When you’re living in a desert city of 10 million people in the developing world resources are stretched tightly. There’s not much room for nature in Lima, beyond the inevitable urban pigeons and a few hardy native birds that take advantage of the artificial oases of urban parks and gardens. There’s no space for wild places within the vast city limits, with one remarkable exception: Los Pantanos de Villa.
Los Pantanos is the sole protected natural area within the Lima urban footprint. It’s what’s left of the band of coastal wetlands that first allowed people to flourish in the desert. It’s why the original inhabitants built their towns and temples here, long before the Spanish dreamt of Incan gold and conquest. Over time the urban creep of the city has consumed much of these important habitats, and now Los Pantanos is all that remains, a surprising wedge of green constrained by dusty urban development and the sea.
In a city like Lima, an urban swamp becomes a treasure. Las Pantanos is an oasis of biodiversity here in the city. It has been named a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention1, which recognises its value as habitat for waterbirds on an international scale. When I visited Los Pantanos de Villa in November, when the migratory birds were just beginning to arrive for the summer, it’s importance to waterbird conservation was immediately evident.
It’s not just the waterbirds that make this place special, however. The surprising variety of wetland types within the reserve mean it supports a diverse array of life for such a small space. There are blackwater, saline, acidic, basic, freshwater and brackish water ponds, each with their own specific biological communities, from the algae in the water that form the base of the food chain to the surrounding vegetation and the animals that call it home.
The water that feeds this complex ecosystem originates high in the Andes. Wet season rainfall slowly percolates through the subsoil and aquifers, seeping it’s way beneath the desert and reaching the wetlands some four months later. Here it interacts with the ocean currents and salinity to well up to the surface, forming this intriguing mosaic of marshes and ponds. This slow and complex fluvial geomorphology brings life to the desert.
The park buzzes with dragonflies, damselflies and other insects with aquatic larval phases, which in turn provide rich pickings to the spiders and terrestrial birds. The dense thickets of reeds and mounds of samphire provide excellent habitat for any number of small critters that would otherwise be homeless in the urban expanse of Lima. There’s even a remnant population of wild-type guinea pigs, locally extinct, surviving in the centre of the swamplands.
The birds are the big drawcard though, and in summer the migratory species descend in their thousands to feed and breed in the reserve and on the adjoining beach. On the day I visited a small ceremony was held to herald the first arrivals of the season and honour the special connection between land and sea these wetlands represent. It’s a great way to get the community involved with the reserve and build traditions that contribute to environmental education and protection, and it’s in the area of community engagement and education that Los Pantanos de Villa really shines.
I was lucky enough to meet the team of biologists and rangers who take care of this rather special place. They are passionate people who understand that real, long-term environmental protection needs the support of the community. This means helping people to understand and value the ecology of the wetlands and other protected areas, and the team are involved in a lot of outreach and communication work. They’re building a new visitors information and interpretation centre and nurturing relationships with local schools and institutions. They understand that, in the crowded suburbs of Lima, the reserve needs to be a good citizen and get along with its neighbours. The local community is learning to love what used to be thought of as wasted land, and through engagement and education activities environmental awareness is increasing.
The more people who understand the value of the wetland, the better protected it will be, long into the future. Like the ripples from the wake of an Andean Duck, these changes will fan out and build public understanding and value of the environment as a whole, from the urban fringes of Lima to the shrinking rainforests of the Peruvian Amazon. These changes are the real impact of urban national parks and wildlife reserves: they provide an opportunity to connect city-dwellers with nature and sow the seeds of change. The most important thing is to get the conversation started.
Los Pantanos de Villa
What: Wildlife Refuge and wetlands complex, listed as a Protected Natural Area by the Ministry of the Environment, co-managed with the City of Lima
Where: Chorillos, a coastal suburb in the south of Lima, Peru
How: Take the Metropolitano mainline bus to Chorillos. From the bus station catch the yellow metro feeder bus. The Pantanos de Villa bus stop is on the main trail into the reserve.
Thanks to park manager Daniel Valle Basto and his wonderful team for inviting me to visit Low Pantanos de Villa and attend the welcoming ceremony for the birds. I’ll be back as soon as I can!
1. The Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971) — called the “Ramsar Convention” — is an intergovernmental treaty that embodies the commitments of its member countries to maintain the ecological character of their Wetlands of International Importance and to plan for the “wise use”, or sustainable use, of all of the wetlands in their territories.
Today is International Volunteers Day, apparently. There’s a day or a week or a month for everything, it seems, but volunteering is a good thing to stop and think about now and again. Volunteering – donating our knowledge, labour or skills for free – is a powerful way of creating the kind of future we’d like to see.
I’m volunteering on a big scale, spending a year working to help to develop skills and capacity in the team that tried to balance the social and economic needs for development with the protection of Peru’s network of incredible national parks and reserves. It’s a privilege to be doing what I’m doing, to have the opportunity to experience another country and culture, using my skills to help accomplish things that I’m passionate about. I’m incredibly lucky to have the opportunity, to have found myself at a place in life where I could just pack up and go, to be able to afford to spend an entire year away without a real income. How fortunate I am to have the chance to try to change things (and how bizarre it feels to find myself the ‘expert’ in anything).
You don’t have to do something as big and crazy as I’m doing to change things though. In fact it’s often the local, community efforts that make the biggest impacts and really change the way we live. Volunteering at home, as much as abroad, gives us the ability to touch other people’s lives and contribute towards the world we want to live in. When if comes to building a sustainable, communal, joyful future, volunteering our time and effort is one of the the most powerful things we can do.
Through voluntary efforts we can fill gaps in public services, ameliorating the worst impacts of inevitable shortfalls in government funding and capacity. Through volunteering we can take actions to support our beliefs and keep things moving in the direction we value, even when the government may have different ideas. Volunteers bring our communities together and help us become more in collective than we are on our own.
On a personal level, volunteering can be very rewarding. It allows us a chance to put our values into action, to connect with others who share a vision, to feel like we’re making a meaningful contribution to our community or to the planet. It lets us build new skills and try out our ideas outside of a traditional work environment. It provides opportunities to test new ways of working and thinking and to experiment a little. Altruistic collective action can be a powerful antidote to the individualistic consumption our culture promotes. Research suggests that getting our volunteerism on makes us happier, more socially-connected people who live longer lives.
It seems that in giving for nothing we actually receive. Certainly my year here in Lima will teach me much more than what I’ll leave behind. My life will be forever changed and new doors opened in exchange for some guidelines and improved protocols (it hardly seems fair, really…).
If you’re interested in the whole overseas volunteering thing there’s heap of different programs, from unskilled pay-to-go roles through to the kind of professional placement I’m in. You can give your time for a few days or weeks as part of broader travel, like I did with my orphanage garden work last trip, or you can make the project the whole point of the trip, as I’m doing now.
Closer to home there’s all sorts of ways you can get involved in building a better future. There’s fantastic community-based environmental programs like Landcare and Waterwatch (and their equivalents outside of Aus) that support volunteers to make real environmental changes. There are groups like Extra Hands that coordinate tree planting or clean-up days. If people are more your thing there are programs that help others get outdoors and learn about the environment, like WildCare’s migrant outreach program, or you can help out in a local school or museum or community garden.
If you’re better with animals than people and have the time to spare, it’s rather rewarding to be wildlife carer (though your sleep may suffer with wee ones I suspect the cuteness makes up for it). Less demanding but still rewarding is helping out at an animal shelter (as an ex RSPCA dog-walker I can confirm that payment in puppy cuddles is all kinds of awesome).
If you’ve got great business skills these too can be donated. Committees of community and volunteer organisations will always welcome a savvy treasurer or well-networked publicity officer. Musicians can donate performance time to raise funds for things they believe in, or raise the moral of others engaged in hard slog. Domestic gods and goddesses can bake and cook things to sell for profit or feed those in need (like many of us in Hobart did to feed the fire-fighters at the start of the year). Gardeners can donate surplus produce where it’s needed.
There’s plenty of unofficial volunteering too: simple things like helping out our friends and neighbours, sharing equipment, time or skills. Checking in on elderly friends, walking the neighbour’s dogs, mowing someone’s lawn (thank you Marcus for the many times you did this for me). For me there was the connections made the season I volunteered to help coach and manage a girl’s soccer team, and the friends made over a hot BBQ when I helped out friends run a stall at the Sustainable Living Festival as well as all the little things that tied my neighbourhood together. These simple acts help to connect us with each other and build a real sense of community. It’s a way to shape and change the place you live in and get to know others who value the same things.
You don’t have to be in a privileged position like me to get out there and make a difference. Use the opportunities you have to make a difference in your own backyard, in the community to make your home in, where you get to enjoy all the associated benefits, both of contributing to something you believe in and receiving the benefits of positive change in your neighbourhood.
And of course if you are thinking about the whole overseas volunteering thing, why not see what sorts of programs can use your skills? Within Aus there’s AYAD, AVI, AVID, ABV and the Red Cross, all involved in established aid and development programs, and internationally there’s groups like Doctors and Engineers Without Borders as well as a heap of great NGO programs in pretty much every place imaginable (like the CREES scientific volunteer program here in the Peruvian Amazon). Of course there are some dodgy “volunteer tourism” organisations too, so do your homework and take the time to see if there’s something that feels right for you.
It’s International Volunteer Day, which seems to me as good a day as any to think about how each of us can help create the kind of world we want to live in. And if that just happens to include a year in Peru, well really who could complain?
It’s that time of year again. The days are still hot, the soil still concerningly dry and the breeze still smells of smoke but they are getting shorter. Summer is slowly sliding into autumn.
The garden knows it. The leaves on the last potatoes have been yellowing. The beans, so prolific this summer, are finishing. A lone pumpkin is beginning to ripen on the self-sown vine. The red winter kale has finally admitted defeat in the face of powdery mildew and aphid attacks and gone to seed. Summer’s bounty is fading.
It’s been an odd growing season, and my first summer here at the Cottage. It was exceedingly hot1 and dry,2 with horrible winds that stripped the moisture out of everything. I don’t like to water much, but even my well-mulched, water-conservative garden has needed a good weekly soaking. The eggplants and chillies enjoyed the heat and I’m looking forward to harvesting a handful of aubergines. The tomatoes haven’t done so well though, or the zucchini: where I was expecting great gluts I’ve ended up scavenging from friends to gather enough for preserving. Still, I’ve had plenty to eat and largely kept myself in veg this summer (with the notable exception of carrots, of which I grew just one).
As the season progressed, so did my weekly harvest!
Now it’s time to prepare the garden for autumn and to stock my stores with the excesses of the summer. Yes, it’s relish time again!
The over-ripe tomatoes I scavenged from a friend’s garden have been turned into jars of rich, summer flavour. Soon that same friend’s surplus giant zucchinis will be cooked up with Indian spices for a spicy savoury relish. A couple of kilos worth of beans – green and scarlet runner – have been chopped and blanched and bagged up in the freezer for winter meals to come, and rhubarb has been stewed and frozen for winter porridge breakfasts. The apples that survived to worst of the weather only to fall prey to codling moth have had the edible parts rescued, been poached in vanilla syrup and stowed away: a delicious sweet treat despite the beasties. A good three kilos of potatoes are paper-wrapped and await a dark place to be stored.
It’s time, now, to prepare the garden for my winter crops. There are beds to dig, seeds to be sown, and if I don’t do it now there will be no backyard harvest through the cooler months. The soil needs a lot of love in places before much of anything will grow, so the compost bin has been shifted and I’m prepping green manure to get some much-needed organics worked in. One over-worked bed will lie fallow this season, then be planted out with herbs come spring.
For now, though, it’s autumn and winter veg I’m thinking of. I have interesting new heirloom seeds to sow: golden beets, fractal (romanesco) broccoli, ruby sprouts, mammoth leeks and purple cauliflower. Poor little plants will need to fend for themselves though, as soon I’m heading overseas again for a while. I’m relying on the kindness of friends and neighbours, on my little community, to tend my garden while I’m gone.
That’s the magic of a garden though: it doesn’t just grow food, it grows connections.3 This summer my surpluses have been shared with others. I’ve traded beans and potatoes for apricots and nectarines. I’ve swapped seeds with other growers. I was given the most amazing types of tomatoes by Pauline Mak and traded garden pest info with Provenance Growers.
My garden does so much more than feeding and nourishing me: it feeds the bees, provides home for the birds, it binds and enriches the fine black soil and it creates places for all sorts of crawlies to scuttle about. It creates a topic of conversation with friends and strangers alike, and allows the free trade of information and sharing of experience. It supports simple acts of giving and sharing and, like the sunflowers blooming down the bottom, spreads a little beauty through the world.
This is what my garden grows.
What about you? What’s happening in your patch right now? Are you starting spring planting? Still awaiting the thaw? Or, like my parents up in south-east Queensland, waiting for the saturated soils to dry out enough to plant?
What do you love about your garden? Tell me, what does it grow?
 Records were set for the hottest single day (41.8oC), the hottest summer overall (highest mean summer maximum) and the number of days above 30oC – source: Bureau of Meteorology.
 Only 39% of our average summer rainfall fell - source: Bureau of Meteorology.
 The social benefits of a garden – source: Irish Food Board.
As may be apparent, 2013 has got off to a busy start for me. Summers in Hobart are jam-packed with things to do, I’ve struggled to find time to write and I’m not as on top of things as I’d like to be.
It can be challenging to maintain balance during busy times and so often I hear people say that they’d like to be more environmentally-sound in their choices but they lead busy lives and they just can’t find the time. And so we let unsustainable choices sneak into our busy lives. We go to the supermarket to do our shopping, instead of visiting the local grocer and the farmer’s market. We drive places instead of cycling or walking. We buy ready-made and processed foods to eat on the run. Gardens get neglected… In the name of convenience, of saving time, we make a thousand small choices that make our lives less sustainable, that lock us in to being busier and busier, that have negative consequences on our health and the health of our planet, our one and only home.
If we really want to make this world, our home, a better place, sustainability needs to be a priority in our lives at all times, especially when we’re tired and stressed. That’s when our bodies and minds are telling us we need to slow down, to rest and to focus on the things that are really important: taking proper care of ourselves and our loved ones. That’s when we really need to nurture ourselves, and we do that best by making sustainable choices, by feeding ourselves wholesome and nutritious food, by connecting with our communities, by ensuring we breathe fresh air and get some exercise, by remembering that living in tune with our beliefs and values actually lowers stress levels and makes us happier.
So stop a while, take a moment to just breathe and remember how it is that you really want to live your life.
Making sustainable choices:
For me, I get through these busy patches by making sustainable choices part of my day’s structure. Daily routines and habits are much easier to maintain than big new changes, so when sustainability is part of your every-day lifestyle, sustainable choices just flow along.
Of course, I don’t have access to an endless well of time so some things do fall by the way-side when I get really busy. It used to be the healthy choices that I let drop. No time for a swim or a bush walk, no energy to cook a proper dinner, and I’ll just finish this or that before I head to bed (oh look, another night of not enough sleep…). Now I’m learning to stay off the computer when I’m tired, that blogging can wait. That I’ll feel better in the morning for cooking a real meal tonight and not opening that bottle of wine. That heading to the pool will clear my head and lower my stress, while an evening on the couch will do the opposite and that no-one is really going to notice if I didn’t do the cleaning this week, but I’m going to feel it I don’t get to the market and stock my kitchen with the sort of food I should be eating.
It’s taken an concerted effort to break these habits and I’m still working on it, but work it does and I’m getting through the busy patches now without dropping the things that really matter to me, without winding up sick and miserable as I push myself too far.
Learning new habits:
- Walk - the daily walk to work is so ingrained into my routines I don’t even think about taking the bus, plus the time and activity help me clear my head for the day ahead. Driving to work or the local shop doesn’t even occur to me now.
- Nourish - it’s very easy when busy to give into the temptation of easy food: processed stuff that will give you a quick energy hit but in the long run is bad for you and the planet (packaging, farming practices, food miles and the rest of it) but preparing and eating real food makes me feel better. When I’m tired and lack the motivation to cook I wander into the garden and find inspiration in what I can harvest there. I also over-cook when I can and stock my freezer with home-made insta-meals to get me through the busy times.
- Prepare - have the little things that help you make the right choices near to hand. I keep fabric shopping bags in places that mean I’ve almost always got one on hand and don’t get caught out needing plastic. I keep my swimming bag packed and hanging my the door. I have raw nuts on hand for snacking. I order seeds so I know I’ll get the garden ready!
- Share - turn chores into a social event by inviting friends, thus helping you to keep the commitment as well as spreading sustainable choices. I make dates with friends to sow the new season’s seeds, to go on foraging missions or get our preserve on to store seasonal surpluses.
- Decide - a friend introduced me to the concept of mindfulness a while back and it’s an amazingly powerful tool I use to keep myself going and being the kind of person I want to be. When I’m tired, grumpy or feeling over it I ask myself who I’m choosing to be, what impact will that choice will have on me? It’s usually enough to get me out and working in the garden or researching sustainability things!
- Stop - I’ve got into the habit now of giving myself a half-hour every evening to just sit and be quiet before bed; time I used to sacrifice in the name of productivity that now allows me to sift through my thoughts and feelings and work out where I’m heading each day. It’s keeping me grounded and has greatly improved the quality of my sleep.
How do you keep yourself on the right path?
I’ve just returned home from a failed attempt to do my usual weekly produce shop down at my local farmer’s market. I go most every Sunday to buy my fruit & veg, perhaps a little free-range meat, and catch up with the friendly faces. Not today though: today it was bedlam as the collective insanity that is Christmas hit the market at full force.
We seem to lose the plot a little at Christmas. I don’t know why. The market was jammed with festive season shoppers, forming huge queues to purchase must-have items like raspberries and cherries. I stood there, watching, feeling totally overwhelmed (I dislike crowds at the best of times) and wondering how much of the food they were buying would just end up as waste. Honestly, who needs 2 kg of raspberries, or 5 kilos of cherries (or in some cases, “and”)? Are they really going to be able to eat them all before they spoil? Who needs all that in one glut anyway, when the fruit will still be available next week, and the week after?
It was enough to get me feeling misanthropic, so I beat a hasty retreat home, brewed a pot of tea, put some calming oil in the burner and some soothing tunes on the stereo. Ah, so much better!
Please don’t lose the plot this Christmas. Remember it’s not about having the most heavily-laden table or all the seasonal goodies. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t found the perfect presents, or if you haven’t bought presents at all. No one cares if you’ve missed out on raspberries this year, or if the panforte didn’t set (sticky, but still delicious!). It’s about spending time with the people who matter to you and celebrating the things that really matter: family, friendship, love.
Please, remember what’s important this season. Be kind to people, slow down, smile. Take your neighbours something from your kitchen or garden. Be nice to the people working to serve you and remember to treat them like the human being they are. Say hello to people you pass on the street: go, on, make eye contact and say it like you mean it! Reach out to others and let them know you care. Take stock of just how lucky we are to be living this life, with all that we have, and do what you can to build the kind of world you want to live it, a place you’d be proud to pass on to your children.
All I want for Christmas this year is a better world: more sustainable, communal, joyful.
Day by day, it’s what I try to build. I think, perhaps, you’d like it too.
On that note, I’m taking some time out in January to focus my energy on other things. I wish you the very best over the holiday season, no matter what your beliefs, and look forward to what 2013 will bring. See you next year!
These last couple of weeks I’ve been feeling a little low. This time of year does it to me: I get over-scheduled, over-committed, under-slept, and with most folk getting busy with family commitments sometimes I feel pretty alone. I’m tired, and some days it can feel like a bit of a struggle to keep going, but then the little things come along that lift me.
This afternoon I took myself on a fossick around the garden. You see that luscious-looking big, buttery potato there? I grew that. Or more accurately, I provided the soil and the compost and the seed potatoes and the mulch, and it grew itself.
I’ve never grown potatoes before.
Neither have I grown the beans, beetroots, chard, oca and numerous other things doing well in my garden. It kinda makes up for the disappointments, like having only 3 carrots come up, and discovering the self-sown peas I’ve been nurturing were pretty sweet peas and not lovely food. Then there are the strawberries: what fruit has survived the unusually hot and dry conditions of late has been pilfered by the blackbirds: I have had one lone ripe berry.
Tonight I’m going to steam up that potato, diced into little cubes. I’m going to dice and fry some divine local free-range bacon (payment for assistance rendered) and throw in some broadbeans (donated by a colleague with a surplus) plus some chopped up garlic greens and sage leaves I picked this afternoon. I’ll squeeze over a lemon, taken from my friend’s tree, and toss the lot on top of some lettuce leaves that have evaded the worst of the recent weather in a shady part of my garden.
Between my patch of dirt and my community, I’m feeding myself. Tonight I’m eating outside of the system, far removed from the supermarket. I’m actually doing this, with my sad little garden that the heat has burnt and baked the soil to clay. I’m doing this in a rental house, with a full-time job and a life that takes me out and about quite a lot. I am doing this, and if I can do it, maybe so can you. Maybe together we can build ourselves a food community, connecting eaters with growers and using the land we have to grow the food we need.
Imagine that: a world without dependence on the big supermarkets, with their demands for unsustainable farming practices and shelves stacked with pretend food. A world where we know our neighbours and trade our backyard surpluses, where we’ve met the grower who sells us vegetables, where we’ve gotten close and personal with the animals that become our meat. Lower emissions, more sustainable farming, connected communities. Grow, forage, trade, cook: do it.
Sometimes all it takes is a humble potato to remind me what it’s all about.
Tasmanians, the Forest Peace Deal Agreement is going through the Upper House, where the legislation will either pass, or crash and burn with a huge loss of public faith and return to community division and ongoing stalemate.
The agreement isn’t perfect, I know, but it’s better than no agreement and it has involved compromise from both sides to reach. We can always build from here and work towards a better agreement once people have adapted to change and seen that the Agreement hasn’t led to wholesale economic collapse. Please don’t ditch the agreement because not every patch of high-value forest is protected, or not every forest job is saved. Extremism will never reach a compromise, on either side. The problems will never be solved by holding out for your own ideal of a successful outcome. Remember that it’s a step in the right direction to building a more sustainable future. The first step, with many more to come as we walk down the path together, as a cohesive community with a shared vision for the future.
Those against the peace deal – those who want unrestricted forestry at any cost, despite the reality of falling demand and industry decline, and those who will not accept that not all high-conservation-value forests can be protected – have mobilised opposition, further feeding bitterness and division in the community. They are petitioning the Upper House to reject the Agreement legislation and they’re creating a lot of noise.
Don’t let division and extremism determine the future of our State. Stand up for working together for long-term, sustainable outcomes for Tasmania. Sign the counter-petition and let our politicians know we support peace in our forests. If we don’t speak up, the voices of conflict will win. Rejection of the Agreement does not benefit anyone. Please raise your voice in support of a more sustainable future for Tasmania.
I have a few strange habits:
- I keep every rubber band that enters my house in a container in a kitchen drawer.
- The frilly tulle bags from jewellery shops get tucked into a box in a draw.
- I stack up old egg cartons on top of the fridge.
- Glass jars get washed up and stowed in a box under the table.
- A pretty box in the study stores used wrappings, packaging and ribbons.
- What plastic bags and tubs cannot be avoided are washed up and stored.
- I pile up plastic plant pots in an old plaster bucket under the house.
- Bottles of old engine oil get dutifully stored under the house.
- I bring home occasional piles of newspapers from work or bags of coffee grounds from my local cafe.
And yet, I’m not a hoarder. My home is small with little storage and I’m pretty strict about stuff. So why keep these things? Because they are still useful – to me or someone else – and needn’t be thrown away.
The rubber bands go to the market vendors who use the blighters to bundle their veg (with a few kept on hand because they’re always useful). The frilly tulle bags that still look brand new are taken back to the shop (eventually), saving the vendors money. The egg cartons get split between colleagues with chooks and the CWA shop (I tried using some as bio-degradable seedling pots this year, but it was a bit of a fail). The jars are re-used for storing dry goods and home-made preserves, with the excess passed on to a local charity for others to use. Rescued tissue paper and cellophane are kept to wrap another day, post-packs are recycled and ribbons re-used.
Those unavoidable plastics* are re-used to store fruit and veg in the fridge, and to freeze left-overs for future lunches (though I’m a little bit worried about the health implications of this). Pots are recycled (it’s best to sterilize them first, if you can) for the next lot of seedlings, now that I’m growing from seed, or passed on to gardening friends. The old engine oil goes to a guy who uses it for weather-proofing timber for his landscaping projects. Newspapers help light the fire, get shredded into the compost or added to mulch, while coffee grounds are deployed as slug and snail protection around pale green garden things.
This year’s seedlings shot up in recycled pots (but did less well in egg cartons), while an old olive tub gets used again for storing home-made hummus.
These things that would otherwise be thrown out as waste, added to the vast pile of landfill, are still useful. There is no need to throw them away. Each and every item that comes into my home came from somewhere, was made from something. Resources were consumed to make it and transport it to me, and living sustainably is all about conserving our resources as much as possible. Whether it’s the petroleum products in plastics or the plant nutrients in the coffee grounds, I feel I have a duty to make the most of the resources I consume and so I do my best to re-use and recycle.
What I really like, though, is the expression of pleasant surprise on the faces of shop-keepers and growers when I turn up with a bundle of tulle bags or rubber bands. I’m saving them money by my small acts, making a tiny contribution to reducing their operating costs and keeping my favourite businesses going. Now how’s that for sustainability?
Our little choices and small, simple acts can all add up and make a real difference.
* Any tips on how to go about buying locally-grown olives or other deli goodies without bringing home another plastic tub? How to store leafy veggies in the fridge without plastic bags? I’m keen to de-plastic my existence!
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Lest We Forget
It’s been just over 6 months now since I moved here to the Cottage, looking for a home that would better enable me to live the lifestyle I was after; something smaller, lower impact and more locally-focussed. It feels like a good time, now, with the weather warming and winter fading into memory, to reflect on the changes that have been made and the life I’ve been growing for myself.
So how have things turned out? Let’s take a look at my original list of desired aspects and see!
- North-facing, sunny position: a definite success! Once I hacked back the mirror bush that was shading out the morning sun, the Cottage has been filled with light. Sure, my armchair under the window is fading, but I don’t mind. Even on cold days, if the sun is shining the house warms up and stays warm until late evening. Even in the depths of winter, a sunny day means coming home to a warm house. Old but decent curtains help to keep the warmth in (though would be even more efficient if floor-length) and the tiled floor also adds to the thermal mass of the place. I’ve been seriously impressed: this old timber girl was far warmer through the winter than the previous modern brick place I was living in.
- Not open plan: There’s nothing open plan about this place and being able to shut rooms off made for much more efficient heating on those chilly winter nights. If I didn’t get the fire going I could use the electric heater to warm up only the room I was using, which was far more efficient and effective. On the other hand, once I had a good blaze going in the evenings I could open the door to the bedroom and know that by sleep-time it would be cozy warm in there. The place doesn’t feel pokey though, and with all the doors open the place is light and breezy.
- Insulated: Yeah, well, you can’t have everything, right, and the place is 100 years old… The roof here is not insulated and when I first moved in I discovered a few rather chilly draughts! The ceiling is timber panelling (huon pine, I believe), which is unusual, but turns out to have pretty good insulating properties. Well, at least once you’ve had your landlord get up there with gap filler and block up all the cracks and gaps where the timber’s warped with age. No longer are there 2 am “waterfalls” of cold air falling from the knots above my bed. I also sealed the sash windows and now, even in the spring gales with their 100 km/hr winds, no draught gets in. Between the timber ceiling and the proper curtains we stayed pretty warm through the winter, again much better than my old, semi-insulated 1990’s house.
- Workable kitchen with natural light: Ah, the kitchen. I compromised a little on the kitchen here and at first I hated it: dark, no storage, not enough bench space, a single sink and the cooker-of-fail. It took me a little while to figure out what to do about it! Fitting some construct-it-yourself shelving into the empty fridge nook (my fridge is too big to fit it) created an open pantry and solved my food storage problem, while a spare table and old fish tank stand were adapted to provide extra bench and storage space. The limited space is well managed now by having neat systems in place: everything has its place and the space works fine as long as you follow the system (woe betide if you don’t do the dishes for a day around here). The fail-cooker and I, well, we’ve come to an understanding. I’ve adapted what and how I cook and it mostly doesn’t burn my food. I’ve even managed to reduce the gloominess a little by sticking a cheap mirror up on the outside wall opposite the sole south-facing window. It’s subtle, but the reflected light does make a difference.
- Space for a garden: Oh boy, did I take on a bit much in the garden department! The backyard is decently sized and faces north, but had been woefully neglected. Still, with so much growing potential on display every time I look out these lovely big north-facing windows it was inevitable that I’d spend way too much time out there, wrangling it into shape. It’s still got a way to go (and if I owned, the whole yard would be terraced and turned into veggie beds) but it’s a lovely productive garden now, and I’ve had a surprising about of “volunteer” plants come up from things former tenants let go to seed. I’m not complaining about unexpected peas, leeks, shallots and celery! Given time and a liberal application of effort it would make the proper potager I’m dreaming of.
- Community: I got very lucky here. Not only is most everything in walkable distance, I scored great neighbours too! Admittedly I’m yet to meet anyone from the flats across the way, but I’m on good terms with my direct neighbours. The neighbours to the north are just plain brilliant. They’re happy to lend me tools, to mow my lawn when doing theirs and regularly stop for a chat. They keep an eye on my place when I go off travelling and I take care of their dogs while they’re away. I’m also getting to know the folks from local businesses I frequent and create a real sense of connection. It’s really lovely and I couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out.
So the move to the Cottage has been a success, though not without its dramas. A few year of neglect has meant lots of catch-up maintenance and it’s taken some lifestyle re-adjustment. When I first moved in the place felt quite small and I struggled with finding places for my stuff. Now the Cottage feels luxuriously big for just one and I’d happily share the space (though only with someone as systematically organised as me!). I do miss company, living alone, but it’s nice to not have to compromise on my ethics and values or to clean up anyone else’s mess.
In the next 6 months I want to look at how to run the Cottage even more efficiently, reducing my water and energy use and continuing to reduce the amount of STUFF I keep and use. This space challenges me to think about the choices I’m making and work to my values and I love it for that. The Cottage has very quickly become my sustainable little home.
How does your home shape your lifestyle?
One of the wish list items I was looking for when I chose my most recent home was a walkable neighbourhood, and I’m pleased to say I got it. Since moving here I barely use my car. I walk to the corner grocer, I walk to visit friends or to my favourite coffee haunt, I walk to the produce market on Sundays and five days a week I walk to work.
The weekday walk to work quickly became something I love, even in the midst of winter on those chilly Hobart mornings. Walking into town watching the sun rise, drinking in the peace of the dawn is a truly beautiful thing. I don’t even mind so much when it’s raining (unless it’s a proper downpour, in which case I might wimp out and take the bus): with a rain cover on my back pack and a waterproof coat I quite happily trundle along. The only really unpleasant weather is when there’s a freezing wind blasting down from the Mountain and I haven’t got a decent coat.
It’s a 35 minute walk to the office, if I don’t get distracted or decide to explore a different way. Just enough time to give me all those health benefits the “find thirty” people are banging on about, twice a day each work day. I’m getting regular gentle exercise (particularly important at the moment, with a nasty knee injury keeping me from bush walking and other more intensive activities) as part of my daily routine, but the walk also gives me time to calm my always-busy mind and take a look at the world around me.
There’s always something to see, even walking the same route most days. In Autumn there was the long, golden light and the falling of the leaves, and the discovery of local fig and apple trees ripe for the foraging. In winter I enjoyed the sparkling frosts and mountain snow and watching the city wake and shake itself from slumber. Now it’s spring I’m seeing this little city bloom and the smiles return to people’s sun-warmed faces. There’s always another little detail to notice and I try to remember to take my little pocket camera with me to capture some of the beauty I see.
Not only do I have time this way to stop and smell the roses (and I do love burying my face right into the petals while I deeply inhale), I have time to put my thoughts in order, to properly wake up before work in the mornings and to relax each evening before I get home. It’s wonderfully good for my mental health, this walking business. I also get time to notice what’s going on in my little city: to see the new businesses opening and, all too often, the shops that have closed (last week the butcher specialising in local free-range meat who always waved as I passed, now another mainland chain butchery – please support your sustainable local businesses!).
I walk to work. I smile at the people I pass on the way and mostly they smile back. I keep pace with the changes around me and I notice the weather and the seasons more. I appreciate the days when the sun shines and the breeze is gentle, and I feel good about myself for still walking when the weather’s less kind. I care for my body, mind and spirit while saving money and stepping a little more lightly on the planet at the same time. That’s the very essence of sustainability!
How do you make your way to work each day? Can you find a lower-impact route that fits with your daily routine?
Before I moved here I took the bus to work and used the time to listen to podcasts, alighting a stop or two early to get a bit of a walk in. For previous jobs I’ve taken trains, caught ferries and cycled, and yes, even done the dreadful thing and driven where a viable alternative could not be found, though I car-pooled when I could: every bit helps!
If it’s too far to walk or public transport’s just not your thing, can you dust off your bike and cycle on in? It’s Ride2Work day tomorrow, the perfect time to give cycling a try!
Mostly though, I have to recommend it: walk where you can. You might just enjoy it.
Have you ever noticed how much food grows in our urban spaces? Here in Hobart I know where to find elderberry trees, blackberries, olives, apples, quinces and figs. As I’m slowly learning a little more about edible natives I’m discovering a whole new range of plants to scavenge for a free feed. The urban bounty isn’t restricted, however, to the plants that grow between the cracks. There’s also plenty of edible goodness going to waste in other people’s gardens. Who hasn’t seen a lemon tree laden with un-picked fruit and longed to clamber over the fence for a handful of fruit? After all, there’s no point letting it go to waste!
But as well as being illegal, trespass is plain bad manners. So when walking a new route home one day and stumbling across a heavily-laden little cumquat tree I resisted the urge to just help myself and summoned up the courage to knock on a stranger’s door. And you know what, permission to pick all I wanted was granted (though I did have to come by a couple of times before I caught someone at home). The next free Sunday I wandered on down and filled up my little bag then spent a few quiet hours preparing the fruit to preserve. Juicy little balls of sour in a sweet-spiced syrup: juice, honey, sugar, cinnamon, clove and brandy, stowed away for a Christmas treat and as gifts-in-kind to helpful friends.
Did you know cumquats are fiddly little things to peel? How my hands ached the next day! It turns out though that the peel is edible and I should have done my research first. Ah well, next time I’ll preserve them whole.
Of course, there’s a price to pay for picking with permission: a jar or two of your handiwork delivered to the grower to show your thanks. I hope she likes them! There’s also something quite nifty to gain: another link into creating community, building trust between neighbours and breaking down the walls we construct along property lines. We know each other’s names now, the cumquat grower and I. We’ve enlarged each other’s world, just that tiny bit more.
Tips for urban foraging:
- Be certain you know what you’re collecting: stick to things you can readily ID. Take an expert with you when foraging for mushrooms (and if you know one in Hobart, please point them my way!).
- Avoid collecting from plants along major roads; they’ll be covered in car exhaust crud.
- Only collect from plants you’re certain haven’t been sprayed (particularly problematic for blackberrying).
- For native plants leave enough to share with the wildlife; they need the food more than you.
- Ask for permission before harvesting from private gardens if you’re crossing the property line (I’m less circumspect about collecting fruit from the other side of the fence, especially if it’s clearly being left to rot).
- What goes around comes around: always pass on something made with the product to growers who donate.
What have you foraged from your neighbourhood?
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.
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.