Feeding our kids the old way

When we travel the city pulls us in and it’s often where we navigate for food fixes. It’s usually for eating, there’s often an abundance of new tastes, and somewhere there’s a tourist treat to try.  Street vendors of countries in South America and Asia, restaurants, the fish markets, sidewalk cafe culture, the pastry shops, the bread bakers, food trucks, curry houses, cooking courses… But traveling out of town brings me new and authentic food experiences, the kind I look for. Sometimes it’s simply being back on the land, seeing the vegetable gardens, talking to the farmers about what’s growing, what’s in season, the rice paddies, or the onion fields.

Croatia never disappoints me and this time its food treats came to me in a different form, wholesome school lunches and meals for children in a country village.

Summer market produce, Croatia May 2017

A quiet word with a farming couple over their modest market stall. A few carrots, parsnips, potatoes, and greens with grey soil splashes scattered in front of them. Cardboard signs with hand written prices. People of the land, part vegetable, part earth-human, fingernails with the requisite amount of soil lining them. Hands of hardened Springs, themselves ridges and furrows of skin. Threadbare overalls and grey hair, now a sign it is, at last, getting harder.

Yes, later in the week they would deliver the produce for next week’s lunches, the order scratched on the back of a piece of card in pencil.  The vegetables would be local fresh seasonal and organic by default, but none of this needs stating or questioning, it is the way it is. We move on through the market and I wondered what other stories the stall holders kept, aside from secret deliveries.

Town market, Koprivnica, Croatia, May 2017

Dolac City market, Zagreb


Most town squares in Croatia have daily vegetable markets and for a lot of the folks, it is a social occasion, a chance to get out of the house and have an interaction with people, while getting fresh tasty food.

Vegetables growing in the garden for children’s meals


I spent the morning in a kitchen that was prepping and setting for the impeding arrival of 60 visiting school kids, who would be well fed before their afternoon activities. I take no credit at all for any of the cooking and I did little more than watch, stack plates and do my share of the dishes. But what I loved about this was the wooden stove cooker, set in to the wall surrounded by green tiles, the big old industrial pots and most importantly the ingredients, that were going in to a simple lunch that was unquestioned.

Menu starter: Soup broth

Menu mains x 60


Of course we give the children lunch. The lunch is a part of them. What is school without a school lunch? A school will have toilets and lockers and a lunchroom and a library. It’s where school happens. I can’t even imagine going to school without the lunch, the old cooks, the locals who help… My friend explained. We don’t have lunches at school, I replied, hoping it might in part explain why this event was so unique for me. She frowned, like I was from another planet and dismissed me as if it wasn’t true. New Zealand is always heralded as this far away magical place where everything works well. For many things that may be true but we missed a few key ideas landing and taking hold, and making our kids lunches at school is one bus we should’ve jumped on, but didn’t.


On the back burner sat a large red pot. When I later cleaned it I found “Made in Yugoslavia” stamped on the bottom. Carrots, potatoes, capsicum, a couple of chicken carcasses and a few herbs made the broth for the soup, with noodles added. Then for mains they had some rice with carrots, peas and other vegetables cooked through it, some crumbed meat, and some salad. Bread was an option on the side and a home made jam pastry.

Wheat fields, rural Croatia


It’s quite simple. And of course not the first time I’ve heard of school meals, but the way the village worked together to pull it off stems from the underlying concept: that good hearty food cooked by people who know how to make things the right way can get into the stomachs and minds of our children. That not questioning this as a right- the right to full bellies and afternoons of play- but instead going ahead and providing a hot meal for children is one of the simplest and best things you can do. I found a place somewhere in the north of Croatia near the Hungarian border, where things are still done properly. Good food is grown, growers are supported, children are fed, and cooks are employed, because that is just the way it is.

Biking Japan in a dress: Tips for the ladies

Japan is a great place for bike touring. Hokkaido has big wide roads, with footpaths alongside even in the mountains.  Cars cruise along at 50km on the main back roads and are very courteous. The roads outside of Hokkaido are a different story, heavily trafficked, old steep roads, and busier. But in some ways more exciting! The main centres, like in and around Tokyo, are bike friendly. There is a big bike culture in Japan that goes back a long time and many people commute by bike, with bike paths a plenty (although as of 2016 not yet on Google Maps for bikes). Some main roads can be busy, often there is a footpath/side walk you can find. Despite all that, some tips before you head off might help save you some hassles. After 3 weeks of biking and the ups and downs of typhoons, changing plans and locations, here’s a few reflections on touring around this beautiful and whacky country and some tips for fellow bike tourists in this fine land.

Food and water

The food in Japan is incredible. It’s all of good quality and like everything in that marvelous country, it’s safety first, meaning triple washed and quadruple packaged. Roadside veges boxes are all over the country in summer with local gardens often having honesty boxes for produce. Fruit is more of a gift, so prices are higher than veges. Basically give up on eating fruit and get your nutrients from the delicious veges but marvel at the plush peaches packaged in polystyrene. For cheaper snacks find the 100yen stores for big bags of nuts. Always drink the tap water. No need to buy plastic water in Japan (or anywhere if you can help it).

Seven Eleven/Lawsons/FamilyMart are frighteningly everywhere. They are great because they have wifi and hot coffee and everything from tampons to ponchos to rice balls and ice cream. They also have ATMs that take international cards and a toilet with a warm seat and all the trimmings of bidet and butt flush that you need. The food in a 7/11 is pretty good in price and selection and great for snacks.Vending machines also sell coffee and drinks and are everywhere.

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Hokkaido Ramen vegetarian option

Comms and maps and apps

  • Wifi is everywhere, not much point getting a local number for 5000 yen a month but if it makes you feel safer and helps you navigate then it’s a good investment.
  • Use apps like Ridewithgps.com to help track your rides and borrow good routes from people who have been there before. Especially a life saver in cities.
  • Get a good paper map, the rider map guide books are the best. Look for the motorbike helmet symbol for the rider’s huts. These are huts for riders of motor bikes or push bikes around the country. You can stay in them for free or a donation and it’s a great way to meet other bikers. Motorcyclists always wave out to bike tourists here, there’s some kind of roadside comradery.
  • Look for the Roadhouses, these are epic roadside stops, with wifi, maps, tourist information, snacks, sometimes onsen, and often car campers parked up. Distinctive logo of a park hut with trees on the map and the road as you bike along. Good place to reset the batteries.

Onsen

The bike tourist’s heaven. Women are separate always to men so it is a safe and comfortable environment to be completely naked, bathing and scrubbing yourself. A great way to meet lovely Japanese ladies and kids. There is an etiquette but it’s not rocket science so just copy what the ladies are doing and relax and bathe. They will be impressed you biked there, believe me. And sleeping in a tent after 100km on the road is bliss after an onsen. Basically bike tourist pampering, fully equipped with shampoo, conditioner, body wash and a hair dryer. Enjoy! And if you are really stuck most will let you stay the night in one of the Lazy-Boy couch style chairs they have. Almost every hotel has its own onsen but most towns have the public ones too. My tip is save money by free camping and free travel by biking, and spend it on onsens and snacks.

Free camping

Usually has an outdoor kitchen and flush toilets (refine your squat), often a flood light so you can see. They feel incredibly safe. String up food bags to prevent rodents/foxes munching your snacks. Free camping is generally just as good if not better than the paid campsites in my experience. Japanese paid campsites are dated and often you have to pay extra yen for showers and that really sux when you’ve biked 100km and paid 2000 yen. And if you’re stuck, camping is fine in most places. If you can, try and stay with someone to get an authentic Japanese family/home experience.

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Lovely campsite 70km from Haneda airport at the start of the Doshi Valley climb up to Mt Fuji – overpriced and dated facilities but lovely river to swim in

Pick your season

Go for October and the leaves of autumn, not Typhoon season. We got caught out by three typhoons in a week in Hokkaido and it was awful. Pretty fine for biking but trains stop at the smell of a typhoon in Japan.

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Flooded free camping after 3 typhoons in a week, near Abashiri, Hokkaido

Bike shops

Plenty of these around, welcome to the home of Shimano! And some of the gear is pretty awesome so if you have forgotten something, easy enough to find in a main city like Sapporo or of course, Tokyo. The home of Tokyo Bike!

Language

In Japan it is very uncommon to have signs or people speaking in any other language than Japanese. Make an effort, you’ll need to and the basics will get you further than you expect. Tips:

  • Do a language course before traveling.
  • Download the translator apps.
  • Buy a phrase book.

Bike bags for trains and buses (for beginners)

  • In Japan all public transport systems make you bag your bike. You can buy the Japan style bike bags which are easier to fit your bike into. If you have a folding bike, even better.
  • If not, do a couple of practice runs taking your bike apart and putting it in the bag then refitting it without the stress of the train coming. Maybe even time yourself so you know how long to allow before train arrival.
  • If you’re not used to bike dismantling or reassembling, be near wifi when putting it back together so you can check you have done it right.
  • Keep all the little screws in the right places. Take photos of how it was before you took it apart then refer back to them after.
  • Make sure you have your Allen keys on you and also your bike pump!
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    Bike bagged ready for a train to no where

     

General bike lady tips:

  • Bring a spare dress or skirt for non touring days
  • Remember your leg razor and some wet wipes
  • Put a rag in your bike bag for the assembling and disassembling days
  • Always pack a sarong and a scarf, these two items will save you on many occasions
  • I ride in a cotton dress over bike pants and always keep the lycra to a minimum your skin will thank you
  • Wear a merino long sleeve on wet days to keep warm when you stop
  • To save your butt, invest in good bike pants and wear them in a bit on a few rides before you leave home. Any irritations, replace them and show no mercy. Any rubs or niggles after 50km will turn into hell after 500.
  • Bring some paw paw/papaya cream or other salve. Have dry days, even if it means not biking a day to heal or rest your butt.
  • If you can afford it, budget for a rest day at a guest house/hostel/hotel for yourself once in a while. Once that rain has saturated your tent you’ll be glad you have an emergency night’s budget on you.

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Japan Reflections 2: タマネギ Tamanegi, The humble onion

I biked field side for the onion harvest in Hokkaido, Japan. Farms adorned the road, a classical cloak of agrarian life: golden hues of straw harvests, deep greens of potato tops, the well watered and engineered paddies of rice just slightly turning on the tops into a grainy lime, ready to turn brown, ready to start the next stage of life, ready for the bowl. And rows and rows of onions.

Clusters of colourful sheds and large farmhouses sat roadside, offering a curious bike tourist a passing glimpse into rural life. Each farmer had three or four ubiquitous Nissen sheds (sheets of metal bent into a cylinder) with rooves arched over to the ground usually a striking blue or red. The great domes were filled with small white Suzuki trucks and every gadget imaginable to harvest every part of the food bowl.

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Japanese Nissen style farm sheds in Hokkaido

Any patch of dirt between the shed and farmhouse was a bright spray of marigolds, sunflowers and enviable vegetable gardens of every vegetable imaginable and unimaginable. This set up played on repeat for miles across the island, passing between five and ten farms like this every kilometre.

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Flowers blooming everywhere

Hurried and alive, the farmers worked that summer. And all 600km that I rode, I wondered what it was like inside the staple food bowl that surrounded me. While the rice still grew, onions were turning over and flattening themselves out ready for the next stage of drying and growing. Each field it seemed was in a different process, a different stage of onion life. I’d not really contemplated the life of the onion for long periods of time before this. Had anyone? But bike touring does that, it gives you time to contemplate, inhale smells, digest thoughts, and observe. Japan plans to launch a tear-free onion this Autumn called the ‘Smile Ball’ without the tear jerking properties, but I’m pretty sure I biked next to the old school crying kind.

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This farm was just in time getting the onions ready before the typhoons, others not so lucky

A Hokkaido farmer typically grows a variety of crops like corn, potatoes, sugar beets, carrots, rice and onions over the April-November season. And they do it well, the best in Japan for those products. Here each crop had a different machine for sowing seeds, fertilising, harvesting, and perhaps doing a few things in between. Unlike other countries where contractors may come in to harvest, in Hokkaido each farm has every machine required for all stages of each crop. And these are not big farms, the average is 20ha (49 acres). So, say six crops with three machines on average per crop, plus a couple of tractors, means at least 25 different implements in the sheds. In the harsh winter that follows, the tools and machines are tucked away, not all staying in good shape while the snow kicks in and the farmers head on holiday, or to the local gambling houses.

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The fields we wed and next to we slept

In some tempura onion striped magic that is Japan, a few days later we were staying on a farm in the north of Hokkaido on the coast. Camping in our tent alongside tamanegi field and helping a farmer weed and prep the fields for harvest, at last my onion oriented questions were answered.

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Weeding time

Once you’ve weeded (and wondered if wed should be the past tense of weeded) that many onion rows, your appreciation for those beautiful hand grown balls heightens. Weeding rows like that was incredibly satisfying, albeit hot, 30 degrees in the sun at the 7am start. Until the farmer’s brother came along with a tractor and started to spray the onions with what seemed to be a fungicide. I’d noticed some mould on parts while weeding and knew that fungicides would be used. What didn’t make sense was to spray the very field we were still weeding. It wasn’t cool. We finished our rows and left the field. The sun shone, the typhoons passed, and perfect biking condition arose so we decided to head off, the spray incident a good catalyst for change.

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Crates of onions good to go: $1000 USD a crate usually, this year a farmer will get up to $2000 due to the typhoons destroying a lot of crops. Once sorted the excess stems are burnt off.

I saw how much work goes into making a crop and then how much spraying went on, even with hand weeding. It gave me an appreciation of the value of well cared for and grown produce, but even more so for farmers that don’t use pesticides and fungicides.

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The onion sorting machine, a few people up top sorting and onions then go straight into the crate

A few days and three typhoons later we headed south on a train, trying to get to the southern coast in an attempt to have better biking weather. The typhoons had caused havoc across the land. Days before we’d biked through Katami, the Onion capital of the north, now passing back through on the train, we saw the flood waters and on land not buffered by the levies, farmers desperately reaping the storm ridden onions, gleaning those they could from the fields. Rows and rows of the brown balls laid washed over with mud from the flood. Sodden and not salvageable, it was heartbreaking to watch.

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Onion tops fall over when they are getting ready for harvest. These ones are lucky, not spoilt by the typhoons.

Hokkaido is normally not affected by Tsuyu (East Asian rainy season) and typhoons are rare, hence why we biked there. Unusual incidents like three typhoons in a week was a sobering taster of how vulnerable our global crops are to the impact of increased frequencies of extreme weather events and gave me a first hand taste of growing crops on a mass scale.

Japan reflections 1: The bust

It felt like a cross between a Haruki Murakami novel and a Wes Anderson movie. Kafka on the Shore met the Grand Budapest Hotel. We rode along surrounded by dense pine forests and high mountains with funiculars to their upper reaches, next to derelict hotels and eateries lying roadside, some closed for good, and others in a state of disrepair. Repair? Maintenance long gone.

After 550km into our bike trip in Hokkaido, Japan, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness of a by gone era and the realities of the bust that follows a boom. The route tracked equal parts sub arctic forest and agriculture, as we left Sapporo, up through the hills to Yubari, passed the fields of Furano, to Asahikawa, up into the Daisetsuzan National Park and then through into Akan National Park, the home of sulfur hot pool lined lakes, and Ainu culture. Now covered by onion farming. Stunning scenery no doubt but what lacked was the human element.

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One of many abandoned hotels, this one in Daisetsuzan National Park, Hokkaido.

Solid rain after the typhoon meant we rode past fallen logs, trees completely uprooted, and in multiple places the road blocked and cleared. We timed it just right sleeping a night in a guest house in Asahikawa while the typhoon passed. Well, sort of. A few days later as the rain continued to fall (and we missed out on the vistas of Lake Kussharo and surrounds in Kawayu) we took shelter in a seventies hotel, called Kinkyu Hotel, at last able to marvel at the kitsch decor inside instead of just biking past trying to work out which ones were dead or alive. Not just a little bit dated inside, nothing had changed since the seventies. In a time warp, a dial up telephone sat next to a modern TV screen above tatami mats that had seen more than 40 years of non-slippered feet scuff across them. Remnants of a forgotten hey-day were everywhere, the street outside falling down in places, the view from our room across other dead hotels.

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The amusement park at one of our free camp sites, near Katami. The government pumped money into entertainment and public works in an attempt to stimulate growth in the rural areas of Hokkaido.

Sure, the hotel was a treat. Every other night we’d free camped with our bikes in our tent. And for bike tourists, free camp sites with flush toilets, a covered cooking area, tap water just up the road from an Onsen are a dream result, but here we were the only ones making the most of the facilities. It made for quiet bike touring, that’s for sure. The absence of people added to the eerie feel. Surely mid August was mid-summer and peak holiday time? Yet no one was around.

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Rainy quiet free camping – plenty of room!

We entered a town high up in the Daisetsuzan National Park, flanked by stunning waterfalls and tall peaks rising above. We made camp at the most picturesque camp site, nestled up a winding moss lined lime pathway in the bush as wild deer nibbled on grass. We slept beneath bright green maple trees, sucking up the sunlight and photosynthesising their little leaves off in this short summer season before the Siberian winter. Yes, Russia is just across the water. But where the heck were the people? Typhoon or no typhoon, there was simply no one around. We met one guy from Tokyo who finished his studies, and was spending summer traveling his homeland. In the Onsen I had four large hot pools and a sauna to myself for an hour. Then we saw the guy, catching his bus out of town; the only person on the bus. Two deer were on the hill behind him and a dozen hotels, more than half closed, rose like disused toys on a giant Lego play set, gathering rust and broken windows. And we biked on through the twenty year old recession of this island, feeling it first hand.

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Abandoned stores and eateries line the rural roads of Hokkaido.

Christchurch – the garden city rising from the rubble

Following the devastating Christchurch earthquakes, four years on from the biggest ones, the city is starting to rebuild itself.  Many novel pop up and creative businesses emerged, such as the RE-Start mall which is still a shopping highlight of the inner city. What we’re also seeing emerge from this context is a resilient urban food system. Throughout the city are pop up garden spaces, often temporary as the sites are set to be developed on eventually. This of course leads to uncertainty for gardeners, and often modular systems tend to be the best. On a recent trip to Christchurch I visited Agropolis, right in the heart of the former restaurant area. A great example of local businesses working together, they plan to use food waste from those restaurants, collect it and then make it into compost for the gardens, which the restaurants in turn can visit to collect produce. Nicely closing the loop of the food system.

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The facade of a fenced off building shows the dire state of the sites yet to be demolished.

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A chairful site!

 

Walking around the Agropolis (Agriculture + Metropolis) garden I felt like I was back in Havana where I undertook my masters thesis research on seed systems in city gardens. Set amongst cracked buildings and a backdrop of infrastructure from the late 50s, the Cuban gardens shine like gems in the grey sand. Colourful marigolds demark the end of rows of raised beds of organic produce, thriving in the warm growing conditions and supplying every barrio (neighbourhood) throughout the country with healthy locally grown produce. Agropolis and other greening the city pop up installations light up Christchurch in a similar vein. Where cranes mark the sky line and big boys toys dig through 5 storeys of rubble, constantly clearing, demolishing and trying now to rebuild, at a grass roots and ground level, there is a sign of something stronger: resilience in the city.

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The impressive and modular gardens of Agropolis, ready to be removed if the site gets developed. This creates uncertainty for the gardeners.

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Compost is a priority

Throughout our urban history this has been a constant story: Gardens and survival, necessity spawning resilience. In the second world war were survival mechanisms across Europe, Berlin’s allotments saved many a hungry tummy until the wall fell, Cuba’s city gardens a top down requirement from the central government after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to its oil supply being cut off and no petrochemicals available for agricultural use, with supply of fertiliser and petrol for machinery gone over night. And natural disasters – Haiti’s earthquake, Christchurch’s earthquake, all show us that in times of need gardens grow.

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Produce grown in the box outside the popular C1 cafe in the heart of the rebuild, the funky cafe a mecca and hang out spot for all

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A sign illustrates the intention for the innovation precinct. Still a way to go.

I think the key is ensuring that in between those times of crisis, or in an absence of crisis, we continually assess and transfer knowledge on gardens, seeds, and growing and making our own food to ensure that generational knowledge or socio-ecological knowledge is not lost. Moreover, what is required is strong direction from governance on the importance of enhancing and maintaining this knowledge. Inter-generational knowledge sharing on gardens  is a good example of this, where elders share gardening time with children. Enviroschools across Aotearoa are running great education programmes on gardening for kids. But what is also needed is a city-regional approach to the food system in times of prosperity or out of crisis (such as now) to ensure that we have the knowledge, tools, skills and seeds to ensure that resilience.  With the recent Food Resilience Network Action Plan from Christchurch City Council and Edible Canterbury. we are starting to see some new direction in New Zealand on city planning for food systems. Others can follow and learn from the dire circumstances that forged that direction, without having to repeat it, but with the benefits of those learnings.

This blog was written today for Jessica, a great gardener and seed saver and for Benji who survived the Christchurch earthquake.

Whale, shark and puffin, on or off the menu?


Whale jerky, dried raw Greenland shark, and Puffin were all available as dinner and snacks in Iceland

The Game meat of the day at our Hotel in Illulisaat, Greenland was Fin Whale (which is classified endangered, Level 3 by the IUCN), the local supermarket in Reykjavik had unidentified Whale Jerky for sale next to the Mentos mints at the counter, and the Greenland shark museum dried putrid shark for a few months in a tin roofed shack out the back, giving out samples to the brave. Welcome to the tastes of the northern arctic licking countries. Born out of necessity and steeped in culture, the varieties of meats and cetaceans up for sale was quite impressive and not for the faint or green hearted.

A couple of experiences on this bizarre and remote food trail are worth noting. The first was my trip to the Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum, Iceland which just so happened to be with world expert in Greenland sharks, Jeffrey Gallant. His favourite animal in the world is the shark, which is preserved for eating in the traditional Icelandic way at the Bjarnarhofn family farm. So, it was fitting and insightful to visit this museum located in the middle of a lava field, on the coast, under a giant mountain with the man who has dedicated his life’s work to researching and protecting these incredible animals of the deep. 

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Visiting the drying shed at Bjarnarhofn, shadows of shark meat can be seen hung below the shed roof

Iceland has a strong history with the Greenland shark. Originally much of their trade with the outside world came from exporting Greenland shark liver oil (for lamps and lighting and other fancy oily things). At somepoint around then, someone stumbled across some putrid shark rotting in the sand and managed to, perhaps out of desperation, try the manky meat and decide after a few bouts of stomach pain that it was worth adding to porridge and all other meals as a tasty addition, soon to be tradition.

I admire those foremothers and fathers who experimented with such things (who first found blue cheese? “I know, we’ll add some wire and some fungi to make it taste better!” he exclaimed, in French). Who uncovered the rotting Greenland Shark flesh on a sandy beach and decided that after a few months you can eat it? Good question. The shark was a hit. Over eaten, over hunted for oil and then almost disappearing, now it is a delicacy. The museum we visited gets up to 60 sharks per year from bycatch of a fishery from Nuuk, Greenland. This means that the fishery is not intending to catch the sharks and if they do, they are not going to waste, as there is the small delicacy market.  That made us feel a bit better about the whole thing. The shark is cut up on cold winter days into fleshy watery squares, then nailed to the wood in the shed and hung for about 3 months until a hard casing forms around the outside. Once these slabs are cut up, the texture of hákarl is rubbery and soft, a little like silken tofu.

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Slabs of shark meat drying in the shed

Our host at the musuem shared his observations on the segment of society that’s visited his family farm and museum, noting that in the past few years awareness about shark conservation has increased. Ten years ago, he said, people would ask if sharks are whales. Nowadays they want to know if they are sustainably fished or harvested. This is promising, but a little too late for most of the sharks who are finned and culled recklessly around the world.

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Typical Þjóðhátið festival get up; puffins nest in the hills behind

The second cultural experience I had was a festival in the westman islands, Þjóðhátið. The Vestmannaeyja is also home to 10 million puffins roosting a summer. That weekend it felt like it was home to 10 million teenagers nesting per summer.  Puffin meat is an Icelandic delicacy but the little bird was off the menu in the stalls at Þjóðhátið this year, due to overhunting and fierce competition between rabbits and puffins in the grasslands, the former out competing the later. Poor lil puffins. They are a year or so into a hunting ban, and like the carabou in Labrador, it is starting to be missed by locals (although here it did not seem to be such a staple of the diet and food was clearly available as a substitute for the lacking puffin meat). The ceasefire seemed appropriate at the festival that usually sells the roasted bird, given that the puffins were nesting in the hills overlooking the stage. I wondered whether the remaining puffins would survive the explosions of the incredible fireworks displays and the anctics of the drunken youth of the island. I certainly saw more drunk teens dressed in woollen Icelandic knit wear sweaters under orange fishermen’s pants, roaming the puffin clad hills than I saw rabbits.

Submersing myself in the issue: Sea ice melt in the Arctic

I’m heading to the arctic this summer as part of an expedition to raise awareness about the impacts of climate change in the area (www.sednaepic.com). What my research on this to date has uncovered is a sobering picture of how the fragile arctic ecosystem is changing at a rapid rate and how that is going to influence the world. When people ask me why the arctic and not the usual kiwi sojourn south to Antarctica to quell my curiosity for the poles, to me the response is simple: We are all interconnected. The impacts that we have from our pollution in New Zealand in the southern ocean affect communities in the north. The results of the changing seascape of the arctic are going to eventually affect every single one of us, not just the communities living there. Here’s a bigger explanation of why the arctic is so important in global climate regulation.

Globally, the arctic is crucial to the temperature of the planet. It is a sort of refrigerator for the rest of us. There are a number of critical arctic feedbacks that affect the whole planet and if global warming throws them out, then there are even more challenges for the planet. Importantly, sea ice melt in the arctic affects atmospheric and oceanic currents with global implications of those changes. Arctic ice is found in three forms: sea ice, permafrost and glacial ice.

Let’s start with permafrost, soil that is at or below the freezing level of water. As warming in the arctic continues, soils will increasingly thaw and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane, at significantly increased rates. Higher levels of atmospheric methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, have been attributed to the warming of arctic tundra, which releases methane as it thaws out. See more from the Scientific American: Canada struggles with melting permafrost

Crucially, the arctic’s frozen soils and wetlands store twice as much carbon as is held in the atmosphere. The Pew Environment Group predict:

In 2010, the loss of Arctic snow, ice and permafrost is projected to cause warming equivalent to 3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, equal to 40 percent of total annual U.S. emissions. By the end of the century, this warming equivalent is projected to double.

Arctic Treasure: Global Assets Melting Away. Summary of Technical Paper: An Initial Estimate of the Cost of Lost Climate Regulation Services Due to Changes in the Arctic Cryosphere. Dr. Eban Goodstein, Dr. Henry Huntington, Dr. Eugenie Euskirchen: http://oceansnorth.org/climate-change

There will also be other unforseen flow on effects of the melt. For example, for Canada a side effect of melting permafrost is the risk of seepage from industrial tailings ponds, which were previously sealed by the frozen soil in these remote and often pristine environments. Read more about Canada’s climate assessment.

As for sea ice, some scientists predict that at the rate of warming, we could see a loss of sea ice in the arctic as soon as 2030. I’ll be 47. (Mental note to come back and check what it’s like then.)Arctic air temperatures have risen at almost twice the rate of the global average rise over the past few decades. This is largely a result of reduced surface reflectivity associated with the loss of snow and ice, especially sea ice.

Nasa: Arctic Ice melt 2012

 

Image credit: Scientific Visualization Studio, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

This visualization shows the extent of Arctic sea ice on Aug. 26, 2012, the day the sea ice dipped to its smallest extent ever recorded in more than three decades of satellite measurements, according to scientists from NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center. The data is from the U.S. Defense Meteorological Satellite Program’s Special Sensor Microwave/Imager.” Read more about Nasa’s data and maps

The line on the image shows the average minimum extent from the period covering 1979-2010, as measured by satellites. Every summer the arctic ice cap melts down to what scientists call its “minimum” before colder weather builds the ice cover back up. The size of this minimum remains in a long-term decline. July is the month of peak ice melt and this will be telling for the 2014 season. This year’s ice melt rate is equal to that which occured at the beginning of the 2012 summer. See the Alaska Dispatch: Sea ice melt in June 2014

Over the past 20 years, ice has retreated so much, that the National Geographic have called the reduction in multiyear ice (commonly defined as ice that has survived for two summers) in the arctic as the biggest change to their Atlas since the break up of the former USSR! We are reshaping the world and redrawing the boundaries of what our earth looks like. Even the maps are changing. Full article on National Geographic News: Arctic Maps Atlas 10th Edition.

With the reshaping comes new activities. Last year the bulk carrier ship the Nordic Orion passed through the North West Passage, becoming the first bulk carrier to travel through the frozen ocean. Icebreakers, tugs, small ships, sail boats and the odd rower had passed through. No snorkelers that we are aware of yet have made the distance. The point being, that with the dawn of the bulk carrier frieght ship comes huge economic change to these areas. Ironically, the Nordic Orion was carrying coal. See the full article: The Globe and Mail BC Bulk carrier becomes first to traverse North West Passage.

An ancillary effect of this increased traffic is noise. WWF (2014) have called for immediate action on reducing noise from ship traffic in the arctic waters, given the effect this has on cetaceans, leading to challenges finding mates and food and even forcing the animals to leave their ecosystem. We’ll have to try and keep it down on the expedition as we don’t want to deter these beautiful creatures! Read more about Reducing the impact of industrial noise on whales, WWF 2014.

Human-induced climate change has affected the arctic sooner than scientists predicted. Climate change is already destabilising important arctic systems including sea ice, the Greenland Ice Sheet, mountain glaciers. The impact of these changes on the arctic’s physical and biological systems, and communities that live there is huge and only just beginning. By submersing myself in this issue on the expedition I am literally going to get a feel for the topic and experience first hand what that change means for our oceans. Bring it on!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out of the office and into the Arctic

Preparing for departure in the modern world

As I pack and prepare to depart little ol’ Aotearoa New Zealand for Canada, an expedition that has been a somewhat desk top exercise online for more than six months for me is starting to materialise. With that materialisation comes the wonder I have at the context of exploring the world in 2014 with the internet, social media, radio, TV, newspapers, Skype, Facebook, Tweets…By reaching out and telling people what we’re planning to do, we are creating a hype that our previous explorers never had to be bothered with.  Gone are the days of slowly slipping away to a distant land for a quiet trip. These days if you want to be funded you’ve got to launch an online presence as well as step up and do what you’re setting out to achieve, yet another challenge to juggle along with the rest of the logistics of planning a safe trip. We face the reality that we’re in the modern world of exploring, one where you have to be tech savvy, a comms expert, a fundraiser, a blogger, a photographer, as well as a scientist, or a logistician, or whatever your role may be. We certainly are multi-faceted and talented in Team Sedna, that’s for sure.

With that backdrop, I admire the simplicity at which our forefather and foremother explorers set off amongst.  Taking it back a hundred years, they must have had many an unGoogle-able question about the far away lands they were seeking; must have written concise once-a-month letters to their expedition leaders rather than thousands of short emails; must have seen the odd phone call as a treat; hand written a journal rather than trying to boost posts in a blog. They were in a different time and arguably a different league. Back then there were few people outside of immediate family who would even know that the expedition was happening, aside from the odd newspaper story. But most of all, they must have been far more focused on the task at hand, reading and researching and mentally preparing in a way that is different from today, where most territories are explored and many a challenge completed. I can’t help but feel that the irony of making it all ‘simpler’ for ourselves through the internet based communication and outreach, we’ve just made it more complicated.

The some what distant, almost fairy tale notions I have of the Arctic will crystalise shortly. Education and outreach is a corner stone of our trip and the amazing things we’ll be able to do to share our experiences and raise awareness about issues in the Arctic wouldn’t be possible without the internet. But I’m happy that in the meantime we’re going far enough off the beaten track that internet coverage will be rare. The beauty of the boat will be the disconnection from daily life, the chance to be present and focused. At this point we’ll be reconnecting with nature and reconnecting with our explorer whakapapa (genealogy) as we harness our curiosity and get stuck into tasks. I’m certain human nature remains just as curious today and this curiosity is what unites us to our early explorers. I can’t wait to get out of the office and into the Arctic to see what’s there…

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What’s this Arctic Expedition all about?

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Who are we? Team SEDNA is currently comprised of ten women, aged 25 to 55 years of age, from the US, Canada and New Zealand — scuba diving instructors, cave divers, National Geographic Explorers, a submersible pilot, a dive physician, marine biologists, underwater film makers, a retail scuba dive store owner, an earth scientist/journalist and an environmental lawyer (i.e., me!).

Why SEDNA? From Alaska to Greenland, Sedna is the Inuit goddess of marine mammals. Sedna will snorkel with us through the Northwest Passage — one day, she’ll take the form of a bowhead whale; the next day, a narwhal or a ringed seal…

Why am I going? As a kiwi woman with a passion for—and background in—global sustainability, I’m joining these dots even further, showing that the world is interconnected from the South Pole to the North Pole. Communities in the South Pacific, particularly New Zealand’s islands, are also experiencing climate change first-hand, just as the northern communities of the Arctic. As a citizen of the Southern Hemisphere, I’ll be translating these messages from the South to North.

Why are we doing this crazy expedition?! To focus attention on disappearing sea ice and climate change in the Arctic of course! Along the way, we’ll conduct science and archaeology, and reach out to Inuit Elders, women and girls. Team SEDNA will explore the impacts of disappearing sea ice in the Arctic, documenting and exploring what lives in the snorkel zone.

What’s happening in July 2016? That’s the big one. The all-female SEDNA Expedition will embark upon a three-month journey, snorkeling over 3,000 kilometers through Arctic seas, from Pond Inlet, Nunavut, to Inuvik, Northwest Territories. The ten polar explorers —supported by a mother ship equipped with two Zodiac boats—will create world-wide awareness of rapidly disappearing sea ice, documenting the impacts of global warming on this fragile ecosystem and on the traditional way of life for the Inuit and Inuvialuit people of the North.

A lot hinges on the success of our 2014 trip. There we will test the water, literally at a frigid -2 to +2 degrees…, our gear and equipment and practice the science and outreach. In addition to snorkeling, I’m part of the Science team and we have 3 projects to run: Bird and mammal censuses; on board aquariums for Inuit people to come aboard and view; and a remotely operated vehicle filming and taking samples in the water column. We’ll also be filmed by Lemonade Productions who are making a documentary series about our 2016 expedition. This footage will be key in us securing permanent funds for the main expedition and the global recognition we need for such an undertaking.

 

Biking the West Coast of USA: Stories, tricks, & tips

I think it took a car road trip to realise how much I truly appreciated my bike tour in the US (*You can read my little poem about this at the end). Short of time, but desperate to see Big Sur, and old friends in Santa Cruz, last week we rented a car to see the last of our wish list sites for this time in the US. And I tell you passing out Granola bars to panting, puffing, bike tourists as we drove by them was fun, but no substitute for the real thing. What an amazing 4 months it’s been in the US and Canada: wholesome family time, reconnecting and meeting old friends, training across Canada uncovering food systems along the way, exploring Vancouver Island, attending the Explorer’s Club symposium and then…. biking the stunning West Coast! From Port Angeles around the Olympic Peninsula, through Oregon to Portland and then back down the 101 on the coast as far as Arcata before turning inland to Lake Tahoe, finishing the trip officially in San Francisco.

Sometimes in the United States of America things seem familiar before you have begun, thanks to movies and TV. But what the mainstream of this doesn’t depict are the vast expanses of rural USA and the characters tucked away inside (OK, Twilight movies aside, which were filmed near Forks). These little gems were scattered along a diverse Pacific coast – from Washington’s rainforests and lakes, to Trinity and Humboldt counties pot plantations up and over mountains and beyond. All exciting things to scope out on a bike.

My first 1000 km! (www.bikeben.com)

My first 1000 km! (Photo http://www.bikeben.com)

Biking day in day out for nearly five weeks with epic coasts and mountains awash with all sorts of such lively characters, we still hardly scratched the surface of this expansive and diverse land. We calculated that by covering Washington, Oregon and half of California at a decent 2,500km 32 day stint, we covered an equivalent mileage as Ben did from Budapest Hungary to the middle of Iran back in 09: All in the same country. Really, it was just the tip of the iceberg in this beautiful, big, diverse land.

And we certainly got into some interesting nooks and crannies, trying to stay with as many different locals as we could along the way. For us it’s the people that make the trip. We had dubbed it the Good Food; Good People tour and we weren’t disappointed.

5 great reasons to bike the West Coast of the US

  • Hiker biker campsites for $5 (in State Parks)
  • Epic coastal scenery on the 101 (especially from Bandon south)
  • Bike shops in nearly every town (great for a beginner in case something goes wrong)
  • A lot of great hosts online happy to help you out (Warm Showers)
  • Company from other bike tourists (it’s a popular route)

Early on there were hiker bikers to meet around the campfire, but as the days turned to Fall, shortened, and people returned to work, we found camping out wasn’t the easiest way to meet new people (especially not if you end up in an RV park!). So, in an attempt to find more locals we turned to the tour bike hosting website, Warm Showers, seemingly popular with the US bike tourists who’ve since hung up the panniers and want to host other bikers – understanding those nuances such as insatiable appetites, smelly clothing and the blood pumping feeling of a warm shower. That combined with good old fashioned door knocking with a friendly smile and a “Can we camp on your lawn?” request meant that we were well set all along the way. And then we camped the rest of the time.  But time was getting short as Fall engulfed us and it was getting colder and darker earlier.

A chilly morning - riding towards Sierraville and onto Truckee and Tahoe (photo www.bikeben.com)

A chilly morning: Riding towards Sierraville and onto Truckee and Tahoe (Photo http://www.bikeben.com)

Our experiences staying with people were as diverse as camping with hippies (who were on mushrooms and lived in a house they’d made out of egg cartons and old crates, whilst grazing goats on the outskirts of a rainforest) to camping on the lawn of steadfast Republican supporter with his horses on a ranch (who gave us beer and cooked us an epic breakfast the next day whilst explaining his view on ‘Bama Care). Once we also stayed in a church hall with 11 other bike tourists to hide out a storm for two days in a situation that was a cross between school camp for bikers and a civil defence emergency, meeting some of the best characters and new travel friends you could hope for traveling anywhere – most of whom are from the US.

Along the way, we met such friendly people – once we found them. We quickly learned that in the US flagging down cars to ask directions or for help doesn’t really work; people are more skeptical. When changing a flat for example no one stopped to see if everything was ok. But when you meet people or they approach you, the chance encounters are absolute gems. One time we were invited to stay in a metal forgery by a friendly local when it was too cold to camp outside and I met a guy in a supermarket car park who insisted we stay with his daughter when we passed her town a few days later. Both turned out to be fantastic hosts and great characters.

Lunch stop, Week 1 in Washington (photo www.bikeben.com)

Lunch stop, Week 1 in Washington (photo http://www.bikeben.com)

Parts of Washington were really remote, the odd house scattered amidst tracts of forest, meaning our only interactions were the occasional chat at a local store. In those early days of the trip we were noticing the signs: “Posted, No Trespassing” on every gate and overt opposition to extension of the forest. Frankly, it wasn’t that friendly up there.

A note on noticing notices – I noticed that when you’re touring you notice these noted signs… and it can be notably affronting…

As we progressed south into Oregon we felt the contrast of rural to urban, particularly heading into Portland and suddenly overwhelmed by the city and the sheer number of cyclists, a welcome relief from big roads, logging trucks and RVs. And then finally, we found a crew of bikers, first a lovely Swiss couple who were picking up where they left off 15 years ago (later we camped next to them in a yurt), then our church hall buddies who we still bumped into south of San Francisco when we’d stopped biking. On this part of the trip the highlight was the Redwoods. Riding through those godly forests are worth every hill it takes to get there!

Hiding from the rain in a hollowed out redwood.(photo www.bikeben.com)

Hiding from the rain in a hollowed out redwood. (Photo http://www.bikeben.com)

We rode inland from Arcata, which was awash with people hanging out overtly waiting to get “trimming work” picking pot, inland up the 299 Route: a stunning ride up the Trinity River, winding up into the mountains and past countless areas growing weed. In the open Fall air with harvest season a ripe, pot was the fragrance of our trip. Met with angry dogs on numerous occasions, illicit air ports behind trees, high fences, and properties boarded up (in some places entire towns) we rode quickly by.  But that didn’t out do how stunning that river and valley was, with people fishing and the Fall colours starting to turn as we rode higher, staying with families along the way, in lovely remote homesteads, seeing a different pace of life.

Enjoying lunch in a magic spot with Mt. Lassen behind. (Photo www.bikeben.com)

Enjoying lunch in a magic spot with Mt. Lassen behind. (Photo http://www.bikeben.com)

For two weeks of our trip the US Government was on shutdown, closing all campsites and many roads through national parks. Undeterred we rode on, sneaking around the signs and talking to sympathetic rangers who turned a blind eye and allowed us to camp or bike on closed roads. The highlight being Lassen National Park – nearly five hours of riding through spectacular mountain park, passing geysers, mudpools, rivers and the pass summit without another vehicle in sight.

The stunning Pacific Coast on Route 101 (www.bikeben.com)

The stunning Pacific Coast on Route 101 (Photo: http://www.bikeben.com)

Reflecting on the route we took, I think that inland from the Coast the scenery was more diverse and the people were not as accustomed to seeing long distance tourists so they were a little more friendly than those we met on the coast. So I’d encourage people to zig zag a bit and get off the 101 when possible. Great cities like Portland and San Francisco are highlights, and worth stopping a few extra days, plus they are both wonderful for city biking. Fall is a great time to go but remember that the days are getting shorter – dark til 7am and dark by 6.  I also felt that as a woman touring, the US is a great place, there are many women biking the coast, some of whom are alone. But you’re never alone for long on that Route, there are a lot of other bikers or hosts to meet! So, what are you waiting for? On yer bike!!

Thanks to BikeBen for the great photos. See more from our trip at http://www.bikeben.com/blog/

*If you made it this far – thanks for reading and here’s my little poem:

Longing for my bike –

Cars surround us

The car surrounds me

It engulfs; it traps

Feeling stuck now

Fueled by a cycle

Rather than powering

My own cycle

Stifled elements

Barriers

Tyres, exhausts

Tired, exhausted

No breeze

No trees

Paces quicken

Losing the feel of it; flow of it

What it means to take our time

How it feels to breathe

And read the signs

Early reflections on bike touring

Olympic Forest, Washington USA.

Olympic Forest, Washington USA.

There’s more too it than sustainable travel – it’s hard work, rewarding, draining, satisfying, and exhilarating. The new feelings I discovered from bike touring down the West Coast of the US flow below.

pace – the newfound sense of it all, stripped away from the usual travel speed, we push on at a constant flow.  Horses reciprocate my quizzical gaze as I approach them slowly and from strange angles.  I find myself craning my neck to see into yards and discover I have time to scan them thoroughly – this raises questions that keep me pondering as I ride. It also gives time to digest.

There’s a curiosity that comes with seeing more than you usually do of someone’s life: The junk. The animals. The run down sheds. The signs of rural USA which are notable and both overt, such as the bright red placards erected in former logging towns in Washington reading, “Working forests are working families”, and discrete – long lost buildings and communities, forgotten by the state.

There is also a deep contentment that comes with the realisation that I am not fast and the acceptance that I will never be.

It’s just me and the lone apple tree whose been sitting quietly for centuries on the side of the road – what has she seen? Whose homestead was she feeding once upon a time? Slowly passing by.

openness– on many levels there is openness. Vast wide spaces abound: distant horizons, barren hills, crashing Pacific coastal waves, flowing sand dunes.

I am open: My exposed raw skin soaking in dirt, bugs, wind, sun, rain, bites, cold, and heat.

And now there are no boundaries between me and you – you can talk to me if you like, for I am on a bike. There is nothing between us any more. I am open to you in more ways than you realise as we pass.

peace – defined for me at that quiet time first thing in the morning out of the tent and on the bike, where refreshing dewdrops blanket the ankles’ awake, birds chirp in the trees, and the damp fall leaves are still stuck to the ground. The roads are quiet and with no traffic we have the silence of dreams.

nostalgia –more than abandoned apple trees dropping their fruit to no hands: who is that creek named after and why? The simultaneous satisfaction and sadness I feel from seeing decrepit buildings. The wonder continues.

senses – these are overloaded. Constantly. The feeling of that wind, the noise, that pounding rain; the intense vibration beneath and around me on a highway feeling that raw rhythm as vehicles pass – a new found appreciation for what cars experience on their commute, perhaps. Battered?

Silence, in the tent at nightfall when it is all over. Exhaustion.

Hunger, the intense desire to constantly eat as I fuel my body onwards.

Smells from factories and farms: that thick scent of silage, that sweet throaty whiff of hay. Or putrid stenches of rotting road kill.

The taste of it all at the end of the day.

The constant thud of new muscles tearing and rebuilding.

That well earned hug when we finally make it – how real your body feels to me now.

RVs and banana skins

The seasons are shifting and as Fall hits the migration has begun. Around these parts it’s not just the Canada Geese flyin’ south in North America, it’s also snow birds: the term appropriately describing the retired folk who can’t handle winter any more and drive in their droves south to warmer climes – usually California or Mexico on this coast or Florida, of course, on the other. What that means for bike tourists is that the roads are packed with RVs (recreational vehicles) – big mobile homes on the move, as these oldies flee the north and head south on the 101 coastal route.

This migration is happening in such numbers and with such overwhelming speed and road coverage that I feel compelled to write about it.

Why? Well, RVs are like a living nightmare for cycle tourists. These are not just your classic cars pulling caravans, oh no, they are state of the art buses fully equipped with everything you’d need as a retiree in a campground (we guess that means TV and a microwave…). Picture them tearing past at 40 miles an hour while we truck up hill with all our gear in 2 panniers and a pack on the back rack, seemingly depicting all things bike tourists try to avoid: gas guzzling, fast travel, not stopping to talk to anyone, isolating oneself indoors and not meeting neighbours in a new place. Then staying in that place for a long time.

 We gave up counting how many pass us – they’re so frequent. Instead to date we’ve counted 27 RVs pulling SUVs with bikes on the back and, incidentally we’ve also counted 29 banana skins on the roadside in Oregon. But the RV that went by pulling a helicopter takes the cake, for sure…

 Scarily, for those sharing the road with them, these oldies don’t even need a heavy vehicle license to drive these monstrosities – meaning we’re on the road with no bike lane, just a mere shoulder, passed incessantly by massive buses piloted by potentially senile old farts that aren’t even required to learn how to drive.

 And RVs seem to be a recent trend. One evening we camped out with a lovely Swiss couple in their sixties who’d ridden the road here 15 years ago – a time when there were none of these vehicles. Oh how nice that must have been. So what on earth has happened and what are they all thinking?! I asked an elderly man in an RV campsite what the deal is with RV life. His response? He’d “packed up his home in 05, been living the RV dream ever since”. Meaning, driving from site to site, often staying on permanently in some parks for months on end. Not quite trailer parks but a similar idea.

We had a good insight to this one night. Mostly we’ve been camping in state parks – with hiker biker facilities, which I totally recommend for anyone taking the coastal road through Washington, Oregon and California. So staying in an exclusive RV park was a whole new experience. The town of Bandon, a beautiful location on the Oregon coast, doesn’t allow campsites in town for tents. So we ended up at an RV only site looking to set up camp for the night. The unfriendly hostess – a mid seventies lady who rolled over to us in her golf cart she’d driven 30 metres from her trailer – insisted we’d have to pay RV price, also known as a “Full hook up”. Not needing to fully hook up, we pitched our one man tent, smaller than the picnic table it was next to, and took advantage of the hot showers and laundry. And at the end of the day as I sat in the drying room waiting for my laundry to finish I reflected on the absurdity of it all – the waste, the resources, the unhealthy lifestyle, the trend and realised just how much I love my bike and the choice I’ve made to travel this country in this way. And hearing the stories of older bike tourists I’ve met in their retirement, I smile, knowing that RVs can be bikes too.

On the verge of a two lane black top…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFour days into our bike trip down the west coast of the US and I am already spending hours marveling at the right side of the line and what lies over it – simultaneously trying to stay safe in the verge as logging trucks haul pass.  My Surly Long Haul Trucker is in another league. With these hours in our self imposed bike lane I’ve started to reflect on the margins: those juicy and delicious zones in ecosystems where diversity thrives and transitions occur. In contrast to those lush spaces these road verges just have a few dead snakes, the odd lost caterpillar, broken glass, and in the Olympic Forest – tree bark blown off logging trucks. That rather boring array itself becomes interesting whilst biking (I am currently keeping a tally of dead snakes) but it’s not what is in the margin that has me thinking: It’s that we are of course on the margins now of the transport system.

And it is that I keep finding myself in situations where I am on the margins – seed systems in Cuba taught me that. Reflection on this has me know that I seek them out: I’m a margin hunter as a traveller, writer and researcher. So here I am finding that the food systems I am exploring are in fact on the margins as well. And what is riding along these roadsides teaching me?

Well, number one is that you need the mainstream to have the margin, afterall, if we had no highway there would be no margin for us to bike on. I would love a good bike lane right now though, so perhaps second is that we can learn to create our own pathway that totally ignores the mainstream and is somewhat safer. Number 3 is that we can get creative with how we reinvent our margins – my personal favourite is old railway trails turned into bike lanes – the obsolete become the future. But this isn’t simply an ode to bike lanes. This is a reflection on how the ideas of marginality can inspire us in our other systems or circles we spin in and for me at the moment that is exploring an alternative food system.

Canada’s fabulous food

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In summertime Canadian cities are ripe with farmer’s markets – most weekday afternoons in various locations. Much produce is grown within the city.

It seemed somewhat fortuitous that the only vehicle to offer us a ride when we hitch hiked across the border from Jackman, Maine (US) into Quebec, Canada was a strawberry delivery truck, ripe with berries and stories for us to mull over. Here I am exploring food systems in North American cities and it seems that without even trying I stumble across an aspect of it on a daily basis. From Dan the strawberry truck driver, to a chance meeting with a friend of a friend who runs blueberry operations for Dole, to being given a full selection of granola from the head of Nature’s Path, to a friend who volunteers in Vancouver’s city gardens, another whom sits on the Central Okanagan Food Policy Council – the past month in Canada has been fully packed with foody goodness on a daily basis.

When we are not eating tasty local healthy food we certainly are stumbling across it and talking about it! My partner and I are traveling North America, dubbing it the Good Food Good People tour, packing in great catch ups with friends and family with hearty foody explorations as we go. My first reflection is that not only is it harvest time with the fruits and veges ripe for picking across the country – the time is also ripe for city region food systems. It can’t be just a coincidence that everyone I bump into and stay with is either actively involved in this topic or knows someone who is… or can it?! Toronto, Vancouver and Kelowna have offered amazing examples on small and large scales of city region food systems. The reflections of this journey I will be sharing at the end of this week at the Explorer’s Club symposium on Salt Spring Island, in BC Canada.  In the following three mini blogs I run through the best of the food system in those main cities. Next week we head south into the USA, biking from Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula down towards Santa Cruz, California. I’ll be continuing to check out food systems and see what the West Coast of the US has to offer.

Toronto – great social projects and reuse of derelict spaces for community enhancement

I spent a week in Toronto, Canada, on the shores of Lake Ontario and right in the heart of the Greater Horse shoe area, an agriculturally rich and diverse part of Canada. Toronto is a leading example of city-region food system and home of the Toronto Food Policy Council, which has been running for over 20 years.  With that backdrop coupled with my interest in food, the first site I saw in Toronto was not quite as exciting as what I expected – the inside of the municipality’s Metro Hall, sitting through a three hour meeting of Toronto Urban Growers (not the usual port of call sight seeing as a tourist in the city, but anyway…as you do). This was a great insight to the work the city is doing.

On the agenda was the discussion of the Report on Scaling up Urban Agriculture in Toronto, one step along from the Grow TO report, which had resulted in actions on growing food for the city. The next step is for the Council committee to hear the report in September and so the purpose of the meeting I was privy to was to bring stakeholders together to discuss and offer feedback.

Controversial - community compost sites don't always fit with current council regulations on waste.

Controversial – community compost sites don’t always fit with current council regulations on waste.

What was remarkable for me was the sheer number of actors present, from within and outside of, the municipality from gardeners to university professors and students, along with the Toronto Food Policy Council (run through city public health programs) city representatives from the Parks, Environmental Services, and Economic Development departments were present, illustrating the diversity of city sectors that need to be involved in planning for food systems, particularly urban growing.

Everyday gardeners asked grounding questions like –

“How can we navigate the maze of city departments and organisations when we are trying to start a city garden?”

“How can you link the city growers with land in the city?”

“Can there be incentives, like Feed In Tariffs?” (I wondered if the pun was intended…)

My impression of Toronto being a proactive and engaged city with lots of stakeholders on board to help make changes in the food system was further enhanced when I left the meeting room and started to explore the city.

More than just a garden site, the Stop is based in a revamped centre with arts, education, culture and community.

More than just a garden site, the Stop is based in a revamped centre with arts, education, culture and community.

We took a Saturday morning bike ride out to the Evergreen Brick Works, a site in the Don Valley that once was home to industrial sites with polluted soil and surrounding areas. This is now being regenerated into a hive of food system activity. Farmers Markets humming with produce as its peak season, local chefs cooking up a storm of good healthy food, a wetland area out the back for people to explore, a children’s environmental playground and garden to play in and make, the old brick works inside now a cool space to display art and hold functions, current exhibition being how to develop cities into  the future, and it even becomes an ice skating rink in winter. What a site!

I was fortunate enough to be given a tour of the city by Lauren Baker of the TFPC to see some of the inspiring projects that are run in the community. The Stop community food centre is a great example I want to share. We went to The Stop’s Green Barn at Wychwood Barns Park, a site that was formally the street car storage facility. Revamped by the same architect as the Brick Works, this is another great example of a formally industrial site being revamped as a community hub, with playgrounds, art live in spaces, community rooms, a community kitchen and many more interactive spaces for people to use. Initial local opposition to the project has faded given that house prices have soared for surrounding residents. It hosts a weekly farmer’s market and also events in the large spaces indoors. What is great about The Stop is that not only do they have educational events at the site they also have a greenhouse growing produce on site and numerous cultural gardens around the area. In other areas The Stop runs satellite community gardens that we went and visited, bringing people together in low income areas to create better food systems. The garden was humming with people weeding and harvesting – August is such a great time to visit! And great to see such community diversity and outreach.

The second program we visited was the Food Share, which creates food boxes for low income families and provides a canteen with healthy food for students, whilst also offering catering courses and education. Again, the site has gardens growing the food and also regional farmers supplying the fruits and vegetables to the vege boxes that are then delivered around the city, reaching 155,000 children and adults across Toronto every week.

Delivering fresh produce to 155,000 inhabitants each week.

Delivering fresh produce to 155,000 inhabitants each week.

Food Share warehouse where all the sorting and deliveries happen.

Food Share warehouse where all the sorting and deliveries happen.

Vancouver – providing employment and opportunities for the less fortunate

Sole Food's stall at Vancouver's farmer's markets outside Central Pacific station.

Sole Food’s stall at Vancouver’s farmer’s markets outside Central Pacific station.

Next stop was Vancouver. Recently the city of Vancouver has put in place a food policy strategy and so I was keen to see some local examples of what is happening there. One project of note – and keeping on the theme of socially aware aspects of food programs – is Sole Food. I met the guy running the program at the Wednesday afternoon farmer’s market outside the Pacific Central station in downtown Vancouver. They have a great stall with locally produced produce from their city gardens. With over 40ha of gardens in 4 farms across the city they employ a number of gardens and provide them with training. Often coming from struggling situations and sometimes off the street, the Sole Food street farms give people a second chance and some great new skills and employment. One of the farms I saw on Hastings street, a pretty down and out part of town, and the other was an orchard growing trees in planter pots. The soil in downtown Vancouver where the sites are is contaminated so these raised beds are the best option.

Trees grow in pots to avoid contaminated soil at Sole Food's city orchard in the heart of Vancouver.

Trees grow in pots to avoid contaminated soil at Sole Food’s city orchard in the heart of Vancouver.

Kelowna – inspiring young actors creating employment and social change

Heading up into the fruit bowl of Canada into the Okanagan valley was a tasty treat. The region is ripe with vineyards and orchards – the plums, peaches and apricots were practically jumping off the trees and throwing themselves at me. I was inspired by Jenica Frisque and the work that she is doing along with the Central Okanagan Food Policy Council (COFPC). Not supported by the city council like Vancouver and Toronto, the COFPC is project based and runs off the love and spare time of committed locals. Their projects are varied and include using space donated by locals to grow produce, a great farmer’s market on the weekend, helping Food Not Bombs share produce with less fortunate people and trying to rally support for local produce. Jenica sums up their work as follows –

“The COFPC has three main projects on the go. 1. The Fruit Tree Project (where volunteers pick fruit from homeowners’ back yard trees and donate it to local charities, so far this summer we’ve donated over 5000lbs of food!). 2. The Food Forest Project (we are collaborating with the Regional District of the Central Okanagan to plant a food forest and in doing so, educate people about urban agriculture, permaculture design, and the sustainability of our food system) 3. The Farm Project (long term planning for a community farm).”

What is also impressive is the scale of urban farms that are happening there – rental properties digging up lawns and putting in big greenhouses to grow produce to supply CSA. One such site we visited has a farmer who employs three people, runs a busy CSA business and earns himself around $50,000 CA a year in the process from all his hard work. In a region that is horticulturaly rich and diverse to see such city focus on agriculture was unique and inspiring. Check out www.okanaganfood.com

Kelowna urban farm vehicle - great for carrying tools!

Kelowna urban farm vehicle – great for carrying tools!

It is also inspiring to see young people creating employment and positive change through the food system!

My reflection on the city region food systems I’ve seen in Canada are that they are everywhere (at least this time of the year), very accessible, and like most projects with food – everyone who works with them loves to speak about their project and does so with passion. I have a feeling there is a great movement happening and recommend summer as the time to check out the diversity of projects. So while you travel around Canada you might think it’s a place awash with Wendy’s McDonalds or KFC, which it is, but if you look a little closer – perhaps on every street corner – you’ll see an impressive system of community based socially inclusive food systems.

An ode to Bixi

Bixi bike stand in Toronto, Canada, Photo by bikeben.com

Bixi bike stand in Toronto, Canada, Photo by bikeben.com

What’s a Bixi? The brand of city rental bikes hitting North America at the moment and so far on our trip, my favourite way of exploring urban places. We’ve been travelling up the east coast of the US (New York, Boston, Maine) and into Canada (Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto) making our way to BC from where we’ll start our real bike trip – from Victoria down to California and beyond. For that trip we’ll be cranking our Surly Long Haul Truckers but meanwhile to save lugging them across the rest of North America, in cities we’ve been using the Bixi to fix that biking itch.

Having recently read an article on how these bikes might not be around for much longer, I feel the urge to write an ode to ye ol’ Bixi and air some of my personal insights to American city biking over the past month mainly to encourage others to give it a go.

Bixi is a pretty cool system (like Boris Bikes in London) – you basically pay either an annual subscription if you are local or a daily or hourly rate if you are passing through or just need a bike for a day. For us that has meant paying about $4 US a day and having to check them in every 30 minutes to avoid paying the extra hourly fees thereafter. Renting bikes from a shop for a day will set you back between $20-$30 depending on the deal you can get, so Bixis are a lot more affordable.

Helpful for Bixi planning is the Smartphone App that tells you exactly where the bike portals are, how many bikes are available, and importantly, whether the stand is already full (a challenge sometimes for two bikers). No other public transportation allows you to choose the exact point you want to go and to navigate your own route there above ground – all the rest rely on a predetermined line, which is not always where you want to be heading. Not to mention that you are being active in the fresh air without smelly commuters around you and you’re also above ground and burning your own energy rather than fossil fuels.

Here are my ratings on the Bixis so far:

New York is fantastic, with bike lanes and bikers everywhere, it’s just that the Bixis don’t run all the way up Manhatten yet, despite being on nearly every street corner in parts of Brooklyn and lower Manhatten. So it depends on your radius in NYC, but definitely worth it – especially to bike over Brooklyn Bridge and cruise past China town.

Boston is a beautiful city, with many refurbished brick factories now housing art and shop spaces and a fabulous waterfront. While there are some demarcated bike lanes on streets, the water front is still poorly designed with the focus being a pedestrian walkway, so there are a few too many steps and stop starts on an otherwise lovely and somewhat historic water front ride (so, ignore those duck boats – get a Bixi!).

Montreal, for biking, seems to be the best Canadian city we’ve visited. Bike lanes are clearly marked and plentiful, especially along the waterfront and through the central city. Bixi bikes are in all central locations – summertime city cruising at its best!

Toronto should take a maple leaf out of that book, because sadly it is the city with the worst city biking rating from me in this bunch. Ch’rona (as it is pronounced by the locals) is not planned as a bike city, despite the epic number of summertime bikers, hipsters cranking fixies, and hard core commuters braving it out there on the busy streets. The current city political situation with controversial Mayor Ford means the city bike planning is not likely to improve in the short term. While bike lanes are scant, once we figured out the main biking streets, it was not so bad to navigate around, safety aside.

Canadian drivers are as gas guzzling, big vehicle buffs as their US counterparts and while most young people in the city prefer their bikes to their cars in summertime, in cities like Toronto they are braving poorly marked or absent bike lanes amidst heavy commuter traffic that is prolific in the city centre.  As an aside, despite this, we managed to love Toronto and breathe a sigh of relief on the back streets around Kensington Markets and up and around the Don Valley. But she’s not for the faint hearted and I can see why most Bixi bikers in the city are locals and not tourists.

Research has shown that if you build bike lanes the cyclists will come. So, if you put in Bixis as a transport option for your city you really should have bike lanes to support them. People without a bike are hardly likely to decide to start riding if there is no infrastructure to take the ride. The difference is clear, like in Toronto v Montreal for example. It also indicates that you are serious about sustainable transport in the city and will in itself lead to a more long-term biking system supported by locals and tourists alike.

So, before the city officials knock it and cut the Bixi bikes back based on the arguments that it is not economically viable and that people are not using them, they should assess whether it was too premature to put in a city bike system without lanes and safety measures to start with. More holistic and sustainable city planning is needed in these big sky scraper infested car zones, that’s for sure.

Regardless of the politics, city bikes are great fun, affordable, healthy and the best way to see a city.  So I vote to keep them, hope for better infrastructure, increased coverage of city bikes and hope that the combination encourages other cities to follow suit.

Slow Money Maine

On Wednesday afternoon I had the pleasure of accompanying Bonnie Rukin, Coordinator at Slow Food Maine to the group’s bi-monthly meeting. A tiny lady in her mid sixties, Bonnie’s energy, humour, and enthusiasm for her work lights up the hall of the Augusta (Maine) Arboretum’s hall, where at least 80 people packed in to hear what’s happening this month in Maine’s movement of sustainable food systems. A third of those were there for the first time. Slow money aims to match lenders and investors with local sustainable food projects who are seeking funds or other networking support.  The figures alone speak for themselves, in 3 years the group has managed to leverage 8 million USD in projects, although one project was a hefty 3million backing alone. Investors receive 3-5% return on their loans and get to know the people and the project that they are investing in so that they can monitor and keep involved. What is inspiring is not just the group diversity, but the fact that they are bypassing major lenders and banks in order to foster local growth and it’s working well.

Bonnie and her steering committee hear from projects ranging from local agriculture, shared community kitchens, food hubs, production, organic grain farmers, urban agriculture, and community based gardening programs. To qualify to make a pitch they must all have a business plan and a budget as a starting point. Slow Money Maine is a network primarily and usually the projects that approach them will naturally fit into their sustainable food system concept – assisting people, small scale agriculture or local food projects needing assistance. A controversial case, Bonnie notes, was one where a blueberry farmer wanted to pitch for funds but the group is aware of his toxic soil and farming practices so he hasn’t been given the stage so far.

Bi-monthly  afternoon meetings are held and then an annual full day gathering in November.  The meetings and organisation is set up in a way that fosters networking and discussions. Of course, delicious local food is brought along to whet the appetite for such discussions and the first hour was a buzz with people mingling and discussing projects. A local aquaponic farmer tells me about his work – growing fresh water fish in a closed loop cycles (reusing waste and growing their own feed for the fish). When it was time to be seated we heard five project pitches that ran for 8 minutes a piece with 2 minutes of questions from the audience. Then towards the end there was a 3 minute wrap up from a number of already established projects, providing feedback to the group on where things are at – my favourite story shared was a Quarry regeneration project that is planting heirloom apple and pear varieties from Maine (over 150 used to be grown there) on permaculture principles to make a local orchard. A tree can be donated for $100 and so far they have raised $50,000.

I’m impressed by the hosting, the facilitating, the level of discussions and the professionalism of the projects. I’m struck by how openly money is discussed and people do not shy away from what is needed, after all that is the purpose. For me it is refreshing after workshops and conferences on food systems but not on how to fund them. Instead of questioning how we can find public and private investors who are interested, here we have them lining  up to hear local stories and to support their fellow businesses. After the pitches another intense networking session is undertaken at the meetings.  The room was buzzing with conversation – connecting people, helping each other find support that could help projects get off the ground. And there is certainly a feeling that something real is happening. I left inspired, on so many levels – local food systems, community engagement, great hosting, and positive change for the future.

Rural before urban

City garden in Downtown Manhatten, near Battery Park

City garden in Downtown Manhatten, near Battery Park, New York City

My farming experiences in New York so far have been rural and accidental instead of urban and planned. I had hoped to explore the city garden projects that the city is becoming known for but family commitments and some serious sight seeing meant that I didn’t have the chance. I did however have a couple of those surreptitious travel moments where you end up somewhere fantastic that you didn’t really plan to be, which turn out to be for good reason. The first was on a trip back from near the Catskill Mountains to the city where we called into a small dairy farm to collect some milk. Raw milk is banned for direct sale in the state of New York, but some farmers will sell it for around $1 a pint at the farm gate. This gave me the chance to meet the farmer selling it and discover he is struggling to make ends meet as prime land is gobbled up around him and his wife by the giants that dominate US agriculture scene. To my surprise we arrived at milking time, for him around 11:30 am and it made me realise that this was an all day job. He had about 40 cows in the shed (most of his herd) and about three sets of cups to milk the lot of them. Slowly moving the whole cup set, pipes and all, from cow to cow one at a time. Tedious. And a bit like how my Granddad used to do it back in the fifties in England, but even Granddad was faster and his technology more efficient. The only question from the farmer to me was how the milk company at home in New Zealand (Fonterra) sets the milk price to farmers each season. Do they buffer it or is there a big difference between pay cheques? He needs more certainty. The discussion on the way home was how to further assist these small farmers – would it be finance they would need? Or extra land? Better technology to free up their time? Certainly selling milk for $1 a pint is not going to help them get ahead. But perhaps there are better ways for them to do so, combining with other small farms in the region, or taking the MOO Milk approach that Maine farmers do, selling as a cooperative.

Small dairy farm, New York

Small dairy farm, New York

The second farm I bumped into was at a different part of the agricultural scale.  The Pfeiffer education centre is housed on the large property around the Steiner school and community on Chestnut Ridge, New York. Here back in the day Dr. Pfeiffer had a lab where he researched soil science and was a student of Steiner’s in the 1920s. They worked together on farming and soil. Now, almost 100 years later, on land that was purchased by a group of people who owned a vegetarian restaurant in New York, but wanted biodynamic vegetables, there is a a large community garden, farm, school and craft hub with students coming from around the world to study Steiner’s work in many fields of anthroposophy. One of which is literally a field. How amazing, I thought, that a century ago restaurant owners had the foresight to demand regionally produced food on biodynamic principles?! Sometimes we think we are so advanced and modern with our concepts and then it is so humbling to see that others have been doing something for decades. I spent the morning with the gardeners on the farm learning about some of their biodynamic practices and then seeing them set up the ponies ready to sow the fields with carrot seeds. Today is a root day according to the biodynamic calendar, so it should be good for carrots. My taste of biodynamics on this hot July morning was a good one and I realised while brushing down Ella the pony before she went on to plough the fields, that it is best to start with the basics and where things originate from – in this case the rural linkages and to small scale agriculture. With this, I was again reminded of my farming origins and thought of my Granddad and his pony, as I get back to my roots in different ways on different soils.

Ponies ready to plough at Pfeiffer centre

Ponies ready to plough at Pfeiffer centre

Uncoated reflections on a nearly-plastic-free July

Plastic PictureFree July is nearly over and here’s my nearly “plastic free” update. My colleagues and I at the Sustainable Business Network decided to try and walk the talk this month, by participating in Plastic Free July.  On the work front that is quite easy. It’s really at home where the plastic heart is for me. Rules of the game in this house were simple – avoid all plastic purchases for the month but keep any wrappers from previous purchasing decisions.  It’s a little cheesy in a “hug a seal” kind of way, but my motivation for taking part is purely ocean focused.  I cringe at the thought of turtles trapped in plastic in the ocean and the knowledge that fish cannot swim backwards, so once inside our plastic pollution, they’re stuck.

How are we tracking?

So far we have bought a block of cheese (which is wrapped in plastic), had a few beer bottle lids (cheeky things, they have a plastic lining!) and my disposable contact lens cases.  The rest of the items that feature in our “Dilemma Box”* are hangovers from former, less thought-through purchases, or gifts from people that we inherited, including our house mate’s loot. In our household we decided to include all plastic, not just the recommended single use, in order to better understand our consumer impact.

*A dilemma box is a nice way of collating those little plasticy items and reflecting on them.

Top dilemma items

  1. Plastic wrapping for a pack of EarthCare toilet paper, that’s a tricky one!
  2. Plastic around cheese – we love cheese!
  3. A plastic sleeve that arrived around a card someone sent us.
  4. A restaurant served us miso soup in takeaway cups, even though we were dining in. Damn, we wish it was in bowls…  So the lids made it into the dilemma box
  5. Beer bottle lids have plastic inside. After discovering this we switched to wine (not to mix up Dry July with Plastic Free July and complicate life further).
  6. I’m allergic to hard contact lenses, so I use disposables and those nasty little things add to my plastic impact

Key learnings

There is always a trade-off:

A dilemma item for us was milk bottles. We avoid Tetra Pak because this isn’t recycled in New Zealand, so plastic bottles from milk are a common item in our fridge. This month we joined a friend on her milk run. She is part of a milk collective that orders weekly and gets farm gate raw organic milk from Drury, South Auckland, in their reuseable jars. Trade off: For us this meant driving a good 15 minutes from our house to collect milk once a week.  We usually don’t drive during the week so it seemed a little silly that we were suddenly driving for milk! Regardless, Plastic Free July gave us the chance to try raw, local, organic milk and avoid added permeate (watery by-product of milk processing. Some dairy companies add it into milk to dilute or substitute the protein levels throughout the year).

Sometimes plastic is useful: In healthcare products in particular, it keeps things nice and sealed.

We need to be more organised: Glass jars for storing bulk items, buying ingredients to make your own food, like muesli, bread and tortillas, requires a bit of planning ahead.

Non-plastic items are often more expensive: Glass is heavier and more expensive. Even items like soap can be more expensive when wrapped in paper. This is a generalisation but the best example is cheese – we tried to alter our cheese eating habits by purchasing cheese from our local farmers market. But that ends up being $5 per 100 grams for local, organic cheese that I was hoping to be wrapped in paper. It was sold to us in aluminium foil! Oh dear…

You find fun new alternatives to plasticy items, it just might take longer: We made our own tasty granola, discovered cardboard wrapped ice blocks for a treat, and we have also been making our own tortillas from masa flour to avoid buying packaged ones. Fresh is best, super tasty and healthy.

Some things you can easily do without: In our case, yoghurt was an easy thing to forgo this month and we haven’t really missed it.  We haven’t had corn chips either and that is probably better for us!

 

It’s a wrap!

In summary, plastic is everywhere and is damn hard to completely avoid.
It’s in all my electronic devices and items around me. Even if I can’t see it, the plastic poltergeist floats in behind my food and health items from the production, manufacturing, distribution through to the shop. Even if I’m not wearing or using plastic directly it would have been involved in some part of my item’s lifetime.

But among all this, as a consumer, you do have the power to cut out the final layer by making conscious decisions.

The boxes that the crates of my bulk binned food arrived in New Zealand in would have been wrapped in plastic, but at least I’m not having plastic at point of sale or risking the wrapper blowing away.  This makes me feel a little better, especially as it’s those items that end up in our rivers and oceans.
The biggest thing Plastic Free July has given us is a discussion point and a way to alter some of our behaviours and check in on our habits, because everyone can improve, no matter how plastic-free their lives are.

This blog first appeared on the Everyday Sustainability blogsite: http://everydaysustainability.info/plasticfree/

 

The lost Cooks

It’s my first time in the Pacific on an island. As a kiwi who has traveled the world, I feel slightly negligent for saving some of the best til now. Here are some of my reflections on the beauty of the land and the food and health of the people.

Life was simple on the island.

Palm trees lined the white sand beaches, scattered with hibiscus with flowers of yellow, red, orange, pink, and coconuts. There were two roads: the beach road and the inland road. The tourists and traffic stuck to the beach road, the locals to the inland road, the most interesting road. Simple patches of property were green fields with one, two or three goats, the occasional beef or horse to mix up the animal gene pool, with the staple items: chickens and a rooster. Roosters and dogs were by far the most prolific of the island, both territorial, both loud at certain but different times. The former with two legs, the latter with three mostly.Rarotongan home and land

Roosters screamed at dawn and dusk, some sounding like a party popper that should have been recalled or a child being strangled to death, others with strong vocal chords, dulcet tones for the hens not tourists.  Day was marked though, by the sounds of these animals. It was soon time to get up once they began in the morning, it was soon time to have dinner when they screeched the end to the day at dusk.

Dusk was the best part of the day, roosters aside. The golden light catching the trees and turning everything into dreamy orange and yellowy golden hues. Green looking more lime in its tones, brushed now with yellow. The shadows of tropical hedge rows seemingly darker, the leaves a richer green or striped red, here the leaves of plants were different colourful combinations of reds, yellows and greens. Sometimes purple. The brown fertile soil painting the land with rows of hoed soil up: taro and other crops growing up strong and healthy, loving that last breath of evening light. A light breeze, warm, moving the leaves, the dark banana fronds, the broken paper like leaves from windier times floating in the breeze. The palm fronds fluttering, each end a finger on a key quivering. The glossy leaves of the bigger trees shining now in light. Yes, dusk. Dusk was the best time of the day.

Everything was cool, but still light. It was like a positive reflection upon the day, a chance to look back on everything with a glowing appraisal, it was a good day, you see. Yes, a good day. And why? Because life was simple on the island.

Saturday market

Saturday market- get your bananas!

The tiny island with a 32km circumference can easily be biked in a few hours. Still some subsistence agriculture survives here, bananas, paw paw, fresh coconuts, even some umu (hangi like ovens in the ground) being cooked up along with some goat stew, apparently popular at Christmas. But for the most part, the local food here (outside of the $30 mains for food in resorts), is takeaways. I always like to see where locals eat and here it’s popular little chicken and chips shops, a grill shack, the occasional pizza place, with fish and chips and burger bars the most popular. The counter to these high saturated fats are diluted public health messages on the TV and signs around the country calling for a more active and healthier lifestyle. And for some it is working, there were lots of people out on the sea training in their waka, local gyms have dance classes zumba island style incorporating local dance moves. But like many places globally (New Zealand included) Coke is cheaper than water in the supermarket and tins of imported green beans from New Zealand 40% cheaper than the $6 a bunch of freshly picked local green beans.

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Coconuts and bananas, popular market produce

There are many little road side vege stalls and a popular and well stocked markets throughout the week and on the weekend selling taro, fruits, coconuts, bananas and homemade treats like taro leaves soaked in coconut milk. But the first time I went into a supermarket I was surprised (and strangely I think I was a little proud) to see it was all brands from New Zealand, rows of Griffins biscuits, Bluebird chips, the Coke range, Yoplait yogurt… Watties beans and tins of everything. My pride didn’t last long when I realised what we were exporting. Usually my favourite thing to do in a new place is spend hours in the aisles of supermarkets finding different types of foods, but here it was like the canned section of a store from home, all the time and frankly depressing. The difference being there ain’t no fresh fruit and vege aisles as you come in to calm you and make you think of nature and buy more. I figured this was for two reasons: they have the beach in sight all day so no false calms are really needed and there aren’t really any fruits and veges to sell.

Despite fruit and vege sales much of the food sold is takeaways

Despite fruit and vegetables for sale at markets like this, much of the food sold is high in fats and heavily processed

On the shelves I saw the infamous corned beef in a can and noticed people buying it. Michael Tuffery’s “Pisupo lua afe” Corned Beef 2000 sculpture of a bullock made of these cans came to mind in the store and I started to think that all these brands of canned food are just a modern extension of that concept, namely the dependence of the islands on imported foods. I started to see giant beetroots made of beetroot cans, corn, beans, tuna…

It must be so heartbreaking to have to leave this paradise to go and work on the sister-land of Aotearoa. While having its benefits for education and work, the withdrawal of white sand beaches and beautiful weather and flowers, replaced with crammed houses in rainy Auckland with little thanks, must surely take its toll. Those family and friends returning to the island in the earlier days must have craved foods, like KFC, or fish and chip shops. Over time on the island, shacks to quell the craving of takeaways have popped up to feed people in a cheap way.

I started to see how food connected our two lands. I thought of the irony, as traditionally ancient waka/vaka of Cook Island Maori connected the tupuna/ancestors of both lands and voyagers made the journey over weeks across the Pacific ocean to Aotearoa with kai/food like tubers such as kumara on board. Centuries later the food swap returned, except it’s not kumara, but deep fried chips, a reverse food staple that we see transplanted across the island. It’s cheap and it has the taste of south Auckland, perhaps a good compromise for those returning to the island on their plane voyage of recent times.

My first concern for a little island like this in the middle of the ocean far from any where, is about climate change and the loss of these beautiful lands. Although some of those 500m high stunning mountain ranges will be here for a while, everyone lives within 2km of the beach in the circle around the island. Smart that the tourists are sacrificed first, perhaps. Now though after seeing the size and unhealthy eating that goes on, I think the non communicable diseases and obesity is a greater threat to the people of the Pacific. The 350 Pacific message is the powerful motto “We are not drowning; we are fighting!” While their quest and message is inspirational, I can’t help but feel the food war is one that needs a bigger and healthier army to tackle the issue and enable them to be around to adapt to those threats.

A natural meeting

Last night in Auckland I finally had the chance to meet Vandana Shiva. It was short and sweet, I sat next to her and said quietly, and hopefully not too creepily, “Dr Shiva, I stayed on your farm at Navdanya, it was an amazing experience and it changed the direction of my life. Thank you for that.” She smiled and nodded, “Oh did you? Oh, thanks”. Smiling again, nodding again, probably adding me to the pile of eco-fans that huddle up to her saying such things. I noticed how beautiful her skin was up close (thankfully I didn’t say that aloud) and then I left as she was called up on the stage to receive a gift.

She’d spoken to the audience, as she does, at length on the Green Revolution, agricultural change, seeds in India, seed sovereignty, stories of triumph of the little farmers over the big companies. But her most astute observations that resonated with me came from her short time in New Zealand. She warned the audience of the “amalgamation” that’s happening in our country, the loss of local voices and notably power being centralised. She’d sharply observed our landscape as she drove up our island: large scale industrial agriculture, the felling of plantation forestry, and monocultures of corn making deserts of biodiversity, that line the road sides of the North Island. Not the standard week long reflections of a guest in our country, usually hiding in Fjordland and thinking the world is just fine. What if every tourist held an audience of 200 people and shared that observation, that observation that is overlooked but so true in our own back yard: hey kiwis! what on earth are you doing to the soil and biodiversity here?!  And she picked up on the TPPA: just waiting for one minister to come in and pass over to the big seed guys, the rights to our landscapes, whenua, crops, food, sovereignty.

Having spent some time in India I couldn’t help but feel they are so much more organised and on to it with these things. It’s that intrinsic link between what we eat and where it comes from (seed) that we seem to have missed in the past 50 years in Westernised culture. For centuries the Indian diet has reflected a diverse seed stock, local culinary dishes directly connecting people to the seed and keeping that diversity. I was struggling to see how the average kiwi farmer’s diet reflects their seed stock and struggling further to picture them marching to the Prime Minister if there were such changes afoot. Instead of a rural and grass roots, la via Campensina style campaign, our rural agribusiness scene is quite different, and perhaps that’s what troubles me the most. Most of the GM and seed watch dogs are middle aged well intentioned women from towns and lifestyle blocks – and thank goodness they are around – but how much of this do our farmers really know? Campaigns a decade ago held us back from some stark changes to food laws, but of course, these things can easily swing the other way.

The evening’s talks took us on a journey from science to cooking, with French scientist and a chef teaming up to explain the need for GE free food. We canvassed a genetic modification lesson, raw truths of rat blood cell tests, understanding that the core ingredients in pesticides are not the ones that are disclosed, that we’re altering the cells of our ancestors and our future generations simultaneously by bringing these nasties into our lives.  French chef, Jerome Douzelet, author of Culinary pleasures or hidden poisons? pointed out that “eating is an intimate act, because what you eat becomes your flesh.” He’s dedicated his culinary practice to local, seasonal and tasty produce, much of which comes from his garden in Mars de Rivet, himself a strong proponent of biodiversity from the perspective of the cooking world: if we have more crops, more taste, and more diverse aromatics and tastes. Some of his messages were similar to those of Dan Barber in the book The Third Plate.

As we drove home, a truck was delivering large yellow bins to the street near ours. A sign by Western Springs and a 10pm news reader on the radio told us we were entering a Biosecurity control area. Interestingly, noone has come and told us that we’re living in a bio-hazardous zone, no notes in the letter box, no door knocking… It was only because we left the area that we realised. And as I sit in my little garden with the plums ripening on the tree, I’m hoping they don’t come and biobliltz the yard with nasty sprays, before I can harvest my plum crop. The message that major pesticides are more toxic to human cells than their declared active principles is fresh in my mind following the talk…

Dr Shiva had noted the absurdity of the New Zealand response to two fruit flies, she seemed to find it entertaining that we’d go to such extent. Given it could destroy livelihoods and entire horticulture industries, I don’t think it is quite so funny. In fact I’m quite proud of how serious kiwis take their biosecurity. On reflection, no doubt Dr Shiva was chuckling at the irony, wondering why we go to so much trouble over two flies when we allow pesticides into our waterways and food chain through intensive horticulture and agricultural practices and noone bats an eyelid.