Backstage at the Moulin Rouge

Well no, no really, but we’ve go two really fine exhibitions going on in Bath at the moment – one is an exhibition of posters – many of them by Lautrec – at the Victoria Art Gallery, and the other at the Holburne Museum is a large collection of Grayson Perry’s early works.

I love Lautrec’s work; I love its vigour, the sweep of his line and the way he seems to make something beautiful out of tawdry, demi monde Paris. There’s a whole argument about the relationship between truth and beauty that I won’t bore you with, but Lautrec never had the rather cruel, forensic eye that you see in say Grosz or Beckmann and I think it’s because he was an outsider himself. I don’t want to write an art history essay here, but looking at the poster of the dancer La Goulou (“Greedy Guts”) there’s something about the drawing of the look on her face, described very economically in profile, that shows  compassion for her. I can imagine Lautrec sitting sketching in the wings and watching her perform to the crowded audience, and noticing something in her eyes that suggests she is simply working. She’s not engaging with the crowd, she’s certainly not flirting with them, she is not owned by them or dependent on them, not out for hire but just working. Lautrec gives her a kind of nobility.  He does that a lot in his posters – you can see that his characters aren’t taken in by the superficial glamour of what they do. The booze, the prostitution, the infidelites are all there but they don’t define the performers.  You notice that he’s far less sympathetic to the punters and that may be because he was an outsider too.  Disabled by a childhood injury – I can imagine that his bones were broken near the growth plates and they just stopped growing – he would have known what it felt like to be stared at, what it felt like to be regarded as both fascinating and horrible at the same time. And of course he had a gift that meant people had to engage with him on his terms. In a world of outsiders he was just another one; but he was totally accepted in the favela of the cabarets, the bars and the brothels.

Grayson Perry has the same ‘outsider’ quality. We went to see his work the day after the exhibition was opened and it was absolutely heaving with people.  He’s immensely popular, especially – it seems – with the over sixties, judging by the crowds. We liked his work very much – apparently quite a proportion of his earliest stuff was bought by people who lived around here. My biggest impression was just how hard he worked; it seems that ‘being yourself’ demands the kind of fierce concentration that few people would be prepared to give.

And then there’s Adam Nicholson’s book “The Seagull’s Cry” which I’ve been raving on about for long enough. I took a look at some of the reviews that came out when it was published – all of them very positive, but this one by Alex Preston in the Financial Times struck me as rather odd.

The poet Michael Longley said that nature was a way into, rather than an escape from, politics. “My nature writing is my most political,” he wrote. “Describing the world in a meticulous way is a consecration and a stay against damaging dogmatism.” The more you read The Seabird’s Cry, the more you recognise that this is not nature writing — generally a trite and provincial genre — but a powerful polemic, a call to arms. Science, Nicolson writes, “is coming to understand the seabirds just as they are dying”. He asks us to save the seabirds, but to save them through a radical sympathetic shift …

Now nature writing is undergoing a true renaissance at the moment; the list of fine writers on the natural world is long and distinguished, but to write – “this is not nature writing — generally a trite and provincial genre”  is, if you’ll forgive me, a particularly suburban and smug remark based on a false syllogism:

  • Nature writing is generally trite and provincial
  • This writing is not trite and provincial
  • Therefore it is not nature writing

The flaw is in the premise – as usual –  and Alex Preston clearly has no idea what is going on in the world.  I suppose you could call Gilbert White provincial but only in the strict sense that Selborne isn’t in the East End and inhabited exclusively by currency dealers and hipsters. In theology this kind of prejudice was known as “the scandal of particularity”. Nothing exists except as a shadow of its essence, he might argue, and therefore to concern oneself with the absolutely unique and material beauty of the dandelion in the crack on the pavement outside my flat is to miss (so he might say) its dandelionarity.  Surely you might expect a novelist to understand that no-one wants to read a book about stereotypes!

Nicholson’s chapter on the Guillemot makes for harrowing reading as he describes the way that the social mores that historically held these bird communities together through constant reinforcement, broke down as the food sources moved away from the nesting sites due to global warming. Deprived of the abundant food, the guillemots began to turn on one another, chicks were slaughtered by neighbouring birds that once might have fostered them. Reading the chapter, it was impossible not to extend the sense of danger to human communities as well.  Once the social bonds are broken there may well be hell to pay in the most literal sense.

And back in the very real and particular world of horse shit and hotbeds I’m pleased to report that ours has risen from 10C to 30C in less than a week. In Lautrec’s day the market gardens of Montmartre relied on hotbeds to grow early salad crops for export to London. Jack First’s great book on hotbeds – all you need to get going – quotes McKay whose book, published in 1908 said:

The French sent over to London up to 5000 crates of lettuces with 3 dozen lettuces per crate, 500 crates of carrots with a dozen bunches per crate, plus 100 crates each of asparagus and turnips and 50 crates of celeriac – every day – and all between Christmas and March.

All that and there was still time to go down to the Moulin Rouge and watch La Goulue.  I could get used to it!

Storm Dennis forces indoor gardening

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it got worse. When we first heard the wind soughing through any gaps in the windows it sounded suitably mournful, almost lovely. It felt good to pull up the bedcovers and entertain ourselves with thoughts of the driving rain and crashing waves outside the door. But that’s just an indulgence.

Actually being flooded is quite a different experience as we discovered one evening alongside the tidal Avon almost underneath the Clifton Suspension Bridge.  We’d been living there for some years and we were used to the occasional inundation of the Portway, but this particular night a west wind was heaping up a spring tide and driving it upstream at the same time as a snow melt was travelling in the opposite direction. What was most unnerving about it was just how quiet it was.  The water just kept on rising, over the dockside, across the low wall and then began to move across the road towards our house. We stood there in disbelief for an age, before Madame called a taxi to take the children to a safer place as I wondered how to stop the water flooding the basement. Mercifully the tide turned and the water retreated, but I’d never experienced water as malignant before.  Dark, relentless and malignant.  I think of the hundreds of people in the North for whom the water hasn’t stopped.

And now we live much further upstream on the same river – we haven’t moved far – but the river hasn’t lost its capacity to threaten and bully its way through the city. We know when it’s high when we can see the surface gleaming through the trees across the green, and still it’s largely silent when it’s at its most dangerous. There’s no theatrical roar, no whitewater, it’s just dark; swirling silently and sliding past as fast as a cyclist could keep up on the towpath. Global climate change is one problem we’re not going to be able to export to a place we don’t have to look in the eye. Which is perhaps an overly melodramatic way of cueing the fact that we didn’t go out today.  We’d made safe the allotment as best we could, and we just waited for storm Dennis to blow it (him)self out over the weekend while we got on with sowing seeds for the propagators.

It seems a bit ironic to be sowing chillies and peppers this weather, but they need a long season and so we always seem to land up sowing them when the winter weather is demonstrating that there’s still time for frost and snow. Each year we juggle the dates to try to get them ready to go up to the allotment at the exact moment the weather changes for the better. It’s called gambling, and the odds are always in favour of Nature having the last laugh, which is why you need to develop plenty of resilience, and a sense of humility to be any good as a gardener. If I had one piece of advice – or rather two pieces – for a novice allotmenteer they would be

  1. Get your seeds in early
  2. Don’t get your seeds in too early

See what I mean? That’s why this blog is about being human, rather than being clever. My guess is that in about eight weeks we’ll be trying to keep a load of very leggy and tender capsicum plants alive in the flat until the snow melts at last. Anyway, this is the time of year when almost everything you’re planning to do on the allotment is virtual; aspirational.  A few cotyledons here and there; some unopened seed packets along with some empty beds in which – we hope – remarkable vegetables will grow.

Outside the flat, the window boxes are being thrashed by the wind and rain, and I’m not sure they’ll ever reach their full potential this year. All across the UK people are enduring this seemingly endless sequence of Atlantic storms, and I’d like to think that the light is gradually dawning in the collective mind.  But then I think back to how long it took for the science around the dangers of smoking to take us to the point of giving it up.  There were huge commercial pressures and vast fortunes were spent by the tobacco industry to prop their lethal product up, and successive governments delayed any genuine action – probably because of the huge tax revenues they were gaining. We must expect that common sense will only prevail after every other option has been investigated – the trouble is we don’t have fifty years.

If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I’m very interested in finding out how farmers are responding to the climate challenge. I don’t think anyone – even farmers – believe that nothing needs to change, but I do think that some of their critics have been cherry picking the evidence against farming. So here’s another random article that landed in my inbox today.  This one is another defence of traditional mixed farming over and against feedlots and chemicals.  I found it very interesting although I can’t vouch for all the data it’s based on.  But whatever solution we reach for has simply got to gain the support of farmers and landowners if it’s going to work. I have no confidence in the capacity of the present government to challenge its own funding sources so it’s going to have to be a battle for public opinion.  The information, all of it, is out there and we need to collate and understand what it’s saying and not reach for scapegoats to carry the blame. The future of life on the earth depends upon us reaching the correct conclusion and then acting on it.

 

Like dragging an elk back to the cave

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Actually the photo is a bit of a cheat because I took it exactly a year ago to the day.  On the other hand after a few days of work this week, the allotment looks uncannily – or rather – exactly the same, because in truth there’s nothing at all uncanny about the yearly routine since with small variations from year to year it just happens that way.

A friend emailed today with a link to an Imboic celebration she’d taken part in.  I’d never heard of Imboic before but it’s described both as a Wiccan and a Celtic festival to celebrate the beginning of spring and takes place at the beginning of February, coincidentally the date when Candlemas is celebrated in the Christian church. The religious are a larcenous lot with regard to festivals and this is obviously an ancient, probably pre-Christian festival that’s been repackaged to suit successive orthodoxies. What it does achieve is to touch the very deep need in our lives to recognise and celebrate the seasonal turning points. Looking at the YouTube video it’s clear that everyone was having a grand time and that, in my usual latitudinarian way I don’t give a stuff if they all believe different things; the fact is, the crowds knew why they were there and what they were celebrating.

And the crowds were entirely right. The year has turned decisively and even if there were no humans left to celebrate it (a distinct possibility if we don’t change our ways) the plants and wildlife certainly would. Today on the allotment we heard and saw –  wrens and robins, jays, magpies, rooks, and a green woodpecker; all without making the least effort. We allotmenteers seem to have an instinctual drive to make ready for the new season and Madame and me have been afflicted by the urge to work all day and think about work all night. The beds are all ready, bar a tiny bit of weeding, and the second propagator will be switched on tomorrow (rainy day job).  The pile of pernicious weeds and roots – mostly bindweed and creeping buttercup since the couch has been vanquished – has not dried out, and so the vexed issue of whether to burn them in a couch fire or drive them to the tip and let someone else burn them, hasn’t arisen – but it will.  The battle of the composts has been resolved, and a new bag of Sylva Grow is in the back of the car. I would have tried to get a bag of Carbon Gold, about which I’ve heard good things, but it’s not widely distributed in garden centres yet.  We are astonished that they are still apparently selling mountains of peat based composts, and it occurred to me this morning that it’s no use grumbling about the way things are; this is a capitalist society and the one thing, the only thing agribusiness is interested in is the bottom line. So if we’re concerned about peat extraction we just stop buying it, and put the garden centres on notice that we’ll take away their greenwashed credentials if they don’t stop.

Anyway, enough bolshy gardener stuff – I really wanted to write about the absurd pleasure of prepping the ground.  Our allotment is at the bottom of a steep slope, probably about 30 vertical feet below the access track, and that means that wheelbarrowing materials down the grass path is pretty hard work. In the last few days I’ve trucked down 20 bags of horse manure, 4 bags of topsoil, 2 bags of horticultural sand, a week’s kitchen waste and maybe ten loads of wood chip. Then today as I surveyed the flattened remains of the autumn leaf pile, I realized that there was a good eight inches of almost black topsoil, full of old leaf mould and it was calling out to me – take me now! When we took on our hillside allotments, the only thing we could do was terrace them. Timber is expensive, but we bit the bullet and gradually built proper beds as funds permitted. Some topsoil was salvaged as we dug out deep paths for drainage, but our so-called raised beds have spent much of their lives being a bit sunken. Filling them with topsoil would have been outrageously expensive and so our strategy has been to recycle every gram of dirt, every plant pot’s worth of compost and to acquire more whenever the chance arose.  A neighbour over ordered and so I bought the surplus from him.  Today yielded four full barrow loads of marvellous topsoil and at last the most needy bed is genuinely raised.  The hotbed is fully charged and has reached 13C at the surface of the earth layer, and I added the surplus horse manure to the compost bin as a bit of extra nitrogen, and turned it all in. This was truly hard work and yet it gave me the most absurd amount of pleasure. It was, in the words at the top of this post, dragging the elk back to the cave kind of work. The purple sprouting broccoli is ready to harvest, and we’ve still got potatoes and parsnips- we dug the last today. I swear if the government ever found out how much joy and pleasure this gives, they’d tax it or ban it.

And then to the garden centre to look for seeds and (inevitably) we spent more than we should because to an allotmenteer a packet of seeds or a new garden tool has more than paid for itself before you even reach the till! So a new draw hoe attached itself to me and begged me to buy it – how could I refuse?

Is gardening good for your mental health? of course it is! It’s good for your spiritual health as well, oh and your physical health too, provided you steer clear of the sirens on the chemical stands. We shall dine on parsnips and elk tonight and I’ll put on my best bison skin to impress Madame. Just to cap it all, I’ve been reading Adam Nicholson’s book “The Seabird’s Cry” – I like to take a break from frightening myself now and again. This is a wonderful book and it would make a birdwatcher out of a stone. If you take my advice and buy it, you’ll never look a sea bird in the eye again without awe and respect.

Feel the pulse

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I know I’ve been a bit remiss over the last few days, but things are hotting up on the allotment and – because the evenings are lighter – we tend to forget the time and arrive back at the flat late, leaving an unholy rush to get food organised.  But the beds are looking good and the broad beans have survived the latest storm with another on the way.  The hotbed is now full and has gained 6C over the past 48 hours, so now it’s capped with soil it will romp away. The infrastructure jobs like moving and plumbing the water butts are at last looking possible.  There’s a whole list of things to do, but at least we’re not chafing at home.

We are, however, chafing a bit up at the allotment because the annual challenge of seed compost has made its appearance and we’re unable to agree on what to do.  It really is difficult to find well made peat free seed composts.  We use coir modules for many things, but there are some vegetables that need to be pricked out.  We’ve experimented with SylvaGrow and it’s not the best for seed sowing.  We use it for many other purposes but we’ve not been successful with some.  Home made peat free compost – unless we buy in all the ingredients – uses soil and compost that haven’t been sterilised and so could in theory lead to damping off and other fungal problems. I’m sure a solution will eventually be found but it’s been a headache.

But I was browsing this morning, thinking about borlotti beans – which we really like.  I was musing on whether we really do need to move towards synthetic or manufactured proteins as we decrease our meat consumption.  A very little bit of research showed that the kind of pulses we can grow easily in the UK – like borlotti beans, lentil, dried peas and so on – are packed with protein and rich in no end of other important vitamins and minerals.  This is important because the preferred route for many in the food industry is to grow and almost always import soya and high protein wheat to use as a feedstock, not just for animals but for manufactured foods as well.   So it seems a perfectly possible and well  tolerated way forward for all of us to eat less meat and more pulses – not only are they rich in protein and nutrients but they’re also high in fibre – that’s got to be a double whammy and the best thing of all is it locks out the industrial food manufacturers. From what I can discover this makes a perfect diet for vegetarians and vegans.  No need for tofu and Quorn, and fake burgers and bacon; no need for spirulina products to be allowed to flood the market.

This, of course can only address the climate and species crises if at the same time there’s a total change of heart over farming policy and the subsidy system. For decades farmers have been paid to remove hedges, invest less in labour and more in machinery, and increase productivity at the expense of both soil and wildlife habitat. by dousing the land in poisons. I was completely taken aback this morning when I turned up an opinion  piece by George Monbiot, written in 2010, in which he accepted that his previous position of advocating universal veganism is, or rather was wrong and that the way forward could be to allow some meat production in small and ethically run farms and smallholdings. Now to be fair he seems to have changed his mind since, but surely there is room for a less polarised discussion on meat production with a view to contributing to a solution to the present crisis.

All power to vegetarians and vegans for pointing out the ethical issues in meat (and fish) eating; but it remains an ethical choice and not a pantechnicon solution to be imposed at the expense of many thousands of jobs and without any guarantee of success. There’s no reason we couldn’t bear down on the cruel treatment of animals, and the reopening of many more (properly supervised) local slaughterhouses would make a big difference. We need to support local initiatives through the way we buy food. We used to keep chickens in our orchard some years ago, and although I never enjoyed killing them I got myself trained to kill them quickly and humanely by a local butcher. It’s not an act to be undertaken lightly or thoughtlessly but I believe it was an ethically justifiable thing to do.  We gave up because foxes took to raiding in the daytime and trust me – they don’t kill chickens quickly or humanely at all. If you find the very thought of this disgusting or appalling then I’m sorry.  I respect your principled stance as I hope you will accept mine.

There are other – many other – actions we’ll need to take, but the key point is that we can do it locally and sustainably and without relying on food manufacturers and agribusiness to feed us. The only green thing about the green revolution were the countless people who swallowed the lie.  Bring on the lentils!

 

Muck, but no mystery!

….. and suddenly, at last, the sun shone, the rain stopped and were able to get out on to the allotment.  In spite of the cold wind we took a chance on filling the hotbed, and so we drove over to one of my old parishes to sack up and bring back the first of two car loads of fresh, hot, horse manure. Most gardeners want the well rotted kind but for this purpose we need about twenty bags of strawy stable manure as fresh as possible.  Last year being the first time we’d tried this technique we asked my friend Annie to keep out as much straw as possible, but that proved a bit of a mistake because the bacteria that heat the heap don’t just need nitrogen they need carbon too – and that’s what the straw provides.  The theory is that this mixture will heat the bed quicker and hotter – but we shall see.  Our car is quite small and even with the seats down it’s difficult to get more than 10 full bags in at a time.

So as each bag was tipped into the deep frame – it’s a spade depth below ground level – we trod it firm and watered it.  We continue that process of topping, firming and watering until the heap is around 3 feet deep, and once it’s started to heat up we cover the manure with a home made mixture of topsoil, well rotted compost and horticultural sand.  This not only gives a good well drained bed for sowing, at the end of the season the whole lot of soil, compost, sand and manure go back on to the beds – about a cubic metre of it.  It’s most useful where we’ve terraced the beds, and every year we’re able to raise them a little more. Since our cold frames were stolen the hotbed will take over the work of germinating and bringing on early tender plants.

It’s amazing what a pleasurable experience a few hours of hard physical work can be after months of moping about indoors.  Annie was saying that they’ve been unable to let the horses out even for a taste of grass because the land is so wet.  As we drove across Lansdown on Friday we saw a herd of cows grazing on the few shreds of grass that have survived the wettest winter in memory.  When I mentioned it to Annie she said “he probably ran out of silage – he must have been desperate”. Desperate or not they were back indoors again today but that’s a measure of how hard this winter has hit farmers.

I read a lot about the impact of farming on climate change and so much of it is almost sectarian in its hatred of any opposing opinions. As we were filling the bags today, I was thinking about the way in which these small farms of a few hundred acres are maligned when they’re lumped together with enormous feedlots which really do create problems. Our half ton of manure is produced by horses which aren’t ruminants and don’t make the same methane contribution as cattle do. It’s a rich source of soil nutrients and helps to build up soil structure while it captures carbon in the process.  We use the soil to grow healthy organic food in a completely sustainable way.  After we’re gone the soil will be in a much better state than when we took it on. There’s a kind of virtuous circle going on here.  All our veg trimmings are recycled back into the same ground, and we even use our own urine as a liquid fertilizer.  Good, small scale farming operates the same virtuous circle. Crops are grown, the soil is enriched and the animals are fed.  Our southwest UK climate favours grass above all else, and so dairy and beef farming are the obvious way of using the ground. Grass fed beef – that’s to say beef that’s not been fattened on a high protein diet of expensive soya and grain – is far superior to feedlot beef. Animals that are free to roam in natural herds outside in the fresh air and with the sun on their backs are not, on the face of it, being cruelly treated. Any old-school farmer will tell you that  stressed animals get sick more often and don’t make either good milk or fine tasting beef. The snag, and there’s always a snag, is that we can’t have it both ways. High welfare, grass fed organic beef is bound to cost much more money and for most of us that means eating a good deal less of it.  The same goes for almost any meat, whether chicken, pork or lamb, we simply can’t go on eating it in the quantities and at the price we’ve become used to, if we want to tackle global climate change. As for species extinction the same kind of argument applies.  The price of cheap food is always going to be pollution, widespread use of chemicals, soil erosion animal cruelty and agribusiness. But to blame all forms of farming without discriminating between more and less harmful practices is counterproductive. Just to give one example from coastal restoration, the choughs that are slowly reappearing on the western coasts are doing so because they feed on grubs that feed on cattle dung.  Free ranging cattle on the clifftops have enabled the reappearance of this charming and acrobatic member of the crow family. The dung is dropped by ruminants in small and manageable quantities and is quickly broken down. That’s a far cry from spreading vast volumes of evil smelling anaerobic liquid manure on the land where it quickly runs off and pollutes streams and rivers.

A less meat based diet would be better for us.  Farmers could experiment with tree planting their expanses of grass, a technique that looks very promising. The trend for ever larger fields monocropping feed maize could be phased out, as could the relentless removal of hedges to make space for bigger and heavier machinery.  Less could really be more; better for us, better for the wildlife and better for the planet. At the moment it’s the poorest people on the planet who are paying the true cost of cheap food. That could end, but not until we – farmers, growers and consumers alike – are prepared to make some sacrifices ourselves.

 

This is my happy place

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I’ve been feeling just a bit curmudgeonly this last few weeks – a combination of living in political chaos, fag end of winter blues, problems with the campervan, rising damp, reading too many books about climate change and wondering how on earth we’re going to sort this mess out.

I do have an antidote for it all  – and it’s getting back to the stove – making stock, baking bread, baking cakes, that sort of thing. I also notice that when I’m feeling a bit glum I also eat really badly, and suddenly, cakes, biscuits, toast made from white bread,  convenience food and general junk look endlessly fascinating, so getting back to the stove sorts that particular temptation out, well –  all except for the cakes. The other antidote, the one Madame favours, is sowing seeds, and so once again I’m sharing the kitchen with a busy propagator.

The last remedy is going through my photos and looking at all the lovely things I spotted last year – and that’s what I was doing when I found this photo, taken by Madame, of me skulking the cliff path at St Davids and making a list. That’s my waterproof notebook in my hand, my stick and my new hat and my old space pen, Swiss  army knife, X10 pocket magnifier in my pocket.  In the bag too is a copy of Rose, “Wildflower Key” and a couple of fold out keys for grasses and lichens. If you want to know what paradise looks like this is it – although possibly a less knobbly pair of legs would improve it a bit. I couldn’t be more happy than I am when I’m out in the sunshine amongst the plants and insects and birds.  Just a little way further down the path last autumn we picked enough wild mushrooms to make the best omelette I’ve ever tasted.

Oh and we’ve got miniature tulips flowering in the window boxes – along with the irises and daffodils – I think that’s quite mad but it’s true. The remnants of storm Ciara are still howling through, and looking out of the window just now, the sky had that yellowish hue that looks like sleet or snow on the way.  Our son just rang from Birmingham to say that it’s snowing hard there. These certainly are confusing times, but I try not to let it get to me too much. This week  we’ll go and collect a load of hot horse manure for the hotbed and in a couple of weeks we’ll be flat out again on the allotment.

 

No hiding place

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Well not for this group of overwintering snails in Cornwall. The ivy, behind which they had been dry and cosy, was stripped off by estate workers and they were oblivious to the danger they were in from the local birds – just a matter of time before they became a lucky break for a hungry predator. Our camping pitch was home for abundant numbers of very tame rooks and it was amazing to hear what a wide range of vocalisations they had – perched, as they were, only feet away from the campervan. I guess it’s just a matter of standing still for as long as it takes to fully engage with the natural world. I always feel a bit sorry for the runners and cyclists who treat the bridle paths as speedway tracks – they don’t know what they’re missing.

But not knowing what you’re missing has a darker side because when we depopulate our minds of the the ordinary everyday wildlife; or when we’ve never experienced the sheer fun of naming the plants and trees, we’re less likely to miss them when they’re not there any more, and in an age like our own, getting to know what’s there becomes a moral issue.

These days I seem to be reading more and more angry words, and I’m constantly being exhorted to give something or other up for the sake of the planet – and almost  always it’s couched in emotional terms. If I eat meat at all I must be in favour of animal suffering – but if I talk about veganism I’m a lentil headed moron.  Plastic ? no plastic? dig? no-dig? What to wear, where to take my holidays and how to get there, shop local  …… and so it goes on. And all this effort is towards saving the planet about which most of us know next to nothing. Is it any surprise that talk of a climate emergency or an ecological disaster has almost no impact on our behaviour. We don’t feel scared because we don’t quite know what it is we’re about to lose and in our (ideologically trained) hearts we still believe that we can all get richer and more productive because we’re the cleverest species who’ve ever lived on the earth and we always come out on top – don’t we?

So here’s a suggestion. Take a walk – it’s almost spring now so there are lots of plants about to burst into life – and name as many as you can.  This isn’t about spotting ghost orchids, it’s about the most ordinary things you’ve probably walked past thousands of times without paying attention. If you can’t walk far, check out a few pavement cracks and stone walls.  The most important part of this exercise is not to show off but to understand just how little we know about ordinary plants, living heroic lives against the onslaught of strimmers, chemicals, dogs pee, drought and storm. Spend a season discovering that coltsfoot, cats ear, hawkweed, hawkbit and all their relatives are not dandelions after all. Do some bird watching but don’t buy a fancy pair of binoculars, a bird book and drive to a reserve somewhere; stand and listen very quietly – what’s that bird outside the flat? – does it care about the noise of the traffic? Find a moth that looks exactly like a twig.  Let’s be even more contentious – what breed are those sheep? those cattle?

I promise that once you’ve made the resolution not to pass up on things you don’t recognise and can’t name, your life will change completely. You’ll never be lonely again because the plants you pass will be friends; you laboured to get to know their names and so they really matter.  You know pretty much where they live and when you’ll be able to catch up again next season – this is all about ordinary everyday things, not national rarities. The thing is, species disappear when we don’t know they’re there. Our grandchildren may never hear a cuckoo, and they’ll almost certainly never hear a nightingale – ordinary everyday birds that disappeared because of what we’re doing to the environment. Last summer we were driving along an absurdly exposed and narrow road in the Yorkshire Dales, almost on the border with Cumbria. We were accompanied for best part of half a mile by half a dozen lapwing flying directly in front of us like a red arrows display team. You don’t forget moments like that, and you’re far more likely to get involved when their very existence is threatened.

So don’t get despondent or confused about what we’re supposed to do in this unrecognised crisis – there’s plenty of advice out there and some of it is even sensible! Be cautious of evangelically inclined interest groups, lobbyists, commercial interests and all the rest but also give then a fair hearing, especially if you don’t agree with them.  The best way to conduct a campaign is to know your enemy better than they know themselves. Shouting drives people into their comfort zones but quiet persistence and empathy really can change peoples minds.  But above all, know what it is we’re trying to save – name it, treasure it – because it’s not an abstract concept we’re trying to defend, it’s family and household to us  – the only family and the only household we have. Love and hold the ordinary and everyday close to your heart, and the survival of the earth can be achievable.

How to survive the storm

00000portrait_00000_burst202002061251069241773228647307606034.jpgI get all sorts of odd news stories chosen for me by the Google algorithm, alongside invitations to join dating sites. I always pass on the ‘looking for love’ ones because I made it a rule of life never to inflame an appetite I’m not in a position to gratify.  It probably sounds glum but it’s kept me out of all sorts of trouble. 

The news selections that most often catch my eye are the ones that involve farming. I suppose the all-seeing-eye has noticed my occasional forays into the trade press – as I try to find out what farmers think.  Having spent 25 years working in rural parishes I think I know that they’re feeling very put-upon, depressed and aggrieved at they way they’re being treated. Yesterday there was a report on a farming conference in Tipperary where a speaker (a professor of public health) claimed that Irish farmers were not being given due credit for the amount of carbon being stored in hedges.  Hedges, he claimed, are more effective carbon sinks than trees. 

The farmers, unsurprisingly fell on this tasty morsel of good news with glee.  “Look”, they said, “you can hardly move for hedges on our farms, we’re saving the earth already – go and blame someone else”.  It didn’t take long before another speaker popped the bubble and pointed out that farmers are in any case still grubbing out hedges by the mile, and that there is no evidence – scientific evidence that is – that has established whether hedges do or don’t store more carbon. The audience promptly turned a bit sour on him and told him they’d had enough of experts and so they’d continue to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds.  

Hedges are a brilliant idea for all sorts of reasons – not least for wildlife – so I’m all in favour of them, but there’s really no way out of this crisis that will allow farming to carry on exactly as it has done since the last war. 

So I was reading this story and – for no obvious reason – Elizabeth Kubler Ross popped into my mind. I was once a devoted fan of Kubler Ross – to be honest, anything that offers any real help in dealing with the awful pain of bereavement feels worth a try when you’re working with grieving people.  My problem with it was that real people didn’t seem to progress through the stages in quite the orderly way the original training suggested. All my experience (I wasn’t alone by the way) suggested that the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance certainly all certainly happened during the process but had to be treated more as modes of grieving that could occur singly or simultaneously, and which could be returned to in any order, sometimes many times. There was rarely a lasting moment of acceptance first time around; for most people grief came in waves and flashbacks, and healing was slow and painful.

What’s this got to do with a farming conference in Tipperary? Well, I think that farmers are suffering from real grief. Yes I know that environmental protestors are suffering from grief as well, but grieving isn’t helped by favouring one groups’ suffering over another. Farmers across the UK have been feted for decades for producing cheaper and more plentiful food and now they find themselves treated as villains.  They’ve done exactly what was asked of them, sometimes against their better instincts. There’s only been one show in town, and that was intensive, chemically driven, labour reduced farming. Many thousands have gone to the wall but some have become wealthy on subsidies. Then suddenly it’s all over. The climate crisis is everywhere in the news, the farmers are being blamed although they’re only one part of the problem and with the changes in the subsidy system many marginal farms may collapse. A whole way of life is dying in front of us and all too often we environmentalists harden our hearts and instead of offering a hand of friendship we shout that the means are justified by the end, and imply that they deserve nothing better. 

Which takes me on to the protesters who are also grieving for a dying world and in consequence are also displaying symptoms of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance- and again, although not in that tidy order. 

I always found that Kubler Ross was most useful when I was able to say to people that all five stages were normal. What most people expect when they’re grieving is that they will be depressed – maybe for a long time – but that gradually things will get better. What they don’t expect is that one minute they’ll swear they misheard and actually the doctor said there was nothing to worry about, and in the next minute be angry and then paralysed with depression for days, or promise faithfully that they’ll give up smoking or whatever – this is all normal grieving behaviour.

img_20200206_130312272523812806147141.jpgSo appealing to the science, to the evidence, is logical but not necessarily sufficient to change things for the better. Presenting farmers with the evidence that their methods are damaging and expecting them to say “very well, I take your point and I’ll stop today” is way short of a viable solution. We must realize that many farmers are facing more than just the loss of income but also the complete loss of culture, the reversal of a lifetime’s history and memories not to mention hopes for the future. We were in Mevagissey yesterday and exactly the same crisis faces the fishermen in Cornwall – not simply the loss of their jobs but the death of their culture – it’s real grief, not stick-in-the-mud nimbyism. 

Which brings me to another two factors.  Firstly, for decades we’ve allowed the market to decide.  We’ve worshipped the market, made it the sole arbiter of worth and now we’re paying the price of our idolatry – because by definition the market has no morals; the market doesn’t care what happens to farmers and fishermen, and it doesn’t care about the environmental crisis or environmentalists either – unless they eat into corporate profits. Secondly farmers and fishermen sell food just like oil companies sell oil, so consumers have to accept some of the blame for continuing to spend dangerously in spite of all the evidence. 

And so playing the blame game when there’s so much grief about is heartless, selfish and pointless. Farmers and fishermen can only change the way they work if we consumers – not just a few token ones – all change the way we live, the way we eat and the way we get about. We all have a vested interest in working together towards that end. Shoving the blame on to one group is just another symptom of arrested grieving.  We can do so much better than this, but only if we realize that there is only one habitat for all life on earth.  Farmers, fishermen, environmental campaigners and  consumers alike.  Everybody gets their say but no everybody gets their way. 

But I’ve left out what should be the most important participant in the whole process, and that’s the earth itself.  The earth doesn’t speak human, and as Wittgenstein once said – “if a lion could speak we wouldn’t be able to understand it”  but that doesn’t mean the earth can’t have a voice because although the earth may not speak in our rather simple way of understanding language, the earth is expressive to a degree that leaves our puny languages far behind. The understanding of what the earth is saying doesn’t just concern scientists, although it is scientific research that uncovered the problem and was also the cause of the problem. What the earth expresses is the concern of artists, writers and poets and ancient cultures that have mastered some of the earth’s languages, and some aspects of the most ancient spiritualities that have evolved in conversation with it (her?). But the earth does have one very direct way of speaking to us, and that is in the consequences of our actions. Perhaps it’s time for humans to take a back seat for a while and listen while the earth shows us what must be done. And of course it will be radical.

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Dawn over Mevagissey bay

 

Behold – the thunderbox

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Otherwise known at the Potwell Inn as the Seat of Mercy

I’m not a complete stranger to this form of cludger – that’s three euphemisms so far in a single piece – because a friend built what’s become known as a composting toilet (3) for a party on his smallholding near Brecon; and very comfortable, efficient and non smelly it was –  considering it was serving best part of fifty people.  The next time  we went there no trace existed – the epitome of low impact – and so convenient (4), that I even thought about digging one on the allotment, which is probably against the rules. Both my grandfathers had similar facilities (5), and my mother, when she was a child,  was so used to the earth closet (6) that the first time she encountered a water closet (6) she was unable to go because it was so clean and shiny. We enjoyed an outdoor toilet (7) for three years when we were at art school and we had a fabulous seated view of the Wiltshire countryside. My paternal grandfather had an impressive double seat one, but I can’t imagine myself ever being able to share my private moments with another human being. They must have been built of stronger stuff in those days.

The one in the photo, needless to say, is the one used by the gardeners at Heligan and was known as the Thunderbox. One of the reasons I so dislike costume dramas is that, being a peasant,  I know perfectly well that it would never be me strutting around upstairs – I’d be the poor devil who had to dig out the cludger once a month. However I’m delighted it’s still here, if not in use, because it reminds me of my family and their history.

But today brought the inevitable trip to an industrial estate outside Truro, to buy some new batteries for the van and then, after installing them, some more tooth gnashing when I realized that the previous set had probably taken the charger unit with them when they expired in a feverish sort of way and plunged us into darkness on Monday night. Last night was a bit of a trial too because we had no electrics of any sort and the temperature inside the van dropped to 5C. We slept on and off between bouts of.  synchronised shivering. Anyway today, with a bit of a lash up, we restored some heat and light and set off for a wander around the gardens again.

Madame pointed out as we walked around that we always make for the vegetable garden first.  It’s true, we have learned so much from Heligan simply by noting what they do there but also by talking to the super friendly gardeners who all seem to take their teaching roles very seriously. Today they were planting out garlic and some of the biggest onion sets we’ve seen.  Tomorrow we’ll try to find out if they’re growing from seed and try to get a few tips – we didn’t like to interrupt today because these three days of sunshine have given them the chance to get some sowing and planting done. Otherwise, naturally, there wasn’t a lot going on at this time of year but I spotted this little hummock in a bed that hasn’t yet been cleaned up – I so hope they leave it because it’s absolutely beautiful.  I can’t say what the species are but they were a tiny little system of bryophytes and lichens like a Wardian case of specimens.

I’ll have fun with identifying them when I get home.

Elsewhere the arched pathway lined with apples has never looked more sculptural, and I couldn’t resist a taking a photo of the stacked crocks in the potting shed which had the air of an ancient ossuary, all of a piece with the memory of the lost gardeners. In the bright winter light, even an old brick wall looked especially beautiful. We sat in the sun on one of the seats in the walled garden and felt intensely peaceful. That’s the thing about visiting gardens – no matter how often you go they look different every time and you’re never more than a whisker away from a state of meditation.  As we walked back we discussed our thoughts on all sorts of mundanities about the allotment – where to put the beans, how to improve the onions, and whether it’s worth trying leeks again after three seasons of failure. Allotmenteering always seems to start in the imagination and unfurl from there. We never get all our own way because the earth, the climate, the soil and the pests have their say too and at the end of each season there’s always something to celebrate and something to be learned.

 

The Lost Gardeners of Heligan (ctd:)

I should probably have called this posting further travails or further adventures – or something of that nature because we were woken in the middle of the night by the sound of the heater powering down and an acrid smell. Generally speaking this is a bad sign, but when we woke up freezing cold and discovered there was just one warm place – under the bed where the batteries are situated – it became a different kind of bad news.  Exploding lead acid batteries under the bed are best avoided, and half of today was spent with me trying to fit into extremely confined spaces with a multimeter and Googling to see who or what might be able to help. After a endless amount of deliberation we decided that the knackered batteries had deteriorated to the point where they had partially shorted and kept calling for more current from the charger, thereby heating them up until I pressed the off button on the charger – which turned the camper van into a tin tent – which, in turn,  is why I am typing this in the dark, wearing a head torch and three jumpers. We’ll replace the batteries first thing tomorrow. More money – aaaagh

Meanwhile we managed a walk around Heligan and there are some photos above. The reason I called this post the “Lost Gardeners of Heligan” is that there are little memorials to the mostly young gardeners who died in the First World War all over the place, each accompanied by a flower display or arrangement. It’s very affecting, and of course the reason the gardens were abandoned was that so many were killed, there were no longer enough workers to keep the gardens going.  The then owner was too affected by grief and memories to live here any longer, and moved away.

Strangely there’s no sense of melancholy around, especially on such a sunny day when even the icy northwesterly wind couldn’t dampen our spirits. Plants are never more perfect than when they’re first emerging.  They spring from the earth untouched by insects and diseases and full of vigour. It can be tricky identifying them from their new leaves, but we get better at it. Todays crop of fungi and bryophytes was a good reason for getting a bit more knowledgeable about them. They just carry on continuously all year round so there’s always something to look for. But the primroses, dandelions, snowdrops and daffodils somehow seemed just a bit more beautiful than the camellias in the formal gardens. Spring is coming – you can smell it!