Ordinary – must clean the hob!

IMG_20191119_092759My mother was very good at the forensic gaze. This morning’s kitchen would have troubled her, I’m certain, but I didn’t even notice that it’s pretty filthy until I put it on the screen. That’s the way of things, I suppose – most of our interiors (mental as well as domestic) would look pretty grubby and a bit random if we were to examine them with the cold eye of a picture editor. But we don’t, and I took the photo to remind myself of the great joys of the ordinary over and against the set-piece strutting that we’d prefer to have you believe about us.

The kettle rarely comes off the hob.  The Potwell Inn, surprisingly perhaps, runs on tea.  Recently we’ve increased our repertore of tea – black tea in the mornings, green tea most of the day and chamomile tea at night.  Since we took a break from the booze we feel better, sleep better and – well – drink tea. The way I make porridge would annoy all purists, GP’s and food faddists – made, as it is, with full cream milk, salt, and eaten with a bit of sugar.  However it lasts all day and reduces fridge-raiding which tends to involve lumps of cheese, so I suppose – on balance – it’s largely neutral. Today the kefir was left sulking in the fridge because it was the coldest night of the season so far and we both fancied something hot.

The loaf of bread is my cover for the grubby hob.  It wasn’t taken out of the oven until late yesterday evening. It was one of those doughs that wasn’t quite right – a bit soft but not at all sticky; not sticky that is, until I came to tip it out of the banneton when it growled at me and refused to budge. After a little stand-off I finally dragged it out, but it left a substantial dollop of dough behind and the loaf itself was far too soft to slash in the usual way, so it had a homeopathic tickle with the knife and went into the oven.  I’ve discovered over the years that making bread needs a similar mindset to making raku pottery.  Letting things be seems to work best. However the whole process involved a good deal of escaping rice flour – which is usually the best for releasing the dough from the banneton – mess which I couldn’t be bothered to clear up apart from a cursory wipe with a cloth before bed.

The ordinary, the homely is the warp of the enterprise of being human and the experiences of the day are the weft.  Together they make cloth – in my case probably some sort of rough old drill and in yours, possibly, evanescent silk. I hacked a crust off the loaf this morning and it was lovely – it was individual; itself. Like Ryokan’s poetry.

Still crazy after all these years

IMG_20191118_162125I’m a little younger than Richard Mabey – I checked – and the courses of our respective lives have been very different, but there are bits that coincided too. I was reading the first of the short pieces in his book – “A Brush with Nature” last night.  Yesterday we were feeling a bit stir crazy after a morning in the flat so we went around to Toppings to check out their natural history section and then, because there was nothing that caught my eye, we wandered down to Waterstones where I found the book amongst an entire case of ‘nature writing’. I bought it because he’s never written a dud book.

The first of his concerns – about the (then) dearth of nature writing has, I think, been more than abundantly  addressed. There are shelves full of the stuff, some of them proper old potboilers of course, but some real and distinctive voices who have changed the way I see things.  I’m sure that if Richard Mabey and me could lay our lifetime bibliographies side by side we’d find they overlapped in many cases.  Yes I read Henry Williamson voraciously when I was young.  In fact I ploughed my way through all 15 volumes of  “A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight” and many of his other novels and books before an increasing sense of creepiness led me to the disturbing discovery of his right wing politics – and that was that, the affair was over. Yes, I’ll bet, to Richard Jefferies, Gilbert White, JA Baker, DH Lawrence, and all the others. I bought J W White’s “Bristol Flora”  although I couldn’t afford it, and I’m glad I did because I’ve spent many hours poring over it and remembering places, let alone plants, that no longer exist. Too many books to list – I’m a magpie – and could never say no to a second hand book that just might be useful one day

After we left art school we both found ‘temporary’ jobs in horticulture, Madame at Long Ashton Research Station where she assisted the Trials Officer, and me as a groundsman and bus driver at Clifton College. Working outdoors gave me the chance to look for plants, and even then I kept notebooks – I found one of them when we were moving house.  It was badly affected by wet, and the ink had run but there were sketches and even a couple of spore prints as well as yards of notes. It seemed, at the time, as if the natural world was static – what didn’t get done today could wait until tomorrow. I was loose in a library of botanical temptations that I could return to later, and so I could peep into a room, make a note of the location and vow to come back later when there was more time, many plants I didn’t have time to identify went on to the  back burner and now they’ve gone.

Because something’s changed and there is no more time – and of course we all know what it is. Environmental degradation, extinctions and the rapid onset of climate change have eaten through my to-do list, and because of it my whole mindset has changed. What might once have been presumed as the permanent features of nature have become fugitive pleasures. Each cuckoo might be the last I’ll ever hear, and the flash of iridescent blue flying low ahead of us on the canal might be the last kingfisher. The major key of reliable joys has modulated into the minor key of loss.  There are days when a walk feels like a day in a wartime clearing station, a sad search for survivors. Yes of course I can go and find some of them marooned in a reserve, complete with paths and fences and informative displays, a kind of zoo for threatened species, but I don’t care for zoos and where’s the fun if you already know it’s there?

Walking one day in Cornwall fifty years ago a heron took off from a pond just close to where we were.  My heart froze as this ancient looking creature cranked itself into the air and wheeled away. I’m not a twitcher.  I can’t imagine the mindset of one bridegroom whose wedding I took, and who I had to order not to bring his pager to church – “just one day off – please”  He once drove overnight to Scotland to join a throng of fellow twitchers watching some rare migrant.  Not my scene. My haunt is the ordinary, the everyday and my sadness is that it’s thinning out. I probably wouldn’t drive to Cornwall just to see a heron, but life without herons altogether would be immeasurably poorer.

We are less confident and  more strident because we’re losing the lyrical sense and it’s eating away at some immaterial part of our being. And yet there is room to hope because  those shelves of books in Waterstones are, in their own way, deeply subversive; for an attentive reader they’re just a step towards the resistance. The holy grail of nature writing today is not to bathe the reader in a glow of purposeless sentiment – not to provide stunning but ultimately sterile pictures of lovely things, but to challenge – to take the reader to the casualty clearing station and invite them to join the battle.

Like Jacob, wresting a blessing from the moment

 


The two pictures don’t belong together geographically. The eyebright – Euphrasia officinalis agg was photographed in St Davids and the sea-wall was in Mousehole, Cornwall. Linked together (just about) by the Atlantic ocean which they shared, but opposites in almost every other respect; the one transitory and vulnerable and the other adamantine and massive. There’s one other thing that they share: they both made me stop and pay rapt attention to them.

Identifying flowers can be quite challenging when they’re very variable. The little “agg” after the Latin name means that there are in this case something like 30 recognised variants and/or 71 wild hybrids – they all look a bit like this apparently but how would I know? Even the magisterial Clive Stace makes it sound hard – it’s an eyebright and it’s very small and very beautiful and I’m resisting any temptation to enlarge on its healing properties except to say it seems that it’s still in use for its medicinal properties.

The harbour wall, equally could have been built in an almost infinite variety of configurations from the stone at hand.  That monster five-sided stone must have taken the combined strength of three, maybe four masons to lift into place, and it could have been laid with any of its sides at the base. Was it a collective decision?  Did the foreman say “it goes like this”, or was the culture of building so strong that they all just knew where it should go? The form, the pattern of both flower and wall are characteristic of a basic structure but capable of many variations, any of which seem, as I discover them, to be absolutely perfect. To use an analogy from jazz, there’s a pulse, a starting key, a sequence, an idea, and thereafter an emerging and embodied performance.

I’ve never thought of a plant or a wall as a performance before, but it’s an exciting and provocative thought.  And what about a moth or a cat or a daffodil?  Or to use a much simpler (because speeded up) example – what about a sudden parting of the clouds over the horizon as the sun sets?  Why is it that my response, so often, to the unexpected discovery of something lovely – is to cry out, to clap my hands as if I’d just heard the most brilliant improvisation.

That’s exactly the underlying idea from the title of John Parkinson’s 1640 book “Theatrum Botanicum – The Theatre of Plants”, reworked again by Richard Mabey’s 2015 book “Cabaret of Plants”. Plants, flowers and all of nature wrest from us an emotional response that goes way beyond our recognition of their usefulness. We give them names and use their names because in their performance they force us to go beyond any instrumental, reductive thoughts and into relationship with them. And the idea of treating our relationship with plants (or sea walls) as a kind of performance reminds us that performances are not complete without readers, listeners or viewers – and the better we are at those tasks, the greater, the more illuminating and powerful the performance can be.  I owe to A F Woodman, my much loved music teacher at secondary school, this phrase – “I know you can hear it Pole – but are you listening?!”

On a plain, grey day in November with nothing much going on, I’m flicking through my photos looking for inspiration. Nine times out of ten, my postings are initiated by a photograph – something that caught my eye, made me stop what I what I was doing at some point during the day.  But some days are unrelieved by those moments of illumination. Some days when everything seems flat and spare I have to wrest a blessing from the moment, hang in there. And today my consolation is in the eyebright I found at St Davids in the summer, and in contemplating that great granite sea-wall, shouldering off the waves tide after tide, storm after storm and still there as the first celandines peep through the snow – upcountry.

 

 

 

Wood chip leaves null point

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In this new unpredictable climate it’s a dubious pleasure to write that this was a typical November day. Not just weatherwise – it was grey, cold and energy sapping – but it was one of those days when you drift listlessly around the allotment sensing a vague smell of decay everywhere and not getting on with anything.  There are jobs that really do need doing, the fruit cage is a mess and the blackcurrents and gooseberries need moving to give them more space but …..

It’s my own fault.  I couldn’t have picked a worse moment to go off on a Gillyflower adventure.  There’s another five weeks of declining day length before we can start to look forward to spring, and so I’ve had my head in the books and fought my way through a vast thicket of botanical misunderstandings (mostly mine) until finally I had a workable understanding of the elusive Gillyflower and the fact that it has more real cousins than is strictly proper, and a few cousins that are not related at all except they smell nice.  Then there were three cousins that I thought were different but turned out to be almost brothers and sisters.

When I used to take funerals, I would always try to find out (in as subtle a way as possible) where the landmines were buried. This lot would give a saint a headache and as far as putting your foot in it goes, they are enough to get you hauled up before the bishop for getting the deceased person’s name wrong. So here goes;

any of a number of fragrant flowers, such as the wallflower or white stock

ARCHAIC a clove scented pink or carnation.

noun: clove gillyflower …..

According to Culpeper there are three sorts – the clove gilliflower (notice his different spelling), the stock gilliflower and the winter gilliflower or wallflower – but the single reference to ‘stock gilliflowers’ seems to suggest he was just using the name as an adjective for scented.

Gerard cites ‘clove gillyflowers’, ‘pinks or wilde gillyflowers’, and ‘sweet williams’ but rates them all as scented herbs without medicinal virues.

But what we are really talking about here are two different families of plants united by their usefulness as perfumes.

Some of them are pinks, sweet williams and carnations which are Dianthus and the others are wallflowers and stocks which are Brassicas.

As far as Shakespeare was concerned the gillyflower was a carnation. None of them appear to have any proven medicinal qualities except cheering you up from the safe distance of a vase, so chasing around the countryside with your copy of Culpeper in hand looking for a cure for your bewildered mind is likely to leave you as confused as you were when you started. The answer is to take an aspirin or, if you prefer, a nice glass of wine, pull the curtains and order seeds for some scented flowers for cutting next year and – if you can’t remember what they’re all called you can wave a languid arm in their general direction and call them gillyflowers. Your friends will admire your scholarship.

 

 

My stiff toe and other spelling mistakes

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Years ago I went to see our doctor with a painfully arthritic big toe.  He was a lovely man and probably didn’t much care for those situations where there was absolutely nothing he could do, and he said “It’s hallux rigidus”. I was a bit disappointed – not so much to be suffering from a ‘real’ disease with a name  – but because hallux rigidus is latin for “stiff toe”. And so I said – ” well I know that –  it’s why I came to see you” and it was clear that we were both trapped in our respective discomfort zones but speaking in different languages.

Latin is an incredibly useful language that the overwhelming majority of us don’t get to learn at school.  Unless you go to a public (US Private) school in the UK you’re very unlikely to know any. I didn’t get any Latin at all until I was almost forty and at theolological college, so although I’m familiar with Latin and Greek I’m a million miles away from any expertise, and that’s why I get cross when I feel Latin is being used to lock me out of the conversation. Latin binomial names can be incredibly useful for distinguishing between similar related plants – especially when getting them right really matters like, for instance in foraging when confusing sweet cicily with hemlock or hemlock water dropwort roots with wlld parsnips. But let’s be clear, it isn’t the latin that’s going to save your life, it’s the skill of patient attention to detail that comes from knowing the family tree down to the remotest second cousin – and that’s always in Latin. English local names for plants can be incredibly poetic and can point you in the direction of possible uses but – sadly –  they’re also very local, so in Derbyshire cow parsley was once known locally as cicily, and an incautious Gloucestershire cook who tried to sweeten their rhubarb with cow parsley would be in for a disappintment.

I have to warn you that this is where I go into full-on obsessive mode – in fact I didn’t post yesterday because the very small amount of time I wasn’t wheelbarrowing leaves and wood chip on the allotment and cooking was spent getting overexcited about plant names. This all started, if you remember, with catching out a modern version of Culpeper’s Herbal in repeating a spelling error in the original book.  I speculated that this was just bad proof reading on Culpeper’s part coupled with a printer’s error.

Then I managed to find the incredibly useful “The Old English Herbals” by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde on the Project Gutenberg site. I found there a quotation from W Coles’ 1656 book “The Art Of Simpling” in which he passes this judgement on Culpeper:

 “Culpeper,” he says, “(a man now dead and therefore I shall speak of him as modestly as I can, for were he alive I should be more straight with him), was a man very ignorant in the forme of Simples. Many Books indeed he hath tumbled over, and transcribed as much out of them as he thought would serve his turne (though many times he were therein mistaken) but added very little of his own.” He even comments on the fact that either Culpeper or his Printer cannot spell aright—“sure he or the Printer had not learned to spell.”

Thank you very much!  – I’ll take that as a vindication, but it makes me wonder whether Culpeper’s herbal was an early example of the coffee table book; owned and displayed, read for its wonderful picture of the times and his descriptions of much loved plants but rarely actually used as a medicinal herbal. It’s certainly the case that it’s still constantly being reprinted and cited in modern books.

I know I’m being a bit of an old curmudgeon , but words really do matter – and getting them wrong leads everyone astray. In the midst of my daydreaming I went off on a brief excursus on the gillyflower.  Where does the name come from? It usually refers to the clove pink – one of the Diathus family, but several other flowers are also known as gillyflowers – so what was going on? Someone suggested it relates to the French month ‘Juillet’ – but another of the so-caled gillyflowers, the wallflower, has finished flowering by July and indeed Culpeper refers to the wallflower as the ‘winter gillyflower’.  Geofffrey Grigson suggests it comes from the French (and Spanish) word for clove – ‘girofle’, which led me to a delightful shuddering stop because not only do I love the perfume of the wallflower but I also associate it with a particular teenage memory which I’ve no intention of sharing except to say that the smell of wallflowers reminds me of one special evening. I don’t think I’ve ever associated that perfume with cloves but my goodness I’m eager to do the research in the spring.

Then on television, the night before last, we were watching Rick Stein’s new programme on French cooking and he remarked in passing that coq au vin was sometimes flavoured with blueberries – which are known in France as Myrtle. I didn’t need a 17th century book to help on that blooper, because we once ate a delicious coq au vin in an auberge in Puy de Dome (which, incidentally was the source of the first printed recipe for the dish in the early 1900’s) and it was flavoured with myrtle – which is ‘myrte’ in French.  Blueberry is known as ‘myrtille’ .  I don’t doubt that myrtille is used in French cooking where it grows in the high country, but myrte is very different, quite austere and memorable.

Anyway being addicted to lists as you may recall, I’ve started a new one with the aim of running as many of Culpeper’s plants down to their current Latin names as I can, and then finding them. But today we’re bashing the galleries again with friends. We went to a student show on Tuesday and it was pretty terrible. My instincts are that there’s nowhere near enough challenge in undergraduate teaching these days and I talked to our teacher son about it.  But he said that the kind of heavyweight challenge that I was talking about would be regarded as abusive in today’s teaching setting. I suppose he’s right, but raising the self-critical faculties would save an awful lot of bad art. It takes courage and resilience to be an artist.

Season of mists and mellow wastefulness

 

EFFECTSDon’t know who this tree belongs to – it’s on the allotment site and it looks as if they’re all going to waste.  There’s an unspoken rule that you don’t pick anything off anyone else’s allotment without their specific permission and so the fruit is gradually dropping off – much to the gratitude of the wildlife.  Meanwhile I thought it looked absolutely beautiful today, standing against the blue of the sky.  Nature produces such wonderful colours (and smells).

In our previous existence we had a small orchard and most autumns a passing flock of redwing would  clear up some of the windfalls, and one year we even got a group of six roe deer to join the party. Our hens absolutely loved them too, so not many were ever wasted.  On the allotments now we’ve got foxes and badgers. I haven’t seen a redwing in ages but the more unwelcome visitors are rats. A couple of times I’ve disturbed a rat in the compost heap – I don’t know which of us was most startled – but they are a nuisance because they carry a number of diseases. Our son found them on his allotment in Bristol and he’s trying out bokashi on his.  It’s a Japanese method for fermenting kitchen waste before it goes on to the compost heap and by all accounts the rats don’t like the smell and stay away.

The only problem is that it’s quite a large outlay for a couple of fermenting bins with taps and a starter supply of molasses soaked bran which is inoculated with several fermenting yeasts and fungi. On the other hand we do produce a great deal of kitchen waste when we prep our vegetables and so if it works it could be worth the investment in the long term. Today’s visitor had half eaten a lump of raw cauliflower and made a comfortable nest for itself.  I turned the heap immediately and brought some thoroughly rotted material (with hundreds of worms) to the top, to create a less attractive layer at the top of the heap. But it does raise the question of whether to cover heaps. I’m not sure there’s a correct answer – if you keep them covered they make more attractive nest sites for rats, but if you leave them open, every time it rains the heap cools down again – yet another dilemma for us allotmenteers!  However if the bokashi trick works we can cover the heap, water it if it gets too dry, and not worry about the rats.

But it was Christmas day on the allotment this morning.  Being Monday, the weekend allotmenteers had gone to work and when we arrived there was another big delivery of both leaves and wood-chip from the Council.  Even better, the leaves had obviously been stacked for some time and were already decomposing.  Three big loads saw the storage bin topped up and when that was done I turned to the wood chip pile.  All our paths are made with wood chip which breaks down surprisingly quickly, so it needs topping up every autumn. It’s important to maintain the paths, not just because they look nicer but also because they enable us to work the beds in any weather.

While I was doing that Madame was pricking out winter lettuces, planting wallflowers under the apple tree and digging up a very large parnip for tomorrow.  We were both delighted to see such a whopping vegetable – last year’s crop was pretty miserable – but we won’t know until tomorrow whether it’s so big it’s got a woody core. After yesterday’s introspective ruminations about slavery it was lovely to chill out with some hard physical work – it gives such a sense of achievement, and after 10 minutes we completely forgot the cold wind.

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Dyrham Park – which picture?

 

I first climbed over the wall of Dyrham Park as a trespasser – about sixty years ago. I think the Blathwayt family or their descendants had long since gone and the place had been sold on to the Ministry of Works.  It was in a bad way, that’s for sure, and I’ve never quite lost the sense of not belonging there.  As a teenager I thought it was one of the most beautiful green spaces I’d ever seen – although I never dared approach the house for fear of being caught and getting into trouble.  I could cycle there in an hour and hide my bike in the bushes before I climbed over the wall, and I could see the whole of my life in a landscape from the top of the escarpment, right at the end of the Cotswolds. .

Sometimes I would  lie there in the grass, just watching the clouds pass over – it was hard to find any peace and solitude at home as a teenager.  Once the park passed into the hands of the National Trust it got easier and Madame and me have even ridden horses in the grounds, galloping across the wide open spaces a few times, but I was never going to make a confident rider.  Nowadays we’re National Trust members and so we can wave our cards and walk freely in the grounds knowing that no-one is going to ask us what we’re up to.

IMG_20191110_125434I’ve never been inside the house.  It’s the open spaces, the deer, Whitefield meadow in July, the autumn fungi the gardens and an occcasion tea and cheese scone in the cafe that we go for.  More often than not we take the long walk around the boundary, just passing by the house and the gift shop – always crowded.  Today the car parks were packed with hundreds of cars and yet by taking our favourite route we hardly saw a soul for most of the time. There wasn’t much to see in the wildflower department except for some encouraging signs of new leaves at the edges of Whitefield meadow and a solitary oxeye daisy.  The gardens were a different matter and the gardeners should be proud of the colour and variety they’ve achieved in November.

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These extraordinary Clerodendrum trichotomum – harlequin glorybower or peanut butter tree – are both exotic and thoroughly odd. Elsewhere in the formal gardens there is masses of colour, with the dogwoods just approaching their best. I’ve never been much of an enthusiast for very formal gardens, I’m more of a cottage garden, Gertrude Jekyll sort of fan but all the same we wandered around, I took a few photos and wished that someone would start a medicinal herb garden there – it would be yet another touch of authenticity for a house soaked in history.  So I had history on my mind as we wandered to the end of the formal garden, thinking about Culpeper whose 1653 herbal would have been a staple around the time the house was being restored betwen 1692 and 1704 . It was all very romantic until we turned around.MVIMG_20191110_130608

Looking back towards the house it’s impossible not to be impressed at the beautiful baroque building while being simultaeously appalled at the source of the wealth that built it. William Blathwayt made his fortune as an MP and civil servant administering the slave plantations of America. In fact I wonder how much of Bath was built on the backs of numberless slaves.  The Beckford Tower, the Georgian crescents, the Sidney Gardens.  Hugely important architecturally and historically; generating millions in revenue from tourism every year and yet fatally compromised for me by the suffering that made them possible.  And that’s why I’ve never been inside the house, because all that architectural beauty came at a price. The beauty and ecological richness of the surrounding parkland is still uplifting even as the environment is under threat but it never truly belonged to us.

“There’s no such thing as clean money” I used to say glibly to anyone who criticised St Mary Redcliffe where I worked,  for being built on slave money. I was wrong. The issue as to whether slavery was evil is settled, but the issue of how we live with its fruits is not. British taxpayers didn’t finish paying off the debt incurred by compensating slave owners for the loss of their “property” until four years ago. Yes four years ago. It’s Remembrance Sunday today.  Remembering is, or ought to be, more than a sentimental costume drama.  Remembering is radical, dangerous and challenging, it makes demands on us.  Even a simple walk on a sunny day can get swept into its vortex.

First proper frost of the season

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I love to wake up like we did today and see white frost on the green outside, but this morning it was especially good to see the excited loop drawn on the grass by a dog released from its lead. Who says a line can’t express joy! It’s no less pleasurable to be prepared for frost, and I say so having not been up to the allotment to look for myself. “Possibly” says my inner pessimist – ” all your seedlings are dead”. “Oh do go away”, I think, “and bother someone else”.

We’ve fleeced and cloched all the vulnerable plants, and garlic especially is supposed to positively relish a few days of hard frost – so bring it on, I think.  On the other hand it’s worth wondering what the balance of good practice might be in relation to sheeting, IMG_20191109_151823fleecing and mulching. Creating a warm dry environment under black plastic sheets is a great help to slugs as well as more friendly pests – (just peel the sheet back and look for yourself), so maybe we should be encouraging foxes (on our plot they don’t need much encouragement), badgers who love a fat slug, and hedgehogs as well as toads who equally don’t mind if they do. Oh and don’t forget the birds. I know that those who sell garden supplies would have us think that only an architect designed and artisan produced bee hotel will be suitable, but insects prefer to choose their own overwintering spots.  Every year at this time we have an invasion of ladybirds who creep into the flat and take up their winter quarters in the corners of our ceilings.  I took this photograph in the hall, ten minutes ago.  I suppose we could  spray them with insecticide, but in the spring we’ll be hoping for them to arrive as the aphids get going.  I prefer to see our guests as free biological control breeding colonies.  I’m not so keen on the frass, but that comes off with a wipe anyway.

A bit of botanical history

In a quick update on my Tutsan research, I checked back on the transcribed edition of Culpeper’s Herbal and found that in the 1649 edition the plant was indeed described as ‘Tustan’, but Culpeper wrote that it was no longer much used. It doesn’t seem to appear at all in Gerard a century earlier.  There’s a clue in the indispensible “Englishman’s Flora” when Grigson states that Tutsan had been mistaken in a medieval herbal for another herb altogether, mentioned by Pliny. He goes on to say that by Gerard’s time the misidentification had been corrected and this must have led to its decline, although Culpeper still lists a number of uses. But the 1649 edition is also full of typos – there are dozens if not hundreds listed at the end of the Project Gutenberg edition so perhaps it was a Friday afternoon in November when a short sighted printer with no botanical knowledge at all dropped two pieces of moveable type into the wrong place in a frame and no-one noticed. Why am I so interested in this? Well I spent half my life grappling with understanding and interpreting ancient texts, and old habits die hard.

Some tougher stuff on herbal medicine

And while I’m on the subject of honest errors, I notice in the newspapers another routine round of attacks by conventional medicine on the dangers of herbal medicines.  Let’s be clear, I’m not a gimlet eyed anti vaxxer and I have more reasons than most to be grateful for modern drugs – I take four different drugs every day and without them there’s a signficant chance I’d be in much poorer health than I am.  I have my annual flu jab and so it goes on.  So thank you to the NHS, I’m a fan.  But in his day, Culpeper battled with the Royal College of Surgeons – he wrote this in 1649 as he translated the (Latin) Pharmacoepia Londinensis into the English common tongue, facing the same challenged as did Myles Coverdale and many others in translating the Bible (in 1535) so that any ploughboy might read it.

” The liberty of our Common Wealth   …… is most infringed by three sorts of men, Priests, Physitians, Lawyers”.

Well he would say that wouldn’t he? – he fought with Cromwell in the English Civil War and was a thoroughgoing Puritan radical. He got a serious chest wound which may have been a subsidiary cause of his death from TB at the age of only 39. He could see that many poor people simply couldn’t afford to pay for credentialed physicians and so he gave them what they needed – reliable access to self care. He was always careful to note where a misidentification could be dangerous, and there’s no sense of anything but close observation and attention to detail in his book – but it was a book written in the 17th century translating another put together in the 16th from manuscripts that went back to the first century and using experience gathered from Egyptian, Roman and Greek sources. It can’t be understood without serious study: which is a long way of saying that attacks on herbal medicine that come from a simple 21st century superficial reading of ancient texts suffer from exactly the same flaws as do the attacks by anti-vaxxers on modern scientific medicine – they’re often fuelled and inflamed by a complete failure to understand what the other is really doing.

Undoubtedly herbal medicine can be dangerous and can cause unexpected interactions with conventional medicines. Undoubtedly we could do with better training and more regulation of expensive raw materials, bearing in mind that fake Viagra and illegal steroids are hardly ‘better’ than fake Ginseng or any other herb. Conventional medicine too has its downside.  I found some research by the Universities of Sheffield, York and Manchester published on 23rd February 2018 on the subject of prescription errors: it found that in the UK there were:

  • 237 million medication errors each year
  • An estimated 712 deaths
  • Were a contributory factor to between 17,000 and 22,000 deaths
  • Cost £98.5 million per year to remedy

I tried to find equivalent data for herbal and oriental medicines but it seems that there is very little detailed research and a lot of untested anecdotal evidence floating around. Could this be a clash of ideologies just like the battles of the 16th and 17th centuries? The only way to find out is to do the comparative research on a level playing field. How many times have I heard it said that “there’s no evidence” that a certain treatment works when the reason there is no evidence is because no-one had ever done any research to find any. That’s a politicians trick!

Meanwhile I’ll continue to pick my sceptical way between the opposing sides and use the best informed opinions when it comes to choosing the right therapy. A few weeks ago we had a meal with a GP and a cancer specialist consultant.  I asked in all innocence (ho ho) whether their patients ever asked them about complementary therapies. “All the time” was the response and the conversation was immediately doused with a bucketful of cold silence.

Please don’t try this at home

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The brain of sparrows being eaten, provokes lust exceedingly

I mentioned a couple of days ago that I’d got hold of a rather disappointing edition of Culpeper’s Herbal.  It wasn’t an absolute stinker, but it had been heavily edited with much of the archaic language translated rather than transcribed, and it was missing hundreds of pages of the kind that I quoted above. It wasn’t that I was particularly searching for aphrodisiacs (well I would say that, I suppose), but that I stumbled on it when a chapter entitled “parts of living things and excrements” caught my eye as I scrolled through.  The edition, by the way, is an online transcription as part of the Gutenberg Project – free and massively useful.

The thing is, Culpeper can only be understood within its own context, and without that – the astrology, the doctrine of signatures, the battles he was having with the authorities – it boils down to a very strange mixture of bad ideas like eating sparrows’ brains.  But within the pages there’s the beginnnings of a revolution.  Just as Luther’s translation of the Bible changed the churches for ever, so the translation of these remedies into the common tongue changed the course of medicine and probably changed the distribution and cultivation of wildflowers for ever. Imagine any cottage garden and it’s a fair bet that some at least of the plants will be the distant offspring of medicinal herbs, and I think I read somewhere recently that something like 40% of our current prescription drugs are derived from plant material. Yet another reason for fighting against unnecessary extinctions, and remember that not all useful drug yielding plants are found in the Amazon rain forest – some are undoubtedly living outside our front doors – if we could but see them.

Plants are wonderful synthesisers of compounds utterly beyond the reach of science, and the clues as to where to look won’t be found within the pages of a translation forged in the culture of the 21st century, but with a sympathetic reading of the way things seemed to the apothecaries of the past within their own culture and at that time. Sadly, for all its great strengths, science tends to lack humility in the face of very old ideas.

Anyway, enough of that. Tonight promises a hard frost and so this afternoon we were up at the allotment with fleece and cloches to protect our vulnerable plants.

As promised – borlotti beans

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Two days ago I was in the throes of changing my mobile and I wrote that I’d rather be talking about borlotti beans than grappling with passwords and strange operating systems. Then of course it all miraculouly worked and I was so pleased we went out on a photo tour of Bath to test the camera which – I have to say – is extremely clever but a bit baffling a times.

So here, as promised, are the borlotti beans and I think they’re very beautiful.  We’re saving half of them for next year’s seed (they’re open pollinated) just to see how they do. I’m not entirely sure how this could be of any great interest to anyone else, but after decades of listening to other peoples’ stories, I know how fascinating the everyday details of another life can be, and one thing I am completely sure of is that I’m no expert and I’d hate for anyone to take me as an authority on any of the things I write about.

Life is a project and every project contains within it the possibility of failure.

That sounds like a chunk of management speak, I know, but a life without any egg on your face is a dull prospect, and if I sow seeds at the wrong time, or misread a recipe then at least I share my idiocy free of charge and without leading a whole country into bankruptcy.

At this moment, however, I am beguiled by plans for next season. In my typically freely associating way (it’s a useful skill and it helps to have some psychoanalytic experiences) I move like a small stream from yesterday’s joy at finding some lungwort, seeing our Sweet Cicily in flower, to thinking about the Mugwort I’ve got stored in a cupboard next to the Christmas cake.  From there it’s an effortless step to my growing collection of herbals and thence (you know where this is going to go) to a flourishing physic garden  growing somewhere in a corner of my mind.

When I went to theological college there was a fellow student who had experienced a profound religious conversion on the toilet. I have found that the minute detals of conversion experiences tend to figure largely in what’s known in the trade as “testimony”. Anyway, there was more to follow because he also felt compelled to tell us that he had been “deeply involved” with morris dancing which he now understood as being inspired by magic and other devilish practices. Although I found the story hilariously funny at the time, I confess that my own secret policeman is inclined to whisper sweet ‘nothing doings’ in my ear when I stray from the scientific uplands of proper field botany or allotmenteering to the dangerous underground of traditional herbal medicine. “call it a project” I say to myself and feel better at once.

The ‘nature of things’, seen purely from a scientific perspective seems to me to be a rather ‘thin’ reductive description. ‘Lungwort – Pulmonaria officinalis – is a member of the borage family and used to be thought useful in the treatment of lung diseases’  – so says the dictionary, and it’s true but hardly gathers together the rich strands of usage and history, the religious background, the ‘common sense’ of the day and all the multitude of factors that contribute to the ‘thick’ description of Lungwort, and which transform it from a relic of the ignorance of the past, into a portal through which I can access the past, listen in to its gossip, share its hopes, fears and preoccupations.  And so when I walk to a patch of vegetation on the edge of the canal, I greet so much more than just another plant I can name. It becomes the key to thousands of years of communal wisdom, and I learn something about my own fugitive existence on the earth.

There you go – a bit of free association can lead you into all sorts of trouble.  Still, I saw the other day, in one of my books, that a cup of mugwort tea at bedtime can bestow ‘lucid dreams’.  That would make a nice change and I might give it a go one of these days! Meanwhile the physic garden hovers discreetly at the back of my mind except that almost everything I’d put in it is freely available on the paths and in the parks of Bath  – if only I knew what all these plants looked like. Now that looks like a proper project.