I was very tempted – ‘though not for long to get a bit above myself, for reasons I’ll explain later. We spent most of the day, as ever, on the allotment except for a brief trip to a garden centre to buy a couple of new watering cans. After the driest and sunniest spring on record we’ve become experts on watering cans, not least because a dud one can lengthen your arms and drive you crazy while it dribbles its contents anywhere but where you want them to go. Watering cans can make watering purgatorial, but ironically we’ve discovered that the cheap as chips plastic ones often work better than the hand crafted artisanal brass and galvanised steel jobs. In our hard water area the expensive ones also suffer from limescale. Anyway, we snaffled up the very last two cans which – from the look of things – had been flying off the shelves along with everything else. There were very few plants, no pots, no vermiculite and no organic slug pellets. The only thing that worked seamlessly was the queueing system and the safety precautions inside. All praise to them – there was abundant hand sanitizer, the trolleys were all wiped down and the one way system kept us apart from the other (small number) customers. Even the payment was made to a protected booth – good for them we thought.
The two photos at the top are of our old and very broken wheelbarrow repurposed as a home for a couple of summer squashes, and the other shows the ever changing interior of the greenhouse, now housing chillies and aubergines.
But the reason I had to check myself was because while I was clearing out the third patch of broad beans and planting out calabrese for later in the year while Madame was moving the winter brassicas into new temporary quarters I was siezed by the disparity between two images of gardening and – sorry about this – two Greek philosophers popped into my mind. In the blue corner – the Plato Garden, beautiful and still, full of the essence of garden but essentially timeless – possibly with a timeless honeybee buzzing around in a philosophical sort of way. And in the red corner the Heraclitus Garden whirling in orbits and sub orbits like an astrolabe on speed.
I think I go for the red corner. The Heraclitian garden that’s constantly in motion; never stationary but always passing through trailing the past in its wake and the future just around the (circular) corner. There’s never a moment on the allotment when we can honestly say – “That’s it” because it’s always becoming “it” or leaving “it” behind. In fact to drift across the track like an out of control F1 pumpkin, in the perfect postmodern garden there would be no “it” at all. That’s something they always get wrong at Chelsea where some clever clogs thinks that shoving a factory chimney in the middle of a Gertrude Jekyll border makes it Postmodern.
So that’s the end of today’s philosophy lecture and straight on to my holiday snap – taken on the canal yesterday. There in the first pound after Bath Deep Lock was this heron sitting on a very rough and ready perch. There’s a large heronry about a mile away above a Honda garage, but perhaps this is his summer fishing spot.
Madame and me are like Jack Sprat and his wife – I love the sunshine and hot weather and Madame isn’t so keen. So these last few weeks of almost Provencal weather have been a combination of bliss and lethargy for us. It’s OK for the most part, we know perfectly well we need to be aware of each others’ preferences and not beat ourselves up too much because we want to do different things. Naturally it doesn’t always happen that way and a bit of subterranean growling goes on.
Of course the other elephant in the lounge bar is the lockdown. The flat is sufficiently small to be able to vacuum the whole place without moving the electric plug, and the allotment is just 250 square metres.We’re fortunate to have the most lovely surroundings and the view from the flat makes it feel bigger than it really is but ……. the fact is, the continuing pandemic almost forces us to live introspectively and that can make for heavy going. This summer is turning out to be less than hazy, lazy and crazy – or maybe it’s all of those things but in a bad way.
It’s a non stop job. Constant watering of the parched ground keeps the allotment green, and the plants seem to be thriving, but it does seem to be a bit daft watering with chlorinated and purified tap water when there’s a river just across the road. It’s clear that the allotment can consume an awful lot of water. We’ve got 1250 litres of storage capacity which we’ll increase to 1750 this year – that’s 175 watering cans full which, if we were parsimonious with it, might stretch to six or eight weeks of drought. Right now we’ve got around 350 litres left and there’s no prospect of substantial rain anywhere in sight and so we, like all the other allotmenteers, are competing for water from the cattle troughs. It’s all dealt with politely, but not far under the surface the resentment is bubbling away. On the hottest days, allotmenteers are trawling the length and breadth of the site looking for a trough with some water in it, and the refilling rate is grindingly slow.
So I mostly get by by channelling my inner peasant and it’s been lovely. Whether a sunburned but overweight allotmenteer is a better adornment to the site than winter pale one is none of my business, and in any case if fellow allotmenteers are inclined to take exception to my shorts they’re far enough away not to worry me.
Watering and weeding have taken over now that the propagation and constant re-potting have slowed down. Where on earth the idea comes from that you can create a model allotment in an hour a week baffles me. The ‘babies’ are all born and the health visitor isn’t needed any more, but as all new gardeners discover, the daily grind of putting the plants out and back at night, anxiously watching the temperature and fussing about pests and diseases – takes its toll. I’ve always found hand weeding extremely therapeutic – kneeling down at plant level teaches you a lot about weeds and their leaves. We sort all the villains into compost or exile departments. I know all that stuff about a weed being a plant in the wrong place but bindweed and couch grass are in a class of their own.
Our site has its particular pests – one of which is ironically quite scarce in our area and illustrates the ‘plant in the wrong place’ conundrum perfectly. Ramping common fumitory self-seeds ferociously and yet it’s a rather pretty and uncommon plant. But experience shows that our constant weeding seems to have no effect on its numbers. The exiles go to a large unkempt heap during the summer and thence to the incinerator in the winter. Any annuals that have set seed go there too, and the rest of the weeds which hopefully are not much more than leaf, go into the compost heap. However it illustrates the necessity of constant weeding because as the old saying goes, ‘one year’s weed is ten years seed’
Outside, and beyond the boundaries of our self-isolation, there’s an air of rather desperate celebration as the lockdown is prematurely eased against all scientific advice. On the green there were half a dozen large parties going on last night and if, as the latest research suggests, half of covid infections are asymptomatic – especially in younger people – then there were perhaps ten infected people out there partying last night. For those of us who are most vulnerable to this infection, the world begins to feel faintly menacing. I’m sure this constant vigilance eats away at our self-confidence and the whole fabric of our communities. What with politicians, rank weeds and viruses all threatening the Queen’s Peace the world seems to be self-medicating with alcohol and heaven knows what other substances. I’m thinking Berlin in the 1930’s!
I was cataloguing some photos last night and I came across a couple that I took when we took on the second half plot just two and a half years ago, when it was a field. I remember so well the day the shed arrived by lorry, and it was lovely to compare the photo at the top of this post, with the ones below. The best we can claim for ourselves is that we’ve gathered some of the energy that flows from the earth like a spring, and organised it as best we could, into a source of food, solace and joy.
I had intended to write a post about the – shortly to be ended – peace and quiet of the city while the tourists have gone. I hardly need add to the thousands of words that have been written about nature and its beneficial effects and it’s mostly true, save for the reservations I mentioned a few days ago. We’ve had wonderfully quiet walks along the river and up the canal – undisturbed by hen parties on narrow boats or young men dressed as pirates.
There was a tremendously amusing moment a couple of days ago as we were sitting on the canalside enjoying the sunshine when we heard a very loud voice performing one half of a conversation, the other being in her earpiece. Why people find it necessary to hold the phone three feet from their face and shout at it is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it’s so they can watch the other participant on the video screen- who knows? But anyway this young woman, dressed entirely in black slowed down when she saw us and taking a wide path around us hissed into the phone “I’m just passing two elderly people!”
and the inverted reflection of the trees, houses and the sky blessed the whole view with perfect symmetry. You felt you were looking beyond the surface of the water into an infinite depth. Cleveland House never looked more Georgian or more stately as it straddled the canal above a tunnel which was dug purely to protect the wealthy patrons of Sydney Gardens from having to see the bargees. It was built as a toll house above the canal and the tolls were collected by means of a basket lowered through the floor of the house.
Alongside Cleveland House I spotted a patch of pellitory of the wall – Parietaria judaica growing as you might expect, on a wall. It’s not the kind of plant that you’d likely notice, with its inconspicuous flowers but it once had some fame as a useful medicinal herb for urinary problems. Culpeper really rated it and I dried a bunch last year but haven’t had occasion to try it out!
Crossing the canal by way of an iron bridge, we found a group of love token padlocks each one, no doubt, carrying a story that only the lovers will know. Sydney Gardens was full of sunbathers – it was lovely.
Bath felt really strange when the lockdown began but we’ve so enjoyed being able to cross the centre of town with all the shops closed and streets virtually empty. Sixty years ago, in Bristol, the shops in Whiteladies Road and the rest of Clifton all closed on Saturday afternoons and that was when Clifton village (where the Brunel suspension bridge is), was at its Georgian best. That’s what it was like here for a few weeks, but if the non-stop carnival on the green outside is anything to go by, most of our neighbours think it’s all over. I think to myself, it’s not over until people stop dying, but the shopkeepers and hoteliers are getting quite wet-lipped at the prospect of “putting it behind us”.
But back in the Potwell Inn, the work on the allotment has been relentless. This weather – very hot and dry for a couple of weeks now – means watering every day. The tender plants are fairly rattling out of the greenhouse, and the first wave of broad beans has almost all been harvested. The overwintering Aquadulce Claudia have given us about 30 lbs of beans in their pods, which translates into around five pounds of shelled beans.,and they freeze really well. Elsewhere the frost damaged runner beans and borlotti beans have all been replaced (we always grow spares) and are beginning to climb their poles at about six inches a day. The earliest asparagus is now being allowed to develop its leaves and we’re harvesting the middle and late varieties. Once again, the 12′ by 4′ bed provides all that we need. The first flowers are setting on the outdoor tomatoes and we’ve abundant pollinators arriving constantly on the allotment, attracted by all the nectar rich flowers we’ve scattered everywhere.
These warm nights have made sure I was awake with the lark, and first thing in the morning the green is usually quiet aside from our regular martial arts couple, training and perhaps a dog walker or two. For the rest of the day it’s becoming busier. It’s used a lot for drug dealing because there are so many escape routes inaccessible to cars and some properly dodgy looking characters pass through every day. We also have (hardly a coincidence) a very large number of homeless people with multiple mental health and addiction issues who sit in noisy groups on the green. Many people find them intimidating, but moving them on isn’t helping to solve their problems and they leave us alone.
Yesterday we noticed two police cars parked up on the main road and right opposite where we live we saw a young woman hiding behind a tree clearly watching for someone. She didn’t look at all like the usual drug customer but we thought no more of it until this morning when all hell was let loose and ten police, three police cars and two ambulances converged on the green, pursued a young man into the woods, and brought him back out again protesting loudly. I’ve no idea what they were detaining him for, but they should, perhaps, have thought about bringing along a sniffer dog because this afternoon the same young man walked boldly into the woods at exactly the point he’d gone in earlier – presumably to retrieve his stash and jump over the fence, never to be seen until next time. I tell you there’s never a dull moment at the Potwell Inn – very edgy, you might say.
I love that phrase – during these difficult times – there’s barely a shopfront in the whole of Bath that hasn’t got those words somewhere on a notice on the door. Yes we get it – billions of pounds worth of investment, unquantifiably valuable lives, dreams and careers have been gambled and lost. Difficult times barely covers it.
However, the dreadful ghost of the spirit of the blitz has been invoked by our glorious leaders and many of us are just getting on with it as best we can; which is what apparently happened during the blitz – which also boasted profiteers, a flourishing black market, food shortages, incompetent administration and people who couldn’t be stuffed to pull their blackout curtains because they were too important. So – we’re just getting on with it; grumbling about the government and the weather (too hot, too cold, too wet) – after all we’re British- and growing lots of things in the allotment which if, (as I’m inclined to believe it does), is thoroughly enjoying the extra attention.
Growing more from small plots
So what would be the correct way to describe the complete opposite of scorched earth? One of the key ways of increasing productivity on the allotment is never to leave a patch of ground empty. Harvest the crop, prep the ground again with some compost or organic fertilizer like fish blood and bone or chicken manure pellets, rake it over and firm it if necessary and replant straight away. For instance, today we harvested just a few potato haulms and replaced them immediately with the last of the runner bean plants – we’re trialling three varieties of both broad and runner beans this year. Of course it makes rotations devilishly challenging, but keeping the ground occupied increases overall productivity and suppresses weeds, and as long as the soil and the plants are healthy, which – in organic systems they usually are – you don’t get the same pest and disease problems as you do in conventional intensive and chemically driven monoculture. Just to give one example, broad spectrum insecticides kill as many friends as they do foes and so repeat infestations tend to do far more damage because the predators have been suppressed.
Anyway, we’ve so much time on our hands at the moment we can remove individual blackfly manually and give each one a state sendoff.
Some long needed repairs.
A friend of ours, a very talented mathematician, got a job at the University trying to repair a huge software system that had been added to and adapted by so many people it had become unusable. I did ask him what it did once – it was something to do with astrophysics – and he lost me after the first sentence, but it sounded useful – to astrophysicists that is. It was such a complex unravelling that he ended his tenure there with a PhD and left the software in rude health once again.
Blogs can get like that too. What seems like a good idea on a slow rainy day can develop very quickly into an unmanageable beast. I make no claim to being a big-time blogger, but I’m touched by the fact that even a handful of people find the blog interesting and I really enjoy writing it. It started life five years ago as a (very) personal journal, and then when I’d been retired for a couple of years I thought it would be good to water down the pain and suffering a bit and go public so I could stay in touch with old friends.
So I was more than surprised to discover that only a handful of people I knew, actually followed and most were from other countries altogether. I would set myself milestones and slowly they were passed and so I kept going. But the original structure of the blog was based on what I imagined I would be writing about and almost all my predictions were wrong. I also randomly added photos to the blog and by now I have 2000 completely uncatalogued photographs and 350,000 very poorly indexed or tagged words. I’ve slowly become aware that not everyone reads the blog sequentially, and some potential readers are almost certainly put off by the sheer difficulty of finding what they want. The blog is no longer a diary, although for me it’s still that, but it’s also a library.
All of which means that the opportunity that the new block editing software (which wasn’t that hard to learn), has given me is to spend some time redesigning some aspects of the site to make them more user friendly, but not being a computer wizard makes it slow; so apart from a few minor design improvements which are part of the block editor, I’m going to rewrite the categories and introduce sub categories based on information from the tag cloud (how many people read each tagged post) and have a big think about how best to grow the site. I shan’t ever be selling T shirts or bespoke advice, but it takes the same amount of time to do the job badly as it does to do it well. Actually
if you’ve ever slowed your laptop to a crawl while you search through 2000 images to find the one on the beach at Aberdaron, it takes infinitely longer to do the job badly.
So you may have noticed some small design changes already and I hope the extra signposting helps a bit. The other changes are under the bonnet for the most part, but they may make life a bit difficult if things go wrong or links are broken – so please forgive me – I apologise in advance. Just to finish, a couple of photos, one of the lockgate on Bath Deep lock which is looking like a bookshelf of wildflowers at the moment. The other is of a front door in Great Pulteney Street which, by virtue of some pretty vigorous machine sanding has become an abstract painting – far nicer than its glossy predecessor.
We were sitting in bed this morning and Madame was reading out recipes to me from the newspaper. Every ingredient, it seemed, had one or two adjectives attached to it – I’m growing used to it but I do tend to froth at the mouth at the word – “succulent” which always grates terribly – I’ll be the judge of that, I think. Many recipes have got twice or three times as many adjectives as they do actual ingredients, rather like those desperately silly restaurant menus that offer ‘trios’ of sausages or cheese – which always make me wonder whether they can play any Bach. But then she read out a recipe that included some “Isle of Wight tomatoes” and I thought to myself – if they were picked on Friday and get to the supermarket some time mid-week you’d do better to wait a week or two and gather some you’d grown yourself. That way they’d taste far better than the most expensive tomato that had just been on a long journey and badly needed a shower and a rest.
Sincerity is the key – said Sam Goldwyn – once you’ve learned to fake it you’re made
Which is going to taste better – an apple that looks like the real deal but which has been sprayed fifteen times and stored in an artificially cooled and nitrogen enriched atmosphere for weeks or even months, and then driven, flown or shipped for hundreds of miles? or – a rather knobbly one with bad skin, that you’ve just picked off the tree and in which the hydrostatic pressure is so great it squirts delicious sweet juice at you if you indent it with your thumbnail? I hope the answer to that question was the local option.
Food, (I’m not talking about manufactured food here) is, by its very nature, seasonal, and seasonal vegetables always taste best when they’re straight off the vine or out of the ground. The instinctive response to this is to claim that you would need to be wealthy to enjoy food in its prime all the time. This is only true up to a point. Asparagus from Peru, for instance, may taste reasonably good but if you could see the cloud of pollution that accompanies it it might not be quite so palatable.
But there is a way to eat the finest food every day without being wealthy – but there are a couple of restrictions we have to embrace first of all. The first of these is that seasons are brief, and the second is that growing your own food is hard work. However allotments are wonderful value for money – our 250 square metres costs about £2.50 a week and is thought to be large enough to feed a family of four throughout the year – it’s a standard plot. Brief seasons mean that we can only eat asparagus for about a month, but my word – it’s the best asparagus you’ve ever tasted.
So there are the exotic vegetables like peppers, chillies and aubergines which we’ve grown successfully but they need a lot of TLC and sunshine. But today’s star is the early potato – we grew two varieties this year, Lady Christl and Red Duke of York. Shop bought new potatoes are very expensive and often disappointing – even the ever reliable Jersey Royals have diminished in flavour over the past couple of years since they started to worry about the salt build up from composted seaweed. I have a childhood memory of the first earlies in the year – my dad and my grandfather were totally loyal to Arran Pilots – and their flavour is imprinted in my memory. All vegetables that are sweet when fresh deteriorate rapidly when picked, because the natural sugars that we prize so much turn to starch – same number of calories but not the same flavour at all.
Every time we start eating the new season potatoes I want to eat them completely simply – maybe a bit of butter but they’re ruined by strongly flavoured sauces. We dig them while they’re small and steam them for 15 minutes or even less. In fact many home grown veg are at their best when you pass them by the stove but barely warm them through. Broad beans are in season and they’re almost better raw than cooked and carrots need the tiniest steaming. These are intense but fleeting pleasures. If you’re rich I suppose you can always buy the freshest ingredients but I’ll guarantee that you won’t eat fresher vegetables than the ones you grow yourself. Not in a four Michelin starred restaurant and not even if you’re a Duke or a media mogul.
And some treats are almost free. We started our third batch of elderflower cordial today – and this time we raided a pink flowered variety for fifty of its saucer shaped flowers. Their perfume was overwhelming and they’re on the stove now infusing with lemon, lime and orange zest. Money can’t buy that intensity of flavour – it’s like drinking summer from a glass and the pink flowers yield a very pretty cordial. Here are the flowers waiting to be steeped overnight.
Today we picked the very first of our new potatoes and harvested broad beans for freezing as well as spinach. We found the first flowers on the outdoor tomatoes and the runner beans are merrily climbing up their supports. It’s hard to describe how much pleasure that gave us.
But our pleasure was tempered by the fact that first the broad beans and then the potatoes had been found by rodents – almost certainly rats – before we could harvest them. The same creature – judging by the tooth marks – had found some potatoes as well; something for which I’m grateful because it encouraged me to dig a haulm and take a look and there they were, just big enough for an early treat.
Pests have an uncanny knack of arriving at your crops one nanosecond before you do. Badgers seem to roam the allotments at night waiting until the cobs on each plot reach perfection and then take them. You can even tell what predator has done the deed. Badgers crash around and drag them down – along with any protective wire and sticks, making a terrible mess but eating all of the cobs. Deer use their height to reach over the wires and take them daintily, but rats climb the plants, damaging them as they go and swing on them (I imagine) until they rip off. Messy eaters – rats! Pigeons, squirrels and passers by all like to have a go and the prospect of harvesting 100% of the crop is vanishingly small. It’s said that badgers don’t like loose nets because they get their claws caught up in them, but the best method we’ve found it to keep the whole sweetcorn patch inside a fruit net and nail it down with as many long pegs as we can lay your hands on.
But I always think of the first potatoes as a sign of the plenty to come; the true end of the hungry gap. We’ve been harvesting individual vegetables for weeks but when there are potatoes it seems that we’ve got all we need for a good meal. Much as I love purple sprouting broccoli and asparagus I wouldn’t want to live on either of them. Variety and texture are as important in the kitchen as they are in any other creative discipline from architecture to painting.
However, plenty brings a whole new bunch of challenges and we’ve already started phase two of the kitchen year by making 12 months worth of elderflower cordial. All the books say it only keeps for a couple of months and it’s true the powerful fragrance is a fugitive pleasure, but it does keep. The very last bottle of last year’s bottling now tastes almost like honey syrup and so we’ve been using it to sweeten rhubarb. It seems a crime to pour it down the drain. Two deliveries of glass bottles and preserving jars are sitting in the corner here in my room, waiting for the first bunch of berries from the fruit cage to be turned into jams and preserves, and with the first cabbages big enough to harvest I’m going to have another go at sauerkraut after last year’s failures. Even the fermented gherkins survived the winter and as long as you’re not squeamish and don’t mind sorting through the dross to find the survivors, they still taste pretty good. Of course, pickles and chutneys seem to go on and on and even improve with age. The smoked aubergine chutney I made last summer tasted pretty raw for months, but nine months later it’s heavenly.
So we spent the whole afternoon scalding, chopping and freezing and it felt good. But what to do about the rats? I wonder. They’re ubiquitous and although I have no scruples about trapping them if they become too much of a nuisance – they do after all carry some pretty unpleasant diseases – I’m not going to get too fussed, after all they never eat more than a very small proportion of our produce.
I mentioned in a previous post the idea of putting a false roof on top of the two compost bins currently finishing loads of compost and leaf mould. They won’t be opened until autumn and so I thought we might get a crop off the space. So here’s a photo of the new arrangement. Hopefully the squashes will trail over the sides and down. They often get a bit out of control and spread all over the place, but we seem to manage stepping over them and finding ways around them and so we tolerate them because they taste good. They’re a bit like teenage boys (we had three of them so I know what I’m talking about) – they occupy vastly more space than you’d ever think, but when they’re gone you miss them.
Once again today, in the newspaper, an article spelling out how uplifting and mentally stabilising is a dose of nature. I’ve seen dozens of these pieces recently and I recall reading somewhere that John Seymour has expressed some regret that his book “Nature Cure” had been rather misunderstood as a self-help guide for the depressed – it isn’t at all, but that didn’t stop someone writing and expressing their disappointment that there were only a couple of pages in the whole book devoted to the subject. I’ve read loads of excellent books describing an author’s recovery or self-discovery through engagement with the natural world, but that engagement has always been much greater than a walk in the woods. My first thought was to make a list of all the books that I think fall into the category but it would have been huge, and the first one that came to mind – Helen Macdonald’s “H is for Hawk” – which I loved – has disappeared into the chaos of my bookshelves.
I’d be the last person to criticise outdoor exercise and I’m sure that a bit of fresh air and sunshine can lift the spirits in a way that almost nothing else can, but the natural world isn’t a one-a-day prophylactic for all the derangements of life in the lockdown when it’s passively consumed – especially by way of television programmes! What most people discover is that it’s deep engagement that triggers the endorphins and gets all of those crazy biochemical events going.
Four years ago I made a hubristic resolution not to walk past a plant I couldn’t identify without at least trying to give it a name. It was a bonkers idea and Madame nearly killed me from frustration that our brisk walks turned into 100 yard crawls as I dragged along a bagful of books and a hand lens – but pretty soon I could get quite a few yards without having to stop and walking became a deeper pleasure than it had ever been before. My suggestion is not to go for a walk without choosing a common plant as a target (make sure it actually grows in your area) and going to look for it. Dandelion – tick; hawkbit – tick; cat’s ear – umm – tick? I think natural history works because it takes you out of yourself which, strangely, is what the word ecstasy is derived from. It’s hard to be worrying about getting old and fat when you’re face to face with a water vole in a ditch (mind you I was pretty drunk that time!)
As for allotmenteering and gardening being good for your mental health, try telling our neighbour who had one of the pots stolen from outside his front door last night. My second contribution to the prophylactic qualities of gardening is that it teaches you resilience.
Overnight the rats, or maybe mice, raided our broad beans and ate maybe fifteen pods, scattering the remains all over the path. Merciless traps have been set but they seem to recognise them and use them as a kind of table. The slugs too have visited the strawberries – so no, allotments do give joy but it’s always well seasoned with disappointment.
Is there a third prophylactic quality? Well I think it links to my theme of the week, as it were because growing things is always a dialogue in a language you haven’t quite learned. We can dispense with Dorothy Frances Gurney’s awful doggerel about being ‘closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth‘ – and say that the best we can ever hope for in gardening is a successful relationship with nature. And finally, I really enjoy the mindless repetitions of gardening. Hand weeding, pricking out and planting out, tying in, taking out side shoots. It’s hard to brood when you’re fully occupied, even in a very simple task.
But I suspect that some of my friends are quietly concerned that I’ve been brooding – perhaps it’s something I wrote – because I’ve received two books by post in the last 24 hours. So thank you Rose for sending me Patrick Barkham’s book “Islander” and thank you Mags for F G Brabant’s 1920 pocket guide to Snowdonia – both now perched at the top of the bedside stack, although I couldn’t resist a look at Barkham’s chapter on Bardsey and Brabant’s photos of places we’ve been to often. I’m really not depressed or anything like it; I was born with a restless, questioning temperament and a complete inability to relax – ask Madame!
And there’s always something new to try – like, for example – the new WordPress block editor which is miles better than the old one, with many more features but is a bit of a step up. Things aren’t where they were and adding photos to the media directory is much harder than it was. Well actually, it was pretty much automatic before but now it demands planning. This was all prompted by a solemn warning that there would be a switchover in ten days time. This has happened to me before and bitter experience teaches that getting your head around the new software is best tackled in advance. But I like it very much and this posting is the first I’ve written and edited in the new software. I’m a writer and anything that gets in the way of the process of writing is a terrible nuisance so I’m feeling quite pleased with myself.
Outside it’s blissfully sunny with high gusting winds bending the trees so that, if you closed your eyes, you could hear a sound like the sea in Cornwall or on a beach on Lleyn. Yesterday we staked and tied in all the tomato plants and the sunflowers in anticipation of the wind today. We’ve had a couple of sharp showers too, enough just to wet the ground and prove that the revised guttering on the shed roof is finally sending the rainwater where it’s meant to go.
And finally, another piece of archaeology from the plot. We often dig up clay pipes. There was a factory in the centre of town and another across the river in Widcombe where we think – from the incomplete stamp – this one was made. There are apparently signs that the site was a vineyard in Roman times, and here’s evidence of workmen in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. It been a market garden too, but since the war – an allotment site. It gives us a sense of history, linking us into the past as well as into the future. Our little plot gives us history, spirituality, natural science, organic food, great neighbours, fresh air and exercise. Not bad for less than £100 a year.
So I’m in a familiar church where I once worked and there’s a communion service going on. The celebrant who is an old friend and mentor comes across to me and mumbles a few incomprehensible words over my chalice. I ask where I’m supposed to take it and he says something like “oh, go and find someone” but when I look down at the chalice it’s filled with milk and not wine. I know that I need to find some wine so I go down the stone stairs into the vestry which is thick with dust; a long abandoned room, and everywhere I look there are empty wine bottles as if a party had been taking place but which has been over for many years.
It turns out, then, that growth and change in personal faith – if it involves discarding some previously important positions is – far easier than letting go of the religion and its rituals. I don’t miss the constant anxiety about heresy and I certainly don’t miss bishops and what an old friend once called “stamp and circumponce” , but I still occasionally ache for the beauty of the music and the way the worship could draw people together, even in the most terrible circumstances. It is worship in its truest sense when it reaches beyond the words and into a place without the restrictions of language, a place where theological orthodoxies become redundant.
I don’t analyse all my dreams but this is clearly another significant one, following so closely after my earlier posting “Kaddish” a week ago. You may think that dreams are just a load of random stuff, auto generated by an idling brain, but then you you might be missing out on ‘the royal road to the unconscious’ – as Freud put it. The dream tells me that the sacramental wine is spent and there’s nothing in the old way left to share. So what’s to replace the unbearable absence without compromising?
As the French poet Paul Valéry said
“A difficulty is a light ; an insurmountable difficulty is a sun .”
I’m not trained to take the problem by siege, and so I have to take the poet’s path – stalking the quarry for months, following its signs and leavings. As R S Thomas put it, to put my hand into the depression of the empty hare’s form and, feeling its warmth, know that it was there; edging along by inference with the occasional bold step.
Yesterday morning, on the allotment, Madame was picking broad beans and there he was, drying his moist wings in the sun; slowly unfurling them in the warm light. She called over to me and we both spent minutes watching the emerging emperor – the largest UK dragonfly and not one you bump into every day. In fact, short of finding one in this semi torpid state, I doubt if you’d ever actually bump into one. It would be so tempting to reach for the alien metaphors; there’s not much we share in common, looks-wise, with a dragonfly. But my thoughts hovered around the question of who, or what exactly was playing the part of the alien in this meeting. He’d been around vastly longer than me and looked far better adapted to our broad beans than we do, even though he was several hundred yards away from the river or more likely the large pond on the other allotments beyond the lane. He was the emperor, and we can normally only watch his imperious cruising from a distance as he snaps up his lesser prey. He has the power and presence greatly to enrich our world and we, in our arrogance, usually diminish his.
I used to think that this was a reason for requiring some sort of god – someone to say thank you to, as well as someone to clean up the mess when we screw up, someone to come galloping over the horizon like the Seventh Cavalry and smite our enemies.
Madame and me once collected thirty pounds of blackberries – far more than we could possibly eat – but we couldn’t seem to stop ourselves. It was one of those occasions when I felt the overwhelming desire to thank someone for this generous gift, but since they were growing wild and without human intervention we could not. I wish I could weave a morally improving tale around this snippet of history but in truth we made a very large quantity of the worst chutney ever confected from a surplus and a bad recipe. Then, to make matters worse, we gave it away as gifts to friends who deserved better.
I suppose our instincts generally lead us to invent an invisible but useful entity to thank and cajole for the way things are but I’ve increasingly come to believe that we don’t need to look beyond the created universe. Maybe the great spiritual challenge of this age is to bring to science – which can only deal with mathematics, measurements and testable hypotheses – an opening for wonder and worship that can takes the whole of creation for its object without resorting to gods, whether kindly or malevolent; because humans are not just vulnerable to viruses but to the idolatry of wealth and power. We suck up nature and turn it into electric light, and cars, and plastic and murderous weapons of destruction. We turn the basic matter of creation into chemicals and fertilisers because we are besotted with power and have no eyes or ears for the suffering earth.
So maybe we do, after all, need to repurpose some of the old things. Maybe we need structures for penitence, thanksgiving and reconciliation. Maybe we need to recover the sense that the food we grow and prepare is properly seen as sacramental rather than instrumental. Just imagine the impact that nontheistic prayer and meditation might have on our behaviour. Imagine the impact of compassion as a basic human virtue taught to us all as children. In fact none of the traditional virtues require enforcement by omniscient and omnipotent gods and their agents.
But enough. Spring drives on, and we are struggling to keep up. We re-pot seedlings and in days they double in size; this extraordinary vitality in which we share and which feeds us – and could house and clothe us too if we could find our right minds – this huge encompassing force in which we live and breathe is vulnerable and there is no invisible Seventh Cavalry to ride over the horizon and save us. We have seen the enemy – it is us.
Today we ordered more glass bottles and jars for the preserving season. If the coronavirus pandemic has shown us anything it is that subcontracting our food supply to the supermarkets was a deadly error. For us at the Potwell Inn and, we hope, for many others, we won’t be going back to the old normal. We’ll grow and save and store, buy locally and try not to waste, but not from fear but from a bigger vision, one that transcends extreme materialism and ancient dualisms, and is is content to say that the whole of creation, including the earth, is our mother and father and our grand and great grandparent back to the beginning of time. One family that includes all that is, all that has been and all that will be.é
My sourdough starter is happy. This is the kind of statement that drives philosophers crazy, but to me – and hopefully to you – it makes complete sense. When dogs wag their tails, we say they’re happy too; inviting philosophical sceptics to raise their eyebrows and turn away.
For weeks, during this lockdown, I couldn’t get any rye flour – which is what my starter was ‘conceived’ in (sorry, that’s another one) and what it’s been fed on ever since – for years and years. For almost two months I was only able to feed it with refined white bread flour at first and wholemeal spelt flour later on. The white flour was not a success. the starter fizzed up for a few hours and then slowed right down and began to settle into a sludgy mess at the bottom and a dark liquid on top. It also smelt quite different. One of the distinguishing features of my starter is that it smells strongly of apples, but fed with white flour it began to smell vinegary. I should add that it still worked perfectly well but never quite felt the same. The spelt flour was better but still tended to settle out. But this week, back on the rye flour, the starter has begun to thrive again, bubbling away for several days without needing a feed and has also returned to its old apple smell. In short, it was happy.
Sourdough can be happy; plants – we gardeners all understand – can be happy and so can soil and even cattle. I once saw a herd of local cattle which had been led up to the Aubrac hills in France, during the transhumance, and I swear they were happy too – smiling broadly in a contented sort of cowy way. The local cheeses – made by the farmers – were fabulous as well.
So there’s a conundrum here. We, in our careless linguistic way, ascribe feelings to dogs cats and cows. We stretch the concept to include plants, trees, butterflies, sourdough starters and even – if you’re into that sort of thing – rat tailed maggots and, in our careless sort of way we ascribe some form of consciousness to them. If rat tailed maggots can be happy they must have feelings and must, ergo, be conscious. We gardeners and allotmenteers are always happy to see their hoverfly stage eating our pests.
There’s a philosophical conundrum lurking in the middle of all this that’s pretty complex and it affects the whole way we look at the earth and creation. If we say that only humans possess consciousness then it’s harder to make a moral or ethical case against exploiting another part of creation that (we believe) – doesn’t, because it only exists for our benefit. You see where this is leading – all human societies have their theoretical underpinning – call it common sense if you must – and the worst of this one is that it separates humans from the rest of creation. If you want to read a whole lot more about this I recommend Philip Goff’s book “Galileo’s Error”.
The takeaway point is that consciousness could be a fundamental quality of nature – from the tiniest subatomic event to the formidable consciousness of the human mind. The argument’s all there in the book, and it’s a bit disintegrating if, by that, you understand that we tend to lean on a whole set of assumptions to get through the day and when those assumptions are demolished, the simplest actions get more complicated. We think that trees, by our standards, lack consciousness – but they not only communicate with one another, they share sustenance – favouring immediate relatives, warn one another about pathogens and insect attacks over wide areas but – get this – they accomplish this by collaborating with fungi, using their network of microscopic threads as a kind of natural cable network. But, of course – if all of nature is talking but we stand aside, contemptuously refusing to join the conversation, we can’t hear what all nature is trying to tell us – that we are rapidly destroying ourselves. Tree hugging, it seems, is not so silly when the tree and its inhabitants are trying to warn us about the oncoming train.
All this, of course is a first draft. It may be that it’s a quirk of my own nature that I’m always asking ‘why?’ but my scepticism isn’t one of those smart things I might say when I’m trying to impress, it’s hard wired into me – examining gift-horse teeth, examining the entrails of common sense and being generally annoying. Socrates, after all said that the unexamined life wasn’t worth living, and it cost him his life. I hope to get away with a few sleepless nights and a headache, but ‘because I say so’ has never got me to sign a direct debit form!
There’s much, much more I want to write but for the moment I need fresh air – and the allotment is perpetually thirsty. As for Naomi Klein, I can only read her in small doses because I find her so disturbing, but here’s a cheerful photo I took a couple of days ago in the centre of Bath. It’s a hoary plantain – not really rare, but let’s say unusual. You might pass it by but it’s a tiny, inconspicuous gem – the only one among its cousins that’s pollinated by insects rather than by the wind. Why’s that? I wonder.
I fell asleep reading a new book – ‘Galileo’s Error’ today – absolutely no criticism of the author Philip Goff, I was just feeling exhausted, for no obvious reason save for the fact that we feel lost, confused, abandoned by our government; and my son had sent me the book after several of our long philosophical telephone discussions about materialism and consciousness. One of the cruelties of the pandemic is being separated from our family. It’s been my mission. all my life, to find ways of talking about, and being, fully human; and the allotment, cooking, natural history, remembering and celebrating are all a part of the picture.
But being fully human seems to involve other, more controversial elements which can often become points of division. There are words I dislike using – like ‘spirituality’ or ‘soul’, for instance – not because they don’t correspond to anything meaningful but because the settings in which they’ve been developed and discussed have been fatally compromised. They became keywords in the history of religious slaughter and abuse. However, it seems almost impossible to do without them if we want to embrace life in all its fullness. My son recommended the book as a possible way towards a solution of the difficulty – ‘”it’s a popular book” – he said – “A four hour read, but a real challenge”
I always find the very best books get me on my feet, pacing about; thinking carefully. Sleeping isn’t normally a way of pacing around, but today – in a throwback to a previous life – I dreamed a part of the way out. Until today I would have associated the word Kaddish with Allen Ginsberg the American poet.
My dream took place exactly where I was, in fact, lying asleep but I seemed to be fully conscious of all the sadness surrounding us; and somewhere in the background was the sound of the Kaddish being sung. I’ve never heard the Kaddish being sung but I knew for certain that this was it – glorious, defiant, haunting. There were dream tears running down my face and then I heard the altogether closer sound of a cat purring just behind my head. I reached behind to the arm of the sofa where it was sitting and stroked it. And then I woke in the absolute certainty that this was what the Jungians would regard as a significant dream needing to be brought into the light of day.
If ever there were a more telling dream lesson of what we’ve neglected through our greedy materialism I’ve yet to hear it. We’ve had anger in abundance; we’ve had politics and economics, and every half-wit with a computer has offered their theory. But there’s been no lament; no Kaddish for the dead but merely statistics, theories and the counting of money.
What about the cat? Well, the thing about a cat, or a dog or whatever other pet is that essentially there’s a relationship – even a relationship of love. But materialism has even turned big nature into a paid-for TV experience. We could perhaps do well to emulate our love for pets in our love for weeds and birds and insects and wildflowers.
I’ve no idea what to do with this insight – yet – but I guess I will one day.