Come on George Monbiot – you can do better than this!

Cattle doing what comes naturally – eating grass.
“‘Let them eat lentils’ won’t save us from animal farming – we must embrace meat substitute”.

From the very first sentence – “Our insatiable appetite for meat is laying waste to the planet. But the alternative is looking (and tasting) better by the day” – I can hear the voice of my one time sociology lecturer Sid Harris demanding “It all sounds very nice David, but where’s the evidence?” and this piece by George Monbiot is all too characteristic of some of his recent writing. It’s peppered with hot links most of which are references to scientific papers, some of them hidden behind paywalls so we get the headline but none of the supporting evidence. In fact they create the illusion of hard facts without letting us judge for ourselves. The hotlinks and the somewhat breathless style suggest an overuse of green ink and handwritten capitals. The most tendentious statements – like the one above – “Our insatiable appetite for meat is laying waste to the planet ……” is plain silly. I’m pretty hard up but I’d still bet a tenner that Monbiot couldn’t stand that one up without being allowed to empty the shelves of available prejudices and heavily redacted papers. I’ve linked to the whole article, not because I want to promote his fundamentalist views but because they’re an example of the evacuation of analytical thinking from too many mainstream media opinion columns.

Clearly we have an environmental crisis bearing down upon us, and clearly there is some evidence that some farming practices – like intensive feedlots and so-forth make a substantial contribution to that, but to pretend that there is any equivalence between small mixed farms, peasant and subsistence farms and intensive farms with thousands of cattle being fed intensively farmed soya is a deliberate distortion of the statistics. To suggest that meat farming is the principal engine of global climate change is pure vegan wishful thinking. In fact the continuing burning of fossil fuels in every part of the so-called developed world – some of which is used to drive farm machinery and make chemicals and fertilizers – but much of which is used by aviation, private car use, and the transport of foodstuffs over hundreds if not thousands of miles; this is what’s driving the crisis.

Do we eat too much meat? – undoubtedly the answer is yes. We eat too much of it and especially we eat too much of the wrong kind of it; the kind that’s fattened in conditions of appalling cruelty and fattened on food that makes cows sick. They’re ruminants, they evolved to eat grass not grain and soya meal. Should we ignore ethical questions surrounding farming and troll people who elect not to eat meat? Of course not, and I wish they’d stop the trolling in the opposite direction. Does referring to milk as an “animal secretion” encourage sensible debate? Do I really need to answer that? Is there any doubt among scientists that the way in which Co2 equivalent is calculated is at least questionable? – here’s a link to a paper in Nature that you can actually read!

As long as we allow this critical debate to be dominated by cherry picked evidence and hyperbolic statements on all sides, the battle to save the earth will be stalled. We don’t have the leisure of all the time we need to sort this out – successive COP meetings have seen time and energy wasted by bad faith and bad data.

The wildlife and plants that are so important to me and to millions of us have value in their own right, although they have no seat at the table to make their case. They are the canaries in the mine and they are disappearing by their hundreds and thousands while this sterile debate goes on.

If only it was true that we could save the earth by doing just one thing – ban farming; ban big cars, blah blah blah – but we can’t because it’s a hugely complex problem with more tentacles than the Hydra in Greek mythology. The simplest explanation – but it’s not that much help – is that the age of extraction, burning, waste and neoliberal economics has run its course. We need to find an alternative, but much as I admire some of George Monbiot’s work, columns like this one are not going to be part of the solution because they’re part of the problem.

Forget what these plants are and think what artists they may have inspired.

Exploring the links between nature and art.

If you asked me to nominate one invention that changed the world irrevocably for the better it would be the lens. My friend Chris Lee uses a telescope lens and some pretty fancy software to make the most thought provoking images of space. Most of us use cameras of one sort or another and they’re dependent on lenses of course, but today I was using nothing more sophisticated than a clip-on macro lens attached to my Pixel 6a to reveal some of the secrets of the Common Polypody fern. Those are the pictures at the top and I ran out of magnifying power at the last one which really needs at least a x100 microscope.

The others are all photos I’ve taken in the last ten days and as we looked at them we were both excited by their capacity to surprise and inspire us – not as botanical specimens at all but as objects of beauty. So the fern makes me think instantly of the Victorian fashion for the terrarium and the wonderful images of ferns made by botanical artists across the centuries. The middle row has an impenetrable blackthorn bush at Kynance Cove today which surely must have influenced Graham Sunderland in his tapestry of the crucifixion in Coventry Cathedral, but equally seems uncannily close to Jackson Pollock. The stonecrops could be models for the roof bosses of a thousand churches and if ever William Morris needed inspiration for his wallpaper designs surely the Buckshorn Plantain and the leaves of Mugwort would have served him well. The little Sea Campion has an uncanny resemblance to Tiffany glass; the rosettes of emerging Hedge Mustard are a glorious reminder of symmetry and the catkins – well I just love the colour. Nature’s palette is incredibly restrained and yet limitless in its applications. Whilst I was learning some botanical illustration, we did an exercise of limiting ourselves to three colours and I never subsequently saw the point of using more.

Almost exactly seven years ago I set myself the challenge of painting a Hyacinth in flower. I took hundreds of photos and practiced drawing the flowers from every angle; above, below and from the side and with light falling on them from different directions. I still have the practice drawings and paintings but I abandoned the painting because it was just too complex.

The take home point for me was that minute attention to the detail of a plant, whether flower or leaf was both meditation and scientific exploration and linked deeply with the creative process. Hard, then, not to attribute natural form to some benign guiding hand. But these days I think that’s a shortcut and a cop-out. I’m happy with not knowing because for me, doubt was always the beginning of faith. The lens takes us to places we never even suspected to exist and that’s why it’s my nomination for the world’s greatest invention.

  • and a postscript to this piece. As we walked up the valley from Kynance Cove we spotted what looked like a (too) small buzzard sitting high on the crest of the rocks. We tracked up the footpath and came level and behind it and we could see from its beautiful chestnut brown back that it was actually a kestrel as it set off in a zigzag hunting flight across the valley. There was a bitterly cold northwest wind and it must have been puffed out viewed from below, but there was no mistaking its colour as it set out with what Gerard Manley Hopkins described as its “wimpling wing”. Cue “Windhover” – one of his finest poems.

“Wait your turn, Sir!”

The first Celandine of spring – or at least the first we’ve seen.

A great friend and mentor of mine; a parish priest like me, was leading the graveside prayers at a burial service when he lost his footing and very nearly went down with the coffin. He was held firmly by one of the pall bearers who whispered in his ear “Wait your turn, Sir – wait your turn!”.

It would be comforting to think of nature as a basically static display of plants that come up in the spring and die in the autumn. Except it isn’t like that at all. The emergence of the first spring flowers depends on a whole heap of factors like ambient temperature, day length, amounts of sunshine and space to grow. This year, for example, the first Celandine we saw was here on the Lizard exactly as it was last year, but 13 days later. That was it – the only Celandine in flower in a five mile walk. Look closely at the photograph and you’ll see that there’s another plant there that’s growing fast enough to steal its sunlight in a week or two. Cleavers is an extremely vigorous climber – you’ll know it from the burrs that stick firmly to most clothes by way of the tiny hooks which were the inspiration for Velcro.

Look closely at the hedgerows around this time and you’ll see the first leaves of many plants which follow in strict succession right through to late autumn, and all timed like a glorious firework display to flower and fruit in their unique optimal conditions. Not all buttercups are buttercups and not all dandelions are dandelions (in fact they’re so complicated they can’t even make their own minds up). Some will flower for weeks and with others you can blink and they’re gone. Nothing stands still for a moment in nature and for me the first Celandine is both a joy and a warning that from now on it’s an unstoppable torrent of flowering and fruiting that will change the whole appearance of fields and hedgerows every couple of weeks. The succession of the plants ensures that each one has its own space. Cow Parsley gives way to Hogweed and so forth. It can be exhausting trying to keep up, especially for Madame who will beg me to leave the notebook and hand lens behind and just go for a walk . I note, however that she always takes her binoculars out – “just in case”.

Today we started on the Lizard Green and walked down the lane to Church Cove and then took the coast path as far as Housel Bay and then turned off to avoid a monumental flight of steps and took the easier path to the back of Lizard Lighthouse stopping for some food and then back to the car park. Ten years ago we’d have bounded up those steps without a care, but one of the less talked about advantages of getting quite old is that we walk rather slower and so we see much more. This was a walk we tried to do on Saturday but the coast path was rammed with runners doing a 100 mile ultra marathon. I bet they’ll be walking slowly with ultra knackered knees long before their 70’s.

Anyway, the short cut was marvellous because we caught sight of a very big Buzzard eating his/her kill on a Cornish wall. Within ten feet of the Buzzard there sat a lovely Carrion Crow waiting apparently unafraid until the superior hunter got bored with lunch and flew off – whereupon the crow hopped sideways along the wall and polished off the remains. That was surprising enough, but half a mile later we saw the same two birds repeating exactly the same routine. It was clearly a relationship of more significance to the Crow than the Buzzard but I suppose the crow – Corvids are among the smartest birds – probably reasoned that it was best to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. There was no way that the Buzzard could launch a surprise attack from ten feet. But whatever the rationale it looked as if both birds were in fine health and as fat as butchers’ dogs – which is the closest I could get to an appropriate metaphor.

Ulex europaeus

There was another surprise on the walk because I’ve been spending some time trying to identify a species of Gorse called Western Gorse – Ulex gallii. It’s one of the plants that are plentiful around the Lizard and Kynance Cove but rare everywhere else; but which is very similar to its larger cousin Gorse – Ulex europaeus. The difference between the two comes down to size – ordinary Gorse is bigger; its thorns are longer and deeply grooved, like the one in the picture. But the clincher was (note the past tense) the fact that Gorse ordinaire flowers all year round, but Western Gorse flowers in summer. Or at least that’s what the books say, but unfortunately plants don’t read textbooks and today we found hundreds of Western Gorse plants around the coast path, and many of them were in flower.

Ulex gallii

The Lizard peninsula has two things going for it. One is its unique geology which gives a home to hundreds of wildflowers some of which are only found here. The other thing derives from its geography. It’s the furthest southerly point in the UK and it enjoys a unique climate as well. It’s warm. On first seeing it many years ago it looked completely wild and windswept – and indeed it is, but its warm microclimate means that some wild plants better suited to better to warmer places actually thrive here.

Good news too on the recording front because the County Recorder emailed yesterday and accepted both records I’d submitted. I’ve already posted a picture of the little perennial Leek – Babington’s Leek yesterday. He was kind enough to say that I’d found two sites where it hasn’t previously been seen. The other plant was a real outrider – Wireplant, Muehlenbeckia complexa a New Zealand visitor and that one passed as well. Three more little red squares on the national map.

Approaching retirement I often wondered what I would do to fill my time. The idea of voluntary work often came to mind but I never fancied any of the options because many of them felt like not retiring at all. But this combination of allotmenteering and field botany have turned out to be my happy place. Spring? Bring it on!

Suck ‘ee for a wallsie – as we used to say – before the dialect died

Roughly translated that lovely piece of Bristolian rudeness means spin on that one Jack – or in received pronunciation – I think I was right after all, old chap!

So before we came down to Cornwall I had high hopes of finding a few interesting plants because there’s nothing quite as rewarding as getting a tiny square on a species map attributed to you by name (not that anyone except Q or some equivalently highly placed person would be able to access it). I wrote yesterday about the trainspotter infection and today the fix I needed arrived by email confirming my records for two plants that are pretty rare because they only grow here. They are Muehlenbeckia complexa AKA Wireplant, top left going clockwise; which is – in botanical terms – a recent alien from New Zealand but which hasn’t been recorded for 12 years; and then Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii – Babington’s Leek which is also known at the site but I found two new previously unrecorded nearby sites for it.

It may be a bit counterintuitive but in the botanical/ecological world, a plant doesn’t exist if it’s not recorded – which can be crucial when designating protected sites. But in January there aren’t many flowers to go by so we have Poland and Clement’s “The Vegetative Key to the British Flora which is basically a book of leaves”, and very good it is.

Records, however can’t be entered before they’ve been verified by a proper botanist and so we humbly present our finds with photos, measurements and all the rest; submit them and wait for the confirmatory email. Luckily the County Recorders are a brilliant bunch and very friendly , especially to beginners, and so being corrected becomes a positive learning experience rather than a crushing humiliation.

And so it came to pass today that I got the confirmations and two little red squares appeared on the national map. A matter of stupefying unimportance to the mentally sound population but in Chris Packham’s terms worth a good thigh rub! Sadly, Babington’s Leek is sold in packets by many seed merchants but for me that doesn’t diminish the pleasure of finding really wild ones.

So a short but jolly post tonight and tomorrow looks sunny so we’ll be out and about seeing what we can find. Madame has a wonderful eye for plants – we make a perfect team.

Hunting for signs of spring

We set out to double check and photograph a patch of wild leeks that we found a couple of days ago and which I’ve never seen before so we needed to document them properly with grid references and detailed photos in order to get them double checked by the local County Recorder. There is a kind of trainspotter sickness that can grip you when you get into plants but fortunately it’s a sickness whose symptoms are air punching for no apparent reason and feeling absurdly happy even on a cold grey day in winter.

Glistening Inkcap, Coprinellus micaceus

The secondary reason was the competitive urge to find a Celandine in flower. The results of the New Years plant hunt, organised by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland are coming in and the general impression is that this is a rather late season. Last winter we photographed them in flower down here on 17th January and by the look of the leaves today we’re running a fortnight late this year following the continuing bitterly cold weather. We did however find a lonely violet – not my strongest subject but Sweet Violets, Viola odorata are the earliest to flower. Winter Heliotrope were in flower too and a solitary Cyclamen was hiding at the top of a hedge bank which – while photographing it – provoked the strong perfume of wild garlic under my feet. There were abundant purple catkins on an alder tree. In the fungus department we spotted a Glistening Inkcap on a moss covered log.

More than anything, seeing the growing leaves of a multitude of other flowering plants made me wonder how many terawatts of sheer green energy are sitting there underground waiting for a daylength and temperature signal to let them burst forth. Hemlock Water Dropwort doesn’t look half as dangerous when it’s vibrant green and only a few inches tall.

As for the very local Wild Leek, we await the verdict from the County Recorder but here are the photos we sent to him. Cocoa and toasted saffron cake were consumed.

Take a bow, Simon Fairlie

Photographs taken in the Lost Gardens of Heligan farm in October 2018

Walking, reading, thinking and writing just about sums up my idea of a good holiday. Mercifully Madame feels much the same and so on our trips away anyone keeping a close eye on us might conclude that we’ve nothing to say to each other; but they don’t see the subsequent conversations in which we read aloud extracts from the books we’re reading and share ideas. It’s just that when we’re out and about we don’t always need to talk because that’s when my eyes are on the hedgerows looking for plants and hers are focused in the trees looking for birds, butterflies and all the rest.

Anyway, this week amongst all the other things we’ve done I’ve been reading Simon Fairlie’s autobiographical book “Going to Seed”. I may as well get the unsolicited plug out of the way by recommending it wholeheartedly for many reasons – not least if you’re around the same age as me it will evoke warm memories of what turned out to be a brief and largely unsuccessful rebellion against the status quo, but also if you’re the same age as our children and grandchildren it will fill in the embarrassing details of how we lived our lives to the full in the 70’s and 80’s. Far from impoverishing their inheritance we (some of us) were actually trying to create a sustainable and more fulfilled future for them, but we were no match for the suits who were better practiced at creating the narratives of pure hokum which were the real cause of the current crisis. Those times were good and bad in equal measure, but we set up cooperatives, lived in a couple of communes and earned peanuts from insecure part time jobs. The book is a thoroughly good read and Fairlie never lets his self critical gifts slip. We got things wrong and underestimated the sheer inertia of the status quo. On the other hand, if ever there was a time to revisit some of those visionary ideas it’s now in the face of the global systemic failure of economics, species extinctions and environmental catastrophe.

Simon Fairlie has also written “Meat, a Benign Extravagance” – a carefully argued case for small scale sustainable mixed farming that takes on some of the shriller and sillier notions of fundamentalist veganism as well as demolishing the arguments of the agrochemical giants. It’s a joy to see the supporting evidence for all of his arguments – “go check for yourself” he invites us, rather than following the probably apocryphal story of the preacher whose sermon was annotated with the words “argument weak here – shout loudly!”

There’s a third book “Low Impact Development” that I haven’t managed to read yet but is available secondhand. But there’s another reason why I find an instinctive kindred spirit in him. Starting from opposite ends of the social spectrum we were both difficult, argumentative and occasionally reckless teenagers; both ultimately thrown out of school and both on a journey – me towards a proper education and he in pursuit of the practical skills of a social class from which he’d been excluded by birth and culture. Neither of us – and I’ve never met him – were apparently prepared to swallow the predigested bird food that passed for an education – the question “why?” was so burned into our souls.

You may have gathered that I’m a binge reader and so a modest amount of research threw up two excellent magazines, the first of which – The Land Magazine – he is co-editor, and another – Resilience – to which he is a regular contributor. One article that caught my eye can be found on this link to Resilience which lists all of his contributions. If you search for the article “A convenient Unruth” you will find a forensic takedown of the current debate about the methane emissions of ruminants. He makes a convincing argument that the widespread obsession with cattle emissions is based on bad reporting which is not the fault of the scientists who came up with an initial estimate of the global warming effects of methane which has been falsely used to imply that methane emissions are, in simple terms, 32 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide. This false claim is possible only by ignoring the fact that methane degrades relatively quickly (a half-life of ten years) whereas carbon dioxide never degrades. I’m simplifying greatly here, but given that the size of the national UK herd has declined over the past 30 years whereas car ownership and Co2 emissions have grown enormously, the arguments pursued by George Monbiot – whilst they may have real ethical weight – are scientific nonsense. Fairlie is as firmly against intensive agrochemical farming as is Monbiot; but again the reason is the prodigious cost in Co2 emissions of fertilizers, agrochemicals, gigantic farm machinery and grotesque transport footprint. No amount of cherry picked evidence is forgivable if the net result is to send agriculture to oblivion and force feed the rest of us with junk food gloop produced by the multinational food corporations using huge quantities of green energy that would be better applied to new mass transport systems or ending the scandal of old people freezing in their homes.

So yes – hats off to Simon Fairlie, and if I ever buy a scythe it will be from him. Prophets are rarely appreciated in their own country.

Think of your Sole

Fishing boats hauled up on Cadgwith beach – January 2022

A couple of days ago I mentioned the sinking of the Crig-a-Tana off Cadgwith last November and the rescue of the two man crew by the Lizard Lifeboat. Both men were ironically members of the lifeboat crew and even more darkly ironically the boat was named after a pretty vicious looking reef off Kuggar called Crig-a-tana rocks. The sinking of the boat had nothing whatever to do with the rocks because she went down 6 mile southeast of Bass Rock and they are waiting for a report from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch to discover what happened. Fishing and farming remain two of the most dangerous industries in the country.

Anyway, all best wishes to the crew who have been through a horrendous experience, but this raises once again the insecurities and dangers that the inshore fishing fleet have to contend with, and lends support to the idea that unless we support these industries by buying their produce they may not survive for the future. Interestingly the Government published their proposals for the ELMS scheme today – this is a payment support scheme that offers farmers subsidies in return for public goods – like environmental schemes. Once again the big arable farms will be able to claim most of the subsidies while small farms and hill farms will be competing for the scraps. I needn’t mention again the betrayal of the inshore fleet by the brexit debacle.

And that’s why we at the Potwell Inn try to buy as much as possible of our food from local sources, preferably direct from the producers and bypassing the supermarkets. With that in mind we trogged off to Porthleven yesterday for a walk and to buy some fish. Who knew that fish are seasonal? I sort of knew it in the recesses of my mind but when we got to the fishmonger she had some Lemon Sole on display, as well as Haddock – not a major fish around here, and of course crabmeat. Lemon Sole are bang in season at the moment and I think I must have cooked them badly at some time in the past and never bothered again. Madame on the other hand absolutely loves them so we bought a couple of fillets each of Haddock and Lemon Sole (more expensive!) plus a tub of mixed white crab meat with the brown splodgy bit). The brown meat is much cheaper and yet it’s full of flavour. So we’ve been gorging ourselves on fish, which in Cornwall has sometimes been tricky in the past – because apart from supermarkets you never see it fresh. Unlike the Continent, the local fisherman don’t sell their catch off the boat as a matter of course.

So £23 for three meals seems a lot, except fish prices have escalated; but think that we paid £6.00 for the crab meat and made three rounds of crab sandwiches which would have cost something like £30 in a cafe. We also lashed out on a £10 bottle of Muscadet which would have been marked up to £25 or £30. That looks like value for money to me. The haddock, which we had for supper cost about £8 – compared with £15 a portion for fish and chips. Then we had the Lemon Sole today – dusted with seasoned flour – and simply fried in butter and olive oil. The trick is to hammer the skin side until it’s crisp and then turn the heat down and turn the fish for a minute – it cooks quickly. Once again delicious with 1/2 bottle of cheap Albariño. Learn to cook – it’ll save you a fortune and you’ll eat like a Russian oligarch!

Seasonal fish isn’t always to everyone’s taste – I love Cod Roe – which is almost unobtainable now due to the complete absence of any other customers. You can buy smoked roe for taramasalata at almost any time but the raw roe probably looks too much like a pair of giant testicles to attract the faint hearted. These were the last I ate, seven years ago.

But the take home point is that fish have their seasons and like every other food it’s best to eat them while they’re ‘in‘ and when they’re local because they’re that much fresher and come without a contrail of air miles.

But we haven’t just spent the past few days eating. I finally got to scrambling up a cliff path to a patch of promising looking gorse and managed to identify the two most common gorse species in this part of the world. Growing next to each other made it relatively easy tpo see the differences and I’m reasonably sure of my ID because the larger Gorse/ Furze Ulex europaeus was in flower and the smaller Ulex Gallii – Western Gorse wan’t, and it fitted most of the other descriptors. Clive Stace – who must be obeyed in all matters botanical – demands the mean of ten measurements of certain flower parts before identification is made – but since one of them wasn’t in flower and wasn’t expected to be in flower until June I decided not to wait. It is quite absurd, the amount of pleasure to be gained from nailing the names of two plants so similar you need a magnifying glass to distinguish them but honestly it’s the best fun you can have while keeping your clothes on. Naked botanising among gorse plants in a brisk offshore wind is an overrated pastime. Finally, just to complete my joy I noticed a Cornish Heath nestling among its taller neighbours. I believe some vulgar botanists refer to this as a slam dunk. Here they are.

Jumping the chasm between ought and is.

“A half legendary miasma of once upon a time gallimaufry” – a quotation from my post yesterday.

I’d really like to be writing about leaping out of the car and measuring gorse thorns in search of Western Gorse – Ulex gallii, or paying a return visit to a possible Babington’s Leek – Allium ampeloprasum down near the watermill at Poltesco. It’s all so romantic – if you like that sort of thing. But actually what keeps grabbing me and shaking my shoulder is just one feature of the gathering climate catastrophe, and that’s the link between species loss, landscape devastation and what we like to think of as human culture.

Our materialistic worldview has taught us all that nature is a kind of evolutionary pyramid at whose pinnacle we sit; masters of all we survey but somehow separate from it at the same time. What the agonised debates surrounding climate change are beginning to teach us is that if the pyramid collapses we disappear with all the rest. A ridiculous ideological blind spot seems to allow us to carry on with destructive economics, dangerous fossil fuel burning and anthropogenic species extinctions regardless of the ecological damage – by systematic avoidance of the evidence.

And to take a step further in the argument we might ask – what is it that so scares us about the gathering storm that we can’t bring ourselves even to think about it? My suggestion is that it’s something along the lines that loss of species, habitats, farming and horticultural practices, manufacturing and the whole panoply of material practices is not just a loss of ways of doing stuff but of ways of being. So the loss of any of those practices entails a corresponding loss within our culture; chipping away at our sense of what it means to be human.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Here in Cornwall, and especially in North Wales the sense of loss is palpable. In Wales it’s language that has become the focal point of all that grief. To lose a language is the greatest tragedy that can befall a nation because it is the cultural matrix that holds past, present and future together and allows us to feel at home; fully human. In Cornwall it seems to be a festering grievance that the relationship between England and Cornwall has been essentially colonial. Great wealth has been removed from the county, won by miners working in appalling conditions, and now the English are completing their extractive work by pricing some of the poorest people in the county out of their homes, which are turned into holiday homes and AirBnb lettings.

Cultural losses are the inevitable collateral damage of material changes, and in that light the pushback by fishermen against quotas, and by would-be lithium miners against environmental objections is easier to understand. So too with farmers and vegetable growers struggling against piratical supermarket contracts; and especially hill farmers – because they all labour against not just the weather but the onslaught of trolling by smart ass politicians and commentators who’ve never held a spade or a net in their lives.

What this can easily result in is a kind of truculent resistance even to productive and necessary change and a clinging to an over sentimentalized vision of the past which can always trump the future because that’s a bit speculative. They’ve all heard “we’re all in this together” when the evidence is that they always seem to trouser the proceeds. The great thing about looking back is that you can always remember the full nets of pilchards but eliminate the memories of home made oilskins and regular famines. Stargazy pie celebrates the relief of a famine in Mousehole when a fisherman called Tom Bawcock braved a storm to bring pilchards back to a starving village. That was in the 16th Century – memories are deeply rooted here.

Only a new vision – and I mean vision – will give us the collective will to face the daunting challenge. Until we know, really know ourselves to be a part of nature, and as vulnerable as any red list plant or Orangutan or Whale then the difficulties will be insuperable. In this age of populist dictatorships the liars will always think of a more appealing narrative that allows the rich to drain the last drop of lifeblood until we all fall silent.

We have to be courageous enough to cross the chasm between the way things used to be by accepting that the past, its languages, symbols and culture enrich the future – we mustn’t let them threaten it.

This wonderful poem, first published in 1937 – that’s eighty three years ago – just about sums up what I’m saying. It’s a reflection on mortality, written in the shadow of the first world war and the gathering strength of nazi power accompanied by the Great Depression of the 1930’s. It matters because Thomas manages, almost miraculously, to frame in a non religious way the interpenetration of nature and humanity. It’s that kind of thought that will lay the first stone in the bridge between ought and is.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

Dylan Thomas

The biblical “Last Trump” probably sounds (and looks) a bit like this.

The Lizard lighthouse foghorns
Is Cornish culture on its last legs?

I can’t find a single photograph I’ve ever taken of the Lizard Village. We’ve visited it many times and, in the past camped there; in fact yesterday we saw a decommissioned helicopter parked incongruously in the paddock of a farm where we once washed ourselves in with nothing more than a cold tap and an outside privy. The post office where we waited for an emergency bailout from my sister has closed; the pub where I tried to sample every whisky and ended up knocking myself half senseless (the other half had already gone), on a low beam – closed. The little restaurant where we spent the last of our money and I tasted guinea fowl for the first time, closed. The only supermarket has gone and the last of the serpentine turners appears to have turned his last lighthouse ornament and then turned up his toes. The trippers still arrive like locusts in the summer and strip any green shoots of the old culture bare, so everything is distorted and could ultimately be destroyed by tourism. There’s barely a pig shed in Cornwall that’s not been converted into a holiday let or an airBnb, and hardly a spoil heap that’s not been turned into an “experience” by a small time entrepreneur.

Years ago John Betjeman described the Lizard as depressingly full of buildings like army married quarters, and it hasn’t improved over the past 50 years. The only remnant of our first ever visit is the Regent Cafe on the green where, a few summers ago we saw a poster advertising the ancient Cornish sport of whippet racing.

All that said, we still love the knackered old place and come back year after year because a short walk beyond the village takes us to the coast path and the lighthouse whose fog horn is a thing of wonder. I’m sure I permanently damaged my hearing, sitting as close as I dared when it was working and listening to the fan starting up and build steadily until an almighty blast straight from hell poured into the air and echoed all around the surrounding bays. It hit you in the belly and rattled your teeth; the tinnitus lasted for hours afterwards then there was silence. For a while.

Why so, then? As politicians often say “I’m glad you asked me that” and then go on to talk about the new cycle lanes they’ve personally fought for in their constituencies. Cornwall’s a mess but nobody could argue it’s all the fault of the English or the tourists. The road improvements to the A30 and the A38, and many other important infrastructure and cultural projects were paid for by the EU which the Cornish voted in force to leave. The fishermen who were especially keen to regain our sovereignty soon found that they could no longer afford to sell their fish in a Europe from which we’d separated ourselves. Some skippers known locally as slipper skippers sold their boats to the scrapyard and their quotas to the Spanish who repaid their naivety by dredging the sea empty. The NHS failed to receive the promised £350 million a week and the GP surgery in Lizard is now in a single tiny prefab building, and in spite of the enormous success of the lost gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project which have brought money and good jobs to the poorest part of Cornwall, when Tim Smit tried to open an education centre in Lostwithiel the objections from the locals poured in and the project looks like being scrapped. It seems that finding a future for Cornwall other than hospitality and seasonal homelessness is rather like the kind of hopeless task presented by what Michael Balint the psychoanalyst called “heart sinkers”.

All of which mournful thoughts floated around in my mind during what I thought was a terrible night but which my Withings watch scored at 100%. Re -reading Fred Pearce’s “The New Wild” recently I began to wonder whether our negative attitudes towards invasive plant, insect and animal species didn’t find an exact parallel in some of our instinctive responses to tourism. These attitudes in humans draw from deep wells. Apparently just as the English tell jokes about the Welsh and the Irish and never fail to wonder at the meanness of the Scots – none of which stereotypes have any foundation in fact; the Russians make fun of the Ukrainians, and we all know where that leads to; so the Cornish refer to out of county visitors as “grockles” who, given a moment’s reflection, are the one reliable source of income in a county which has lost virtually all of its traditional employment. The tin and the copper mines are gone. Fibre optics will probably mean that the copper market will never really gain strength. Fishing is largely gone due to overfishing which wasn’t all down to Spanish supertrawlers. The quota system is the bastard child of overfishing in the face of all the evidence.

Looking around there are no obvious replacements apart from tourism – I’ll probably get hate mail for this – so right now, any attempt to go back to some imagined past by legislating against the one reliable source of income is doomed to fail. The lithium mine being proposed is about the last thing Cornwall needs at the moment. The specialist workers may well be brought in from beyond the Tamar and in any case if you add in the principle that the polluter pays the environmental damage and the excessive use of water ought to scupper the project on the drawing board. The world needs what Cornwall needs – better mass transport systems and less cars on the road and a new vision of fulfilled life.

Living in Bath can feel a bit like living in a theme park at times but without the tourists (and the students) the local economy would collapse. We have become inured to the shock of crossing Royal Crescent in front of a battalion of portly Roman re-enactors, or weaving a course down Milsom Street between 100 variations of a Jane Austin character. I don’t suppose the Cornish are any more pleased at seeing people queuing on a beach to take Poldark selfies.

The Lizard is a real botanical hotspot as well as a half legendary miasma of once upon a time gallimaufry. In two days I’ve found a couple of real rarities and one local newspaper recently latched on to the possibilities of enticing visitors here with a different quarry than ice cream, pasties and fish and chips. Writers like Fred Pearce are arguing that alien species often bring new and vital energy to an ageing or damaged ecosystem and simply eradicating them is an expensive way of doing even more damage.

Changing the profile of visitors would be slow work and the massive problem of housing shortages would need a great deal of new affordable building alongside restrictions or (as in Wales) financial disincentives to second homes. Schemes like Tim Smits proposed Lostwithiel education centre need to be encouraged whilst perhaps steering them away from the NIMBY strongholds. There will need to be a huge emphasis on secondary and tertiary education because farming and fishing will remain profoundly important to the local economy, but embracing ecologically sustainable methods would pay a premium. Of course this would cost money, but the UK government seems to have £billions at their disposal for lining their rich mates’ pockets.

And let it never be said that the village communities are now broken beyond repair. We were chatting to a woman in a local Farm shop who told us that a local fishing boat had sunk just before Christmas. Luckily the crew of two were members of the lifeboat crew and did all the right things but spent 20 minutes in freezing water before they were rescued by their mates in the lifeboat. Within days the community had rallied round and raised thousands of pounds to support the two men who now had no means of earning a living. A few years ago the same village crowd funded the purchase of a vital building on the seafront that had been used by the fishermen for generations. What these threatened communities need more than anything else is a long term plan and the long term funding to bring it off.

Old Watermill in Poltesco.

It’s tuppence for the plant and a tenner for knowing where to find it.

Cadgwith in winter

Back again in a very special place but with little expectation of finding many of the wildflowers that make the Lizard peninsula one of Britain’s botanical hotspots. We come here in the winter because it’s much cheaper and not crowded – it’s as simple as that – but in a month or two the great explosion of wildflowers will begin; some of them quite unique to this area. For now we were hoping to spot the earliest Celandines and perhaps one or two other bits and bobs that sometimes defy the season. John Wright; writer and forager doesn’t really rate this time of the year. We saw young shoots of Sea Beet and there are Jelly Ear fungi on some of the Elders but for foragers (I’m not one of them) he says January is a poor month and February is “much the same only worse” . For a while the Facebook site of the British Mycological Society has specialized in readers’ photographs of mouldy rice puddings and cakes. Most of the time it’s an amazingly useful resource for learning fungi. Yesterday we spotted lots of emerging young leaves – Cow Parsley was one, and one or two plants were even in flower; Gorse flowers in every month as does the Red Campion, if it can find a sheltered spot. Alexanders are in early leaf, seven or eight inches high and we spotted some lovely Narcissi, escaped from a garden. Not much need for the flower guide at this time of the year but if you like that kind of thing Poland and Clements have produced a very useful “Vegetative Key to the British Flora.” which – if you like quizzes will keep you amused for hours in the winter. We were just happy to be out in the cold wind and the sunshine.

As we walked down to Kynance Cove where the cafe was unexpectedly open I shared a lump of fruit cake with a Rock Pipit that was very nearly hand tame – so tame in fact that I wondered what bird it could be that looked so much like a Rock Pipit but which behaved more like a Robin.

Walking down I also caught sight of an unfamiliar plant that looked like Heather but just wasn’t right. I ignored it and we carried on down to the Cove’ but on the way back I paused and looked again and realized that perhaps I knew what it was – in one of those ways that you sometimes just know something without knowing how.

I think this is probably Cornish Heath, Erica vagans

I’m taking a risk but I’ll say it’s probably Cornish Heath, Erica vagans; but I’ll readily concede to a better botanist. What’s exciting – if I’m right – is that it only really thrives here on the Serpentine rock of the Lizard. Checking on another website I see it can be found occasionally further up-country but it’s plentiful here on the Lizard and it’s one of Stace’s two star rarities. So (again, if I’m right,) we did manage to spot at least one local hero.

Which prompts a thought. We’re constantly reading about what a good thing it is to be out in nature. Now I know nature lights me up but I’m all too aware that a lot of people pass through it in search of an ice cream without noticing a thing. I don’t blame them because our whole culture teaches us from childhood that nature is lovely to look at, but not that we are a part of it. Naming other beings is far more important than cataloguing them. Each old plant friend we meet provokes a moment of recognition and reflection. Each greeting is a moment of meditation on the sheer diversity and beauty of the plant world. Could it be that the much written about benefits of nature are somehow related to the release of endorphins that comes with a meeting – “Hi I’m Dave, and I think you must be Erica vagans”. Cue warm surge! There must be a PhD that’s looked at this surely? Here are some more photos. The Alexanders on the top left has a kind of gall I don’t think I’ve ever seen before but I think it might be some kind of Phyllocoptes.

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