Growing, cooking, eating

Of course, however much we’d like to boast how skilled, clever or green fingered we are the truth is that it’s more likely that the allotment is growing us rather than the other way round. However well planned and executed the season is, our plans are at the mercy of the weather and a thousand other unpredictable variables any of which can trip us up. For instance when we arrived back from Wales we checked on the garlic and pulled a single bulb to see how things were going on. It looked fine – it just needed another couple of weeks to plump up. I think I mentioned this when I wrote on Friday or Saturday,

Anyway, yesterday I got down to some serious weeding in the garlic bed and discovered that one or two plants were soft where the stalk met the bulb. A quick survey of the whole bed revealed about half a dozen badly affected plants and so we decided to pull the lot in case there was an outbreak of something really nasty like white rot. There were two varieties in the bed – one was much more affected than the other, and after a long consultation of the text books it looks 90% sure that the plants had been infected by basal plate rot, a fusarium fungus. This is caused by a multitude of stresses; weather, water and over fertilization for instance and so regretfully we’re putting it down to yet another instance of the collateral damage caused by the exceptional weather this spring,which has broken records in alternating between continuous rain and drought, coolest and warmest consecutive months and persistent episodes of cold wind from the northeast and northwest. Plants don’t like stress and that’s when they get diseased or attacked by pests.

The upshot is that we have lost about half of the crop and we’re presently drying the (apparently) unaffected plants. At least fusarium can be controlled by rotation, whereas white rot persists for decades. I don’t think over fertilisation is the problem because we use no fertilisers, just compost. Ah well; life’s rich tapestry we say; but it’s another piece of evidence that maybe we have to change the way we grow things. It’s almost a given that it’s a good thing to sow some crops – like garlic, broad beans and even peas in November/December to get them off to a rapid start in the spring with the promise of an early crop. But for several years we’ve been wrongfooted by the weather and now we’re wondering whether to abandon the technique of overwintering our plants (except perhaps in the polytunnel) and getting everything in much later than we’ve been used to.

We talk a lot about the pleasures of gardening – and they are many – but we tend not to stress the disappointments, perhaps for fear of putting people off or of simply showing what terrible gardeners we really are. Organic gardening deliberately eschews all the chemical shortcuts and remedies so it’s more like hand-to-hand combat in amongst the rows. We embrace and encourage coalitions of friendly forces by inviting in the trillions of soil friends, insect predators, companion plants and physical barriers; leaning on nature rather than technology to even the scales in our favour.

The payback, of course, is on the plate. I love the surveys that purport to show that there’s no difference in flavour between organic and intensively grown vegetables. What they don’t mention is the fact that all supermarket veg, whether organic or not, are stale if not close to death before the tasting takes place. If you ran a bowl of our fresh allotment peas, straight off the vine, with even the best brands of frozen peas – you’d wonder of they were the same vegetable; and “fresh” peas from the supermarket are fit only for soup. Cooking times (usually steaming for us) are shorter the fresher the vegetable is and so their nutritional value is greater. Better flavour, shorter cooking times and higher nutritional values make cooking more rewarding than ever.

Today, apart from a greedy bucket of peas, we picked a large bag of elderflowers from which we’ll make cordial tonight. The only two food items we seem to be completely self-sufficient in are elderflower cordial and tomatoes as puree, passata, dried and as various sauces. The elderflowers are free, of course, and greatly undervalued as a flavouring. We often use the cordial to sweeten rhubarb; but at the moment it’s perfuming the whole block with its strange combination of nectar and cat’s pee. The neighbours must be wondering what on earth we’re cooking now. The variety we picked today is a decorative purple cultivar that makes the loveliest pink syrup.

I said at the beginning that the allotment is growing us as much as we grow it and by that I mean firstly that most of the traditional varieties we grow have been selected and preserved for many years – so in a sense we’re part of their reproductive process. But in another way, we grow because in spite of the occasional disappointments nature is generous beyond all our deserving. We learn fast that our hard work is as nothing in the great cycles of seasonal change. We try to dispose but we cannot compel and can never forget that even half a crop of garlic is at least ten times what we planted – and in the case of our foraged treats we did no work and invested nothing. Cordial is £3.50 a bottle and we make it for about 50p so our carrier bag full of flowers today was a free gift from Mother Earth. The insect life seems to be increasing every day as the season progresses and more and more allotmenteers are growing wildflowers and digging ponds. The site is close to becoming a 4 acre nature reserve. Learning to embrace the occasional failure is another kind of gift too. Sometimes we get despondent, but it’s not personal because there’s more strength in yielding than attacking with fire and chemicals. Today it’s one nil to the fusarium, but hey – it’s got to make a living too!

The road to hell is paved with good inventions

Who’d have thought it? Computer controlled automatic flood relief gates; plastic fishing lines; damming up valleys to flood them and secure water supplies; steam engines – even bicycles; each one of them a technological step forwards. What could possibly go wrong?

Sometimes asking the right question is harder than you’d think because common sense – as we like to describe it – gets in the way, and what ought to be a very simple question gets very difficult. “What direction does time move in?” – we’d mostly agree that it moves forwards, except on Friday afternoons. Our mobiles, wrist watches, TV and radio are perfectly clear that time moves forward in intervals that are measurable down to 10, 20, 1000 decimal places. Sub atomic particle physicists are a bit less dogmatic and would probably answer “it depends – but for all practical purposes it moves forwards in a straight line. ‘That’s progress’, we say, ‘moving: forwards into a better future’.

So let’s accept that for all practical purposes time moves forwards in a straight line; but does that mean that we who own watches and mobiles and watch TV are also moving in a straight line? and if it does – where’s the straight line heading? and this is where the argument gets a bit muddy because the commonsensical answer would be that we’re collectively moving forwards towards a better society and individually moving forwards to a better life. Except we’re not. As my old sociology lecturer Sid Harris would have said – “Where’s the evidence, David?” and, looking around at the present state of the earth I’d say that the evidence for a bigger, brighter and more prosperous future is pretty thin. When science, technology and politics wrapped themselves in evolutionary theory they made a fatal error. History has no telos, to borrow a Greek idea, it’s not bound by an invisible guiding hand, and Progress – in the grand rhetorical sense beloved of politicians, is just another package of merchandised snake oil.

The aha! moment

I was pondering this, here at my laptop, when my son phoned – as he often does on his way home from work, and so we had one of our conversations and he challenged me to set out my problem about time. “There’s a logical flaw” he said, and I’ll paraphrase the rest of his reply. The ancient Greeks knew that the future was always, must always be an unknowable fog of possibilities, and so when we take a walk we have to look forwards to avoid walking under a bus, but when we think about the future we necessarily walk into it backwards. All our knowledge; all our certainties and experiences are behind us in time. The Greeks and Mesopotamians understood this three thousand years ago and the present day Maori people know it now.

To describe a person or a movement as forward looking is assumed to be a compliment but all too often, so-called forward looking leaders combine a wilful march into the unknown with a blithe refusal to attend to the only real data we have – which is all in the past.

There’s a true story that I really love which illustrates this perfectly. An engineering worker lost a finger in an industrial accident and this precipitated an enquiry by a government inspector. When the man was interviewed at work after he had recovered, the inspector asked him to describe exactly what had happened. The man explained that he had put his finger into a hole in the machine and then – to demonstrate precisely what had happened, he stuck another finger through the same hole. Need I continue?

To cherish the hope that another – as yet uninvented slice of technology or science will rescue us from the unexpected consequences of the last lot, is – let’s be kind – rather silly!

Walking backwards into the future

If we were to accept the ancient Greek view of time, what would the implications be for the future of the earth? At the moment it feels as if we’re ploughing on heedlessly into chaos and disaster under the influence of a broken model of so-called progress. But we have thousands, tens of thousands of years of human experience to draw upon. The past isn’t just dry as dust history about people who weren’t as clever as us. It’s a laboratory , a library, a treasury of human insight; of ideas, of technologies, of spiritualities, of memories, of different modes of being fully human in story, drama, music and song.

Here at the Potwell Inn, when the wind blows from the north east we can hear the chimes of a church clock marking the quarters and hours. Time marches on but it doesn’t feel like a straight line. Our lived experience of time is mostly cyclical; of anniversaries and birthdays, lunar months, solstices, seasons and equinoxes. We live in a precious, never to be repeated and wholly unimagined moment that we share with the whole of creation. The meal we ate yesterday evening amounted to nothing more than the vegetables we’d harvested during the day. I baked bread. We worked quietly on the allotment, weeding, planting out, moving nets in drizzly rain. Walking backwards into the future we celebrated each moment.

The Tao is like a well:

Used but never used up.

It is like the eternal void:

filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden but always present.

I don’t know who gave birth to it.

It is older than God.

Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu. Chapter 4, translated by Stephen Mitchell.

Home again, home again, Jiggety Jig.

The herb at the top is French tarragon – a revelatory herb, like chervil.

In the absence of either a market or a fat pig, back on the allotment we swapped the wild plants of West Wales for the domestic sort and took the first really decent harvest of the season. It’s not that we haven’t been harvesting for ages, we’ve had a steady supply of rhubarb and asparagus; radishes and lettuce and so on but today was the first time we harvested a complete five a day meal’s worth – new potatoes, broad (fava) beans, beetroots, garlic and carrots. The carrots were thinnings from a container experiment, and the potatoes too came out of one of the deep containers which have been a tremendous success because we’ve been able to move them around the plot wherever there’s a temporary patch of empty ground. Thanks to our allotment neighbours nothing was lost during the little heatwave while we were away and apart from a hard session of weeding, the plot was looking good.

In the beginning of the season we filled every spare inch with calendula and tagetes and today we had to carry out a radical thinning to give the others room to breathe. There were coriander, angelica, lavender, evening primrose and Nicotiana rapidly being outgrown and so we had to uproot dozens of the more vigorous calendulas to bring the rest on. There’s nothing more unnatural than a natural looking garden! The garlic was just a quick peep to see how they’re fattening up and the rest will be left for a few weeks yet; but the perfume of the single bulb filled the kitchen when we got home.

The few survivors of the overwintered broad beans haven’t done well, having been felled by a fierce and cold east wind – they dehydrated and weakened in spite of our improvised screens. The later sown replacements have grown quickly and well but being far more tender they were more vulnerable to blackfly and the ladybirds haven’t really got up to full speed yet. Perhaps they too were badly affected by the cold and wet conditions. Usually we have dozens overwintering in our window frames at home but this year there were none.

Inside the polytunnel the tomatoes, aubergines, chillies and peppers are all setting fruits and once again the main work was removing side shoots. Even the melons have taken off and we’re waiting for the first three fruits to set before removing all the rest to give the smaller number a chance of filling out and ripening. The Douce Provence peas too were afflicted in the same way but again the spring sown replacements are much better. Of the three varieties we’re growing – Alderman, Douce Provence and Robinson’s Show Perfection; the last of the three is winning hands down although we have to fight the pigeons for them always so this year we’re growing them up the inside of the fruit cage which at least gives us the first five feet of vines. The greatest challenge, growing peas, is giving them time to fatten up, but getting them in before the pea moth strikes. Allotments become hotspots for all sorts of pests, and this year we’ve kept all of the garlic, onions, carrots and parsnips under the finest insect netting. It certainly spoils the appearance of the plot but we’re hoping to grow some leeks free of allium leaf miner this year. Once again we’re trying a variety of pot leek from Robinsons and it’s looking good so far. I guess if you’re going to grow organically the only option is to use insect barrier netting where the pests are tiny and bird netting for everything else. As for slugs and snails it’s clear that healthy plants don’t get attacked nearly so much but this year we’ve resorted to a nematode treatment because weather stressed plants are the go-to slug food. All I would say, though, is that you should ignore the photos on the seed packets. Typically, lettuces have a few yellow leaves on the outside, but you just peel them off – as you do with many other vegetables, put the peelings on the compost heap and suddenly they look just like the ones in the catalogue.

The rest of the day was spent building a sturdy frame with bean sticks to grow cucumbers and a winter squash up. The cucurbits can take up a huge amount of space in a small allotment and growing them vertically makes a lot of space.

And yes we had a wonderful time in St Davids, and did lots of reading, writing talking and walking. This lovely adder came to say hello on the path one day, and we watched a very large seal who looked up intently at us from the safety of the sea below us. The bird highlight was a ring ouzel – only the second I’ve ever seen. We also saw dozens of manx shearwaters skimming across the sea in the evenings as they went out in long skeins to feed. We’ve camped at the other end of the bay, and in a tent it’s easy to hear the haunting sounds they make as they fly back low over the fields to Skomer where they nest. It’s a kind of wheezy whistle that, the first time you hear it, makes your hair stand on end – like the cry of a fox or a vixen on heat – except that particular cry gets dubbed on to every night scene on every thriller shown on television!

There were times when we sat on the steps of the van watching the sun setting on the horizon of glittering sea, when I thought I could stay here all summer – but the allotment too has its moments of joy. If the last couple or three postings have felt a bit too philosophical, I’m sorry. Very selfishly I do my thinking at the laptop and I’m struggling to find a way of drawing all the threads together. Global extinctions, climate emergencies, pandemics and economic crises are, it seems to me, all closely related. Is it our culture that’s diseased and no longer fit for purpose? We’re all getting agitated, angry and paranoid about things and that’s not the mindset that our perilous situation deserves. Can we really save the earth one cabbage at a time? Well, we’ve tried everything else.

Let’s start a slow walking movement!

Bladder Campion – for obvious reasons

Walking down to the sea today with the sun on our necks I experienced what John Betjeman once said of walking the River Kennet – “the glory was in me”. I find that phrase greatly moving in the way it situates the glory within rather than outside and apart from us like something that might be measured and described but never gulped down in great draughts. We come here, (I come here at least), for the plants. In the spring and early summer these western coastal fringes are a feast of botanical delights. In past walks I’ve listed well over 70 plants in flower, barely leaving the ten miles of local coastal path. When we arrived, until Saturday evening, we were enveloped in mist and cloud with the temperature sulking at around 13C. Then the sky finally cleared and the sun came out and the restrained hedgerows burst into flame.

Let’s be clear, I’m still – relatively speaking – a botanical novice on a mission to name the plants and animals I encounter. I hesitate to resort to biblical stories for fear of turning people off, and I’m not very religious myself, but I always loved the one of the two alternative creation stories in the Old Testament in which Adam is given the task of naming the creatures. Homo Sapiens – the thinking animal is only a (relatively unimportant) part of the story. Being human is, or should be, as much about naming and befriending the manifestations of creation as it is about categorising, weighing and measuring them. There’s something fundamental in the business of knowing names because it reaches out and creates a bond, a state of interdependence between the participants. We are mutually beholden – because we have put the work in, or in that unlovely management phrase – we’ve got skin in the game. Once we were strangers, but now after a time of intense regard and thoughtfulness we are on first name terms because we are all scions of the same root (and I’ll come back to that point in a moment).

Of course, that degree of plant scrutiny while you’re walking to the Co-op to buy a pint of milk would be inappropriate, which means that when – at last – we’re allowed out to do some serious plant hunting, a change of gear is called for. We’re a bit rusty, and walking with attention needs practice – that’s all getting your eye in means. Five years ago, when I made the utterly hubristic resolution not to walk past anything I couldn’t name, I quickly realized that in spite of a lifelong interest in wildlife, I hardly knew a thing – I was still really at the buttercups and daisies stage.

I suppose it will seem a bit strange to a thoroughgoing materialist but the plants have always been as much a spiritual quest as they are about ticking of boxes, and so, to pick up that earlier thread, I want to throw a brick into the water. “In the beginning” says St John, “was the Word” – the Logos.

Marvellous I always thought, until John spoiled everything by attempting to restart the whole creation from metaphysical ground zero. Gary Snyder, in the final essay in “The Practice of the Wild” – “Survival and Sacrament”, refers to the Easter Liturgy – the great sequence of songs and readings rehearsing the history of humanity. For me it was always the greatest of all the liturgies; to sing in plainsong a melody and words that were always almost unbearably powerful – so powerful I had to rehearse for an hour on my own to get beyond the tears.

But there was one flaw, and that was the attempt to restart the story at the beginning of the Christian era and erase the millennia, even geological ages that went before. Whether it should be the first verses of Genesis or the first verses of John’s Gospel that comes before all the other readings and psalms I’ll leave to the theologians. I am sure, however, that they both belong at the beginning of the liturgy. I have preached a thousand times that when God speaks, things happen. From the Big Bang to the construction of the large Hadron Collider and from the first slime mould to the emergence of distinctively human life we are all spoken. The horror of the separation – the true original sin, if you like, came on the day we decided that the story was all about us and that the rest of creation was there to service our greed.

So to get back to the plants, it seems to me that the whole of nature amounts to the speech of God, of the Dao or the Great Spirit – it doesn’t matter about the name; maybe Judaism is right, it can and never should be uttered. But the earth and all living things and all inanimate things like water and mountains are spoken out of that primordial moment, and because all of the ten thousand things are ‘spoken’ it makes perfect sense to me that the plants, being some form of ineffable language; speak – as do the mountains and the seas and all the living creatures of which we are just one. The mountains speak ‘mountainish’ and the seas speak ‘sea-ish’ and the plants, obviously, speak plantish, and I’m just struggling to learn plantish – it’s very beautiful.

And so the walking becomes a meditation punctuated by greetings – “Hi sheepsbit!” I say in my head, or perhaps in my heart, and the sheepsbit somehow acknowledges me. “Hello bladder campion” “Hello silverweed” and, on a good day – “hello dodder – haven’t seen you in a while”. The English stonecrop positively glows at me in pale pink and, just as I’m pausing to speak, a ring ouzel slips away flying low. I’ve only seen them twice and first time I was so surprised I emailed the County Recorder to ask if I was seeing things. Today I was completely confident.

Often I make lists but when I do I write the english names in first, because the names in themselves make a kind of poem or song about the past – ploughmans’ spikenard, dyers’ greenweed, woundwort, restharrow. To lose any one of these common and relatively insignificant friends would be a tragedy. What if, one day we came here and walked as we always do down towards the bus stop and the marshy ground at Pwll Trefeiddan and there were no southern marsh orchids, no ragged robin, no flag irises and none of the broad bodied chasers and damselflies who live there, glinting azure blues and reds. That’s the thing about naming and befriending; about beholding even the most common and inconspicuous fellow beings. They matter, not just as ticks on a list but as memories, precious moments, explosive little revelations.

And it goes further than names because so many of the plants have been useful to humans in some way. We eat them, grow them and forage for them. Historically they’ve been the cure for many of the simple disorders and afflictions we suffer from – yesterday, for instance, growing in the wall of St Non’s Well was a clump of pellitory of the wall – traditionally used to treat urinary complaints. Knowing the properties of plants adds a whole new depth of meaning and relationship, and it’s the erosion of our relationship with plants. with the whole natural world that has allowed us to become careless of the environment. I don’t in my heart believe that anger and demonstrations will achieve what can only be done by reconnection. The earth will be safe only when enough of us get our eye in.

A fishy story – thinking about the commons

People often look at the allotment and say – “surely you must be self-sufficient, now?” Well no we’re not, and I’m not a bit sure I even agree with the concept which always strikes me as being isolating and rather egocentric. We learn to become more human by living in interdependent communities. Although the allotment site often feels like and even functions as a sort of village, aside from our 200 square meter plot there’s nowhere we can graze an animal or run a few chickens; nowhere close we can easily forage for the things we can’t grow, and nowhere to gather most of the medicinal herbs that take up more space than we can afford. Of course there are plenty of opportunities to forage far and wide for them – way beyond where we live but the whole point of the Commons is to bring to hand all of the above, plus firewood to a small community. Without commons the community has less reason to live, work, celebrate and lament together; as many people who move into the countryside discover when they soon start to feel lonely. The 21st century default position is to live like strangers, and whilst we worship the wild, we have very little idea of how to learn from it and celebrate with it.

Back in 2020 I was searching the local bookshops to find a copy of Gary Snyder’s “The Practice of the Wild”. I’ll say a little more about the book later, but I’ll begin with one of the most depressing conversations I’ve had in years.  So I walked into Waterstones and searched the most likely places for anything written by him. Poetry? zilch! ….  ecology? zilch! ….. spirituality? ditto!  Eventually I resorted to the cash desk and asked a bright young bookseller – “have you got anything by Gary Snyder?” ….. “Who’s Gary Snyder?” he replied.

That I was quite so shocked caused me to wonder not so much about the illiteracy of the bookseller, suckled on the mayfly life expectancy of our current literary scene; but about the diminishing of that whole culture which existed for perhaps five millennia in which the urgent existential questions we face today were first identified and often answered. For me, Gary Snyder is one of those thinkers who raised the waters from that well and brought them into the 20th century for us. He is – at 91 years old – so much more than a short-lived Beat Poet. Our culture is locked into a groundhog day in which the hard gained wisdom of the past is clearcut and replanted with fashions that rarely survive twenty years. In the absence of a literary canon, we fret our lives away, endlessly seeking solutions to long solved problems. We live in windowless bunkers of our own making. 

So one of the chief sadnesses of growing old in our Western modern and postmodern  wordview; is that the canon – musical, literary, poetic, spiritual and liturgical which has been both lighthouse and lifeboat to us, is breaking up and sinking, and these sharp and careless reminders leave me feeling adrift. “Never mind” I say to myself “where you are is the only place to begin”  – or put it in (I think) RS Thomas’s words, echoing Odysseus in the dim past before the troubles began; ‘home is the harbour you set out from’. And I’m immediately unsure of the quotation because we’re camped on a clifftop field in Pembrokeshire overlooking Ramsey Island and away from any confirmation by books, internet and even my mobile which drifts in and out of consciousness like a dying man. Ithaca feels a long way away. 

Sadly the book was easily available on Amazon and arrived from an American publisher a few days later, priced in dollars; but at least I tried; but I flunked the opportunity of sharing its significance with the young bookseller who might – had I convinced him to read it – have sold it to many other seekers.  Gary Snyder has a lot to say about commons.

When we arrived here we found the campsite engulfed in a thick sea-mist that looks set to stay for a couple of days, so the presence of the sea and Ramsey island are extremely notional at the moment. However I struck up a conversation with a neighbouring campervanner and in the course of one of those long meandering chats, full of oxbows, he told me a story. He used to be, he told me, a professional lobster fisherman but he lost his best friend and deckhand to a rival fisherman after jointly surviving being swamped by a massive wave with the help of  a powerful engine and a lot of luck. Most people have a story to tell, but his wife – having heard it many times in the past – left us and wandered off to a more congenial conversation nearby that involved a comparison of the number of medications the participants were taking.  Non fatal illness is such fun – it seems. Anyway the coda to the fisherman’s yarn was by far the most interesting bit and here’s where Gary Snyder’s discussion of the so-called tragedy of the commons comes in:

“So what about the so-called tragedy of the commons? This theory, as now popularly understood, seems to state that when there are open access rights to a resource, say pasturage, everyone will seek to maximise his take and overgrazing will inevitably ensue. [ …….. ]  When [Hardin et al]  try to apply their model to the historic commons it doesn’t work, because they fail to note that the commons was a social institution which, historically, was never without rules and did not allow unlimited access.”

Source – Cox, Susan and Jane Buck – “No tragedy in the commons” – Environmental Ethics, Spring 1985.

Rough justice

I asked the retired fisherman – now a builder – why did his deckhand and friend leave the boat? Was it the day they were nearly engulfed by a wave?  “No”, he said, “he moved to a better paid deckhand’s job on another boat”; and went on to explain that the other boat was owned by a man who had previously fished in Cornwall, and had developed a reputation for stealing other fishermen’s gear.  In the end, tempers boiled over and he was confronted and told that unless he took his boat out of the county  it would be taken and sunk.  “Fishermen can be very rough” he explained, as if I didn’t know. 

So the ‘marked’ fisherman moved up to Pembrokeshire and was barely surviving, scratching a living from those bits of the shoreline not already fished by the locals.  Then one day someone suggested he ran out a line of pots along “the 27” (no idea what this means – possibly a latitude line on the charts).  So he took himself off into these waters which were left alone by the local fishermen because they were known to be dangerous. He immediately struck gold, making – it was said – £10,000 a week. The deckhand left his sustainably fishing friend and went for the money. 

So there you have it – the tragedy of the commons and its historical solution encapsulated in a chance conversation in the mist.  And which of the characters in the story best represents the future? Sadly, I know for sure that thievery and overfishing have played a large part in the present state of our fisheries and that the smaller fishermen have taken the hit. But whatever happens, unless the commons – in this case our inshore waters – evolve some kind of agreed local governance with achievable sanctions apart from sinking offending boats, it will be too late. The story demonstrates that the draconian local sanctions applied worked very well at first, but when the man moved to another community where he was not known and into a winner takes all culture there were no inhibitory moves that could be made, so in his new home the so-called tragedy of the commons became a reality because it wasn’t a social institution any more, it didn’t have any rules and it couldn’t limit access. This sad tale isn’t a critique of the commons but a critique of our extractive economy.

Several years ago we were with the Bath Nats on a fungus identification field trip, when one of the participants hung back and cut every single ragged parasol mushroom in a clump that I mentioned a few days ago. She rejoined us later with her cute handmade basket groaning with spoils – more than she could ever possibly eat. We stood back astonished, but said nothing. That’s the true tragedy of the commons; that we’ve become so isolated and detached from one another that we no longer even have the means to challenge the abusers of the vestigial remains.

Somewhere over the rainbow!

If I’ve been quiet for a few days it’s for no more sinister reason than the fact that we’re in the campervan in a place where there’s no internet and only a very occasional phone signal – about as far west as it’s possible to go in Wales. However the Gods have smiled on us today and a half decent but incredibly slow signal appeared out of nowhere. We’re in Pembrokeshire, west of St Davids and overlooking Ramsey Island – most of the time. The rest of the time we’ve been in thick sea mist without even being able to see the sea, let alone the island. So we’ve been reading and walking and I’ve been writing too but that will have to wait until there’s a more reliable signal.

Six or seven years ago we were on holiday near here with our extended family and we went into the Cathedral. Generally speaking I’m not a great fan of churches and cathedrals, because after thirty odd years of working on the inside of the institution; I always hope for something powerful to happen and it rarely does – it’s a long story. But on this particular day I was standing outside the main door waiting for the others and I had the strangest intuition that there was something for me there. I was intrigued, but couldn’t see any way that whatever the gift was, it could come in the midst of the hordes of tourists who were in any case being shooed out so that a rehearsal could take place. But as we climbed up the long flight of steps towards the town I pondered on the thought of developing a cross-country pilgrimage to St Davids beginning from home – around 140 miles, probably much longer if we used footpaths and tracks. That’s me – typically thinking that gifts always need to be earned!

So fast forwarding to today, we decided to walk around the coast path past St Non’s Chapel. St Non was the mother of St David, and the chapel was always said to be at the place she gave birth to him on the clifftop one night during a terrible storm. I had absolutely no expectations other than purely antiquarian ones regarding the trip, and as we walked the cliff path we could see a small building in the distance. The site was in three parts. There is a chapel, built in 1937 but containing many fragments of much older buildings found in the vicinity. Then there are the ruins of the far older chapel, and finally there’s the well.

The little chapel is everything that the cathedral is not – tiny, empty, unpretentious but full of – let’s say – presence. What was even stranger was that as we walked in, there were two house martins fluttering around above in the roof space, near their nest. The chapel was a very powerful place in its own quiet way. Then on the way to the ruined remains of the chapel we passed the well. It was as if the peaceful moments inside the chapel had laid the foundations for a second, more powerful experience.

I’m used to being disappointed by wells too. It’s not that I’m in any way obsessive about them, but ever since my early teens I’ve been fascinated by them. Mostly they’re overgrown, completely neglected and hard to find; but this one is a big stone cistern, housed within a romanesque stone arch with descending steps. The well is reputed to have healing properties and so after a brief chat with a women who was only too pleased to take her boots off and bathe her swollen ankle in the cool water, I did the same – encouraged by Madame who offered her T shirt to dry my foot – I used my own. I think it was the gift I’d been promised all those years previously; but stumbled on accidentally and thwarting my need to earn it. Foot bathing is, of course, a pretty powerful symbol.

Having dried my foot and put my boots back on, we walked on a few yards to look at the ruins of the old chapel; but then it came to me that I’d forgotten to leave anything behind in thanks. I’d pricked my hand on a bramble while I was scrambling to stand safely on the slippery stone shelf, but I thought that leaving my blood behind was a pretty glum sort of thanks. Then I remembered the coins. I always carry some small coins in my pocket to cast the I Ching – but I don’t carry just three, I carry five from which I choose three. So I left one there, both in thanksgiving but also to establish a kind of connection. This is the kind of heterodox behaviour that gets you into trouble, I thought – without a trace of remorse.

In some of these healing places there are piles of crutches and sticks. Once, in Les Saintes Marie down on the Camargue there was a whole artificial limb we saw, but of course this wasn’t about my sore ankle. It was about an older, deeper pain. We followed a footpath back across the meadows, barely half a mile to the Cathedral. The whole walk was no more than six miles – nowhere near enough for me to be able to stride up full of self importance and demand my mysterious gift after 140 or 150 miles on the road. Bah humbug! – you might say it’s all in your imagination and that’s exactly right – where else would it be except in my imagination. That’s how the landscape and the plants and our allotment speak – so thanks, no really thanks!

The stars dispose but do not compel

It was Beth Chatto, whose motto – “right plant, right place” – came to mind as we walked past the Bath Quays development yesterday. Some years ago the river bank was reshaped into terraces in advance of new building on the north side of the river, The terraces were rather expensively covered with wildflower matting – coir impregnated with seeds, I imagine to honour the fashionable spirit of the wild. The earth; much disturbed and turned over by archaeologists and heavy machinery and then covered with topsoil yielded a single fine crop of wildflowers last seen growing together on a film set before the thugs moved back and put the newcomers in their place. True, a few have survived but the dreams of the planners would surely have taken a dive if they ever came back to look at their creation. There used to be a building company in Swindon, from memory, ironically named “Bodgit and Scram” – you get the picture. Creative landscape designers are rarely confronted with the difference between glossy brochures and living earth.

Some of the plants, however, didn’t disappear; they just took a walk down the road and found somewhere more suited to their natural habitat. The Vipers Bugloss in the picture is one of the more attractive ones which, while not normally seen in this part of the world outside gardens, has set up a squatters’ camp alongside the road amongst the rubble and clutter of an earlier utopian dream.

If you want to make a nature reserve you can either buy some expensive land and spend shed loads of money on it or – as this little paradise suggests – put up a temporary fence around a bit of unloved and rubble filled earth awaiting “development” and go away for a couple of years. In this case the inevitable Buddleias came along, with bindweed and all the other early risers; and with them came butterflies – who’d have thought it? – and then some of the other escapees from the designed wild like yarrow and campions; some nice vetches, oxeye daisies, poppies and so forth.

It should (but probably won’t) remind us that just as you can’t create a community by building a community centre, so you can’t rewild the city centre with a coir mat and seeds from somewhere in Europe. Beth Chatto’s “right plant right place” applies as much to rewilding as it does to gardens and allotments. The Potwell Inn allotment has had many areas enriched by mountains of leaf mould, manure and compost. But the places where we’ve planted the lavenders and mediterranean herbs had to have their rich clay/loam topsoil removed and replaced with something more akin to stone soup to borrow a metaphor from the kitchen. And, of course the harsher environment suits them very well.

The “weeds” that were expensively doused in weedkiller back along the river walk are now recovering slowly, and happily the patch of greater celandine seems to have been missed altogether. Within a few weeks, I hope, the ragwort, herb Robert, nipplewort and dandelions will shake themselves and get back into the business of being wild in the city. Rewilding doesn’t so much require committees and designers as it needs nurturing what’s already found its place on the pavement. The real challenge is to teach more people to love weeds and nurture their vital role in the great scheme of things.

You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family – even carrots know that.

I intended to write a piece today about the pleasures of browsing the little treats on the allotment. Strawberries are the most obvious one; the moment they ripen we eat them straight off the plants so they never make it home. But there are others too. The picture on the left is of the impressively large seeds of Sweet Cicely which taste marvellous straight off the plant. It’s one of those plants that contain natural sweeteners, and we usually put some flowers, leaves or seeds into the rhubarb while it’s cooking. It adds a useful amount of sweetness and a delicious aniseed flavour. Foraging on the allotment is a great way of putting some of the plants we normally call weeds to good use. Nettles, dandelions, Good King Henry are all good to eat when young and the pot marigolds make good skin cream as well as the flowers being edible. Nasturtiums to can be pressed into service to brighten up a salad.

But that’s on the allotment where we’re sure what it is we’re eating. Beyond the safety of the allotment there are a multitude of temptations, some of which can even kill us if we’re not entirely sure of the species. I was reminded of this yesterday on our riverside walk when I spotted this beauty growing out of the steel piles that were driven into the river bed to contain the regular floods. It took a moment to realize that it was hemlock water dropwort, the seeds of which must have insinuated themselves into a crack in the wall during one of those floods. Normally it grows in swathes on the banks of streams and rivers – mainly in the West Country. I think it’s beautiful when in flower; like a starburst of white; but it’s a killer if you should eat any part of it.

Compared with the flowers of sweet Cicely on the right, they can look quite similar to a beginner.

The carrot family, as it’s now known, used to be called the umbellifers because of the distinctive flower heads, but the family name was changed because there are lots of unrelated species that also have umbels – think of elderflower which is almost ready to pick now for cordials. The carrot family has some of our most useful food plants as well as some very nasty country cousins and, as a family they need to be treated with respect by foragers. They’re not always easy to identify, but usually leaves, height, season, local plant lists which you can download for every area of the UK from the BSBI, and habitat give us a good start. Just as not all dandelions are really dandelions at all, so there are wild edible carrot family members like Alexanders or Herb Gerard (which I’ve still never eaten because I’m still wary). Like fungus hunting, learning from a skilled guide – i.e. not me – is a useful investment.

Meanwhile back on the allotment things are quite literally hotting up with the weather closer to June averages and the polytunnel full. We’ve seen the tomatoes starting to set fruit, and there are peppers and chillies all fattening up already. Today we treated most of the beds with slug killing nematodes and there’s barely a square foot of empty ground. We try to avoid the worst of the heat by skipping breakfast and watering as early as possible – good for the plants and the waistline too. Plants are afoot for another field trip to catch up with some old (plant) friends on the West Coast so it’s all hands to the pumps at the Potwell Inn.

There be Dragons

From the top, clockwise.

  • Emperor – Anax imperator
  • Large Red Damselfly – Pyrrhosoma nymphula
  • Broad Bodied Chaser – Libellula depressa
  • Golden Ringed Dragonfly – Cordulegaster boltonii (n.b. damage to left hindwing)

I wish I could claim that our most recent visitor – the Emperor dragonfly at the top – was encouraged to visit the allotment by the presence of the pond but it wasn’t; because we’ve been visited by these magnificent creatures every year since we took over the plots. What we can certainly take credit for is the threesome of Large Red damselflies, presumably two males and a female, who sorted their dispute out, allowing the female to mate with one of the males and lay her eggs in the pond while they were still joined. This morning there was another one resting on a conveniently placed cane over the water. As I’ve mentioned before, we now have dozens of ponds from baby baths to a proper 25 footer next door, not to mention the river barely 100 yards away, and several ponds around the Botanical Gardens which are fed by the same streams that dip underground and flow across the allotments – one of them under our plot. It must be dragonfly heaven. How could you not love these fabulous beasties? They’re voracious predators of smaller insects and probably constitute a decent meal for a hungry bird.

Ladybird eggs on the broad beans

On the Potwell Inn allotment, the broad beans have finally leapt into bloom and, being spring replants after most of the overwintering plants were killed off by the dreadful weather in March, they’re nice and soft and an easy target for blackfly. Mercifully the blackfly and the ladybirds have arrived at the same time and whilst pinching out the tops, Madame found a bunch of ladybird eggs – good news because the larvae are by far the more greedy predators. The white butterflies lay similar looking eggs, but they’re much larger and more elongated from memory.

Of course – (minus the blackfly) – the tops make a delicious meal long before the pods have filled. You can stir fry or steam them and they’re lovely. You could almost certainly eat them raw too, but we haven’t enjoyed them that way ourselves.

We’ve been full-on planting out, and we’re nearly at the end, but it’s been very warm and sunny so the transplants have needed mollycoddling to keep them going. One interesting discovery came with setting out the three sisters planting. We’re using the “Painted Mountain” variety for the sweetcorn, but we’re also growing an F1 hybrid for our ‘ordinary’ crop. We’ll take care to keep them as far apart as possible, but seed saving would never be a good idea on an allotment site because everyone is so close and growing every variety under the sun . What was very obvious that the trad. Painted Mountain are far more vigorous than the F1 hybrid – neatly denting one of their claims of superiority. Sadly the seeds cost about the same because here in the UK Painted Mountain is a bit harder to source. I’ve read one writer suggesting that she sows all three seeds (corn, squash and bean) at the same time but we haven’t tried that yet. We’ve started all three in root trainers; sowing the corn first to allow it to get away and avoid being choked out by the others. One day we’ll try simultaneous sowing but it’s a lot of ground to dedicate to an experiment.

Once everything is planted out we’ll be able to concentrate on weeding and watering (assuming this warm weather continues). The temperature variations in the polytunnel are enormous, but the plants seem to love it so long as they’ve got water. Finding time to combine writing, repairing the leaky skylight on the the campervan and gardening is quite challenging but the rewards are huge. It’s impossible to walk on to the allotment without wondering at the sheer energy of the earth and the plants in spring. Gardening can be a very time consuming activity and I feel sad that many of our first timers are getting overwhelmed by weeds. We always found it very difficult to manage a family and a large garden, when we were both working full time.

What do we teach the children?


Sometimes reading a single book can make me sit up and think seriously about one of my own taken for granted understandings, but sometimes it takes a combination of two or three, read almost simultaneously. This past couple of weeks I’ve been reading three together:

Suzanne Simard – “Finding the Mother Tree”
Merlin Sheldrake – “Entangled Life”
Robin Wall Kimmerer – “Braiding Sweetgrass”

It’s fair to say that my grasp of what goes on under our feet on the allotment was – until recently – pretty scant. We had made up our minds to do our best to grow more pollinating insect attractors and dig the pond, but this is the first year we’ve set out to associate plants with their companions and the first time we’ve made an informed effort to try the three sisters method. I couldn’t say it’s made our life any easier as we’ve had to do a great deal of rearrangement and grow dozens of companion plants from seed. The no-dig philosophy was already baked in from the time we finally got the beds sufficiently weed free and rich in organic matter. The pond has been a triumph for the wildlife, with a crop of fat tadpoles already, and, at the weekend, three Large Red Damselflies – Pyrrhosoma nymphula two of them mating and laying eggs (Still joined together) on one of the pond plants.

Suzanne Simard and Robin Wall Kimmerer begin their stories – as it were – from opposite positions; Simard is representative of the settler traditions and Kimmerer of the First Nation/ Native American. Each writer seems to move through her life and scientific work, towards a more sympathetic understanding of the other. Merlin Sheldrake (and I’m simplifying horribly) struggles with the tension between anthropomorphism and detached observational science but concedes in the end that so long as we understand that we’re using metaphor to describe things for which we have no adequate words and that metaphors can’t be swapped for facts; then referring to the invisible networks and affinities that enable plants and trees to communicate in ways we don’t fully understand can fairly be described as like a brain. All three books are wonderful contributions to a changing mindset.

In my case I came away understanding much better not just the terrible and bitter effects that follow the destruction of a whole culture, but also the grievous loss of wisdom and experience embodied in it. To lose a language is to lose a way of thinking, and to learn one is to open the door to thoughts and understandings that can only be spoken in their native tongue. In the end, the culture, languages and philosophies of settlers and Native Americans alike were crushed and destroyed by extractive profit seeking and industrialized farming. In a much milder way we were schooled out of our local dialect and fed a completely bizarre diet of altered history to convince us that we were the most fortunate and blessed nation in the entire world. As a child, when there were no adults around we would speak in dialect using archaic terms like thee and thou and understanding perfectly without the aid of Eng Lit and William Shakespeare, that calling someone “you” was a distinctly cool form of address. The highest aim of our education was to make us middling; loyal and obedient to the status quo; so creativity and leaps of the imagination were ruthlessly stamped out. Here I am aged 74 and only now are the dreadful facts of slavery and colonialism being examined as part of our national story.

But we too have seen an ancient culture erased, enclosures and clearances driving people off their ancestral land and into cities. We’ve seen famine, poverty and disease accompanying the slums of growing cities populated by displaced people. My grandmother died of tuberculosis caused through poverty and overcrowding, and one of my great aunts died in the workhouse. You can’t say that we lacked knowledge of traditional medicines but they were useless against the diseases caused by overcrowding, poverty and poor sanitation. Thank goodness for modern medicines, but wouldn’t it be better if we could return to healthier ways of living? Slavery in the colonies was the bedrock, supplier of raw cotton, and paymaster to hundreds of thousands of jobs in the mills of Northern Britain – many of them involving children in arduous dangerous labour. Charles Dickens’ novel “Hard Times” paints a bleak picture of the consequences for the other end of the Atlantic slave trade.

We stretched the family reunion to five days with the bank holiday and it was joyful. Some of the grown-ups had breakfast together outside Widcombe Deli, on the pavement; we had a barbeque on the green; lots of walks outside and yesterday we got together with the grandchildren and their mum at Dyrham Park – our first visit there in 15 months. I could put up the family snaps, but they look just like everyone else’s family snaps. Viewed through loving eyes, of course, three children sitting on a tree branch is a Leonardo and, like Madame, they deserve their privacy so you’ll have to take my word for it – they are the cleverest, most beautiful and talented children ever to walk the earth!

So yesterday as I walked across the field at Dyrham Park with our grandchildren; the tongues and welts of my boots bright with yellow grass pollen I started showing the oldest how you could judge the fertility of the soil, and therefore the likelihood of finding some really good wildflowers, by looking at the vegetation. Too much nitrogen is the great enemy of plant diversity.

There was nothing much there except for rank grasses, ryegrass, cocksfoot and buttercups. Then I spotted a patch of darker green and I sent him over to take a look. Sure enough he shouted that he’d found a fungus and we went to take a closer look. It was a St George’s mushroom; named on account of normally fruiting around St George’s day – 23rd April; which goes to show how late the season is this year. So I cut it in half and showed him the white gills; gave it to him to smell – it’s an unmistakable smell often described as mealy which is pretty useless since you’d need to be over 100 years old, probably, to know what a sack of meal smells like. Then later I spotted another dark patch of grass and sent him off again to find some more. Finally we fetched up on a large ring that I know will produce parasol mushrooms in the autumn. As we left he brought me a leaf from one of the avenue of limes dotted with Eriophyes tillaes – gall mites. I was so delighted he’d got his eye in I said to his mum “I’m going to make an ecologist of him” (he’s only eight) and she said “good” – so I guess that’s permission to continue.

Later I was talking to our allotment neighbour – always known as Flash – about our day at Dyrham Park. His mum was born in Jamaica and he was born here in Bath and we discovered that we had both, as young teenagers, regularly climbed the walls of the park and trespassed on the estate. I wondered what we would have thought of one another if we had ever met sixty years ago, as trespassers in the shadow of the great house, built on the proceeds of slavery. Racism would always have been, and still is the elephant in the room. That today we can gossip as equals about growing beans and killing slugs is a kind of grace.