About Glory

What ails you?

asparagus autumn biodiversity chillies climate change climate emergency composting covid 19 deep ecology earth economic collapse environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis farmers markets field botany foraging Fungi global climate crisis global heating green spirituality growing chillies herbal medicine intensive farming locally sourcing lockdown marmalade meditation no-dig pickling and preserving polytunnels preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions sustainability technology urban ecology urban wildlife water storage weeds wildflower meadows

I’ve been writing this blog for eight years, and ever since I migrated it to WordPress which gives the ability to tag posts and make them easier for readers to find; I’ve occasionally created a tag cloud like the one above so I can get an overview of the topics that have been concerning me. Click on any of the tags above and in moments you’ll be presented with all of the posts I’ve tagged with that term. It’s an incredibly useful tool for locating particular subjects of interest from approaching a thousand posts.

If you’ve ever run writers’ groups or taken part in therapeutic groups – and I’ve done both may times – you’ll know the “back pocket” moment when, after two hours of interesting but rarely illuminating talk, and just as the group is packing up to leave, someone comes up with an idea, a poem, an insight or a memory that almost sucks the air out of the room. Often it’s the beginning of an answer to the hard question “What ails you?” Complete honesty and self disclosure is terribly hard, and only the most heroic can manage it.

The quest.

There’s a reason that the ancient story of the Fisher King provides the inner structure of so many novels, plays, films and folk tales. They’re all quest stories, in which a journey – with all its hazards and reverses – brings resolution at last to the question “what ails you?” Think of writers like Tolkien, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman whose tremendous stories draw upon the structure of the Grail legend. Think of the foundational story of Homer’s Odyssey or the biblical story of Jacob crossing the Jabbok . I have absolutely nothing to add to the millions of words that have been lavished on this idea, and the point of mentioning it is not to add anything but to suggest its usefulness for isolating the right question when you’re trying to find a path through an oppressive cloud of difficulty. The key to the quest story is that it begins precisely with that nebulous and indefinable sense of ill, and that the resolution always demands leaving home because “for a hero a harbour is the place you set out from”. Home – in this case and with my tag cloud – is the place of certainty and settled knowledge; “the way we do things round here.” and leaving it means questioning and sometimes overturning received wisdom. However, received wisdom has its own priesthood and police force, its own pensioners and hangers on and its own ideas of what constitutes heresy. It has its own oppressive tools; belittling and marginalising those who challenge the status quo.

So the tag cloud is, in one useful sense, a mind map of the question “what ails you?” because all of its components are aspects of the greater question. Some tags may represent symptoms, and some may suggest remedies, but none of them are sufficient, and it’s our predisposition to fixing on a single term in the cloud as either cause or cure that paralyses our thinking and befuddles our actions. To take an example of that process from the tag cloud above, it’s obviously completely insufficient, not to mention illogical to take the tag “environmental catastrophe” and couple it with the tag “Composting” and claim to a fanfare of applause that the problem is thereby solved.

So – mainly because I’m not Thomas Aquinas – I won’t be offering a magnum opus on this topic. I remember standing in the library of my theological college and asking the librarian where I could find Thomas Aquinas and she replied with an expansive sweep of the arm across the shelves of the upper tier of the library – up a spiral staircase. Minutes later and slightly out of breath, I found many yards of shelves full of Aquinas and commentaries on his thought. But let me offer a single tentative thought on the significant absence of another possible tag cloud beginning with the concept of glory.

Lost in our utterly materialist and dualist culture we represent ourselves instinctively, (some instincts are the products of long enculturation), as isolated instances of consciousness separated by an unbridgeable gulf of empty space from all other instances of it. We see the earth as an object and we often see our neighbours as objects too. We are deeply suspicious of words like joy, glory and love as non material emotional states which – being unmeasurable – are beyond the reach of science and therefore worthless. Nature – and I’m indebted to *Alan Rayner for this thought – is defined as the subject of an eternal battle for the “survival of the fittest”, although we are arrogant enough to regard ourselves as the sole and final arbiters of what “fitness” might mean.

But what if this idea is completely wrong? he asks. What if the false idea that nature and the earth and all that exists, is there at our disposal, is the ultimate ideological enforcer of most of the tags in my cloud of shame? What if Darwin’s survival of the fittest, deserves the same fate as Marx’s iron laws of history? What if we were to reintroduce the idea of glory to field botany? What would happen to our inner lives if we included the notion of glory within the medicinal or culinary properties of plants? What would it do to our lives if we included much more sentience within the gifts of animals? What if we included within the general field of fitness the capacity of the natural world to acquaint us with glory, joy and love in a completely non-possessive way? What if we abandoned the idea of our separateness from nature and focused on our dependence upon her? What if the natural world is not locked in a grim battle for survival but an almost inconceivably beautiful and creative exchange between life forms?

The epoch changing wrong turn was to fossilize Darwin’s frangible theory into a law of nature and then illegitimately to extend it into almost every aspect of life – Social Darwinism was elevated into a spurious defense for unspeakably wicked political acts and the earth was reduced to abject servitude.

The really important question is about how we change. I think we all know enough about human behaviour to know that cultural change can never be brought about by presenting new “facts”. But there are practices and institutions from which we can learn about glory. Many of them have their own histories of times when ecstatic insight was fossilized into law and went rogue, but that, sadly, is a danger confronting all human institutions. The question is this – were we born to dominate and control nature to the point of self-destruction, or did we just forget where we came from?

Alan Rayner “The Origin of Life Patterns” – several videos also on YouTube

False Chanterelle – “All that glisters!”

Magic Mushrooms

Fly Agaric – Amanita muscaria

On Wednesday we went on our first organised fungus foray of the season with Bath Natural History Society. Fungus hunting goes better when there’s a bit of rain beforehand and Wednesday really benefited from the showers earlier in the week. The weather has changed decisively since the equinox, and autumn has taken over with a series of Atlantic lows with winds and showers coming from a more westerly direction.

Smitham Chimney

But this was very far from a foraging expedition for a couple of reasons, the principal one being that we were back in one of my favourite environments; the heavily polluted lead rich spoil covering an old lead mining area. Some specialized plants and fungi have a marvellous capacity for surviving in this dangerous environment and can concentrate heavy metals in themselves sufficiently to cause a serious risk of poisoning. That, of course, is entirely separate from the usual risk of misidentifying a fungus and poisoning yourself over supper. In fact a lively conversation took place about near misses amongst some of us, with Yellow Staining Mushrooms – Agaricus xanthodermus – being a popular mistake, although we had all stopped short of eating them after cooking them and then suffering from serious doubt. Another unexpected danger came from eating St Georges Mushrooms – Calocybe gambosa – which are universally regarded as edible (they’re really good to eat) but two of our fungus hunters had suddenly developed an intolerance for them after years of uneventful enjoyment.

For me, the principal reason for fungus hunting is firstly that they are simply so beautiful. Just look at this False Chanterelle – Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca. Never mind that it doesn’t taste as good as the proper one; just look at the gills and think of a gothic cathedral.

But secondly because they are some of the most impressive organic chemists anywhere in the world. They talk to each other, link up in mutually beneficial relationships with plants which, incidentally, is why you should never dig up an orchid because without its mycorrhizal neighbour it will simply die. Without fungi the earth would be thousands of feet below a layer of unrotted vegetation and, of course, they are both food, medicine and – dare I say – widely valued by many cultures including our own – as a gateway into a deeper spiritual relationship with the earth and with our own most troublesome thoughts. But don’t try this without proper help. I’ve never tried it at all, but that’s because I’m too scared! I should add that the real magic mushroom – the Liberty Cap – can be very problematic for some people. When I was a community worker we dreaded the autumn because the local lads – normally affable if rather naughty – would mix magic mushrooms with cheap cider, becoming highly unpredictable and occasionally violent as a result.

In fact in four hours with fifteen of us searching, we didn’t find a single genuinely edible species. Foragers like to go on about a wide variety of species but many of them are between disappointing and vaguely unpleasant. The most colourful species were the Fly Agarics which could be eaten – but only if you enjoy uncontrollable hallucinations and being sick.

The safest way to learn about them is to go out with someone who really knows what they’re doing, and I guess an ex President of the British Mycological Society is as safe as a safe pair of hands could be. In fact we had a variety of fungus literate members with us, along with a microbiologist, a professional forester and ecology graduate plus a couple of really expert botanists and an entomologist. Not to mention some envy inducing binoculars and cameras. But the great thing about these local Natural History societies is that absolutely everyone is both friendly and completely committed to sharing their enthusiasm. If you live near us there’s a link to Bath Nats on the sidebar.

I would seriously recommend anyone with an interest in natural history to unplug the telly and join their local society. They all have summer field trips and winter lectures, often with national experts, and I promise you’ll soon find that a walk, even through your local park, will be an entirely new and richer experience. And I should admit that when we first joined we were very apprehensive about looking silly or ignorant, hovering at the back in case anyone asked us a question. What we quickly found was that many of these people were doing really important voluntary work by recording plants and wildlife. Volunteers are at the heart of all our efforts to stave off environmental catastrophe because it’s the volunteers who overwhelmingly provide the millions of data records that form the backbone of conservation work. I’d even go so far as to say that – if you want to save the earth – learn enough about plants or birds, insects fish or mammals to be able to submit records. I’ve made some awful mistakes and not once has anyone made fun of me.

Anyway that’s enough about volunteering. Let me show you the most boring picture ever:

Lead moss

Well I did warn you! But in fact it was the highlight of the trip as far as I was concerned because it’s something I would never have found without help from someone who really knows what she’s doing. It’s not a fungus at all but another of my metallophytes. It’s an absolutely tiny moss that grows on the most polluted lead mine waste, and is called Lead Moss – Ditrichum plumbicola. Normally with exceptionally rare plants you’d keep the site obscure but in this instance I’m confident that you’d never find it in a month of Sundays, because it’s absolutely tiny – those are worm holes to give you some sense of scale! plus it’s in the database for anyone to see. Here’s a macro photo that I really struggled to take. Those shoots are not much more than 1 mm tall. What a day!

So here are a few more photos taken on the day. It was inspirational – but then isn’t nature always inspirational? And if you’ve ever wondered what mycelium looks like , just look at the last three pictures. The bulk of the real fungus is underground. Isn’t that stunning? And the beetle is a new and difficult invader called the Poplar Leaf Beetle.

Autumn song

Heron spotted on the River Avon on Saturday

If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that I’m not a fan of the recent changes to the seasonal calendar brought in by the Met Office. I know it’s tidier to begin the season of Autumn on September Ist and then rotate the rest on a three monthly cycle; easier but plain wrong. For me the seasons will always be marked by the solstices and equinoxes. Messy but holding tight to the astronomical events surrounding the hours of daylight. Last Friday saw the autumn equinox at exactly 2.03 am marking the moment of equal day and night and from now until December 21st the hours of darkness will get progressively longer.

Nature is, by and large, pretty orderly in her seasons too and so we instinctively recognise them by the quality of the light, sounds and smells. I’m interested that these phenomena actually seem to speak to us. Our absorption in the earth and her seasons means the bare sensation, of a birdsong for instance, becomes encrusted with memories. The smell of newly turned earth in the Spring evokes in me a powerful memory of Good Friday when, according to tradition, potatoes were planted. I think of a steady queue of customers at Palmer’s Seed Store and the smell of National Growmore fertilizer and Mr Flook the fishmonger in his wellingtons and yellow oilskin apron.

So these accretions of memories make simple things like listening to a singing Great Tit into a deeply embedded, often emotional, complex. Scientifically, and some would say factually, it’s just a singing bird with a Latin name representing something so common as to be beneath a birder’s dignity; but in the far greater field of meaning it’s as affecting as a Nightjar like the one that kept me awake much of the night, camping in France, or the Nightingale that I heard on a retreat near Ilfracombe one evening as I walked in the grounds.

But to get back to the Great Tit and the Autumn Equinox, something profoundly odd happened on Friday morning. I was helping our youngest move some last belongings out of the flat he’s just left. It’s been a sad few weeks because his relationship with his girlfriend has broken down and everyone’s been walking on eggshells. Anyway I was parked up in a place I shouldn’t have been, close to the old flat and keeping a sharp eye out for Parking Wardens who are pretty ruthless here in Bath. Then, as he carried the last load across the road, with his bass guitar in one hand and a bundle of clothes in the other – he looked just like the cover of the Bob Dylan’s “Freewheelin” Album sleeve. I would have been sad to see him that way except that as I sat there in the car with the window wound down, completely out of the blue I heard a Great Tit singing its two note ‘saw sharpening’ song, somewhere in the trees above. It’s a song I associate so powerfully with Spring and new beginnings that it felt like some kind of omen. “Stupid, irrational, meaningless emotional nonsense” say the ghosts of the old Logical Positivist philosophers, and “Hear Hear” say the materialist scientists, and yet ……. and yet?

Nothing I’ve ever come across shakes my understanding that language – whether human language or the subtle languages of mammals, birds and insects; or flowers, or the incomprehensible silent language known as the “Wood Wide Web” – that language is more like a coral reef growing in a sea of meanings, with living ideas on the outside and deep within, the whole history of human speaking, singing and dancing. The simplest level of reference in that unexpected out of season birdsong is probably the least interesting.

It’s been a long hot and dry summer and so it must have been the case that the bird I heard was singing out of season because in this settled weather a second brood was still “thinkable” and “do-able“. But he said much more than he intended. That Spring embodying song on the very day of the Autumn Equinox was a portent of new beginnings, a sign of environmental crisis, a reminder that Nature has her own ways and heaven help us if we ignore her signs.

Less is more on the Potwell Inn allotment,

To be honest, after a two week break in Pembrokeshire I was dreading going back to the allotment. Two weeks is an awfully long time to leave any garden to nature and my particular worry was that our plot – in which we deliberately allow nature to have an almost free hand would have totally succumbed to the fatal embrace of the bindweed which has been an absolute pain this summer.

The reason, of course, is that bindweed roots travel deep and fast so it laughs at drought while many other shallow rooted plants keel over. Our strategy this season was to keep the ground covered at all costs, and so as a matter of principle when the drought began to grip we largely stopped weeding in order to keep the soil shaded and as cool as possible. I know people make the most tremendous fuss about weeds stealing sunshine, water and nutrients from the crop; but in our own wildly uncontrolled trial we found that our crop plants, so long as they had a bit of headroom, soldiered on through the heatwave, and whatever nutrients the weeds steal will be quickly returned to the soil via the compost heaps.

There were two other weed species that had a field day this year. One was the Sow Thistles, and the other was the clump of Fumitory which I was unwilling to weed out, because it is a notable rarity here in the centre of Bath. However two weeks of rain and sunshine tested the theory to the limit and it was that thought which was beginning to bother me as we recovered from a pretty exhausting harvest.

But what we didn’t expect was such a large late crop of vegetables, as we approached the Equinox on Friday. When we went to see the allotment yesterday we harvested two whole deep bags full of produce. Old potatoes were weighing in at a pound and a half each and of course it’s been so dry we didn’t have blight to contend with this year. That said we always grow blight resistant varieties of both potatoes and tomatoes. There were aubergines, peppers, runner beans, carrots, cucumbers, courgettes and apples and yet more tomatoes grown outside. The large crop of squashes have been hardening off in the sunshine ready for winter storage, so contrary to all expectations we’ve had the best overall harvest ever. We even managed to eat the whole crop of sweetcorn and didn’t concede a single cob to the marauding badgers.

The downside to all this was the excessive amount of watering we still needed to do. With just 1750 litres stored it’s clear that we would have lost crops if we hadn’t used the council provided cattle trough. Quite apart from the shame of using high quality drinking water on thirsty crops, there’s the physical wear and tear on us and our knees, carrying two cans at a time which weigh in at forty pounds and need to be carried down very rickety paths at the risk of damaging tendons and joints. I may just have muttered “I’m getting a bit old for this malarkey” once or twice! And so we need to think about drought resistant crop varieties and perhaps consider growing more perennials. The tap-rooted vegetables were left pretty much to their own devices and they’ve done amazingly well. The second issue will be weed seeds, but in early season it’s relatively easy to keep them down with a sharp hoe. The final part of the climate change conundrum is to keep the ultimate height of plants lower, which will make frost and wind protection much easier. That the climate is changing rapidly is beyond denial and hoping that next year will bring better weather is wilful magical thinking. The biggest sadness would be to lose the wonderfully flavoured -Robinson’s “Show Perfection” pea. Make no mistake, this is not a cardboard flavoured show variety, but it does grow easily to 6-8 feet.

We had also theorised that growing far more insect attractors and digging a pond would attract more predatory wasps and pollinating insects. For whatever reason the Ladybirds never really got going this year, but aphid numbers were well down so maybe the other predators took up the slack. It’s impossible to make any great claims, but our deliberately scruffy approach – although it looked terrible enough to earn reproachful looks from our tidy neighbours – kept producing abundant crops where the weed free and bare earth allotments failed on a grand scale.

I think obsessive tidiness is an entrenched value in British allotments. The catalogues are full of model specimens growing in straight rows on cleared ground, but our holiday in Wales, next door to a large organic farm, showed just how much of a role natural soil fertility and good, rich, moisture retaining soil, plays out in providing increasingly good yields over time. The grassland wasn’t overrun with any noxious weeds in spite of a no-till and no chemicals regime. What this means of course is that it’s almost certain that the kind of approach we’ve been trying to master on 100 square metres, could be upscaled to hectares. Sadly, though, the Council allotments Officer’s twice yearly assessments still seem to overvalue the straight row, weed free allotment over and against the holy disorder of our own attempts to garden thoughtfully.

So our holiday fears were not realised, and that was the most tremendous morale booster. But a second bonus followed quite naturally because all those fresh ingredients led straight back to the stove, just as the new seed catalogues were dropping into the post box. Today we ate the best mushroom soup ever, thickened with bread and made with one and a half pounds of field mushrooms brought back from the organic fields in St David’s. With the equinox two days away and the nights drawing in, there are a few joyful hours still to be had, planning for next year as we clear the beds and pile on compost and leaf mould ready for next season.

Now this is what a holiday looks like!

Madame with a handful of freshly picked field mushrooms – note the one stuck in her binoculars.

Our son, (at least, one of them did), said once that we can’t go on holiday because by virtue of being retired we’re always on holiday. I told him to get on his bike, because there is a profound difference in being away and being at home and working flat out on the allotment. Even going to the supermarket in a new place is more interesting than the same old same old. That said, we know this particular place pretty well now – so we know where the good walks are and especially we know where the field mushrooms grow abundantly at this time of the year.

So what’s so great about St David’s? Well I’ve already written about St Non’s Well so I won’t repeat myself except to say that it’s a very special place. St David’s itself is not necessarily very beautiful, and there’s not much to see apart from the cathedral – but – it’s a place that repays a peaceful and contemplative walk with its profound sense of history. Walking in the footsteps of 1500 years of pilgrimage puts you in your place in the gentlest of ways, and beneath the huge dragon backed rock formations of St David’s Head, you sense a history that goes back two or three times as far as that. Ancient is a powerfully affective concept.

Apart from that, just today we watched a couple of young women swimming in the sea being captivated as they were approached by a curious seal. We had taken our ludicrously expensive super lightweight chairs (retirement gift) down to the beach so we were able to sit comfortably and quietly on the pebbles which meant that a couple of rock pipits were able to approach within four feet of us, searching for insects in the seaweed. So amidst the plashing of the waves there was a robin singing non-stop just behind us, crows and jackdaws were crossing the little bay in noisy groups chattering to one another in what must surely be some sort of Corvid language. On our way back from the beach we saw a buzzard being mobbed by crows. Sheep were being noisily sheepish, some of them well raddled, while the tups wandered around flaring their lips in search of love.

Our supposition that chicory flowers would be palatable to the sheep was dashed as we passed them today, but an examination of the leaves suggested that it’s the green bits that the sheep like. The flowers were pretty well untouched – ah well.

A Dragonfly was depositing her eggs in a pond that we passed. They have several different ways of egg laying; some attach eggs to water plants but this one was dipping her ovipositor and dropping them one at a time into the water. We crossed stiles past a bog where abundant Brooklime covered the surface and Water Mint, in flower, pushed its way into the warm sun. Where in April the grass would have been yellow with Dandelions, here in early autumn there was an abundance of Fleabane. The sloes are poor here, at least half their normal size due to the drought in the summer, but the field that was direct-drilled with grass only a few days ago is green with germinated seed.

I had to keep stopping as we walked back along a bridle path edged, on one side with Withy bushes and Comfrey and on the other with bracken, because the sound of bees and insects was so overwhelming. Dozens of Speckled Wood butterflies were nectaring and scrapping with one another. On the roadside verges Alexanders were already pushing their first leaves through the grass ready for an early start in the New Year. It’s curious the way that there are always signs of the coming seasons, slowly appearing. Nature is replete with fugitive signs; never still for a moment.

More glory than you ever expected, plus an Oxford comma

Some of these photographs were taken from inside the campervan here in St Davids, and some in Whitesands Bay and St David’s opposite what’s known as the City Hall – but appears to be a charity shop. I suppose I could do a Matthew Arnold; lamenting the “melancholy soft withdrawing roar” of the tide on Brighton beach and compare my superior aesthetic response to St David’s with the inferior and faithless reactions of the pasty and ice cream eaters.

But life’s not that simple – not unless you’re one of those politicians that (they don’t deserve a who“) – can watch the destruction of lives and cultures with complete equanimity under the protection of a blind dogmatic faith (and I do mean faith) that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. It isn’t!

So I’ve been struggling to see how we can address the terrible problems that we face; and because we’re here in the van and out walking every day there’s been time to read and talk and think about how we might go on with some hope – because without it we’re sunk. With the present shower in power, it’s impossible to hope that conventional politics will ever find a way past the lobbyists and the bungs from the industrial giants and non-doms whose untaxed profits are salted away out of sight of the rest of us. There are some things we can do at a personal level, like growing allotments, walking and cycling, recycling, and, buying thoughtfully – (I stuck that Oxford comma in just to piss off Thérèse Coffey who as an obvious pedant doesn’t deserve a pause before her full stop!); but there are also some actions that can only be accomplished at a regional and national level.

There’s a tired old cliché in ‘management speak’ that has just enough truth in it to suggest a way forward: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. If national politics has a stranglehold on climate strategy and all the other major strategic decisions that need to be made then let’s concentrate on changing the culture instead. Let’s focus all our energy and resources on changing it using every cultural means possible instead of spending so many dispiriting hours at political meetings being voted down by members who just don’t get it. We have music, poetry, theatre, art of all kinds, samizdat newsletters, the internet, independent seminars and pop up schools; not to mention conversations with friends and neighbours.

There have been many occasions in history when the people – like the pasty and ice cream eaters and the people that run the charity shop, the hotel owner here who can’t get staff because of brexit, and me and Madame too, have wanted real change in sufficient numbers to sweep away the old guard. So why are we sitting around feeling sad and sorry for ourselves? To abuse a very good saying from the past – we have seen the solution, it is us!

We dream of these days

A Harvest Moon rising behind the campsite last night

There’s a particular combination of pale blue autumn sky and thin cloud that for me, encodes in a glimpse what would take an eternity of thought to express. As if a haiku could be condensed into a single syllable. I call it China Blue – I’ve no idea why – but that name seems to work for me; possibly something to do with early Chinese ceramics, when the cobalt for blue had to be pounded from the ore, impurities and all .

I can however name some of the associations with this particular sky. I think of wetlands; the thrilling call of a curlew; of rusting corrugated iron barns, of rhynes (a local name for drainage ditches). I think of sunny days and cool evenings and the sound of the wind in the drying grasses, and long T shirt walks; field mushrooms; ripe apples and slightly drunken conversations in the dusk. Such days are days of grace and can’t be planned – you just have to grab them as if your life depended on it, which of course it does.

When we came here to St David’s the weather forecast was for two weeks of non-stop rain, and we weren’t expecting too much – some reading, a little writing and then lots of sleep. However there is what we have learned to call the peninsula effect – probably unknown to any respectable scientist, but encouraged by fifty years of camping trips to different west facing peninsulas from Lizard in Cornwall to Ravenglass in Cumbria. On a significant number of occasions, the forecast of rain was fulfilled several miles inland leaving us in dry and even sunny weather. This theory is entirely without foundation so always take your raincoat and remember that we, as avid allotmenteers , read weather forecasts like you might read the Racing Times; being prepared to gamble.

Yesterday, however, the weather forecast promised a day’s respite between two dwindling Atlantic storms and we woke up to a change in wind direction and warm sunshine. A perfect China Blue day. And so we decided to walk out of the back of the campsite across to Lower Treginnis Farm – home to one of three Farms for City Children and on down to Porthlysgi beach. It’s not a long walk, but it’s near to one of our favourite mushroom foraging spots whose exact location is a secret!

It’s a great walk because you walk from the campsite into an extremely well run organic mixed farm run by a young Welsh couple who are happy to talk about what they’re up to. We had walked the track the previous day and noticed that the straw stubble from a previous crop was longer than it would normally be. “I wonder if they’re going to direct drill it?” – I said to Madame. Contrary to received wisdom about perfidious farmers ruining the soil and polluting the atmosphere; an increasing number are way ahead of the game; organic, no-dig, low impact mixed farming. Those of us who are trying to change the way we spend on food towards local and sustainable foodstuffs really need local farms such as this to make it work. I know George Monbiot would disagree vehemently but I don’t think he realizes that his campaign to cover much of the uplands and marginal land with trees, and turn the entire population into vegans would induce even bigger environmental and cultural destruction; destroying whole landscapes and playing into the hands of the industrial food producers. The industrial farming of trees has the same adverse effects on biodiversity as the industrial farming of cattle.

Anyway, when we returned from mushrooming we found our two farmers direct drilling a grass seed mixture into the stubble. In the surrounding fields we found all the Clover and normal weeds that would be destroyed by spraying, but in addition there was a good deal of Plantain, Sorrel and Chicory which must surely have been part of the mixture. Chicory, having a long tap root, is very drought resistant and so is Plantain. Commercial varieties of these (no longer) wild plants are increasing drought resistance and increasing weight gain and milk yields on experimental farms in New Zealand because they’re very *palatable to cattle and sheep.

This year’s lambs looked in fine shape, enjoying the pasture which has been revived by plentiful rain. Nearer the coast on the same farm last year we spotted a small flock of what might have been Katahdin sheep, developed in the United States. I couldn’t be sure of the breed but they are apparently easy to manage hair coated sheep (so don’t need shearing), hardy, with high fertility and strong flocking instinct. In a farming environment where margins are low, labour expensive and wool not worth selling, they seem like a perfect breed. Those of us who are depressed by climate destruction and the apparent lack of government action have a kind of duty to read about and support the many non intensive, non polluting and carbon reducing regimes that are being trialled in farms like this one around the country. Good luck to them!

After our farm diversion we pressed on towards the beach, picking a breakfast’s worth of wild mushrooms in a place we’d never before found them, and then alongside a stream down to Porthlysgi beach. It’s usually quiet there but the fine weather and the autumn flush of coast path walkers had turned it into a busy highway. We bagged an available spot away from the crumbling cliff and sunbathed uncomfortably for half an hour, but there was a walking tour guide with a large party noisily occupying half the beach and we decided to wander back to the van.

As we left the beach we noticed a small cairn which had been attracting a good deal of attention from passers by and especially from dogs. We went to see the cause of the excitement and were distressed to see a dead Gannet, roughly covered with pebbles and presumably a victim of H5N1 bird flu which has hammered the local breeding colonies, and originated – wouldn’t you know – in intensive chicken farms in Asia. I couldn’t get the sight of that powerful beak and the sightless eyes out of my mind. One of the treats of the beach is (was?) to watch the Gannets lasering almost vertically down at huge speed after fish. By all accounts many other breeds have been affected – we usually hear the Manx Shearwaters coming in at dusk, but none this year – perhaps they flew home earlier. So once again the culprit is not so much farming as highly intensive farming.

I spent the night dreaming miserably about the fate of the Gannet. I can’t think of any logical reason why I should be so upset, and yet a strong connection with the bird and its fate seems inescapable, not just by losing the aesthetic joy of watching them hunt but something more like a bereavement – as if a bit of me had died with the bird. The question – “How could a bird relate to me?” and its converse “How should I relate to a bird?” – turns out to be far more challenging than I ever imagined, but answering it lies at the heart of the present environmental and ecological crisis. Excluding the sentimental, the extractive and the passive relationships with nature on general offer leaves something that looks a bit metaphysical. The learned doctors of the Christian church decided centuries ago that animals cannot have souls and they probably never gave a moment’s thought to whether trees, rocks, plants or landscapes could. The modern age in the west brought many benefits to us but it smuggled an instrumental relationship with nature into the culture that spread like an evil miasma into every aspect of our lives. The Taoists on the other hand forged an attractive and non-theistic faith based on the deep relationship between all animate and inanimate nature. But that’s a “Peering over the wall” view of another faith. I’m drawn to Robin Wall Kimmerer and her exploration of the contribution that First Nation Indian traditions could bring to ecology. I’m also drawn to that meditative tradition within Christianity represented by St John, St Francis, Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen among others. The way forward if we really want to save the earth and her inhabitants from destruction is to give all faiths a place at the table and not hand it over entirely to science, industry and unregenerate economists.

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” –

Albert Einstein

*I was always advised not to try to use sheep to cut the grass in my churchyards because “they always ate the flowers first”

A very wet day in the campervan

Having dipped my toes into the water, an unexpected turn.

The steps leading down to St Non’s Well.

You might justifiably think that this post is a fragment that escaped too soon. But I reached the last two words – “I did” – and felt strongly that I should stop before wading into a pointless attempt to explain or justify what happened. The previous post – “Suspend disbelief – dip toe in water” – gives more detail and sets the scene.

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

TS Eliot – from “Little Gidding”

So since I’ve been mentioning St Non, I owe an explanation of her place in history, which won’t take long since almost nothing reliable is known about her except that she was the mother of St David and legend has it that she gave birth to him on a clifftop in the midst of a thunderstorm near the place where the ruins of an original chapel and the well can now be found. As supernatural endorsements go I suppose that’s a ten out of ten. I always assumed that this birth took place amidst the shrubs and bracken but I have seen a suggestion that she might have been living in a cottage there. Most of the other stories about her emerged during the next 500 years and were catalogued by Rhyfarch around 1095 – five centuries later. What’s undeniably true is that this became a place of pilgrimage quite soon after her death and continues to attract pilgrims even in this secular age when, from my own experience, most walkers fail to notice the well and go straight to the chapel ruins where they take a photo and walk on. There’s a modern chapel nearby which was built in the 1930’s and includes a good deal of ecclesiastical archaeology recovered from the area and built into the unusual altar. The chapel seems to be used only for occasional weddings now. For me, neither the modern chapel nor the ancient ruins hold much attraction; but the well is different.

I’ve been fascinated by and drawn to wells ever since I was a schoolboy. I would pore over the local OS map and search them out. My first ever was St Aldhelm’s well near Syston which turned out to be a fairly miserable puddle but which was reputed to be good for healing eye complaints. Wells, springs and resurgences – perhaps because their water appears to come from nowhere – have a naturally mysterious quality. As for the links between wells and saints, my best guess is that it’s metaphorical and poetic rather than factual. What’s really important is the capacity of the water, emerging from the unknown, to evoke a change of mood, a kind of meditative openness – if only the pilgrim allows it.

The logical, scientific mind would have none of this of course. “So Dave, your supposedly healing well is dedicated to a saint who probably had nothing to do with it and probably never visited it. Furthermore we now understand exactly how the water, falling as rain, percolates through the ground and emerges at the well, and the supposedly healing properties of the water cannot be identified by the most detailed analysis.” and I would reply “Every word you say is true; but in such a limited way you miss the point altogether. The well, the stories of saints and the water are nothing more than the setting in which the real work is a kind of silent dialogue between the pilgrim and what one 15th century Christian mystic called “The cloud of unknowing”.

No-one knows or ever could know what the emerging water says, because – in exactly the approach of Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Christian mysticism and almost any other religious tradition – the Word – is only heard in the silence when every preconception, theological assumption or personal pleading is put aside. All of which was a rather long winded answer to the question – “Did your ankle get better?” – Well, thanks for asking – but no, not really. On the other hand I did.”

Suspend disbelief – dip toe in water!

St Non’s Well – near St Davids.

The tag at the head of all my posts reads “A sceptic’s take on being human”. Maybe that’s a little too firm. The title of this post dropped into my mind without warning and then, 12 hours later I realized that it sounds exactly like a reading from the I Ching – which are always ambiguous, no more than a suggestion as to where an answer might be sought. My scepticism is mainly about the kind of idea that’s fed to us like the predigested food that seagulls vomit into their chicks’ eager gape, and which may never be examined or questioned. The BBC have been re-running a series of brief 15 min talks by Neil Macgregor in which he quoted an intriguing thought. “Religion” he said, “is always political, and politics is always religious”. In the light of a new and even more deranged government dominated by an obviously religious fervour for neoliberal economics. I’m inclined to agree. These people remind me more of evangelical theologians (an oxymoron) than rational beings.

So scepticism is a tricky term to use because it depends on who’s being sceptical and what they’re being sceptical about.

And so, down to business

My scepticism is of the kind that functions as an adjunct to curiosity – the don’t knock it until you’ve tried it kind of scepticism. Oscar Wilde once wrote that you should try everything once except incest and morris dancing. I’d be happy to keep morris dancing on my bucket list. And so today we walked down to the well at St Nons and because I have been suffering from a painful ankle for ages I took my boots and socks off and dangled my feet into the cold water. Several coast path walkers passed in stony silence, too fixed on their destination to wonder whether I might do a little dance and declare myself healed. It wasn’t expecting much to happen – that would have been very challenging – but it was incredibly comforting to join with the countless other pilgrims who have visited this place over the past 1500 years looking for exactly the same kind of comfort. To steal a line from TS Eliot:

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. 

TS Eliot – Little Gidding.

I’ve been in that place before – well yes, in this place but also in this headspace. Full of doubt; hoping but not daring to hope; clinging to the possibility that there are mysteries that can’t be explained – the possibility of surprise without explanation. I’ve been on many pilgrimages, and rationally they’re pointless but emotionally; spiritually; the sheer plod of putting one foot in front of the other can speak to a realm beyond words. I love St Davids and I’ve pondered whether to walk here from Bath on a number of occasions, but if I ever do – if my ankle and my knackered knees will allow it – I’ll walk to St Non’s Well not to the cathedral which I can never bring myself to enter because in the end religion is all too inclined to be political; acting as a chaplaincy to the status quo; a monument to the wealthy and powerful; a message in stone to the peasantry that the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate (a line from ‘All things bright and beautiful’) is the way that God ordained it to be.

I intend to write more on this next time I post.

Advice for bloggers. There’s always the shop that sells expensive notebooks and watercolour paint

Sunset, looking west across the northern tip of Ramsey Island

That’s certainly true in Bath where you can easily spend over £100 on a posh notebook and fountain pen and release your inner Jane Austen during the length of a single rainy day.

I write – as ever – of myself; and my inner Jane Austen who remains captive in spite of the deskloads of notepaper and must-have pens which I’ve bought over the years to no effect at all. Even a set of six French manufactured coloured inks failed to remove the large stone rolled in front of the creative sepulchre.

For a while I convinced myself that it was the sheer expense of these accessories that was holding me back and so I started writing on torn up sheets of absorbent lining paper. There you go! we all have our little rituals which – although they have no impact at all on what we write – are strangely enabling of the act itself. John Masefield apparently liked to write with a box of rotting apples under his chair and Stanley Spencer memorably enjoyed the smell of human poo which seemed to get his creative juices going. Not for me, thanks. The seaside, with its smells of tar, salt and suntan lotion usually does it for me but these days I eschew all the tics of the past and write on my Chromebook wherever I happen to be.

For ten years I taught creative writing in the Welsh Valleys and in a notorious outer urban fringe estate, and it was there I learned that absolutely anyone can write. If there’s a problem it doesn’t lay with the (worker) writers but with the education system and the publishing business that sets the parameters of what we’re allowed to experience, think or express in writing. Of course the greatest enemy of many writers is self-doubt, but again this has its good side. Words don’t often come easily and it’s no bad thing to hesitate before putting your turds of wisdom before the public at large.

My own approach to writing was developed by having to meet deadlines. When you’ve got a deadline – even a self imposed one – you can forget all the faff and self delusion about waiting to feel the creative flow before committing. Sit down, turn on the laptop, write something and as it emerges you can correct, revise and edit as you go along. Oh and although it’s a good idea to have some thoughts on your potential audience, don’t let that be a straightjacket. In a blog format like this you can write for more than one audience and hope that some readers will like a bit of green spirituality as well as gardening tips. Never be afraid of pissing your followers off by failing to pander to their prejudices. You win some. And don’t pay too much attention to blogging advice on how to monetize your pages or get more hits. If you make the audience king you’ll land up being a servant.

For years I’ve honed my technique to deliver around a thousand words of reasonably stimulating, challenging ideas, backed up by experience and a lot of hard reading. What I haven’t learned is the very different skill set of gathering and editing those ten minute pieces into a larger format. Developing the significant themes into theses requires a larger view and a longer focus than I’m used to working with.

So we’re taking a two week post-harvest break in the campervan near St Davids, overlooking Ramsey Sound, and with a weather forecast that only differs in the predicted intensity of the rain for the next fourteen days. What could be better than repurposing some of that reading time to try out a larger format – say 10,000 words long? Well, coincidentally I packed Robert Graves’ “The White Goddess” to re-read, and this morning I made a start on it. Apart from his poetry and the book I have a single point of contact with him because I took the funeral service for a woman in his Majorcan circle who typed up some of the draft copies of the “White Goddess”. By the time I got to meet her she was near to death and not going gentle into that good night. Not that she ever spoke, but she was passing restlessly into unconsciousness. I sat with her daughter as her mother lay dying and asked the obvious question – “Why don’t you read her some poetry?” She was aghast at the very thought. Her mother – who sounded like a real martinet had always hated and criticised the way that her daughter read poetry aloud. Cue for a lifetime of repressed longing for someone, anyone, to offer any small praise.

As I started to read the book again I couldn’t get that picture out of my mind. Graves comes across as a slightly paranoid, obsessive old monster; absolutely determined to have his say and drive his point home like a stake through the heart. It’s my way or the highway. Anyway I soldiered on through the introduction and eventually found an example of an old Welsh poetic form called Cynghanedd that Graves had written to illustrate what he calls a “burdensome obsession”. I thought it was an absolutely wonderful use of words:

Billet spied,

Bolt sped.

Across fields

Crows fled,

Aloft, wounded

Left one dead

Robert Graves in a footnote in “The White Goddess”

That’s a wonderful encouragement to be bold with words; but the real takeaway point is that in his eagerness to press home every single obsessive point by wrestling it into the ground, Graves managed to write what even he thought was a difficult book that would be completely unintelligible to the “stupid and silly” people who would never be able to understand – because they weren’t proper poets. That should be a warning to anyone attempting to write in longer forms. Good writing flows like a river not a stream with prostate problems, and being right will in no way protect us from being bad.

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