Getting back to the garden

23 04 2009

When I was asking around for ideas about how cultural & heritage organisations could provide more of an impetus to environmental actions, two people (let’s credit them, Ian Haynes from Cimex Ltd and Colin Hynson from Norfolk Museums Service) said that Transition Towns had a lot of potential in that it is a grassroots movement but that it could do more to connect better with education and cultural organisations in their local communities. Ian said it wasn’t engaging as much as it could with the education sector, tapping into the Sustainable Schools initiative. Colin said that TT wasn’t engaging the cultural heritage sector enough.

Having been to my first TT meeting of a new group starting up in my locality, I can see how this happens. It’s a very informal, ground-up movement that starts up in people’s houses. However, I did find the meeting very positive. One positive thing is that the funding for our group came from Lewisham Council, so it is officially endorsed, at least in our area. Also, I’ve since heard that two of our Ward Assemblies want to spend some of their £50,000 Mayor’s Fund on sourcing allotmentse and other environmental actions.

The other positive thing is the impact of the film we watched, Rebecca Hosking’s A Farm for the Future. I found this quite revelatory. For many years, I’ve been vaguely aware of permaculture and new approaches to farming, but not strongly aware of the connection to climate change. This film very clearly puts into context the relationship between climate change, oil and food. In summary, the future of farming is gardening, a new kind of gardening that is designed for maximum yield for less input and highly nurturing of biodiversity. She visits some ‘forest gardeners’ in Wales and Devon, who describe what they are doing as ‘design’ and ‘gardening’ not farming. Their intelligence glows. Their gardens are beautiful, humming with life and producing more food than their families can eat. Hosking also visits a Shropshire farm where they don’t need to bring the cows in for winter. They know their grass pasture won’t be churned up because their father experimented for years to create a mesh of 20 different grass varieties (rather than the typical three). Also, their soil doesn’t need to be ploughed and reseeded. Hosking says ‘But we’ve ploughed the soil for 10,000 years. Are you saying we don’t need to plough?’ She then shows how the mechanisation of ploughing has depleted the soil quality and also the food web that biodiversity depends upon.

To consider that we should stop what we have been doing for 10,000 years, to end our human heritage as farmers, is pretty radical. When we suggest that we need to stop clearing wilderness and restore biodiversity, the default response is ‘we can’t go back to being hunter gatherers’. This response is either accompanied with ‘You’re talking all Garden of Eden idealistic nonsense’, or ‘People have life too easy now, they would never face the hardship’.  Hosking’s film shows that we don’t need to go back to being hunter gatherers, but we must go forward as intelligent gardeners.

What does this have to do with the cultural heritage sector? Well, it raises questions about our role in preserving heritage and emphasises why our primary purpose needs to shift towards enabling social change. How can we help people learn how to become intelligent gardeners, how to eat differently and how to scale up ‘forest gardening’? Natural history museums, botanical gardens and preservation trusts have a key role to play in this. See, for example, the work of the Horniman Museum, the National Trust’s allotment campaign, and also the BBC’s invitation to museums to take part in the Green Balloon Club festival this summer.

However, supporting issues such as green land use, food production and biodiversity preservation, should be part of thinking about overarching sustainability policies for all cultural heritage organisations. Their sustainability plans shouldn’t focus exclusively on how to adapt and manage their buildings and services to reduce their carbon footprint, although this is of course important.

If Transition Towns is becoming officially endorsed by local authorities, there is an opportunity for locally funded cultural heritage organisations to support it, and to help engineer better connections with schools too.

What else do you think we can do to bring ecological practices into the mainstream in our sector?


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