For most of our journey we’ve been experiencing warm, often very hot, weather. Not so since we came to England! Temperatures have been in the late teens to low 20s. There was flooding last week, including in Doncaster, South Yorkshire where Karen’s Aunt and Cousins live. On the BBC news website someone suggested that there was a need for reafforestation in many parts of England, in hills that were deforested at least 500 years ago. A big source of the problem, someone else said to the media, is that there have been too many housing developments in flood plains since World War 2. Along with these developments have been storm-water drainage systems and other infrastructural developments (such as motorways) that have tended to be contrary to, rather than in harmony with, natural water flows. The experts say that climate change is a factor. In the past floods often occurred after cold winters, with snow melt. Not so now, they are more a result of unseasonal rainfall events such as has been experienced here over the last week. What is the real source of the problem, what are the right solutions? The reality of the early 21st century is that these issues are the legacy of centuries, perhaps thousands of years, of human activity that has often been contrary to nature and natural processes.
What lessons are there to learn from the past? Visiting Stonehenge yesterday was cause for some reflection on this question … a place that first had a human presence around 5000 years ago in an environment that was originally forested. But from listening to the audio commentary as I walked around it is clear that we have many more questions than answers. There is an awful lot that we are very ignorant of, but we’re not very good at acknowledging our ignorance in all of the things we do in our modern world. We drove down the road to Old Sarum, the subject of what I consider to be a very powerful painting by Constable. A painting that to me is a reflection, actually a question, on the right relationship between human and nature. It was a Constable-like day with many clouds in the sky, wild and windy, a bit of sun trying to break through.
The end of this journey is near and it’s a beginning of another phase that I expect to be very challenging. Thanks to my Mum’s estate, I found the resources to buy professional film gear and head off on a journey. I found support from some amazing people along the way, firstly from our amazing friends in Thailand, in particular Khun Tuenjai, and then from others in different places. I don’t have the resources to do any more. It’s time to get back to New Zealand and start earning some money again. But so many people have given so much and shown belief in me and what I’m doing. I’ll keep on working as well as I can to make something out of all of this.
We arrived in London on Saturday (23 June), our journey almost over. There was a major scare at the airport in Paris. After doing an automatic check-in and passing through passport control we were in the queue to check in our bags. It was then that I discovered that the black bag with all 30 plus hours of film from the last four and a half months was missing. No bag, film gone. I was told afterwards that I went white with shock. Through a combination of real exhaustion and carelessness the bag had been left behind in our lease car when we dropped it off and transferred to a shuttle. Fortunately we had time to spare and I had kept the paper with the phone number for the lease car company (only because it had a map on it and I’m a hoarder of maps!). They found the bag and delivered it to me at the arrivals area. This temporary loss had me questioning, for a short time, what I had achieved from this journey. Was it nothing without the film? I don’t believe so. In fact I have gained so much more in terms of a deepened understanding of the real issues people are already experiencing and some of the very positive things that are being done. I capped off the day by taking Emma to see Crowded House and Peter Gabriel in Hyde Park. It was a great way to finish a nearly disastrous day.
Yesterday I visited the UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and gave a presentation covering my New Zealand adaptation work, lessons from this and reflections from the last four and a half months. It was well received, with plenty of questions and some discussion afterwards. One of the staff talked about the current international debate that is happening in terms of who pays who for adaptation and how you make the distinction between adaptation to climate change and adaptation to the inherent variability of climate. This sort of debate is paralysing international actions. I kept reinforcing my very clear view that the only way forward is to be guided by what is happening on the ground. Too many people now are spending too much time in meetings, workshops and seminars talking and debating what ought to be done to address climate change. Meanwhile, people on the ground are acting. The smartest farmers are, in my view, always ahead of everyone and I certainly believe we’ve encountered some very smart people of the land on our journey. We do need local, national and international policy but it will only be truly effective if shaped in a way that is relevant to people’s lives and aimed at empowering local people to own and implement local solutions. The problem is, to put it in the simple words of Michun Gurung, that we have too many talkers and not enough doers.
Where to from here? We are presently based in London until 7 July, then fly back to New Zealand. I have a couple of meetings lined up before we leave, including a return visit to DEFRA to talk in more depth to some staff there. I’m still searching for the right connections that will help me realise the goal of a documentary film. A book might also be a good idea. Seeking funds to support grassroots exchanges and sharing of information is something I will continue working on.
Yesterday I met Jean-Pierre Caumont at the Montcuq market and bought some of his wine. This morning I drove to his farm to film an interview with him, most likely my only farmer interview in France and the last on this journey. Jean-Pierre comes from a farming family in the village of Escayrac. He went to University but was drawn back to the land and now farms farms 60ha of cropping land and 3.5ha of wine grapes with his wife, Claire. They also own about 40ha of forest land for biodiversity and aesthetic benefits. Jean-Pierre has always felt an affinity with nature, but farmed conventionally for many years. Increasingly he saw the effects of intensive use of chemicals and also began experiencing more chaotic weather patterns. So he decided to move towards an organic production system. The term ‘organic’ or ‘biologique’ in French, is one that he and his wife, Claire, have been cautious in using. They are people who are simply passionate about the land and the environment and don’t really like to be labelled in a particular way. Over the last 20 years Jean-Pierre has noticed more extreme weather events, more unpredictability with rainfall, and higher temperatures. Hotter summers are being reflected in increased alcohol content of wines in the region. He perceives greater challenges in the future with cropping than with the wine grapes. The deep-rooting of the vines enables them to withstand drought, for example. His experience is that with organic soil management, biodiversity protection and diversity of production they have a greater capacity to buffer against climatic extremes. Both Jean-Pierre and Claire are strongly committed to protecting local biodiversity, demonstrated by the fact that they recently bought a neighbouring piece of woodland to prevent another would-be buyer from clear-felling it.
If you live somewhere in Europe and want to support a couple of very dedicated people by purchasing their wine you will be able to find out about them over the web in the future. The name of their farm is Le Pech d’Auzonne. You can get mail order wine by writing to them: Claire and Jean-Pierre Caumont, Escayrac, 46800 Montcuq, France.
After leaving Chichilianne we drove west and then south to the village of St. Cyprien to stay with Janet Hulse, the elder sister of my good friend Julia. Along the way we stopped for a night in another small village in the Puy de Dome region, south of Clermont-Ferrand. We’re now at Janet’s place near St. Cyprien, in the south central area of France. Tomorrow I am meeting with a local farmer who I met at the market this morning. This may well be my last interview on this journey.
We have done a lot of travelling but I have managed some interactions with people as well as continued to reflect on lessons from this journey. I have talked increasingly about the importance of finding ways of working harmoniously with our earth, with the natural world. This concern is shared by the well know British scientist, James Lovelock, who developed the so-called Gaia hypothesis. However our views differ on how we might work harmoniously. In his recent book “The revenge of Gaia” he expressed his concerns about the state of the earth and suggested a planned retreat of humans from nature as part of the solution, with a focus away from agriculture and towards synthetic food production. I disagreed with this view before and disagree even more strongly now. The many people we have met in different places and their very positive actions support a different approach that is focused on an intelligent and heart-felt re-engagement with nature. Everything we have, all of the wonderful and undesirable results of the industrial revolution and our modern technological revolution, have been derived from the earth in some form or another. We cannot so easily retreat as Lovelock thinks. At the same time I totally agree that we need to do something. Fortunately there are people who are acting, and we need to pay attention to them. I look to the leader of the Karen village in northern Thailand and his very smart 16 year old daughter, to the Buddhist monk north of Bangkok, to the work of Ajarn Yak in Thailand, to a wise 78 year old man in northern Viet Nam, to wise local leaders in Nepal, to the work of Sekem in Egypt, and more recently to the inherent understanding of our place in landscape, in nature, that is still visible in parts of Europe and in the work of the best farmers here.
In the parts of Italy we visited, Switzerland, and now in France we see landscapes where there is a history of understanding the importance of forest and water management. In all the places we’ve been in these countries I have seen hills covered with trees that in New Zealand and many parts of Asia have been stripped bare. In Switzerland, water catchment areas are forested. In New Zealand, when I gave a talk to a Regional Council a couple of years ago I was considered naïve to suggest that planting trees was the most important thing we could be doing as a response (adaptation and mitigation) to climate change. Everywhere I’ve been, every place I’ve seen, every person I have spoken to over the last four months has reinforced this view. In Europe I see the legacy of centuries of understanding the importance of managing whole landscapes. We don’t have this legacy in New Zealand. What we do have is a freedom of choice that many other countries and people do not have any more. But for how much longer?
It is very clear to me now that there is a great, unrealised, opportunity to develop truly effective responses to climate and other global changes by simply opening our eyes and ears to the very good things that people are already doing all over the world. In fact I believe we must do this. Things are now moving too fast for the politicians and scientists to keep up. People are already acting, some are already well ahead in their work and thinking.
From Dornach we drove to Grenoble in France and then south to the tiny village of Chichiliannes, near Clelles. The place we stayed in was recommended by a French friend in New Zealand who had lived and worked in this area. We stayed here for two nights so that we could visit a place called Terre Vivante. This organisation has existed since 1979 when the magazine ‘Les Quatre Saisons’ was launched by seven passionate ecologists. In 1994 they began the development of a ‘discovery centre’ focused on demonstrating practical ecology. We visited this centre, with its blend of forest walks, gardens and demonstration sites, on a day when a bus load of school children were there to explore, experience and learn. Their presence strongly reinforced the value of providing a living learning environment for all age groups, aimed at demonstrating positive, attainable, actions for a sustainable and resilient 21st century.
In the evening I met with Remy Bacher, the editor of Les Quatres Saisons magazine. I told him how impressed I was with the Terre Vivante centre. It is an excellent educational and resource centre with practical examples of the very simple, local, solutions to many of the environmental problems we have in the world. I also talked about the importance of local people who provide leadership and an example for others to follow. This has been evident everywhere we have been. Remy said that not just Terre Vivante is providing an example for the rest of France, but increasingly the Trieves area as a whole, in the Rhone Alps where Terre Vivante is located. More and more people are aware of the work of Terre Vivante, of the high proportion of organic farmers in the area, and of a very beautiful and well balanced environment.
From Lugano we drove through Switzerland to Dornach, near Basel. It was evident everywhere that the Swiss understand the importance of trees in the landscape and in managing water catchments. In Dornach we met with Hans and Ineke Mulder who took us around the Goetheanum, the world centre for Anthroposophy. The Goetheanum is an amazingly organic building. Rudolf Steiner, who designed this and the first Goetheanum, was an incredibly insightful and prolific human being. His merging of spiritual insight and scientific thought covered many disciplines. I’m not an anthroposophist but I do have an open mind. I see a lot of value in what Steiner shared, particularly when expressed through living examples such as Sekem (see post “Sekem, Egypt”) in Egypt and Poggio di Camporbiano (see the posts “A week in Tuscany” and “Poggio di Camporbiano, a very resilient farm”) in Italy, and of course through the education of our daughters at Taikura Rudolf Steiner School in New Zealand. With the multiple challenges and potential crises that we are facing around the world, we need to be open to what Steiner and others have presented to the world. We cannot solve the many problems we have through the narrow, rational, thought that has created them.
On the afternoon of 5 June we drove north to Milan, arriving in the dark. The next day we crossed the border into Switzerland. Our destination was Lugano, where we were going to stay with the Galli family, who hosted Emma for three months. After a couple of days enjoying Lugano we went for a walk with the Galli family on Saturday (9 June). We drove from their home up into the hills, above the forest line. We then walked to the site of an ancient Celtic settlement looking out towards Lake Lugano. The Celts migrated into Switzerland during the period 500 B.C. to 400 A.D. From this site we then walked up to the summer house of a local farmer. We stopped there and talked a while over some wine. I hadn’t expected this encounter but realised that here was an opportunity for another farmer interview. I arranged to come back today to film an interview with him.
Renzo was not born to a farming family, but became a farmer nearly 40 years ago. His motivation was to live and work with the land, with the natural world. He and his family are alpine farmers. During the winter period they move down to their winter house and their stock are housed. In the summer period they move to the summer house, above the tree line, where the animals are able to free range on the herb pastures. Renzo talked about the dramatic reduction in snow cover that they now experience every winter. The winter rest period, which he considers important for the earth, animals and people, is no longer as it was. The climate is changing and nothing is predictable in the way that it was in the past. This is very unsettling and I think stressful for a family that has worked very hard over a long period. They are already farming organically. Renzo said what more can they do than they already are, working and living in a very balanced way?