by Pippa Buchanan

“A good half of the art of living is resilience.” – Alain de Botton

“…The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men
Gang aft agley…“
(“…The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry…”)
– Robert Burns, To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785

The concept of resilience is broad, but in essence it can be defined as the ability to withstand, adjust to or recover from misfortune and change. My thoughts often turn to questions of how resilient I and my loved ones will be to changes, whether that be a personal or global financial crisis or changes to the space and climate we live in. Will we be able to work? Will we be able to eat? Will we be content with our changed lives?

Attempting to predict and pre-empt how we will behave in difficult, unknowable circumstances is challenging. What is much easier to learn and reflect on is how we respond to arduous, changing circumstances that we have willingly embraced.

We often need to adjust our behaviour or expectations to navigate a difficult situation. How true to our earlier selves can we be in these situations and how much do we let ourselves adapt in new ways? How adaptable do our plans need to be so that they can be achievable and still remain true to our initial goals?

Traversing water commons

One of the most challenging and unpredictable circumstances I have recently placed myself in has been the Control of the Commons (CoC) project run by Time's Up (Austria) as part of the Resilients project.

The “Commons” are the natural and cultural resources accessible to all members of a society (Bollier, 2002). Commons resources include air and water, the songs we hum and the language we speak, the internet and wild foods.

As a way of thinking about the commons, consider these short examples of Finland's jokamiehenoikeus, “every man's rights” or right to roam: in the countryside, anyone may freely walk, ski or cycle where this does not damage the natural environment or the landowner. As long as the plants and fungi in question are not protected species, one may collect wild berries, mushrooms and flowers (Ymparisto, 2011).

What happens when people are considered to be taking more than their fair share of berries? What exactly is a fair share of the commons and, if the commons is owned by everyone, who can make that definition? Is a mouthful of berries a fair share, all that can be carried in a bucket, or all the berries a paid workforce can collect? What happens to community, trust and sharing when disputes arise around a commons resource such as wild berries?

In order to explore the idea of commons ownership and access, we (Tim of Time's Up, myself and a distributed cohort of collaborators) decided to explore water rights by travelling down three major watercourses in Austria, Belgium and Australia. As far as challenges go, that might not sound like much – but consider that the boats we used were constructed by hand from reused and recycled materials, we had to carry all our camping and personal gear onboard, and that a core goal was to use only renewable power for the journeys.

Eating the best food possible

The Murray CoC journey is something that I remember fondly, but I was – unsurprisingly – nervous about it at the time. While fears of injury and dehydration were easily insured against with a first aid kit, a river and a gravity-fed water filter, the challenge of feeding and energising our crew to propel us down the slow-moving Murray River was more alarming. I've roasted marshmallows and undercooked my sausages on school camps, and used vacuum flasks of pre-boiled water to prepare couscous while on road trips. Never before had I needed to cater for three or four people on a journey that would last for three weeks and might take us far away from civilisation (roads, shops, hospitals) for up to ten days at a time.

When I'm not eating I'm thinking about my next meal. That late morning cup of tea with something sweet and not too unhealthy? Finished. Now on to thinking about lunch and how to make something appetising out of leftovers and the radishes that escaped from their bunch.

It is often easiest for me to explore a concept by thinking about food. As much as I'd like to think of my cooking and eating obsession as something inherent to me, it is a quality I inherited, that is me, inevitably, turning out just like my mother.

My mother is a woman with a pantry and a very large collection of cookbooks. These are cookbooks that are read for pleasure and often referred to for reference, but rarely used as prescriptive lists of ingredients and instructions. The pantry has an entire shelf devoted to backup spice supplies: there are cans of Italian tomatoes on the floor and jars of home-preserved olives; lemons and jams are stored, slightly dusty, on the tops of the cupboards.

My mother and stepfather regularly go camping and within the pantry there's an adjunct mini-pantry with food suitable for long trips across Australia as well as everyday use. Dehydrated vegetables and fruits, heat treated and powdered milk, recycled yoghurt buckets for storage.

It was Mum's pantry that I turned to for inspiration while we prepared ourselves for the first CoC journey along the Murray River in Australia. With my own kitchen on the other side of the world, I returned to the family pantry to make up our supplies.

Some restrictions that we faced – common to regular camping in an Australian summer – included lack of refrigeration and dependence on a single burner butane stove; but unlike those who carry everything in a backpack, we had a whole boat to carry our tools and supplies. I could have resorted to a simple regime consisting of just ramen noodles, apples and trail mix/scroggin, but I wanted to enhance the variety of meals both for the sanity of the crew and the cook. As well as planned meals and snacks I wanted to have a backup supply of ingredients should we lose provisions, encounter delays or meet people we wanted to feed.

I was nervous about what might happen on the river, but I also found the Murray CoC trip and the following journeys difficult in other ways as I worked out how I could adapt and what I wouldn't budge on. I was able to live without showers in weather regularly over 30C, to pee off the side of the boat in the presence of a mixed crew (or half of Belgium), and was happy to camp by the side of the river among poisonous snakes and spiders with glinting eyes. I struggled with what felt like a lack of mental privacy with no time for my own thoughts, and the feeling of guilt that there was always something else that should be done. But in the end there was one thing I wasn't prepared to give up: making and eating the best food possible given our situation.

Floating pantry

We can argue about shades of grey all we like, but in the end there are just two types: those who are Food People and those Who Are Not. In the first essay in her book An Opening: Twelve Love Stories about Art, artist and writer Stephanie Radok describes her mother: “She collected books and vases, gardened, and enjoyed smoking and drinking more than eating.” (2012) Contrast this with her sister who at 8 definitely showed signs of being a Food Person: “my older sister who had been 'bad' and complained that she was hungry most of the day.” Stephanie relates these memories in connection to a postcard of Henri Fantin-Latour's Still Life, one she chose because the elements of food and a teacup would help appease her hungry sister.

Stephanie Radok is my aunt and while she makes delicious food that also looks lovely, it is her hungry sister who grew up to have the cookbook collection and the full pantry. It is she who ultimately made me into a Food Person too.

While I didn't carry any cookbooks with us on our journeys, in Australia I gathered enough food to create the modified racing dinghy's equivalent of a pantry of food. There was risotto rice and quinoa, olive oil and carrots, boiled lollies, pistachios and peanuts, and specially donated from my mother's pantry: dehydrated vegetables and my favourite, brown squidgy dried bananas. There were ziplock bags of spices, parmesan, frozen, fresh, condensed and powdered milks, porridge and muesli, a three-kilogram bag of mixed dried fruit, cans of tuna, falafel mix, dried beans, lentils, sticks of Barossa Valley salami, bags of lemons, oranges and apples, bags of local red wine, lemon cordial and a bottle of Scotch. I knew that there would be times when simple would be better, so I did buy ramen, some surprisingly good vegetarian boil-in-the-bag curries, three different types of trail mix, and peanut butter to go with the apples.

Scurvy is always a danger for sailors, so not only did one of our crew buy the biggest cabbage I have ever seen, I also packed sprout seeds in case we ever finished the cabbage and needed to grow our own fresh greens.

I stored dry food in plastic bins on the bow of the boat, had a separate container specifically for snacks (sweet and salty), and we fashioned a cool box out of styrofoam to hold our yoghurt, milk and cabbage. When we did reach town we restocked on fresh items. It can be concluded that we had Too Much Food

Cooking in challenging circumstances

Just as we can rashly group people into Food People and Not Food People, there are people who Follow Recipes and those who Do Not Follow Recipes. If you are going to cook and eat in challenging circumstances (while camping, or on a public holiday) you will find it very difficult to Follow Recipes: inevitably you may realise that you couldn't actually find mayonnaise in tubes in Australia and so neglected to pack mayonnaise at all. The use of a single camping stove would mean that no, you can't pre-heat the stock to add to your risotto and gods forbid, the lack of refrigeration will mean that you won't be able to deglaze your pan with white wine, but instead will have to resort to using red wine from a bag.

A Resilient Aristologist1) (i.e. a Food Person who Does Not Follow Recipes) will happily improvise and present a grated carrot and cabbage salad with a lemon and olive oil dressing instead of the creamy coleslaw that “normal” life could have provided. The risotto is not restaurant quality, but is instead tinged pink from the red wine, flecked green and orange by dried parsley and given flavour by dried onions, mushrooms and garlicky salami before being finished with tinned ghee and powdered parmesan.

In harder times a Resilient Aristologist would know how to gather roots and roast them to make ersatz coffee, and would hunt out patches of nettles and other wild greens while considering the best way to trap and prepare a street pigeon.

It turned out that in the end, our planned journeys for CoC didn't go as we'd originally intended.

We only had a few days to travel Belgian canals and after only one day we were expelled from the Danube river due to missing paperwork. Our original plan along the Murray was to start the journey over the South Australian border to Victoria and travel down the river through an isolated National Park. In the end a lock and weir repair meant that we couldn't travel through to South Australia from Victoria.

Of that journey along the Murray, Subak2 was so cumbersome that we only travelled 240 km over 21 days, reaching a top speed of 7.4 km in a gale that primarily blew us into the banks of the river. The day we made the first test launch of Subak2, a storm blew up as we were dropping her in the water and we carved a hole in her hull. In Belgium we were relieved to have only one day of rain in a miraculous May, but on that one day it stormed and we broke our own rule and used the outboard motor to get Subak to safety.

There are the mutable qualities that can be adopted to get yourself, your project or your meal through to the other side of a challenging situation and then there are inherent attributes you must maintain in order to keep your self [sic], your project or your meal true to its origins. It could be that being a Resilient is partly about knowing how to identify these two: the variables and the constants.

The Resilient Salad

Ingredients: grated carrot and cabbage salad with a lemon and olive oil dressing

Carrots and cabbage keep remarkably well without refrigeration as long as they are kept as cool as possible. Lemon is a useful seasoning that also provides valuable vitamins.

Grate some carrots into a bowl. Finely slice cabbage and add it into the bowl. Mix and add lemon juice and olive oil to taste.

This basic salad can be augmented with grated radish, celeriac or apple. Should seeds and nuts be available, toast and add them to the mix. Dried fruit such as sultanas and cranberries are also delicious. Mix mustard or horseradish into the dressing. If you remember to buy mayonnaise feel free to mix it into the dressing too.

References


1)
Aristology is the art or science of cooking and dining. It encompasses the preparation, combination, and presentation of dishes and the manner in which these dishes are integrated into a meal. (Wikipedia, 2013).