This post is by Anita Roy, a member of Transition Town Wellington.
It might not look like much: a hand drawn map of a small town in Somerset, folded down small enough to fit in your pocket. The fields and woods are shaded green and dotted with little round stickers showing where to find apple trees and herbs, hazelnuts and redcurrant bushes.
There are two maps of Wellington you can pick up in the tourist office: one, showing shops and cafes, car parks and pubs: the town’s economy; the other, Transition Town Wellington’s foraging map: its ecology. On it are highlighted the four community orchards, the fruit bushes and herb beds, which have been created and tended for everyone to access, by this energetic and public-spirited environmental group.
Transition Town Wellington (TTW) has been in existence for more than a decade, working on a variety of issues from sustainable energy to transport surveys. The group promotes organic gardening and supports local food growers, as well as organising litter picks, film shows, a repair café and activities for children. It recently made news by winning The Climate Coalition’s ‘Green Heart Hero’ award for most inspirational community project, pipping the Somerset Wildlife Trust and the local Women’s Institute chapter to the post.
But it was the foraging map, created by the sustainable food group’s leader, Helen Gillingham, that helped put TTW, as it were, on the map. MP for Taunton Deane, Rebecca Pow, nominated the group for the award, saying “Like many of my constituents, I love to get out and about picking nature’s free fruits and this map is incredibly helpful.”
The Transition Town movement first started in 2006, with Rob Hopkins and his team in Totnes, Devon. How do we act now, he asked, to build communities resilient enough to withstand the twin horrors of peak oil and climate change? If we wait for governments to act, it will be too little, too late; if we act as individuals it will be too little; but if we pull together as communities, there is the possibility of genuine change. “The time for seeing globalisation as an invincible and unassailable behemoth, or localisation as some kind of lifestyle choice, is over,” he wrote in the Transition Handbook, a book that was prescient when it was published in 2008, and is more relevant than ever today.
Protests have an important place, as the impact of recent Extinction Rebellion events and school climate strikes have shown, but taking positive action in one’s local community connects and energises people, and can be felt at a personal level. It can change people’s minds, because it changes their daily life.
Foraging for hope
Richard Mabey, author of the seminal Food for Free and ‘father’ of modern foraging, is realistic in assessing its impact on our food security. “Foraging in our culture is a middle-class hobby,” he says in an interview with The Independent newspaper, “It’s basically a load of largely middle-class foodies and ruralists going out and getting a romantic kick out of this very sensual engagement with nature.”
Although he says that he’s not deriding the fact, I think he overlooks the more profound impact it can have. According to the charity Mind, approximately one in four people in the UK will experience some mental health issues in a year, the majority associated with anxiety and depression. A report commissioned by Natural England in 2016 confirmed what most of us would expect: that what it terms ‘green care interventions’ – such as environmental conservation, and social and therapeutic horticulture – can have a significant positive impact on mental health. Getting close to the soil, and in touch with nature and natural processes can help reduce anxiety and depression, and can help alleviate symptoms associated with dementia. Not only that, but it brings about “a greatly increased level of social contact and inclusion; as well as a sense of belonging and personal achievement.”
In all of its activities, but perhaps most of all with the foraging map, Transition Town Wellington is bringing people outside, and closer to nature. For children, especially, seeing food growing – berries that you can actually pick and eat, plants whose leaves can end up on your plate – is a revelation. It may not change your daily diet much, but it does change how you think about what you eat, and where that comes from.
It is this awareness that is encouraging people to think about how their food is transported and under what conditions it is grown, and by whom. Walking around the town, aided by the foraging map, parents, children and older people are re-learning how to judge when something is ripe, how it is faring and if the plant or tree needs to be cared for. Not only that, but it shows how all other life-forms – the birds, bees, insects and other wildlife – are dependent upon our green spaces. Our stewardship of our open spaces is not only in our own interest, but that of all the living things that make up our ecosystem at this increasingly perilous time.
Anita Roy is a freelance writer with an MA in Travel and Nature Writing from Bath Spa University. Her writing can be found at anitaroy.net
[Image: Helen Gillingham working on the foraging map]