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The problem is the solution


Day by working day, right in front of my nose, for the better part of 20 years, has been the *NI* office in Oxford. You might expect us to be at the cutting edge of design when it comes to our workplace. Not least because of my own behaviour, I know this is not quite the case.

So did Anna, our office manager, when she joined us a few years ago. She brought with her a wealth of experience, including collecting waste paper for Friends of the Earth on that uniquely British vehicle, an electric milk float, long before recycling became routine.

Pruning the raised beds: Anna, hard at work in the NI garden.

David Ransom

Her influence has been subtle. The design studio was rebuilt and properly insulated. Raised flower beds from Restore, a local community gardening project, were placed over what was once car-parking space as part of a ‘co-op-building exercise’ in the pouring rain. The beds are fertilized with compost made almost entirely from tea leaves, coffee grounds and banana skins. All of us, and our visitors, now take pleasure (and a few herbs) from the garden, sitting or meeting there whenever we can. This is where Anna and I are now talking.

The trouble is, she makes us look better than we really are. It’s not that we don’t do our best. We work hard to find the most sustainable sources of paper and ink for this magazine. We were recycling long before the local Council made it easy. Our electricity comes exclusively from renewable sources. But our collective instinct sometimes is to make grand gestures – say, install wind turbines or solar water heaters on the roof – then decide we can’t afford them. Anna, and a small working group, commissioned a report on our energy use. It turns out, naturally enough, that we are quite profligate: we can forget to switch things off; we sometimes open windows when the heating is on. What’s the point, Anna asks, of installing a wind turbine if all it does is allow us to feel more virtuous about wasting energy? First things first. Reduce our energy use, until everyone has forgotten that this was once ‘Anna’s idea’.

What does she think of permaculture? Well, she’s heard of it.

No garden, no matter

So have my colleague Fran and her partner Phil, an architect. Their house has almost no garden, so during the last few years they have cleared an abandoned allotmentˆ1ˆ (an immense labour, this) near the Thames in Oxford. They show me around. It now provides fresh organic vegetables for their family all year round – while at the same time feeding a fair bit of wildlife, which they no longer think of as ‘theft’. Only contamination by a Victorian waste dump beneath it is an unsolved problem.

Phil and Fran take a break at their allotment

David Ransom

Fran and I have known each other for years through the familiar stresses and strains of ‘work’. It is really quite odd to be talking with her about fruit and vegetables, about her discovery that the more she puts into this place the more pleasure she takes out of it. She has ambitions to take on another plot as well. At home, the tiny walled garden brims with propagating plants. Fran and Phil serve me soup made from their own leeks and potatoes. Quite delicious.

Shrinking footprint

As for me, my problem is that I’ve hit 60. Or rather – because my only real problem with this is that I somehow never expected it to happen – the time has come to face up to my age; the discouraging things that are happening behind my nose, if you like. And one problem with this is that I shall have very much less money to live on – perhaps not much more than a quarter of the ‘average industrial wage’ I seem to have earned for most of my working life. Better, even so, than the income of the average world citizen; but then the average world citizen doesn’t live in Britain.

Cock and barge: a couple of the carnivorous chickens that roam the wooded hillside behind the barge, which flies the Wiphala flag.

David Ransom

So, to put it another way, I am forced to reduce my ‘footprint’ and now live on a Dutch barge near Bristol. The barge was built in Holland in 1922. I’ve named her _Wiphala_, in tribute to the Andean peoples whose beautiful insignia bears this name – pointedly, imperial Spanish rarely uses the letter ‘w’, or ‘ph’ either. I fly a copy as a flag from my mast, to help account for the unfamiliar name to inquisitive passers-by.

The barge is moored to a spot where there are no ‘mains’ utilities: water, electricity (though large power lines pass directly overhead), gas or sanitation. So I have to provide for myself. Water comes through a garden hose, which takes an hour or so to fill two large tanks on the barge and lasts for about a week. Electricity comes from an on-board generator, which has to be maintained and filled with diesel – a foul and perilous process. Gas comes from a bottle, but I use very little, just for the cooking hob. Sanitation – well, I’ve yet to solve that one satisfactorily, and hope composting will provide an answer. Heat comes from a single wood-burning stove. It is extremely efficient, aided by excellent insulation inside the hull of the barge, and the fact that the water it floats on rarely freezes. This may not be luxury, but I mean to be comfortable. There’s even a washing machine.

Zone I

In any event, because I have become a little more self-reliant, and because I have to fetch and carry most things, I am much more careful about what I use, which can only be a small fraction of what I used when I lived in a house. I also know how much energy is used for what – particularly heating water. Above all, it really is a cheaper way to live.

I have invested in solar panels, which miraculously charge a bank of batteries. The energy that comes from them feels like ‘my’ electricity, and I don’t want to waste it. The panels are being monitored – I have so far ‘saved’ some 12.3 kilos of carbon. I like to imagine carrying them in a sack, which will get heavier with the years and save me a lot of money. But I’ve yet to equate this with what went in to making the panels and the batteries, or with what I continue to emit from my car, at least while I still need to travel to work.

Immediately around me is Zone I. Here I need to explain the ‘politics’. It’s easy to buy a barge like this for not much money – relative, that is, to the ludicrous cost of a house in Britain. But it’s a lot more difficult to find somewhere to live on it. Most rivers in Britain are controlled by British Waterways, who seem to regard them as leisure parks, an alternative to golf. Then again, you can move a boat. Things like a postal address, garbage collection, local taxes and voting can be problematic. You can very easily become lost to a system that doesn’t much like the look of you – which is, doubtless, why at least some of the 20,000 or so of us who live afloat in Britain wish to do so.

I’m fortunate that the Dutch family from whom I bought the barge have sorted most of these things out. So I am moored here, rather than somewhere nearer to where I work, in Oxford. The Dutch family owns some three hectares of wooded hillside with a frontage on the River Avon, and I rent the mooring from them. They’ve recovered it quite recently from a state of neglect, littered as it was with burnt-out cars, overgrown with brambles and bracken. The right to reside here seems to rest, among other things, on a photograph of boats moored to this bank, with the washing hanging out, in about 1946. On the opposite bank are inferior vagrant boats, occasional raves, two bawdy pubs and, at some distance, a chocolate factory.

Spring tides, when the river current reverses and the water rises towards the moon, sometimes combined with floods in winter, can create quite difficult, very muddy conditions. Then you are subject to the full force of nature, the vast flow to the ocean of silt from damaged land, the plastic that festoons the trailing branches of trees when the floodwaters recede.


But now, in springtime, it is bliss. Cormorants, ducks, swans, geese, rats, coots, owls, moles, badgers, foxes, wild garlic, apple trees, lilac, fish, all flourish in abundance. So do spiders – the best bug-busters you could wish for, deftly veiling the barge with renewable gossamer sails. A kingfisher, brilliant as a tiny parrot, sometimes perches on the mooring ropes. And, I do believe, otters have slipped back here to mate, blowing bubbles beneath my hull.

We are a residential community of a dozen or so people. My neighbour is the kind of genius who should rule the world but doesn’t want to: he can weld, plumb, solve complex electrical problems and fix motors. Next to him is a newly wed trapeze artist and her partner, a musician. Then an exhibition curator, her partner – a stone conservator, who spends a lot of time in Albania – and their baby daughter. A teacher. A truck driver. A young woman who has played volleyball with the Zapatistas in Mexico. Another young couple. And the Dutch family.

David Ransom

One thing we have in common is the absence of large sums of money. Another is the name Dave. Somewhere on the hilltop is Extreme Dave, a formidable drinker and breeder of horses. I am Posh Dave.

The site is already quite productive – though ‘permaculture’ might be associated in some minds with the fads beloved of people like Posh Dave. There are organic vegetable plots. Carnivorous chickens produce huge eggs and roam the site in a pack, attacking barbeque sausages (even, it has to be said, roast chicken), vegetables, flowers, ankles, clucking and crowing as they go. The consensus is that they are getting a bit too big for their feet.

Lie of the land

How might permaculture inform such a place? I know the lie of the land pretty well by now. But I lack any sense of design. After all, the land is owned by the Dutch family, while the rest of us rent and, I suppose, might be gone on the next tide.

Steve Pritchard, a permaculture designer from Edible Landscape in the nearby city of Bath, comes to the mooring for the better part of a day. I confess to my shortcomings, my lack of ‘vision’. We wander around the site. Then he sits under the trees for a couple of hours.

His report arrives a few days later. It is full of practical suggestions. Why not grow vegetables on the roof of the barge – improve the insulation, extend the growing season with warmth from below, and take it with me if I move? Why not use at least some recycled vegetable oil instead of diesel in my generator? Why not generate electricity from a turbine in winter’s fast river flow, when there is little solar power? Why not store and dry the logs I’ve retrieved from the river, to make an efficient and ‘free’ heating fuel? Why not harvest the flotsam that accumulates between my barge and the bank to grow mushrooms? Or use the abundant twigs in a ‘storm kettle’ to heat water (I’ve tried – it works!)? Catch fish from the river?

On the bank I could coppice the willows I have planted to prevent erosion; I could grow an ‘edible hedge’ of fruit bushes, their shade falling on the road and out of harm’s way.

Steve then comes up with a startling suggestion: coppice the huge ash trees, which overshadow apple trees and vegetable beds, rain seeds on to my barge and shed large branches without warning. Coppicing involves felling but not killing a tree, thereby encouraging new growth, which can be harvested in turn. The wood could be added to our stockpile of winter fuel.

Sadly, Steve does not recommend the imprisonment of the chickens, but he does suggest the planting of an orchard, where the chickens could scratch to better effect. Somewhere on the slope would be an ideal location for a ‘tree bog’ – a form of composting toilet that is, reportedly, very effective, and would help to fertilize the orchard.

David Ransom

I’m beginning to get the gist of this – it’s understanding the ‘beneficial’ links between things, not just the things in themselves, that matters. The interaction between everything around me, from the river to the soil to the tops of the trees, the sky beyond and the boats, animals and people in between, begins to seem at once intriguing and a little daunting. But that’s where the truly bright ideas come from.

I hand a copy of Steve’s report to the Dutch family and will see what happens – not today, nor yet the day after tomorrow, perhaps, but all in what I’ve come to recognize as ‘boat time’, which runs slow.

As for myself, in less than an hour I construct an experimental ‘no-dig’ raised bed from discarded scaffolding planks, cardboard boxes and newspaper on a piece of hard, barren ground in the clearing above the wood. I shall wait until next year, when it has more mulch and compost, to plant in it. But I have done something. •

  • 1 A plot of public land in British towns or cities, sized in ancient measures and considered sufficient to supply a family with fresh food.
  • New Internationalist issue 402 magazine cover This article is from the July 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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