Muted celebrations and big ones. Three Musketeers go plant hunting and a big think.

Jill Lough’s sherry trifle

So as the title suggests, this week saw a return to the present after reconnecting my heart and my head on the subject of the walk from Le Puy en Velay to Cahors. The sediment has now settled just about enough to view it as just another few yards of life’s rich tapestry. I was pleased and rather surprised to discover that it was pretty good in parts, and I’d go so far as to say that working on the timeline through my journal and photographs as well as my memory was as cathartic and helpful as the counsellors often say.

On Sunday we laid on a family meal. With two of the boys missing it was smaller than usual. Our grandchildren arrived as high as kites – suspect sugar rushes – and our son was – as is often the case – rather withdrawn. We know pretty much why he’s in a bad place but because he’s never spoken to us about it, or invited any kind of help, it remains the elephant in the room and makes everyone a bit sad. Oh and caution stayed my hand with the sherry bottle (the children had their own alcohol free version) and it failed to reach the heavenly heights of Jill’s recipe which comprised (I may have increased the booze) one sponge and one bottle of sherry.

However on Monday and after ten years, our daughter in law was finally granted British citizenship and there were whoop whoops galore on the family WhatsApp group. No more tasteless jokes about Australian cricket, then, but we will expect her to learn Bristolian as soon as possible. Then of course we spent a couple of mornings catching up on the allotment. If you’ve read this blog/journal for any length of time you’ll know how depressing I find the autumn. It’s like visiting a loved one who’s rapidly fading away. But Madame administers the whip adroitly and once I get going I usually enjoy it – ish! I am not going “gently into that good night” and every arthritic creak makes me froth with rage at the dying of the light. I normally love wheelbarrowing muck and hoeing weeds in, but ever since I was formally diagnosed with AF and given a pile of drugs to limit my heart rate and blood pressure, I suffer from a nagging panic about making myself ill. I couldn’t fault the doctors, they’ve been wonderful, but all they’ll say is “just don’t overdo it” . Just WTF is the difference between doing it and overdoing it? and do you have to wait until you’re in the mortuary with a label tied to your toe to find out??

Tuesday was spent on the allotment, until we were driven off by the rain. This has been a record breaking autumn with low pressure driving rain off the Atlantic and dropping devastating amounts across the country. I don’t understand the wingnuts who still think this weather falls within the normal.

On Wednesday I went off with two friends, prospecting possible sites for Bath Natural History Society to organise field trips next year. We had three sites to look at. The first had to be abandoned after our driver was forced to reverse 100 yards down a lane with a locked gate at the end and no turning place. It was very narrow, half flooded on one side and a ditch on the other – both sides within easy reach of the wheels. After a great waving of arms and shouting we half extracted ourselves noisily enough to attract the attention of the farmer’s daughter who came and took over having obviously done it many times before. She told me she would have offered to reverse the car herself but had thought her offer might offend us. I thought there was an element of sweet revenge in it. The combined intelligence of three old blokes failing to drive a car backwards was far too good an opportunity to miss for a young woman in 2023. It was only later that I realized what a daft thing it was to tell her we were natural historians; who on earth would know what that meant? Anything else could get confused with naturists; and nature lovers sounds thoroughly creepy. “No dear we always keep our wellies on” comes to mind. So what? ….. botanists? bird watchers, fungus hunters? all three I suppose. In the end it sounded more comprehensible to say we were organising nature rambles for a club.

Site number two also lacked sufficient parking although we managed to squeeze in around the back among the builders’ wagons. Most of the site was pretty unimpressive from a wildlife point of view but once we got beyond the lake we could see that great efforts had been made to create a real wildlife area. My companions, who were both birders, got excited about a pair of Scoters and surprisingly they spotted six or seven species, but there wasn’t enough, we thought, to maintain interest for more than an hour or so.

Site number three was by far the largest and most interesting in spite of being surrounded by houses, roads, an industrial estate and a railway line. There was an abundance of hedge and scrub – enough to hold a big population of birds. There was a wooded area, a stream and a lake plus a couple of large and relatively unimproved fields where we soon started to find waxcap fungi. We were all trying out various apps on our phones and at one point all three of us were using Merlin – an excellent bird ID app- pointing our phones at a noisy flock of Starlings. The apps parted company over the fungi – none of them (the apps that is) – are perfect and fungi in particular mostly need double checking in the books – for many you even need to resort to a microscope and examine the spores. So an affable exchange of emails later in the day got us as close as we could. But we came home with at least one suggestion for a trip next year. I’ve been volunteered to co-lead another in the spring and give a talk as well so things are looking up.

Thursday and Friday were swallowed up by the allotment again, but at last it’s beginning to look a bit decent. We covered all except two of the beds that were cleared of crops, and we’ve sown seeds for overwintering in the polytunnel. On Saturday we finally had our first NHS dental appointment after 7 years and 63 phone calls. No-one would take us on as patients for all that time and so our teeth weren’t properly looked after and when Madame’s gold crown fell out I tried to mend it by glueing it back in. Unfortunately I glued it back to front. It cost well over £1000 to get it fixed. The only tiny cloud in the heavens was the fact that the dentist called us both “My dear” throughout.

Then yesterday we were off to Tetbury with our neighbour Charlie who is an ex Director of the Welsh National Botanical Gardens and is an all-round good guy. We were invited along to a joint talk he was doing with Louise, a dyer; all about the trees and plants that are used for dying fabrics which is a subject close to my heart, and also having lunch with Geoffrey, the owner of the 28 acre site, the gardener (Louise’s husband Liam) and Charlie.

A splendid Pestle puffball – Lycoperdon excipuliformis beneath a group of Oaks.

It was a wonderful but challenging and occasionally perplexing visit to the Makara Centre near Tetbury. The cost of running it is subsidised by hosting weddings as well as a memorial garden, but you get the feeling that its real purpose is as a place of meditation, teaching and personal growth. The whole place is suffused by a contemplative atmosphere and outside there were a dozen places where you might sit quietly and meditate. There were many little water features completely naturalized with moss and ferns. But inside the main buildings were some of the most lovely human spaces I’ve ever seen. Dotted with mandalas and statues, and furnished and decorated with enormous care; there was one room in which I’d gladly sit alone for a day. Even the door frames were beautiful.

The man who goes out for revenge should dig two graves


But finally the big think. I’ve been agonising about how to think about this appalling war in Israel/Palestine and it seems to me (after 2 weeks of violent thoughts, dreams – and frothing at the mouth on my part) that even using a term like evil presupposes that the user of the word accepts that it represents something real; not just a metaphor that gets wheeled out for press headlines. As a concept in everyday use in the West, evil has all but disappeared along with much of its supporting philosophy but we still think it’s significant enough to use on especially upsetting occasions. And, of course, all the major religions including Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Buddhism – virtually all of them – separate good acts from evil acts. I’ve worked in many challenging situations and evil – when you encounter it – is utterly chilling; a trashing of every virtue; a deliberate choice for wickedness and against goodness. Surely this is a timely moment to examine our own acts; to accept our own capacity for evil and to recognise when we have fallen into it. If governments, militias, terrorists across the world chose to read their own scriptures on the subject of evil – prayerfully – and assess their own acts in the light of the scriptures they claim to follow then I’m hopeful that they would at least (grudgingly) recognise their error. There is no conceivable God worth a moment of anyone’s time – let alone obedience – who would sanction or encourage evil acts. So we can’t have it both ways. It’s hard to make a coherent argument concerning evil unless we allow that it’s a possibility for any of us, and therefore we have to accept our responsibility for the evil we do without excusing ourselves on the basis of some utterly wrong and self serving interpretation of scripture. Then; when, and only when we’ve acknowledged our own capacity for evil should we turn our attention to what the enemy is doing. I have never forgotten a sentence from my ordination sermon, preached by Francis Palmer: “Always remember that the Church can be the devil – and when it thinks it can’t be, it is!” A very old and dear friend who spent a part of the Second World War serving on the North Atlantic convoys, defending vital cargo ships against aerial and torpedo bombing, told me that on one occasion they were dive bombed whilst he was on duty as a machine gunner. He told me how, to his great shame he was so filled with hatred as he poured deadly shells at the plane, he felt he somehow changed into a monster. He was still deeply ashamed at this revelation of his deep nature fifty years later.

And here was the most unexpected outcome of our day at Makara – a sense of release and peace against all the anxieties and fears of the present moment. We talked for hours about it last night, and again this morning but couldn’t define what exactly was happening there, but this morning we went up to the allotment to clear another two beds and it started to rain; not a bit of drizzle but biblical rain roaring down on us and we laughed as we struggled to work on; digging our winter potatoes from the sodden ground. I could brag about how successful our efforts at improving the soil have been in improving drainage, but that wasn’t the point. We were just laughing about earth and rain and hard work and potatoes; the least glamorous or religious activity you could imagine. When Charlie was trying to explain what Makara meant to him he said “The place has got a soul”. He’s been deeply involved in the development of the place for years, and he and Geoffrey are old friends. Well, he wasn’t wrong.

Quite a busy week really. Retirement is not for the faint hearted !

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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