Roots and Pioneers

Chris Gathercole - Part 6

Chris Gathercole nature community forest gardens networking dialogue locale Angus Soutar

Chris Gathercole was active with Transition Town Clitheroe and, over succeeding years, he brought about two projects in his home village of Whalley: the Whalley Community Hydro and Whalley Forest Garden. Both of these projects feature on our Northern School list of “must see” visits, to the constant delight of those who make the trip.

Chris has had a long and interesting career devising and supervising the care of people with disabilities. He has not been sitting back in retirement and he has caused these two ground-breaking projects to come to fruition. Although he is now “retired fully” and moved to Wales, when last we spoke he was getting excited about starting a re-wilding project there.

Last year, before he left for Wales, he was interviewed by Angus Soutar.
Part 1 is here. Part 2 here. Part 3 here. Part 4 was about the challenges of managing community projects and complexity in general see here . Part 5 is here. Now read on.

Chris at Whalley Forest Garden
Chris shows visitors round Whalley Forest Garden

Cultivation Of Nature

Angus: There was an early decision with the Forest Garden to keep it as natural as possible, in spite of various pressures to do otherwise. You were clear on that from the start?

Chris: This was one of my aims. When we started out it was just a derelict field. We had our design and plans, we had ideas about how it would grow and what we would do to support it. As part of that, I didn't want it to show human intervention. I didn't want any signposts or markers there. Although we had designed it, and so it was artificial in many ways, I wanted it to look natural.

We've got an opportunity, when we get to Wales: there is a field, just an open field, that we can go to work on. There’s a term for this now: “rewilding”, which is probably what we will do in Wales. We’ve been to see Chris Dixon [Tir Penrhos Isaf] and that’s inspiring.

Anyway, I wanted the Forest Garden to appear natural. Whatever we had designed and planted, I wanted it to come together as much as possible. The idea of benches and signs and all of that, doesn’t come into it. It's nice for people to sit down and contemplate being in the middle of it all, in natural surroundings, but the seating should be as natural as possible. Let people take the weight off their feet! One of the things we did, as you may remember, was to make it wheelchair accessible. I've seen in my work the difficulties that people with disabilities have in getting around. Because it's so wet there, with clay soil, the surface of the path was not conducive to having a wheelchair, so we decided to get plastic matting that will stick on the ground and then the grass grows through it, and after a few weeks or months you can't see it. But that's not been so successful because the grass grows so quickly, it gets overgrown, the worms get going, the soil builds up, then the horses go round and the moles dig it up and now access is just as bad as it ever was.

Angus: It will soon be a wood, even if no more work is done on it. Did you see the article in New Scientist about the virgin rainforest in the Amazon basin? They are finding out that the Amazon rainforest is far more cultivated by humans than they thought. What is “natural”? I would argue that we are part of Nature and when we interact, sensitively, with the trees and shrubs then we are playing our part in creating the natural world.

No Endings, Just Different Continuations

Angus: My final question: have you got any advice to leave to the people of the Ribble Valley about Transition and about getting more projects going?

Chris: That’s a very broad question! As we’ve said, networking is the important thing. If anybody is interested, then find like-minded people. That is the first step. Find your friends - there are different ways of doing that which we have spent time talking about. But that's the trick: it's finding like-minded people and then talking with them. Have a natter, a cup of tea and so on or whatever people like to do, and then we see where it goes.

If you are somebody like me, I've been around for a long time and I've probably got lots of ideas myself, I consider what sort of direction I would like it to go. Once I get into a new topic I like to research it. I like to learn about it, whatever the topic is. I go on visits, go and visit other Hydros, find the experience elsewhere. With the Forest Garden I remember nine or ten Forest Gardens that we have been to visit. Ask: is there anybody doing any teaching that we can learn from? How about books and the Internet? Now, of course. I'm absolutely hooked on the Internet. That's a pretty broad answer.

Angus: But that's just what I'm looking for. Everything is vague and broad until we get down to our locality and where we are. I don't think there's any prescriptions to start with. This is the thing that a lot of people have the most difficulty with. They want to be told what to do and I can't tell them, unless my reply is vague and broad.

Chris: One of the things that I have learned is to try not to tell people anything. It's took me a long time (almost 80 years) to get to this stage because I always want to give people the benefit of my wisdom. But this is a mistake, as you know.

Socrates is the man who told us,"Instead of telling people what you think, ask questions". That itself takes a lot of thinking! It's better if you‘ve thought about the issue well before hand, or maybe think forward to the next conversation, because it's too easy to give people flippant answers, suggestions or advice. The trouble is, if somebody asks me for advice, I give it to them. It gives you a real buzz. But it's not as constructive as it can be. If I can think of an appropriate question, ask the person. It's got to be a very particular question to their particular need that will open up their thinking to help move them along. But then the continuing conversation - what are my supplementary questions?

And then if you have read the The Dialogues you’ll see what Socrates does. Somebody comes and asks him, “What is the best education to give my teenage son?” (This would be an aristocrat who had a lot of money and the child would be developed for leadership or the army). So Socrates says. “I know nothing. I am not the right person to ask about anything! What do I know?” He would say that, but it was a bit disingenuous because he did know, he thought a lot about many things. But when he would ask people he would say to this person, “What do you mean by education? What is your idea about education?” and the person would respond. Then Socrates would pick up on that and ask him another, very pointed question, very appropriate, very apt. And that would take the conversation along. He'd go on over a number of steps until the person would have to realise they've no idea what education is, so they don't know what they want!

Then Socrates would say. “Well, now we’re in the same boat. I don't know what education is.” He would take these concepts like courage, justice, and so on, and he got to be regarded very highly by some people. But there were others who really did not like him and eventually as you know they killed him off. The Socratic questioning is brilliant I only wish I discovered it a bit earlier in my life because it does take quite a bit of thinking about. We can learn through repeated conversations. I'm sure Socrates had had the “education” conversation with the number of people, so he was practised at it and he knew the different bits that were going to come next.

We've had groups coming to look at the Forest Garden and now I’ve got to the point where I’ve said, “I'm not going to give you any advice. All I can tell you is what we have done here in this particular situation. We have a lot of wet clay and we had drainage problems. You might not have that. We can tell you what we did if you do have that. But then it's up to you to look at your site to decide what you going to do with it.”

So I got to that stage and that was progress for me.

Angus: That's a permaculture design for you. Never the same site twice!

Chris: Yes, yes!

Whalley Forest Garden started in the summer of 2011 when Chris and Doreen first set eyes on the site. A featureless and degraded field is now a wonderful wild area with rapidly-maturing fruit trees. Whalley Community Hydro opened in 2014 generating electricity from the flow of the Lancashire Carder as it falls over the weir near Whalley Abbey. At outputs of up to 100kW, the project was managed in its entirety by local people, raising the required finance of around £750,000 through a community share issue.

Chris Hydro presentation
Chris gives a talk at The Old Grammar School, Whalley on the Community Hydro

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