A sceptic's take on being human – or should that be virtuous?
Author: Dave Pole
I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun.
When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths.
What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs.
But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more.
Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.
The greatest thing about the Potwell Inn is that it’s the imaginary creation of H. G. Wells and therefore both exists and doesn’t exist at the same time, rather like an obscure subnuclear particle. In fact the other potential name for this blog was “The Cloud Chamber” but I thought that was too pessimistic by half because being human is, after all, more fun than being a particle. Continue reading “About the Potwell Inn”
Date: 16 August 2018 at 19:41:38 BST
Weather: 16°C Mostly Sunny
Suddenly it’s nearly autumn and the kitchen is calling to me.Maybe it’s just the way of things, but here we are, halfway through August and yet there are hints of autumn lurking behind every hedge. When I think about it, I can recall easily that each season carries the remnants of the old and harbingers of the new. In deep winter the trees carry their buds even as some late and decaying leaves still cling to the twigs. Continue reading “Christmas incoming”
Bath, England, United Kingdom Thursday, 16 Aug 2018, 7:41 pm BST 16°C Mostly Sunny
Maybe it’s just the way of things, but here we are, halfway through August and yet there are hints of autumn lurking behind every hedge. When I think about it, I can recall easily that each season carries the remnants of the old and harbingers of the new. In deep winter the trees carry their buds even as some late and decaying leaves still cling to the twigs. In the spring, there are days of hope as the sun breaks through and then nights of frost that remind you that winter’s not done with yet, and in late summer my mind resonates with the shrinking hours of daylight and applies itself, like a squirrel, to preparing for the winter. It’s a favourite season and yet the harvest touches my melancholic soul every year by modulating from the major to the minor key. Jams, pickles and preserves become the centre of focus and I’m drawn to the kitchen. The fruits and vegetables that are coming off the allotment each day are almost overwhelming in their richness and numbers and finding ways of cooking or keeping them becomes an obsession. But there are only two of us and my deepest atavistic urges are to feed a family of five, or eight or ten. Today I thought of Christmas for the first time even though we’ve not finished sowing for autumn. It’s raining as I write this, and we’ve had plenty of rain in the last week. We longed for rain yet when it arrives like the Seventh Cavalry to rescue the besieged vegetables I think that somehow, if we could have just one more glorious day, I’d find the energy to go on watering. Never satisfied! I can hear my mother saying it.
In the Guardian this morning there was a piece about the way our culture is rapidly losing its cooking skills. The writer cited Jane Grigson’s “English Cooking” and wrote that it doesn’t contain any recipe or instruction for making pastry because she didn’t think it worthwhile wasting print on something so well understood it needed no explanation. The proofs of the article apparently came back with innumerable queries and questions from young subeditors who had no idea of the basic skills. Our three sons are all good cooks and two of them are professional chefs, but their various partners over the years have seemed suspicious of the very idea of cooking from scratch – as if it were a sign of domestic servitude.
In another piece yesterday George Monbiot explored the reasons behind the epidemic of obesity and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that in our overstretched, overstressed lives, the food culture that embodied so much more than food has been systematically eroded – quite deliberately – by the food processing industry, and the results are as depressing as the results of any other kind of addiction. We have simply moved from one form of servitude to another, and the much cited ever increasing life expectancy has turned out to be yet another fraud. We’re sadder and sicker and lonelier than ever.
On the radio yesterday there was a piece on a new computer game craze, discussing whether it was a good or a bad thing for children. By all accounts it’s borderline addictive with children forsaking almost anything else including face-to-face contact with other children in order to play for hours. As a retired parent I don’t have much trouble deciding that children spending hours slaughtering even virtual people is a bad idea. One young woman working in the billion pound industry even ventured that to deny your children access to these games would ruin their carer prospects. Well, in Mandy Rice Davis’ phrase, she would say that wouldn’t she.
Do all these things tie in together? Is it just the usual self indulgent longing for the past that always afflicts old people like me? I can’t help thinking that these disappearing cultural values and their associated skills are as important as they ever were, and somehow we need to hold on to them for the future when they will be needed by another generation.
Today we cleared half of the sweetcorn away and I prepped the second cold frame with SylvaGrow as planned. But I’m getting cold feet about sowing carrots there as we’re so far behind and I really can’t see them coming to anything. It would be more sensible to postpone the experiment and fill the frames with stuff we really know we can grow, some spring onions for instance and winter lettuce. We’ve grown so many lettuce and salad leaves this year but the supply we’ve created outstrips our appetite so much it feels wasteful. I’m not that keen on green salad leaves and frankly some of them taste bitter. So that’s a matter for further discussion. But we picked lovely beetroot grown in coir pellets and simply planted in. I think we can call that experiment a complete success, We also picked runner beans, radishes and cucumbers, and had an improvised tasting of the chillies. The apache chillies are very hot indeed, and the pearls quite tasty and mild. The Jalapeño I picked wasn’t really ripe enough to do justice to its eventual flavour and heat.
We’ve reached the tipping point in the year when at last we’re clearing ground faster than we can plant it. Charles Dowding’s book on winter veg arrived today and it’s clear we’ve missed the boat on quite a number of opportunities. Next season we’ll do it better. In the evening I cooked a flan with the calbrese we picked yesterday. The plants are doing well and will give us some good meals. We had shopped for wholemeal flour to make pastry and I made some tonight. It’s very hard going and I almost abandoned it while I was rolling it out as it splits so easily and has next to no plasticity, like working with porcelain or perhaps heavily grogged crank mixture. But with a bit of cursing, persistence and some running repairs glued in with egg white it all came together in the end and tasted delicious.
But the last word on the day belongs to the Sweet Cicily which Stella discovered growing once again. For such a frail plant with a history of abuse and neglect, not to mention being felled twice by slugs, it just keeps coming back. Like Robert Bruce’s spider it never gives up – an inspiring end to a slightly melancholic day.
It snowed here in Lleyn last night. It doesn’t usually snow in this maritime climate, it usually waits for another ten miles until it hits the mountains and falls there, but last night it snowed a bit and the surrounding hills were dusted with white when we woke up.
But the thought that woke with me was a nebulous sense of vulnerability associated with growing old and, from there in one of those strange leaps that the mind makes, to writers who share their everyday lives with us whether we like it or not, and from there to the legions on Facebook and other social media. Why is it so important to share everything? Or to include myself among the guilty, why do we do it?
Maybe my waking sense of vulnerability makes a starting point. Possibly it was the news that A has been ill with repeated UTI’s and in bed for a fortnight. Perhaps it was the story of a heroin addict son (written by his father) that we talked about before we went to sleep: these things have a habit of resurfacing in some way. The unexpected idea that, in a sense, everyone suffers from ‘locked in syndrome’ to a degree, came into my mind as I wondered what this strange waking mood was all about. Stripped down to the most basic level isn’t being human necessarily being lonely? -and what was that lovely quote from Chekov? – “If you’re afraid of loneliness don’t marry!” . It sounds harsh but it’s the unpalatable truth we rarely want to address. The starting point for our humanity is a terrible aching isolation. Love, laughter, joy and ecstacy are acts of defiance; and all art – painting, drawing, writing – are a declaration of war. Like Jacob at the Jabbok Brook, we wrestle with the angel who refuses a blessing and we always emerge from the encounter more or less damaged. Art dares to grasp the ephemeral and render it. By painting his rotting leaf in its glorious colours I have snatched it from the same oblivion that awaits me. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age” That’s it Dylan Thomas – although the fuse metaphor always seems a bit contrived. “If only you could bottle it” say the emotionally illiterate who can’t be arsed to join the resistance.
And so ecstacy – being out of oneself – is the release from that primordial isolation. The stupidity of trying to describe the furniture in the afterlife and to write the seating plan for the heavenly banquet is precisely that in order to materialise it you’d have to import the very thing it was designed to replace. If I’d had five lovers I would presumably feel five times as lonely in the heavenly kingdom. Thanks, but I’ll take oblivion.
But let’s, for a moment, take the side of the ‘bottlers’ who may have a point. We’ve all had moments that we’d love to be able to hold on to. This journal, for instance, is a way of holding on to the ephemeral that works for me. I’m not offering it up as any kind of exemplar for others to follow, in fact I’m its only reader. But what would it add if I published it? It might add a degree of self censorship, although that always exists in some form. Please meet my superego, my own personal policeman who seems never to go off duty. I think its principal benefit to me would be the assurance that I’m alive. My little protest against isolation and loneliness is no longer the equivalent of a message in a bottle thrown into the raging sea; it’s being heard, it’s being read by six people? by a million people? Does this help me to feel less lonely? Does it give me a friendly hug in a friendless world? Well yes and no. The friends and the hugs are virtual, they’re not real and when I turn my phone off they’re not there any more. The ‘likes’ are not the unconditional ones of sweat and blood relationships, but electronic gestures.
And so I wonder whether there’s a sense in which blogging is the bastard child of ecstacy. That ecstacy is deformed from the sense of being lifted out of oneself, of mysteriously losing oneself as we do when we truly love someone, to the entirely banal sense of sharing what pleases us and makes us feel good. Getting (it) out of oneself, for good or ill, like a form of mental cleansing, thoughts, feelings and emotions – especially when it’s hatred, fear and anger – can be swept into the app and flung into space, and the reward is a handful of emoticons and ticks that can reassure us for an instant that we’re not dead, not forgotten, not alone. I’ve seen it described as a form of narcissism but that’s just a little off target. Yes there are full-on narcissists who waste their time gazing at themselves in a mirror and enjoying it but most of us who have narcissistic tendencies (that’s everyone else, I think) are far more sad and desperate than we are self-satisfied.A few years ago ecstacy stopped being a Greek term and became a drug you could take to feel ‘loved up’ among a bunch of strangers at a club. That’s almost as sad as being alive.
It’s too cold and wet to get out today so apart from going to Nefyn to get some milk I’ve spend all day writing or thinking. From time to time we’re getting intense flurries of sleet and snow and as I was typing I noticed these fine mammatus clouds outside the window. They’re very odd and striking. Beyond them the sea is paynes grey and disturbed. By about 3.00pm patches of blue sky had begun to appear and although the wind is still a fierce and bitterly cold north westerly gale, and where the birds emptied the feeders yesterday, today they spent much of the time sheltering and periodically appearing as small flocks of one species or another.
Tomorrow we must pack up and go home, our drawing pads are untouched. Perhaps next time, we say, and next time there may be flowers or more likely leaves on the blackthorns that edge the little valley that runs down to the sea. Their dense thickets of branches and fierce thorns would be a worthy challenge for an artist with the necessary skills. Deeper down there are clouds of willows whose thin twigs reach upwards towards the light and, at this time of year take on a reddish hue. If I could be bothered to fight my way down there I would find them in bud, I don’t doubt.
Picking up my earlier thread, the other constant factor in our humanity is change. We age, and for years we ignore it or perhaps welcome the changes. We count it as maturity in our powerful days and then we cling to wisdom as the reward for our energy until we notice that our skin and sinews are less resilient than they once were. I once had a dream about being followed by two elephants. i woud occasionally catch sight of them, often a street away. I talked about it to Robin [my psychoanalytic psychotherapist] and he said “I’m a Freudian. They’re sex and death.”
And the Heraclitian theme of endless irrevocable change is what motivates and challenges a gardener too. I didn’t mention gardening as a means of challenging the loneliness, but I should have . Gardening and the love of the natural world teach us how to snatch something from the jaws of the monster. When we sow seeds we raise a finger of defiance to the forces of decay. We think, but never articulate the thought, that we shall live to reap the harvest. And the study of nature what’s that? My endless lists are my way of trying to nail down what’s there, just for a moment. Plants in flower on 2nd August 2017? I identified my first Vipers Bugloss on the cliff at Tenby that day and later I wrote about feeling an almost godlike sense of engagement in naming things.
I have a pen, designed for astronauts, that will write in any weather, upside down, on wet paper and I have notebooks that I can write in under the same conditions. They’re very precious and contain the record of the things I noticed that day. They’re not comprehensive – how could they be? – and to a more accomplished botanist or birder than me they would probably seem rather commonplace. Yesterday I watched sparrows and chaffinches – so what? – well because I really did see them and consequently they were noticed, cared about, recorded. Is that the primordial need that lies at the heart of our humanity? Our need to be noticed, cared about and even recorded?
And isn’t it the case that we are betrayed by a culture that only values the rare and the extreme at the expense of the ordinary? We surrendered the complex metaphor concerning God that had taken thousands of years to perfect and substituted Facebook, Instagram and the TV talent show. No winners, all losers. We each go back at night to our lonely one-room conciousnesses aware that there’s everything to do tomorrow. So by 4.00pm we were feeling a bit housbound and we drove to Porth Dinllaen for a walk along the beach but we were thwarted by a hailstorm that we could see sweeping across the bay towards us. There was a hopeful patch of blue behind Trefor cliffs but soon after we got back from our aborted walk the sleet was coming past the house sideways.
The view across the Menai Straits from Llanddwyn Island
Sea Holly – Eryngium maritimum on the same wall as the Red Goosefoot and Spear Leaved Orache below
This is Red Goosefoot – Chenopodium Rubrum I’m sure. The only other plant it could be is Saltmarsh Goosefoot – Chenopdium chenopoides but checking the current BSBI list that doesn’t apear there or in Ellis whereas Red Goosefoot does in both lists. What was interesting was that it was growing alongside Atriplex prostrata – Spear Leaved Orache on the same wall, which – I don’t know why – seemed a bit strange. Growing in amongst it is Sea Sandwort – Honckenya peploidesA highly specialized environment I think on a sea wall constantly breached by wind and waves.
I had no idea what this was until I spotted a smaller one nearby and I recognised it immediately as some kind of Lycoperdum. I had to wait until I got back to Tan y Fford to identify it as a Pestle Puffball – Lycoperdon excipuliforme – which has an astoundingly thick and long stalk, unlike any other puffball I’ve seen. A very striking find.
I think this is the first two star nationally rare plant I’ve ever identified. It’s called Round Leaved Wintergreen – Pyrola rotundifolia. Just look at that phallic flower! It was in the red woodland trail through the edge of the woods. Bit of a poster boy for field botany!
This is Vipers Bugloss – again on the island.
Sea Rocket – Cakile maritima
So that was the botanical bit, and very good it was – at least when we got home to Tan Fford. We had driven up to Anglesey to stay overnight with Pete and Sarah who were renting a cottage there. Llanddwyn Island is very beautiful and full of surprises apart from plants. There are a number of buildings including St Dwynwen’s church. She was a 5th Century saint and there’s a lighthouse, coastguard cotages and several prominent crosses. The present church building is a ruin. The best thing about the island apart from the plants are the fabulous views of the mainland
Fish and chip supper and a good deal of wine knocked us out by about 10.30 and I slept soundly but not well, dreaming that the end of the bed was a huge icefall – which discouraged me greatly from going for a piss.
Went for a walk along the clifftop in the direction of Porth Dinnlaen and somehow decided to start recording plants in flower. I had, in a sense, gone equipped because I’d taken a GPS and a notebook and pen, and it did rather slow us down. We were out for two and a half hours and managed to walk three miles in total. It was a very grey day after a night of rain and so we wore gaiters in anticipation of mud, but in fact the land here seems to drain very well and we didn’t really need them. Stella has bought a new pair of 3/4 height walking boots to try to support her ankles and so in order to match her I put on my old Scarpas, the ones I did the Camino with, and we set out looking rather imposing I imagine. My old boots are probably the most comfortable I’ve ever walked in but they have the fatal (potentially) flaw of suddenly giving way on wet rock, which makes clambering around on beaches extremely hazardous. Happily there was only one slip today, but it rather puts me on edge.
I was thrilled with the total of 37 plants in flower. It’s the most I’ve ever recorded in one day, and it took several hours back at the cottage to double check and verify them. I was surprised how many I’d got almost but not quite right, however it’s a step in the right direction and I’m getting better at checking for the vital information to record, and taking the right photographs for reference later.Here’s the list – the BSBI record numbers are in the big black notebook but I couldn’t fit them here tidily and in any case they don’t matter just for the diary. I wonder if I should send them to the County Recorder – there’s nothing at all rare or unusual but they do mark the existence of a plant for future reference (global warming, for instance). One plant in particular I’d never heard of Tutsam – Hypericum androsaemum – I was excited to ID it. I was also delighted to recognise 2 different species of Heather.
As well as plants we had some delightful moments on the beach, where a grey seal came quite close inshore and stared at us with apparent interest. After a minute or so she slipped beneath the waves and disappeared from view, but on our return walk we spotted a very similar looking female hauled out on a rock. She was very pregnant and looked as if she might give birth to her cub at any moment. Big as she was, her movement across the rock was so ungainly and must have made her very vulnerable. We guessed she might have come inshore to find a safe place to have her cub. She was a truly beautiful animal.
We also saw a Shag with three fledged young, sitting on what seems to be a favourire place. There were also a number of Ravens around. We saw five in a field, scrapping in a desultory way halfway between playing and fighting. The only butterfly was a Common Blue feeding on Birdsfoot Trefoil which seemed rather sleepy and allowed me to get close enough with my phone to take a picture.
Later we drove to Whistling Sands to look for the sloe trees we picked from last year but they’d been flailed this year and there was no fruit to be had. The afternoon was turning increasingly grey and miserable and apart from being too warm could have been mistaken for `November it was so gloomy. So we drove through Aberdaron but didn’t feel tempted to get out in the drizzle and came back to the cottage. As a long shot we decided to see what the sloes were doing in the garden and the lane down to the beach and to our great delight we picked five and a quarter pounds of lovely ripe fruit, enough to transform two bottles of gin! With the Damson Vodka we’ve already made we’ll have more than enough to keep us going for the whole of 2018.
I had forgotton to mention that it’s the second anniversary of our retirement.
There is, it turns out, an ocean of difference between recognising something and identifying it. If you were to set out right now and stop at every bird or plant or insect you came across and not leave it until you knew its full name you’d be hard pressed to move a yard a day. And yet most of us, me especially, have always claimed of ourselves that we’re interested in the natural world and we manage to walk twenty miles, on a good day, without apparently missing a thing.