I was invited to a five day open space event by The Society and Economy Trust in the Czech Republic; it was a rare and wonderful opportunity to experience how another culture is tackling our common issues around environmental degradation and one I had a resounding yes to, once I had established that they were willing to pay for me to travel by train.
Every year for the last 10 years, the Trust have put on a residential open space event at different locations around the Czech Republic, bringing together academics, activists, NGOs and those in the private sector from across the country. A different environmental theme is focused on each year and this year the topic was ‘Resilience’; a term that causes some frustration as there is no direct Czech equivalent. There were about 25 delegates and, apart from a couple of Slovaks, I was the only non native. It felt an honour.
I arrived in Hostetin after travelling on the train for five days. Hostetin is a small eco-village on the Slovak border, about 100km from Brno. As I crossed Europe I was struck by the consistent grey cloud and mild weather that I had assumed just hung over the UK, however I arrived into Brno with sunshine. Here I was met by my host Nadia, she showed me around the picturesque town and the following day we travelled together in to the heart of Moravia. We were staying in a Passivhaus eco-centre run by the Veronica Trust, a building surrounded by an apple orchard and small strips of tilled land.
That night we all assembled for dinner and a sharing circle and the event started in earnest the next morning. The beginning of an open space event is always one of chaos and it is unknowable whether order will come out the other side! Those present offered topics that they were interested in holding a discussion about over the forthcoming days and then Standa, our facilitator, helped us to consolidate these by linking common topics together. At any one time there were three topics being discussed and we could choose which conversation to join, and if we wanted to could flit between the different discussions taking place simultaneously. Topics that caught my interest ranged from personal resilience, food sovereignty, CSAs, resilience in cities, car sharing clubs, alternative economies and currencies and creating public engagement. I did a short presentation on food projects within TTT and was struck by the sense of surprise that the Czech’s had that people engaged so wholeheartedly in our projects. There was surprise that a project like Gardenshare could be successful and concern as to how if it was to be replicated in the Czech Republic they would overcome concerns around safety and trust.
I arrived with an assumption that in the Czech Republic people were much more closely connected to the land, however when I said this I was very quickly set straight. Big agribusiness is the norm and small scale, organic, providing for the local market is the exception. Small growers are hindered by legislation; in order to sell they have to be registered and in order to be registered they have to meet a gruelling set of conditions and pay a prohibitive amount. Apparently Poland has a much stronger localised food system with small scale infrastructure to support local markets, but I clearly wasn’t going to see community grain processing happening in Czech! However I did find something nearly as exciting. The area is renowned for its apples, and the Veronica centre sell their truly delicious apple juice across the country. I was disappointed that apple juice didn’t mean cider, but their love of apples meant that they had a wood fired dehydrator! I have always been frustrated that our wholefood shops sell dried apples from China whilst we have apples rotting on the ground, and I have wondered how we could dry some of this without using fossil fuels (plus I have been wondering how we can dry grains!). Solar is never going to be an option, so I have a copy of the plans so that we can build our own; one proposal for the Atmos site I think! Get in touch if you are interested.
On my third day there we had a good dump of snow and then the place took on a magical, peaceful quality; I got up early and walked up the hill (photos to come). It felt a relief to finally feel and see some proper winter after what has been such a mild one in the UK, however the concerns of mild winters were also very present in Czech - snow would have once been guaranteed at that time of the year. After the Open Space event I stayed on Standa’s small holding and walked a kilometre each morning and evening with the family to take their flock of goats to new pasture. It was a form of mob grazing, though this wasn’t a term that they were familiar with.
It was a lovely trip and I enjoyed the slow pace of travel, which gave me time to unwind and catch up at the same time. I stopped off at Prague, Frankfurt and Paris on my way home, and was glad to land back in my own bed after 16 days and 8 different beds!
Holly Tiffen, Grown In Totnes Co-ordinator
holly at transitiontowntotnes.org