Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Riding the Waves

There are times when I feel overwhelmed by the scale and pace of the destruction of Life on Earth.  I get into the grip of that "too little too late" fear, and with the despair comes a deep weariness of spirit.  During those times I don't want to learn anything else about the problems; I don't want to hear about another ecological disaster or ongoing struggle; I don't even want to know about another 'bright green' solution that is ever so bright but still not BIG enough to actually change things...

During those times, all I want to do is curl up inside the beauty of the world, and let it be all that is... just for a little while...

Safe for a moment.  And then, I can recognise that the despair is a reason for apathy, an excuse for carelessness.  Refreshed for a moment.  And then, I can acknowledge that my hope for sustainable human existence is a powerful force for creating the long future I want for my child and her children; and my despair is part of the problem!  Inspired for a moment.  And then, I realise I should be spending more of my time immersed in David Attenborough's TV series than reading the news!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Year of the Tiger

2010 is the Chinese Year of the Tiger, and also the United Nation's International Year of Biodiversity.  While the polar bear is a most arresting poster species of climate change, probably no other animal can fit the same role as well as the tiger when it comes to looming mass extinction and our ongoing loss of the Earth's biodiversity.  Despite years of conservation funding, all sorts of legal protections and masses of blood, sweat and tears from dedicated human champions, tigers are still worse off in 2010 than they have ever been. 

The animal most widely regarded by humans as the most beautiful of all, endlessly evocative to poets and artists, and the epitome of wildness to many nature-lovers, remains precariously confined, in the smallest of numbers, to pitiful, isolated slivers of land; as vulnerable as ever to death by poaching humans, mostly for consumption for completely superstitious or egocentric reasons.

How can this be?

In the days before I gave birth to my child, a friend came by with a pile of books she had cleared out.  Amongst them was Ruth Padel's Tigers in Red Weather.  I pounced on it.  Here was a celebrated British poet and great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin writing of her travels through tigerlands in 2005.  It was irresistible, and after my daughter was born I ignored the wisdom 'to sleep when baby sleeps', and instead lay with sleeping child in my arms as I consumed the book.  While I relished the quality of the writing so much, the dismal plight of tigers hit home very hard; extra cutting when you have just brought a new life into the world. 

What is happening to this world?

90 countries have just reached agreement in Nagoya, Japan on 20 goals to minimise mass extinction in the next 10 years.  This includes increasing the amount of protected land from 12.5% to 17%.  The area of protected ocean will increase from 1% to 10%.  This is being heralded as a landmark agreement.  Every gain, no matter how paltry is a gain.  Yes. 

Of course, what justifies the decimation of wildlands and the extinction of species is always "human interest".  We've got to look after business first; then people, then tigers, then habitats, then eco-systems, then the Planet.  We're still way short of the acknowledgement that all human interest is irrevocably embedded in Nature.  There is no business on Earth without the eco-system services that sustain life.  We need biology because we are biology.  How much do we need to lose before we understand this?  When do we look to our precious children and say it is not okay to bequeath this world of loss to them?

There are probably no more than 3000 wild tigers alive today. 

At the top of their particular food chain, tigers are a measure of the health of our eco-systems.  As their viable populations collapse, so millions of other species are vulnerable to collapse too.

Read more: Convention on Biological Diversity

Friday, October 15, 2010

Blog Action Day 2010

The theme for Blog Action Day 2010 is water.  The problems are so vast and varied, it seems the world over, wherever there is water, we're wasting it, polluting it and killing off all life in it.  In comparison, the solutions being implemented seem so very small and limited.  For example, it is a good idea for individuals to choose not to buy bottled water; but what would be revolutionary is if the beverage companies all committed to never bottling water again!  That kind of sweeping change in consciousness would feel like the kind of triumph we are sorely missing at the moment.  However, in commemoration of Blog Action Day, I don't want to be a harbinger of doom. So I am remembering this wisdom from Tom Robbins, and applying it to the waters of the world:

This is not a quote but an accurate paraphase of the gist of the message:
If you look at the world through one eye and see everything that is wrong; look at it then and vow to live in such a way that you change what is wrong. If you look at the world through the other eye and see the beautiful fields stretching to the majestic mountains against the backdrop of a glorious sky, know that the world is also perfect.  Then open both eyes and hold these two ideas of the world in your mind's eye in perfect, dynamic balance.  For if you see only out of the first eye, you will be a contributor to the darkness of the world; and if you look only out of the other eye, you will be vapid and ineffectual.

Water is in trouble and needs as much good action from us that it can get.  Water is also beautiful and stupendous, glorious and life-giving, awesome and unfathomable.  It will, of course, survive us; but I hope it won't have to.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Living Wall for World Food Day

This is not one of my photographs - copyright Woolies

Happy to admit my bias - I wrote the copy for this campaign.  I love it.  It is a wonderful virtual rendition of a permaculture design for vertical food gardening.  Just a few clicks and you plant a strawberry, spinach, basil or tomato seedling on the virtual wall.  For every seedling 'planted' the Woolworths Trust donates a real-life plant to an under-resourced school with a permaculture food garden.  It makes a difference to food security in South Africa.  Even if you don't like getting your hands dirty, you can still plant!
The 2010 theme for the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organisation's World Food Day is United Against Hunger.  Plant to grow something different from food shortages and rising food prices; and the unrest it begets.  It's free and fast and fun...

Monday, September 20, 2010

2010 SA Blog Awards has been great

Travelling With Grace was nominated in the Top 10 of 2010 SA Blog Awards Old Mutual Best Green category.  Thank you to everyone who made nominations and voted.  This has been my space to find my voice for the Travelling With Grace book project, so I have approached my blog like an author-in-training rather than a traditional blogger.  It has been very inspiring that Travelling With Grace has been recognised by the SA Blog Awards, and I am grateful for the opportunity to think more expansively about the value of the blog.

Well done to and for making it into the final two.  These are great blogs.  Another finalist that is very well worth checking out is Project 90 by2030 . I also find a lot of value and heart at .

Thanks to SA Blog Awards and its sponsors for providing the opportunity.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Urban Foodshed

'Bright Lights' Swiss Chard
It is Spring in the southern hemisphere and like most home food gardeners, I have been busy sowing and planting the summer crops.  The news that the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has called an emergency meeting to discuss another looming food crisis has given a certain edge to what is usually a peacful and satisfying pastime.  Once again, global food prices are soaring, with wheat, oil-seed, sugar and meat all at unprecedented premiums.  Riots, that resulted in the deaths of seven people and scores of injured others, broke out in neighbouring Mozambique this week as the government tried to hike up bread prices by 30%. 
Fava Bean flowers
The food price surges are the result of an ever-increasing demand and a critical shortage of supplyWeather has made a big impact on the poor harvests of the northern hemisphere.  It was an unusually hot Summer over much of Europe and Asia bringing drought and wildfires.  There has been unusually wet weather across Canada, and of course, the catastrophic floods in Pakistan. But, of course, the problem goes a lot deeper than the weather- a resilient food system can withstand such shocks.  The bigger picture is that the global food system is far from strong and hardy; it is patently unsustainable and the need for transformation is urgent. 
Garden Pea
One of the 'bright green' ideas to facilitate this transformation is the urban foodshed.  The term seems to have first been coined by W C Hedden in the 1929 book "How Great Cities Are Fed". It is analogous to a watershed, referring to the geographic areas that feed the urban population centres. Mapping the urban foodshed enables a city to answer the questions - Where is our food coming?  And, how best can we enhance and protect our food system?  The urban foodshed is also being increasingly used as a framework to envision local and sustainable city food systems as the antidote to global and unsustainable ones.
Strawberry flower
Many international cities on the road to sustainability have strategies in place to to enable and strengthen local and regional food systems.  A local urban foodshed is often defined as being within 100 kilometres of city and the regional urban foodshed within 300 kilometres.  Common 2020 international goals are to have at least 25% of the food consumed in city coming from the local foodshed; and 65% from the regional foodshed (which encompasses the local foodshed).  The advantages of a local and sustainable urban foodshed are not least, lower food prices, local supply and reduced carbon footprint
Rosa Tomatoes
Growing some of our own food is an action that just about everyone can take, and many individuals are nowadays inspired to get their hands dirty.  City food gardening is blooming all over the world, and not just in the suburban backyard. Urban community gardening projects abound, and city-dwellers are also growing fruit, vegetables and herbs on balconies, decks, rooftops and walls.  There's a growing awareness that the city landscape can, and should be edible.  Urban food gardening is no longer regarded as  a hobby for the green-fingered; but for the green-minded, it is a lifestyle strategy for food security, health and sustainability.

Here you will find a useful paper, "Foodshed Analysis and its relevance to Sustainability" by CJ Peters et al 2008

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Who Needs the Healing?

UNTAMED is a year-long, living exhibition at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cape Town that combines art, plants, poetry, sustainable architecture and a solar panel.  It's a poignant, pressing statement designed provoke individual consciousness about our relationships to Nature.

The spiraling, solar-powered, naturally-lit pavilion has been designed by Enrico Daffonchio.  The living wall comprised of re-fashioned plastic cold-drink bottles filled with indigenous ground covers was planted by the Kirstenbosch horticulturalists.

The sculptures are by Dylan Lewis, renowned for his animal works in bronze.  Here he explores humanity's balance with Nature in a way that evokes a lost wildness, and a lost serenity.  The words are by Ian McCallum, poet and psychiatrist, wilderness guide and psychological analyist probably best known for his book, Ecological Intelligence.  

I rushed through UNTAMED - after an appropriately wild toddler who loved running the spiral and would not be tamed by the conventions of viewing an exhibition.  But despite this, words by Ian McCallum jumped out at me: "We need to stop speaking about the Earth being in need of healing.  The Earth does not need healing.  We do."

Because I feel so urgent about giving Nature the chance for the restoration and renewal of wildness, I often think, speak and write in terms of us 'healing the Earth'.  So I really enjoyed the challenge of this statement.  It's not a new idea but it is certainly has value in being revived.  Mr McCallum's view is that we are pathological in our relationship to Nature.  He echoes American monk, 'Earth scholar' and Deep Ecology advocate Thomas Berry who described humanity in relation to Nature as being autistic for centuries.

What they, and many other sustainable living activists, are saying is that we won't get sustainability right without addressing the fundamental problems in the way we see and relate to Nature.  While we exist in a paradigm that disregards and attempts to dominate Nature; while we find the most value in Nature in terms of what we can extract from it, instead of learn about it; we will remain in opposition to the force that gives us life - eco-illiterate, pathological, unresponsive - doomed.  The challenge of awakening to respect,  love, appreciation, even reverence for Life - ours and all others, is an individual one.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gardening for Resilience

We have such a deeply ingrained urge to cultivate. Maybe one day they'll find a genome for it! The second last chapter of Stewart Brand's book, Whole Earth Discipline, is called: "It's All Gardening". He writes: "Ecosystem engineering is an ancient art, practiced and malpracticed by every human society since the mastery of fire. We would be fools to repeat their mistakes and just as foolish to ignore some of the brilliant practices that worked for them."

How should we be gardening today?

We are facing unprecedented challenges. The ways we choose to garden will have an impact on our resilience in the face of climate change. We should be gardening for biodiversity, for local and sustainable food, for sustainable water and for zero waste. Here's an example of a folly in my home city, Cape Town:

- a rose garden in the showpiece Company Gardens - Why? It even gets a mention on the city's "green map". Why? The Cape Town city and environs is blessed to be home to one of the unique floral kingdoms of the world. The smallest floral kingdom in the world in terms of space but the second most diverse in terms of species - and that's second only to the Amazonian floral kingdom that spans multiple countries and continents. Why aren't we proudly growing our native flora in our showpiece urban garden? Why are we growing roses?

It's time - let's grow for food and biodiversity. Let us plant native plants and restore our biodiversity. Let us plant for food and create an urban foodshed. Let us get off the train at the new revamped Cape Town station and pick a banana or an orange on the way to work. Let us plant an Erica or Buchu on our balcony and feed a butterfly and a bee.

Let the landscapers give up on the hungry lawns and sterile exotic palms. Let us create food-rich, nature-rich local environments that make us strong.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Nature Play

Today's parents are beset by anxieties about providing our children with the 'right' development opportunities that will prepare them for "success". The current children of the developed world are the most over-regulated, over-organised, busiest children in human history - and some would argue, also the most limited. The greatest of these limitations is not being able to roam freely in Nature. Fear for children's safety and dwindling Nature are just two of the reasons why children of today spend far less unsupervised time outdoors than their parents did. The commercialisation of childhood is another major factor. Indoor play areas have become big business in the same way that video and TV products evermore replace a child's primary experience of the world.

In his influential book, 'Last Child in the Woods', Richard Loev proposes that in fact enabling our children to play freely in Nature every day, come rain or shine, is one of the greatest things we can do to prepare them for fulfilling adult lives. He presents a vast array of studies that indicate that unstructured Nature play impacts positively on physical, cognitive and emotional development. For instance, a comparative study of pre-schoolers in Norway and Sweden showed that children in a 'green' playschool who spent most of their school time rambling outside in a natural setting had significantly better physical prowess than their counterparts who were engaged in some organised physical activity on a level playground. The Nature children, who ran and tumbled over uneven ground, climbed trees, waded in water and built forts in long grass had better muscle tone and strength, greater balance and co-ordination skills.

Physical development may be the most obvious benefit. However, Nature play is also increasingly being used with promising results as either an alternative or supplementary therapy for children diagnosed with ADHD. Parents involved in these studies report both the immediate calming affect of Nature on their children and an increased capacity to focus after Nature experiences. In a world with an increasing demand for innovation, it may also trigger the ambitions of some parents to know that studies show that children who play often in Nature show markedly greater capacities for quality creativity.

Scientist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward O. Wilson uses his "biophilia" hypothesis to argue that humans have a biological need to "affiliate with other forms of life" - that is, a physical connection to the natural world is fundamental to our individual development.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Leap for Sustainability

Bright Green thinker and writer, Alex Steffen of has long maintained that we cannot achieve sustainability by taking little steps. He also warns that focusing on small, simple changes can dangerously distract us from taking the necessary big leaps that the complexity of our world demands. Instead Mr Steffen urges us constantly towards consciousness of the whole system in which we are embedded, as well as high level actions on political and personal levels.

In this article, How to Really Green Your Home, Deep Down you can watch Catherine Mohr's entertaining and smart TED talk of how she grappled with her ecological impact when she was building a new home. Its provides great insights into embodied energy and water, and shows how to take them into account.

For many of us, our homes represent the largest systems that we have control over, and they are therefore the most significant places where we can make an impact on sustainability. It is important to fully understand our homes in terms of processes, networks and relationships. Bits and pieces of green technologies and some 'simple' actions won't make the difference that is possible with a whole-systems understanding and approach.

Monday, May 31, 2010


I love books that change me. Reading Stewart Brand's 'Whole Earth Discipline' did that last week, and I feel invigorated. I love the way this man thinks, and how brilliantly he writes about his intelligent ideas. Once founder and editor of the famed 'Whole Earth Catalogues', Stewart Brand is also largely credited with planting the seeds of the USA environmental movement of the 70's through his button campaign demanding to see NASA's pictures of the Earth after the 1969 moon mission. For me, he has always been a person to watch. He has a knack of being on the button.

Many serious environmentalists and Earth-Lovers felt a range of negative emotions, from disappointment to fury, when about five years ago, Stewart Brand wrote articles and gave interviews that seemed to champion the very 'Evils' that 'green' activists have long rallied against. Very controversially, he started to say that urbanisation is good, cities are green and world population is mostly likely to decline, not explode. Even worse, he started to say nuclear power is green and that genetic engineering offers valuable technologies for a greener world. Brand transformed himself unapologetically, from Saviour to Judas. I admire his bravery in much the same way as I relished Bob Dylan going electric.

Still, I wasn't sure I wanted to read 'Whole Earth Discipline' when I first saw the reviews, but I am delighted that I did. It is not that I have been fully convinced by Stewart Brand's new arguments about what's 'green'. It is that he reminded me to think for myself and to freely change my mind when appropriate, when times change, when there's new information and new ways.

There's a crucial aim at stake: to sustain human civilisation on Earth. For a long future, for our children and their future generations; that means sustaining the ecosystems and species that sustain us as well. We go hand in hand, and we all need substantial change, right now.

We're stuck in old ways. We don't understand today's science. We're romantic when we need to be pragmatic. We're not visionary enough. We're anti-intellectual. We fight before we listen and understand. We're pessimistic, and we don't trust. We hold onto the old; scared to change our minds and be different in case we lose some kind of credibility. Sometimes, because of this, we may stand in the way of what might help us. That has to change fast. We have to change. Fast. Climate change is already here.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day!

The Song

The song of the small bird was a dream of a world inside me.
Sweet, clear notes drew attention to the vastness of possibilities
I could inhabit.
Each possibility had its own skin and they could all fit me perfectly.
I was free to choose, to try on, to go out,
to come back and to change…

The song of the small bird could be heard through
the branches and leaves of very big, very old trees.
It had a purity that could be heard best by the heart.
It told of a place of peace and quiet,
a home of blessed, wordless stillness,
a temple of knowing and being full of Oneself,
without any limitations at all…

From the song came bones from the sky and hair on the water.
There was blood in the veins of the leaves of grass
and under the bark of the living forest.
Mushrooms loved the song.
Flowers mimicked its sweetness and offered it up in nectar
to the brown velvet butterflies that came to sip.
I could breathe in the song; smooth and fine.
Soon, all of us in the garden came to be the song
in different and wonderful ways.
All the same, our molecules could now dance and sing
a new way of being that was abundant and hopeful,
and very satisfying.

I love this message from Earth Charter International:
It starts with One... Transform yourself...