Sunday, January 17, 2010

Self-suffienciency to sustainable cities

This Sunday morning has been a rare morning of browsing books and the Internet, following ideas.

I'd been reading through another wonderful book ... The Forgotten Crafts: a practical guide to traditional skills, by John Seymour, 1984. It is a wonderful book, full of photos from the British Isles, mostly 1880s through 1920s (my guess) and also wonderful sketches and woodcuts. The book has a very old-fashioned look to it (although the author was absolutely aware contemporary issues of rural-to-city migration, fuel shortage, and skills loss). The Forgotten Crafts is filled with history and how-it's-done information on about 50 different crafts/skills (like flax preparation to spin linen, thatching, slate cutting, and tile making). I love the language, the words - some I've heard before when I worked at a museum. 'Hackling' or 'heckling' as part of the process that removes linen fibers from 'retted' stalks of flax. 'Distaff' is part of a spinning wheel, and is basically a drop spindle that some clever person realized could be rotated 90 degrees and moved by treadle instead of always being controlled by hand; 'distaff' also is a word that refers to the female side of families (traditionally the spinners were women ... words evolve).

The Forgotten Crafts is out of print, but copies did turn up on an ABE used book search. The copy I have came from the public library, and when I return it I'll send a note saying that this treasure should never be culled! It's essential history and knowledge.

I only first ran across John Seymour's name when one of his books came into the store where I work. It must be the newest version of an earlier book and it's been updated with more photos. And then I discovered online what an interesting person John Seymour the author was!

He wrote over 40 books, most about self-sufficiency and traditional crafts. His thinking was influenced by experience at many jobs and from travel in several African countries and in India, as well as simply being alive in the British Isles and Europe during a time when skills and crafts were still practised. He was also of the era of Schumacher and similar advocates of a small is better scale. John Seymour was arrested in 1999 for taking part in a protest that damaged a crop of GM sugar beets. Can you imagine how well that would have gone over in the newspapers?! An 85 year old arrested ... and then he turns out to be an articulate spokesman for agriculture without pesticides and synthetics. He was 90 when he died in 2004 and had taught self-sufficiency for many years on his property in County Wexford, Ireland. Participants came from all over the world to meet him.

A friend of his, Herbert Girardet, wrote a really great piece in 2005 in a magazine called Resurgence, itself a real reward for my Sunday browsing! Both the tribute ( and the magazine are really worth looking at.

And Herbert Girardet turns out to be an expert in sustainable cities. He seems to work for or have a business called Under the Sky Urban Renewal and works with an organization called SustainAbility. An acquaintance of mine is working in the sustainable buildings and city realm, and I'll ask him about this fellow and his site. I've been realizing lately that I don't know a lot about what sustainable cities could look like in 30 years from now, I know so very few of the ideas that are out in the world.

But, and this is really important ... I know that there are people in every country who have wonderful ideas. Some ideas are based in traditional skills and others are based in new technologies. Some are 'appropriate technologies' with feet in both realms. And those people around the world are talking with each other and sharing ideas and dreams and practicalities. And there is a lot we can do to save the world in our spare time and in our everyday time.

Best regards to all of you,

Why's Woman

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