Starfish, Lady Bay, Tasmania.
Hang in there, you’ll make it through.
Emma is a food blogger, former registered nurse and perennial uni student, living in Brisbane, Australia who loves taking photos of just about anything. She blogs about food and shares things that inspire her at www.asplashofvanilla.com and has kindly agreed to share her vision of the shape of things to come.
Huge thanks to Emma for joining the conversation. Guest contributors are most welcome!
Toni has very kindly asked me to do a guest post on what sustainability means to me and the kind of future I’d like to build so I hope I can do her justice. I’m afraid I don’t have any definitive ideas though; this is mainly just the way I try to make my way through the world.
Growing up, I had an unconventional childhood in northern NSW living on a hobby farm. I’m influenced by my upbringing in that I’m passionate about healthy, ethical food and living however am conflicted by my city living, modern lifestyle and often struggle with that. I love tea and books, will never buy an eBook reader and also, apparently I’m a resister (those who don’t use Facebook) which I think is quite funny.
The definition of sustainability seems simple enough when you read it: maintaining our present human, social and environmental needs while making sure we plan for future generations. As most of us know, it’s actually hugely complex and depends on where you live in the world, in your local community and your financial and social capabilities.
We’re living in some crazy times currently and in the western world we’re inundated with massive amounts of information and research studies all conflicting with each other – is sugar a toxin; should we eat meat; is coffee healthy or not; do we over screen for medical conditions and is this harmful or beneficial – are just a handful of issues which plague me. And I don’t know about anyone else but grocery shopping has become a minefield of ethical, health and social considerations – do I buy the Coles-brand organic tinned tomatoes or the Australian company, non organic, low BPA tinned tomatoes? Aaaargh. *Head implode*
To me personally, sustainability means living a simpler, more thoughtful life and here are some things I do:
- Buy produce from local greengrocers and organic online sources;
- Use more traditional methods of cooking and less appliances;
- Sometimes buy treats like coffee or chocolate from fair trade sources;
- Use old appliances until they break down before buying a new one;
- Grow herbs and flowers – it’s cheap, satisfying, healthy and helps us all breathe a bit easier;
- Be kind to each other;
- Understand that not everybody can afford to buy fancy organic food – I can’t stand the middle-class self righteousness regarding healthy, ethical living (OMG you have to eat goji berries, no wait this week its purple carrots). If you have a bunch of kids to raise or a lower paying job then you do the best you can – better your kids eat cage eggs and tinned baked beans as part of a healthy diet than eat junk food. Plus, lower paid workers are often the hardest working – aged care nurses, cleaners, child care workers, carers, gardeners; yet they are contributing hugely to the world we live in;
- Walk where you can;
- Buy and restore old or second-hand furniture;
- Use natural substances like cheap vinegar for cleaning;
- Use your local parks and gardens – we use our local park and it’s mostly empty! If we don’t use them, the council will tear them down and put up a multi storey car park or something;
- Don’t feel bad for liking nice things – having a hot shower and spraying on some perfume can lift my spirits more than anything, as can a nice cold glass of wine or a piece of cheesecake or going out to dinner. Everyone needs these things sometimes; it’s called quality of life!
I’d like to see a future where people still care about where they, and the world they live in, came from. It saddens me that we won’t have libraries one day, that iPhones and iPads are taking over the world and people aren’t communicating like they used to. It bothers me that people want what everyone else has: it’s a bit cultish to blindly do what everyone else is doing, we should be more evolved than that surely?
In saying that, I am seeing a move back to more traditional ways. For example, there’s a significant film camera revival happening at the moment which I love. Digital photography is wonderful but film is special. I also love that there are still so many people who love books: respect! I hope this continues into other avenues of life.
Thanks for reading and I’m looking forward to hearing other ideas about what you’d like the shape of things to be!
Over the weekend I spent a bit of time in the garden, weeding, composting and mulching. I’m preparing beds for the month ahead, keeping myself motivated through the hard graft (the gardens here are seriously neglected) by daydreaming about the harvests to come. As well as thinking about what will do well in my garden and what I like to eat I’ve been giving a bit of thought to biological and genetic diversity and wondering how my plantings might help to keep rare species and varieties alive.
So what’s the problem with food crop diversity? The limited types of plants we grow, and the few varieties (genetic strains) of those plants we do sow.
Modern agriculture promotes the growing of only a small sub-sample of possible food plants. The plants grown have been selected over the years for various reasons, including high yields, easy harvesting, long shelf-life, market familiarity and easy processing. As western industrial systems of agriculture have expanded across the world, western crops have moved with them, replacing traditional food plants. We’ve lost awareness of many alternative food plants along with the knowledge of how best to grow them, and along the way we’ve lost access to many of the food plants best suited to growing conditions in many parts of the world, and to the conditions predicted in a climate-change impacted future.
As farming has industrialised we’ve also become reliant on a small handful of the known varieties of the plants that have become our dominant crops. Where a century ago there were 400 known varieties of peas in cultivation, now there’s only 25 that are commonly grown and most of the original 400 have gone extinct. Although it might not seem important – after all we still have peas – this loss of genetic diversity is really quite worrying: genetic diversity is the thing that lets us adapt crops to changing conditions, environments and diseases.[1, 2] If we lose the genes, we lose the means to adapt our food plants to new growing conditions. This is a huge concern for food security, putting our agricultural systems at risk of collapse due to drought, climate change, plant diseases and even global politics – agribusiness is big business.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost from the world’s fields – that’s how big the problem is. Some governments and science organisations are so concerned that they’ve established a secure seed bank to preserve rare seeds as best as possible, behind steel doors in a vault built into a mountain beneath the permafrost in the Arctic circle.[1, 3, 4]
Although it’s not only the lost biodiversity that’s the problem – there’s related issues about fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide use , as well as lost potential medicinal and biotechnological properties, farming knowledge and cultural traditions – it’s the part that I can do a little something about in my own back yard*. I can plant unusual crops and rare varieties of veggies in my little patch, preserving diversity when I collect seed for the next year and expanding my culinary world at the same time. I’ve taken my day-dreams of fresh greens and home-grown spuds and checked them against growing guides and seed catalogues, getting an idea of what plants and varieties will do well on my fine, claggy soil (I could spend hours looking through seed catalogues, dreaming of gardens that will never be…). I’m choosing for suitability, flavour and biodiversity, tracking down suppliers of unusual, heirloom and organic seeds. There’s a world of weird veg out there that I can’t wait to explore!
Backyard-friendly unusual veggies that I’m contemplating growing include salsify, skirret, salad burnet, oca, mizuna and elephant garlic. I’m also planning to plant unusual varieties of more familiar crops:
- blue sapphire potatoes - seriously, purple spuds that are tasty too – What’s not to love?
- Chioggia beetroot - it’s stripey!
- purple sprouting broccoli - I grew this last year and am hooked
- “Caspar” white eggplants – early harvesting, so hopefully I’ll have better luck than I did last summer.
…and whatever else I come across that’s just a little different.
I’ll find out what works, save seed from the successes and grow them again next season, slowly selecting the genes that do best right here, creating a garden with a genetic profile that’s all it’s own.
What usual food plants or rare varieties are your favourites? What’s the weirdest edible you’ve ever grown? Know any good sources for heirloom seeds or kooky seedlings? Let us know what makes your garden a little more biodiverse!
Sources for seeds or unusual seedlings (Australia):
In Tasmania and interested in food security? Public lecture: Food Security and Nutrition – The GM Question
- Who? former Chief Scientist of Australia and CSIRO Fellow, Dr Jim Peacock AC
- Where? Stanley Burbury Theatre, University Centre, Sandy Bay campus
- When? 10th July 2012, 6.00 – 7.30 pm
- How? RSVP by email to UTAS.Events@utas.edu.au
 Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (2010) Crop biodiversity: use it or lose it.
 Longyearbyen (2012) Banking against Doomsday; The Economist, March 10th, 2012.
 Altieri MA (1999) The ecological role of biodiversity in agroecosystems; Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 74, Pp 19–31; Elsevier.
 Altieri MA & Merrick LC (1986) Agroecology and in situ conservation of native crop diversity in the third world; Chapter 41 in Wilson EO (1986) Biodiversity, Part 3; National Academy of Sciences, Smithsonian Institution, USA.
* I can also do something about it through my grocery shopping, steering clear of the supermarkets for my produce, buying meat from rare-breed livestock and selecting unusual veg from the farmer’s market and local grocer.
Lake Pedder in winter, Tasmania
“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
― John Steinbeck
I’m writing this on a Monday – that dread day of the week – telling you that life is beautiful.
Thanks to a weekend with the most excellent company, filled with shared laughter, food and affection, I’m feeling totally in love with life. My perspective is refreshed and I can see quite clearly that my life is amazing.
I look around me and see so many good things: the little cottage that’s become a cozy home, the community of warm and inspiring people I’m connecting with, the astonishing natural beauty of this place (that I get to appreciate every day), the loving and inspiring people I’m fortunate to call friends and the many excellent adventures I’ve had and have yet to come. In a few weeks’ time I’m off on an adventure of a lifetime with one such friend: the Atacama Desert and Machu Picchu (I’m almost imploding with excitement about this!). I have a job I enjoy, working with people I like and respect. I wake up in the mornings and I want to get out of bed, to see what the day brings.
This little corner of the universe is a pretty damn special place to be. This life – my life – is something astonishing. My life is amazing. It wasn’t always so.
Not so long ago, my life looked very different. I was lost, defeated and seriously ill. Disaffected with my career, isolated in a State where I knew no-one and with my life tied to another who was pulling me in the opposite direction to where I needed to be, it was a very different picture indeed.
I was not living my values, I was not listening to my emotions and I was very, very stressed. Every ounce of energy I had was expended running as fast as I could just to stay still. They call stress the silent killer, and they’re really not kidding: I developed severe Grave’s Disease, an auto-immune condition triggered by stress and a latent genetic susceptibility. I lost the best part of 5 years of my life to this illness and I lost my will to fight, instead watching my life slip further and further from where I wanted it to be.
Eventually, after two doses of radio-iodine, my body recovered and I finally found the energy to start re-building my life. It was a long, slow process, filled with challenges and difficult lessons, but it’s brought me to the place I am now, and for that I will be forever grateful.
Being sick was awful. Extracting myself from the unhappy mire that had become my life was one of the hardest choices I’ve ever made, but these experiences helped me to build the life I have today. Worth it? Yes, several times over.
- Life in tenuous, uncertain; the future rarely turns out the way we plan. Stop waiting, stop telling yourself “one day” and start living now.
- If your thought processes seem a little broken or you just can’t keep your head clear, find a good psychologist. Persist until you find one who feels right for you; it’s worth every cent.
- Without risk there is no reward. Taking risks challenges us and makes us grow. Playing safe constrains and cripples us. Put yourself out there.
- Learn to be resilient: build the support structures, emotional strength and coping mechanisms to roll with life’s punches and make the best of it. Fighting things you can’t change is a waste of time and the universe doesn’t give a damn about fairness.
- Stress is your body and brain telling you that something is wrong. Chronic stress is a sign that something is fundamentally off-track in your world. Find it and change it.
- Where you can’t change the circumstance, try changing your perspective. Sometimes looking at things a different way can change your whole world.
- As much as possible, live your values. Work out what they are, then how to build them into your every day: life feels much less like hard slog once you stop fighting yourself.
- Don’t underestimate yourself: you will be amazed at what you can learn / achieve / withstand once you’re making those choices for the right reasons.
- Trust your instincts. Our brains are processing so much more information than we’re consciously aware of and feeding it to us as gut reactions.
- Surround yourself with the kinds of people who bring out the best in you. Choose friends who inspire, motivate and encourage you to be the best version of you. Avoid the people who try to make you less than you want to be.
- Tell the people who matter how you feel. Be honest with them and with yourself, ask for what you need, give what you can and love freely.
- Make mistakes, and forgive others for making them. Remember that everyone deserves a second chance, including you.
- Take good care of yourself: no-one else can do it for you, so it’s up to you to work out what you need and provide it for yourself.
So have I won the war? No, but I have learnt how to win the battles that really count. I still take on too much, get over-stressed and under-slept and let life’s knocks bowl me over now and again. There are many lessons I’m going to need learn repeatedly: the ones about balance, about the warning signs of stress, about taking on too many things and trying to control too much, about security-seeking, risk avoidance and resilience. There will be many times I fall down, sliding back into old, broken thought patterns and behaviours. I will fail again and again and again; that is inevitable. But you know what? That’s not what counts.
What matters is picking yourself up again, dusting yourself off and getting back on that bloody horse, no matter how many times you fall. It’s remembering who you really want to be and putting in the work to get there. It’s about learning from each fall, challenging your behaviours and beliefs and finding a better way forwards, building the shape of things to come. It’s about making change sustainable, and stopping occasionally to look around and see just how far you’ve come.
So who do you want to be?
 Unless you’re a woman on the contracetive pill, in which case your instincts may well be broken.
Calvert’s Beach, Tasmania
Take a moment to just breathe.
These days I think most everyone who’s interesting in food – from either a taste or a sustainability perspective – has discovered the benefits of shopping at local farmer’s markets*. Fresh, local produce that tastes great and supports the local community: what’s not to love?
There’s a lot of good information out there about the benefits of shopping at your local market and avoiding the supermarket produce aisles:
- The food is fresher, thus packed with more nutrients and will keep fresh for longer.
- You can get a broader range of varieties, bred for flavour and to suit local conditions, rather than shelf-life and supermarket aesthetics.
- You’re supporting smaller farmers who tend to manage their land more sustainably than the big agri-business growers that supply the supermarkets (where often decisions are made too far away from the land).
- You’re supporting the local economy, investing directly into your own community instead of creating profits for multi-national corporations.
- You’re shrinking your carbon footprint by purchasing food that’s locally grown and in season, avoiding energy use for storage and transport.
These are all very good reasons to consider shopping at farmer’s markets (though there are potential down-sides in terms of global food security, affordability and global distribution of wealth, but that’s a complicated discussion for another day) and what originally got me out of bed on a Sunday morning to head down to Farm Gate, but it’s not the main thing that keeps me coming back.
What keeps me supporting my local market is the sense of community this simple activity builds. Sometimes I’ll wander the market with a friend, making new connections as we meet people they know, but often I’m happy to wander alone and strike up conversations as I go, a question about growing techniques or flavour combinations turning into a connection over shared interests. Over time I’ve come to know a few of my favourite stall holders and growers, learning about their businesses and the passions that drive them to produce small-scale, high quality food.
There’s Ross and Matt with their free-range heritage-breed pork products, who have made me finally understand what the fuss over bacon is about. There’s the amazing Paulette of Provenance Growers, with her near-encyclopaedic knowledge of unusual edibles and native herbs who is enabling my ever-expanding herb collection (and her mum, who keeps me happily supplied with finger limes). Mark of the Naked Carrot and grower of tasty micro-veg has a ready smile and says nice things about my photography, and Masaaki Koyama makes the best sushi I’ve ever eaten (and has cooked for Iron Chef Sakai!).
Through these talented cooks and growers I’ve learnt more about where my food comes from and the challenges local farmers face. I’ve learnt what to do with broad beans and mizuna, eaten purple spuds and slippery-jack mushrooms and ditched growing parsley for the tastier native sea celery. From the market I’m learning what to sow and harvest each season in my own little patch, when dairy goats produce the best milk and how to cook a cassoulet, but more than that I’m making friends with the people who feed me, connecting a little deeper with my local community.
From the corner store to your favourite café, food has an enormous power to draw people together, and no-where have I found that more strongly illustrated than at the market. These days I look forward to catching up with my favourite market people as much as to the delicious produce I’m going to be bringing home.
Have you nurtured a sense of community through food? Got any ideas of how we can connect our communities through food in places without farmer’s markets or where socio-economic drivers keep people away? I’d love to hear about community gardens, co-ops and other projects that grow more than just food and feed more than our bellies.
Fungi climb a tree, Powelltown State Forest, Victoria, Australia
If you can’t change the situation, try changing your perspective.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve finally been able to get a start on the gardens here at the Cottage. What a sorry state they are in! The soil’s horribly compacted and woefully lacking in organic matter (with the exception of last year’s potato bed and a spot where mint had gone feral) and decidedly lacking in worms. There are a few of the lovely crawly things about though, and I noticed lots of tiny little wormlings when I gave the compost a good a stir on Sunday.
Aside from planting out a few potted herbs that desperately needed proper dirt and transplanting some self-sown seedlings I’ve discovered about the place, my gardening activities have largely focussed on weeding. Not your usual keeping-the-garden-beds-clear type work, but serious weeding on the slash-and-burn scale. You see, like many older rental properties my garden is home to grand collection of well established declared and noxious weeds.
What is a declared weed? One that’s listed under relevant legislation banning it from sale and requiring active management to control it’s spread. Here in Tassie it’s the Weed Management Act 1999, and legislation decrees that:
(a) A person must not import, or allow to be imported, into the State any declared weed except with the written approval of the Secretary.
(b) The tolerance level for declared weed seed in imported grain will be 0 seeds per kilogram.
(c) Landowners and managers must take all reasonable measures to control the impact and spread of a declared weed.
(d) A person must not propagate, trade or otherwise distribute declared weeds or anything carrying declared weeds except -
I. transport for purposes of disposal and
II. sale or transport for purposes other than disposal where authorised by the Secretary.
(e) A declared weed must be disposed of in a manner which will not result in further infestation.
(f) A declared weed must be eradicated from areas of the State where this is considered feasible.
(emphasis is mine)
So far I’ve found 4 weed species in my garden that are listed as declared or of concern in Tasmania: fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), mirror bush (Coprosma repens), English ivy (Hedera helix) and cottoneaster (Cottoneaster sp.). It’s going to take a lot of hard work, but I’m determined to do my best to get rid of them. The mirror bush is fairly easy: cut it down and paint with poison (likely many times over). The ivy and fennel present more of a problem as they’ll keep coming up from runners and seeds. The cottoneaster I’m afraid I’m going to have to live with, as it’s a 5 m tall tree and felling that is going a little too far as a renter!
It is worth remembering that I rent, when I’m out there labouring away in the garden. Sometimes I think I’m a little insane putting so much hard work into someone else’s garden with no long-term reward. After all, there are reasons weeds are so common on rental properties: they’re hardy, almost impossible to kill and will survive even the most neglectful and brown-thumbed of tenants. When I feel like giving up, though, I remember the impact of weeds on the environment.
Weeds take over, choking both native vegetation and agricultural land. They reduce the habitat available for native animals and often provide a competitive advantage for feral animals. They change the structure and function of an ecosystem, altering soil structure and chemistry, water flows, food chains and biodiversity. Some are poisonous to native animals and livestock: introduced onion weed is causing a horrible liver disease that is killing wombats in the Riverlands. The Australian Government estimates the cost of weeds to agriculture alone at $4 billion per year (cost of control plus lost production). Weeds are bad news!
My first proper job as an ecologist was monitoring the condition of creeks and rivers around Brisbane. It was a frank and depressing education in just how bad weeds can be, with waterway after waterway choked with introduced weeds, the native bank-side vegetation replaced with garden escapes and other ferals. Stopping the spread of weeds matters, and to do that we need to do our best to eliminate sources of seeds and runners. That means:
- Getting informed about what are the problem weeds in your area (your local Council is a good place to start)
- Cutting down and pulling out weeds where possible
- Trimming weed flowers and fruits before they set seed
- Disposing of garden waste properly, instead of dumping it in the bush or other places where seeds can spread
For me, it means I’m going to spend many more hours out in the garden, wrangling the weeds and fighting the never-ending battle against the invaders. I hope you will join me.
It’s World Environment Day, and here at Shape of Things to Come HQ we’re trying hard to keep our cynicism in check. Y’see, doing your bit for the planet isn’t exactly a once-per-year event and I tend to get a little frustrated with the types of tokenistic actions these sorts of ‘awareness’ days generate. World Environment Day it remains though, and as I lay in bed this morning, procrastinating over leaving my warm bed to confront the cold, grey morning, I thought about what I could do to mark the day.
It strikes me that today is a good day to initiate change; to think about and alter your lifestyle just a little to shrink your environmental impact. It’s a good day for beginnings, or in my case an ending: I’m stopping dyeing my hair.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a few months now, after giving my hair a break from regular chemical baths. I know the ingredients in your average supermarket bottle of hair dye aren’t exactly great for the environment, then there’s the plastic packaging, the money spent and the extra water and electricity used (for the long shower to wash the excess colour out). On top of that there’s some scientific suggestion that the chemicals I’ve been dumping on my head aren’t particularly good for me either, though it’s worth noting that to date there’s no solid evidence of harmful effects of hair dye on human health.
What’s in permanent hair dye that might not be so great?
- Hydrogen peroxide, an oxidative bleaching agent that’s not so bad in small quantities.
- Ammonia, an alkaline that splits the hair cuticle that’s highly toxic to aquatic animals.
- Diaminotoluenes & diaminobenzenes, blue colourants that have known toxic effects and may be contact allergens.
- Phenols & naphthols, red colourants that may act as endocrine disruptors (things that can mess with your hormones).
- Resorcinol, benzodioxoles & chlororesorcinols, yellow-green colourants that vary in toxicity and environmental harm (I couldn’t find much information on these).
So giving up on dyeing my hair seems like a better deal for both the planet and my poor scalp, as well as for my wallet. It seems like such a simple thing I can do to make my life a little more sustainable, but I’ve got to admit I’m still a little worried about it.
It’s not just vanity, although I do have a surprising amount of grey coming through these days and I’m really not keen on rocking the two-tone look as the lightened dyed hair grows out. This is the first sustainability decision I’ve made that will affect the way other people perceive me. I’m changing the way I look, showing my greys in a youth-obsessed world and not conforming to societal expectations. Is it ok to rock the greys when you’re single or will I scare potential suitors away with my hippy ways and signs of ageing?
Most of all though I’m going to miss colouring my hair purple-black in the winter. I love the splash of colour against my washed-out winter complexion and just looking a little bit different. Perhaps I’ll give dyeing my hair with henna and indigo a go.
How are you marking World Environment Day this year? Are you embracing the tide of re-usable plastic coffee cups and plant-a-tree give-aways or are you as under-whelmed and cynical as I’ve become?
Please share your stories of the little ways you’ve lightened your impact a little more permanently.
Snow gentian (Gentianella sp.), Mt. Wellington
Treasure the small joys and ephemeral beauties of daily life.