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A Tale From Portugal, and one from home

Well, in the end I just couldn’t resist... tales don’t stop being told just because I stopped walking around the country, and last weekend I was fortunate to have been invited to take part in an exciting gathering which brought together a group of innovative and creative people with a clear transition perspective on education, to vision twenty first century learning, organised beautifully by Isabel Carlisle in conjunction with the Schumacher college in Dartington.

Our brief?

“How do we, as educators in the UK, empower young people to know they can make a difference and support the emergence of a new, holistic, approach to learning about sustainability both within and without schools?”

Working to answer this question through a series of Open Space type activities were a group of 24 highly motivated and professional people including representatives from the WWF, CAT, Schumacher, Embercombe, Sharpham, various highly acclaimed school heads and teachers, individuals working in consultancy, psychotherapy, environmental education, curriculum writers, and, of course, Transition.

The outcomes of this meeting of minds, and the actions agreed upon by this emergent working group there formed, are being written up by Isabel, and I will share them with you once they are ready.

During a break I got talking to Garri Weist, eco psychotherapist and organisational consultant and member of Transition Portugal (in Fonte de Baixo). Though he was there perhaps primarily in his capacity of working with disadvantaged young people in Wilderness Therapy programmes in the States, his experience of the beginning of the process of transition in Portugal was also valuable and fascinating.

He spoke of the split between the “off comers” and the locals; a divide all too many of us, often off comers ourselves, know all too well.  I have been astonished to learn as I visited more than 100 transition initiatives over the past 6 months, that nearly all of us are off comers, and with this somewhat dubious title actually seem to breathe fresh life into the communities we have chosen to live in, perhaps for this very reason, delving deeply into the roots of our cherished new homes, and bringing them up for fresh examination in a way that those well established in an area have perhaps become so accustomed to that the value is no longer recognised.

In Portugal this title is perhaps heightened even more by the fact that many of the "off comers" are from other lands and not only do not know the land of the country they have moved to as intimately as do those whose families have been settled there for generations, they do not value the knowledge they could so easily have access to if they only bothered to honour those that came before, for the natives are often seen as lacking in knowledge of the new ideas “permaculture” and “organic gardening”.

This can perhaps be best illustrated by a tale Garri told me of a German lady moved in recent years to his village; passionate about Permaculture, she has bought land and is systematically failing to grow food to eat through her lack of local knowledge of the land and its climate. Faithful to her course and her books, this determined young woman continues to plant according to her books, and the land consistently fails to live up to her expectations.

Contrary to what you might expect, the locals do not want her to go away, not do they ostracize her, but they are shy of her, and do not know how to approach her. She is young and attractive, their young people are leaving to head to cities in search of the civilised life, modern day victims of the “streets paved with gold” syndrome, and their great hope is that she will capture the heart of one of their young men and start a family, and keep the village alive with new blood. They watch, as year after year her crops fail, and they talk to Garri, “please will you tell her to plant diagonally, facing where the water runs” they say, or some such advice, given from years of hard earned experience of growing their food on this dry and arid land, country of sunshine Portugal surely is, sun drenched holidays on the beach it might promise and live up to, but, and I can tell you this from my own experience of having visited friends over the years, the growing is tough; dry land, scorching sun, and the constant need to channel water to the right places is the reality of growing food in this southern land.

Garri, as go-between, does his best, but his German neighbour does not heed; these things are not in her book, were not part of her Permaculture course, how can it be that these peasants know better?

It begs a question; how much of our own local knowledge is still alive and well in the heads, hearts, and hands of those that have lived in the same place for generations, and how many of them are too shy to share what they know for fear of rejection or ridicule, or fear of the new ways taking over, just as clone stores have taken over from our local shops. I have lost count of the times I have asked my 83 year old father to share his tales, but no, he says, people would not be interested in what he had to say.

It all comes back to our good old conundrum, Communication; does it not? How do we open meaningful dialogues between people of different groups? How do we get past our assumptions and realise that every group at heart yearns to be understood, not for self gratification, though that can rear its head in anyone given the right conditions, but because they know that they hold a valuable piece of the solution.

Just as our German friend does not heed the traditional hard learnt lessons the local growers would share with her, so the locals do not look and see the value of the new ideas, and still use fertilizers to enhance the quality of their soils. They have not yet reached the place John Watson reached so many years ago now, in the eighties, after artificially fertilizing his farm till it had no nutrients left to give, and still believe what agro pharmaceutical companies write on their advertising.

Garri in the middle feels sad; knowing both have something to offer one another. This, for me, a key area for transition to focus on; listening to one another’s stories, sharing them, honouring the powerful knowledge and life experience that each and every person alive on our planet, no matter how young, or old, has to share. I have, since my return to Totnes, set myself a project; to visit each and every group in our town, not only our transition groups, projects and businesses, but all the groups and projects set up and running over the years, some more successfully than others, and listen to their tales.

It is perhaps, in part, come to me because of an encounter that saddened me, the other day, when I  bumped into a Totnesian character, well known for his good works in the town, he greeted me, asked where I had been, I’d been missed as a familiar face about our small town, and when I told him, I got a piece of Totnes that I had known existed, but had paid little heed to before. He spoke as the voice of those stalwarts who have been doing transition things about Totnes for twenty years or more, those who worked hard to effect change for community benefit when the political climate were not as friendly as we find it now. They are feeling disgruntled, Transition has appeared and taken on many of the things that were happening already, given them a brand and run with them. I am shocked to hear how it sounds to one who is in a different group, and acknowledge there is work to be done here, honouring all that has been done before, and continues to be done, giving voice to all the projects and the people that form that rich brocade of the collective tapestry that is Totnes in 2010.

I have walked for six months, shedding as I did so, the need for a brand, and opened instead an enquiry, and an exploration into how we, as people who are passionate about Transition, find our right place in the tapestry of twenty first century life, and from the things we know, and the things we have learnt, and are learning, find a way to encourage the bringing together of all the various threads of the story of our localities, perhaps we’d find we didn’t burn out so easily if instead of trying to do it all ourselves we spent more time listening to what is already being done, and publicizing it far and wide.   It is a strand of thinking I must acknowledge Transition Cambridge for; during my stay there and in conversation with them the first real glimmerings of understanding of this issue came to me.

There is an exciting new gem in the centre of my town; it is a community garden, right in the heart of our settlement. I have heard tell of the project to open this once private garden to the community; now I discover that this brave band of people, including people now part of TTT, and local councillors, have been busily beavering away for 7 years, and now finally , the garden, through which runs the stream that flows from our historic Leechwell (a healing spring that local tales do tell once formed part of the resources available to the old Maudlin Hospital for lepers, and in fact an old triangular bathing pool has been discovered in the garden and is to be declared a listed monument) is tfinally to be open to everyone, and available to run all manner of coomunity activities and events in.

The launch is on the 17th October and one of the things I hope to do is tell the tales I will have collected in and around the town and encourage a culture of honouring what we as members of the community are variously doing through love of our place.

And so the tales go on, and the tale Garri told me that really inspired me was that of the way the olive picking happens now on his smallholding. The men, and before any feminists out there start getting antsy, let me reassure you, this is not about old style gathering to drink and tell tall tales of valour, though I’m sure that just as we women might gather to celebrate or grieve, to deeply listen to our sisters’ deepest held fears, and laugh and sing to their successes, and yet still sometimes fall back into to that pattern of ours  that cannot resist to gossip a little, our menfolk too must be allowed to be fallible on occasion, but no, this gathering of men was to reinstate collecting the olives in the old traditional way, without use of any machinery that has been brought in to the village in recent years, making the oil produced take on a metallic taste, and to encourage men being together in quite a new way, to honour their successes, and to mourn and learn from their failures, and to be emotionally vulnerable with one another. Brave and wonderful project.

Garri too tells me of bee hives. I have, in my blogging, been learning about bee keeping, about the advantages of top bar hives being more akin to the natural ways bees would hive, and the arguments from traditional bee keepers that this way of taking care of the bees meant they could not be guarded against disease, especially the new diseases that native bees can sometimes pick up from bees of other climes. Garri’s hives are made of cork, native to Portugal, and locally made, with their top bar made from eucalyptus, also native to Portugal, and very efficient as an anti bacterial presence in the hive.

I leave delighted by these new tales, and thrilled to discover that though I am no longer on the road, I am still very much enjoying collecting tales. Long may they be created and told, by all, far and wide, across the lands of our shared home.

Editorial Notes: A very thoughtful meditation on the politics of place and the meaning of "home." -KS Photo credit: Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.

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