Does this story have a happy ending?
Stories hold up a mirror to our own lives, helping us to make sense of our difficulties and joys and imparting hope, truth and understanding. For the majority of us who don’t learn and act purely on the basis of receiving information, presenting environmental problems as a story, based on the classic framework of a disturbance in equilibrium, a villain, a victim and heroes who can act to create change and make things right is a vital tool in convincing people to act.
For the last two and a half years, the Transition social reporters have been telling stories of our local initiatives, and of our attempts to shift our communities towards a low energy way of living. This month we’re back from a short break, and examining stories and why we need them. We’ll have a little help from this month’s guest blogger Steph Bradley, who has just written a book about storytelling in a Transition context.
I’ve been looking back over the social reporters’ output during our recent self-evaluation, thinking about the value of these blogs and how to go forward. What struck me is that not all of these stories are attempts at slick marketing, or trying to present our projects in the best light. Some of the more powerful stories and the most real are those of failure rather than success, such as Charlotte Du Cann’s ‘Celebrating Failure’ and Marella Fyfe’s ‘Omagh Community Café – not!’ These are valuable precisely because for those of us on the ground, trying to make a new world, taking a couple of baby steps forward, only to find ourselves tumbling backwards, we need to recognize ourselves in these stories. While it’s important to celebrate success, we also need to know we’re not the only ones putting the pieces back together when they fall apart.
Recently reading parts of Vladimir Propp’s ‘Morphology of the Folktale’, I thought about how traditional characters would apply to a Transition story – the disturbance in equilibrium, the heroes, villains and magical agent (a new and slightly thrilling concept for me, the magical agent can be an animal, object or special power, sometimes granted to the hero after a ‘test’). The disturbance in equilibrium that causes our stories to begin is obvious (climate change), the villains are the corporations that destroy our planet and the governments that refuse to act. Heroes are the communities who create change in the face of adversity.
A story I wrote about for my social reporting blog some time ago – ‘A year in the life of a new garden’ – has, over the last year, had a few more twists and turns in the plot (I promise this isn’t going to be another blog about food growing, it’s about people too!) and while I don’t think we’re quite at the end of the story, we’ve ended up in a far better place than I would have expected six months ago.
Our then new Transition Dartmouth Park growing group started a food growing space at our local community centre two years ago. We were given one of their two small, shady, overgrown gardens at the back; we cleared, built beds, and planted; held workshops and events; and things grew pretty well.
But a year into the project, the relationship with the community centre wasn’t going so well. It’s hard to have a person as villain here, but let’s call the villain a combination of council funding cuts to the centre de-prioritising anything environmental, upheavals in management over a period of time, lack of communication and misunderstandings.
Our aims were always to provide food for the community centre’s café; to involve users in growing; to educate ourselves and others about local and seasonal food, and permaculture growing. But while the growing went well, as did our workshops and other events, the café wasn’t really interested in serving our food and we often felt unwelcome and unappreciated, despite the transformation we had brought to a neglected space (there was no tap outside and water was hard to get, the kitchen was often locked so we couldn’t make tea, communication was increasingly hard).
The low point was last autumn. The café had been closed for a while and then put out to tender. The new café manager hired a ‘community gardener’ (without advertising) to provide food for the café! We were shocked, as we had been trying to do this for free for eighteen months. The new gardener was given the second small garden at the back of the centre, and also told he could take over part of the concrete (sunny) space at the front – both things we had long asked for. We were asked to work in partnership with the gardener and agreed (he was a nice chap and good gardener) but we were pretty heavy-hearted.
It was October, and I remember a preparing-for-winter afternoon where Rita and I planted lots of brassicas, donated by Claudia whom we’d bumped into in the market that morning. We cleared the dying runner beans, but left the nasturtiums that were still flowering, and harvested the last of the tromboncino squash.
After that day, I personally decided to have a winter break. I loved the garden and was still committed to our project, but the difficulties with the community centre had got me down, it didn’t feel like the project had a very certain future, and I lacked energy to give to it.
And this is the point in the story where a hero shows up. Catharine, also in our growing group since the beginning, decided to step in and try to make things work. She agreed to join the community centre management committee. I think the folk tale equivalent would be when the hero is tested before receiving the ‘magical agent’ e.g. ‘A witch gives a girl household chores to tend to. The forest knights propose that the hero serve them for three years.’ (from Morphology of the Folk Tale).
And things changed – communication improved. A huge twist in the tale occurred when the café realized they couldn’t afford a full-time gardener (nor was there enough growing space to make it worthwhile) and asked us to take over the second back garden, and manage the transformation of part of the front into a multi-user community garden.
Stepping back into the garden at the start of spring, the mild winter meant that the tiny cabbages and cavolo nero planted on that day in October were blooming, and the nasturtiums hadn’t died but were still going strong.
As the concrete space at the front morphed quickly into a garden, everyone got on board. A new chef loved the idea of Transition and the food we were growing and began to put ‘Transition salad’ on the menu; the disabled user group began to plant seedlings, nursery children were introduced to growing, the Woodcraft Folk had a bean planting session, and the pottery group made bird boxes.
I’m not sure of the magical agent in this story – perhaps Rita’s amazing growing skills, Catharine’s incredible energy in transforming concrete and rubble into a blooming garden, the help of everyone who built, planted and moved compost, or chef Antonia’s cooking abilities. Also perhaps the benevolent snails that left our brassicas alone, or the sun that shone brightly for our opening day. But two weeks ago, the new front garden held an official opening, children made insect hotels, the café served a Transition-inspired seasonal menu, and the growers and the community centre felt like we were all pulling in the same direction.
I don’t feel I can say that it’s a happy ending as we’re not at the end of this particular story yet, and there may be further twists to come. It’s hard to simplify real life into the mold of a folk tale, but these are the stories we need to tell – real, messy, some happy and some sad.
Images: 1. Cover of Morphology of the Folktale by Vladimir Propp; 2. The community garden in its first year (Sara Ayech); 3. Catharine making insect hotels with kids on opening day (Sara Ayech)