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After a lot of recommendations I have just finished the seminal 'natural farming' text 'One Straw Revolution' by Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukoaka, who for some 50 years pioneered a form of 'hands-off' cultivation on his mountain site which gave yields equal to conventional intensive rice-paddy techniques. In a nutshell, this was achieved by allowing 'weeds' and beneficial green manures to colonise all space between rice or grain plants, and by mulching all harvested fields immediately with the straw of the harvested plants before sowing the follow-up crop. He also advocates growing vegetables in semi-wild mixed areas, allowing self-seeding. He apparently transformed his arid mountain soil over a decade of this cycle. This approach is embedded (as he explains in the book) within a holistic lifestyle of respect for natural cycles, foraging for wild foods, eating according to season.
Having spent time in the mountainous farming village of Toge in north west Japan, I can vouch for the intensive rice-farming still practiced by diminishing numbers of elderly Japanese farmers. As I was there mid-summer, I didn't witness the busiest times but it was clear how hard it was to maintain these vertiginous paddies and to produce the prized rice. The endeavour of food production brought the whole community together year-round, and it was an intensely moving experience to live amongst them and feel this intimate connection with land even for a short time.
I haven't yet looked into how Fukoaka's evident success was disseminated amongst the Japanese farming community, but in his book he cites many clashes with chemical companies and government agencies. It would be depressing reading if it were not for his moving accounts of the satisfaction he gained from his simple relationship with his land.
With memories of the Toge villagers' excitement at spring's earliest murmers, and thinking of Fukoaka's belief in the spirituality of foraging on one's own patch, instead of disposing of the many Arctium Lappa (burdock) seedlings coming up in our fruit cage, I carefully pulled them out. These have now been boiled lightly and pickled in a mix of mirin, soy sauce and rice vinegar.
Now onto working out a way to translate his agricultural techniques to the northern European climate of Lawson Park....
Chicken arrivals - blog entry by popular demand
6 Chickens arrived from Barrow - coughing slightly from their car journey in with Julie - a kind donation from a friend of Julie's, (the chickens not the cough)
Apart from escaping almost immediately from the pen, (where they are kept for their own protection - principally from walker's dogs), they have settled in and started laying immediately. Ed built up the fence to Colditz standards, (he has been reading the 'One The Got Away' - an account of Grizedale's history as a prisoner of war camp) and I have cut their wing feathers off with a pair of rusty sissors.
The chicken types are as far as I can make out
1 Ameraucana (lays blue eggs, Chilean cross-breed)
3 Maran (the 70s dream Chicken, dark brown eggs to go with the dark brown bread and everything else)
2 Australorp (Orpington Austalian cross, light brown eggs and lots of them)
Karen has suggest calling them after female gospel singers, so - Albertina, Shirley, Clara, Cassietta, Inez, Dorothy, Loleatta, Bessie, Doris, Delores - they do all seem to be rather chickeny names - any preferences? Could simplify matters by grouping them, also under Gospel names, so the 3 Jones Sisters, The Consolers, Gloria Spencer (who worked with the by line the worlds largest gospel singer).
Listen to this for a slightly odd rap about being big and the problems of getting buried.
After the first meeting of 'The Autonomy Project' at the Van Abbe Museu in Eindhoven (www.vanabbemuseum.nl/en), I caught up with Van Abbe Director, Manchester City supporter (and all round good egg) Charels Eshe and asked him for some thoughts on Big JR. Being from Manchester (or a 'Manc' as we call those of the Manchester persuasion here in the UK - Alistair Hudson is one too) Charles' first memories of Ruskin were associated with his influence on 'News from Nowhere' and other 19th Century radical free press. It is also interesting that Charles also saw some parallels between Ruskin's struggle with the aesthetics/ethics question and the difficulties of making a meaningful socially engaged practice in today's neo-liberal economy. Charels also has some very interesting things to say on the show he would work on with Ruskin - should the big man himself come back to work with us today.
Thanks to the heroic endevours of our new land intern Ed Bailey we have finally got around to preparing the unlikely looking bit of land at the top of our SW-facing meadow, which will become a small orchard next year...Inspired by planting a wall of fruit at Abbey Gardens in London a few weeks ago, and by thinking 'If we'd planted an orchard when we first moved in here we'd be eating apples by now!'
The site will be a challenging one -200m above sea level, and rather exposed if sunny, so I'll also plant a surrounding hedge inside the dear-dissuading stock fencing - probably hawthorn as it's so twiggy and in leaf so early too. Much as I fancy shaped espaliers and fans they'd be decidely out of place up here and - more seriously - I know that with the emphasis on labour-saving we are best to choose the standard tree shape, below which -in the future - animals can graze and people can picnic.
Being organic, our ground prep (the meadow was cropped a few months ago by some hungry Exmoor ponies and is usually maintained for wildflower interest) consists of rotivating (now) the hedge-line and a 1m square for each tree (they should eventually reach circa 3m in height each) about 3.5m apart. We'll then spread a thick layer of well-rotted cow manure on this newly exposed soil, then cover with a light-excluding mulch of carpet or plastic, and let nature do the rest for the next 8 or 9 months. Then next winter I'll have a fork about under the mulch and we should see a decent if thin top soil level to plant into in Feb / March time.
I now have the delectable task of trawling through books and websites to choose the toughest apples I can find - I've decided to create the United Appledom of Grizedale by choosing 6 varieties each from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland - and by all accounts for the rare ones you need to get your orders for next winter in now. I'll be looking for early ripening varieties, and ones from the wetter parts of those countries. Any variety recommendations welcome!
Today's blog entry is a video diary as I sit in an Eindhoven Hotel waiting for a meeting at the Van Abbe Museum (www.vanabbemuseum.nl/en) about the coming launch of 'The Autonomy Project' which I've been working on for nearly two years with Charles Esche, Annie Fletcher, Steven Ten Thije and Clare Butcher.
I've been thinking a lot about what Alistair has been saying in this Sao Paulo blog entries about the difficulty of meaningfully engaging as an artists without collapsing innovative work back into the pre-requisite formulae of international Biennial Land (or Airport Art as I call it). It's a tough one and no doubt!
But it also strikes me that any questions over the possibility of autonomy today are no longer circumscribed by bankrupt Modernist debates about 'self-referentiality', or 'art for art's sake. Nor can they be sustained in the aftermath of an equally bankrupt postmodernism without some radical re-negotiation. What does remain is the question of how to be an artist, thinker, writer, curator, teacher or whatever meaningfully? How to develop a practice within the existing globalized neo-liberal economy that can still function in an oppositional sense? How to negotiate new perspectives on better ways of living? All of these seem questions that were (and still are) rooted in the problematic of John Ruskin's complex relationship between art, aesthetics and ethics?
I recently caught up with Alistair Hudson in Manchester after we'd given a presentation on 'Creative Partnerships' at Manchester Museum. In a state of some despair, brought on mainly by experiencing an update on the turf wars in UK Arts and Education Funding (which seem to be increasingly blighting the possibility of cultural experiment) Alistair took us to his family's favourite Chinese Restaurant. After eating the hottest food I have ever had in my life - a really funky Szechwan Black Pudding and various forms of Offal Soup - debate turned, as always to Big JR. Alistair went on to elucidate on the complex relationship between Grizedale and Ruskin, between Grizedale and the world and the possibility of Ruskin Returning as a Cultural Hoody stalking the self-satisfied debates over art, ethics and social engagement (Oh, and the X Factor too).
Grizedale regular Wapke Feenstra (www.wapke.nl) reads out her favorite Ruskin quotation from 'The Lamp of Beauty: Writings on Art'. According to Wapke, Ruskin reads the paintings he is talking about from a peculiarly British viewpoint and, in doing so, completely misses their point (form a Dutch perspective of course). Was this just another case of a Victorian Englander attempting to apply his world view to everything? - no change there then I hear you say!
However, whilst I was listening to Wapke read her quote (and it is her favorite Big John quote) there does seem to be a sweeping confidence in Ruskin's assertions - kinda hard not side with him on some levels. He talks of the Landscape containing a human element that can't be denied - and that would weaken art by its absence. I can't help beginning to thinking of him as some kind of Victorian moralist crossed with Simon Cowell, an ethical critic running his informed but detached eye over the runners and riders in the new business of art. In view of Alistair's recent adventures in Sao Paulo, there seems a crucial importance here. How could one even begin to conceive of a contemporary global landscape without the immediate necessity to confront the ethical as well as the aesthetic? Despite all this, It's hard not to agree with Wapke's conclusions though....
In the evening we go to see the boxer Jesus Carlos. Jesus Carlos runs a gym, boxing school and library under a flyover. He too has a mission. In Sao Paulo the spaces under the numerous concrete flyovers are a honey pot of vice, drugs and violence. Jesus Carlos has taken on the task himself of changing the society that surrounds him by establishing open air gymnasia where once there was pile of trash - in every sense.
He wants to get the wasted souls off the streets and through physical exercise and education, turn the drug addicts and gang members into citizens of healthy mind and body. Jesus prides himself on the fact that he has done this himself, without aid from the government, just with good will and determination. He calls his mission Human Recycling.
He has now established two gyms and we go to see the latest first. Sandwiched between two roads, it is transparent and open to the elements on all sides, save for a fence and the roof above provided by the freeway. There is a boxing ring, homemade exercise equipment and punch bags made from gas canisters and fridges and of course the library. This started when the kids started to bring their homework along and grew into a library to expand the minds of all its members.
Opposite the gym is a small park where the drug dealers and prostitutes make their trade. He wants to turn this area into a communal allotment, but this may take some time. Recently one of the dealers came over to kill Carlos for taking away his clients, but he didn't succeed of course; Carlos, with the looks of a Tarrantino star, is hard as nails and doesn't give up.
Whilst we talk to him there is a commotion going on over at the park; flashing lights, police, a child in handcuffs. This is the first meeting I've had in the middle of a drugs bust.
Afterwards we go to the first Gym, which is much bigger, under a bigger fly-over. It is now dark and cinematic in the sodium glow of the lighting. At the entrance, a a gap in the chain link fence, there is a reception desk made from junk furniture. The whole thing is like ghetto Edward Acland, nothing wasted and piles of spare, saved materials stacked up in neat piles. Here there are two boxing rings, extensive gym (with gas bottles and rocks for weights) a skate park, another library with lounge area and even a few tents for the eager. Now, evening the place is busy, maybe 50 or more people working out, reading, watching TV or doing spectacular stunts on BMX on the skate ramps. It looks like it's doing it's job.
Calos wants to go on. He wants a gym and library under every flyover in Brazil. He wants it to become a free university for the underclass. That's a long way off, but I wouldn't be surprised if it happened.
The parallels with the Mechanics Institute (both here and at UNAS) are direct and startling, inspirational. But the real question is how we work with all this stuff. What do we make for the Bienal that doesn't just fall into the trap of Bienality and just pointing at all this stuff, like the first colonists drawing and measuring every plant and animal and native they clapped their eyes on.
Jesus Carlos is already well known - even the AA are coming to see him for a summer school fro crying out loud.
If you are reasonably comfortable in Brazil you go to private school, if not you go to the state schools, which by all accounts are a lost cause - or you will be if you go to one.
Around town you can spot the private school kids - all white in freshly pressed coloured t-shirt and shorts, in an orderly line in a park, museum or cultural centre. The rest are hanging out, playing football in the street or at least not so visible.
The school in Heliopolis is the culmination of the self helping, self organising spirit that pervades the shanty town. The head is relaxed and casual but a man on a mission. In 1999 a 16 year old girl pupil was murdered on her way home, shot five times. He tells how, on his way out of the morgue, he decided that things had to change, that the school should take responsibility and take a leadership role in the community. In effect that that the moral reconstruction of the favella should start with the children and they in turn would lead Heliopolis in a new direction.
The first statement back then was to hold a Peace March through the streets, to lay down their intent. This now happens every year, but it is in the day to teaching that the work is really done.
We are taken on a tour of the school which now has an attached cultural and science centre - a communal place for the development of the mechanical arts - science, art, theatre and so on. In the main classroom there are over 100 children, a giant of a class. But they are seated in clusters of six each around a table and serviced by about 4 or so teachers. The tables break off into smaller rooms to work on a project and then come back to the main class to feed back and teach the others what they have learned. In this Q & A the children are sharp and witty, but also quiet and all well behaved. It is impressive to see a school working well, not just as a place of education, but also as a social model.
We have lunch at the Heliopolis branch of MacDonalds. A scratch built version of the burger chain that was recently threatened with legal action by McD's - obviously a serious threat to the food giant.
But I can see why, as it's actually really good. I have a prime steak sandwhich with salad and a freshly pressed tropical fruit drink, more than my five a day.
NB there are no fat people in Sao Paulo.
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