Category: Permaculture

Bulgaria & European Permaculture Convergence

It was a sunny and humid with summer storm clouds brewing in the mountains when we flew into Sofia last Wednesday morning. Having been smashing the UK tour pretty much non-stop for the past month with no time to do any research, Mal and I arrived knowing next to nothing about the geography, people or language of Bulgaria and emerged onto the streets of Sofia feeling like a couple of bewildered and illiterate kids.

Mal & Charlie arrive in KaloferUsing a bit of mangled phrasebook Bulgarian and wild gesticulating directed at amused locals, we managed to find our way onto the train to Kalofer – our first stop at the foothills of the Central Balkan National Park.

 

Kalofer (Калофер)

KaloferThe first thing that stands out about the small rural village of Kalofer, beyond the immediate natural beauty of the mountains were fruit trees growing on every street and the abundant vegetable gardens growing in every back yard. On the edge of town, plum trees grew wild and became part of the surrounding forest, while renegade pumpkin vines took off into the undergrowth from a haphazardly plonked pile of horse manure on the side of the road.

Life seemed a lot more chilled than where we’d come from and, despite Bulgaria’s ongoing recession and dodgy government, there was a sense that the people were onto it and this place was far more resilient than most western countries. While we were there, we’d even heard news that the prime minster had resigned after more than 400 days of people protesting his corruption (which should be an inspiration to all Australians if you ask me!)

Beehives and plum trees in Kalofer

Beehives, beans and plum trees in a Kalofer back yard

At a guesthouse in Sofia a few days later, our host told us “In Bulgaria, our food is sacred, that’s why everybody grows food”.

IMG_2721In Sofia we were reunited with our wonderful DJ Button (or DJ “Kopche” – as we’d learned how to say “Button” in Bulgarian) and it was off to the EUPC.

 

EU Permaculture Convergence – Lake Batak (Язовир Батак)

Andy Goldring facilitates open space workshop programming.

Andy Goldring facilitates open space workshop programming.

Our next stop, and the reason we’d come to Bulgaria in the first place was biannual European Permaculture Convergence, held at Lake Batak in the mountains to the south.

With permaculturalists from nearly every country in the EU and some from as far afield as Israel, South Africa and Australia, Batak quite possibly became the most concentrated centre of highly-skilled individuals in Europe for those few days, attracting some of the most equipped people from around the continent in forming solutions for climate change & energy descent transition.

CommunityFacilitationWorkshops and discussions were held on everything from creative community facilitation and strategies for people care to forest gardening and teacher training, including many a brainstorming session on how to take permaculture to the next level in Europe and worldwide.

The greatest thing about the convergence, however, was the atmosphere of celebration and the fact that it had been designed to feel more like a festival than a conference. While some may have felt that the format didn’t cultivate enough ‘seriousness’ or ‘practicality’ needed to tackle some of these global issues, I felt that this was its strongest virtue.

 

The crowd at our Sunday night show

The crowd at our Sunday night show

Despite the heaviness of some of the topics being discussed, there was always the sense that most people were enjoying themselves, which not only gave the entire event a positive atmosphere overall, but clearly helped people to become inspired and reinvigorated about the projects they were working on in the wider world.

I feel that this festive spirit is something that can be of great value towards attracting the attention of a more mainstream demographic in permaculture and hopefully we can continue cultivating it through music, celebration and positive action in order to successfully get all hands on deck for a resilient future.

EUPC at Lake Batak

Traditional Bulgarian folk music & dance on the main stage, Saturday evening

‘We’re running out of oil!” Formidable Veg live on BBC London

BBCLondon

Mal & Charlie with Jo Good & Simon Lederman at BBC London

Yesterday morning after breakfast we had the great pleasure of going on prime-time London radio to announce to the world through song that ‘We’re running out of oil!”

I’m not sure how many business executives and investment bankers off to another day in their Westminster offices had tuned in, but if  they were, they would’ve been greeted by Formidable Vegetable Sound System’s cheery wake-up call to “stop working nine to five”, start “growing food everywhere” and “become a clean, renewable investor”.

It’s such a privilege to have been able to play to a listenership of over 100,000 people and to help spread the word of permaculture even further! Check out the interview here (at 1:15 – up for the next 4 days only) or have a listen below:

Also, check out the fun video clip to Oil below:

The song, from the album Permaculture: A Rhymer’s Manual is available is available on CD, vinyl and online at: music.formidablevegetable.com.au

Could GMO ever actually benefit us?

I unintentionally opened up an interesting debate on the Formidable Vegetable Facebook page the other day after posting a link to AVAAZ’s Seed Savers’ Noah’s Ark campaign calling to form a global non-GMO seed-bank that could effectively function as an ‘eBay of Seed’ for growers around the world.

GMO Researcher

A Hippie’s Defence of GMO

The campaign has turned out to be something of a controversial one and a link was posted to this article entitled: A Hippie’s Defense of GMOs written by a guy who claims to be a ‘vegetarian/vegan crazy-hippie yoga instructor’ but who is still open to the idea of developing genetically modified food. The article raised some interesting points about some of the pros and cons of GMO as he saw them and his argument was that the whole issue over genetically modified food was more overblown than it needs to be.

I can definitely see where he is coming from, however after reading the article I have to say that I’m still nowhere near sold.

To me, the word that springs to mind is “contextuality“. Scientists seem to agree that genes work in relation to other genes and not in isolation, however, as far as I am aware, current practices of genetic modification only seek to modify one or two genes in order to achieve a desired trait (using an incredibly random and haphazard method of blindly firing microscopic bullets from a ‘gene gun‘ into cell walls) without any idea of what effect that will have on the rest of the cell’s DNA.

Gene Gun

Gene Gun

In the article, the ‘hippie defender’ states that “some GMOs are safe, and others are not”, but the problem is currently that nobody knows which ones are safe and which aren’t, yet they are still being released into our food supply without rigorous testing or even labelling for people who want to have a choice over whether they eat GMO or not.

Contextuality” within the DNA, but also within the communities who grow the food. A seed that has been developed to perform well under lab conditions, ‘sterile’ soil and (let’s not forget) huge doses of brand-name fertiliser and/or pesticides is most likely to fail on farms that do not conform to the climate/nutrient density/spraying conditions under which the plant was developed.

In contrast, varieties that have been developed and selected by communities of farmers and gardeners over generations have built up resilience to local conditions and developed characteristics that not only favour the soil in which they are grown, but are also likely to be more suitable to the local diet and even function as a something of a cultural trademark to the area. The healthiest diets in the world are from countries with their own ‘cuisine’, suggesting that a localised system of food production is the most beneficial to us as a species and to the environment of which we are a part.

GMOs, as they currently stand will remain a hazardously failing disaster as long as the ethics of the companies who develop them are clearly oriented around profits and control over nutrition and resilience. If they ever were to become something of benefit to the human race and biosphere at large, it could only be after decades (even centuries) of rigorous testing/research rather than greedy, Machiavellian attempts to sneak legislation past the world’s eyes in order to make as much profit as possible off people trying to feed their communities. And even then, good old fashioned evolution would most likely outperform it anyway.

The answer? Definitely not GMO and maybe not even an ‘eBay of Seed’, but rather the constant vigilance of every one of us to keep growing and developing local varieties of seed in our local communities, developing local seed banks, sharing seed among growers and farmers who are committed to not only feeding people, but caring for the land and leaving the legacy of a healthy food system to their children and community and of course, growing food in every inch of healthy fertile soil we can find!

Read more about seed saving, local resilience and food sovereignty at:

http://seedfreedom.in/

http://www.holmgren.com.au

http://www.march-against-monsanto.com/

Glastonbury Festival 2014

BimbleInn

We have survived our mission to the maddest festival on Earth – and what a festival of contrasts it is! Tiny solar, wind and bicycle-powered stages, twenty-year old permaculture gardens and chai tents set amongst stadium-sized amphitheatres seething with crowds of party animals rocking out to the biggest-name bands on the planet. Mud everywhere. The smell of poo wafting on the breeze. Drunk & high munters stumbling through fields between peace-loving, tipi-dwelling herbalists, healers, craft-makers, poets, clowns and oddballs. Somehow everyone manages to get through the week and come out with a slightly different perspective than when they went in. Pictures say more words than I have the energy to write, so here is a little visual journey of Formidable Vegetable Sound System’s adventures at Glastonbury 2014 (click to view as a gallery):

Glastonbury Permaculture garden: A Refuge

Glastonbury Permaculture garden: A Refuge

A sea of tents

A sea of tents

The formidable Pyramid Stage

The formidable Pyramid Stage

Charlie & Mal play at the Gateway

Charlie & Mal play at the Gateway

Hover Mal!

Hover Mal!

DJ HAP & DJ Button rip it up at Shangri La

DJ HAP & DJ Button rip it up at Shangri La

Natural Event compost toilets are fun

Natural Event compost toilets are fun

Mud!

Mud!

DJ HAP takes it out with some glitch at 3am Monday morn in Shangri La

DJ HAP takes it out with some glitch at 3am Monday morn in Shangri La

Greetings from a Transition Town

So, we’ve arrived in the UK. And probably to one of the most ‘permaculture friendly’ places in the entire country at that! Apart from being quaint and ‘Ye Olde English’ styley, Totnes in Devon is probably most famous for growing the Transition Towns movement from a tiny grass-roots initiative into a massive worldwide network of tiny grass-roots initiatives!

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The idea at the core of a transition town is local resilience, which basically means having a backup plan for when shit hits the fan! Instead of relying on food transported from the other side of the world, people set up community gardens and produce swaps from their own yards. Instead of draining local money into foreign-owned corporations such as supermarket chains and franchises, local currencies are set up that can only be used within the town. This means that local businesses can feel supported by their community, and people can feel more comfortable in knowing that their money isn’t leaving the town.

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Also, the one pound note has veggies on it, which is just awesome!

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Playing at a local skillshare, swapping local seed and sipping elderflower cordial. Ahhh…

Our Little Shed in the Bush

Dad

Dad keeping his spirit level

 

I owe a lot to my Dad. He taught me that you don’t need much to be happy in life. Whether it was his dedication to low-impact living in order to leave the planet in better shape for his kids, or his lack of disposable income (or a combination of both), we often lived without the bells and whistles that most other privileged western kids were used to.

The tank - our only water supply

The tank – our only water supply

When we moved to our block near Pemberton in South Western Australia it was just a swampy paddock with a creek down the back, but Dad soon set up a tank to harvest water and we lived in a couple of caravans while he foraged the local tip for recycled materials to use for building a shed.

Our solitary solar panel - enough to run a couple of lights and the radio

Our solitary solar panel

 

After the shed was built, we moved up in the world and Dad purchased a single solar panel, which was enough to power a couple of lights and the radio (we never had a TV – kids at school used to ask me “But what do you do all day?” to which I’d reply “umm… play outside, draw pictures, hang out with the chickens. Lots of stuff!”)

The chickens were definitely my main source of entertainment.  I’d named all 36 of them and got to know each of their idiosyncratic personalities well. I’d sit in the yard for hours feeding them, collecting their eggs to sell at school, or just observing them and their chickenly ways. They were all nuts. It was way better than TV!

The chook yard - my domain!

The chook yard – my domain!

 

Dad and Banjo

Dad and Banjo

 

We also had the most gentle-hearted golden labrador called Banjo for whom I’d throw sticks for hours on end. I’d take him on bush walks along the old railway line up the back while he’d bark and chase kangaroos.

Between the Banjo, the chooks, ‘Goatus’ (our genuinely-stoked goat) and a crazy sister to play with or annoy, depending on the time of day, I had all the entertainment a kid could ever need!

Goatus - the genuinely stoked goat

 

Charlie in the shed looking stoked. c. 1996

Charlie in the shed looking stoked. c. 1997

When I was a daggy teenager, my friends couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to be ‘cool’, so my mate Pickle and I thought it would be a fun idea to film a documentary about my odd life in the bush to try and explain to the world why I was such a weirdo. We chose the unique subject of my Dad’s homemade long-drop worm-compost toilet and entered it in a video competition run by the ABC called Race Around the Corner.

To both of our amazement, they loved it and a couple of the show’s producers flew from Sydney to see for themselves just how a kid in the late 90’s could possibly be living like this. It all seemed pretty normal to me and more importantly, made sense even to my foggy teenage brain. Of course, I enjoyed the mod cons all my friends had when I was around them, but after making the doco with Pickle, I started to value the ‘alternative’ life a bit more and appreciate where my Dad was coming from.

Dunny

The ‘dunny’

Helping to empty a 20 litre bucket of poo into a worm farm isn’t the most appealing job when you’re 15, but it was a small price to pay for the healthy and inspiring upbringing that set the direction for the rest of my life.

Thanks Pa. You done raised me good!

The outdoor bathroom and garden

Our outdoor bathroom and garden

Hi, I’m Charlie and I’m a gardening addict – Part Two

…Read Part One

 

House of Fluff garden 2010

First experimental garden at House of Fluff 1.0

After six months of experimental gardening in our little urban back yard with my friend Simba (knowing next to nothing, there were some pretty random experiments with recycled concrete slab wicking beds and “Hanging gardens of Babylon), I decided that I needed to learn more.

Fuelling up on veg

Fuelling up on veg

 

I’d been converting an old Toyota Landcruiser to run on waste vegetable oil and decided that I’d do a mission through the desert with a permaculture course on the east coast my final destination. Not knowing when or where I would end up, I pointed myself east and triumphantly set off into the sunset in my newly converted Troopie – smelling like fish and chips from the veggie oil I’d scored from Clancy’s Fish Pub in Fremantle!

Bones, Charlie & Kat

Bones, Charlie & Kat in Alice Springs

Half way across Australia, I ran into my friends Kat and Bones – fellow veggie oil Troopie travellers who were living in Alice Springs at the time. It turned out they were also keen for an east coast mission to learn about permaculture as well, so we went online and enrolled in a course through Permaculture College Australia (Djanbung Gardens) for the summer. A couple of months later, just before our course began, I met up with Kat in Queensland at Woodford Folk Festival for one last hoorah before knuckling down to study. While we were there, Kat and I went to check out a few of the talks on permaculture at the GREENhouse venue but while the content was fascinating and important, some of the presenters had the charisma of a wet sock. Kat, being endowed with the gift of telling it like it is, at one point turned to me and said “we could be more entertaining than this guy!”

Busking to fund permaculture course

Busking in Byron Bay

A few weeks later during the first week of my Permaculture Design Course (PDC) – funded by a few weeks of busking on the streets of Byron Bay with a drum kit – our teacher, Robyn Francis asked us all to go home and prepare a presentation on one of David Holmgren’s permaculture principles. The only condition was that we had to do something a little left-field and creative.

 

That evening as I was wondering what I was going to do, Kat yelled out from the kitchen that I should write a song on my ukulele. I immediately cringed at the idea, bombarded by visions of every fluffy ‘Kumbaya’ style song ever written about “mother Gaia” or “saving the trees”, but Kat was adamant and told me I wasn’t getting any dinner until I’d penned at least one verse. As food is my main motivator in life and I was by that point ravenously hungry, I quickly picked the easiest looking principle “Produce No Waste”, ripped off some simple chords from a gypsy song I knew and started singing off the top of my head about growing up in a shed in the  bush and catching the rain instead of wasting water.

I am eternally grateful to Kat for temporarily starving me that evening, as that song turned into “No Such Thing as Waste” and planted the seed of Formidable Vegetable Sound System, leading to an entire album of songs about permaculture that, apparently, doesn’t suck! (Read this hilarious review on someone’s blog from 2011)

…To be continued!

Charlie performing No Such Thing as Waste for the first time in class at Djanbung Gardens.

Charlie performing No Such Thing as Waste for the first time in class – photo Toni Robinson

And the ensuing video clip filmed around Djanbung Gardens in 2011 by Wee Earthlings and animated by Oz J Thomas:

Hi, I’m Charlie and I’m a gardening addict

It started with a sweet potato. I found it all shrivelled up in the back of my sister’s cupboard trying its hardest to escape with sprouting tendrils and tiny leaves reaching desperately towards the light. I’d never noticed a sprouting sweet potato before and for some reason I suddenly got the urge to put it in the ground.

Some friends had been growing veggies in their backyards for a while and even though I thought it was outstandingly hip of them to be growing their own food, I’d always had this little in my head voice saying “yeah, but I don’t have the time/skills/patience to do that” and I’d never plucked up the courage to try it myself until now.

We’d just moved house, so I thought I’d plonk my sister’s sweet potato in a patch of dirt near the front gate and just see what happened. To my amazement, it didn’t die! The tendrils kept growing and wrapping themselves around the fence posts. Heart-shaped leaves (which my friends told me I could also eat!) burst forth and started spreading across the whole garden bed and pretty soon my shrivelled sweet potato was taking over the world and giving us all an abundance of tasty greens in the process.

It was a quantum leap for me – seeing that something as simple as putting a wrinkly old potato in the ground could produce something edible right in my back yard and liberate me from buying spinach at the supermarket! I was suddenly fascinated with where food comes from and wanted to grow EVERYTHING!

Read Part Two…

Charlie chats to Stefan Geyer on London Permaculture Radio

Musing with London Permaculture’s Stefan Geyer on the principles of permaculture and the Permaculture Ukulele Project.

7th July 2013 with Charlie McGee (Formidable Vegetable Sound System) – on Permaculture Principles by 21st Century Permaculture on Mixcloud

Formidable Vegetable Sound System play Glastonbury 2013

Photo from Rachel By The Stream

Photo from Rachel By The Stream

Permaculture electroswing troubadours, Formidable Vegetable Sound System trekked off around the world earlier this year on a worldwide “Grow Food Everywhere” tour, taking them to 5 countries and internationally renowned festivals. One such festival was none other than Glastonbury in the UK (attracting over 150,000 people). Read more in the Sydney Morning Herald article here!

To find out where else Formidable Vegetable Sound System will be travelling to, click on Live Shows above.

Regular updates from the tour and photos are kept on the Facebook page.