Together We Can

A conversation over breakfast at a church weekend turned to electric vehicles. I made the point that I do these days, that if we simply replace current vehicle use with electric vehicles, we’ll have to burn a lot of fossil fuels to provide that much electricity and so electric vehicles may not make much difference to the bigger climate change picture. So we moved on to how different expectations of how we use transport could make the difference.

Someone mentioned that in the early days of Fidel Castro in Cuba and the US trade embargo, the cars they had were seen as belonging to the nation. If you were driving and someone hailed you, you were expected to pull over and drive them where they wanted to go. It wasn’t your car, it was our car. That’s one thought: sharing resources as things we hold in common for the common good.

Trucks platoonedAnother thought we discussed is how technology might enable more sharing. By the end of this year, the UK government intends to have trialled ‘platooning’ three semi-autonomous trucks together, driven by just one driver in the lead truck. Similar trials have taken place in the US and on continental Europe. Driverless vehicles platooned like this can drive safely very close together, potentially hugely increasing the capacity of existing roads and thereby avoiding the environmental destruction caused by building new roads. Couple up driverless technology to planning and logistics systems overseeing the needs of business – where and when the goods in the trucks need to be – and road haulage could be even more fuel-efficient. That could be linked up to weather forecasting systems so that the logistics could be planned around the likely availability of renewable energy.

Something similar could be put into place with cars and the transport of people. A ride-hailing app could be linked up to the availability of transport. So if I want to go from my house to town in 15 minutes time, I just tap that into my phone and the system would tell me the best option, whether a bus or a car share with someone driving that way anyway, and hook me up with the driver. Or it could tell me that the pool car parked nearby is available for me, and on my way I could pick up a neighbour or two. With driverless technology, the pool car could pick us all up, drop us off and either park or pick up other people and later another vehicle would take me home. The same app could tell me that I can’t go in 15 minutes time, but 10 or 20 are possible. With longer journeys, platooning could provide the same energy and planning efficiencies as with freight transport.

This was just a breakfast conversation, pooling as much ignorance as knowledge and enthusiasm. The technology may or may not help us, and in any case the gate-keeper on the road to lower-impact transport is our attitude. The choice to hold resources in common for the common good entails sacrificing the comfort and convenience we’ve gotten used to, for example driving my car where I want and when I want, without needing to consider the needs and wants of anyone else.

It did make me think, though, that so much of my environmental campaigning has focussed on individual action: changes I can make to my energy use and my other consumer choices, and the collective angle is no more than the combination of many individual actions. What if more consideration were given to the social dimension of climate action, giving primary attention to how we interact with each other? Building a stronger sense of belonging together in community may enable greater reductions in human impact on the environment than if we go it alone, and becoming less isolated may make us happier, too. In the society that emerges after the collapse of this one, the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts and we will have learned that a good life is only possible through a choice to serve the common good.

Imagine you’re sitting at that breakfast table. What would you say? What do you think?


Edge time

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a day in some woods staring at the trees. Always time well spent, I find. img_20170201_111748It being a beech wood, the floor was covered in thick leaf litter – just a uniform sea of brown. After a while, I noticed some green near my feet. And then I noticed more specks of green. The bluebells were just starting to poke living leaves through the dead beech leaves. My point is that I didn’t notice them until I had stopped for a while and slowed down my brain.

I went for another meditative walk in nearby woods yesterday. img_20170215_114135This time, I tried becoming attentive from the start, by identifying the trees at the edge of the wood. Then I deliberately walked slowly so that the point of the walk was to become aware rather than to reach a destination, even though I had one in mind. I found I noticed more things, including some badger snuffle tracks, img_20170215_114055a tree stump where a bird of prey had plucked a wood pigeon and more signs of spring: elder coming into leaf and a clump of snowdrops.

I have commented before that I think trees keep to a different sense of time than do humans. So much of my life is lived by the clock, with deadlines to meet, work to be done, places to get to. Possibly the most frequent response I get when I ask people how they are is, “Busy,” and I find myself saying the same thing, perhaps, if I’m honest, just to keep up. I wonder if any of us really know why.

I think it’s important to create an edge to time. It is unnatural and therefore unhealthy to travel so fast all the time, and keep spinning so fast, and filling every moment with activity. It’s important to go to the edge of this fast time sometimes, and stop. Life becomes grey and dull without contrast. img_20170215_105325There was wisdom in the old idea of a Sabbath day – one day in seven that was different to the other six because you didn’t work in it. I’m trying a few things, like not gardening or doing laundry on Sundays, which means I can sit in the garden and enjoy it without thinking of the jobs I need to do. I try to sit quietly with a coffee in the garden every morning after breakfast. It’s not always possible, but I don’t want that to be simply because I’ve got stuff I want to get on with. The stuff can wait for twenty minutes – it will still be there. On my way in to the office, however late I may be, I stop and look at the sea, if only for a minute. It is such a privilege to live near the beautiful sea, and there is rarely as much need to hurry as I think. And I am trying to get regular time in the woods. These are just some of the ways that I am trying to apply the brakes and create some edge space in my life, some contrast between on and off.

In permaculture thinking, the edges are especially fruitful places, and maybe it is the same in the times of our lives. When we slow down and pay attention, we notice things about the world around us and about ourselves that would otherwise go un-noticed in the normal frantic whirl. Noticing the bluebells made me tread very carefully, as they are easily damaged and it will be lovely to go back in April and see them in flower. I find that attentiveness leads to appreciation and that leads to loving action, although perhaps not as much as it should. There really is little to be gained from the ceaseless high-speed stampede of modern life, but applying the brakes and introducing some contrast, some edge time, could be a big gain for you and for the world.img_20170201_135935

Living in the woods

img_20160921_104038I’m just back from a short week in a cabin in a small wood in Devon. It’s part of the wonderful Sheldon retreat centre (Society of Mary and Martha) where I’ve been for luxurious retreats in the past and where we go annually for a clergy family holiday.

The cabin is pretty basic, although it has electricity and a cold water tap. The best part was having the wood to myself – part of the deal is ‘Go away’ signs to hang on the gates. img_20160919_150304Of course, I didn’t have it to myself. I was sharing the space with the creatures for whom this is home, from the little mouse living in a hole in the porch, to the rabbits across the bridge, the birds, spiders, insects and so on. The best wildlife moment for me was sitting outside the cabin one evening, enjoying watching dusk fall on the wood, when I heard a tawny owl’s “kee-vick” call. All of a sudden, there she was, clinging to the trunk of an ash tree, not seven yards away. She turned her head around, gave me a long stare out of big black eyes, and flew off silently. I hadn’t seen a tawny owl in the wild before, so it was a special moment, made more special because I had earlier been reading about tawny owls in Rob Cowan’s fabulous book, ‘Common Ground’.

I just love being in the woods. There’s something holy about dappled light falling through branch and leaf. I love the smell of damp leaf mould in the morning after rain. There is so much life in a mixed woodland, even a small one like this, that it feels like a privilege to live amongst it, even as a short-stay guest. Trees seem to keep their own time, much img_20160922_095556longer than mine, that means that a couple of hours spent watching the leaves flutter was just a moment’s glance. At the beginning of my stay, I had that panicked sense, common for me at the start of any retreat, that I hadn’t brought anything to do, not even a notebook. As usual, that feeling was mingling with a sense of urgency to get something meaningful out of the time. It took about a day for that inner urgency to quieten down, and I found that while there was little to do, there was plenty to be, and that even with such a good book to look at, there was plenty more interesting to look at, not going on but just being, all around me – the life of the woods.



Why don’t I get out into the countryside more often?

On Monday, it was my day off.  My older son (just back from university for Easter) and I set out on our bikes.  We went down to the sea-front, along the eastern arm of Shoreham Harbour and crossed at the lock gates.  At Shoreham, we turned up the old railway line, now a trackway, and cycled along the river bank to Bramber.  Then through Upper Beeding, Edburton, Fulking and Poynings, where we had lunch at Rushfields Garden Centre and stocked up on supplies at their farm shop. Then we toiled up Devil’s Dyke and then coasted down back into Hove, barely having to pedal.

It was a dull day but mostly dry.  These little Sussex villages are so pretty and the countryside is just super, breath-takingly beautiful.  We really enjoyed our ride.   One of the things I love about cycling is that if you want to stop and look at something, you can.  You don’t have to find a parking space.  The freedom is half the exhilaration.  Physical achievement and going fast down a long hill combines for the other half.

Most of Sussex is covered by licences to explore for oil and gas through fracking.  I know that the landscape is already post-industrial (it used to be covered by trees – hence “Weald” from the Saxon for wood – which were cut down for ship-building, construction, iron-smelting and cleared for agriculture).  However, I think that it would be a crime and a sin to turn this beautiful countryside into a gas field – not to mention the harm that would do to the environment at large by burning all that gas and by the extra road traffic on the little winding lanes.  It seems a bit simplistic, maybe even sentimental, but is the beauty of the earth the best reason to look after it?

Talking of sentimental, I took some pictures and put them into a film.  It’s a bit rough and ready, but I enjoyed putting it together and I hope you’ll enjoy watching and listening.  One day I might part with some money to upgrade this blog so that I can embed video.  For now, you’ll have to click this link.



I spent a happy day in the garden, pruning shrubs and doing a bit of general tidying.  Here’s one of my big fuchsias before:

Fuschia before


And after:

Fuschia after


They love a good prune! I wasn’t as severe as usual. I normally wait for the leaves to drop, but this winter’s been so mild that most of the fuchsias stayed in leaf, and now the spring leaves are bursting out.

In fact, spring seemed to be bursting out all over on this sunny February day.  Some of the daffodils are out, and the crocuses have been in flower for a few weeks.  A bumble bee was enjoying this crocus:

Bee in crocus


The dogwoods are next on the pruning schedule.  Not long now.

Cornus and crocus


My day in the garden was tinged with some sadness, as this will be my last spring in it.  A change of job means a change of house, even though my new church is only in Brighton and is nearer this house than the one we have to move to.  I hope that whoever succeeds me in Hove and in this garden learns to understand it. In particular, I hope s/he doesn’t chop down my trees and continues to let it be semi-wild. For example, those brambly log piles are home to all sorts of animal life, including frogs and newts. Hey ho – it’s not my garden. However much time and energy and planting I’ve invested in it, I was only a participant in nature, and that silver birch and that liquidambar were never going to mature in my time here.  But – it’s hard to be pruned.



Winter flowers

Here in southern England, we’re not really having winter, just a rainy season. In the relatively mild temperatures, several plants in the garden are waking up early.

This elder is coming into leaf (in mid-January!):

Elder leaf

Are plants like children? If they don’t get enough sleep, will they be crabby and crotchety all the rest of the year? How will that affect the rest of us?

Here are some pictures of snowdrops, crocus, jasmine and miscellaneous pretty purple flower. The jasmine should be in flower now, but I think the others are early.




Jasmine 2


Purple weed


It is lovely to have something in bloom in the depths of January, regardless of whether or not it should be.


The Animal Museum

I had a day at London Zoo. I was there for the John Stott Memorial Lecture, this inaugural year sponsored by A Rocha and given by Chris Wright from Langham Partnership and David Nussbaum from WWF.  The lectures were very good indeed, but the animals were better.

Lying lion

There were several parts of the zoo where you can walk through the enclosure with the animals. My favourite was the butterfly house. It was awe-inspiring to walk amongst these beautiful, fragile creatures.

It was simply fun to watch the animals – to see them in real life – lions, tigers, gorillas, a two-toed sloth, birds, fish, komodo dragons, giraffes, penguins, otters, bats, naked mole rats, bush babies and much much more!

A lot of the zoo had an explicit conservation theme. But it put me in mind of Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi: “They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum, and they charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see them.”  Substitute trees for animals, and up the price rather a lot, and you have a zoo.  It’s so sad to think that if we don’t change our ways, that might be all we have left of some of these beautiful animals: specimens in an animal museum.  To quote St Joni again: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone.”

I hope that if other people get as much enjoyment from the zoo as I did, they will think hard about this wonderful world we share with the rest of nature, and we’ll do better at looking after it.


WWF’s vision is “A world with a future, where people and nature thrive.”  Sounds like it could be straight out of the bible.

I made a film of my day – click here to watch it.



Tent at Sheldon


We bought our tent last year, to go to the Greenbelt festival.  Having spent the money, this summer we went proper camping – well, proper with facilities.   We had a couple of days in the New Forest, then after an indoor break at my parents’ in Dorset, we went to our annual ‘Clergy Family Holiday’ at Sheldon, in Devon.  The photo shows our campsite.  We had the field to ourselves, which was as fantastic as having the camping toilets to ourselves – everyone else stayed indoors.

I had forgotten how camping puts you in closer touch with nature.  You notice the rain (boy, do you notice the rain), you notice the sun, you can feel if it’s a cloudy or clear night by how many blankets you need.  We were kept awake by owls.  One morning we tried switching off a vibrating alarm, only to discover it was a nearby cow with a regular moo.

I’m probably too much of a city boy to enjoy really proper camping – collecting water from a stream, digging a latrine, cooking on a fire of scavenged wood.   I do like a flush toilet.   But this was fun.  I hope we will keep it up.

My daughter took some lovely photos of the view from the tent, one early morning:

Mist at sunrise



Sheldon sunrise



Garden Life

Time for an update on the garden.  Everything is doing well, although we could do with some rain soon.  Here on the chalk downs, the soil dries out very quickly.   I don’t know where the water’s going to come from for the fracking that’s being planned a little further inland, but they can’t have what’s in my water butts, not for any money.

This courgette plant is in a very shady position, but it’s the largest of the four I have.  It’s only just starting to fruit, though, so I’m not yet sure if the shade has been good or bad.



I always forget what this large shrub (small tree?) is called, but it’s very pretty when it comes into blossom.



I’d better pick these blackcurrants before the birds discover them.



The strawberries are ripening here and in the bed.  We’ve had some already – delicious!



The lavender is a good drought-resistant plant, flowering splendidly and feeding the bees.



Next to the lavender, the potatoes are going mad.



The tomato plants seem to be thriving in the sunniest spot in the garden.  No sign of fruit yet, but plenty of flowers.  A sun-warmed tomato with a bit of strong cheddar is one of life’s great pleasures.



It’s great to get outdoors!