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Simplicity and abundance (Day 172) September 17th

I spend a really enjoyable day doing various things, and meeting interesting people. First, after a late start when I catch up on some blogging, John and I take a trip out to visit Woody and Zoe at nearby  Cuckoo Farm to see their gorgeous straw bale house, which has been plastered to meet health and safety regulations, and which now looks like an ancient thatched cottage. It is warm and snug inside and feels so well insulated it is hard to imagine it even needs heating in winter. Over cups of tea I hear about anaerobic digesters and how simple a system they are.

I hear that Woody and Zoe are piloting a Chinese system, designed especially for small households or hamlets. Puxin manufacture kits for people, primarily in developing countries, to install at home. They consist of a metal mould into which the material to form the casing of the digester is poured and a cap which floats on the top of the stomach to hold the gas in. Water is poured into the tank area on top and the cap sits below it, holding the gas safely in place by means of the weight of the water. Manure is poured into the inlet pipe and enters the digester where it lies at the bottom fermenting, and eventually producing gas which is allowed to escape only up the outlet pipe where a simple rubber tube can be fixed to let the gas into the home where any appliances that run on gas can utilise it. That’s it. That simple.

Manure is collected, allowed to ferment, produces gas, which is kept safely contained by water pressure, and harnessed to power household appliances like cookers. The best bit is that although it has been said that cow dung is best this is simply not true. A cow’s double stomach works like an anaerobic digester already so far less useful gas is obtained by putting it through a second fermentation process. The best dung is of chickens, pigs and humans, all of whom have a single stomach, meaning the gas produced by the digester will be far superior to that of cows. Woody and Zoe have tested their newly installed digester with cow slurry and I saw the as bubbling to the surface after just 5 weeks in the stomach. The manure from the free range chicken they keep commercially will be used to power the digester once it is all attached and fully functional. The rubber pipe is already attached though, and I was able to watch Woody light the gas at the end of the tube.

So why expensive huge commercial waste plants then? Why complicated energy producing schemes? Mostly through the effects of poor translation. Yes, that‘s right; it’s our good old friend Communication Problem rearing its head yet again. You see, the first ever translation of the seminal Chinese work on how they have been working hard on anaerobic digestors since the fifties as the solution to our energy problem was poorly translated in the seventies meaning Western health and safety experts took one look at it and panicked – this was downright dangerous – OK for those poor foreigners in Africa who had no choice, but us in the civilised West; no way.

The system is a marvel, it’s simple, much cheaper than any large scale production of bio gas could ever be, everyone, or at least their village or street could afford to have one installed, in fact could install it themselves, and once built, wouldn’t cost a penny to feed! All our waste instead of being flushed down the toilet using up precious water, all that cow dung left lying all over all our back lanes leading our of farms, all the waste the chickens we keep produce, all of it could be used to power our cookers! No cost, no waste, simple, like all good ideas are.

It strikes me that a few more people going to visit Paul and Zoe Woodham and learning how to build this amazing thing would be a very good thing indeed. They don’t have a website up and running at the moment; they’re too busy finishing off their house, but welcome wwwoofers and have given me permission to give out their phone number to anyone who’d like to go along and see this amazing project first hand and learn by offering a helping hand.

On the way home John takes back a neighbour’s glasses left at Woody and Zoe’s last time they visited and in return gets a jar filled up as we watch with freshly made clotted cream, spooned out of the large bowl in which Diana has made it. She adds to John’s gift a pot of damson jam with the added caution not to sit it beside the cream as it still warm from being made this morning. John takes his gifts with delight and promises tomatoes later in the week once they have been harvested. I am thrilled by this rural living; it seems so obviously the way to live I am appalled by the way we have grown so far from it, and puzzled as to why we ever clustered so close to one another and machinery that we no longer have the space to live well.

Next is garden group. We are in time for me to go down to the polytunnels to pick salad for lunch and when I return I meet Babs, Kate, and Debbie and we have a shared lunch, homemade soup, bread from Totnes market, salad, and homemade apple and blackberry pie with the new clotted cream for those who want it. Then John and I go to the orchard to pick apples whilst the others head off down to the polytunnels to start on the list of what needs doing. I am delighted at how easy and how quick it is to pick two full crates using John’s simple method. We wear a cloth bag each around our necks, and tip the easily plucked apples into its opened mouth and when full pour the  delicious pink sweetly scented discovery bounty into the wooden crates; one each. Then we stop and pick blackberries for a while, these are hard to get to as the way to them is very overgrown and we stop after a little while.

On the way out of the orchard gate we are surrounded by angrily bellowing cows; not because we are in the field they are grazing, but because their farmer, who lets the field from John, has not been to give them more silage and they are hungry. I learn more about farming cattle. They are moved regularly as they can overgraze a field quite quickly, they are given a bundle of silage to supplement their diet and the farmer generally only comes with this once a week. I am horrified that free grazing animals should  be so hemmed in and reliant on a farmer visiting them with food only once a week and remember  the cows that chased me way back all those months ago in Yorkshire and now wonder if they were simply hungry!

It seems to me that if we are having to keep cattle off the fields in order for them to grow back again before the cows can be allowed to graze them once more, if farmers keep cows inside all winter not because they feel sorry for them and that they will get too cold, but to keep them off the pastures to allow the grasses to grow back, why then we are obviously keeping too many herds for the carrying capacity of the land. What a surprise. When are we going to stop chasing money and looking seriously at our impact on the land and start behaving sensibly, like mature human beings?

John and I go to the polytunnels and there I explain my dislike of weeding; it makes me feel positively ill to be pulling out healthy living plants that will be serving a purpose in the environment even if we are not immediately aware of its use. I prefer the minimalist forest gardening approach to gardening. I am given the twin job of cutting the blighted leaves from the tomatoes and picking the ripe tomatoes. This suits me really well; the hunter gatherer in me appreciates the picking of crops and I find a comfortable rhythm scissors in one hand trimming blighted leaves into a plastic bag and then plucking ripe tomatoes into a large woven basket every time I find a bunch.

The large basket is soon full to the brim and I experience that feeling of complete satisfaction that only comes after a job well done.

 I take my leave of the merry gardeners busily beavering away at multiple tasks in the polytunnel and set out to walk to Ivybridge where I will stay with Tess and Ian Wilmott.

It is a blissful walk down green lanes; from Gypsy Lane to Runaway Lane, a green lane down which Royalists once ran escaping from the Parliamentarists.

I reach Cleeve, Tess’s family home all her life and go with Tess to take Ian to band practice in the pub at Ermington.

There we meet Kathleen, a Romany, and hear of how elephants once walked through the streets in Ermington when the circus came to town, by train to Ivybridge and then had to walk the rest of the way to the town where they were performing. That was in the fifties and a sight unlikely to be seen again. I hear too of Tod Moor, a postage size scarp of moorland, common land, that the region proudly possesses; it was a 19th century race course then left to the people to have grazing rights over. Kathleen is sorry to see willow growing back. She loved the moorland environment with its rare orchids growing. This summer though, she tells us, was special, the weather was so good it was full of meadow sweet , the most she has ever seen though she remembers tales as a youngster of people talking about the milk being so sweet it tasted of almonds for the cows would have been grazing on the sweet flowers.

 Tess tells me about her work in Plymouth; Edible Landscapes and Dig for Devonport, and the work she does with Anne Marie from Lostwithiel around local food and community in Plymouth’s deprived areas. Things are moving slowly in PL21, the local Ivybridge transition group, because of this and also because another key member of the core group is heavily involved in trying to prevent the incinerator planned for the town from being built. This is a real challenge for any town to be faced with on their doorstep and PL21 are really struggling with knowing the best way forward and would really appreciate some support.

Tess and I go back home via Kathleen’s home and I see she lives in a small neat mobile home park. I am curious and discover that these Romanies were given rights to this land in 1890 and I am excited to learn that this does actually happen sometimes. The place is immaculate and Kathleen is proud to demonstrate the work the Romanies do, the exquisite hand carved delicate wooden flowers, each petal a tiny life sized replica in slivers of wood, all carved from a single piece, the amazingly lifelike crepe flowers, indulgent red blossoms, the gypsy clothes pegs and the beautifully carved and decorated guitars. They have a stall once a year in June at Totnes market to celebrate their work and I look forward to seeing them there next year.

Later, back at the pub we hear the tail end of the folk music, enthusiastically played at such a volume their voices are quite drowned out so I cannot tell you what their songs are about. The music was good though, lively, and I hear that the band formed last year from the monthly open mic they hold in the pub last Friday of the month where everybody goes and lots have a go at singing their song or playing an instrument. Kathleen has brought her jog doll to show me and is astonished that I have never heard of them.

A jog doll, for those of you who share my ignorance, is an old English tradition. It is a small foot high wooden jointed puppet that stands perched on a tablet of wood. The player sits on one end of the wood and holds it down whilst tapping the board with the heel of one hand in time to the music played and the doll dances up and down to the music. The livelier the musicians the better the doll can dance.

I meet Barry, from PL21 steering group but we don’t get chance to talk much for it is band practice night and impossible to hear anyone speak, and when it is over the drinking begins and Barry gets caught up in the men’s drinking, whilst Kathleen, Tess, and I drink our juices and talk of life and our different experiences and look forward to maintaining our new friendship.

Gary the bartender is a real character and generous of heart too. I have watched him hand over a whole collection of storybooks to the young teenage son of the folk band only female player, and later he has us in stitches as he describes his half asleep morning routine to get the bar set up for a 12 noon start.

By the time Tess and I leave for home the men are just warming up and we go home to talk more transition and share our common experience of always having found life a great deal of fun without the need for intoxication. It has been an interesting evening; life in this vibrant village pub is full of warm community spirit and I like that very much indeed.

Editorial Notes: The story of Steph Bradley's long walk is told here. -KS

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