“It’s definitely the stick,” said Mark as he stood with a piece of wood in his hands. It had been inadvertently donated at Sustainable Bungay’s Give and Take Day and suddenly reappeared in our hallway. From the outside it looked like a shiny broom handle but it wasn’t: it was a fighting stick belonging to a young man mortified by its disappearance. But you’d have to be a warrior to know that.
It’s an ordinary summer’s evening in a Transition town. We’re on our way to our monthly core group meeting. First we have to drop off the stick at Kate’s and have some supper with Nick.
“You share your lives in the blogosphere and I’d like to share some of what I do,” Nick said as he began to fill a box full of July veg – onions and garlic, fennel, beetroot, fresh eggs and blackcurrant jam. We sat down at the kitchen table and drank some squash wine, ate a delicious bean salad and talked about the financial crisis.
You have to be in Transition to truly appreciate Nick’s house – kale and courgettes in the front garden, sorrel around the door, a garage with dried herbs hanging from the ceiling and shelves full of preserves, giant tanks of rainwater, chickens, cupboards and windowsills with kegs of homemade wine, a stack of books on economics. It’s not what it looks like, but what is behind everything you see. What it took to get there. The bare aesthetic of downshift.
Years ago I interviewed a man called Tommy Roberts. I was working for a glossy magazine at the time and the subject of the article was Taste, that indefinable quality that distinguished one person or house from the next. What is Taste? I asked various arbiters of style, fashion designers and editors, owners of grand and important properties. Tommy was once a designer of natty suits in the 60’s when he was known as Mr Freedom but at that time had a shop under Centrepoint full of zany, brightly coloured modern furniture: Taste is the Japanese room with one beautiful vase in the corner, he told me. A lifetime of taking away makes that room. It’s what you don’t have that defines taste.
We live in a have and have-not culture and our value systems are entirely based around possessions. Not just the things those designers were talking about back in the 1980s when materialism and property began its great boom – wallpaper and watches and John Fowler’s “pleasing decay” – but a personal warehouse of business connections, children, communities, garden flowers, Hollywood stars, holiday countries. My special world.
“Well, you’re rich in other ways,” said the man at the Financial Instability workshop at the Transition Conference after I had detailed my downshift from The World of Interiors to Sustainable Bungay.
“I really am not rich”, I replied.
“You are rich in social relationships”, he insisted, frustrated with my density. “In quality time. You are abundant in other ways.”
“I have very little”, I replied. (which is not strictly true because like most people in this country I have chairs and tables, pots and pans and all manner of basic essentials). “What is wrong with nothing? Why do we have to be wealthy at all?”
What I wanted to say was I had spent a lot of time clearing out that room. And I didn’t replace the things I used to own with different things – with people or experiences, or a low-carbon lifestyle – but had learned to love space and time and the freedom that lack of ownership brought.
In downshift less is not more in the way we once understood Japanese style. Less means you take everything you don’t need away, so that what really matters is left. It means you don’t have because having is no longer important. What becomes important is that freedom of movement and living a deliberate life.
It’s an ordinary evening in a Transition town and we’re on our way to our meeting at the Library. But first we have to meet at the pub with the Community Bee Group to celebrate the success of our Beehive Day (which I’ll write about tomorrow) and then unload Eloise’s van full of information boards and select some just picked fruit from the back of Cathy’s car. Cathy runs the Abundance project and swapping our produce and plants- at our meetings, in the Library community garden- has become a way of life. So here we are in the car park with a stack of boards and punnets of cherry-plums and blackberries meeting in a damp summer in a difficult time, swifts whizzing round the roofs, echinacea flowers full of bees.
At the Transition Conference we all did an exercise. We had to imagine a group we longed to be with in the future. I am no good at visioning and all I could think about was the fact I would be 65 in ten years time and how weird that was. And then I realised I don’t long for a group of people because I am already with those people and I had met them three years ago in the theatre down the street from here. And what was difficult to feedback to my fellow Transitioners in the canteen in Liverpool was the fact that it wasn’t the individuals in the initiative that made us matter to one another, the way we are used to people mattering in our lives, as special friends, or heroes, support systems, as possessions and dependencies. My important relationships.
It was the fact that when we met up as a group in these public spaces something happened between us. Something we held in common. We understood implicitly what we were doing and why – sharing stuff, organising events, going through the agenda. When I looked at this working-together in the visioning it looked like an energy field, the kind of energy field you sense when you stand by a hive humming with bees. A hum of warmth and intelligence that allows people to naturally collaborate and make that low-energy downshift happen. When that’s going on you don’t need possessions to compensate for your isolation, to anchor your introverted fantasy world. You don’t need data or climate science to persuade your tricky mind. You just need to tune in and act.
If you passed by Bungay Library tonight you’d notice the lights were on and if you peered in you might see a group of people around a table, eating plums and laughing, one person intently writing notes, one speaking, another occasionally calling order and everyone else paying attention. None of us look as if we are arbiters of taste, or abundant, or full of well-being or anything else the modern world puts a price on or gives value to. We’re obviously not important members of the community with homes-to-die-for, or great jobs or cars. We appear utterly ordinary and so we are. Ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing.
You can’t see the field from the outside, you have to feel it from the inside. You recognise it when you are in it because you are doing it along with everyone else. In fact you can’t be in it unless you are doing it.
That’s the real shift. The move from individualism to group collaboration for the good of the whole is primarily a personal shift, away from ownership and control, into a field of exchange and communication and reciprocity, into give and take. And that’s a whole new lexicon of being. It’s not a replacement of things, it’s a move. A let go and a join in.
Because Transition is not a noun, it’s a verb.
Photos: echinacea by the carpark; with squash wine in Nick’s kitchen; rainwater storage; Cathy’s Abundance fruit; Nick with harvested herbs.