‘Bye Christoph

We were assailed by second thoughts yesterday – I’m blaming Madame because there’s nothing graceful about our allotment negotiations – even if she was irritatingly right as usual. So having braved the rain to peg out the site for the new polytunnel on Monday, we braved it again yesterday in the teeth of the storm, so we could have a site meeting to examine plan B with a tape measure. In the end it came down to orientation and Madame referred me to a suggestion by God, (that’s Charles Dowding as far as the Potwell Inn is concerned) that north/south is preferable. And so it came to be.

Plan B is (naturally) better in every way than plan A apart from having to remove six more posts whose underground parts sucked furiously in the waterlogged clay at the bottom of their holes. Storm Christoph had bequeathed huge amounts of water to the ground and now it’s flooded. Silly to work on it really, but the polytunnel could arrive any day now and we dare not leave the bits lying anywhere within reach of a thief with a transit van. So soaked was the ground that as we looked out across the river early this morning we could see it in spate again, this time deep brown with silt that must have washed off the fields upstream. That’s topsoil erosion yet again.

The changed position also needs means three beds needed removing and so there was nothing for it but to start digging out the wood chip paths so I could remove the boards. To our great surprise the wood chip had rotted down to friable compost below the top two inches so I decided to replace it in the trenches and cover it with new compost. But whilst lying in the mud removing all the 2″ screws and pegs Madame called me over to look at a stream of water emerging from the edge of the fruit cage beneath the cordon apples. Not good news, because the roots will hate sitting in water, and so I dug a deep trench alongside the bed to allow the water to drain away as quickly as possible.

The 12 foot boards from the first path came away more easily than I’d dared hope and they were immediately repurposed as retaining boards holding the bottom terrace back. Meanwhile Madame was moving the overwintered broad beans. They’re almost dormant so they might survive being dug up and replanted – worth a try – but just in case we sowed another batch in root trainers to replace them if they all die. More of the same tomorrow as we dig out the second path and restore the whole patch ready for the polytunnel. It was pretty grey and the clouds threatened but never produced any rain; but the plot reminded me of a dreary market garden I once helped out at. All that was missing was the smell of the pigs!

That’s allotmenteering, though. Hardly glamorous but always rewarding. As Mark Twain said about writing – it’s 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration but it’s the one percent that gets us up there every day. In our heads the polytunnel is full of tomatoes, aubergines, chillies, basil and all the rest. The fact that it’s not yet even a pile of nuts and bolts is not the point. Spring will come.

However this is also a dangerous time of year because at last the days are lengthening and we get so absorbed in what we’re up to that we forget that stopping when it gets dark is a recipe for longer and longer working days. I’d left a loaf of sourdough proving at home and when we finally arrived back it had risen to make contact with its inverted bowl. Very very gently I persuaded it to separate and then I rested it for a while before baking it. All was well in the end; but it was worth working until dusk, if only for the glorious sunset reflected in the sodden track – and then a massive supper of Madame’s beany stew. I had two bowls because we’d forgotten all about lunch, and I was ravenously hungry. Oh and the seed potatoes arrived – have the cuckoos started flying here yet?

“The map is not the territory”

I actually spotted that concept in a book on permaculture that I’ve been reading recently – but when I looked up the source of the quotation it turn out it was first used by the philosopher Alfred Korzybski in 1931 when warning his readers of the danger of confusing concepts with reality. I think it was used a bit around a once fashionable management/self improvement tool some years ago known as NLP (neuro linguistic programming). It was pretty much a load of old pseudoscientific snake oil but we had one bishop who went in for it as a way to sharpen his communication skills. The trouble was it usually clattered into every conversation with all the subtlety of a steam traction engine so it didn’t really work with us professional sceptics.

However, as a useful counter to trusting in maps too much it can’t be faulted. The two photos at the top were taken today on the allotment as I worked there in the pouring rain trying to figure out with the aid of a long tape, a calculator and a load of steel pegs trying to figure out why I couldn’t fit the prospective polytunnel on to the allotment plan.

Much cursing later I discovered that my schematic map had tidied up the rough edges on the allotment so much it had become a bit fictional in places; not least because there is not a straight line or a right angle or a parallel path anywhere on the entire plot. I had been seduced by the ‘draw rectangle’ tool and the embedded grid at the expense of accuracy. There aren’t many days when Pythagorus’ theorem is the most useful tool in my life but this afternoon I offered up a small prayer of thanksgiving to Bill Willams who taught generations of us to be better mathematicians than we deserved to be. Wiping the rain off the mobile I discovered that I could calculate the square root of the sum of the squares of the other two sides and then set my right angles square and accurate. I was so pleased I even fixed little flags on my four corner poles.

That done, I realized that it’s going to be a close thing to get the polytunnel legs into their respective holes but – as I explained to Madame later, it’ll be such a snug fit you might imagine that I did it deliberately. I do love a bit of civil engineering and we’re so looking forward to using the tunnel to extend our season at both ends.

The hotbed is now up to 20C and so as soon as this storm is over – it’s blowing a hooly outside – we’ll start sowing. In a couple of weeks we’ll be setting up the second propagator – the first one’s full of basil plants at the moment – and we’ll begin again. The next season is always the best and there’s always an excuse for the last one and so we soldier on. Winter can be fun too.

Woken by a fox

What is it about the call of a fox looking for a mate that’s so primitive and scary? Although I’ve heard it hundreds of times, the breathy scream of a vixen is enough to send a shiver through me. This morning at three o’clock though, it was a dog fox calling – you might say keening – as he trotted along the deserted road, yelping at the back of the flats. Logically I say to myself ‘it’s a fox; go back to sleep’ but I never can because that cry always invites me into the world of the fox; a world of homelessness and constant watchfulness – a world whose rules I don’t understand. The cry makes me fearful, knocks out the wall between us so that I can almost feel the wind and rain on my skin and reminds me of the incoherent longings that followed me through my teenage years. The call of the fox reminds me that there are other ways of being in the world and being human is only one of the many stories out there. Tingling with fear as I did when I first heard it as a child, that sense of intruding into a parallel universe never leaves me and I lay awake listening as the sound grew louder and then diminished into the distance.

Curiously I woke feeling energised. A quick check on the weather forecast suggested that we could get a few hours in on the allotment before the next Atlantic storm started brewing. Having ordered the polytunnel and discovered it might arrive as soon as Thursday, we’ve got a great deal of preparation to do. Today’s project was to clear the polytunnel site of its existing nets and posts and move them to another space. My obsessive planning in past years meant that the 10×10 net, supported by 6′ poles driven into the bed found a planned space that fitted exactly so the biggest problem was digging the posts out.

Luckily another bit of forward planning means that the tunnel will go across three beds whose crops are all about to finish, so there will be very little disruption to food supplies. However I’ve never been very happy with the wooden planks supporting the lower terrace and so the biggest job today was to drive in a new set of retaining posts, each being sunk to about two feet into the earth. Doing it this way will give us strong fence and an extra few precious inches to work with when we drive the footings into the ground. So no indoor exercises for me today because the crowbar weighs about 10 lbs, the lump hammer is about 5lbs and the post driver weighs around twenty pounds. That’s a lot of hole making, hammering, checking with a line and spirit level, and then thumping each post down. It’s easier with six foot poles. The eight foot ones mean I have to balance on a wheelbarrow and lift the driver over my head to get it over the post. Luckily I’ve only fallen off once when I avoided any injury but the spirit level was bent into an unuseable curve. It’s on days like this that you realize that if you’re not going to rely on expensive machinery to do the job you’re going to have to find the exact same amount of energy through your own bare hands.

Meanwhile Madame was tying up broad beans and tending the asparagus bed but whilst doing that she opened a bag of composted horse manure that had become waterlogged and gone anaerobic. My word what a stink! So we mixed the noxious sludge with some leaves and tipped it on to the compost heap where it will have a chance to do some good.

The hotbed – which is made just from leaves and wood chip fired up with several gallons of human activator – has heated up to a steady 18C so we’ll plant lettuces there as soon as storm Christoph has packed its bags. Is it my imagination or have we had a lot more named storms this last year? In the past three days the whole appearance of the allotment has changed as we move supports and cages around for the coming season.

Now my back and shoulders ache!

Sucking eggs with granny

Since the industrial revolution the processes of growth have been speeded up to produce the food and raw materials needed by the population and the factory. Nothing effective has been done to replace the loss of fertility involved in this vast increase in crop and animal production. The consequences have been disastrous. Agriculture has become unbalanced: the land is in revolt: diseases of all kinds are on the increase: in many parts of the world Nature is removing the worn out soil by means of erosion.

Sir Albert Howard: “An Agricultural Testament”.

Great stress has been laid on a hitherto undiscovered factor in nutrition – the mycorrhizal association – the living fungal bridge between humus in the soil and the sap of plants

Op cit: both passages from the preface.

To be frank, the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962 seems an age ago, but “An Agricultural Testament” was published in January 1940 – eighty (yes eighty!) years ago and in the intervening years very little seems to changed. It’s a useful, if chastening, exercise to read these books. We so easily slip into the lazy thought that the world began at the same time as we each first became aware of it; and worse still, we can lazily assume that any science of real significance has happened within our own lifetimes.

This thought bubbled up from the bottom of the pond today as I was reading and Madame read out a couple of passages from a newspaper article on communal living. It’s all the rage once again, apparently, but I’m not expecting anyone to write and ask how it was for us when we lived in a couple of communes in the early seventies. Living in a commune seems to be a bit like having your first baby; the last thing you want is to know how your ghastly and out of touch parents managed to bring you up. The newly born baby is your tabula rasa whose unfortunate joy will be to have every one of your random habits inscribed indelibly in their minds. The fact that your random habits were almost never acquired in the study of ancient religions or the poetry of Wordsworth but in the kitchen of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam is the living proof that culture eats strategy for breakfast as the management consultants like to say. Living in communes, like bringing up children can be marvellous and it can also drain you of the will to live especially when you live in the midst of a clash of giant egos.

Anyway, that excursus off my chest, reading Sir Albert Howard today reminded me that the identification of the earth’s problems wasn’t something that happened recently, but back before I was born and it’s not just been ignored, it’s been made worse and worse as these eight decades have passed; or to put it more personally, my entire life has been spent fruitlessly protesting about it while nothing much changes.

Partly, I think, it came from a misplaced faith in the ability of science and technology to solve all our problems because, of course, the problem isn’t just scientific and technical, it’s a moral problem; our greed. But, as I hope my little vignette of family life shows, we rarely examine or question our basic attitudes – the ones we inherited when we were children. As a school governor for thirty years I saw many generations of children who were mildly radicalised by being taught about the environment. Yoghurt cartons were collected, tins saved and crushed for recycling and gardens grown and yet this early exposure to the problem of our environment rarely seemed to make it into action later on in life. Perhaps we needed to believe the story we were told that everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds without realising that the phrase itself was a parody – but the system seemed to work and unless you looked under the bonnet (risking your faith), it was easier to believe that there was no alternative, and anyway – why would my one little plane journey actually damage the earth? And so, to use another well worn phrase, “we are where we are” and all those lovely holidays and fillet steaks were being paid for by quietly selling off the family silver; and now the final demands are beginning to land on the mat.

I find the reading of books on the environment by previous generations of writers enlightening and challenging. For them the challenge to grow food rested in experience and human labour not giant machines and clever chemicals. Ninety percent and more of their wisdom and knowhow is still directly applicable even on our little plot which is, for us, a kind of laboratory for a sustainable future.

Today we worked for four or five hours clearing posts off the site of the polytunnel and preparing the new bed for five more trees. As I was digging out the posts I salvaged every useable piece of timber, every vine eye and tensioner and I even rolled the straining wires carefully because it’s really hard to get them at the moment. Just as my grandfather had done, I was storing and recycling anything at all, no matter how rusty or bent, because it might come in handy one day. The beds were weeded on hands and knees and we relocated dormant soft fruit bushes and perennial herbs. Back in the flat we’ve taken hardwood cuttings of favourite bushes. The main room is littered with piles of seed catalogues and gardening books. This isn’t hair shirt for the sake of it. The truth is that we live royally on the fruits of our labour; the things we can’t afford we do without and if we eat seasonally we can put something we grew ourselves on the table 52 weeks of the year. It’s not perfect but it’s completely absorbing as the shape and scope of the allotment evolves. At last the water storage is working properly and we can draw modest amounts of rainwater whenever we need it with enough pressure to run the auto watering drips in the greenhouse.

I’d love to be able to say that passive involvement in nature gives no benefits but the science proves otherwise. However, getting dirt under your fingernails in the fresh air; cooking and eating your own produce puts it up a couple of gears. A pound of borlotti beans in the shops is a commodity – they cost pennies. But baked beans made with your own beans and your own tomato sauce is a feast. I like to think that each time we harvest and cook we share the wisdom and experience of Sir Albert Howard, of Rachel Carson, Lawrence Hills and countless other pioneers who dared to challenge the hegemony of agribusiness. All we need now is for those thirty years plus of schoolchildren who saved yoghurt pots and crushed tins and fished for newts in the pond – most of them are now in positions of real weight and responsibility – we need them (you) to say enough of this exploitative and dangerous culture – we want to explore being really deeply human again!

Slow down!

Sometimes it’s good to take a step back from the allotment and all its day to day detail and think about the bigger picture. I came across a Chinese proverb the other day that said “The best fertilizer is the farmer’s shadow” – the identical twin to its English equivalent “The best fertilizer is the farmer’s boot.” Boot or shadow, the takeaway point is that the farmer/gardener/allotmenteer’s physical presence and close attention to what’s going on is more effective as a stimulant to healthy and productive plants than many buckets (or tractor loads) of chemicals. Knowing your patch of earth; where the sunny spots are; where the frost gathers in winter; where the soil becomes waterlogged, and where dry; where the easterlies wreak most damage and where the south westerly storms will beat young plants flat.

On our allotment there’s a line where we can plot the point at which the sun rises above the trees for the first time at the spring equinox. We know the bed where beans flourish and the bed where they struggle. All of these important fragments of understanding fall under the seventh principle of permaculture – ‘design from patterns to details‘; and flow from the first – ‘observe and interact‘. All the best gardeners I’ve known have spent huge amounts of time leaning on a gate or a spade and watching; celebrating gardening as a form of meditation.

So are the twelve principles really about gardening at all? Well no, my belief is that they are a rule of life – similar to the rules that novices in religious orders embrace; like the words you sometimes find written above the entrance to the chapel in a Benedictine monastery – “To pray is to work“; and above the exit from the same chapel it will say “To work is to pray” – ‘labore est orare’. We are expected to pay the same devout attention to our everyday work as we would to a more rarified spiritual exercise.

There are other principles bound up in the twelve – such as earthcare, peoplecare and fair share. There is a whole political and economic vision expressed through simple principles in the sense that they could guide a community project or a whole planning department; but there’s no weird dressing up or hierarchy, no private languages and no insiders and outsiders; no saints and devils.

So here they are in all their non sectarian simplicity and I think they’re elegant and rather beautiful; an easily adaptable rule of life rather than a party manifesto but yet could be a way forward for farmers and fishing folk; scientists, economists and even, (oh please) the agrochemical industry and its shareholders.

The 12 Permaculture Principles

  1. Observe and interact
  2. Capture and store energy
  3. Obtain a yield
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services
  6. Produce no waste
  7. Design from patterns to details
  8. Integrate rather than segregate
  9. Use small and slow solutions
  10. Use and value diversity
  11. Use edges and value the marginal
  12. Creatively use and respond to change

“Events, dear boy, events!”

Detergent foam on the river.

You know when you’re feeling a bit down when Harold Macmillan’s well known quip comes back to haunt you; but in the minor key. When events start floating past like the ghosts of things that once seemed more important, it’s a bit of a sign that it’s all getting too much: all this endless and aimless governmental button pressing to try and factory reset the country back to an imaginary default state. I read an interesting piece by a behavioural psychologist a few days ago describing the state of mind that, having invested heavily in a solution that’s evidently not working, idles in a catatonic state, hoping that something will turn up.

Here are three signs that it’s not working. One … there was (yet another) provocative op-ed in the Farmers Weekly in which their star winder-up writes that he doesn’t understand the point of regenerative farming. I have written to him in the past about his headline grabbing tendencies (there’s a lot of it about) and point out that the crisis facing intensive farming is well understood, well researched and roaring down the line with no brakes. At what point does not understanding something so important, become a sign of sheer stupidity? I shan’t write of course because last time I did he simply rolled over with a shrug and said ‘maybe I did exaggerate a bit”. The danger is that some of his readers might use his idiotic opinions to shore up their faith in the collapsing citadel of scientific progress and Bishop Bayer.

Next, I might mention the UK government’s announced intention to revisit the debate on what they are now calling “gene editing” which is, they suggest, quite different from “genetic modification”. They used the same trick when they renamed the explosive and leaky nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield, and called it Windscale. Anyway, gene editing sounds pretty much the same to me. I read somewhere that what they mean is that they won’t be inserting genes from a different species but merely mucking about with the ones that are already there. Science fictionally that’s a shame because I’d enjoy the thought of venus flytraps crossed with alligator genes so that they could take a poacher’s leg off. Imagine the kudos of 100% organic fencing. At the point where a species of – let’s say – wheat, is reduced to a complex sequence of genetic code, I have to wonder whether we are so down the reductive path that any talk of species is a rather romantic – what’s wheaty in a single gene? and in reality, it seems to me that interspecies genetic editings and borrowings have caused more than a little trouble at the pandemic level. The inventor of the Kalashnikov rifle always denied that he had done anything more morally culpable than save the Russian government a heap of money on the cost of killing people. You can’t argue with economics …. can you?

“Item the third” (is that Sam Weller in Pickwick papers?) Our Government has just lifted the ban on a neonicotinoid spray in order to save losses in sugar beet crops. Let’s take that one step at a time. The neonicotinoid has been banned because of its capacity to kill pollinating insects. The crop it has been licenced for is sugar beet which is used to make refined white sugar which kills people. So the government had the option of encouraging sugar beet farmers (through subsidy if necessary) to grow crops that we actually need, and which don’t cause diabetes while simultaneously protecting the environment and saving insects. But then, bees don’t give money to politicians but big refined sugar companies and agrochemical manufacturers do.

I could go on forever like this – Scottish fishermen say their income has dropped by 80% since brexit. Poor children are offered the kind of subsidised food parcels that could bring back rickets while our excess death toll due to covid is now in excess of the numbers for the Second World War.

The soil and with it our souls shrink and die a little more every day; Rachel Carson’s silent spring presses hard on us and I’m locked in introspection as the sad captains of industry and their scientific infantry process, wraith like past me, reciting their little fragments of management wisdom all the way down to the pit. In Dante’s “Inferno” the outer circle of hell is reserved for those who didn’t give a shit:

And I , who felt my head surrounded by horrors.

Said: ‘Master, what then is it that I am hearing?

And what people are these, so crushed by pain?’

He answered: ‘That is the manner of existence

Endured by the sad souls of those who lived

Without occasion for infamy or praise.

They are mixed with that abject squadron of angels

Who did not think it worth their while to rebel

Or to be faithful to God, but were for themselves’

Dante The Divine Comedy – Trans. C H Sisson

Who says literature is a waste of time? That last verse has sustained me through many challenging times.

“Enough already”, I say. There comes a point when it’s best to imitate rebellious Chinese scholars and take up fishing for a while. The Potwell Inn allotment has been an illumination and a salve during what they like to call “these difficult times“, when what they actually mean is “your difficult times”. The new season approaches and we’ve finally made the decision to buy a polytunnel; in fact we’ve ordered it and paid for it and watched the video about erecting it. What could possibly go wrong?

We are well and in good health, we have enough food; somewhere to live and yet …. Has brexit and covid distracted us that we’re so focused on the immediate – on the “events, dear boy,” of day to day politics, that we’ve lost the big picture.

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield

A Dadaist loaf of bread?

Of which more later.

In a Micawberish way, working outside at a temperature of 1C equals happiness but working at -1C means you have to wear so many clothes you can barely move. But yesterday remained just above freezing all day and we managed to get a few hours of work in, pruning the autumn raspberries; burning some of the leeks that were affected by allium leaf miner along with the raspberry and vine prunings, and generally tidying around the plot ready for spring. I was surprised to see that the raspberry canes were already showing tiny shoots – possibly a premature response to the mild weather that preceded this cold snap.

We’re still able to eat at least some of our own produce because we’ve got savoy cabbage, red cabbage, brussels sprouts, cavolo nero, all ready and a big crop of broccoli about to start producing; so plenty of greens. We’ve also got all the food we preserved by bottling and preserving as well as the frozen, plus some stored squashes. Obviously this is nowhere near any kind of self sufficiency but there’s a real kick in putting something from the allotment into most of our meals, and it’s not just flavour but also the fact that it hasn’t helped consume fuel on its way to our table. Human energy is renewable but diesel fuel isn’t.

Coincidentally, a (another) new book arrived yesterday. John Harrison’s newly published “Dig for Victory” features facsimiles of the whole collection of wartime (and post war) “dig for victory” pamphlets, accompanied by explanatory notes for younger readers who have no idea what £4 19s 6d is – it could be a secure password I suppose, but in the pamphlets it represents old pre-decimal money. Rods, poles, perches and chains and even acres also need explaining to the fully metricated readers. There are also explanations about why some of the chemicals mentioned are no longer legal. Sometimes that’s a good thing but occasionally they represented fairly innocuous substances that would have cost a good deal of money to licence and so the agrochemical industry – which had money to burn on lobbying – had them banned in favour of much more dangerous substances made by them. The pamphlets take the reader through the gardening year and much of the advice is just as applicable today as it was in 1945. For me they were very familiar. I was born in 1946 and so we lived under food rationing until 1954 when I was eight years old, and gardening was a necessity as much as it was a hobby. These pamphlets were a constant feature of my childhood; tucked inside my grandfather’s gardening books and behind the clock on the mantelpiece. Looking back they seem hilarious at times – there’s a cartoon showing the difference between the fast moving centipede labeled friend and the slow moving garden enemy, the millipede. Guess which one’s flying the swastika! My dad kept a couple of pounds of Growmore NPK fertiliser inside an empty National Dried Milk tin in the shed, and we knew from the beginning that the ribbed bottle of brown stuff contained a deadly poison called nicotine . Vegetable growing was something everyone did and as we flicked through the pages yesterday I realized that our lives span the whole of the era of agrochemicals and intensive industrial farming from before it gained its stranglehold. We are among the few who remember what life was like before plastic and fast food and, equally important, what cuckoos and turtle doves – even house sparrows – sound like. There are generations younger than us who have no such memories and it’s going to be hard to convince them that we were probably better fed and much healthier back then. There’s both sadness and virtue in being able to remember when biodiversity was more of a fact and less of an aspiration. “Dig for Victory” is a good read and a useful introduction to gardening in the age of (relative) ecological innocence but I’d add that ferociously poisonous substances like arsenic were frequently used in Victorian gardens. Eden was a very very long time ago. My grandfather was tormented in his old age by dreams of the cruelty inflicted on animals in the late nineteenth century when he helped slaughter animals in his village in the Chilterns.

Anyway, enough of that. Yesterday’s supper was squash soup. In the supermarkets you’ll usually find butternut squashes because they keep well and the skins are so tough they’re almost indestructible. But if you can get hold of an organic Crown Prince or Uchiki Kuri or better still grow them yourself, they store for months and the flavour is in a different league. On Tuesday we went to bed and I woke at nearly midnight, remembering that I’d forgotten to make the sourdough batter. So up I got and mixed it up ready for the morning. Then at five thirty a.m I remembered that I needed to compete with all the other furloughed folks to book a food delivery and so I got up once more and logged on only to find that there were plenty of available slots. Ah well, most of the time we get a decent night’s sleep.

So winter squash (crown prince) soup with warm wholemeal bread, along with some tomato stuffed peppers flavoured with our own indoor grown basil. As we were eating we agreed that it would be hard to match the intensity of flavours with most non vegetarian meals. The loaf was on the table and as we finished our supper I looked at it and cracked a conundrum that’s been puzzling me. In France (and elsewhere for all I know) loaves are marked with a pattern of slashings that relate to particular households. It’s an entirely practical system because when villages had communal bakeries, it was easy to tell your bread apart from from all the others. I normally slash mine with a form of curved cross, for no particularly religious reason but I like the shape. However, 100% wholemeal sourdough is a good deal more sedate than its refined flour cousins, and doesn’t really need slashing at all. So there we were, listening to the news, and as I looked at the pattern left by the banneton on the top of the loaf, I realized it strongly resembled a woodcut of Ubu Roi made by his rather scandalous creator, Dadaist Alfred Jarry.

The dreadful news of the invasion of the Capitol in Washington was just beginning to filter through on the radio and that may have been the catalyst in awakening my imagination. Here’s what Jane Taylor wrote about Ubu the antihero of Jarry’s farce –

 “the central character is notorious for his infantile engagement with his world. Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification. Jarry’s metaphor for the modern man, he is an antihero – fat, ugly, vulgar, gluttonous, grandiose, dishonest, stupid, jejune, voracious, greedy, cruel, cowardly and evil

Jane Taylor – quoted in Wikipedia

When we were art students I was really interested in the Dadaists in general and Jarry in particular. I wanted to write my dissertation on Jarry, but Clifford Ellis the Principal told me I couldn’t because he already knew everything there was to know about Jarry and there was absolutely nothing I could write that would be of the least significance or interest. “Fair do’s” I thought; so I chose to write about Eugene Boudin on the grounds that I’d never seen a single painting by him and anyone whose name was so close to “black pudding” was bound to be a secret dadaist. Vexingly I got a distinction for my faked up dissertation and even more vexingly I really liked Boudin’s paintings when I finally found some in the Tate.

Anyway, in one of those coincidences beloved of Jungians everywhere, I managed, completely intuitively, to find the only possible connection between Donald Trump, Père Ubu and a loaf of wholemeal sourdough. Brilliant! – although it’s not likely to come up in a pub quiz anytime soon. But I’ll think about getting a different banneton.

Did you ever hear a slug pellet sing?

Allotmenteers and gardeners can be a disputatious and even dogmatic lot, and like many religions and political parties the smaller the points of difference the more formidable the firepower directed on dissenters. Dig/no dig; raised beds or footpaths, Glyphosate or hitting your own fingers with a lump hammer (I made that one up); and the matter of timber borders around beds is another such choice that has passionate advocates and detractors.

We use gravel boards as bed dividers for several reasons, but in particular because our plots are inclined to waterlogging, being at the bottom of a valley through which the river Avon passes and occasionally floods to within ten vertical feet of the plots, raising the water table with it. So some of our paths are dug almost two feet deep and filled with wood chip to help drain away the water. It’s not as effective as proper field drains or gravel, but it’s free because our wood chip is delivered to the site by the council.

A second reason for timber frameworks is that on a slope, all our beds are effectively terraced and the soil needs to be contained to prevent it being washed off. The third and least convincing reason is that I’ve got a tidy mind, but I’m working on that one. The naysayers will shake their heads and tell me that wooden boards harbour slugs and that’s certainly true. Occasionally the slugs will lay waste to row of seedlings – except knowing that means we can take precautions. Unlike our rat traps which the rats have learned to spring without harm to themselves, slugs fare less well with the beer traps and we protect our vulnerable seedlings with them. Sadly the slugs are much more partial to rich malty and expensive brews than they are to Aldi’s cheapest. Yes wooden boards provide an ideal overwintering spot for slugs – you almost always find their pearly globular eggs somewhere there if you have a poke about.

But we don’t have a massive problem at all and the reason is almost certainly because slugs have their predators apart from humans. We’ve been puzzled in recent weeks by the fact that something has been systematically working its way along the borders, digging down into the wood chip alongside the gravel boards so neatly that it looks like they’d been hand weeded with a penknife. Each bed is 12′ x 4’6″ – so that’s 33 ‘ of board per bed and we have about twenty of them across the two half-plots. We had no idea what was doing it – rats and mice were among the suspects, until Madame spotted the culprit – a very tame first year (male) blackbird scratching down into the path and greedily eating slugs and their eggs. It’s just another bit of evidence that encouraging wildlife into the garden works wonders – toads, hedgehogs, birds, even foxes and (less helpfully) badgers, will all eat pests like slugs and snails – so slug pellets really aren’t as effective as the wildlife who come to the plot and work tirelessly and for free to clear our pests for us. Hoverflies, ladybirds and all the other invited guests pollinate our crops and decimate the opposition and, in the case of the blackbird, sit high in the trees and sing songs so beautiful it makes you want to weep. It’s just a matter of accepting that nature is a shared space and the less we muck about with it the happier we’ll all be. This will be the first year of the new pond which, without even touching it, is showing signs of coming to life with a bit of algae forming on the shallow surfaces. We’ve redesigned the beds and the planting plan to introduce many more tall, insect attracting perennials; and built a very safe hidden area under the water butts where a toad or a hedgehog might take up residence. There will be more flowers than ever, using vertical planting and interplanting to increase the diversity.

Beyond the allotment, our walks have been curtailed again by the new lockdown and so Mendip is off limits once more; but locally we’ve spotted a flock of long tailed tits in the trees near Sainsbury’s car park. Who says there’s no wildlife in the city? In the last few days we seen the herons, three or four cormorants who are immediately recognisable as they swim, because most of them is kept underwater, with just their long black necks and heads visible. They like to sit on the chimney pots of a converted grain store on the river and air their wings. I like to think of them warming their armpits in the hot air from the chimneys. There are wagtails, robins, blue tits and great tits – all common as muck just like us. The mallard are beginning to pair up and the several pairs of swans along the river and the canal are still together. We’ve got three kinds of gull – black headed, herring and lesser black backed; and there are kingfishers and even a pair of peregrines. We met a fellow member of the Bath Nats last week who has been watching them and he caught them in the midst of a mating display, plunging towards the ground together and breaking out like a red arrows display. Lucky man! Then there are sparrows – much rarer than they used to be – and many more. You could spend a happy day birdwatching within sight of the Abbey.

Then there are the otters. We’re desperate to see them but we haven’t been lucky. That will be a very special day indeed.

On the allotment today I finished building the experimental vegetarian hotbed (no shit!) , capped it off with compost and shoved a thermometer into the middle to keep an eye on the temperature. The ambient temperature is around 3C max at the moment and when I pulled the thermometer out of the oldest compost bin I was surprised to see that it’s still 9C – six degrees above ambient – and it looks very good, with plenty of worms and a lovely sweet smell. The last of the seed orders are trickling in along with warnings that it has become illegal to ship to Northern Ireland and the rest of Europe. Apparently DEFRA have no idea whether the exports will be allowed to re-start any time soon, but the big worry is that imports will be affected and the seed trade sources many varieties from European countries. Yet another reason to think seriously about seed sharing of local and traditional vegetable varieties. We noticed today that John Harrison – big time allotment blogger – has published a book on heritage varieties based around the wartime “dig for victory” theme. The writing’s on the wall!

Windfasting

We thought we were in for a good shriving when we went up to the allotment today. The plot is very well sheltered from the prevailing south westerly winds and so we don’t worry too much about Atlantic storms unless they get into the forties and fifties, but even then – when the sheds at the top of the site are keeling over – we can usually rely on the sheltering line of cypress trees. Today though the wind was blowing from the east, the coldest and least sheltered quarter, and it was due to veer later towards the north and the west while increasing in force. These are the winds that do most damage to us. Grape vines are particularly vulnerable to icy winds, and today there was no avoiding going up there and making the growing crops as windfast as possible. The broad beans (aquadulce claudia) are pretty bombproof and seem to relish the winter, but too much wind rocking sets them back, so we attached a windbreak to the big net cloches which we only use to keep the pigeons off. The biggest danger was to the purple sprouting broccoli which are five feet tall now and will fall over in extreme winds. They were already staked with canes but today we drove in tree stakes and tied them in with old polythene shopping bags which make surprisingly good plant ties and gives then a third use before we have to recycle them.

So within half an hour we’d warmed up banging in the stakes and clearing away all the dead leaves and since we were enjoying ourselves we looked around for another winter job to get on with. This year, because of travel restrictions, we can’t drive over to our usual source of fresh horse manure which a friend kindly heaps up for us every year about now. That goes into the bottom of the hot bed and gets covered with a soil/compost mixture to give us a quick start in February when it usually takes the soil temperature to over 20C. Twelve months later the whole lot has composted down and is full of worms so we recycle it on to a couple of lucky beds – it’s gloriously rich stuff. After an experiment with growing cucumbers and squashes in grow bags sited on top of the leaf mould bin last year, we discovered that the fabulous crop had been enabled by the roots breaking out through holes in the bags and working their way down through the leaf mould, drawing abundant moisture as they went. So today we capped the bin, newly stacked with another one and a half cubic metres of leaves, with about half the contents of the hotbed manure – getting on for a foot thick. This year we’ll plant squashes and ridge cucumbers directly into the super rich soil and then, in a year’s time we’ll recycle the mixture of leaf mould, manure and topsoil on to the beds again as a soil improving mulch.

The other half of the hotbed contents went on to the rhubarb bed where we intend to plant a third variety in the next few weeks, giving us continuity of supply over the summer. We both love eating rhubarb and it’s a remarkably tolerant and generous plant that needs very little attention aside from water and rich food. The water isn’t a problem because the bed lies above one of our underground watercourses, so we’ve incorporated a good deal of grit into the bottom of the bed so it doesn’t get waterlogged in the winter.

The third job, then, was to build an alternative hotbed using only the materials at hand on the site. The council had dumped what looked like a couple of hay bales up in the leaf bay; still green enough to give at least some heat I hope. So we started a new deep bed (just over 1 metre deep) layering up the grass with more leaves and wood chip, and with a sprinkling of dried chicken manure now and again to add more nitrogen. With a gallon or two of human activator and capped with our usual soil/compost mix we’ll see if it reaches any useful sort of temperature.

All of which shovelling, wheelbarrowing and forking had utterly vanquished the bitterly cold east wind, leaving us warm and content in the way that only a winter morning in the fresh air can do. There is no feeling in the world to match a completed job on the allotment snatched from the jaws of the sort of lousy weather that keeps most of us indoors.

But all the thoughts about wind and rainwater; underground streams and hotbeds; trees and perennial plants lead inescapably to a mea culpa on my part. We’re completely organic, we make compost, we don’t dig, we recycle almost anything including (the liquid bit of) our own waste, we’ve spent much of our working lives in community groups and even started an artists’ studio cooperative. We’ve lived in a couple of communes …. come on ……. join the dots and one obvious philosophy surely comes to mind 🙂

Permaculture

Twenty years ago we had a brief flirtation with permaculture – I even took part in an astoundingly popular TV film about it and – (utterly tongue in cheek) – displayed the dreadful 1950’s woollen carpet given to us by our neighbour – being used for weed control. In those days we kept a flock of chickens and, to be honest, the film company were desperate for someone who could talk confidently on screen and who lived close enough to Jekka McVicar to justify bring a film crew down from London. It was her fault for putting me forward! So chickens; a row of California cylinders steaming away; some nice veg and an orchard complete with a pair of pants that had blown off the washing line – what could go wrong? For goodness sake – I even showed them where the dog and various cats were buried! The garden was a total mess so I told the crew we were using permaculture principles. You simply wouldn’t believe how many complete strangers said to me “saw you on telly last night“.

But it’s taken all this time to overcome my inexplicable prejudice against permaculture. Maybe it’s to do with the way some of its advocates seemed insufferably smug, or treated it like a religion. I couldn’t seem to shake off the feeling that it was an immensely wasteful way of using land; that it was first cousin to foraging but would never be any use to anyone except rich kids who could afford to shop at Sainsbury’s and save the world by picking a few blackberries.

I was wrong on almost every count – I’ll repeat that out loud – I WAS WRONG! – this confession will possibly amaze my friends. There is a marvellous book of meditations by Anthony de Mello that I once used in group work all the time. One of my favourites was the story of a fish that decided to look for the ocean, not realizing that the ocean was the very matrix in which it lived and swam – so ubiquitous that the fish couldn’t see it.

I don’t believe in the god you don’t believe in either!

The misconception about permaculture being about a sort of foraging is very widespread. Ken Thompson, in his otherwise pretty sensible book “The Sceptical Gardener” completely dismisses it (P106) while confusing its whole overarching philosophy with forest gardening. Just for the record, I don’t think that forest gardening will feed the world either; nor do I think that permaculture is the same thing as regenerative farming, but I do think that aligning our whole way of life to the rhythms and patterns of the natural world; living sustainably and generously with our neighbours; breaking free from the prison of endless growth and using whatever we find “to hand” – whether wind or rain or sunshine or soil as creatively as we possibly can by designing systems that balance inputs and outputs.

All my sleepless nights pondering hot beds, thermal storage, hydraulic ram pumps, composting, water storage, tree planting, hot spots and frost pockets, wind power solar panels, ponds polytunnels and insect friendly planting schemes ….. blah blah blah. Like Anthony de Mello’s little fish I couldn’t see permaculture anywhere out there because we were already doing it – up to our necks in it, but just on the small 250 square metre plot we happen to have at our disposal rather than on a grander but imaginary smallholding. Which means that we won’t be able to use my design for imaginary portable chicken arks or indeed eat the imaginary eggs which, fattened by grass and grubs would be the goldenest and most delicious and sitty uppest eggs you ever saw; but we’ve done that and it was marvellous, and we hope that many others will be able to enjoy it as much as we did.

So there we are. We were looking for a philosophical home and it turned out we were there already. The Potwell Inn is like that – full of surprises.

Why is the earth moving so fast?

I couldn’t resist this photo opportunity on the canal this morning – these two cats, cute though they were, also looked rather anxious to me. There were quite a number of dogs being taken for walks on the towpath so as well as the puzzle about the earth moving, they had to cope with the constant anxiety of predators nearby.

I can completely empathise with their state of generalized anxiety. What with Covid 19 mach II rampaging around and a government that functions each day by believing six impossible things before breakfast, and then the gathering climate catastrophe I sometimes wonder if I’m one book away from a breakdown.

A novel, a book of literary criticism, a poem, an environmental warning and a lost and found manuscript.

I also wonder how it is that we, as a species, can live in so many ways against our best interests. I’ve been reading Tom Philpotts’s book “Perilous Bounty” about the crisis in both agriculture and horticulture in California and the Midwest. Is it just America? I’m not so sure that Americans have some especial mindset that leads their country into bad ways. Some of the best writing about nature has come out of America, and my bookshelves are probably full of books about the American crisis because so many writers, thinkers, and enough ordinary folk to buy their books, are way ahead of us here in the UK in recognising the danger. That’s one reason; and another reason for being very leery about blaming America for it all is that – whatever culture found its way across the Atlantic began life here in Europe, and unless we’ve embarked on a separate burst of cultural evolution then we are still walking in step with our cousins.

“Gunslinger”

These thoughts about America came this morning with a quotation from a book that popped into my mind. The book is Charles Olson’s “Call me Ishmael”, published in 1947 – the year after I was born. I have a long association with this book. I first read it in annotated photocopied typescript form in about 1971. It took a long route. Olson taught at Black Mountain College (with a galaxy of other writers, poets and painters who became household names. One of his fellow lecturers was Ed Dorn (Of “Gunslinger” fame – the poem not the film!) who subsequently moved to the UK to teach American Literature in Essex and brought with him a typescript copy of the book. His course was attended by a friend of ours who borrowed the manuscript and photocopied it himself, then lent it to me at Art School. The book is a short piece of the most marvellous literary criticism which shows Olson trying to get to grips with Herman Melville the writer, and “Moby Dick” his strange masterpiece. I never forgot the first few paragraphs, and after a long search I recently managed to buy a facsimile copy that looked as if it came from the same hand as the one I’d seen – very exciting.

The opening paragraphs, as they fell into my mind, seemed to say something terribly important about the culture that has penetrated western thought like an evil miasma. Here it is:

I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy.

It is geography at bottom, a hell of a wide land from the beginning. That made the first American story, (Parkman’s) exploration.

Something else than a stretch of earth, – seas on both sides, no barriers to contain as restless a thing as Western man was becoming in Columbus’ day. That made Melville’s story (part of it).

PLUS a harshness we still perpetuate, a sun like a tomahawk, small earthquakes but big tornadoes and hurrikans [sic], a river north and south in the middle of the land running out the blood.

The fulcrum of America is the Plains, half sea half land, a high sun as metal and obdurate as the iron horizon, and a man’s job to square the circle.

Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. I see Poe dug in and Melville mounted. They are the alternatives.

Americans still fancy themselves such democrats. But their triumphs are of the machine. It is the only master of space the average person ever knows, oxwheel to piston, muscle to jet. It gives trajectory.

To Melville it was not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and as a people. Ahab is no democrat. Moby Dick, antagonist, is only king of natural force, resource.

Charles Olson “Call me Ishmael (1947) this edition by Forgotten Books Grove Press New York and Evergreen Books Ltd. London.

Moby Dick in Ahab’s mind is nothing more than resource – a truly terrifying thought. And the restlessness of post Columban humanity that wants to subdue all that obdurate wildness first, and then – when the journey west meets the Pacific Ocean, to subdue the sea and its inhabitants too. Not the curse of the American mind, then, but the curse of western culture – our father, our mother and our language. I think Olson expresses something that comes close to our contemporary original sin, the will to subdue nature and treat it as nothing more than resource. Find the book and read it.

But (I hear the exceptionalists argue) – that’s America, not here. As I was reading Tom Philpott’s book the same thought hovered around at the back of my mind too. What has the Central Valley in California to do with Britain? Water and its management is a part of the answer. Our farmers may not wear dungarees and baseball caps, and Barbours may be more representative wear here, but arable crops still demand water, lots of it and in the arable lands of south east Britain, nearly all of it (when it’s not actually raining) comes from underground aquifers. California may be a nose ahead of us, but we’re just as guilty of reaping where we have not sown when it comes to water. Here in the South West we have plenty of water most of the time, but the constant erosion cause by bare farmland over winter causes the same level of soil loss. The rivers of Devon run red as they pass through bare fodder maize fields. So here in the west our problem is rapid runoff and flooding in the winter and spring, and in the east it will be drought in the increasingly hot summers. The conflict between agriculture, industry and homes over water, and the rising problem of pollution from nitrate runoff as it percolates (it takes decades) through the rock along with pesticides will be a profit consuming test for the privatised water companies. The landscape may be different in the US and across Britain, but the extractive, mechanised and intensive rationale is exactly the same. There’s an excellent explainer on groundwater extraction here.

So in answer to my own question, no I don’t think America is in any sense an environmental outlier. We have seen the enemy – it is us!