooded footpath 2

Wellies 2

Flooded stile

Fownhope rec ground pond flood

Fownhope rec ground pond flood 2

Fownhope stream