Henrietta Park this morning with patches of yesterday’s unmelted snow and young daffodils bursting through the ground. We’ve got a radio thermometer installed outside at the back of the flat and early this morning it was showing -4C some twenty feet above ground level. The sun shone brightly all day but even so it didn’t get much above 4C. I’ve said this before, but every season seems to bear signs of the next, and the daffodils – even just in leaf – were a cheering sight in the depth of winter. Given the temperature and the very light traffic outside, we decided to try our morning 9k walk along the river and canal and although there were one or two more crowded spots, by and large we walked alone. Tomorrow and for the next couple of weeks it looks like we’ll be back to south westerlies and showers – which isn’t going to be particularly good for erecting a polytunnel.
There’s really no room for doubt that we’re experiencing increasingly severe weather variations; certainly more storms are bringing ever larger falls of rain and we seem to have had a succession of wet winters followed by hot spells in the wrong (that’s to say early) part of summer with consequent effects on ripening crops. August was always a wetter month, but severe downpours and storms are a menace. The winter period since the new year began has seen a reversion to more typical cold weather but even so it’s felt odd – interspersed with storms that turn the river brown with topsoil. Of course we know, or at least we have every reason to know, that the cause of all this is global climate change; but there are very few signs that politicians are taking the threat seriously. My heart sinks when I read the latest and daftest ever techno-wheeze for sequestering carbon, and this week’s crop of suggestions should be nominated for the Darwin Award, not least because they promise that we’ll all be able to drive our 5 litre SUV’s around without feeling guilty.
I’ve been reading Vandana Shiva’s “Soil not Oil” and it breaks my heart to contemplate the missed targets since 2008. It’s like watching your mother drink herself to death; and the question that’s shouting at me is why? – why are we so powerless to effect political change the face of this addiction to endless growth and its consequent degradation of the environment and our quality of life? Why do politicians reward agro industrialists with the opportunity to write government policy through political gifts and lobbying, whilst describing peaceful environmental protesters as terrorists?
The tragedy is that we know what the danger is, and we also know what general shape the remedy will have to take, and we know that if no progress is made, very soon we will be facing an environmental catastrophe – no ifs, no buts and no more delays while they wait for a scaleable, saleable and monopolistic solution to turn up. What else is there to say?
There’s something almost medieval about this shot of families out bright and early, building snowmen with their children. Some of the games we play can hardly have changed for centuries. Dogs must have run in crazy excited circles in the snow for ever, and I daresay parents have always taken the opportunity to play at being children again. Some things do change. This afternoon we saw a couple out sweeping the green with a metal detector in search of a lost object; and then we saw a group of six socially distanced young people sharing a joint – you do have to wonder if they’ve quite grasped what’s going on here with the covid pandemic.
Knowing that we were due a big fall of snow kept me awake worrying about the nets on the allotment; but pacing at the bedroom window during the dog watch was a bit pointless because it didn’t start snowing until 6.15am; fell intensely for less than an hour and then promptly stopped again. During the “Beast from the East” we were too late to save the biggest net which had gathered a huge weight of snow. Today we were luckier and as soon as we could, we walked up and shook the snow off with no more harm than a bit of cold powder down our sleeves.
Yesterday as I was balanced on a very precarious step ladder, ramming in the last of six fence posts I was pondering the spiritual benefits of our engagement with nature. I know it’s supposed to confer a kind of super-chilled saintliness on us and I see rather a lot of breathless writing on the subject; mostly written by ex merchant bankers who’ve saved up their bonuses in the City and bought themselves a chunk of land from a bankrupt farmer. Almost without exception after a couple of years they no longer actually farm or market garden full-time for a living, but earn most of their income writing books and running courses. One old friend and mentor of mine, with a long lifetime’s experience of beekeeping was mightily hacked off when someone who had only done a six week novice beekeeping class set herself up as a trainer just down the road from him. He had taught hundreds of novice beekeepers, me included, without charging anyone a single penny. I had to give it up when I developed a scary intolerance for stings. Nature’s got teeth too!
I’ve been struggling to read one such book – “Miraculous Abundance” by Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer; but its self-satisfied tone is so immodest I can only read a couple of paragraphs at a time. I’m sure there’s some good stuff in there, but all I can see is the shining face of the self-appointed guru. I would love to say to them that permaculture isn’t a religion and it certainly doesn’t need any bishops. Even the BBC’s Winterwatch programmes seem to be going after the Templeton prize for folk religion with its very own mindfulness spot accompanied by winsome pictures of breaking waves and robins.
I think I’ve been perfectly explicit here at the Potwell Inn that there does seem to be a spiritual dimension wrapped up in our relationship with the natural world. The question is whether watching an osprey catching (always the same) salmon on telly amounts to a relationship or an entirely passive experience. Does watching a stream of massively talented natural history programming amount to a pilgrimage of some sort or is it more like eating magic mushrooms? – all over in a few hours and then back to normal.
Maybe this is my rather austere theology shining through, but it does seem important to me that any adequate spirituality is formed in a practice of some kind. You couldn’t learn Tai Chi from a book and you couldn’t form a deep relationship with nature without getting your hands dirty and your feet wet. So here’s my (completely inadequate) guide to a possible green spirituality.
god doesn’t have to be supernatural.
If there is god at all, they/it won’t be at all religious.
If they/it speak(s) to you (which hardly ever happens) it won’t be in a silly stage voice full of thee’s and thou’s it will be quietly through your experience.
There isn’t a person alive who can’t teach you something you need to know.
They don’t have to look like a Danish surfer!
Real wisdom is not the sole property of the western educated classes.
Any god worth considering would be utterly beyond our comprehension.
Therefore it’s best to keep quiet about it, otherwise you’ll sound silly when you forget the punchline.
A bowl of vegetables with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate. (Proverbs 15:17 -New Living Translation)
Well I couldn’t resist the hymn title in there it reminded me of my mother who would often press them into service – not that she’d get the pun because she never saw an LED during her lifetime. However, the council have finally fulfilled their commitment to remove our streetlights and replace them with LED’s. Ever since we moved here our first floor living room has been flooded with orange sodium light in the winter, which had the effect of obliterating the sky altogether. Last night we were able to watch the moon setting and – even more lovely – see Orion, the winter constellation for me – riding in the dark sky.
Overnight we had a hard frost, but we still needed to be up at the allotment early because there had been a small delivery of wood chip which is a much fought-over resource. Refurbishing and topping up the paths is a regular job and, as I was writing yesterday, having finished replacing the retaining boards on the bottom terracing I needed to re-make the path. We made light work of six or seven barrow loads although steering the wheelbarrows down the steep and muddy paths was a bit of a challenge.
Then whilst Madame carried on replanting the overwintered broad beans I dug out and removed a second path from the new site for the polytunnel; all of which heavy work made us oblivious to the cold. Yesterday’s transplanted beans looked surprisingly good considering they’d been dug up, replanted and then subjected to a severe frost. The 15 x 10 patch is now cleared and roughly levelled after great struggles with the long wooden pegs which were devils to extract from the ground due to the very high water table. The photos at the top of the post show the before and after scene.
The emergency trench we dug to divert the underground stream away from the apples was still flowing vigorously all day, with no signs of abating. In a perfect world we’d dig a deep cistern and line it for water storage but this is (we hope) a temporary problem caused by the very wet autumn and the past few exceptional storms. There are many other people in the UK in real trouble from flooding. We have friends in the Brecon Beacons who are often cut off when the River Usk floods their access to the nearest town.
By mid afternoon we ground to an aching halt and packed up. When we left home the forecast was for snow and rain tomorrow, but by teatime it was promising a sunny and dry day; an opportunity to move the fruit cage boundary to let more light and air into the row of apple cordons. Carol – a Potwell Inn regular – commented this morning that we’ve been making ourselves extremely busy in what’s usually a quiet month. I’m not sure we could put that down to any particular virtue on our part. I know we both love what we do, but most particularly this winter we’ve done a big re-design, what with making the pond and the new strawberry bed; renewing and moving beds and borders and of course making provision for the polytunnel. It was always in our minds to provide as much food for ourselves and our family as possible; especially since brexit which is bound to undermine food security in this country. But we’ve also embarked on a far more diverse planting scheme by including the small mammals, birds and insects in our notional family. I think we just see the allotment through our magic gardeners’ glasses where it’s always summer and the crops are always ripening.
Last year we made a fairly half-hearted “three sisters” bed which wasn’t a great success; so this year we’ll try growing borlotti beans up the sweetcorn and small winter squashes underneath. I think part of the challenge is that in traditional first nation plantings it was the seeds; the corn and the pumpkin seeds that were the quarry and so it didn’t matter that the cobs were drying off under the foliage of the climbing beans. It may be – like so many borrowings from traditional planting schemes – that we are doing something quite different here. But – we’ll give it another try because we rather like the dense, messy plantings. Because interplanting and companion planting are on the agenda, timing becomes critical because we need to have each sequence of plants ready at the correct time to alleviate crowding out. So yes we’re busy, but come – let’s say – mid February, around Valentine’s Day; the sowing and propagating start in earnest and if we don’t get the repairs, civil engineering and bed preparation done now we’ll miss the boat.
Why am I writing all this stuff? I sometimes wonder. In fact the blog is the child of a personal journal that I’ve kept in various forms for many years and it still performs some of the functions of its parent. While I was at work it had to remain private because the things I knew about and the people who shared them with me had to be protected. You could call it the rule of the confessional but people didn’t often confess as much as share private and personal stories. Nowadays I’m not confined in the same way and I just write a kind of open diary about the day to day challenges, thrills and spills of being human. I think I’ve come to understand that the key to staying sane in a world that’s pretty weird at times is to have one area – in our case the allotment – where we have real agency. Where we can dream dreams and even practice a different way of living in and with the earth. When I write about the things we do at the Potwell Inn it’s not because we claim any special insight or expertise but because – I like to think – in some small way it might encourage other people to give it a go. So I share the things that light me up, the books that excite and challenge me and the ways in which I think we can make a stand against the most dangerous aspects of our materialistic culture. I’m not setting myself up as a leader or visionary but just a rather old human being with a very rich hinterland and a headful of dreams.
We were assailed by second thoughts yesterday – I’m blaming Madame because there’s nothing graceful about our allotment negotiations – even if she was irritatingly right as usual. So having braved the rain to peg out the site for the new polytunnel on Monday, we braved it again yesterday in the teeth of the storm, so we could have a site meeting to examine plan B with a tape measure. In the end it came down to orientation and Madame referred me to a suggestion by God, (that’s Charles Dowding as far as the Potwell Inn is concerned) that north/south is preferable. And so it came to be.
Plan B is (naturally) better in every way than plan A apart from having to remove six more posts whose underground parts sucked furiously in the waterlogged clay at the bottom of their holes. Storm Christoph had bequeathed huge amounts of water to the ground and now it’s flooded. Silly to work on it really, but the polytunnel could arrive any day now and we dare not leave the bits lying anywhere within reach of a thief with a transit van. So soaked was the ground that as we looked out across the river early this morning we could see it in spate again, this time deep brown with silt that must have washed off the fields upstream. That’s topsoil erosion yet again.
The changed position also needs means three beds needed removing and so there was nothing for it but to start digging out the wood chip paths so I could remove the boards. To our great surprise the wood chip had rotted down to friable compost below the top two inches so I decided to replace it in the trenches and cover it with new compost. But whilst lying in the mud removing all the 2″ screws and pegs Madame called me over to look at a stream of water emerging from the edge of the fruit cage beneath the cordon apples. Not good news, because the roots will hate sitting in water, and so I dug a deep trench alongside the bed to allow the water to drain away as quickly as possible.
The 12 foot boards from the first path came away more easily than I’d dared hope and they were immediately repurposed as retaining boards holding the bottom terrace back. Meanwhile Madame was moving the overwintered broad beans. They’re almost dormant so they might survive being dug up and replanted – worth a try – but just in case we sowed another batch in root trainers to replace them if they all die. More of the same tomorrow as we dig out the second path and restore the whole patch ready for the polytunnel. It was pretty grey and the clouds threatened but never produced any rain; but the plot reminded me of a dreary market garden I once helped out at. All that was missing was the smell of the pigs!
That’s allotmenteering, though. Hardly glamorous but always rewarding. As Mark Twain said about writing – it’s 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration but it’s the one percent that gets us up there every day. In our heads the polytunnel is full of tomatoes, aubergines, chillies, basil and all the rest. The fact that it’s not yet even a pile of nuts and bolts is not the point. Spring will come.
However this is also a dangerous time of year because at last the days are lengthening and we get so absorbed in what we’re up to that we forget that stopping when it gets dark is a recipe for longer and longer working days. I’d left a loaf of sourdough proving at home and when we finally arrived back it had risen to make contact with its inverted bowl. Very very gently I persuaded it to separate and then I rested it for a while before baking it. All was well in the end; but it was worth working until dusk, if only for the glorious sunset reflected in the sodden track – and then a massive supper of Madame’s beany stew. I had two bowls because we’d forgotten all about lunch, and I was ravenously hungry. Oh and the seed potatoes arrived – have the cuckoos started flying here yet?
I actually spotted that concept in a book on permaculture that I’ve been reading recently – but when I looked up the source of the quotation it turn out it was first used by the philosopher Alfred Korzybski in 1931 when warning his readers of the danger of confusing concepts with reality. I think it was used a bit around a once fashionable management/self improvement tool some years ago known as NLP (neuro linguistic programming). It was pretty much a load of old pseudoscientific snake oil but we had one bishop who went in for it as a way to sharpen his communication skills. The trouble was it usually clattered into every conversation with all the subtlety of a steam traction engine so it didn’t really work with us professional sceptics.
However, as a useful counter to trusting in maps too much it can’t be faulted. The two photos at the top were taken today on the allotment as I worked there in the pouring rain trying to figure out with the aid of a long tape, a calculator and a load of steel pegs trying to figure out why I couldn’t fit the prospective polytunnel on to the allotment plan.
Much cursing later I discovered that my schematic map had tidied up the rough edges on the allotment so much it had become a bit fictional in places; not least because there is not a straight line or a right angle or a parallel path anywhere on the entire plot. I had been seduced by the ‘draw rectangle’ tool and the embedded grid at the expense of accuracy. There aren’t many days when Pythagorus’ theorem is the most useful tool in my life but this afternoon I offered up a small prayer of thanksgiving to Bill Willams who taught generations of us to be better mathematicians than we deserved to be. Wiping the rain off the mobile I discovered that I could calculate the square root of the sum of the squares of the other two sides and then set my right angles square and accurate. I was so pleased I even fixed little flags on my four corner poles.
That done, I realized that it’s going to be a close thing to get the polytunnel legs into their respective holes but – as I explained to Madame later, it’ll be such a snug fit you might imagine that I did it deliberately. I do love a bit of civil engineering and we’re so looking forward to using the tunnel to extend our season at both ends.
The hotbed is now up to 20C and so as soon as this storm is over – it’s blowing a hooly outside – we’ll start sowing. In a couple of weeks we’ll be setting up the second propagator – the first one’s full of basil plants at the moment – and we’ll begin again. The next season is always the best and there’s always an excuse for the last one and so we soldier on. Winter can be fun too.
What is it about the call of a fox looking for a mate that’s so primitive and scary? Although I’ve heard it hundreds of times, the breathy scream of a vixen is enough to send a shiver through me. This morning at three o’clock though, it was a dog fox calling – you might say keening – as he trotted along the deserted road, yelping at the back of the flats. Logically I say to myself ‘it’s a fox; go back to sleep’ but I never can because that cry always invites me into the world of the fox; a world of homelessness and constant watchfulness – a world whose rules I don’t understand. The cry makes me fearful, knocks out the wall between us so that I can almost feel the wind and rain on my skin and reminds me of the incoherent longings that followed me through my teenage years. The call of the fox reminds me that there are other ways of being in the world and being human is only one of the many stories out there. Tingling with fear as I did when I first heard it as a child, that sense of intruding into a parallel universe never leaves me and I lay awake listening as the sound grew louder and then diminished into the distance.
Curiously I woke feeling energised. A quick check on the weather forecast suggested that we could get a few hours in on the allotment before the next Atlantic storm started brewing. Having ordered the polytunnel and discovered it might arrive as soon as Thursday, we’ve got a great deal of preparation to do. Today’s project was to clear the polytunnel site of its existing nets and posts and move them to another space. My obsessive planning in past years meant that the 10×10 net, supported by 6′ poles driven into the bed found a planned space that fitted exactly so the biggest problem was digging the posts out.
Luckily another bit of forward planning means that the tunnel will go across three beds whose crops are all about to finish, so there will be very little disruption to food supplies. However I’ve never been very happy with the wooden planks supporting the lower terrace and so the biggest job today was to drive in a new set of retaining posts, each being sunk to about two feet into the earth. Doing it this way will give us strong fence and an extra few precious inches to work with when we drive the footings into the ground. So no indoor exercises for me today because the crowbar weighs about 10 lbs, the lump hammer is about 5lbs and the post driver weighs around twenty pounds. That’s a lot of hole making, hammering, checking with a line and spirit level, and then thumping each post down. It’s easier with six foot poles. The eight foot ones mean I have to balance on a wheelbarrow and lift the driver over my head to get it over the post. Luckily I’ve only fallen off once when I avoided any injury but the spirit level was bent into an unuseable curve. It’s on days like this that you realize that if you’re not going to rely on expensive machinery to do the job you’re going to have to find the exact same amount of energy through your own bare hands.
Meanwhile Madame was tying up broad beans and tending the asparagus bed but whilst doing that she opened a bag of composted horse manure that had become waterlogged and gone anaerobic. My word what a stink! So we mixed the noxious sludge with some leaves and tipped it on to the compost heap where it will have a chance to do some good.
The hotbed – which is made just from leaves and wood chip fired up with several gallons of human activator – has heated up to a steady 18C so we’ll plant lettuces there as soon as storm Christoph has packed its bags. Is it my imagination or have we had a lot more named storms this last year? In the past three days the whole appearance of the allotment has changed as we move supports and cages around for the coming season.
Since the industrial revolution the processes of growth have been speeded up to produce the food and raw materials needed by the population and the factory. Nothing effective has been done to replace the loss of fertility involved in this vast increase in crop and animal production. The consequences have been disastrous. Agriculture has become unbalanced: the land is in revolt: diseases of all kinds are on the increase: in many parts of the world Nature is removing the worn out soil by means of erosion.
Sir Albert Howard: “An Agricultural Testament”.
Great stress has been laid on a hitherto undiscovered factor in nutrition – the mycorrhizal association – the living fungal bridge between humus in the soil and the sap of plants
Op cit: both passages from the preface.
To be frank, the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962 seems an age ago, but “An Agricultural Testament” was published in January 1940 – eighty (yes eighty!) years ago and in the intervening years very little seems to changed. It’s a useful, if chastening, exercise to read these books. We so easily slip into the lazy thought that the world began at the same time as we each first became aware of it; and worse still, we can lazily assume that any science of real significance has happened within our own lifetimes.
This thought bubbled up from the bottom of the pond today as I was reading and Madame read out a couple of passages from a newspaper article on communal living. It’s all the rage once again, apparently, but I’m not expecting anyone to write and ask how it was for us when we lived in a couple of communes in the early seventies. Living in a commune seems to be a bit like having your first baby; the last thing you want is to know how your ghastly and out of touch parents managed to bring you up. The newly born baby is your tabula rasa whose unfortunate joy will be to have every one of your random habits inscribed indelibly in their minds. The fact that your random habits were almost never acquired in the study of ancient religions or the poetry of Wordsworth but in the kitchen of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam is the living proof that culture eats strategy for breakfast as the management consultants like to say. Living in communes, like bringing up children can be marvellous and it can also drain you of the will to live especially when you live in the midst of a clash of giant egos.
Anyway, that excursus off my chest, reading Sir Albert Howard today reminded me that the identification of the earth’s problems wasn’t something that happened recently, but back before I was born and it’s not just been ignored, it’s been made worse and worse as these eight decades have passed; or to put it more personally, my entire life has been spent fruitlessly protesting about it while nothing much changes.
Partly, I think, it came from a misplaced faith in the ability of science and technology to solve all our problems because, of course, the problem isn’t just scientific and technical, it’s a moral problem; our greed. But, as I hope my little vignette of family life shows, we rarely examine or question our basic attitudes – the ones we inherited when we were children. As a school governor for thirty years I saw many generations of children who were mildly radicalised by being taught about the environment. Yoghurt cartons were collected, tins saved and crushed for recycling and gardens grown and yet this early exposure to the problem of our environment rarely seemed to make it into action later on in life. Perhaps we needed to believe the story we were told that everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds without realising that the phrase itself was a parody – but the system seemed to work and unless you looked under the bonnet (risking your faith), it was easier to believe that there was no alternative, and anyway – why would my one little plane journey actually damage the earth? And so, to use another well worn phrase, “we are where we are” and all those lovely holidays and fillet steaks were being paid for by quietly selling off the family silver; and now the final demands are beginning to land on the mat.
I find the reading of books on the environment by previous generations of writers enlightening and challenging. For them the challenge to grow food rested in experience and human labour not giant machines and clever chemicals. Ninety percent and more of their wisdom and knowhow is still directly applicable even on our little plot which is, for us, a kind of laboratory for a sustainable future.
Today we worked for four or five hours clearing posts off the site of the polytunnel and preparing the new bed for five more trees. As I was digging out the posts I salvaged every useable piece of timber, every vine eye and tensioner and I even rolled the straining wires carefully because it’s really hard to get them at the moment. Just as my grandfather had done, I was storing and recycling anything at all, no matter how rusty or bent, because it might come in handy one day. The beds were weeded on hands and knees and we relocated dormant soft fruit bushes and perennial herbs. Back in the flat we’ve taken hardwood cuttings of favourite bushes. The main room is littered with piles of seed catalogues and gardening books. This isn’t hair shirt for the sake of it. The truth is that we live royally on the fruits of our labour; the things we can’t afford we do without and if we eat seasonally we can put something we grew ourselves on the table 52 weeks of the year. It’s not perfect but it’s completely absorbing as the shape and scope of the allotment evolves. At last the water storage is working properly and we can draw modest amounts of rainwater whenever we need it with enough pressure to run the auto watering drips in the greenhouse.
I’d love to be able to say that passive involvement in nature gives no benefits but the science proves otherwise. However, getting dirt under your fingernails in the fresh air; cooking and eating your own produce puts it up a couple of gears. A pound of borlotti beans in the shops is a commodity – they cost pennies. But baked beans made with your own beans and your own tomato sauce is a feast. I like to think that each time we harvest and cook we share the wisdom and experience of Sir Albert Howard, of Rachel Carson, Lawrence Hills and countless other pioneers who dared to challenge the hegemony of agribusiness. All we need now is for those thirty years plus of schoolchildren who saved yoghurt pots and crushed tins and fished for newts in the pond – most of them are now in positions of real weight and responsibility – we need them (you) to say enoughof this exploitative and dangerous culture– we want to explore being really deeply human again!
Sometimes it’s good to take a step back from the allotment and all its day to day detail and think about the bigger picture. I came across a Chinese proverb the other day that said “The best fertilizer is the farmer’s shadow” – the identical twin to its English equivalent “The best fertilizer is the farmer’s boot.” Boot or shadow, the takeaway point is that the farmer/gardener/allotmenteer’s physical presence and close attention to what’s going on is more effective as a stimulant to healthy and productive plants than many buckets (or tractor loads) of chemicals. Knowing your patch of earth; where the sunny spots are; where the frost gathers in winter; where the soil becomes waterlogged, and where dry; where the easterlies wreak most damage and where the south westerly storms will beat young plants flat.
On our allotment there’s a line where we can plot the point at which the sun rises above the trees for the first time at the spring equinox. We know the bed where beans flourish and the bed where they struggle. All of these important fragments of understanding fall under the seventh principle of permaculture – ‘design from patterns to details‘; and flow from the first – ‘observe and interact‘. All the best gardeners I’ve known have spent huge amounts of time leaning on a gate or a spade and watching; celebrating gardening as a form of meditation.
So are the twelve principles really about gardening at all? Well no, my belief is that they are a rule of life – similar to the rules that novices in religious orders embrace; like the words you sometimes find written above the entrance to the chapel in a Benedictine monastery – “To pray is to work“; and above the exit from the same chapel it will say “To work is to pray” – ‘labore est orare’. We are expected to pay the same devout attention to our everyday work as we would to a more rarified spiritual exercise.
There are other principles bound up in the twelve – such as earthcare, peoplecare and fair share. There is a whole political and economic vision expressed through simple principles in the sense that they could guide a community project or a whole planning department; but there’s no weird dressing up or hierarchy, no private languages and no insiders and outsiders; no saints and devils.
So here they are in all their non sectarian simplicity and I think they’re elegant and rather beautiful; an easily adaptable rule of life rather than a party manifesto but yet could be a way forward for farmers and fishing folk; scientists, economists and even, (oh please) the agrochemical industry and its shareholders.
You know when you’re feeling a bit down when Harold Macmillan’s well known quip comes back to haunt you; but in the minor key. When events start floating past like the ghosts of things that once seemed more important, it’s a bit of a sign that it’s all getting too much: all this endless and aimless governmental button pressing to try and factory reset the country back to an imaginary default state. I read an interesting piece by a behavioural psychologist a few days ago describing the state of mind that, having invested heavily in a solution that’s evidently not working, idles in a catatonic state, hoping that something will turn up.
Here are three signs that it’s not working. One … there was (yet another) provocative op-ed in the Farmers Weekly in which their star winder-up writes that he doesn’t understand the point of regenerative farming. I have written to him in the past about his headline grabbing tendencies (there’s a lot of it about) and point out that the crisis facing intensive farming is well understood, well researched and roaring down the line with no brakes. At what point does not understanding something so important, become a sign of sheer stupidity? I shan’t write of course because last time I did he simply rolled over with a shrug and said ‘maybe I did exaggerate a bit”. The danger is that some of his readers might use his idiotic opinions to shore up their faith in the collapsing citadel of scientific progress and Bishop Bayer.
Next, I might mention the UK government’s announced intention to revisit the debate on what they are now calling “gene editing” which is, they suggest, quite different from “genetic modification”. They used the same trick when they renamed the explosive and leaky nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield, and called it Windscale. Anyway, gene editing sounds pretty much the same to me. I read somewhere that what they mean is that they won’t be inserting genes from a different species but merely mucking about with the ones that are already there. Science fictionally that’s a shame because I’d enjoy the thought of venus flytraps crossed with alligator genes so that they could take a poacher’s leg off. Imagine the kudos of 100% organic fencing. At the point where a species of – let’s say – wheat, is reduced to a complex sequence of genetic code, I have to wonder whether we are so down the reductive path that any talk of species is a rather romantic – what’s wheaty in a single gene? and in reality, it seems to me that interspecies genetic editings and borrowings have caused more than a little trouble at the pandemic level. The inventor of the Kalashnikov rifle always denied that he had done anything more morally culpable than save the Russian government a heap of money on the cost of killing people. You can’t argue with economics …. can you?
“Item the third” (is that Sam Weller in Pickwick papers?) Our Government has just lifted the ban on a neonicotinoid spray in order to save losses in sugar beet crops. Let’s take that one step at a time. The neonicotinoid has been banned because of its capacity to kill pollinating insects. The crop it has been licenced for is sugar beet which is used to make refined white sugar which kills people. So the government had the option of encouraging sugar beet farmers (through subsidy if necessary) to grow crops that we actually need, and which don’t cause diabetes while simultaneously protecting the environment and saving insects. But then, bees don’t give money to politicians but big refined sugar companies and agrochemical manufacturers do.
I could go on forever like this – Scottish fishermen say their income has dropped by 80% since brexit. Poor children are offered the kind of subsidised food parcels that could bring back rickets while our excess death toll due to covid is now in excess of the numbers for the Second World War.
The soil and with it our souls shrink and die a little more every day; Rachel Carson’s silent spring presses hard on us and I’m locked in introspection as the sad captains of industry and their scientific infantry process, wraith like past me, reciting their little fragments of management wisdom all the way down to the pit. In Dante’s “Inferno” the outer circle of hell is reserved for those who didn’t give a shit:
And I , who felt my head surrounded by horrors.
Said: ‘Master, what then is it that I am hearing?
And what people are these, so crushed by pain?’
He answered: ‘That is the manner of existence
Endured by the sad souls of those who lived
Without occasion for infamy or praise.
They are mixed with that abject squadron of angels
Who did not think it worth their while to rebel
Or to be faithful to God, but were for themselves’
Dante The Divine Comedy – Trans. C H Sisson
Who says literature is a waste of time? That last verse has sustained me through many challenging times.
“Enough already”, I say. There comes a point when it’s best to imitate rebellious Chinese scholars and take up fishing for a while. The Potwell Inn allotment has been an illumination and a salve during what they like to call “these difficult times“, when what they actually mean is “your difficult times”. The new season approaches and we’ve finally made the decision to buy a polytunnel; in fact we’ve ordered it and paid for it and watched the video about erecting it. What could possibly go wrong?
We are well and in good health, we have enough food; somewhere to live and yet …. Has brexit and covid distracted us that we’re so focused on the immediate – on the “events, dear boy,” of day to day politics, that we’ve lost the big picture.
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield
In a Micawberish way, working outside at a temperature of 1C equals happiness but working at -1C means you have to wear so many clothes you can barely move. But yesterday remained just above freezing all day and we managed to get a few hours of work in, pruning the autumn raspberries; burning some of the leeks that were affected by allium leaf miner along with the raspberry and vine prunings, and generally tidying around the plot ready for spring. I was surprised to see that the raspberry canes were already showing tiny shoots – possibly a premature response to the mild weather that preceded this cold snap.
We’re still able to eat at least some of our own produce because we’ve got savoy cabbage, red cabbage, brussels sprouts, cavolo nero, all ready and a big crop of broccoli about to start producing; so plenty of greens. We’ve also got all the food we preserved by bottling and preserving as well as the frozen, plus some stored squashes. Obviously this is nowhere near any kind of self sufficiency but there’s a real kick in putting something from the allotment into most of our meals, and it’s not just flavour but also the fact that it hasn’t helped consume fuel on its way to our table. Human energy is renewable but diesel fuel isn’t.
Coincidentally, a (another) new book arrived yesterday. John Harrison’s newly published “Dig for Victory” features facsimiles of the whole collection of wartime (and post war) “dig for victory” pamphlets, accompanied by explanatory notes for younger readers who have no idea what £4 19s 6d is – it could be a secure password I suppose, but in the pamphlets it represents old pre-decimal money. Rods, poles, perches and chains and even acres also need explaining to the fully metricated readers. There are also explanations about why some of the chemicals mentioned are no longer legal. Sometimes that’s a good thing but occasionally they represented fairly innocuous substances that would have cost a good deal of money to licence and so the agrochemical industry – which had money to burn on lobbying – had them banned in favour of much more dangerous substances made by them. The pamphlets take the reader through the gardening year and much of the advice is just as applicable today as it was in 1945. For me they were very familiar. I was born in 1946 and so we lived under food rationing until 1954 when I was eight years old, and gardening was a necessity as much as it was a hobby. These pamphlets were a constant feature of my childhood; tucked inside my grandfather’s gardening books and behind the clock on the mantelpiece. Looking back they seem hilarious at times – there’s a cartoon showing the difference between the fast moving centipede labeled friend and the slow moving garden enemy, the millipede. Guess which one’s flying the swastika! My dad kept a couple of pounds of Growmore NPK fertiliser inside an empty National Dried Milk tin in the shed, and we knew from the beginning that the ribbed bottle of brown stuff contained a deadly poison called nicotine . Vegetable growing was something everyone did and as we flicked through the pages yesterday I realized that our lives span the whole of the era of agrochemicals and intensive industrial farming from before it gained its stranglehold. We are among the few who remember what life was like before plastic and fast food and, equally important, what cuckoos and turtle doves – even house sparrows – sound like. There are generations younger than us who have no such memories and it’s going to be hard to convince them that we were probably better fed and much healthier back then. There’s both sadness and virtue in being able to remember when biodiversity was more of a fact and less of an aspiration. “Dig for Victory” is a good read and a useful introduction to gardening in the age of (relative) ecological innocence but I’d add that ferociously poisonous substances like arsenic were frequently used in Victorian gardens. Eden was a very very long time ago. My grandfather was tormented in his old age by dreams of the cruelty inflicted on animals in the late nineteenth century when he helped slaughter animals in his village in the Chilterns.
Anyway, enough of that. Yesterday’s supper was squash soup. In the supermarkets you’ll usually find butternut squashes because they keep well and the skins are so tough they’re almost indestructible. But if you can get hold of an organic Crown Prince or Uchiki Kuri or better still grow them yourself, they store for months and the flavour is in a different league. On Tuesday we went to bed and I woke at nearly midnight, remembering that I’d forgotten to make the sourdough batter. So up I got and mixed it up ready for the morning. Then at five thirty a.m I remembered that I needed to compete with all the other furloughed folks to book a food delivery and so I got up once more and logged on only to find that there were plenty of available slots. Ah well, most of the time we get a decent night’s sleep.
So winter squash (crown prince) soup with warm wholemeal bread, along with some tomato stuffed peppers flavoured with our own indoor grown basil. As we were eating we agreed that it would be hard to match the intensity of flavours with most non vegetarian meals. The loaf was on the table and as we finished our supper I looked at it and cracked a conundrum that’s been puzzling me. In France (and elsewhere for all I know) loaves are marked with a pattern of slashings that relate to particular households. It’s an entirely practical system because when villages had communal bakeries, it was easy to tell your bread apart from from all the others. I normally slash mine with a form of curved cross, for no particularly religious reason but I like the shape. However, 100% wholemeal sourdough is a good deal more sedate than its refined flour cousins, and doesn’t really need slashing at all. So there we were, listening to the news, and as I looked at the pattern left by the banneton on the top of the loaf, I realized it strongly resembled a woodcut of Ubu Roi made by his rather scandalous creator, Dadaist Alfred Jarry.
The dreadful news of the invasion of the Capitol in Washington was just beginning to filter through on the radio and that may have been the catalyst in awakening my imagination. Here’s what Jane Taylor wrote about Ubu the antihero of Jarry’s farce –
“the central character is notorious for his infantile engagement with his world. Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification. Jarry’s metaphor for the modern man, he is an antihero – fat, ugly, vulgar, gluttonous, grandiose, dishonest, stupid, jejune, voracious, greedy, cruel, cowardly and evil
Jane Taylor – quoted in Wikipedia
When we were art students I was really interested in the Dadaists in general and Jarry in particular. I wanted to write my dissertation on Jarry, but Clifford Ellis the Principal told me I couldn’t because he already knew everything there was to know about Jarry and there was absolutely nothing I could write that would be of the least significance or interest. “Fair do’s” I thought; so I chose to write about Eugene Boudin on the grounds that I’d never seen a single painting by him and anyone whose name was so close to “black pudding” was bound to be a secret dadaist. Vexingly I got a distinction for my faked up dissertation and even more vexingly I really liked Boudin’s paintings when I finally found some in the Tate.
Anyway, in one of those coincidences beloved of Jungians everywhere, I managed, completely intuitively, to find the only possible connection between Donald Trump, Père Ubu and a loaf of wholemeal sourdough. Brilliant! – although it’s not likely to come up in a pub quiz anytime soon. But I’ll think about getting a different banneton.