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Several years ago I gave guided walks to hundreds of people around the meadows of Moulsecoomb wild park, the hedgerows and farmland of Rottingdean, along the Brighton seashore and in Stanmer woods. Very sadly since then my poor health has prevented me from giving them again. In the spirit of spring, with new life everywhere, I’m sharing the general introduction speech to these plant walks. At this time of year I’d especially recommend picking nettles, ground elder, lime tree leaves and elm tree seeds because they are tasty and highly nutritious.

One of the posters for the walks

Thanks very much for coming today. My name is Ed, and I’ve been fascinated by plants for a long time. I lived in the forest in Sweden for a year, and then helped set up an eco-village there – in both places I used wild plants extensively as part of my diet. In the UK, over the years, I have foraged, used and eaten a very wide range of plants, so what I will teach you today comes from a lot of lived experience and trial and error.

Before I begin talking about plants, I want to give a bit of background about why learning about wild plants is important.

Around 1% of the population in the UK works in the agricultural sector, which uses over two thirds of the country’s land area, while around 80% of people live in urban areas. We are more disconnected from nature than ever before during a time which many scientists are calling the Anthropocene – a period where human activities have significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems, including the mass extinction of other species, climate change, soil depletion, pollution, and much more.

My first plant walk to a select few

Very few of us now know the wild plants and wildlife around us – when we walk in the countryside we can just see a sea of green and other colours around us. It’s important to try and reconnect with nature, not just to learn what we can eat or not, or because it’s fashionable, but so we are more connected with the land and so are more likely to defend it from unnecessary and destructive development.

As Derrick Jensen points out:

“It’s no wonder we don’t defend the land where we live. We don’t live here. We live in television programs and movies and books and with celebrities and in heaven and by rules and laws and abstractions created by people far away and we live anywhere and everywhere except in our particular bodies on this particular land at this particular moment in these particular circumstances.”

Wild plants and nutrition

Wild plants are often very nutritious. Many wild plants are perennial, which means they live for more than two years. Because of this they can contain higher levels of mineral nutrients than the common short-lived or annual plants grown as vegetables, in part because they have larger and permanent root systems and thus can take up more nutrients from the soil.

Figure 1: Mineral content of some annual/biennial and perennial vegetables

The above and below figures are taken from pages 16-17 in How to grow Perennial Vegetables by Martin Crawford. The data for the figures comes from the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference and from Cooking Weeds by V. Weise. Please note that different sources have different figures on mineral, vitamin and protein content of plants – see, for example, a table based on Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical database. Also note that there are different mineral and vitamin contents in different parts of plants – the seeds, leaves, flowers and stalks. Finally note that the same plant grown in different ecosystems, with different soil types, exposure to sunlight, and many other factors, will have varying figures.

Vitamin levels in perennial plants are variable, but can be as high or higher than those in short-lived annual vegetables.

Figure 2: Vitamin content of some common annual/biennial and perennial vegetables.

Protein levels in green perennials can be high, and frequently higher than that of biennials and annuals.

Figure 3: Protein content of some common annual/biennial and perennial vegetables

Modern diets are very limited – with many of our needs coming from a small number of plant species. During certain periods in the past – and in many still existing hunter-gatherer societies – we ate a much wider array of plants. We co-evolved with many of these plants, and some of them can be delicious as well as nutritious.

Dangers of nature

It’s important not to be overly romantic about nature. There are dangers – some of which I have experienced – which are very real. Some plants are poisonous, with some even being deadly (e.g. eating poison Hemlock and certain mushrooms can kill you). Please only eat plants you are absolutely certain what they are – there are many people who have eaten misidentified wild plants and ended up in hospital.

Also, in areas of long grass and bracken, ticks exist which carry several diseases which can be very dangerous – including Lyme Disease, Babesiosis, Anaplasmosis and others – not all of which are easily diagnosable or treatable. Ticks are the most serious threat to humans in the British countryside. If you spend a lot of time walking in the countryside, make sure you take precautions against being bitten by ticks, such as tucking your trousers in and spraying your clothes with permethrin. I’d recommend doing tick checks soon afterwards so that if you are bitten, you can remove the tick as soon as possible, reducing the likelihood of transmission of various diseases.

The above image shows one of the most effective tools to remove ticks, as well as instructions how to use it. For more info, including prevention tactics to stop from being bitten from ticks in the first place, please read this guide

Medicinal properties of plants

One of the walks along the seafront

During this talk I will not talk about medicinal properties of plants, or how they are used by herbalists. If you read a traditional book about herbal medicine, and even some of the new ones, many of the medicinal claims have been proven to be wrong or misleading. Many plants have been scientifically researched, and some of the ones which have been found to be effective form the basis for some of today’s medicines that can be prescribed by a Doctor (e.g. Docetaxel, which is used to treat a wide range of cancers, originates from Yew trees). However, herbalists can still advocate plants which have been insufficiently researched or have not been proven to be effective.

If you have health problems, I would absolutely recommend you go to your GP. We are very lucky to live in a country with a universal and evidence-based healthcare system, free at point of use paid for by taxation, so do use it if you need to (even if it is increasingly privatised, underfunded and it excludes some people). Please don’t experiment on yourself with plants medicinally or rely on what you read on the internet – it can be very dangerous! If you do want to use plants to treat yourself, I would strongly recommend you at the very least see a medical herbalist who has some kind of meaningful qualification.

Looking at plants

I want to encourage, when we look at each plant today, for us to take it turns to look and describe the plant. We are often not used to looking in detail and describing plants aloud in this way, and it will help you develop identification skills as well as remember what I have taught you. Try to take your time in describing everything that you see, including:

Speaking to a crowd on the seafront

  • the shape, patterning and texture of the leaves,
  • all features of the stem or bark
  • whether any part of the plant has hairs or not,
  • the smell when you crush the plant
  • the colours
  • anything else that you notice.

Throughout the walk I will focus on a few different plants. If people feel I have missed anything out, please feel free to contribute. Also, if people have any questions, please ask and I’ll try to answer!

There are many different types of leaf shape, arrangement, edge (margin), and vein arrangement (venation). Source: Glossary of leaf morphology

Important things to remember when picking wild plants

  • Only pick wild plants if you are absolutely certain of what they are, identifying them ideally by four different means (e.g. shape, size, colour and texture). Poisonous plants exist, and some look similar to non-poisonous plants. If you are uncertain, don’t risk it!
  • Make sure you pick plants far away from roads, sites of pesticide use and other sources of pollution.
  • Already humans have a very destructive effect on wildlife, through cities, monoculture agriculture, industrial animal farming and the spraying of pesticides, so it’s important to treat remaining semi-wild spaces with respect. There is no wilderness left in the UK – only semi-wild places. It’s important not to think about picking wild plants like going shopping at the supermarket. Many of these plants are habitats and/or eaten by a long list of other species, so only take what you can eat or use. If everyone in the local area collected wild plants, semi-wild spaces would be decimated and it would be completely unsustainable.
  • With many plants, try to only take the leaves and tops, instead of pulling out the roots. Many plants will send out new shoots if do that.
  • Plastic waste is a massive problem – if you see any trash on the walk, please pick it up. If all of us did this, we would have a large positive effect.

Further reading

If you want help identifying plants, there are many facebook groups where experts help each other identify plants, such as the Herb, Plant and Foraging identification workgroup, The Wild Plant Group UK & Ireland, and Wild Plant Guide: Britains edible and medicinal plants. The Plants for a Future online database also provides an invaluable resource for identifying and finding out the uses of different plants. There are also lots of mobile apps which now exist which can help you identify plants.

Plants Guides.

There are hundreds of different plant identification books – below are just a few I have found useful:

Food for Free – Richard Mabey
Wild Flowers of Britain – Roger Philiips
The Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe – Richard Fritter, Alastair Fritter and Marjorie Blamey
Trees and Shrubs of Britain – Readers Digest
Mushrooms & Toadstools Of Britain & Europe – Edmund Garnweidner
The illustrated Wild Flower Finders Calendar – David Lang
Wild Flowers of Chalk & Downlands – J.E.Lousley
Plants for a Future – Ken Fern

A couple of books on how to read the landscape

The Living Landscape – Patrick Whitefield
Freedom to Roam Guide to the Brighton Downs – Dave Bangs

Permaculture books which give insight into plants and understanding the landscape

Earth Care Manual – Patrick Whitefield
Permaculture One – Bill Mollison
Permaculture Two – Bill Mollison
Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual – Bill Mollison
Creating a Forest Garden – Martin Crawford
Perennial Vegetables – Martin Crawford

On understanding the medical uses of plants

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre gives a nice introduction to how medical science works.

For in-depth research into the medical research of plants, we’re very lucky to be living in an age when we can search the world’s scientific/academic research on the internet. We can search the latin names of plants in sites like Pubmed and Google Scholar to find the medical research on each plant. And while there is an increase in open access journals, if you want to read research which is behind a paywall, go to Sci-Hub, which has free access to more than an estimated two thirds of all scholarly articles.

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45erd-badges

I feel deeply sad that the Scots decided to vote No to independence. Although Alex Salmond and the SNP definitely had their faults (especially with some of their policies), and I had more sympathies with the vision of the Radical Independence Campaign, Common Weal  and the Scottish Greens, what the YES campaign did was to inspire hope that another kind of politics could happen, as George Monbiot argued so well. That there could be an alternative to the last 30 years of neoliberalism, ramped up by Margaret Thatcher and continued by New Labour. An alternative to austerity economics, which has hit the poorest the hardest, has further entrenched inequality (of wealth, property, opportunity), foodbanks, homelessness and which has given the excuse to privatise the Royal Mail, large parts of the NHS, and much more. I wanted to see if Scotland could go down a different path

Although Salmond has at times been in bed with Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump, and had advocated lowering corporation tax if Scotland gained independence, there were signs that an independent Scotland could have gone a different direction. One of them was that Rupert Murdoch came out against some of Salmond’s allies and policies at the end, which meant the Scottish Sun didn’t support independence. Murdoch said on twitter:

Already in Scotland there are much more progressive policies in many areas. University education is currently free in Scotland, instead of up to £9,000 a year in England, which can end up as around £100,000 in repayments. They have a roadmap to generate the equivalent of 100% of Scotland’s gross annual electricity consumption with renewables by 2020 (although some of what they include as renewable is contentious, is reliant on exporting and importing energy to England during peak and trough times and it is uncertain if they will meet this ambitious target), instead of the situation in Westminster where a very large proportion of Conservative MPs still don’t even believe climate change is caused by humans, including the former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson. Much more of the NHS in Scotland is still in public hands, unlike in England, where New Labour and then the ConDem coalition have been privatising it like crazy. It’s got so bad in the rest of the UK that Doctors told Scots in The Lancet to vote for independence to stop it being privatised as well as the fact that doctors, nurses and other medical professionals have also gotten together to form their own political party to fight to protect the NHS – the National Health Action Party.  The Scots have also been discussing land reform, including from the 432 people who own 50 per cent of rural Scotland, and have made initial steps to implement it. They already have a more democratic and proportional voting system for the Scottish Parliament than the first past the post system used in the UK general elections. I could go on.

I had hoped to see how an independent Scotland would continue these many trends. If they gained independence, Salmond, amongst other things, had promised to:

Whether they would have done those things once independent is another matter, but it would have been exciting to see them try, and maybe that would have helped shift the debate in the rest of the UK as the Scottish led the way on what could be achieved.

So, why did they lose the vote?

Of the  84.15% of the Scottish population who turned out to vote, 45% voted YES for independence, while 55% voted NO. Unfortunately there were no exit polls, but an Ashcroft poll of more than 2,000 people showed how different age groups voted:

HowVoteInReferendum(Source)

This led to some saying: “The old have killed the hopes of the young”. However, when looking at the above data, it’s important not to make too much of the 71% of 16-17 year olds who voted for YES. As Full Fact pointed out:

Various media sources and Twitter users have today reported on the results of a poll by Lord Ashcroft, which showed that 71% of 16- and 17-year-old respondents said they voted Yes to independence. However, this figure (available in underlying data tables) is based on just 14 responses in this age group – that’s ten yes-voters. Such a small sample means there’s a huge range of uncertainty around the estimate, so it’s impossible to say whether this figure is representative of the actual proportion. The proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds that said they had voted yes (based on a more robust 98 cases) was 51%.

Even still, a majority of people from 25-54 voted YES, and those over 65 overwhelmingly voted NO.

Others pointed out that areas with more deprivation, unemployment, urban population and shorter life expectancy had bigger support for independence (although the small sample of 32 local authorities may be too small to be certain about that):

ScotVotingLifeExpectancy

(Source)

votedeprevation

(Source)

(For more graphs looking at the relationship between urban/rural population, percentage of those on unemployment benefits and more see this and this)

So, if you believe the above correlations as being significant with the limited data available, the old and the rich were much more likely to vote NO, and the poor and young were much likely to vote YES. There are many theories as to why that is, which I wont go into here.

It’s also interesting to look at what the main reasons which were given for voting NO. As Ashcroft pointed out from his poll:

By far the most important reason [for voting NO] was that “the risks of becoming independent looked too great when it came to things like the currency, EU membership, the economy, jobs and prices”. Nearly half (47%) of No voters said this was their biggest consideration. This was echoed in the more specific issues people said had played a part in their vote. The pound was the single most important of these, mentioned by more than half (57%) of all No voters. Nearly four in ten (37%) were concerned about pensions, and 36% cited the NHS (as did more than half of those who voted Yes).

So it wasn’t just about age and wealth.

Propaganda onslaught

To be honest, I’m amazed that 45% of the population did vote YES with the propaganda onslaught against independence. As Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan and Rector of the University of Dundee, pointed out:

My heart is still bursting with pride that 45% of Scots – a people devoid of political autonomy for three hundred years – had the nerve, intellect and will to see through the avalanche of propaganda from the entire mainstream media, political establishment, banking sector and corporate world. I met numerous voters who had received letters from their employers – including Diageo, BP, RNS and many others – telling them to vote No or their job was in danger. I met the old lady in Dundee who was told by the Labour Party that independent Scotland would flood the country with immigrants, and a Romanian building worker in Edinburgh who had been told by the Labour Party that Independent Scotland would deport all East Europeans.

George Monbiot also pointed out that:

there is no newspaper – local, regional or national, English or Scottish – that supports independence except the Sunday Herald.

A team of academics even studied the BBC’s coverage of the independence referendum between 17 September 2012 – 18 September 2013, looking at 730 hours of evening TV news output broadcast by BBC Scotland and Scottish Television (STV), and found the BBC to be very biased against Scottish independence. This research was then stonewalled and mostly unreported by the BBC. The BBC then went above the researchers head to his Principal at the University of West Scotland to try (unsuccessfully) to discredit the research.

Other studies of the BBC, on other aspects of their reporting, have found similar results of bias, including:

On BBC News at Six, business representatives outnumbered trade union spokespersons by more than five to one (11 vs 2) in 2007 and by 19 to one in 2012.

So, bearing all this in mind, it really is amazing that 45% of the Scottish population voted for independence. Even though they didn’t win, it seems like a small victory for alternative media (Bella Caledonia, Open Democracy) and other information sources (Twitter, Facebook), which provided lots of analysis and facts supporting the case for independence. This is maybe a sign of hope for the future, as ideas not normally presented in the corporate media (whether due to the Manufacturing of Consent as described by Noam Chomsky or the Churnalism as described by Nick Davies) were able to be distributed and discussed through alternative channels. As the internet generation gets older, and hopefully less exclusively reliant on corporate media, maybe it will vote YES at the next referendum for independence?

The future in Scotland?

Even though Scotland voted NO to independence, there has been a massive shift in political consciousness. A facebook community has been created after the vote – We are the 45% – which now has over 160,000 people following it. The Radical Independence Conference has now had over 6000 people sign up to attend. Over 3000 people, since the referendum, have joined the Scottish Green Party (who supported independence), more than doubling its size:

While the SNP has experienced an even bigger surge of support:

The Scottish Socialist Party has also almost doubled in size.

Many are channelling their recent politicisation by the referendum into the political parties and movements which supported independence. Whether we like it or not, the state makes the rules and laws which govern our lives, so more active engagement with politics by a larger amount of people gives me hope for the future direction of Scottish politics and that better policies will be introduced. As Andy Wightman, author of The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who Owns Scotland (And How They Got It), recently said:

Meanwhile, in England, Jack Straw, the Labour MP who helped take the UK into the illegal war in Iraq, now wants to make it illegal to dissolve the union in the future unless a majority of MPs in Westminster parliament agree to it.  And many are questioning whether the ConDemLab coalition will follow through with the vow of further devolution promised if a NO vote happened.

Whatever happens, it is exciting times for Scotland ahead. The population has been politicised and will fight even more for change.

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First published on 2007-06-26 13:20

(The Fairtrade shop at Pentrehafod School is run by a student workers’ co-operative – Source: Times Educational Supplement)

At the recent co-operative congress, I went to a fringe meeting hosted by the UK Society for Co-operative Studies on ‘Where are the co-operators of the future to be found?’ Kevin McGrother (Young Co-operatives), Kirsty Palmer (Woodcraft Folk General Secretary), Mags Bradbury (Membership Diversity, Co-op Group) and Pam Walker (East of England Co-op Education Dept.) all spoke about their experiences in this field.

This was one of the most eye opening events of the Congress. I had not realised that co-operative educators had been teaching kids in schools across the country how to set up their own workers’ co-operatives. Kevin McGrother talked in detail how Young Co-operatives had been advocating the worker co-operative model in schools. They help small groups of young people to set up their own workers’ co-operatives to sell Fair Trade products. Apparently, they have been involved to some extent in around 350 schools.
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First published on Fri, 2008-04-04

(Source of image)

I have written extensively about what is wrong with the mainstream media and the benefits of co-operative ways of working. The article below outlines one of the most interesting alternatives or synergies that I have come across – The Dominion paper based in Canada.

What is especially fascinating is the multi-stakeholder co-operative ownership structure it is using:

“As opposed to the more common consumer or worker co-op models, organizers have set up what they call a “solidarity co-op” to allow for three different classes of members—readers, writers and editors—giving each different rights and responsibilities while still ensuring that each can influence how the co-op functions and the kinds of issues it tackles.”

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First published on Fri, 2007-05

(you can watch it on a bigger screen at google video)

I just finished watching this video with Matthieu Ricard on happiness, depression and meditation. It’s difficult to explain how potentially life changing it is. Everybody who is interested in their own happiness and well-being should watch it and think deeply about what he is saying.

After watching it I plan to further explore the ideas of meditation that he presents in the video. There are two books of his which I am going to get my hands on and have a read through:

The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life by Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard

and

Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard

Once I’ve had time to look through them and think about it some more I’ll post my thoughts up here.

In the mean time, for more on happiness and mind training see the recent mind-expanding cogitations by David Edwards of medialens here:

Mind Training (Part 1)

Mind Training (Part 2)

You can also find more about Matthieu Ricard in this profile piece in the Indpendent.

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