Rock Farm

I visited Rock Farm today. It’s a 6-acre market garden in West Sussex that’s been run as a community project called Roots To Growth, focusing on the therapeutic effects of growing things and working outdoors. It’s recently been taken on by OneChurch, Brighton.IMG_20171019_153122

Ben, who’s leading the project, showed me around. He’s keen to use permaculture principles to reduce the amount of physical workload (“There’s no point coming for something therapeutic and getting stressed by the amount there is to do”) but also to work in harmony with the plants, the people and the land. He’s also keen for this to be a place where people just enjoy being in the countryside.

IMG_20171019_153050This particular bed has been used for beans and courgettes this year, and has an apple tree at one edge. I loved the way Ben talked about putting in plants “that want to be near that tree,” meaning things like comfrey and dandelions that will attract good pollinators for the tree. The idea is to listen to the land and put plants together that not just work together but that like being together. Another principle is to listen to the people who are involved and, rather than presenting them with a long list of jobs, let them do the things around the farm that they find life-giving. It’s a model of land, plants, animals and people flourishing together. I guess that, in the big picture, the jobs that really need doing will be the jobs that, between them, the people want to do, and the work will get done. The farm might even be more productive – and certainly will be in the big picture.

IMG_20171019_152947I’ve been attracted to permaculture for several years and have tried a few practices in my garden. I love this idea of listening to the land, learning from it and working with it. Layer mulching has worked pretty well for me (layers of cardboard, compost and manure), and not disturbing the soil structure by digging works very well for me. I’ve loads to learn, though – e.g. about how different plants work together – but I think it’s a great idea.

It was inspiring to hear Ben’s vision for Rock Farm as a place where the point is not to grow as much stuff as possible, but to let people, plants, animals and the land itself flourish.

The future’s not what it used to be

Back in the early 1970s, when I was quite young, I entered a competition to design the car of the future. I drew some sleek rocket-powered thing that hovered above the ground – very space-age. And it was the space-age. space-age-2We were still sending men to the moon. The future was going to be amazing. We would have colonies in space. Our homes would be filled with labour-saving gadgets and robots and our food would be swallowed as a pill (“Take your protein pill and put your helmet on” – David Bowie in 1969). We would be able to speak to each other via our wristbands or maybe a video-phone on the wall. In all sorts of ways, we imagined a future quite different from the present in which we were living.

In a blog post for Dark Mountain, John Michael Greer argues that over successive decades, our imaginations have narrowed and the futures now portrayed in our stories are not radically different from our real lives. He says a great deal more that is worth reading, not least about different understandings of time in the world’s great civilizations, and perhaps I’ll write about that soon. But this observation about the poverty of the modern imagination set me thinking.

Perhaps one reason why the future is much like the present these days is that we’re just pretty pleased with ourselves. We’ve done very well and our lives are pretty good and so as long as we can keep up-grading our phones, that’s as much future as we need. The sight of cathode-ray tubes and QWERTY keyboards in The Matrix or Blade Runner should give us pause for thought in our hubris: the future looks back and scoffs. But still, we have progressed nicely… as long as you don’t look too hard around the world; as long as you don’t see what it’s like when others pay the cost of the progress of the few.

Maybe that kind of denial is another possible reason for our lack of imagination. This is Greer’s argument. Our sense of progress has worn thin. We are tired of having to continually upgrade, when every upgrade costs us more and gains us less than the last one. It’s getting harder to close our eyes to the devastation brought to the earth by deforestation, by mining, by intensive farming and by just about every other feature of how we live today. The unspeakable things we’ve always feared were lurking underneath the shiny stone of progress are starting to creep out. (As Gustavo Gutierrez said in 2015, “The poor are beating on the gates of the rich in their thousands, demanding to be let in.”) The stone is getting hotter. We dare not think about climate change and rising seas and many of today’s coastal mega-cities being underwater within a generation or less. When the future is so damn scary, it is hard to look at it for long. The future won’t look back and scoff, it will scream. So we have to stop our ears and close our eyes and find some narrative fascination in a slightly improved phone and some robotic toys for the super-rich.

The future is going to be radically different from the present, whether we like it or not. Greer argues (more or less) that we have to pluck up the courage to lift our eyes from the lackluster screen of our present imagination and look the future in its unimaginable face.

To write like this feels like heresy. I am supposed to be telling people that if they make a few changes to their lifestyle (change the lightbulbs, eat less meat, fly and drive less, etc) they can help keep the world much as it is now. To say anything else feels like doom and gloom and giving up in despair. However, I wonder if the opposite is true. It may be that clinging to the idea that we can conserve the present is worse than despair, because it is a despair that denies the truth. Post-Paris and the pledges that didn’t add up (despite the laudable goodwill of COP21); post-the 2015 and 2016 elections that have driven climate change off the political agenda in UK and US; and the prospect of the south-east of England being turned into an oil-field (with the moral blessing of the Church of England, let alone the determination of the UK Government), I think the truth is that we are stuffed. At least, we are stuffed if the un-stuffed alternative is to keep things more or less as they are now.

I don’t think I want to keep things as they are now. There is so much pain and suffering in the world, not least amongst people, animals and plants that are bearing the cost of oil-and-debt-fuelled free-market capitalism. We need a different world and it looks like we’re going to get one anyway. Predictions of a climate-changed world are only predictions, because the change is unprecedented in human history and we have no experience to inform us. But we can start thinking about what will help make life possible for as many life-forms as possible. One of the obvious things is to work at re-building broad-based communities rather than the like-minded bubbles encouraged by social media. Such communities will really exist – real bodies in proximity learning how people can belong to each other with grace, generosity and care, and applying those lessons in the wider world and to include all life.

The task of conventional climate campaigning remains valid (and vital), because we need to keep the temperature rise as low as possible by removing as much carbon from the atmosphere as possible. What I’m suggesting here is that this cannot be at the expense of also addressing adaptation to a changed future in which as much life as possible can thrive.

It is going to take great courage to turn away from the re-assuring lies of our present culture. It is going to take renewed imagination and love to face a frightening and uncertain future and engage with it. But I think there is hope if we do it together.

(I was planning to include some biblical reflection in this post, but I think it’s long enough already! The bible, especially in the prophetic literature, contains a lot of courageous analysis and critique of dysfunctional and unjust (and complacent) societies, alongside far-seeing imagination of how things could be different. See my article on Isaiah 11 in the ‘Bible studies’ section if you’re interested.)










On Friday 17th January, my 16-year-old nephew, Dan, went to a party with some friends. He took his first ever ecstasy tablet and collapsed.  After a weekend on life support, he died on Monday 20th.   We (including my parents, both in their 80s) were with him as he slipped away, and it took forever, and it was totally heart-wrenching.

Dan’s funeral was on Tuesday.  Before a memorial service in a packed church in the afternoon, we held a private family burial in the morning.   The weather was atrocious – strong wind and heavy rain.  It seemed to match the occasion, as if nature was saying that the whole thing was just wrong.  Was it rain or the angry tears of God?  I thought of a line from Gerd Theissen’s ‘The Shadow Of The Galilean’, where the narrator, watching Jesus die, says, “If the sun could see and feel as we do, it would go dark for grief; if the earth could feel, it would quake with anger.”   The world is wrong and not as it should be and not as God would have it be … yet.  We seemed to be standing there forever, but how can you ever walk away from something like this?

The afternoon’s service was much less bleak as friends and family paid tribute to Dan and we thanked God for him. There was nothing bleak about Dan.  He lived life to the full, with an inventive mind, a keen sense of humour and huge character.  Some have said “What a waste”.  And in a sense it is utterly tragic that his life was cut short at 16 years.  But Dan didn’t waste his life.  I think I wasted opportunities to know him better and be a better uncle, but having said that, I know that what is, is; and what has been, has been.  Every day is precious, whether you’re 96 or 16, and each person puts worth into each day for those they love and maybe those further afield.  But no one lives for ever … yet.

My sister and my brother-in-law have been amazingly gracious and positive. They have lost their son, but they have refused to blame anyone for his death.  They have engaged graciously with the intrusion of the media to put a positive message out to other young people.  They have started up a charity to promote that message – The Daniel Spargo Mabbs Foundation.  There’s a link to it in this blog’s list of interesting links.

Dan knew all about drugs. He was clever and articulate, from a caring home, with loving, educated parents who took an active interest in his activities.  He did, however, have an adventurous nature, like many teenage boys.  He got to experiment with drugs once.  Drugs like ecstasy, MDMA, and other so-called recreational drugs cause many deaths (30 from ecstasy in the UK in 2013).  Most people who use them don’t react and don’t die as a result, but some do.  There was nothing remotely recreational about a 16-year-old boy with umpteen tubes sticking out of him and machines working his lungs and kidneys, lying unconscious, slowly dying.  People have argued that maybe he took the tablet in the wrong way, or too quickly, or whatever.  The fact remains that if he hadn’t taken it at all he would still be alive.  We live in an addicted culture where we tend to excuse our addictions and the various substances and habits to which we are addicted; in which young people are dying because of drugs or alcohol.  These things wreck lives and I don’t care what you think about prohibition and moderation – my lovely nephew is buried under a pile of mud in a Croydon cemetery because of one little tablet.

I hadn’t meant this to turn angry.  I think I’m angry, at least in part, because I recognise my own addictive behaviours and my failure to reach out and build better relationships and contribute to a stronger community in which we value and care for others.  Blame is one of our culture’s addictions.  In reality we are all part of a system, part of a culture, in which we are all to blame but in which the hope for change and cure lies with all of us, too.  We (me included)  need to choose life and love over death.

May Dan rest in peace and rise in glory.