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.
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.
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 🙂
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.
Madame will kill me for putting her photo on the blog but one or two unkind friends have suggested I make her sound like a brothel keeper or a dominatrix so I thought I’d put the record straight. She is, as should be immediately obvious, a stranger to the whip and handcuff.
Anyway, it was freezing cold today and yesterday we had to shorten our walk because there was so much ice around; breaking legs is most definitely not on our agenda for the New Year – so today we looked at the outside temperature, which was -1C and settled for a day indoors. As you may have noticed, I’m an almost promiscuous reader and it’s no particular hardship to spend a day with a book – today’s read was Tom Philpott’s “Perilous Bounty” which addresses the economics of intensive farming as well as the environmental problems it’s causing; the two are intimately linked, you won’t be surprised to learn. Anyway it’s a thoroughly well written and well researched book which I’d recommend (bearing in mind that by recommending a book a day I’m writing for an audience of one.
But Madame and I have been gardening for so long that we often converge in our thoughts and today as I was reading the book she was researching allotments around the world, investigating the styles and methods employed in many different countries. During the summer several of our allotment neighbours employed a Polish handyman to build them sheds, and this one looked remarkably akin to some of the buildings on Eastern European allotments. So our conversation drifted this way and that, and as we talked about some of the projects we’d like to tackle – we both experienced a rising sense of optimism looking forward to next season.
These dog days of December and January can sap your creative energy and diminish your enthusiasm for the unfinished jobs on the allotment, but today my head’s full of ideas; to finish building roofs over the line of compost bins, to drive new posts and boards along the bottom to shore up the terracing and to build the shelter between the shed and the greenhouse. The, in the last few bitterly cold days, I’ve been wondering about building a polytunnel. Obviously this would extend our growing season but there’s another reason too. Our site is plagued most years by tomato and potato blight. Potatoes aren’t so much of a problem because first earlies – the tastiest potatoes to grow – aren’t affected; they’re out of the ground before the humidity and temperature combine to create blight conditions. Tomatoes are another thing altogether because they’re always going to be vulnerable. For some years we’ve grown an F1 hybrid tomato with tremendous resistance and we’ve had marvellous crops. But this year one of our other resolutions is to start seed saving and that means eschewing the Fi hybrids and some of the commercial seeds because, whatever the name on the packet, it seems they pretty well all originate in the same old industry cartel. Tomatoes grown in a polytunnel would benefit from the extra protection from cold weather, winds and blight. The biggest challenge with a tunnel will be watering, but I’m hoping a combination of permaculture ideas and crafty storage and re-routing from the water butts will allow us a week away in the campervan now and again. At present our new resolution to walk the Mendip Way is on hold due to the new regulations.
We probably all grew up with the fixed idea that evolution is an immensely slow process and, in some cases it is. However with plants, because they produce seed every year, the annual selection of the best/strongest/best flavoured/most resistant plants can – it seems – result in useful new strains through cross pollination. The huge abundance of varieties of maize in South America is down to selective breeding for many different altitudes, soils and weather patterns; and some of these varieties – some grain varieties too – become what’s known as ‘landrace’ types. In Wales at the moment at least one food coop is trialling a traditional landrace form of wheat. So it’s all up in the air at the moment but we’ve been very successful with seed saving some of our herbs and prolific easy flowers like marigolds and nasturtium. In the summer we’ll try some saved peas and borlotti and see how we go. Of course it needs organisation and proper cataloguing, but having looked at our seed bills this year, a few brown envelopes and some time could be a great moneysaver. One of our neighbours in our previous house had grown a completely unique cherry tomato for years – nobody had the faintest idea what variety it was because he’d been saving seed all that time, but it was lovely.
Due to the lockdown we’re unable to fill the hotbed with horse manure this year, so we’re going to experiment with layered beds of woodchip, leaves, compost and top soil. They probably won’t heat up but we’ll give it a go with some additional human urine and see what happens. We’ve already prepped a new strawberry bed in the same way.
So it’s new Year’s Day. Our upstairs neighbours defied the rules and had a right old party last night and I can tell you that one young woman had no idea how to sing Auld Lang Syne – and no idea when to stop either. We wish them, you, and all our regulars at the Potwell Inn a better year than the one that’s gone. For us we can say without fear of contradiction that 2021 looks like the best year ever. So far!
But don’t be alarmed, in this one instance the river Avon is doing exactly what it was intended to because this area is part of a flood relief area, designed to hold water back from racing down the river. It could safely rise another maybe four or five feet but I can hardly imagine the impact that would have further downstream. I took these pictures yesterday and further upriver at Pulteney Weir the water was moving so fast there was just a ferocious boil where the steps can usually be seen. Massive logs were powering downstream faster than a decent walker could keep up. The radial gate was open – the gate that the council are proposing to remove – but I wonder in the light of this winter’s continual storms if that’s such a good idea.
Back up the path towards Green Park there seemed to be a developing patch of occasional marshland. In fact the footpath has been closed off so much this year I wonder if it wouldn’t be a nice touch to close it permanently and allow the regular inundations to create a whole new habitat.
The only dark spot in a bright day were the thousands of shoppers piling in to the shopping centre with no regard at all for the spread of Covid. We could see them from the other side of the river milling around beyond the bus station and we spoke to one man who told us without a trace of awareness that he was breaking the law, that he’d driven up from Westbury. As battles break out everywhere about who should get the vaccine first we see the period of our confinement – 10 months already – extending into an unknown future. Mendip is once again closed to us and we seem to be among a tiny minority who try to respect the rules.
So today we finished off the seed order, along – it seemed – with every other gardener in the UK which brought the websites to a pitiful crawl; so slow in fact that I managed to buy four rhubarb plants after exiting two websites that I thought had died. But we have all the seeds and plants ordered now. The allotment itself is a sorry sight; cold and wet. The broad beans took a battering in the overnight storms, but experience suggests that they’ll recover as soon as the weather improves a bit. The good news is that the strengthened stands have coped well with the 1250 litres of water now overflowing the water butts – that’s a ton in old money, but in a bitterly cold northwesterly wind we didn’t hang around after we’d topped up the compost with kitchen waste and cut some chard and a savoy cabbage for tomorrow. There will be sunshine and warmth again, but at present the weather perfectly expresses the prevailing gloom about brexit and the pandemic.
The next big planting that could arrive any time will be the four new fruit trees which are novel in that they’re grown on dwarfing rootstock but rather than inclined like normal cordons, they grow vertically which means they’re extremely space efficient. Whether they’ll live up to the advertising material is a moot point, but in the coming years fruit is going to at a premium – and we love apples, pears, plums and damsons. If (and it’s a big if) – they all produce fruit we’ll be very fortunate. I also ordered tayberry and blackberry plants today. The garlics are all up too; the brussels sprouts are fattening up nicely and within a few weeks we’ll be eating purple sprouting which couldn’t be more welcome as spring approaches. It’s like early asparagus and tastes very nearly as good.
So all’s reasonably well in this strange time. I’ve embarked on reading yet another book on food production and I’m sure I’ll be writing about it very shortly. Whether or not our government will have the courage and the vision to address the coming environmental and economic troubles I would doubt, so all that’s left to us is to do as little harm as possible in our own lives and prepare for the day when our knowledge and expertise will finally be called upon.
I’ll get back to St Francis in a moment but I know that many of you will be desperate to see the Potwell Inn Christmas Day Menu. Excluded from Europe and the physical company of everyone we love, we decided to tear up tradition and please ourselves entirely as regards what we ate in splendid isolation – and so:
Tea in bed
Breakfast: muesli (made by me)
lunch: Christmas pudding with crême fraiche – nothing else
Supper: Chicken fajita
The children were a bit shocked to see that we had wilfully abandoned the family tradition; rather more, I think, because it somewhat undermined their own efforts to keep it alive. But in these circumstances I always quote the famous last six words of every great institution – “we always do it this way” – and being old is the perfect time to become an iconoclast because no-one else seems to want to put Christmas out of its misery. It was surprisingly easy to do; to wave away the orgy of overspending and overeating; and under the circumstances we felt no compulsion to pretend that everything was back to normal. “Bah humbug” – you accuse, and affecting not to understand we reply “que?!”
And so to St Francis.
I did say that I intended to write something about some kind of green spirituality, but the more I thought about it the harder it became until Joe’s Christmas present was delivered. It was a bit of a shock I must say. How would you describe something that’s hilariously funny, excruciatingly kitsch and borderline blasphemous?
I’ve always had a soft spot for heresy, whether the religious sort or the Christmas dinner menu makes no difference. A good heresy is the engine of change because good heresies are always tempting, otherwise they wouldn’t be any good. All great paradigm shifts are kicked off by a heresy. So St Francis of the boot rack (the name came to me instantly in a moment of pure grace), put me on the back foot in the most wonderful manner and rather than accepting the gift with a fake smile and gritted teeth I thought to myself – “this is marvellous”. But why???
Forgive me if you’ve read a previous post where I told this story but it fits well here. Some years ago we visited Chartres Cathedral which, on first impressions, was a kind of religious Disneyland. Queues of pilgrims clutching plaster models of the Virgin Mary waited to have them blessed. The building was heaving with visitors and I was rigid with the kind of anger that comes from fear; fear because I couldn’t understand what was going on. Nothing in my aesthetic experience had prepared me for such a festival of utterly bad taste. Until, that is, I was overwhelmed by a sense of holiness that was completely impervious to the cattle market atmosphere. I was so overwhelmed that I took off my shoes and socks and, for a hour, walked barefoot around the building as it spoke to me through my feet. It was one of the shortest pilgrimages ever conducted and I still haven’t fully digested it but, like a zen koan, it shorted out my overeducated theoretical mind and showed me another mind space altogether.
Pop. There goes another one!
So St Francis of the boot rack – what’s he saying? Well I think he’s teaching a lesson about idolatry – and I’m sorry for the big, loaded word but it’s a crucial shorthand way of describing the way we habitually try to cram an ocean of meaning into a fishbowl. This piece of fibreglass kitsch has no aesthetic merit at all and yet its strength lies somewhere else altogether – perhaps in its innocence, its naivety, its acceptance that it claims no more for itself than the grid reference can claim to be the mountain. Idolatry just means worshipping the part, thereby diminishing the whole. St Francis of the boot rack is a device for popping ego bubbles.
Next, sometimes reading a book can lead to the uncanny sense that the writer has somehow broken in to your mind and carried off your memories. I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the second clue to constructing a green spirituality came to me when he wrote about an experience that exactly parallelled my own – not that it was a special revelation at all, but simply the puzzle, for a non believer, of dealing with the sense of thanksgiving for an entirely undeserved gift that comes out of nowhere. When picking blackberries in the autumn; when coming across a field full of fresh mushrooms; when harvesting a crop on the allotment. Who to thank?
I suppose we could walk away from such an experience congratulating ourselves on our foraging expertise, mycological acumen or horticultural skill; but it never seems enough because, in truth, we make very little contribution to our good fortune .
Of course there are any number of theological readymades queueing up to claim these oddly numinous experiences for themselves, but they all come with a heavy price tag. They all require that you buy into the whole system with all its inconsistencies and occasional cruelties just in order to give you a mailing address where you can post your thank-you’s.
For the avoidance of idolatry that narrows these experiences down until they become trivial; and the avoidance of the great systematic theologies that confine these ecstatic experiences like wild animals in a zoo; any credible green spirituality would, for me, need to remain largely silent. In fact you might steal a concept from the Carthusians and other religious communities who keep a great silence after compline each day. Such a great silence would need to stop struggling to explain things while giving us a space to which to bring our thanksgivings and laments. There is so much that lies beyond our present capacity for explanation (maybe our science needs a paradigm shift as well) – that there’s no need to invent supernatural entities to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. There is the earth whose ways are still largely unknown to us. There is the sun, the moon; there are stars and there is weather and there are the great orders of living things. I’ve naughtily paraphrased St Francis great Canticle of the Sun because I still kind of identify with him in his artless extremism; his simplicity and his love of nature. I should own up to the fact that I was once a lay member of the Anglican Third Order of the Society of St Francis and like all the best teachers, Francis embedded himself in my mind even though I moved on and away from the orthodoxies.
The religious systems of the past don’t have the monopoly on concepts such as humility –humus, the condition of the earth – on forgiving or on generosity, on equality or thanksgiving or human love. They’re all there ready to be recycled and repurposed in ways that work for us, speak to us and generate new meaning. Naturally the concessionaires and leaseholders of the existing spiritualities will kick up a fuss – they would, wouldn’t they – and we shall always have to look out for a new breed of snake oil salespeople who talk the talk but don’t do the other bit, they’re human after all, just like the rest of us. But – I’m just speaking for myself now and I don’t expect you to agree – for me a Green New Deal without some kind of spirituality would be too thin to survive. A farming method or an algorithm for life without poetry, music and dance , without thanksgiving and (dare I say?) liturgy would be a poor half-starved creature; unfit for purpose.
Just forget the dogma, the hierarchy, the keyholders and all the bureaucracy. Forget all that “we always do it this way” stuff and gaze in wonder at the daft plastic statue of St Francis of the boot rack. What better reminder of our frailty do we need.
One of the delightful aspects of doing a bit of urban botany is the hazard/opportunity to find members of the brigade of irregulars lurking just about anywhere. Purists, of course, go out armed with a complete set of preconceived ideas of what ought to be growing in a particular habitat and get a bit piqued if they don’t find it. But they get positively tetchy when they find usurpers taking up good wildflower spaces. Some plant lovers are a bit less fussy – I’ve got a copy of J W White’s 1912 Bristol Flora and it’s got loads of ‘foreigners’ in it. He seemed to delight in examining the edges of the railway lines on Bristol docks to see what had fallen off the wagons and – like all good trainspotters – he was going to record it even if it belonged more rightfully in a Reader’s Digest book on flower arranging. I’m absolutely with him in his determination to refuse to be sniffy in the face of the temporary visitor, not least because they must all, necessarily have their story.
I’ve already mentioned the possible corn marigold on North Quay and we went back again to take a closer look and yes I’m sure it’s an out of place and out of season lover of arable crops and sandy acidic soil, neither of which is the case where it landed up – in a coir mat impregnated with wildflower seeds and bought no doubt from a horticultural wholesaler as part of an architect’s idea of what constituted wild. OK I am just a bit cross about that aspect of the story because there were loads of perfectly good and properly naturalised wildflowers there already, but they were plantworld punks, weeds, all of a piece with the graffiti on the 1960’s (and about to be demolished) multi story car park. On the other hand, one golden corn marigold on a grey and damp day cheers you up no end. Whether it deserves a tick or a place in a local flora I leave to the experts, but I rather hope they’ll treat it as a genuine refugee, escaping from the arable fields where it once grew wild in the days before Mecoprop-P and Clopyralid and I rather hope it will carry on bringing a bit of colour to the river bank with its offspring.
The other unexpected flower was the pot marigold near Cleveland House on the Kennet and Avon canal. This one, I’m sure, self seeded off the roof of a moored up narrow boat, or at least that’s the most likely and unvarnished possibility. But being both a romantic and a writer I like to think of its journey on the roof of a narrow boat being tended by someone with an interest in medicinal herbs who, for all I know, reads tarot cards sells calendula cream at the local farmers’ market. Back in the day you’d have found hemp and cereals from the holds of passing barges but there are a surprising number of medicinal herbs alongside the canal whether by accident or design. Bargees had next to no access to official medicine and I have no doubt they became adept at recognising and utilising the plants that grew where they travelled and probably made sure they could be found along the length of the canal network. Many of these plants are promiscuous self-seeders and I greatly enjoy finding them and trying to find out what they were used for. The tradition that was once passed down from (mostly) mother to daughter has all but disappeared now. I think my own mother, born in 1916, must have been among the last generation to know her wildflowers so intimately although she never wrote anything down or even passed her knowledge of their uses on. That’s the way of oral tradition; it can disappear in a generation; driven out in her case by the wartime invention of the antibiotics which she worshipped.
Half a mile apart, it would be so easy to have assumed they were the same species and that’s why it helps to develop the habit of close attention to the details of plants. Like the winter heliotrope that’s in flower at the moment – it could easily be butterbur – except butterbur doesn’t have a perfume; and in a couple of months when the flowers have died back, you might think the leaves are just right for coltsfoot – another medicinal herb, by the way. I’ve attached all of those names to the plants in question but as soon as it flowers, the perfume and the season narrow it down to one candidate. Maybe I’m weird but I find that terribly exciting. “Wait and see” – one of my mother’s favourite comments – is a good rule of thumb when you don’t quite know what a plant is called. Otherwise take a copy of Stace, a ruler and a hand lens and kneel down in the mud for twenty minutes while your long-suffering partner looks on her mobile for a discreet dating agency for botanical widows . I once knew a devoted twitcher who for twenty five years had spent all his holidays up to his waist in Norfolk fens. I asked him once what his wife thought about it and he said he’d never asked her! I bet she’s got a burner phone hidden at the back of the wardrobe.
So my solstice list of plants in flower goes up to fifteen, and sixteen if you add a single grass – cocksfoot. Grass flowers are tiny and can be a bit technical but I promise you this grass was flowering. Grasses, of course, don’t need pollinators at all, their reproductive apparatus is brilliantly simple and effective. But the flowering plants are different and just show that we shouldn’t only be worrying about bees because there are hundreds of pollinating insects, some of them completely specialised, and many of them are in danger from insecticides, pollution and habitat destruction too. I could go on but it’s nearly Christmas.
Below is today’s picture of the latest royal navy patrol boat, cleverly designed to fool French and Spanish trawlers fishing illegally within our proposed 200 mile limits. I think it was built from a design by the present Education Minister. You will probably be impressed by the attachment swivel for the space saving Mark IV 32 degree compass.
Here’s our solstice breakfast – photographed as near to 10.00am as I could – I was starving hungry! The gloop in the bowls is a a kind of muesli – I prefer to think of it as a cold porridge made with rolled oats, oatmeal, nuts, seeds including milled flax seed and grated apple. We have it almost every day because it tastes lovely and will last us until supper if we’re busy. The loaf is a freshly baked 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf, our ‘everyday bread’. The solstice treat is home made marmalade and damson jam, and the liturgy was the lighting of the candle. Simple but lovely.
Later our son drove down from the Midlands to exchange Christmas presents which are now quarantined in the boot of our car – a strange meeting with face masks and social distancing plus a bit extra for luck. There were no hugs and absolutely no kisses and we conspired silently not to breach the line between what was being felt and what was being said, but it was a bit of a charade really and no-one was fooled, I think.
Madame has taken to watching the French news channel broadcasting in English. It’s so much better at telling it straight than the BBC. For months now the most reliable newspaper sources of English news have been the Scottish ones. The English press is so partisan it’s barely worth reading unless you want a laugh; and even the Guardian’s liberal pose is constantly undermined by its visceral fear and hatred of any kind of politics that might change things for the better.
We spent the afternoon preparing a celebration supper and watching a documentary about Polyface Farm which I’ve been reading and writing about over the past couple of days. But I’ve forsworn any campaigning today. Up at the allotment digging a parsnip (they’re big) – paralysed as we have been by the weather – I suddenly thought we might span three of the raised beds with a polytunnel to extend our growing season at both ends. In the spring our tiny greenhouse is always full of germinating seeds and because it’s so small it heats up to eye watering temperatures very quickly so we’ve found that tomatoes get very stressed in there. Only the hottest chillies seem to like it. I’ve always resisted the thought because of the increased demand for hand watering but now the thought has lodged in my mind I’m wondering if I could design a means of storing the water and redirecting it on to the beds with soaker hose. It’s tricky because a 17′ by 10′ tunnel would collect an awful lot of rain in a storm – but the hardest problems are always the most fun.
Outside it was dark by 4.00pm and there was continuous drizzle under a leaden sky almost all day. This is all very hard emotional work!
According to the meteorologists winter started almost three weeks ago but here at the Potwell Inn we pay no attention to these unnatural dates. It’s always been the solstice for us because instead of simply looking backwards at the autumn and summer – always a bit depressing, especially this year, the solstice marks the shortest day. In fact it celebrates a particular moment because at 10.00am tomorrow the North Pole is tilted as far away from the sun as it will be this year. Mid morning tomorrow the earth slowly begins tilting the other way until mid march when (and I know earth coordinates are a bit meaningless in space terms) it’s ‘upright’ – and we celebrate the vernal equinox and, as the tilt continues, exposing more of the northern hemisphere to the direct rays of the sun we hit midsummer in mid June. And then the earth starts to tilt back again and the cycle begins anew. So the good news is that tomorrow marks both a beginning and an end.
In a more nature orientated culture than ours we’d be eagerly awaiting this moment. Historically, farm work slowed down during the winter because the soil was too heavy and cold for seed sowing. The farm year kicked off with the Epiphany celebrations around 6th January and often included Plough Monday celebrations where a plough would be brought into churches along with seed corn (usually wheat, rye and barley in the UK and not maize in those days). By Plough Monday it’s usually possible to see the lengthening days and the winter pursuits like hedging and ditching gave way on the farm to sowing once more.
But grass seems to grow more or less throughout the year. In fact I remember giving our vicarage lawn a light mow one Christmas Eve, and I was reminded yesterday that grass is by no means as simple as you might at first think. I was re-reading Michael Pollan’s 2006 book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. It’s an excellent read and today I noticed a 2016 piece in the Washington Times by Pollan that celebrated the fact that the US has seen a significant growth in food awareness accompanied by increasing numbers of artisanal food producers, organic and post-organic farms and farmers markets. But it wasn’t all good news because the dominance of corn had increased in the national diet.
However it was grass that caught my eye last night, because when I first read the book I knew next to nothing about it in spite of living and working in the countryside for 25 years. Then, when we moved here and joined the Bath Natural History Society we were on a field trip one day when I told one of the leading lights that I found grass identification hard. “Oh she said” pointedly, “grasses are easy” – which challenge was more than I could resist and so I’ve spent three or four years improving my grass skills. Then, earlier this year a friend lent me a microscope and a whole new world opened up and began a new romance for me.
Why is this important? Well, in his book Michael Pollan draws attention to one central criticism of intensive farming in a way that I found irresistible. Grass, he says, harnesses and stores the power of the sun and because of its properties of self regeneration and the sheer density of its coverage and capacity to photosynthesise even during autumn and winter, it represents the nearest thing to a free lunch in the natural world. When we see a meadow, especially a traditional meadow with all its wildflowers – we’re looking at a far more efficient solar energy store than any field covered in solar panels.
Intensive farming, on the other hand, replaces all that sustainable solar energy with unsustainable oil – for driving farm machinery, transporting animals and crops over huge distances, and for manufacturing the fertilizers and chemicals which then go on to promote global heating and cause pollution environmental damage and health problems. The problem is that we humans lack a rumen, the part of a grazing animal’s stomach than can digest grass. So the only way we can access all that stored solar energy for food is by feeding the grass to a ruminant animal like a cow, and then eating it. If you add in the concept of buying locally, he food and the consumer are in the same place.
Grass fed cattle do well although they fatten slower than cattle stuffed with corn and antibiotics, The grass and its herbs provide a still unknown number of micronutrients and healing properties to the cattle’s diet and so they are better able to thrive without the panoply of wormers, drenches and other chemicals that are essential in the feedlots which, incidentally, are becoming more and more common in the UK – this isn’t an American problem. Grass fed beef is lower in health damaging cholesterol and it’s said that it tastes better too. It’s very expensive because it’s slower and less intensively farmed, and the food – that’s to say the grass -doesn’t attract the same level of subsidy. The inescapable logic is that traditional mixed farms are better than intensive farms for a host of environmental reasons but we will have to eat far less meat because the low price of meat in the supermarkets reflects an unsustainable and environmentally destructive food culture.
The question of methane is always the first thing to come up and it’s true that cows produce methane. But intensive farming produces far more methane because cowpats dropped on a low intensity pasture generate far less methane than the lakes of cattle slurry that accumulate on intensive farms and, all too frequently leak into the surrounding watercourses. A second benefit of grassland is that grass is a prodigious carbon store. No dig and low tillage systems don’t release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere at anything like the same rate. So, as Wendell Berry memorably said, by abandoning mixed farming and grass pasturage, intensive farming has taken a solution (mixed farming) and turned it into two problems: soil erosion and nutrient depletion on the one hand and massive pollution on the other, The manure that cattle leave on the pasture and which improves both soil structure and fertility becomes a lethal poison when concentrated in slurry. The land taken from pasture to grow feed grain releases carbon back into the atmosphere and can only remain productive through the use of chemicals.
And so grass is perhaps as important as are trees when it comes to carbon sequestration – and that’s great because the one thing we can grow here in the southwest of the UK is grass. Anyway I woke up the morning with my botanical whiskers all of a quiver and as we did our customary walk along the river and the canal I did a very rough and ready count of the plants we could see in flower. It’s been an odd autumn and early winter and although we’ve had a couple of frosts they’ve not amounted to much. The rain has been a much bigger problem for us. I didn’t have a pen with me so I couldn’t write them all down but from memory there were Canadian and Mexican Fleabane, a single dead nettle, groundsel, yarrow,common ragwort, one dandelion, red valerian, nipplewort, perennial sowthistle, ivy and some ivy leaved toadflax, plus (and this is a long shot) on the flood prevention scheme on North Quays where there was a lot of inappropriate wildflower re-seeding and I’m pretty sure there was a single corn marigold flowering on the spot where a very out of place clump of them grew last summer. As ever, plants don’t read the textbooks and to reverse the ethical aphorism, in field botany you can’t make an is into an ought. There were also new shoots breaking through on an old man’s beard vine, and a clump of very lush green prickly lettuce leave emerging on the river bank. Fourteen plants in flower on December 20th isn’t bad, and you could smell the strange almond perfume of the winter heliotrope all up the canal. Spring is hiding behind the bushes!
Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the solstice with a roastie and I’m wondering whether I can risk embarrassing Madame with a little candle-lit ceremony at 10.00am and then we can enjoy a solitary Christmas with a mexican meal that the children would never have let us get away with: they’re far greater traditionalists than we are! Then we’ll go for a walk amidst the hordes of similarly stranded grandparents.
It’s utterly depressing, but the answer is going to be no. At the present moment living in the UK feels as if we’ve strayed into an episode of Blackadder, except there are no jokes. I’d like to be writing warm, lyrical and encouraging posts about how wonderful life is at the Potwell Inn – except it’s not – and I don’t mean that I’m lying here on the floor with an axe embedded in my head, although the thought may have entered Madame’s mind. The reason it’s not wonderful is that we’ve spent eleven months in a suspended state; very largely on our own and separated in any meaningful sense from our family and friends. During the first lockdown and the first easing we enjoyed the fine weather on the allotment, where we almost lived for months; but now in the winter there’s hardly anything to do there because we used the autumn to prepare for next season. So we’re deprived of the exercise and the sense of engagement that kept us sane for the first five or six months. Hence the renewed interest in long distance walks and the renewed exploration of the Mendip Hills, of which a little more later.
Of course there are always books. Madame reads novels and biographies, and pretty much anything else she can lay her hands on but I’m firmly in the grip of the protestant work ethic and my reading tends to be highly directional and (dare I say) improving stuff with footnotes and references and centred on the green new deal, environment, natural history, food and that kind of thing. I wish I felt more improved than I do but for the most part it leaves me feeling sad, utterly depressed or screaming at the TV in anger at the incapacity of either interviewers or politicians to ask or answer the simplest (but most diligent) question – more Blackadder. I remember once talking to a depressed consultant oncologist who confessed he was so overworked his first thought on meeting a new patient was how am I going to get this person out of the room? I always felt that any culpability for his reaction was far more due to the distant political choices that put him in that terrible position, than to any deficiency in him.
I probably shouldn’t unload any of these personal anxieties except that I know that it can break through the isolation that leaves so many of us wondering if we’re the only ones who feel this way. Isn’t the first aim of gaslighting always to isolate your critics and convince them that it’s all their fault. But it’s not our fault that covid and brexit have been so badly managed. I look down the list of countries in which Potwell Inn readers live and I can see that many of us have been let down – in different ways – but still let down.
Not feeling safe; not knowing what to believe and what not to believe; not understanding what it is we’re meant to do; missing the everyday pleasures of chance encounters with neighbours and friends; missing the lectures and meetings that cement us as a cohort of like-minded individuals; missing the hugs and the smell of our grandchildren’s hair (OK that’s a bit out there, but you know what I mean). All these etch into us like frost and rain etch their way into rock, and leave us feeling empty and exhausted. I read too many articles about the benefits of nature for mental health, but the principal benefit may be to writers writing books about the benefits. I reckon I’m a pretty resilient person, and I know that Madame is too; and yet we both feel hollowed out by this experience, and sometimes the walking and even the cooking and gardening seem more like displacement activity than wholesome activity should. Staying sane seems to be an immense effort of will.
One question has been bothering me in particular because, in the light of the constellation of crises we’re facing, the issue of food security must surely come near the top. Do we really want to get back to normal if that involves the pollution, the destructive farming and the sickness that associates with bad economics, poverty and junk food. So I’ve spent quite a lot of time reading around the question of food security, trying to see if there’s an answer to the question – could the UK be more self sufficient in food without going deeper into the abyss of intensive chemical dependent farming; and the answer – I’m pleased to say – is “Yes – But”.
If there are any vegans and vegetarians out there who think we can save the world by eating processed non-animal gloop, then the answer is no. If there are intensive farmers who think the way forward is more of the same, the answer is no as well. It’s no to industrial organic farms and no if you think we can feed ourselves on mediterranean delights grown on the allotment or purchased in the supermarket. If there are any people sitting in 3 litre SUV’s prepared to embrace anything except changing the way they drive, it’s also no. And it’s no to airlines, and no to food miles and criminal waste. In fact the answer can only be yes if we’re all prepared to change – quite a bit. This isn’t just a personal view, it’s a summary of all the scientific evidence I’ve managed to get my hands on.
Number one – (two three and four as well!) – is we need to eat less meat, much less meat; preferably chicken because it has a much more efficient conversion ratio. We need to embrace a plainer more sustainable diet sourced as locally as possible – to quote Michael Pollan – ‘eat food, not too much, mostly veg‘. The over embracing plan is summarised by Tim Lang in his book “Feeding Britain – our food problems and how to fix them” * – and he describes it as “a great food transformation”. Crucially this isn’t a book about organic farming or vegetarian diet, it’s an important book about farming, diet, public health, social policy, politics and food culture. You would profit from reading it wherever you stand on the food and farming spectrum. Of course, the cynics will say that the population will never embrace such far reaching change, to which he would respond that in a crisis – let’s say the onset of war in 1939, for instance, there won’t be any alternative but to change. The storm clouds that are gathering on the horizon right now are coming our way and our political system is proving itself unfit to deal even with one challenge, let alone three or four existential crises at once.
They would say that wouldn’t they?
Mandy Rice Davies
But this is good news. We are categorically not all doomed – we can make the changes we need to make and what’s more important, we can create a far better, far less divided and infinitely safer world as we do it. We mustn’t allow the powerful to claim that nothing can be done except more of the same. They would say that wouldn’t they?
Well there we are, and just to prove it’s not all been eye strain these past couple of days, the long Mendip Way walk is being chipped off a few miles at a time. On Monday we walked from Tynings Farm down to Shipham; back through Rowberrow Warren and across Blackdown. Why would I bother with these obscure place names when many people who read this will never see them? and the answer is that place names are beautiful in and of themselves, like tiny topographical markers that set up home in your mind and remind you that the earth is made of places which, just like us, have names and histories and are often very beautiful. The walk took us down the most lovely valley, following a stream most of the way, and then back through a forestry plantation and out on to the open moorland of Blackdown. Barely five miles but offering three quite distinct landscapes. Best of all we found hazel catkins flowering in profusion in the sheltered valley. The photograph shows one such catkin, coated in melting ice formed in the overnight frost but demonstrating that spring will come – and it can’t come too soon.
I’ll make a proper booklist soon – most of the books have been mentioned but I’ll assemble a proper list in case anyone is interested.