Groundhog Day at the Potwell Inn

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There’s a really interesting feature about urban farming in Bristol in today’s Observer that described one urban farmer (not known to us btw)  as “a veteran of the grow-your-own, self-sufficiency movement of the 1960s and 70s”.  That rattled our cages a bit – “veterans” indeed  – we weren’t even pioneers, just ordinary everyday descendants of the Diggers and other subversives who didn’t much care for “the way they did things round here” – which is as good a working definition of culture as you’ll ever need. A single glimpse of the photos was enough to say that even if we didn’t actually know this younger generation of urban farmers, we certainly knew their spiritual forbears and possibly even their parents.

One of the few shafts of light in these gloomy times is the re-surfacing of values that we feared we’d lost forever. The bailiffs and developers had moved in on our inner mindscapes and trashed them as they trashed the environment, and I never tire of arguing the point with our oldest son, who was born in the year that Thatcher came to power, that it wasn’t the whole of our generation who stitched up the young; and large numbers of his generation have been only too pleased to be bought off by the machine. Yes were were allotmenteers back in the day, and we kept a goat, recycled as much as we could, did anything we could to keep financially afloat, we lived in a couple of communes and set up workers’ cooperatives not small businesses. The principal ideal in those idealistic days was to put something back, not extract value from other human beings and pocket it.

Today we sat together and read the article with a sense of real excitement that these (often) young people still share the same values.  It’s nice when they listen to us, but this is a time when we, who will not be around to see the Great Harm bearing its evil fruit, should listen to them.   The allotment movement was rejuvenated after the First World War because the enforced clearance of the commons through the Enclosure Acts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had left the vast majority of the population landless – just as we are today. That was what opened up the intensification of farming for profit and ignored the question of the public good which is just now resurfacing. Bristol City Council should be applauded for making land available to the community in this way and not – as Bath City Council tried recently to do – to build a park and ride scheme on ancient and species rich flood meadows. We shouldn’t have to shame our representatives into doing the right thing.

Anyway, the article – do read it –  was a great scamper around some of the opportunities and the issues, and brought up another previously neglected thread when discussing development. We’ve got very used to scientists – ecologists, botanists and medical researchers for instance, hogging the microphone when it comes to debating the natural world. Yes of course they have a right to put their point, but not to drown out those who fight for the emotional impact of the natural world. Wildflower meadows are good for us because they heal us – not just by boiling roots and steeping flowers in alcohol but by simply being there. There’s a hotlink below to more detailed information:

One of the staff later mentions the influence of Miles Richardson, a professor of human factors and nature connectedness at the University of Derby. Richardson has recently shown that people who feel an emotional and physical connection to nature are 30 times more likely to do something to help the natural environment than those who have just read, or been taught, about it.

If and when the merde hits the Dyson, we won’t just be digging for victory, we’ll be digging (or perhaps no-digging) for sanity and for the future of the earth.

Just to finish, I wrote last week about a riverside development here in Bath, and particularly about the impact on the environment.  Last night we were having a meal with several couples who live over there. The willow trees planted next to the river have, amazingly, grown rather well over the last three years and so they’re being pollarded this winter to keep them in check.  They also said that a promising young oak tree that had been planted in Ryegrass Park has been sawn off at ground level for no discernable reason. I expect the developers will fix that when they fix the missing dampcourses, the absence of wall insulation and structural features supporting tons of glass which, mysteriously were never installed either. There is a platoon of scissor cranes in permanent residence over there, doing work which the residents fear will take at least a year. It’s austerity, you see.  There were hardly any buildings inspectors left so the developers were unimpeded by the nanny state. I suppose it’s just possible that by the time it’s finished the evicted invertibrates will have moved back in and it will have become a derelict industrial site once again.

Rainy day

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Wettest, dryest, hottest – it seems that weather patterns are breaking records across Europe and it’s very concerning for anyone who grows food.  This year the plants on the allotment have had to cope with all sorts of stressful events, and it must be much worse for farmers. Neither heatwaves or torrential rain are much help for growing crops, and it’s a pity that weather reporting focuses so much on our personal convenience rather than our actual long-term needs.  It is a shame that this is turning out to be the wettest August since records began, but it’s not just a shame because it messes up the school holidays. The forecasters usually manage a mention of the “morning commute” when it rains, without making the link between our addiction to the car and the climate emergency.  In Bath we frequently have to breathe air that’s so polluted it breaks European safety limits.  Having a government that believes the best way to deal with a problem is to stop collecting statistics isn’t going to change anything soon, and if my freedom to sit in a traffic jam with my engine idling causes a single child to have an asthma attack it’s not a freedom worth preserving.

So in a make-do and mend sort of way, had a very rainy day visit to Bath City Farm yesterday with two of the grandchildren while the other one was in hospital having yet more tests.  Being a SWAN (syndrome without a name) requires a whole team of wonderful NHS consultants.  She’s phenomenally resilient and yesterday after having a general anaesthetic, an endoscope, and saline solution injected into her lungs she told her dad she’d had a ‘lovely day’.

We had a lovely day too, weaving the rain into the story so that the chldren could experience slides that are twice as fast when they’re wet.  The youngest thought it was hysterically funny to crash time after time into my legs after sliding down out of control. Later we went to McDonald’s as a special treat, and exactly as I did the last time, I managed to make a complete hash of the order and landed up with no chips and an extra cheeseburger. I know I’m supposed to be contemptuous of this kind of food, but it’s the exception rather than the rule for the children and we have many misgivings. However, and this isn’t a defence of junk food, if I were a hard pressed parent without much money, few cooking skills and no time, feeding a family of four for £15 must be a very tempting prospect. Haranguing people isn’t going to change the economics.

Back at the Potwell Inn, rainy days are a chance to get some preserving done, and we’ve been drying chillies, making half-sours with a huge crop of gherkins, and also making raspberry vinegar.  The leftover Seville oranges on the right of the picture were brined in January in exactly the same way you would pickle lemons. Just a quarter of peel with the pith scraped off and rinsed, adds a marvellous salty, orangy piquance to a sauce. This is (another) favourite season when we turn the surpluses into food for rainy days in the broader sense. Most years the concept of a rainy day doesn’t go much beyond an occasional treat, but this year there’s  greater sense of urgency as we start to contemplate the likelihood of food shortages and general upheaval. I wonder how we ever drifted into this perilous situation, and although I’m no believer in any ‘iron laws of history’ or of gods for that matter, I do think there’s a sense of inevitability about the collapse of an economic system that acts as a giant Ponzi fraud. When cultures begin to change no amount of longing for the good old days will bring them back, because to recall my first ever ethics lecture, as I frequently do,  – you can’t make an ‘ought’ into an ‘is’.

Sourdough? – bring it on!

I overheard a young bloke in the supermarket the other day explaining to his girlfriend that one particular brand of something or other was better ‘because it was higher in protein’.  Most of us who have struggled to bake a sourdough loaf that looks and tastes like the ones that go for £3.50 at the local ‘artisan’ bakery, have turned instinctively to higher protein flours.  Protein is the ingredient that turns into gluten and gluten is the stringy substance that gives the loaf texture; holds it all together.  If you’ve ever tried to make bread with ‘soft’ (low protein) cake flour you’ll have seen the result is far from satisfactory – it tastes like cake – drrr.

Industrial bakers like high protein flours because, as someone in the industry once said, ‘it’s the cheapest way of making water stand up’. But most industrial bread is densely textured and fine grained.  The enviable artisan sourdough of our dreams has a much more open texture whilst still maintaining strength and texture.  The answer is so simple it’s almost unbelievable. The best way to get a loaf like the ones at the bakery is to substitute about 20% of the total high protein flour with soft ‘cake’ flour. I can’t give exact figures because it will depend on the particular bread flour you have, but trust me I’ve experimented for years and this does the trick.  When you see sourdough loaves advertised as containing ‘three flours’  it’s probably nothing more secret or complicated than the mixture of high and low protein flour in the main mix with the small amount of rye flour in the starter. What the soft flour does is to weaken the gluten to the exact point where it will allow the big bubbles to develop.

I’ve totally given up on the idea of 100% wholemeal sourdough.  Maybe I’m thick, but every time I’ve tried it, (dozens), it’s come out like a doorstop. If you believe that eating nice food is a foody distraction, and if you can afford to get your snapped off teeth crowned regularly that won’t be a problem. I remember the ‘Grant Loaf’ from the 60’s and 70’s.  It was certainly a bit of a statement then, although modern bakers seem to be claiming to have invented it. They’re not trying to do it with soft wholemeal flour, though.

This loaf takes about 24 hours from start to finish and the best advice is to leave it alone as much as possible. Of all those hours, I don’t suppose the actual amount of kitchen time amounts to more than an hour, and that includes baking. It’s made with organic flour, tap water, seasalt and a tablespoon of olive oil and the levain was started years ago with a little bit of rye flour and whatever it was that blew in through the window.  The biggest downside is that it tastes so good we eat a lot more of it than we should.  There is a slight glimmer of hope, though.  It seems that white sourdough bread has a similar GI (glycaemic index) to wholemeal, i.e. it doesn’t make your blood sugar skyrocket.  Naturally the homemade jam on it does but hey! …

 

“Not Bath any more?”

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Most posts begin with an idea, even a title, or a photograph. I took this photo through the kitchen window three days ago, but I could have, just as easily taken it today because the scene outside is not much different.  We’re in a spell of fairly typical south -westerly weather with alternating hours, of heavy showers and (if we’re lucky) days of sunshine. Photographs work hard for us, capturing in a fraction of a second an image that bears a huge amount of information.  Here, the empty green, the trees in full leaf, the Georgian terrace and the moody sky combine to suggest a time and place. As everyone says when they see the flat – “you’re so lucky to have the view”, and we are very fortunate – the photo shows it.

There are things the photo doesn’t show, like for instance the fact that we’re here, and and not somewhere else far less attractive, because when I retired we became technically homeless. The flat is owned by the Church of England and we got it for no better reason than the fact that it became vacant just as we were looking desperately for somewhere to live. If I called it ‘social housing’ it would slot us into a far less desirable milieu, placing us with all the other displaced, ephemeral, faintly dodgy and occasionally deranged people of a dozen or more nationalities who also live here. But we, and all the others happily populate this area which mostly comprises social housing.  There are students, singles, nurses, retired university professors, artists, refugees, rugby players, teachers, designers  and retired clergy – the list goes on. It’s a splendidly diverse culture that demonstrates Plato’s notion that the city is a work of art.

And there in a nutshell is an awkward and difficult problem with nature, described using human actors and environments. Is an environment best described by its appearance and history? – ‘the view’?  Much of Bath is a World Heritage Site, for instance,  and Royal Crescent illuminated by the setting sun is astoundingly beautiful.  Or is it better described scientifically, with the heavy lifting done by sociologists, anthropologists and economists? Bath makes millions from tourism, notwithstanding the difficulty of crossing the city at the height of the tourist season and especially the Christmas Market. Or is the essence of Bath embedded in its human ecology, its sheer diversity, the mixture from ostentatious wealth to grinding poverty, the novelists and the drug dealers. How do you weigh neighbourliness and human community?  If it’s a work of art, in essence, how much of Bath would you have to destroy for it to become another place – “notbathanymore”?

I’ve written about this challenge a lot in the past few days.  Yesterday we walked across the river to the Gulag to see the new park.  It was officially opened the week before last and I felt I owed it a chance, having slagged it off.  You’ll remember this very large and ‘prestigious’ (aren’t they all?) development was built on what’s known as a ‘brownfield site’ which was really very green indeed and housed a regionally important population of invertebrates – bugs in English. My initial impression was of surprise – our entrance coincided with a large border of weeds that ran the northern edge of the riverside park and was maybe fifteen feet wide. I was even happier that it had been seeded with a well thought out mixture of largely native grassland plants.  Full marks to the person who passed up on pan-european seed mixes and paid a few quid extra to get the real deal. How long the border will last in the face of opposition from the owners of the £1million+ flats who think they’re messy is another matter, but in trade-off terms, this patch is a sop. a salve to the conscience, a token.  Fifty well-meaning Knapweeds is not enough when the area of Gillette shaved ryegrass is twenty times greater and dully limited by notices that forbid almost anything human beings like to do. The original environmental survey was done by reputable ecologists – I’ve heard one of them speak, loyally and regretfully on the subject.  The seed mixture was obviously chosen by someone well-trained enough to do the right thing.  Here’s Murray Bookchin, quoted in “Deep Ecology” – and well worth reading –

…. The choice must be made now before the ecology movement becomes institutionalized into a mere appendage of the very system whose structure and methods it professes to oppose. (p4)

How long until we get to “Not bath any more”?  How long until we get to “Not nature any more.”

The one approach that’s not much spoken of because it has a very high ‘cringe factor’ for our materialistic culture, might be called the spirituality of nature. I know instantly that this will be dismissed as hippy dippy tree-hugging, but those sorts of responses speak more loudly of fear than they do of confident atheism; fear that the baby has gone down the plughole with the bathwater.  Here’s the Potwell Inn kitchen early this morning –

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Messy ain’t it! First thing we have tea in bed (made by me).  Then I knead the sourdough (top left bowl) and go back to bed for another hour’s reading, we try to limit “busywork” at the Potwell Inn. Then, when the mood takes me I get up again and strain the kefir ready for breakfast. We didn’t grow the tea but we’re profoundly grateful to those who did. The sourdough starter is nothing whatever to do with me.  I can claim no credit for what is a gift of the earth, and neither can I claim any virtue for the kefir grains on the same grounds. I didn’t buy either of them, they were given to me by my son and the air we breathe.

On the allotment yesterday we harvested the first batch of potatoes along with all the usual seasonal suspects. Supper last night came entirely out of our own bit of earth, aside from some cheese.  It is quite impossible to harvest from the allotment without a deep sense of thanksgiving directed at who knows what? Harvesting has a profoundly non-sectarian and non-theistic spirituality. Feast and famine alike are the gifts among which we live, and so too is the natural world.

We have a Blackbird outside the flat – he’s gone quiet at the moment, but on spring days he sings in a way that weaves my entire past and present into a single song.  Even in the depths of our miserable basement among the rubbish bins, we hear his song.  How should I respond to it?  Should I photograph him? make a written record for the Natural History Society? Count the syllables of each phrase? Fight to create a site of special scientific interest? write to UNESCO and ask if they knew we’ve got blackbirds as well as Roman baths? Or should I rather fall into the arms of it and allow myself to be held by him and healed of all my melancholy? The first time I really looked at a Forget me not, I thought that I was seeing through the portal of the blue petals into some kind of unreachable heaven beyond.

Nature needs recording and counting of course, and it needs scientific understanding.  We need what nature offers by way of sustenance and medicines. We’re part of the same ungraspable unity – “the Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao”  Blackbirds and Forget me nots are not rare, and neither are potatoes and courgetttes or the micro-organisms that feed the soil and ferment wine and beer, sourdough and kefir. They’re not rare, that is, until we take them for granted and they disappear. And who will heal us then?

 

Despair is the last weapon they have left

 

I think something shifted yesterday afternoon when we all shipped up to Uncle Jo’s pizza place for an impromptu Sunday lunch. It was fairly quiet and so Jo was able to come out from beside the oven and chat. In the love and peace department families are never all they’re cracked up to be – that’s a figment of the official ideology – and so it’s a blessing beyond value when they work, even occasionally, and  I wonder if the grandchildren will remember lunch at Uncle Jo’s when they’re my age. Next to the family album is a basket of vegetables we picked on the allotment yesterday – courgettes, broccoli, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers and gherkins. Later Jo came back with hs Polish girlfriend and one of our fermented half-sours was presented to her to taste.  She gave them her seal of approval although I thought the home-grown garlic was a bit too fierce in the quantity I used. Interestingly our oldest son was complaining the other day that his biometric passport never works properly and he always gets called in for interrogation.  He asked a passport official why, last time he came back from Europe, and was told that it was probably the ‘Pole’ surname. You have to wonder what kind of software can’t tell the difference between a surname and a nationality.

So with the day punctuated by benevolent thoughts for all our family I got back to reading in the evening. This latest binge is seeing me get through a new book every couple of days and at the moment it’s Mark Cocker’s book ‘Our Place’ which I thought might be a bit of light relief after Fred Pearce’s book ‘The New Wild’ . When I put it down for about the fifth time I realized I am only able to absorb a certain amount of bad news at a time. You’d think a book with quite as many references to Committees and Governmental enquiries would be a bit arid but this book makes it dreadfully clear that the ecological distance between where we were a century ago, and where we now are is not paved with misunderstanding and innocent lack of knowledge but by greed, selfishness and a determination by the powerful to enrich themselves at the expense of the environment, and all paid for by taxpayers’ money. When I see the Forestry Commission exposed as a government assisted tax avoidance scheme for the further enrichment of the aready rich, I need to walk around the room for a while before I can calm down and read more. The subsidy system is an elaborate and utterly destructive con trick, with the biggest beneficiaries being the wealthy.

And it was precisely that thought that lifted me out of a gathering sense of gloom. In a moment of mad insight I realized that the sense of powerlessness and despair which, according to some recent figures 60% of us share, is a last ditch attempt by the powerful to hold on to their privileges. Of course they want us to think there’s nothing we can do about it because ……. wait for it …… they’re scared, absolutely terrified that the rest of us will wake up and demand change. Their one last throw of the dice is to persuade us that we’re sunk and then put up a “strong” leader  (chosen by them of course) who will bring everything back to the way things used to be – that’s to say their way.

That’s why we see so much divisive comment in the press. We’re told all the time that the way things are is the responsibility of the ‘selfish baby boomers’. Really? Or is the worry that we who were forged in the community politics of the sixtes and seventies have too much in common with the young? That we might form a formidable grouping? They want to divide us by race, by gender, even by diet or occupation or interest because that way we’re easier to marginalise, because they know all too well that a house divided cannot stand.

I’m laughing out loud at the thought of their secret late night committee meetings and ‘influencer’ friends on the internet all turning their gimlet eyed attention to the next secret weapon.  Here’s a heads-up chaps (for they are mostly chaps) we don’t read the Daily Mail or the Times and we know how to block effluent from our laptops and phones.

We are the new powerful! and we take our inspiration from the earth, its tides, its inbreathings and outbreathings and its capacity to mend our shrivelled souls and bring food and shelter and joy even while it repairs the damage we have inflicted on it. The Earth is not for sale however many petrochemicals and insecticides the Prophets of Baal pour on the altar – and it would be better for the human race if they realized that the game is well and truly up.

 

 

I guess I’m an alien too!

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Sometimes the gentlest put-down is a tiny work of art.  My son, for instance, was at a party once and recounted an overheard conversation that went something like this:

She: Where do you work then

He: Oh I’m a physicist, I work in Cerne

She: On the Hadron Collider?

He: Yes

She: You mean that big one that goes for miles underground?

He: No I work on the small one.

She: How sweet!

 

One of my many come-uppances came when I was a curate at St Mary Redcliffe.  I was introduced to a very well dressed woman wearing the kind of understated clothing that announces itself silently and tells you exactly where you belong in the great scheme of things. I was wearing an extremely expensive silk cassock that was bought for me as a gift and which lifted me out of my mongrelry into another category of humanity. It was a useful disguise.  When she discovered my name she demanded (no really, she demanded in a voice like melting pack ice) “are you one of the Somerset Poles?” “no”, I replied airily “I’m one of the Kingswood Poles”.  Part of my dad’s family did in fact come from Somerset but they most certainly weren’t part of the Somerset Poles and I didn’t feel obliged to enlarge on my reply.

However my quarry today is a different branch of the put-down family that relates to the way we perceive and value the natural world.  If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that we had a break in St Davids a few weeks ago and I got going on a list of plants I found while we were there – there were well over a hundred in the end. Several, though, turned out to be a bit of a rarity and so I emailed a local botanist with  their names just so he could check them out (referee them) and add them to the records. Yesterday, after a long silence, I had a charming reply to my email thanking me and mentioning in passing that this was the second record for Sedum forsterium he’d received and that the other, found a couple of streets away, was – the finder believed – the garden form, ssp. elegantissimum.  I was instantly deflated, notwithstanding the fact that I’d identified it properly, but a garden plant? 

So how is it in the great scheme of things that a large hadron collider is more important than a small one, a Somerset Pole is more worthy of conversation than a mongrel Pole from Kingswood, and a rare wild plant more important than a hybrid of the same family that manages to escape from a garden and eke out a miraculous living on a streetside wall.  Who is it that determines these things? and does it even matter?

Well yes, it matters a great deal when our environment is becoming more and more degraded, because sympathy, money and research tends to flow to the places determined as ‘more important’ and away from those determined to be less so. I was disappointed with myself that I had fallen into a lazy way of thinking about priorities that had been handed to me as a ‘faite accompli’ and lurked unchallenged at the back of my mind for goodness knows how long.

Opposite where we live there used to be an old industrial site complete with gasometer and suchlike. In Bath there is a desperate need for more housing, and the local council have no money and so like so many other councils they had to allow the desperately needed houses to be built by a developer. But first there was a legal requirement to conduct an environmental impact survey – which I’ve read, along with the promises of low-cost housing, a doctor’s surgery and a new primary school. Here’s a retrospective environmental assessment of what actually happened –

The trend is for steady loss of this habitat type. When Bath Western Riverside was cleared for redevelopment, invertebrate communities of Regional importance that were associated with this habitat were lost.

The school and the surgery were quietly dropped because they impacted on the profits, and the first-time housing that had been so loudly trumpeted as a sweetener started off at £500,000 a flat. The ‘regionally important’ habitat was bulldozed away and replaced by a miserable “park” of municipal ryegrass. Little notice was taken of a wildlife corridor connecting the centre of the city to the countryside to the west and crucially all this was assisted in its passage because the development was taking place on a ‘brownfield site’. Who goes out to demonstrate over a derelict gasworks when there are homeless people living on the streets? Our use of language and imagery really does matter because it colours our priorities, and wrong priorities take us further away from our desired objectives.  Clearly we all agree that the environment is increasingly important because all the evidence stacks up behind that proposition. But expressions like ‘brownfield site’, ‘alien’, and ‘invasive’ subtly embody a hierarchy of  significance that can subvert our behaviour. What if the ecologically diverse environments are now the brownfield sites and the ‘green belt’ land we’re so desperate to protect is so doused in chemicals and so overcropped that the soil is all but dead? In a ‘battle of the priorities’ homes, surgeries and schools will always win over spiders and bryophytes.  It all changes, though, if the schools and surgeries are never built, the houses are utterly beyond the reach of first time buyers and the ecologically diverse environment is destroyed in any case, in the pursuit of profits for developers.

 

It matters that this isn’t an argument about aesthetics, although the riverside development is known among the locals as “The Gulag” and it certainly looks like a Soviet era bonded warehouse. I thought the gasworks site with its abundance of Ragwort and Buddleia looked better and the wildlife certainly thought so! But we’re not facing a crisis of beauty, we’re facing a crisis that entails the death of thousands of species, the destruction of the soil that feeds us and the air that we’re forced to breathe. “We have seen the enemy – it is us”, and we can’t solve the crisis unless we accept that more of the same can only make things worse.

 

Let’s imagine I own the wall with the Sedum forsterianum in St Davids and I want to knock the wall down, dig up the garden and build a car port for a holiday rental. The local council are minded to grant the permission because it knows the city relies absolutely on the tourist trade. A local and enthusiastic amateur botanist comes along and says “you can’t do that it’s a three star rarity”. I appoint an independent enviromental consultant who says – yes you can it’s ssp. elegantissimum which is just a garden escape.  The County Recorder joins the fray and says “not only is it a garden escape it’s an invasive garden escape that’s driving out all the real (i.e pure) Sedum forsterianum from the inaccessible cliffs hereabouts. The local Friends of the Earth get involved and start a petition to prevent any more car ports while the Gardening Club are incensed at the marginalisation of a favourite rockery plant. Plaid Cymru demand an end to holiday lets because the local people can’t affotd to buy houses any more. A local independent councillor says “something must be done!” without specifying what exactly that might be. Meanwhile a tidy minded council worker spots the offending weed in the wall and sprays it with Roundup while he’s doing the cracks in the pavement. 

 

It’s a rare plant, it’s an invasive menace, it’s a garden escape, it’s a hybrid, it’s a weed, its a meal ticket for a host of experts and it’s a vote winner too. It’s the gift that goes on giving for me, the lucky developer because every specialist interest group in town is so engaged in this turf war about a plant that they can’t agree what to do, and I get my application through without any effective opposition. The environmentalists all get to keep their virtue intact and the environment takes another small step in the wrong direction.

 

No amount of home baking, kefir production, artisan gin and allotmenteering is going to save the environment unless we learn to collaborate and that means watching our language and engaging seriously with a flood of data that may feel difficult and counter-intuitive at times. Sometimes I feel like withdrawing to the allotment or propping up the Potwell Inn bar until it’s all over but in my heart I know that the only chance we have is to engage.  The Sirens with their dark money will say we can have it all – but it’s not true and it never was. The sun’s shining and the insects will be out and about this morning so our neighbour Trigger will be up at the allotments with his little hand spray.  He doesn’t tell his wife he’s spraying and she will sometimes say “d’you know these beans were covered with blackfly last week and now they’re all gone.”  He doesn’t tell her about his little secret spray because he knows she’s trying to garden organically and because he loves her, he wants her to succeed. Damaging the evironment doesn’t require evil or malice, just lack of thought will achieve the same end.

 

I’m not quiet I’m thinking!

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Actually that’s not totally true because like many grandparents find, school holidays offer lots more opportunities to be with grandchildren and this last couple of weeks we’ve also got together with all our grown up children. However that’s not where most of my energy has been going, because I’m in the process of changing my mind. This isn’t a small matter of believing X rather than Y, but a fundamental problem with the way X and Y have been understood. LIke the vast majority of people who are interested in natural history I’ve gone along with the prevailing view that the preservation of threatened species of all kinds hinges on re-creating the precise ecological communities – if necessary behind high fences –  that once allowed them to flourish. The vocabulary of conservation is spattered with words like ‘virgin’ and ‘pristine’ that imply that nature was OK until we messed it up and so we need to rewind the programme to the point where it went wrong and then press the freeze button for the rest of time. It implies that there is some kind of evolutionary plan that resulted in everything being the way it used to be before we spoiled it, and, even worse, that these ecological relationships were somehow ‘right’ and any deviation from them – for instance when so-called ‘alien’ species (the very word gives the game away), move in, they need to be removed, or perhaps ‘cleansed’ in order to return to the pre-lapsarian state of grace. Forgive the religious language but it’s actually a religious thought wearing a white lab coat, but it’s all wrong, and that’s where I’ve been stranded, reading furiously (in every sense of the word) and trying to catch up with a field I know very little about.

At the very moment I was finally getting settled into my botanical studies, I started to get interested in weeds because there are a lot more of them nearby to study; one thing led to another and now I’m in limbo trying to figure out what it’s all for.  What’s the direction we need to travel in in order to repair the ecological damage we’ve done, without  reducing the natural world to a desert with a few gated reserves dotted around to remind us what we’ve lost? What does a healthy and productive earth look like? – feel like? How can we live our lives fruitfully without making things worse? How did we get to the point where we defined the best interests of a tiny part of the human race with the interests of the whole earth? … and I don’t have any answers at all yet. Doubtless they’ll come along eventually but in the meanwhile I’m prowling around the Potwell Inn in a mist of self doubt needing to examine a large part of my experience and memory, paying special attention to the presuppositions that have been pit props and retaining walls to my inner world for decades.

Of course there’s a wider context for all this.  The political chaos that hangs over us like a black cloud is an inescapable source of anxiety, but personally too, things have happened that threw me off kilter.  A farmer I’d known well in one of my parishes fell down the stairs at the weekend, broke his neck and died the next day. It’s a heartbreaking event for his own family, but it leaves us all feeling that life is fragile, fugitive. What with the morons in charge and accidents and illness threatening, what’s the context in which we can  understand the earth, its tides and weather in the broadest sense.

It feels like grief.  Cooking and gardening feel like going through the motions, displacement activities. Yesterday I went to the local stationers and to my great surprise I was able to buy a card index – the beginnings of the Flora of Muckyannydinny Lane.  It’s a card index because you can’t design a database until you are able to define it detailed purposes and I’ve no idea yet what that purpose might be so it’s back to the technology of the quill pen.

But now I’m off to try to mend the fridge on the campervan before we take a break driving as far North and West as we can in England. Yet again we were drawn to the West, and we’re going further North too – right to the Scottish borders, completing the last link from Cornwall in the South and catching up with friends on the way.  There’s nothing systematic in this, just happenstance and curiosity and a big pile of books of which the latest is Fred Pearce’s “The New Wild”. Read it – it’ll explode your mind!

 

High Summer overtakes the kitchen

IMG_5878There’s a smell  – or perhaps more mellifluously a perfume – for each season, and often it’s the perfume that gets you into the one that’s coming without your becoming aware of it.  Suddenly the kitchen is full of glugging and bubbling ferments, you’re scratching around on the top shelves looking for preserving jars and that packet of rubber seals you were sure you bought last year, or was it the year before that? Dill, garlic, basil above all, and the apple smell of the sourdough starter fill the air and the feeling of hunkering down becomes dominant. Six weeks after the solstice it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that the evenings are drawing in.  Apart from weeding there’s not a lot to do on the allotment other than bringing home the vegetables but it’s still too hot to embark on the civil engineering projects that you’ve got lined up for the autumn and winter. After a prolonged dry period it’s raining on and off here and so the urgent need to water has gone.

I’m always astonished at the capacity of ferments to survive.  The kefir which we secreted at the coldest part of the fridge months ago came out yesterday smelling as fresh as it went in.  A quick swill under the tap to wash off the painfully sharp ferment from the grains and then some fresh milk and within hours it had warmed up and thickened as if it was last topped up yesterday. The sourdough starter needs a bit more attention but provided it’s fed weekly it will wait patiently until the urge to make bread overtakes me tonight and I start a new batter. The second batch of half sours is awaiting a clean jar and perhaps some fresh dill and a touch more sugar, but they’re crisp and still taste of gherkin. Madame is mass producing pesto for the winter and rolling it into long sausages which, after a couple of hours in the freezer, can be sliced into portions and returned to the freezer for later. Real instant food.

The Potwell Inn allotment is capable of throwing up all sorts of surprises, and this season the tender fruits and vegetables have done better outside than they did in the greenhouse.  The exception is the habanero chillies which really do need the heat, but the other chillies, the basil and the aubergines have all done better outside.  After decades of loathing I’ve finally made peace with ratatouille (as long as Madame cooks it) just in time for the usual surplus of courgettes. In France, or at least in the South East which we know better, the whole of August seems to be occupied by fêtes but here the rhythms of sowing, harvesting and feasting seem to have very largely disappeared, choked out by the vacuous plenty of ‘food as entertainment’  and flowing into the eutrophic ponds of our impoverished lives.

Today a new garden tool arrived in the post.  I’ve wanted a hori hori – a narrow Japanese combination of trowel and knife  – for ages, but it’s been a struggle to find one that wasn’t a foot long and looking like a lethal weapon of some sort. This one looks innocuous enough to carry in my bag without attracting attention to itself.  It’s really for digging bits of root, dandelion, burdock, horseradish – nothing rare – without digging out the whole plant. It was only a fraction of the price of some of the loftier artisanal products that boasted carbon or stainless steel forged blades and leather holsters, but I thought I could test the principle before lashing out on one to impress the neighbours.

I absolutely love the changing seasons apart from a couple of weeks between September and October when the declining daylight and the empty ground combine to make me feel listless and sad.  All my charges have been harvested and I get a bit rootless, but it’s never long, then, until my birthday and after that the sun rises a little earlier each day until the winter solstice.

 

Unravelling a bit

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There I am, nose firmly stuck in Richard Mabey’s book “Nature Cure” to which I turned the moment I finished his “Weeds – the story of outlaw plants”, when Madame says to me – “I wish I could find more books like that for you” – the subtext reading something like -‘then you’d sit quietly occasionally’.

The books that have been most important in my life have all shared a number of characteristics in that they set me off on a binge reading spree of the author’s other books; I always read them twice or more; I also read the footnotes; I read the bibliographies and finally I then continue the reading binge by reading the sources.  In this instance many of Richard Mabey’s other books were already on the bookshelf, bought years ago and for reasons only peripherally connected to my present interests.  “Flora Britannica” was bought to supplement the books on botanical art, for instance. First time round the books were interesting and, if you like, out there in the sense that they didn’t get under my skin like they are now; all of which is a rather long introduction to the fact that I woke up this morning feeling cross and after reading in bed for half an hour I felt even crosser – mostly with myself. The phrase, a quotation, really crystallised a sense of unease I’d been failing to unravel or confront for weeks. I realized that I was feeling slightly miffed by the fact that Richard Mabey had perfectly articulated in 2005 a difficulty that I had steered around using a very sophisticated evasion.

But first I need to introduce a new term that I’ve not used before because I’ve tried to avoid using challenging language on this blog.  However this term (which I’ll explain once and then use the less provoking acronym PFTP) was a piece of advice regularly given to his students by Canon David Isitt who was Canon Theologian at Bristol Cathedral and one of my best ever teachers.  PFTP stands for “pissing from the pulpit”and it’s what you do when you explain how harrowing and difficult your sermon has been to prepare and preach. ‘Nobody wants or needs to know about your suffering!’ He would rage when some hapless student had broken his rule.

I have the gretest affection for everything David Isitt taught me, but in the particular instance I’m writing about now, I think a dash of PFTP is allowed. The process by which you unravel a difficulty is of interest if it might be of any help to someone else confronting the same problem. So was Richard Mabey indulging in PFTP when he quoted this phrase from Jonathan Bate, concerning the Romantic movement? :-

The price of this intoxication with with the spirit of things is a definite break with the human community. Pantheism displaces philanthropy, communion with nature stands in for social awareness.

He (Mabey) goes on to write – (see chapter 3 – Commonplaces) – to write brilliantly about the dangerous defects of almost all natural history television and books, their cutie cutie anthropomorphism and fabricated narratives. The question I couldn’t avoid asking myself, crystallised as a challenge.  “Isn’t your blog in danger of adding to that selfsame false consciousness that creates an entirely bogus world in which runner beans cavort in an organic paradise, and rare wildflowers (accompanied by lofty thoughts) spring up in your path as they did for the great saints.  Or to put it another way, is it ever OK to write when you’re angry or will that put off the readers, the people you’ve gulled along with your lovely word pictures and photos?

I can almost guarantee before I press the ‘publish’ button that this will receive less views and less likes than a piece of the same length about sourdough bread or interplanting Nasturtiums, and it concerns me that I’m so worried I self-censor, but it concerns me more that I could end up publishing stuff that implies “I’m quite the cleverest and happiest person in the entire world – just look at how beautiful my world is!”

So when I’ve written about the drug dealers, the machete attacks, the homelessness and the problems associated with living even in a small city –  problems like air pollution, unenforced planning regulations and such like, it’s not because I want to hint what an edgy existence we lead here at the Potwell Inn so readers can admire our tenacity, it’s because that’s the way life is around here, and the orchids have to set up shop in the midst of all this, just as we do. If I’m drawn to talk about the weeds it’s because the urban environment is – in its own way – just as fascinating as the pristine meadow. Can I escape from anything by creating the perfect allotment and going off to explore the western coasts in the campervan ? – of course not, and neither can anyone else.

This is a sceptic’s guide to being human and, to quote Jonathan Swift in his 1732 poem “the Lady’s Dressing Room” – “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”. (Sorry that extra vulgarity slipped in, but it expresses in a line what I’d struggle to write in a paragraph). Being fully human is – to quote Francis Schaffer, to be “a glorious ruin”, and more than anything else I think the greatness of human life lies in being able to live fully in the midst of the bigotry and stupidity of moronic politicians and their poisonous effluvia.  I don’t want to use (Wordsworth’s) daffodils as a distaction from my moral and ethical obligations to my neighbours and I’d be heartbroken if anything I ever write became a substitute for real action.

Life is a work in progress – until it isn’t any more – and there’s a lot more I’m trying to get my head around (sorry, more PFTP), but what’s shouting at me is that I can’t be an objective and detached observer of the natural world, however rhapsodic that might make me sound, because the best I can manage is to notice it from the inside. There’s no part of me, not a single cell or thought that’s not embedded, hefted in this mess – and, to quote Dylan Thomas – ” – I am dumb to tell the crooked rose / My youth is bent by the same wintry fever”.

Near where we used to live there’s a difficult place to find, called Damery Lake.  It’s hardly a lake any more but a small trout stream runs through it and it’s crossed by a narrow lane that winds for four or five miles between a farm shop I knew well, and a canoe showroom – so naturally I often found an excuse to take the long way home and go from one to the other. I stopped once on the small pack-bridge crossing the stream and I was struck by the most painful waking dream, that one day a century ago, a young officer, fighting in the midst of one of the terrible First World War battles came back to the lake in his imagination and escaped the horror for just a moment as he remembered his childhood nearby, and that some part of his consciousness had become attached to the place like a ghostly presence, filling my mind too, and so the scene ever since has been engraved in my imagination.  Two very small, very expendable human lives separated by a century and united by a place of great natural beauty.  I wonder if he ever found his way back to the lake, or even fished there? Writing the natural world has to embrace all these dimensions of life if it’s not to become escapist and dangerous, and I salute Richard Mabey for encouraging me to take the risk.

 

 

 

 

Antics in the long grass

The City Council have gone green – well that’s one explanation, and another might well be that they’ve seen a way of saving money that they can dress up as a green policy. Either way round it’s still a good idea except  we’ll have to see what kind of reception it gets from the local residents in the longer term.

Essentially the policy is to stop mowing a strip of grass around the southern edge of the green and also under the trees outside our flat, . The idea was circulated and the response was very positive and so it’s being implemented. The text of the announcement uses the words “leave a strip uncut” but doesn’t specify how wide the strip should be, which has led to a variety of interpretations by the tractor drivers – some of whom have left a couple of metres and others who’ve mowed right back to the edge as usual. You can’t blame them, they’re grounds workers whose job has always been to keep things looking tidy and suddenly they’re being asked to go against all their instincts and leave a whacking great area of weeds.  It must feel completely wrong, and this has resulted in a piece of wide stubble instead of allowing any plants to grow up and set seed.

But there’s another problem looming. The responses made great play of the reappearance of ‘wildflowers’ on the green, and I fear that when residents don’t see the poppies and scabious they’re expecting but the thriving nettles deter them from retrieving lost footballs there may be a reaction. Butterflies, moths and pollinating insects – the kind we’re trying to preserve – feed on, and lay their eggs on all manner of wild plants including (but by no means exclusively) the pretty ones, and a proper mini-reserve wouldn’t necessarily look pretty at all, quite apart from removing some favourite shady areas.

Yesterday we were having a picnic with the grandchildren on the green, and my oldest grandson brought back a burdock leaf to ask me what it was. Later on I had a scout around the tree and found a whole collection of Lesser Burdocks of various ages, some obviously in their first year when they’re just a rosette on the ground.  There were also a couple of magnificent Welted Thistles, lots of Broad Leaved Plantain, some Chickweed, lots of Wall Barley and – mysteriously – a tomato in flower. The tomato must have come from a picnic like ours, but it begs the question (given our locality) how long it will be before we see the first seedlings of Cannabis. The area under the tree has long been a favourite place for a quiet smoke while waiting for the dealer to show up.  Now these are (nearly) all nice and useful plants, but apart from the tomato they can barely boast a ‘decent’ flower between them. I was most pleased about the Burdock because it’s a useful medicinal plant, but I’ll harvest the seeds rather than the plant because there are far too many dogs on the green to make consuming them a pleasant thought, and I can try growing some in drainpipes on the allotment. That’s OK they think we’re bonkers already.

If this kind of ‘wilding’ is going to work we’ll need to communicate much more effectively what the outcome will be. Most people can’t tell a wasp from a hoverfly and are afraid of almost every insect except ladybirds.  Some signage would help, as would an opportunity to meet a naturalist who could explain things and answer questions, otherwise thre’s a danger that local residents will react against the scheme and demand their tidy lawn back again. Primary schools are already doing great things with the under-elevens who are far more ecologicaly sophisticated than most parents.  Our oldest grandson is only six but he’s fierce about the natural world.

So it’s a great idea, but if the City Council see it as a money saver then it’s sunk before it starts.