Skilling up for the Future

Off the keyboard of Jason Heppenstall

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Published on 22 Billion Energy Slaves on December 15, 2013

Greg demonstrates how to turn a branch into a longbow
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As the end of another year hovers into view and the long dark evenings invite reflection we naturally start to ask ourselves what the next year will bring. On the economic front, things don’t look as rosy as we are told they are. The global economy is still running on the fumes of smouldering credit notes and the only difference now is that political and financial elites are telling us via a compliant media that the economy is fixed. Yet debt levels in all sectors are continuing to rocket and the feeling remains that this fragile economy is like a huge and intricate sculpture made of glass and could shatter with the slightest tap. Where will the tap come from? Will it be a China/Japan war? Will the ascendent Islamic militarism spill over from Syria and Iraq and come home to haunt the perpetrating nations? Or could it be a relatively minor black duck event, such as Slovenia’s credit collapsing and causing a cascading failure?

Who knows, is the short answer, but things cannot keep on grinding along as they are now. I now find myself wishing that things would speed up a bit before it gets much worse. With the signing of the latest ‘free trade’ agreements last week we now have the spectre of trans-national corporations being able to sue national governments for ‘lost profits’ based on national policy. A few have been quick off the mark to launch legal suits against countries and just in the last few days we have seen a Canadian gold mining company sue the Costa Rican government for protecting its rain forests, Philip Morris  suing Australia for trying to stop teenagers from smoking and the nuclear power industry suing Germany for phasing out nuclear power.

It will surely only be a matter of time before the likes of Monsanto sue European countries for protecting their citizens from the failed experimental poison that is GM food. Signs that they are getting ready to do so are evident if you look for them in op-ed articles in the press. So, to me this seems like the end game of out-of-control capitalism. People might be meek and compliant in the United States but in many corners of Europe, South America and Africa this is decidedly not the case. Might we soon see the whip back as people, indebted and impoverished, can take it no longer? Is a revolution on the cards? I’ve been reading about the history of Poland recently and that country would seem to be a contender for launching a revolution – the Poles don’t take much crap.

These are big questions and it’s interesting to speculate on the weighty matters of our age – yet it’s easy to get caught in the headlights, transfixed on ‘the news’. But from a personal point of view, being well informed about world events doesn’t amount to much of a survival strategy – we need to do other things too. Knowing the intricate details of how hedge fund managers are looting retirees’ pensions might be interesting on a cerebral level but it won’t feed you or keep you warm.

And so I find myself reflecting on what I have done and learned that is of practical value in 2013, and what I need to do next year.

Firstly, a big part of my year has been taken up with my piece of woodland. Having only owned it a year I’ve done what all good permaculture manuals tell you to do: I’ve observed it. This has been useful. I now know which bits get the sun at different times of the year, what kind of soil I have (good, with a ph of 7), where frost pockets form and what kind of animals and plants thrive there. This has all been very useful but I couldn’t just sit there looking – time is pressing! – so I was also doing and learning. I’ve learned an awful lot about trees and the art of coppicing, and I’ve learned about soil and how to enrich it on the one acre field that forms the centre of the woodland.

But what should I do with all that wood? It is mostly oak and chestnut, so it is far too valuable for firewood. Instead I have been learning to make things with it and thus add value to it as much as I can. I went on a bow making course last week with my friend Greg Humphries. He showed me how to use an axe to sculpt a piece of ash into a flexible bow. I also learned how to use a shave horse, a drawknife and a froe – and I’ve had a local blacksmith make me up a set of these tools that should last me a lifetime.

A longbow is potentially useful (and very dangerous!), although for the time being I’m sticking to my .22 air gun for the rabbits and squirrels which ruin everything I try to grow there (my descent from mild-mannered ex-vegetarian to ‘take no prisoners’ small mammal hunter was swift). As someone put it to me ‘You can either have squirrels, or you can have a woodland.’ And given that I am planting at least a hundred trees – mostly fruits, nuts and berries – next year, I can’t afford to share them with invasive rodents no matter how cute they look. Especially when they taste so good in stews.

Next year I am planning to learn how to make charcoal with the offcuts. I’m also planning to make rustic garden furniture, fence posts and a set of trestles for my wife’s upholstery business. Furthermore, I’m inoculating some piles of logs with different types of fungus to sell to local fancy restaurants, attempting to plant mistletoe seeds into the boughs of some large oak trees to sell at Christmas, and about 20 other small money making ideas that I’ll detail later on.

I’ve learned to identify locally edible wild plants thanks to the delightful Rachel Lambert, who has taken me on a couple of coastal forays. She also showed me which seaweed is edible and I figured out for myself how to harvest and cook mussels and limpets, of which there are millions here. I haven’t been out mackerel fishing yet, but that’s something I plan to get up to speed with next year, along with learning to sail.

I’ve ramped up my home food and drink production this year, making several different wines for the first time (the dandelion was a great success, but the plum was a disaster). Next year I aim to make 100 bottles – not only are they good to drink but they make great barter items and presents. I’ve also made sauerkraut for the first time, and have been experimenting with different sprouting techniques for pulses and beans. I’ve also been experimenting with making cheap, nutritious food using as little energy as I can, and spend at least two hours a day cooking. Next year I’m making a straw box for slow-cooking (I have also picked up an old pressure cooker and a recipe book from the early 1980s). I’ve given up eating wheat after reading Wheat Belly – probably the best thing I have done in ages as it has cured all manner of ills at a stroke.

Community is probably more important than anything else when things start going wrong, so I’ve been trying to get to know as many interesting people as possible in the nine months I’ve been living in Cornwall. I’ve joined the local Transition group (Transition Penwith) and can count on meeting people who ‘get it’ through that. I have met some interesting people through our children’s school and have been a member of various other groups, such as a Tai Chi club. Furthermore I’m now working in a shop one day a week at the local organic farm – Bosavern Community Farm – and was even nominated to be a board member there (but decided to pull out – long story). This part of Cornwall is packed with people who are making their own – often unusual – way in the world, which is why we chose to live here in the first place.

Furthermore myself and the folks who own the woodland next door to ours have put together a network aimed at connecting woodland folk in west Cornwall who are interested in reviving coppicing and orchard arts. We were partly pushed into this by local NIMBYs, suspicious of what we ‘hippies’ are up to in the woods, but it has got off to a great start. At our first meeting we thought only a couple of people would turn up, but in the event there were 16 – and a further 50 expressing interest! It seems that there are a lot of people out there who are keen to see a revival of woodland work as part of a more sustainable future.

All of these networks, activities and groups eat a lot of time, meaning that I haven’t been able to devote much to another trans-national project that has kicked off – the SUN (Sustaining Universal Needs) Project – initiated by RE at the Doomstead Diner along with a few of this blog’s regular readers and commentators William Hunter Duncan and Lucid Dreams. This is another exciting JDI (just do it) project that isn’t encumbered by bureaucratic red tape or idealogical orthodoxy.

All of this relates to another skill that has been more or less forgotten by most people in this day and age – democracy. For a democracy to work properly it has to be made up of informed and engaged participants. Yet most people today think that democracy is something clever and smart that we export to the oil-rich countries we have just invaded, a bit like Burger King and KFC. Indeed, it has become almost interchangeable with ‘capitalism’. This idea of democracy has to be rooted up and thrown on the weed pile along with the other weeds such as ‘technological salvation’ and ‘ infinite economic growth’ and ‘efficiency’. Being part of a group and/or participating in local political debates is therefore of prime importance if we want to have a better future. It should be something they teach at school.

So, there are lots of skills to learn, and the thing is that you can’t learn them all. Anyone who tries to become completely self sufficient will either have to be very very capable indeed (and still will have to live a very frugal life) or will learn the hard way that no woman is an island.

So, those are my skills, tell me yours.

Knarf plays the Doomer Blues

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