Magazine article New Internationalist

No-Dig for Victory

Magazine article New Internationalist

No-Dig for Victory

Article excerpt

Most of us don't have land - nor the time, money, even inclination to work it. We live in towns and cities. And in front of our noses here we find concrete, cars and other people. What might we be able to do to provide for ourselves in such places?

Well, a good deal more than we might care to think. In fact, anything at all we do is many times more valuable than the same thing done in the countryside, simply because cities are where most people feed.

Until quite recently, British towns and cities had some two million allotments. They were essential to the health of the industrial working class, who often brought with them skills from the countryside. During World War Two, 'digging for victory' became a weapon of 'total war'. Now they have been decimated. Barely 200,000 remain.

I can reach my next destination, in the city proper, by bike along the railway path between Bristol and Bath. This path forms a blessedly traffic-free 'corridor' for wildlife (as well, to be sure, as the occasional mugger) passing right through the heart of Easton - one of the poorer neighbourhoods of Bristol and, in parts, just about as bleak as an inner city can get.

A short distance from the path on one side lives Mike Feingold. He grew up on a farm in East Africa - his father was among the first to export strawberries to Britain in the 1960s. He lived and worked in India for 10 years and has known Bristol for more than 30 years. From his multiple activities he aims to earn not much more than the equivalent of welfare (perhaps $6,000 a year), which he says gives him his freedom and his sanity. He reckons the most important 'zone' of all is 'Zone Zero Zero', pointing to his head.

During the course of a couple of hours in his house he sets out for me just about the most compelling case for permaculture I am to hear. He uses it as a coathanger, he says, on which to hook a series of related ideas: leaving the world in better shape than you found it; putting in more than you take out; replicating natural processes; valuing knowledge acquired by trial and error; knowing what works. In practice this means a lot of 're-s', some of which come well before you get to 'recycle' - 'reduce', 'restore' and 'reuse', for a start. He can think of about 11 in all.

Mike's intellectual engagement with permaculture is, nonetheless, subject to his personal engagement with the Easton community. The local Council has been selling off allotments very lucratively, claiming that noone can be bothered with them now.

Raised beds, bad backs

Among them in Easton is Gordon Road Community Allotment, built on the former marshalling yard of an abattoir. It is surrounded by an industrial estate where once there were allotments. It is now a magical place, heavily used by the local community, schools - and by people Mike describes as gently at odds with the world'. There's a wormery and a water-harvesting system. The handle on the door of the compost toilet comes, unfashioned, straight from an apple tree; Mike says he can spot at least another 40 handles in the tree.

The clay dug out to form a pond has been used to make the walls of a shelter, its frame and roof built with wooden pallets from the industrial estate, which also provides a limitless supply of cardboard for nodig raised beds, some of them raised even further for Asian women with bad backs. The people who built the shelter have left handprints in the clay, or traced patterns, or pressed in badges and bottle tops. Within it, an ingenious device clamps wood for whittling. Propped on the top of this is a blackboard listing tasks to be completed. We graze from delicious salad plants that elsewhere would be uprooted as weeds or ignored as inedible.

We move on to Royate Hill Allotment. The entire side of a small valley in the middle of Easton, once all but abandoned, has sprung back to productive life, accompanied by birdsong. Near a community orchard a young woman tends to her beehives and asks Mike for advice. …

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