| How a ferret took me on a journey to a saner world|
|It is harder than you'd think to spray a chicken's arse, especially when it's running away. I refer not, as you may suppose, to a Glaswegian proverb passed down from my grandmother, but to one of the zanier moments of my time as a volunteer at Stepney City Farm – my local one, in east London – where I spent a recent month's sabbatical. It had just welcomed a batch of retired battery hens, and the birds were still in such distress that they were pecking each other's feathers off. It was my job to apply the anti-peck solution to their poor bare bums.|
Anxious avians aside, I find it hard to overemphasise the satisfaction there is to be had from taking a ferret for a walk. (Their attire for these outings comprises a ferret-sized high-visibility jacket, presumably in case they want to go cycling afterwards.) And while this may not at first appear to have anything to do with environmental collapse, global recession, benefit cuts or various food crises, it seems to me that the ethos at Stepney City Farm – reconnection to the land, affordable nutrition, community outreach – is exactly what a lot of folk are groping towards at present, be that through the Occupy movement or even David Cameron's much derided "big society". So you'll forgive me for encouraging all those with a half-term to fill to consider visiting one.
There are around 80 across England and Wales now, the first one opening in London's Kentish Town in 1972, as well as a hundred school farms – a number of them in cities – and more than a thousand community gardens. With the death of Richard Briers this week, we've all been reminded of The Good Life, and maybe that show wasn't so far off the mark after all. As the horsemeat scandal trundles on, and Britain's obesity problem becomes ever more acute, these green hubs offer a panacea for children's – as well as adults' – growing disengagement from the origins of the food they eat and the activities that keep them healthy. (Quite literally in Stepney's case, which is a working farm, and sold off some of its petted piggies in meat boxes for the Christmas table.)
The exclusion of children from the natural environment has been going on for decades, and translates into a sizable tranche of the adult population with no experience of tree climbing. In his classic comparative study One False Move, published in 1990, the transport and environment researcher Mayer Hillman found that, in a single generation, the "home habitat" of a typical eight-year-old – the area in which the child was able to travel without adult supervision – had shrunk to one ninth of its former size. Hillman had been investigating adults' reasonable anxieties about increasing traffic, but found these far overtaken by far less rational concerns about predatory strangers.
A decade on, it seemed that children had internalised this to such an extent that they were afraid to venture beyond their front door. A study by the Green alliance and Demos in 2004 found that danger was often the first thing that children mentioned when talking about being outside the home. Interviewing more than a thousand 10- and 11-year-olds across the country, it found that the majority no longer considered the street a safe place to play, while the only outdoor space they were sure was safe from strangers was their own garden.
Changes to parents' working hours, the fraying of wider family and community responsibility for raising children, and the decimation of our green spaces have compounded this. Last year, the National Trust released a report noting that fewer than one in 10 children regularly play in wild spaces now, compared with 50% a generation ago; another study estimated that by the age of seven, a child born today in Britain will have spent an entire year of 24-hour days looking at TV, computer and video game screens.
It can of course be argued that from the 17th century the trend in the middle classes has been to subject children to greater control and surveillance. As young people were excluded from the workplace and corralled into schoolrooms, their essential vulnerability was emphasised, along with the need to isolate them from the temptations of the adult world. But whatever the wider imperatives, this current dislocation cannot be dismissed as adult nostalgia for dappled childhoods or a Luddite refusal to accept that computers can promote imaginative play. In Richard Louv's passionate invective, The Last Child in the Woods, which plots the breakdown of children's bond with nature, he links the norm of the indoor child to an increase in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other aspects of mental ill health, as well as obesity and asthma.
Confinement not only reduces children's opportunities to exercise, but also their ability to engage in an important aspect of childhood: getting into mischief, taking risks and learning from mistakes, away from adult eyes. The late psychiatrist Anthony Storr argued that the capacity to be alone, in nature, was fundamental to creative development. "Many creative adults have left accounts of childhood feelings of mystical union with Nature; peculiar states of awareness, or 'Intimations of Immortality', as Wordsworth called them," he wrote. "We may be sure that such moments do not occur when playing football, but chiefly when the child is alone."
The child's loss is the adult's loss likewise. I cannot claim to mystical union with ferrets, but I've done plenty at my city farm that has made me think about much more than just the task in front of me. Planting broad beans to store in the polytunnel over the winter makes me realise what a different rhythm there is to working life when the seasons are in charge, and light and temperature cannot be fixed at the touch of a button.
If you work in the media, there is an unappealing tendency to get sucked in by the notion that we are the insiders, privy to all the secrets of the universe. It's been good for me to be reminded that there are whole worlds of skills and knowledge beyond me. Feeding the goats one afternoon in the field by Stepney Way, and watching the cars speed past, I was struck by the fact that all of this urban environment was once fields, and can be – the occasional acre at least – fields again.
And I saw that one green space can have a ripple effect. The farm is refurbishing the outside area at a local school. The brief: environment, education and risky play. And it is taking on a number of derelict sites for community food projects: the curries of Tower Hamlets will have fresh coriander. Our city farms are changing the world, an acre at a time.