Sunday, 29 April 2007

learning from nature

Clearing out the garden shed to make room to store the new bike I came across this solitary wasp's nest wedged up between two cardboard boxes. Admiring the beauty, simplicity and intelligence in the design and craft reminded me that I am trying to re-structure my work, life and outlook to that of living systems thinking. I do believe nature provides the best model for a sustainable future, one of thinking, as Fritjof Capra describes, in terms of "relationships, connectedness and context".

But what exactly is sustainability, when do I, we, know when we have reached it? David Orr speaking at Plymouth University a few years ago suggested that we don't know what sustainability entails but we should calibrate what we do with how the world works. Capra's definition of a sustainable human community expands on this. I first read it in Resurgence 226, and it's also in "Energy and Sustainability" a speech he gave at the 2003 World Social Forum:

Since the outstanding characteristic of the biosphere is its inherent ability to sustain life, a sustainable human community must be designed in such a manner that its ways of life, businesses, economy, physical structures and technologies do not interfere with nature's inherent ability to sustain life.

Traditional societies had already sussed this of course, those that forgot it or got greedy didn't survive. I'm sure our biggest learning curve today is to really get to know nature again, to re-gain an instinctual understanding of her ways - not just an accumulation of facts learned from books or TV but a real knowledge from experiential discovery. I learned about and experienced this when travelling in Australia in the late 1980s - there came a point that I felt so in tune with nature, heart beating with her rhythm, the slow life. Maybe it was just the heat! But I lost it soon after returning to Britain. I put this down to indoor life (although I spend a lot of time outside) and the daily pressures of living/earning here. Which means I know how to return to closeness with nature... it's just finding a way to get there.

In his lecture David Orr gave a number of eco-design principles which seem appropriate guides for making my practice sustainable:

- nature is standard
- protect diversity
- account for all costs
- whole systems
- use current sunlight
- eliminate waste

and he indicated implications arising from these:

- short feedback loops
- short supply lines
- closed nutrient cycles
- accountability
- decentralised control
- redundancy
- information moves not materials
- prices that tell the truth

Expanding on these: short feedback loops suggests that anything resulting from an action should not have a linear feedback (such as finite mining of salt reserves) but should loop back or be cyclical (ie ocean salt being replenished fast enough), and the effect should be as localised as possible. I haven't explained that well and need to mull it. edit 1 May 22.32 James Lovelock described positive and negative feedbacks in his recent book The Revenge of Gaia. An example of a positive feedback he gives is the "ice albedo feedback", 'albedo' referring to reflectivity. Snow-covered ground reflects sunlight back to space and so stays cold. But as snow begins to melt dark ground emerges which absorbs sunlight and so becomes warmer. The warmth melts more snow and so positive feedback and linear feedback exist. Before accelerated ice cap melting an equilibrium existed, a negative and looped feedback.

Short supply lines is akin to buying or acquiring locally and thus related to the above and to minimising energy use in transportation.

Closed nutrient cycles relates to waste - or ensuring that anything I produce but cannot use can be used elsewhere, and likewise considering whether what I use to start with need be raw material or could be a re-used material. Guess I could have just said 'recycling'!

Accountability is why this blog exists. As is moving of information not materials - although sharing my discoveries is not a material like Cornish Sea Salt.

De-centralised control and redundancy need a bit more thinking on my part.

Prices that tell the truth is partly about externalised costing - not just for example energy use but also social costs, which is why I support the Fair Trade concept. But true pricing also accounts for, to use the same example, the unsustainable use of finite resources such as rock salt.

And now I am going to ponder the wasp nest, and think about how these principles and implications relate to the nest design and construction. I already have been advised the outer cup or bowl is for thermo-regulation ("use current sunlight"), and may be the reason the cells are on a pedestal.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

traditional Cornish salt

Last week I went to Saltash again (to look again - and this time buy - a bike). Funny these little coincidences in life aren't they...

Of course the 'salt' in Saltash comes from, umm, its association with salt - either from salt panning or salt marshes or from a more obscure salty reason. There is a Salt Mill Creek there and the historic Salt Mill site is now a community centre (with some fine public art works).

Salt was traditionally produced in various places around the Cornish coast by a panning process similar to the Portuguese one described in my last post, though here heat from fire was needed to evaporate the water from ceramic trays (called briquetage). Seems it's not quite as sustainable as sun and wind drying, but a block of salt could be produced in a day. Thanks to Archaeology Online for this information.

It got me wondering why someone didn't resurrect traditional salt production... and then I found the Cornish Sea Salt company in St Keverne doing exactly that! I just spoke to Tony Fraser there on the phone and once they officially launch in August I will be able to test the dip-dyeing process with proper Cornish salt. What I'm most curious to discover is whether other minerals in the salt (ie not sodium chloride) will have an unintended effect on Procion dyes - possibly even a welcome one! Roll on August!

In my dithering over whether it's appropriate to use such a high quality resource for dyeing I looked a bit more into contemporary salt mining in Britain. The Salt Manufacturers Association website is really informative including on British salt history. One fact above all stands out in making me choose

The proven UK salt reserves are extensive, with an estimated 500 years capacity at current extraction rates.

Rock salt is finite. Five hundred years sounds a long time, but if we are using it up at a rate faster than it can replenish itself then it is not sustainable. With salt being used to manufacture over 14,000 products (another fact) I wonder how much is permanently lost or locked up in these products, and how much eventually returns to the earth/ocean to re-become sodium chloride. More to come...

Thursday, 19 April 2007

more about salt

Found this informative site about traditional salt pans in the Algarve (and west coast of France) - Flor de Sal. Interesting pages include a description of the traditional harvesting process, differences between Flor de Sal, traditional and commercial sea salt, and rock salt (also a good description of all you could want to know about sea salt), and a table giving similar differences between the various salt pan types. Here is some stuff about the history of salt and a pic of salt pans.

And here is a quick overview if you don't want to trawl through those: salt is the next most used raw material after oil; in earlier days it was the cause of wars between nations (consider Gandhi's peaceful demonstration against the British-imposed salt tax) and was so tradeable and highly regarded that some people were paid in salt. The word salary originates from the Latin salarium meaning 'payment in salt'. Traditional harvesting methods date back to at least the Roman Empire and may have been introduced to the Atlantic coast by Phoenicians. By the year 1000 the Portuguese were trading salt over most of western Europe.

Pans, or holes in the ground, hold and allow sea water to evaporate, with the remaining minerals gradually crystallising when certain densities of mineral to water are met. Calcium carbonate is first, followed by sodium chloride (89% of the mineral content in sea salt). Other trace minerals include sulphate, magnesium, bicarbonate and potassium though there is such a long list that you might assume it was contaminated! After a few weeks the pan is dense enough with salt and it is raked out into piles to sun and wind dry.

In commercial panning the evaporation area is larger so by the time the water reaches the crystallisation areas it is already crystallising into sodium chloride and is mechanically harvested before magnesium salts crystallise. Remnant water is then removed and the next sea water received. It is a process to maximise efficient sodium chloride production for industrial purposes. Oh, road de-icing is the world's biggest use of salt.

Rock mining extracts sodium chloride from areas that formed in a way similar to the panning process - this salt originated from sea water too.

Flor de Sal is an intermediate process in traditional harvesting whereby the salt piles are delved through daily by hand to find largish salt crystals forming on the surface. Workers took it for their own home consumption and it is still considered the cream of the crop, having the highest trace element composition.

So now that I'm a bit more informed... I feel even the traditionally harvested salt is far too good to be used for dyeing! It's too healthy by being too mineral laden! But when I see how much they rake up - every few weeks - what I take seems to be so minimal as to be of little consequence. And when I think about the alternatives - commercially driven salt panning or mining - then I come back full circle to traditionally harvested. What I should find out is whether they have a lower grade salt product in the way that Flor de Sal is the highest. And now I know the mineral composition of this sea salt (and of the mini-market salt "salt, anti-caking agents (magnesium carbonate, sodium hexacyanoferrate)"), I can endeavour to find out what happens to them after dyeing and going down the drain. For another day.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

traditionally harvested sea salt

Down on the kitchen table I found organic Atlantic Sea Salt from Geo Organics. On the back it states it was produced in Portugal and:

The Environment
This salt is raked by hand from coastal sea pans. This harvesting does not involve the use of any vehicles for extraction and therefore minimises the cost to the environment. The sustainability of this resource has been managed for hundred of years and continues to be harvested without the depletion of this natural asset.

Just as well dip-dyeing with Procions never made the big time in Portugal then!

Geo Organics is a brand name of Venture Foods, whose website indicates 250 grams of boxed salt costs 99p (about six times more than the anonymous mini-market salt, but a reasonable price I think. The other one was cheap). It can be bought mail order though due to weight ordering it through the local health food shop might be more practical as well as cheaper - by courier a special journey would be made to my house whereas it might be included in an existing delivery to the local shop. Also buying locally keeps dosh in the local economy.

Their mail order website indicates the salt doesn't have recognised fair trade status or how the salt is imported. Would be nice to know and to find one a bit closer to home .

I also wonder what happens chemically to the salt during dyeing, and whether it is "retrievable" and eventually makes its way back to the sea... that closing of the loop might make its use sustainable, so long as it wasn't being used faster than it can be naturally replaced.

A separate consideration for a future post is the different footprints of recycling cardboard boxes and plastic containers (including this one without a plastics code!).

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

take me to the river, drop me in the water...

I read the water meter today. Usually it's the water company owing me money... but this time I was feeling apprehensive: over the last few months I have been dip-dyeing...

It was for a long-standing commission which requires a flat evenly-coloured background. The colour is something like the colour of saffron, cardboard or wet sand. Achieving an even colour over a large area by painting dyes on is not easy, but is - or should be - a doddle by dip-dyeing. I've dip-dyed the odd piece of clothing in the past, but nothing where the colour and even-ness was as paramount as now. So I had some learning to do.

To get the exact right colour took over ten attempts... boy was this a learning curve! My initial problem was in getting the right dye dilution to achieve the right tone. I mixed my own exactly-right wet sand colour from the Procion primaries (cyan, magenta, yellow, black as I call them, though didn't use cyan this time) and diluted this down, initially 3 or 4 times, later 8 times, with water. The first few dyeings came out gorgeous deep reds - stunning colours though, I love them and they will not be wasted! Try as I did I just couldn't get the final dip-dyed colour to resemble the initial one I mixed. They were new dyes, freshly mixed, so that wasn't the problem. It seemed that the reddish or magenta "pigment" (do dyes have pigments?) fixed more readily, strongly and quickly than whatever was left - Ian Bowers at Fibrecrafts later confirmed this with a technical explanation, including a fascinating account of how exactly the dyes go about (literally!) their chemical process of binding to the fibre.

Suddenly I understood why pre-mixed Procion colours are there on the market... if your initial colour isn't going to relate to your end colour, then how can you mix the initial colour that will? Ian's suggestion was to dye twice, first green then orange (my wet sand came from mixing a yellow-black green into a yellow-magenta orange), though I dyed the orange first. He also floated buying a pre-mixed Fibrecrafts colour though this easy way out was stalled by their range not having a wet sand colour - and besides, I wasn't yet defeated! But I did buy an orange in the hope of overcoming the reddening problem. Although the legwork had doubled, overdyeing the green instead of pre-mixing it into orange did the trick and after a few more attempts sussing quantities, I got... wet sand!

Experience is without doubt the best way to learn, and had I achieved what I had wanted on the first attempt I would have learned nothing. I'm grateful to Noel Dyrenforth, Rosi Robinson and Fibrecrafts for publishing dip-dyeing recipes (the first two in books, the latter on their website) that initially guided me. The method, quantities and proportions are now in my head and moving into my instinct (from where I prefer to work).

Quantities brings me back to water. Yes, dip-dyeing uses tankfuls! After the first few dyeings I felt I should start measuring the litres but didn't - it wasn't the right time to shift focus. But I will have a think and post that suss later.

Dipping also requires a lot of salt. More easily calculable, I went through six or seven 750 gram containers. The packaging gives no information at all about the salt's origin or method of production. Although I bought these from the local mini-market (walking distance) I will start looking out for salt packs listing origin and production so I can research and get properly informed before needing any more.

I do know where my water comes from - and I don't mean the taps! Five Lanes' water comes via a small works beside Withey Brook, a moorland stream on the far side of East Moor. Rushyford Water, one of my Bodmin Moor river batiks, flows into the Withey. I like it that I can walk across the moor to see and appreciate the source of my water. I had never realised before living near the "supply" how anonymous my water was.

How come South West Water usually owes me? We agreed some time back that I use about 7 or 8 cubic metres/quarter and pay £14 monthly. But 3 x £14 comes to more than the cost of 7 or 8 cubic metres, but they won't take less than £14/month. I did give myself a pat on the back for assumed resourcefulness... until I read that my water footprint is still way above the global average. I will write more about this later too.

South West Water are sending a new bill... yes, this time I owe them.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

More cycles and car shares

Many thanks to B for offering to lend me V's bike while she's away... though V being a tall lady suggests the bike will be too big physically for me. But worth a try!

Also, sick of my own whining, I came across and signed up. But don't need to go anywhere now, so can't yet try it out! There's also a that I might need some time...

Wednesday, 11 April 2007


Today a friend took me and my work (and hers) to Saltram, and then dropped me in Plymouth to catch a bus to Saltash to visit a cycle shop. I had pretty well been a life-long cyclist - as a kid my friend and I or my brother and I would go off on cycling adventures. Later I got round London by bike both as a student and as a fledgling graphic designer, and when I left in 1987 to travel the world, I naturally took my bike with me. Or, should I say, my bike took me!

I stopped cycling a few years ago, mostly because of the increased amount of traffic here - both on the A30 which is something of a motorway with only a metre-wide hard shoulder (when you're lucky), and on the roads and lanes north and south. Also because of the A30 limiting east-west travel I had become more a leisure cyclist rather than cycling as a means of transport.

Now, as mentioned in my last log, my means of transport are very limited - no car until November, and only a couple of buses to Launceston on weekdays (shouldn't complain really, it's an improvement from 14 years ago when they went only on Tuesdays, former market day in Launceston!).

I dug Old Faithful out of the shed a week ago and feel really guilty for abandoning the star that had accompanied me across the world all these years. Sadly the framework seems to have started rusting, and I will need a professional opinion on whether to keep her going or... if the time has come for a shiny new one.

I was recommended a wonderful hybrid road/off-road bike... it was really beautiful and seductive. I wanted to try it there and then (but couldn't due to impending bus-catching). But the price! £700! I've no doubt it was worth every penny but I really need to be sure I'd be using it enough to justify such a price. Or might it work the other way round, that owning it would make me use it more?

One reason for wanting to re-locate is to move to somewhere in Cornwall that's both more conducive to cycling and knows the meaning of the concept public transport. But I would like to have the ease still of going for brilliant long walks on the moor (or similar "wild" environment) without having to leap first into a car (or bus/bike). But unless I change my work - what I produce and how it is "disseminated" - I can't see an easy way to get on without a car, in North Cornwall anyway. Pooled car ownership would be ideal, but I'm not aware of anywhere locally that this is happening. Yet.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Here and There

Last week I had batiks to deliver for an exhibition at the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath, and another to collect from Worthing that is due to go to Saltram House, Plymouth next week. Two others came back recently from Salisbury. Normally, meaning previously, I would have driven my work to/from these venues. But last November when I had to stop driving (medical reasons) I turned to couriers for deliveries and collections. It seems like a good and the right environmental thing to do, saving a bit of carbon here and there. But last week packing the work for Bath left me wondering whether there was more to it.

Upcountry trips can tie in with catching up with family and friends, having a break/holiday, and seeing what's happening elsewhere - all important to one's wellbeing and outlook. Sometimes delivery costs can be shared by taking another artist's work. In this case combining Bath, Salisbury, Worthing and Saltram into a single trip might have been feasible.

The biggest downsides of not taking work yourself is in not meeting the curator and staff and establishing a personal relationship, and in not seeing and getting a feel for the venue and museum. Indirect delivery sort of commodifies exhibiting, which - not being where my art is meant to be - is a feeling I don't relish.

It took most of the day to pack three batiks for Bath – to get the right balance between a tight well-protected fit yet not making it too complex for re-packing by the gallery staff. Well ok, the day also included collecting the (re-usable) crate and (re-used) bubble-wrap from my work storage in Launceston (via lift with friend), and preparing relevant paperwork. If I was driving it, the work could have been suitably wrapped in less than ten minutes! Oh how I would have preferred the adventure of travelling for the rest of that day, never mind the next spent waiting in for the courier...

But a little niggle in my memory makes me search out:

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realise there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

Tao Te Ching, in verse 44, Lao Tzu (translation Stephen Mitchell)

My urge to deliver and collect work personally could be a bolshy reaction to my authorities-imposed driving licence surrender. But with peak oil apparently in sight, using couriers more often and seeking out and sharing deliveries with others should become the norm. By chance someone from the next village was working just 100 metres away from the Worthing venue and brought the large batik back by car last Friday. A friend is also exhibiting at Saltram and will take my work – and me – along with her next week... yee ha! A personal visit!

I have just remembered! I have another batik awaiting collection from the Soil Association offices in Bristol! Hanging on until someone is going somewhere you need obviously carries its own risks.

Have I reached any conclusions here? I don't think so. Further questions arise over the merits of work being on show so far away; and how my delivery/collection position relates to the position of those viewing a show who may have driven some distance to get there; and the collective carbon footprint of visitors to that exhibition...

Suppose all the stops were pulled out to produce and deliver sustainably... and yet the exhibition itself became a net gain for global heating?