What fasting and solitude can teach us about food and society

It’s around an hour after dawn on a still morning in June, and four of us are standing in silence on a hillside in mid Wales. The sun is yet to emerge from behind the mountain that rises up in front of us, while at its feet a jumble of trees, streams and meadows is already touched with the colours of day. In a moment we will walk half a mile or so to places that we have already chosen – the edge of a meadow in my case, near a stream concealed by oak, ash and hazel – and stay there for four days and nights. Our packs contain warm clothing, waterproofs, tents and tarpaulins, but no food. We will drink only water, and we will see nobody else. It will be just us, the earth beneath us, the sky above, wildlife and weather.

It feels like a strange thing to do. But fasting, sometimes out in nature, is an ancient tradition. Jesus fasted in the wilderness before he began his teaching mission, the Buddha fasted under a tree until he attained Enlightenment and it is an established practice in many religions. Going without food intentionally is also a powerful way to exert political pressure, as Gandhi and the Suffragettes demonstrated with their hunger strikes, and ‘intermittent fasting’ is now a health phenomenon supposed to help with weight loss and mental function. Now I am about to try it for myself, as part of an organized event.

Vision fast

The modern movement of nature-based fasting, or the ‘solo quest’, draws on many traditions and began some 50 years ago in California with Steven Foster and Meredith Little of the School of Lost Borders. They started by taking teenagers, many of whom were in trouble with the law, out into the desert for a few days of solitary fasting. This turned out to be the rite of passage that many of them had been unconsciously  looking for, and the idea caught on.

Now Fern Smith and Phil Ralph of the arts collective Emergence run regular vision fasts and other nature-based rites of passage from their home near Machynlleth. Following protocols developed by the School of Lost Borders they prime participants with individual exercises ahead of the 9-day event, which begins with three days of group preparation. There they cover the practical aspects and help us hone a personal intention. What life transition are we marking, what question are we holding? After this, we transfer to the land and select our solo spots, using a combination of random discovery and intuition. A few final preparations, and we are severed from our old lives and enter the threshold period of the ceremony.

Threshold

tarpaulin hung from trees by stream

The UK has little true wilderness, but the uncultivated corners of a Welsh hill farm feel remote enough to me. I am only a ten-minute walk away from basecamp, where Fern and Phil keep watch with supplies of dry clothing and emergency food, but I barely consider it. Cut off from technology – I have even handed my watch in – I am content to stay in a small area which nevertheless contains a world of interest. I watch insects on the ground and cloud formations in the sky, walk barefoot beneath mighty oaks, listen to birds, fight off midges and feel the sun’s heat come and go.

As the fast takes hold and I become weaker, the distinction between the ever-changing outer world and the equally fluid inner life I have brought with me starts to break down. In the land rising up ahead of me I see my courage and ambition, while the stream deep in the ravine behind me is the mysterious current of my unconscious. I can spend an hour on knees and elbows watching the grass stalks I trampled earlier ease back to a half-upright position, and see in that the way my life constantly renews itself. Like a sort of all-encompassing three-dimensional television, the land and sky show me who I am.

Out of a series of small incidents and insights, a story emerges. It is a tale of soft civilized me and wild impersonal nature, and how we turned out to be related all along, and where we might go next. It is a tender thing, half-formed and ambiguous. When the fourth night is over, and we have been welcomed back with food – the much-anticipated breakfast, meeting a shrunken stomach – we share our stories with each other. Our guides mirror back to us the mythic depths of our journeys, skillfully pointing out wisdom and strength where we might have seen weakness or failure, and affirming the discoveries we have made. We have been through an initiation ceremony in which we died to what we were and have been reborn.

Return

The next day, we return home to our usual lives, changed. The fast reverberates powerfully inside me and I am grateful for the instruction to keep the inner story of it to myself for a year, when we are invited to revisit our spots for a further 24 hours of fasting. But the outer story can be told, and already I have a few answers to the question I began with. What, indeed, can a nature fast tell us about food and society?

For one thing, it has shown me our kinship with nature. I already knew that the health of our food system depends on the fertility of our soils, the cleanness of our air and water, and the well-being of all the other species of life that we share the planet with, but now I feel it, too. Fern, who has a background in theatre before turning towards environmental leadership, sees this as central to her work: “The land needs us, just as we need the land. We need to be better custodians of the land, and a nature fast gives people that motivation.”

Another finding, which was no surprise, was the delight of sharing a meal. Food never tasted so good, and human connection was never so vital as it was after that nature fast. Taken as a whole, the ceremony was paradoxically a celebration of food and community, and nothing to do with deprivation. But it took a period of abstinence for me really to appreciate food for the precious gift that it is, as a source of pleasure, health and connection. It is also humbling to reflect that hunger for many people, even in this country, is a damaging reality.

Rites of passage

The fast also had me reflect on the course of a human life, and how rites of passage draw us into that mystery. Pushed out of my comfort zone by quite some way, I found strengths I had not known I had, and a deeper sense of what my life is about. Adolescents in traditional societies will undergo an initiation in which they face an ordeal and are welcomed back as adults, but our society has largely lost that. As a result we seem sometimes to be stuck in childhood, the consumer society gratifying our every whim and shielding us from the realities of where our food, water and clean air come from. We need to wake up to our adult responsibilities.

We also neglect another transition in the life cycle, that from conventional adulthood to the wisdom of the elders. We have more senior citizens than ever, but we see old age as a problem to be managed. We talk about the pensions crisis, and the social care crisis, and we fear the physical and mental incapacity that come with ageing. We do not look at later life in all its fullness, with its gifts and responsibilities, maybe for fear of seeing the death that it implies.

But death is essential to the rebirth that renews human society, and without it nothing else makes sense. This renewal is the deeper purpose of the vision fast. It grew out of the civil rights and environmental movements of the 1950s and 1960s with Foster’s insight that political action was not enough:

“True revolution would never come about until the children remembered the way to get to adulthood – and the adults to true elderhood – and the elders to honorable death.”

We need this insight now more than ever. Environmental campaigning and political action can only take us so far, when our underlying consciousness is stuck in an old way of being. It is time for a new relationship between the generations, and with the natural world. As Fern says, “We are initiating elders so that they can be in service to their communities and to the natural world.” It is as simple and as powerful as that.

Emergence will run their next vision fast in June 2022: see their calendar of events. For nature fasts in north Wales, see www.ancienthealingways.co.uk.

Food systems, social fields and the power of coming together

It is commonplace now to talk about the ‘food system’. By this we mean the vast network of people, organizations and relationships that grow, process and transport our food, from farm to plate (or failing that, to an anaerobic digester). Systems thinking is in vogue, as we move away from the reductionist model that sees food in simple terms of crop yield, price and calories, and embrace a wider reality, from soil bacteria to food poverty and human rights. But what does it mean exactly?

The work of the late Donella Meadows, US environmental scientist and lead author of The Limits to Growth, is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand systems thinking. She writes about stocks and flows, leverage points and feedback loops, and paints a picture of overflowing bathtubs and submerged icebergs that brings the topic fascinatingly to life. Systems are everywhere, once you start looking for them.

She also makes the crucial point that although systems thinking is about being ‘holistic’, nevertheless any system is defined by its limits, which means that something will always be left out. A system is after all an idea that we impose on reality; it cannot actually be that reality, or there will be no distance between it and us, no objective distance that allows us to talk about it. Staying silent in the face of reality is of course a very good thing which we should do more often, but it is not systems thinking.

Where then do we draw the limits of a food system? That all depends. A recent report from the Environmental Change Institute in Oxford, Mapping the Food System, defines it in terms of enterprises, jobs, production, sales and the general mechanics of getting food from farm to plate. These are important things to know about, so this document will be very useful. However this view says little about, say, human health. What use is a food system if it doesn’t nourish our bodies?

Different views

In other contexts, therefore, we might define the food system differently. For the organic movement food is the link between human health and a thriving ecosystem – there is a clue in the name of the Soil Association, and a recent seminar from Whole Health Agriculture explains this thinking very well. Still others wish to emphasize social justice and so look at food poverty, trade and working conditions, drawing their limits around those points. They may look wider and include environmental considerations, or they may not.

Sometimes the limits are drawn very tightly. This is often dismissed as reductionism, but there can be good reasons for it. The power of modern science lies in the way that it can isolate the tiniest element – the proteins that surround a coronavirus for instance – and extract from that an understanding that makes a whole world-changing technology work. Reductionist experimentation has produced many good things, in food and farming as in everything else.

The only problem, and it is a big one, comes when we think that because we have understood the small details – isolated the fungus that is destroying a crop for instance, or seen how nitrogen fertilizer makes plants grow faster – we have learnt all we need to know, and can now go forth and change the world. That is why the application of modern science to agriculture has had so many negative effects, from algal blooms in rivers to soil erosion and pesticide poisonings. We have mistaken the reductionist model for the greater reality.

Systems thinking reminds us to recognize our limitations and look more widely before we intervene. But it is not foolproof, because of the way it inevitably leaves something out. We will always draw the line around our own limited field of vision, excluding the unknown unknowns as well as the known ones. We have blind spots and biases that will always get in the way.

One of these blind spots is the way that we tend to see the food system in mechanistic terms, leaving out human (and non-human) experience. Too often, food is reduced to quantities, nutrients, supply chains and prices – things that can be measured – and we lose sight of the way that it is actually experienced. The taste of an apple, the feelings of a cow for its calf and the togetherness of a shared meal, for instance, are just as real as anything else. Our food systems have an interior, which includes the realm of meaning and values. This is key to understanding why we eat and farm the way we do, but it sits largely in our blind spot.

Donella Meadows was well aware of these pitfalls of course, of course, and one of the recommended resources on her legacy website is Theory U , which was developed by the German-American thinker Otto Scharmer. Theory U is a group work methodology that helps us to see these blind spots and allow new understanding to emerge. This is essential if we are to break out of the standard thinking which is ‘creating results that nobody wants’ – ecosystem collapse, social divisions and a crisis in mental health, in particular – and let something new come forth.

A crucial concept in Theory U is the ‘social field’. To illustrate this, Scharmer tells a story of his childhood on a biodynamic farm in Germany. His father would take the family on regular walks across the fields, pausing every now and then to pick up a clod of soil and inspect it. He explained to his children how soil health depends on the millions of microorganisms that live in it, and is of central importance to the farm. For Scharmer, the social field – invisible, and yet deeply sensed – is to human society what the soil is to crops and animals. We need to attend to the human, and non-human, interconnections that create our experience of life.

Shared values

Some years ago, the Food Values project we ran from Aberystwyth University (later Bangor) held a series of conversations over shared meals in order to understand people’s experience of food. It was an investigation of the social field, although we didn’t call it that. Perhaps because of the very fact that we were sharing a meal, we found a high degree of care for the health of our society as a whole. The top concern was that everyone should have good food to eat; price was barely mentioned.

The social psychology on which that project was based is useful because it produces the sort of peer-reviewed evidence that is widely accepted in a modern secular society. But the mysteries of the social field have traditionally been expressed in religious language. As the Sufi mystic Rumi put it, “You think because you understand ‘one’ you must also understand ‘two’, because one and one make two. But you must also understand ‘and’.”

Similarly, the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh developed the concept of ‘interbeing’ to express the way that the relationships between people (and all other beings) are as real as the people themselves. Focus on the individuals alone, and you miss something vital.  The Bible puts it more personally: “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

How are we to till our social fields? The first step is to notice that they exist. The way into this is to connect with our own experience, perhaps by meditation but equally by going for a walk, baking bread or washing the dishes – anything that takes us out of our heads. From there we can start to become aware of the collective reality of the groups we are in, through dialogue, which Scharmer wonderfully defines not as people exchanging ideas – we know how badly that can go – but as ‘the capacity of a system to see itself.’

This is perhaps the true purpose of events such as the People’s Assemblies that were held across Wales last year, as well as the recent Wales Real Food and Farming Conference. By bringing together people who would not normally meet, and inviting them to share their views on food and farming, such events make the social field tangible, and that is transformative. With collective self-knowledge comes power.

Scharmer has a great deal to say about all this. But the social field is just another name for community, something that the pandemic has made very tangible. Food is a natural expression of this. Eating together has not been possible recently, but we are still able to swap recipes, exchange seeds and plants, and gather online. When we do these things we animate the ‘food system’ with a shared humanity that is the essential starting point for change.

Would you like to experience a coaching circle based on the work of the Presencing Institute? Read this.

Local food: it’s not just about the numbers

A while ago, introducing a food event, I was advised to chuck a few numbers about to illustrate the difficulties the Welsh food system is in. Things like: the number of curlews has dropped by 80% since 1990; there were 157 food banks in 2018; over 28% of children are overweight or obese in some areas; and of course, food accounts for 9% of Wales’ carbon footprint. It was supposed to give the audience something solid to anchor the discussion and also to give them a slight shock. It’s that bad?

Numbers have that effect. They give us authority and clinch arguments, and people don’t often query a well delivered statistic. But they are also easily twisted to suit our purposes, and they can distract us from a proper consideration of important topics.

Local food is a case in point. It’s not surprising that advocates of farmers’ markets and allotments are so fond of talking about food miles. You can count them, you can calculate the carbon emissions you have saved, and then you can rest your case. Of course we don’t often literally do the sums, but we know that we could, or somebody could, and meanwhile the happy cry of ‘food miles!’ says it all.

What’s wrong with food miles?

The trouble is, it’s not quite true. A study published in Science and cited recently in an article from Oxford University puts the contribution of transport at 6% of the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with food. This is way behind food production itself at 72%, the rest being due to processing, packaging and retail. 

If you want to cut carbon, the authors say, forget about local food. You should be eating less meat, dairy and eggs, and cutting down on waste. You might also want to seek out foods that were grown with less artificial fertilizer and good environmental management, although it’s not so easy to find out which those are. It’s also contested: using fewer inputs means taking up more land, and so is actually worse, according to one study of organic food

This is a problem of course for the local food enthusiast like me. I feel a strong emotional pull towards eating locally, and organically, but is that all it is — a sentimental and irrational obstacle to progress? Maybe, but I don’t want to give up yet. The alternative is to drop the food miles rhetoric and be more honest about what it is we are really doing when we choose ‘the Welsh one’. 

Tomorrow I will be harvesting two bags of rainbow chard and three bags of salad from our community garden in Aberystwyth, and delivering them to a food co-op for sale. It’s a two minute walk from one to the other, as it happens, and we grow our veg in ground which used to be a lawn, without any fertilizers or pesticides. We make lots of compost and we have a wildflower area. So that’s pretty good — but it’s a drop in the ocean beside the huge volume of supermarket sales.

Food with a story

What is really important about this little transaction though is that it gives people a connection with their food, different from the one they get in the supermarket. This is food with a story. It inspires people to know that they are eating food that was grown down the road, by people they may have met, and so they value it more. They talk about it and spread the word. This is likely to translate into more volunteers for us and eventually to more people growing food in sites around the town, maybe supplying restaurants and shops. This creates food culture.

Community growing is also an opportunity to learn new skills and make friends. Ours may soon be hosting patients from a local doctors’ surgery that is experimenting with green prescribing, because gardening is good exercise and being out in nature makes us happier. We work closely with a supermarket surplus group who organize regular pay-as-you-feel community meals. Once, we supplied the leeks for a St David’s Day dinner in town.

We are excited about supplying the co-op (also run by volunteers) because it makes us feel part of something bigger. The co-op recently started to buy eggs from a local farmer, and a few of us went to visit him last week. He is planning to diversify into vegetables and would like to host visits for the public. He hopes to rent out some land to a microdairy, so then there will be milk and cheese too. He might even sell some meat. We will all have been part of making that happen.

Bringing people together

This small example shows the power of local food to bring people together. There are thousands of similar projects all around the UK, many much bigger than ours. They are probably not making much of a dent, if any, in greehouse gas emissions. But they are changing hearts and minds, and that might be just as important. The coronavirus pandemic, by reminding us of the vulnerability that comes with our globalized food supply chains, is driving the message home.

US anthropologist David Beriss has written about how we use local food as a response to the forces of globalization, making food distribution more human and giving us a sense that we are doing something. As he said in a recent interview:

I think what people are really interested in is the local community they create around food. They’re also trying to do something good for a local business when they go to a local food purveyor or shop at a locally owned grocery store instead of shopping at a chain. And they feel like they are helping do something environmentally positive. […] You go to the farmers market and you meet people and you create this kind of third space — neither family nor business. 

Of course, the numbers matter. We do need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from food production, and that will mean eating differently. But we don’t know exactly how we are going to get there, and there are many other changes to make to our lifestyles, to do with transport and housing for example. We are looking at deep social change, and an important part of that will be building the trust and cooperation that will enable us to let go of what’s familiar. 

If that’s the case, then local food has an important part to play because it is such a good way of building community. Perhaps we should trust our experience more, and not be so impressed by statistics.

Global food plans must start from the bottom up

Last month, Norwegian think tank EAT and British medical journal The Lancet produced a joint document setting out their ideas for a new global diet. Written by 37 scientists from around the world and led by Harvard University with funding from the Wellcome Institute, the message was that we must drastically cut our meat consumption – especially red meat – in favour of a more plant-based diet. This, they say, is for both environmental and health reasons: livestock farming makes a disproportionate contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, causing climate change, and animal products, especially saturated fats, are bad for our health.

The reaction to it has been mixed (see this handy summary from the FRCN). Many groups campaigning for a better food system, such as Sustain, the Food and Climate Research Network and the Food Ethics Council, have been broadly supportive of it, though not without caveats. Others such as the UK’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, NFU Cymru and the Sustainable Food Trust have been more critical, championing the role of red meat and questioning the environmental impacts of plant proteins and oils. But by the very fact of their responding, they have all implicitly accepted that a global approach to food is necessary.

What is particularly interesting though has been the reaction from groups and individuals who see nothing good in the report and don’t mind saying so. Many of them object to the dethroning of meat as the mainstay of a healthy diet, while others simply don’t like being told what to do. The comments on Twitter were revealing: ‘the most corrupt and disgusting attempt to control agriculture there has ever been’, said one; ‘the billionaire elitists can #EATLancet themselves. I’ll stick to eating real food,’ was another, while another denounced the ‘global elites who jet around the world telling us simpletons how we need to live and what we need to eat!!’

Some of the backlash to EAT-Lancet was decidedly uncivil, not to say unkind, and it is easy to dismiss it on those grounds. But such strength of feeling deserves a closer look, not just because it might help us understand why meat-eating is so entrenched, but also because it is part of a bigger question. How can the human race learn to act together on global challenges, whether it’s climate change, bioengineering or the rise of artificial intelligence?

Global action is something new for humanity, and it requires a new way of looking at the world. It means looking beyond our usual concerns for ourselves, our families and our nations, and feeling some kinship with people who are very different from us. And our concern has to extend beyond people to the animals, plants and microbes with whom we share the planet. We need to recognize our part in an interconnected world, and that means a change in the values that guide our lives, one that sees that our flourishing is intertwined with that of the greater whole.

The Common Cause Foundation describes this as a shift from values of self-enhancement to self-transcendence, or universalism, and it is working to place ‘values that prioritise community, environment and equality’ at the heart of public life. This is vital work, given a political climate which is much more about money, competitiveness and achievement, and it has many implications for education, businesses and government. It means seeing food less as a commodity and more as something that connects people with each other and the natural world.

However, as the Common Cause work acknowledges, humans cannot exist in a continuous state of planetary consciousness. We also have bodies to feed, livelihoods to earn, families to support and communities to belong to. We are members of nations too, and that gives us responsibilities, as we find out when elections and referendums come round. All of these engage different values in us, ones to do with survival, belonging and identity.

According to The World Values Survey, which tracks human values over time, whole countries can be classified according to the values which predominate in them. On their values map they identify an axis along which we move from concerns about survival to self-expression, by which they mean openness, trust, tolerance and participation – the basis for a global world view.

Distribution of values in different countries in 2010-2014, from the World Values Survey (http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSContents.jsp) 

While Protestant Europe and the English-speaking world score high for self-expression and so presumably global awareness, large swathes of the world’s population including Russia, eastern Europe, Africa and the Islamic world are all more focused on their own survival. There is of course variation within countries, too. This may show up as arguments over the balance between national interests and globalism – an aspect of the Brexit debate – or as polarized arguments about food.

This raises an important question: how can the values of universalism be reconciled with those of nationalism and localism? This is a particular challenge to those who, like the authors of the EAT-Lancet report, propose global campaigns for change. How universal can they be, if a large proportion of the world’s population rejects the very idea of nations working together, or assigns it low importance? Does this not leave would-be global legislators either as totalitarian overlords, or as merely another food tribe, albeit one with loftier aspirations than most?

What is needed is a way of reconciling two necessities: global cooperation to tackle global challenges, and smaller groupings, whether that be nations or sectors or other alliances, in order to provide the sense of meaningful belonging which is so vital to us all. Both sets of values must be honoured, and brought into relationship with each other. And surely the onus is on the global legislators to accommodate the subgroups of the food system, since they are the ones who claim to have the overview which serves everyone’s interests.

That means showing more humility than the EAT-Lancet Commission has so far displayed. Leaders need to earn the trust of those who they hope will follow them, or else they become dictators – a charge that the law-takers of this new global word order have been only too quick to make. Anyone who wants to create a new paradigm for food must listen more and decree less; grandiose references to the ‘Great Food Transformation’ or ‘a food system reboot for the Anthropocene’ are not the way to reach out to sceptics.

But more fundamentally, there will almost certainly be important lessons to learn from the EAT-Lancet refuseniks. There is more than one narrative here. Just because we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions, it doesn’t follow that basing our diets on carbon footprint calculations will allow us to move in a straight line down the graph to salvation. Maybe we need to build more human cohesion first; maybe things will have to get worse before they can get better. And the story will play out in the practical details of what is actually happening on (and below) the ground.

Food is part of a large interlocking system of transport, jobs, settlement patterns, soils, water and lifestyles, and that is hard to fix it at a merely technical level. It needs another approach, based on understanding how food connects people and studying the role it plays in different societies. Why exactly do people eat the diets they do, often in the face of evidence that they are unhealthy for people and planet? Given the recommendations of the report, we need especially to ask what we can learn from our long tradition of beef and sheep farming in the UK.

Humans belong in social groups, and connection with others is fundamental to our well-being. Some people like to pioneer change, while others prefer to maintain the status quo, and we need both types with their special gifts (and of course most of us are a bit of both). In a world where innovation is glorified, we need to remind ourselves of the importance of tradition as well, not so much in the spirit of striking a balance as of recognizing that we can’t have one without the other.

EAT-Lancet has crystallized a set of pioneering views that is well worth listening to. But their global overview must connect with the concerns of the grassroots. They open the door to that when they note the need to ‘match food production with land capability’, accepting for instance that some land is best kept under grass for the sake of soil structure and biodiversity. This is why Beef + Lamb New Zealand, somewhat surprisingly, welcomed the report as an opportunity. Let us build on that and take the enquiry a stage deeper.

Edited on 13.4.2019 to add illustration.

Nourishing the struggle, from protest camp to retreat centre

Climate breakdown, plastics in the sea and the impacts of austerity are all prompting  people to take radical action. It’s exciting to be part of a new future, whether that’s setting up social enterprises, joining protests or working with the casualties of public spending cuts. But it isn’t easy, and alongside the inspiring success stories there are many people who are burnt out and disillusioned.

How can we nourish the inner life that is so often depleted by fighting the system? That is the inspiration behind a new retreat centre in mid Wales. Just over a year ago, Ru Raynor was cooking meals for 30 on a Rayburn at Grow Heathrow, the protest camp which has occupied the site of the proposed third runway since 2010. Now she is cooking instead for people who need a break from busy lives and who are alive to the value of contemplation as a counterbalance to activism.

Noddfa Dawel, or Tranquil Retreat, is only a few miles from Aberystwyth

noddfa dawel

but sits in a secluded valley where sheep and red kites far outnumber people. The building, a modern prefab which formerly housed a therapeutic centre for people recovering from drug and alcohol dependency, has a quiet welcoming presence.

It’s a place of simplicity, with no television, no WiFi and no work to be done beyond a little washing up.

“Boredom and downtime are absolutely encouraged,” runs the countercultural message on the website. Art materials, musical instruments and books are readily available and there are wonderful walks to be had, from the stream on the valley bottom through woods to the open vistas of the hillside up above.  But the stillness of the place was my strongest impression.

woman with hens

Ru at Grow Heathrow

It is a world away from Grow Heathrow, but it is very much born out of Ru’s three years at the squat, which formed in the aftermath of the first Climate Camp held at Heathrow in 2007. Although Grow Heathrow is a protest against airport expansion, it also stands for something very positive: the use of high-quality agricultural land to feed people. There is a strong market gardening tradition around the local village of Sipson, the ‘pantry of London’, which once had orchards, a jam factory and greenhouses.

“Local residents support the camp because they don’t want to lose their homes, and they value the area’s market gardening history,” Ru explains. “So we picked up on that and food became central to what we did.”

At the camp, she learned how to grow food in raised beds, polytunnels and glasshouses. Much of what they ate though came from London, where residents would salvage waste food from dumpsters. She remembers containers full of not-quite-perfect tropical fruit at the Western International Market, and the bounty to be had outside Whole Foods in Kensington.

Being off-grid, with solar and wind power, Grow Heathrow is an experiment in a different way of living. “We would have to chop wood for the Rayburn before we could cook dinner, and we had to be creative and make use of whatever food we happened to have. It was a challenge, but it was fun. Before, a salad to me would have meant some iceberg lettuce and half a tomato, but at Grow Heathrow we would make great bowls of homegrown leaves, with marigold petals and borage flowers, a real celebration.”

Food is important at Noddfa Dawel too. Ru grows salads and vegetables in the garden and in a neighbour’s polytunnel, supplemented with a wholefood order. The menu is vegan and gluten-free. “That’s a diet that most people can eat, and it’s important to me that guests can relax and enjoy their food. I don’t want anyone to feel like they are an exception or have to justify a special diet,” she says. Meals at Noddfa Dawel are abundant and varied, and Ru is adept too at weaving leftovers into the next meal. What doesn’t get eaten by guests goes into the compost or is fed to the neighbour’s chickens.

Ru is clear that the environmental movement needs some TLC. Grow Heathrow is a busy place, being a meeting place for activists and a base for environmental action, which has its plus and minus points. “It’s exciting to live like that, changing the world through collective action, but it’s challenging too. You get conflicts when people are living together so closely, and not under the most comfortable conditions. Now I want to provide some respite for people who are working on the frontline of social change.”

You don’t have to be an environmental activist to stay at Noddfa Dawel. Past guests have also included writers and artists looking for a quiet place to work, and a social worker, and Ru would like to hire the centre out as a venue for group activities too. But its inspiration is in the value of silence, space and quiet companionship as a way to come up with a positive response to the urgent demands of a crazy world. Who doesn’t need space sometimes “to reconnect with nature and the self”?