“We cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it”

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Albert Einstein – quoted by Vandana Shiva in her book “Soil not Oil”

I had a faintly disturbing conversation with a retired farm worker at the wassail on Friday evening. There were two things he said that made me prick up my ears – firstly something to the effect “we are going to lose all our subsidies and get paid to plant trees” – I’ll come back to that one – but secondly he said that the farm he still helps out on has changed the approach to foot rot in sheep (very successfully apparently) and so they no longer trim the feet – there’s sound evidence that this increases lameness – but now spray infected feet and then inject the sheep with long acting antibiotic such as oxytetracycline which is apparently very successful.  I came away with the impression that this treatment was being administered proactively in the flock which is probably nice for the sheep but possibly not quite so nice for us humans if it helps create more resistant strains of bacteria.

It’s just another example of the mindset that’s got us into the environmental mess we’re in. The land on which the flock is kept is very wet and is drained by a network of rhynes, (ditches) that feed larger ditches and  and pumping stations.  The prolonged wet weather these last few months has left farmers unable to sow spring cereals and even moving flocks of sheep has been problematic. The solution, as is so depressingly frequent, has been to reach for a new technology.

The question of farm subsidies is crying out to be examined, but as my friend spoke I had a premonition that even in the entirely sensible ambition to plant more trees, big business will sweep into the field with new and even more expensive technology offering a one-stop solution to farmers that’s almost inevitably going to be indiscriminately applied and propped up with even more chemicals. Which is where the moss comes in.

Ever since the mid 20th century agribusiness has been treating the earth as a simple industrial input. Land is graded from the very best through to the marginal, and farmers, hill farmers for instance, have been heavily subsidised to keep sheep on land that’s not really suitable. During the past centuries peat bogs have been exploited for fuel and horticulture to the extent that 95% of them have simply disappeared. It’s now becoming clear that peatlands are performing an indispensable service to the earth by soaking up half a trillion of tonnes of carbon – the data is here – twice as much as is stored in all the forests combined. Yet peatlands only cover 3% of the land areas of the earth. It almost makes you want to weep that only fifty years ago Scottish peatland was being ploughed and drained and planted up with imported trees. I’m quoting here from Dave Gouson’s book “The Garden Jungle” –

Over the past 10,000 years, UK peatlands have quietly sequestered 5.5 billion tones of carbon – nearly forty times the 150 million tonnes of carbon stored in our woodlands.

– and we’re still digging them up to spread peat on our daffodils!

It also happens to be the case that peatlands grow proportionally faster during periods when the global temperature is rising. So here’s just one part of the puzzle that we need to solve, and we can solve not by buying into impressive new technological fixes but by doing almost nothing. We need to ban the extraction of peat altogether and we need to halt and then reverse the draining of peatland for agricultural use.  We need to allow them to flood again which will not only increase the amount of carbon being sequestered far more efficiently then tree planting can but will also hold vast quantities of water that would otherwise run off moors, mountainsides and hills filling rivers and flooding good land and towns downstream. Peatland holds the carbon in storage for as long as the bog exists.  Trees only sequester carbon while they’re actually growing and when they die and rot they release it back into the atmosphere again.  So tree planting can only be a temporary solution while we make all the other changes, the ones we haven’t made during the fifty years we’ve known about the problem! Inevitably this will impact farmers’ livelihoods, but the subsidies can be reapplied to the maintenance of peatlands and their vital impact on wildlife and biodiversity. So my friend was right in outline, but not – I sincerely hope – in detail. Yes of course we should massively increase tree planting as well, but in the right places, not just anywhere farmers can shove a couple of thousand saplings in and book their summer holidays on the subsidy.

So if my newly found interest in bryophytes – mosses, liverworts and the rest – seems a bit perverse or leftfield, it’s because these poorly understood branches of creation just might be in a position to help solve what no amount of cash, science, technology and PR has managed. George Monbiot is right in many of his diagnoses but some of his prescriptions are terrible, especially when he seems to have bought into the fantasy that technology can solve our problems. More nuclear power stations fuelling factories that produce gigatonnes of industrial seaweed and fungus gloop really aren’t the solution.  I’m not even sure if they’re part of the solution.

There’s no reason why you should know that our word martyr derives from the Greek verb ‘martureo’ – to bear witness; it used to be my job to know stuff like that! Each age has its own witnesses and it so happens that in our own time of turmoil, the environmental scientists, the botanists, mycologists, bryologists, ecologists, meteorologists, climatologists, organic gardeners and farmers, the young activists and all the others are the witnesses to what’s going on. It’s about the earth, the soil – and it’s no accident that organic allotments are between four and eleven times more productive than intensive farms. Is anybody listening?

Doing the right thing beautifully

Since the sun shone this afternoon, once I’d finished baking we went over to Dyrham Park for a walk. In fact the park itself was closed because it’s a fairly unique combination of grass and limestone, so quite thin soil and easily damaged by walkers – which didn’t bother us much because we could walk down the main tarmac path to the house, following the course of a stream in full spate after all the rain. There were patches of waterlogged soil in many places, and we couldn’t drive home the back roads because the road was completely flooded at the top of Dyrham Hill. It’s a steep walk down to the house and gardens, and we were met there by one of the terribly efficient welcomers who offered us a leaflet about the gardens parts of which are in the process of restoration to something like the original plans.

I’m not a fan of formal gardens, I don’t like things to be too orderly and sterile, and so my heart sank a bit when this process began. The notices boast something like 40,000 bulbs planted, and new yew hedging no doubt accompanied by finely cut and weed free stripy grass. However once you leave the formal garden, which amount to less than half of the total area, things are altogether more interesting – with a lake, or I think more accurately a large pond with flowing water taken from the stream; a waterfall, and a much more informally planted area of shrubs and flowers. The leaflet described all the exotic plantings but could have made much more of the wildlife potential. Someone, somewhere had made the decision not to deadhead or cut back all of the seed bearing grasses but to leave them over the winter, a marvellous food source for birds and small mammals and very beautiful in their own right. I thought the leaflet had missed an opportunity to show people the potential of wildlife gardening. Dave Goulson’s book “The Garden Jungle” was on sale in the shop, and the subject seems to be rising higher and higher in the consciousness of gardeners everywhere, so why not put up some signage to say “this is what it can look like” – which is very beautiful.

Outside the house the snowdrops are flowering and you could almost have thought spring had arrived if it weren’t for the cold wind blowing steadily up the escarpment. We could see that it’s going to take weeks for the soil to dry out. Apparently things are even worse in Northern France.

On the allotment today Madame followed up on my idea that perhaps our rat trap had not been stolen but dragged off by a fox who’d found a rat in the trap and had carried it off to a more private place to devour the remains. My hunch turned out to be true, and the fox had eaten all bar the tiniest scrap of fur and even cleared out the last remains of the crunchy peanut butter bait, leaving the empty trap in its box about 50 yards away in some long grass. I’ve said before that I don’t in the least mind the foxes eating the rats, but I’d prefer it if they didn’t steal the plates and the cutlery as well – it’s such bad manners.
Naturally we were relieved that it wasn’t another visit by our burglarious predecessor who now just owes us two net cloches, two water butts, two very expensive cold frames and a max and min thermometer. We can solve the fox problem by attaching the rat trap boxes to some long pegs, and on the plus side another neighbour who is moving to a different site has given us an enormous tarpaulin and a storage bench which he doesn’t want to take.

It’s lovely to see our early sowings taking off so well. I was so concerned about the waterlogging in one part of the plot which lies above an underground stream, that I gently mooted the possibility of digging a small pond on it, sealed by puddling it with the plentiful clay. Madame didn’t just disagree, she saturation bombed the whole idea and could see nothing but drowned creatures and malaria infected mozzies. I think I’ll put that one to one side – for the time being!

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Daldinia concentrica – Cramp balls

Back at the park, as we walked up the track I spotted a felled tree trunk – there are lots of them lying around with their associated brash, another sign that the National Trust policy is changing very much for the good. Once again the instinct for tidiness is being restrained to the benefit of the many plants, fungi, bacteria and small creatures who can both eat and shelter under the piles; and this particular tree had an array of turkey tail fungi – Trametes versicolour at one end, and cramp balls, or King Alfred’s cakes – Daldinia concentrica – at the other; neither of them the remotest bit rare but fun to name.

Nothing more to do this evening than bake a loaf and pack the cakes and scones into tins for our grandson’s charity cake sale tomorrow.IMG_20200115_134048

Rats vanquished, Seville oranges in!

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After a somewhat gloomy posting yesterday I think it’s time to put the more positive side of life forward. For instance – today we spent a few hours at the allotment, weeding and gathering dead leaves (they attract slugs).  The sun was shining and as I turned the compost heap I could see that it’s thriving and aerobic in spite of the wet weather and the preponderance of green kitchen waste which makes it rather dense. But the worms don’t seem to mind and they were there in their tens of thousands.  We did nothing at all to introduce worms to the heap, they just moved in and they’re doing a brilliant job of reducing everything down. We’ve put substantial amounts of cardboard in with the waste – in fact all of the cardboard packaging that comes into the flat except the stuff that looks too shiny to be true because we suspect it’s probably got a plastic coating. Biodegradable tea bags go in and quickly reduce to something that looks like slime mould. The so-called green caddy bags are very persistent and so we now take them out.  I think some manufacturers think that breaking big bits of plastic into tiny bits is biodegrading – it isn’t. The other big addition is the large corrugated cardboard boxes that come with furniture and especially bicycles.  We saw the larger sheets up roughly and within a week or two they completely disappear.

The only disappointment was the fact that our persistent thief has stolen one of the rat traps.  We’ve lost so much stuff over the past three years we’ve racked our brains to think who it might be, and we think it’s probably the tenant who was evicted from half of our allotment because he neglected it completely. He seemed to be bearing some kind of grudge against us – I see him often in the street and he gurns at me in a knowing way as if he knows something I don’t. What is it about thieves that makes them want to make their criminality known to the victims? In a thoroughly uncharitable manner I take delight that he’s expending so much spiritual energy trying to get at us and I smile back wondering if it ever penetrates his dull brain that we know and we don’t care. We just bolt things down more carefully.

Anyway the sun was shining and that was enough to redeem the shining hour; so it was a bonus when we found a box of Seville oranges to make this year’s marmalade – that’s a job for tomorrow, I think.  I’ve also got to do some baking because our grandson is putting on a cake stall at his primary school, to raise funds for the victims of the Australian bush fires – his mum’s Australian. He’s only seven years old and we’re all immensely proud of him.

The street weeds are growing about an inch a day and I’m slowly checking and double checking what’s there. With no flowers you’ve only got growth habit, leaf shape and stalk colour and shape to go on which demands a bit more detective work sometimes but saying hello to them by name makes the walk to the shops more fun. Tonight, because the sky was clear, we had an extra half hour of daylight, a lovely feeling.

The other bit of positive news is that we went through the seeds today and we’ve got enough of nearly all the chillies to get them in very soon. Seed doesn’t last forever but four varieties of chilli cost quite a bit if you’re buying them fresh, so there’s just one more to buy.  Last season’s habaneros are so hot that I think we’ve got enough dried to last for years.

And finally, if you’re a regular reader, you’ll know I took a load of books to a local charity shop last year.  They emailed me today to say that they’d sold them and raised just under £500 for the charity. I think I’ll take another batch.

All that glisters

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They were very large, very beautiful Cox’s and we agreed – Madame Eve and me to eat a couple. Sadly what followed was not the wrath of God, or being driven out of the Potwell Inn and into the desert but just – disappointment.  In fact we’ve eaten, or rather not eaten any amount of lovely looking but ultimately disgusting, tasteless and pappy fruit ripened in a nitrogen filled cold store and pimped with wax and a little union jack designed to make us feel exceptionally virtuous. Advertising and presentation, supermarket snake oil, is just the way agribusiness can fool most of the people all of the time.  “Well don’t buy them!” would be a well deserved rebuke, but we still do in the hope that they might be alright after all. The fact is, almost all supermarket fruit is artificially retarded from ripening, bred with genetically enhanced  armour plated skins and designed for presentation and not flavour.  In our experience many fruits like apricots, mangoes and peaches will never ripen at this time of the year.

So what’s good at the moment? …. Pears.  Good old cheap as chips Conference pears eaten so ripe you have to eat them like a mango, with your sleeves rolled up. Forget the exotic fruit with all its glamour and airmiles and eat pears, preferably organic ones. And then there are Seville oranges of course, to make better marmalade than you could ever buy, at a fraction of the cost, and Bramley apples. Aside from them, stick to vegetables – it’s winter – and then when the new season comes around you can swoon with delight at the sheer intensity of in-season flavour. We’re still eating squashes, greens and spuds from the allotment, and of course there’s blackcurrants, raspberries. red currants and gooseberries in the freezer.  It’s really not the end of the world if we have to wait a few months before the Discovery apples come off the trees, and in any case what are jams preserves and pickles for, if not providing us with a bit of food variety during the hungry gap?

But that’s enough. What really promoted this mini tantrum was listening to the BBC Food Programme this afternoon. The subject was Spirulina – blue green algae – which, it’s manufacturers claim, is the food of the future. full of protein, vitamins, minerals and so good for you you’ll live forever. After half an hour of listening to its breathlessly excited merchandisers it slowly became obvious that it tastes filthy unless you bleach-boil it in nitric acid for two days and then separate the tasteless powder in an industrial centrifuge. Even the vitamin B12 it’s had claimed for it, turns out to be unavailable to our digestive systems. The key question, put by the presenter of the programme, was never answered and it was “do we really want to increase the amount of industrially manufactured foods we eat?” Or put more simply, if it tastes and looks filthy and can only be made palatable by industrial processing, isn’t it likely that it will then be stuffed full of artificial flavourings and texturizers before being packaged, promoted and sold back to us as as the best thing since white sliced bread?

If, like me, you’re interested in the numbers, then it looks as if you’d probably do better to eat a boiled egg: and let’s not get into the ethical arguments because it seems possible that in our anxiety about food we’re so focused on the ethics we haven’t noticed that we’ve become the new battery hens; fed dangerous untested foods, confined in dingy polluted surroundings for 15 hours a day and discarded in old age when we’re no longer productive. If you want to live a long and healthy life the best advice I’ve seen is Michael Pollan’s dictum ” …. eat food, not too much, mostly veg.”

I wrote a while ago about the fact that I hadn’t initially understood what the deep ecologists were saying when they talked about the “aquarian conspiracy”, but here’s an excellent example in the way that our go-to solution for all problems has become industrial technology. We’ll solve all the problems that confront us by inventing new technologies like carbon capture, food technology, genetic modification, fusion power – and so the list goes on. If I put myself back on the couch and articulate all these unrealised and unrealisable desires to a psychotherapist they might, if they were any good, gently probe my deeper motivations. “What are you most frightened of?” My own psychoanalytic psychotherapist once cracked the funniest joke (extremely unexpected) after I recounted a recurring dream about being shadowed by two elephants. He responded  “Oh, well I’m a Freudian so they’re sex and death!”

I’m convinced that, since the collapse of religious imagery, we’ve lost the means of articulating our deepest fears about both of my dream elephants, and so issues of sexual identity and the fear of death have found new expressions in our culture. In the past these fears were managed and exploited by the God industry and converted into secular power, political influence and some nice buildings. What’s happened is that a new bunch of hucksters have stepped in to skim the profits.  These days you don’t need a knowledge of ancient Greek or Latin to understand the theology; a qualification in business studies and the ability to trace the true ownership of the latest quasi artisan brand of gloop will do better. They still trade on fear; fear of death, fear of illness, fear of the loss of vitality, fear of old age or ugliness or poverty or whatever and they are ready, so very ready, to monetize that fear.

Industry knows very well how to bait the hook to catch a fish, and the hook here is often additionally baited with the climate catastrophe, environmental destruction and species extinctions. Wherever you look within the food trade you see entirely specious claims – often more implied than in your face (for fear of breaching advertising standards regulations), that eating or drinking industrial gloop will save the earth in some unspecified way. So by linking together our personal fears with our justified fear for the environment they prop up a weak argument with powerful emotions. As an example of the power of advertising, smoking no longer makes you look sexy; but it did once!  – and I well remember a photocopied herbalist’s catalogue from the early 1970’s among whose testimonials were accounts of satisfied customers coughing up or otherwise passing tumours in the kind of events that would have had me running screaming to A & E.  Hope and fear are powerful sales tools.

For what it’s worth, there’s more sex and death on the average allotment than you’ll see in a season of Scandi Noir, and all of it absolutely real. My own mortality and vulnerability are contextualized within the ebb and flow of nature, with the sun and rain on my back; and at the stove and the table later where food becomes sacramental rather than instrumental. There’s very little difference in tone between foodie fundamentalists and religious ones, and between them they’ve precipitated the need for saving the earth by a warped religious understanding of our place within it, and invented an impractical and ideologically distorted plan for saving it.

Saving the earth and flourishing as humans certainly needs urgent action on our part, and won’t happen without some challenging changes in the way we live, but there’s no magic bullet.

Every gift horse should have its teeth examined regularly by a qualified vet.

As we say in Bristol – “where’s that to?”

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– and the answer is in our son’s next door neighbour’s garden in the middle of Birmingham.  In fact herons are almost a pest in suburban gardens these days and almost any little pond is likely to be raided. Last time we were up in Birmingham we saw a large heronry alongside a reservoir near Winterbourne House, and a few years back our son saw a peregrine kill a pigeon and eat it on the path outside his kitchen window in the middle of Harbourne.  On our allotment in Bath we see foxes and badgers and one allotmenteer has seen deer there.  The birds are pretty prolific as well, we’ve got one established peregrine nest in the centre of town and if I were a better entomologist  I reckon we’ve a rich collection of insects on the allotments too, not to mention the smaller mammals I wrote about yesterday. In fact Ken Thompson’s work at the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, some of which comes up in his book “The Sceptical Gardener” – well worth reading –  and Dave Goulson’s books on bees suggest that suburban gardens are both a resource and a hotspot for depleted wildlife.

So while urban and suburban gardeners (and farmers) pit themselves and their gardens against environmental catastrophe, what’s happening out there in the “real” countryside?  I think we pretty much know the answer to that one – it’s a story of crisis.  I would have said it was a story of decline if I’d been writing this a few years ago, but there are signs of hope, typified by the rewilding project at Knebb but replicated on a much more modest scale in many other places. While we all wish that change could come faster but there’s a lot of inertia and a whole culture to overcome before that can happen, and I know we need action right now,  but with a climate change denying government, banks and multinational pharmaceutical companies still in control, the  responsibility for change, for the time being, has to be on us and our behaviour.

At the AGM of the Bath Natural History Society this afternoon, (Prof) David Goode – in his President’s address – said that he felt that public attitudes towards climate change had changed for the better over the past year, and gave credit to Greta  Thunberg for inspiring the Extinction Rebellion movement and catalysing the sense of urgency.  He also said that he had authored some reports in the late 1970’s in a book trying to predict what was coming during the next decades.  He told us that the editor of the publication had refused to accept the phrase “greenhouse effect” but that every one of his predictions had come to pass before the end of the decade. In my view, with Australia on fire, California in the grip of a prolonged drought and multiple species extinctions across the world it’s become ever more clear that climate change, species extinction and neoliberal politics are all part of the same problem and we can’t choose to fix just one of them.  Having worked in the countryside for 25 years I know only too well the cost to the environment of soil degradation, monoculture, eutrophication of the rhynes (ditches) and the continual application of powerful chemicals, and it’s a cost to the farmers too because as their income is squeezed by falling farm gate prices deliberately forced on them by supermarkets (ask any dairy farmer) they feel they’re being blamed for the state of the environment while the real architects of agribusiness are living high on the hog.

It’s shaming rather than ironic, that suburban and urban green spaces have become places of refuge for wildlife, harried from the countryside by the destruction of habitat and driven by an economics that has no column for the environment in the profit and loss accounts. If you add in the ludicrous farm subsidy system and the lobbying power of the agrochemical industry and it looks like a perfect storm. Ironically I won a signed hardback copy of Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” in the raffle.  I bought the paperback last summer at Heligan, so I’ll pass that copy on to a friend. IMG_20200104_154026One of the greatest advantages of  living in the centre of Bath is the proximity of the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution which is only 5 minutes walk away and accommodates  most of the Bath Nats indoor meetings. The view through the first floor window was lovely this afternoon. January is the quietest month in Bath, with far fewer visitors and space to walk around the city unhampered.

Up at the allotment this morning we planted out the last batch of overwintering broad beans. The first feed of broad beans and new potatoes is a landmark meal, marking the end of the hungry gap and the hope of good things to come, but the soil is very wet at the moment and the water table is so close to the surface that we’re a bit concerned about the effect on the overwintering plants, so it may be necessary to deepen the soakaways or to raise the beds even more, adding plenty of grit to the soil to improve drainage. Whichever we choose it’s going to be hard work, that’s for sure.

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Luckily we’ve got a second string to our bow because  we started a second batch of garlic in large pots, filled with a free-draining mix of soil, compost and horticultural grit, with a few handfuls of vermiculite thrown in. It’s a similar mix to the one we’ve evolved for growing basil indoors under the horticultural lights and that’s absolutely thrived this winter giving us a year-round supply of full flavoured basil. This variety is called Neapolitan and I like it even more than the Classico.

  • This post was amended on Sunday to restore a displaced paragraph to its proper position.

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Wheat and tares at the Potwell Inn

Wheat and Tares or in plainer terms, the pests, diseases and downright nuisances are just a part of life at the Potwell Inn, and sometimes they can be sorted easily but, sadly sometimes a little harsh intervention is needed. One such fact of life on the allotment is rodents – rats and mice. Squirrels too can lend a destructive hand.  Last autumn we sowed a row of broad beans which failed to materialise. We found them yesterday hidden in a pile – presumably by a squirrel – under the leaves surrounding the rhubarb plants.

It seems paradoxical to say that because we are organic gardeners we don’t use chemicals unless they’re approved by the soil association, but perhaps once a year we might use a pyrethrum spray if the asparagus beetle runs out of control, we’re always very careful to do it when the friendly insects are less likely to be affected.

Garden centres will often try to point you in the direction of  pyrethroids when you enquire, but these are not approved for use on organic gardens.  There’s an exact parallel with herbal medicines here. Conventional medicine often works to isolate what’s believed to be the ‘active constituent’ of a plant and then produces immensely powerful and marketable products; but there’s no history of use in the pure form and so these chemicals can do immense damage before the downside becomes apparent. Pyrethrum has been around for a long time and it can kill pollinating insects if it’s used carelessly but in extremis it’s the lesser evil when faced with the extinction of a crop.  Last season we didn’t need to use it at all because the ladybirds roared into action at the best possible time and we were grateful to accept biological controls fee of charge.

Plant chemistry is immensely complex, and a single plant can contain dozens of active ingredients, all in symbiotic relationship with one another in the host plant.  Often the combination is more effective and less dangerous than the individual components. All of which is a long winded way of saying that artificially manufactured pyrethroids are far more persistent and dangerous than the plant extract that inspired them.  The downside is that pure pyrethrum is extremely expensive!

But of course the whole discussion of organic culture is fraught with the difficulty of distinguishing friend from foe. The old and humorous definition of a weed as a plant in the wrong place has it exactly right, and this year we’ll be growing a few well known weeds deliberately, not to spite our neighbours but in order to continue my experiments with herbal medicine. While it’s perfectly acceptable to be found harvesting leaves and flowers around and about on our walks, it’s actually illegal to dig the roots up without the owner’s permission. I suspect that wandering around the countryside armed with my beautiful pointed spade would be considered as going equipped  and so there are some plants it’s best to gather from your own patch.

The distinction between weeds and vegetables can be very flexible, as can the nuisances of insects and animals. In the autumn our neighbours are troubled by the alarming number of ivy bees which, as it happens are perfectly harmless and lack a sting.  I’ve laid on the ground nose to nose with a mating ball to get a photograph before now.  Every year too, our sweet corn is ravaged by badgers – who absolutely love it, but don’t like soft netting because it gets in their claws – and so there’s a more or less effective remedy. Rats, being brilliant climbers, also clamber up to take the corn and, on a really bad day, a couple of the local wild population of deer will take it as well. In the complicated way that we do our ethical sums, we accept the damage from some animals but not others. Most of us carry a mental hierarchy of potential pest mammals from hedgehogs, deer and badgers at the cuddly end  and at the bottom of everyone’s list comes the rat. Mice seem altogether more benign until you sow a row of peas or beans -which is a pity because there don’t seem to be any effective deterrents apart from trapping and killing them and yet they carry some awful diseases, so you really don’t want their urine anywhere near your organic veg.

Naturally the moral difficulty doesn’t end there because you can use poison – where you never have to see or touch the casualties but when they are eaten by scavengers, then foxes hedgehogs and crows may well become secondary victims. The only other alternatives are live trapping them and then releasing them on someone else’s patch – not nice – or despatching them yourself – which is too troubling to contemplate or, finally, using strong spring traps that kill the rat instantly. Which means that every day I have to check the traps and dispose of the victims – which I leave out to feed the foxes, badgers and all the rest. I know it’s daft to feed the very creatures that will be attacking our allotment in a few months but there it is.  I’d rather have to look one dead rat in the eye than lie awake at night worrying about the hedgehogs.

And then, this week there’s the other kind of high-tec mishap that can cost a great deal of money to remedy.  The heating controller on our campervan has been slowly dying for the last five years, and yesterday it finally gave a last pathetic glow and faded into darkness. I knew it would be expensive to replace so I disconnected it and brought it back to the Potwell Inn, and set-to with my tiniest screwdriver. As the cover came off I found a printed circuit board that could have come out of a laptop. Worse still there were two more layers and a screen – all equally complex. The controller turned out to be a small computer that monitors and controls every aspect of the heating and hot water in the van. In fact it was £350 worth of pure German engineering in a box not much more than 3″ by 2″. There was only one thing to do because the van is the crucial component in all our natural history expeditions. “Rats!” I said, neatly compartmentalizing it as I pressed the send button on the order.  Now I can’t wait for the new one to arrive so we can heat the van and the water without an hour-long cat and mouse (sorry, couldn’t resist it!) game with the display.

Tomorrow there’s the Bath Nats AGM and a talk on wildlife photography, and then – on Sunday – the first field trip of 2020. Life is good – as long as you’re not a rat!

More auguries of spring

If I’m honest, I’ve always thought of this period of the year as  a kind of winter gap, and our enforced absence from the allotment due to almost continuous wet weather echoes the historical pattern of farming. These days, with massive and heavy farm machinery the idea of ploughing and sowing in wet soil at the turn of the year  is a non-starter. I’ve seen it suggested that seed can be sown in frost hardened ground, but for most farmers if it’s not sown during the last good weeks of autumn it’ll have to wait until February or March at the latest. That’s where the much lighter horse drawn plough gained valuable extra time notwithstanding its limitations. A horse drawn plough can cover one acre a day whereas a modern tractor can plough 24 acres – and do quite a bit of damage in the process.  Mercifully, the trend is towards no-till methods which is a step (just one step) in the right direction.

IMG_20200101_120038Historically there was little work done on the land around Christmas but there was always hedge laying, which was one of my favourite jobs when I was a groundsman. So with a pause, let’s say,  between the solstice and Epiphany on January 6th, work in the fields could resume. We used to celebrate Plough Monday in one of my parishes – always the first Monday after 6th January, and the Young Farmers would carry an old Ransomes plough into the church, along with some hand tools and lanterns and I would bless  it before it was returned once again to a gloomy corner in someone’s barn. The plough was slightly too long to manoeuvre down the aisle of the church so the handles were reduced in size and welded back on again, probably making it the shortest Ransomes plough in the country.

Given that I was vicar in a cider making area, the other great pagan festival was the Wassail where we blessed the orchard, drove away the evil spirits with a great deal of noise accompanied by volleys of empty 12 bore black powder cartridges, fired into the sky with an exciting amount of smoke and flame. I should say that a good deal of Littleton Lifesaver cider was also drunk, along with folk singing, a mummers play and the election of a king and queen for the night who, after their elevation, would be borne past the huge bonfire and into the orchard on a chariot made by welding two bicycle wheels and an axle on to a more or less lethal platform. Sometimes, over the years, my efforts have been rewarded with a terrible crop – like 2018 for instance when the ‘Beast from the East’ just about killed all the blossom. Last year. on the other hand, was a bumper crop and my invitation to take part again arrived two days ago so I appear to be forgiven. It’s a cause of great satisfaction that Madame provided the budwood for the orchard when it was first planted about 45 years ago. The less said about the cider the better except to note that if Admiral Nelson had been returned home in a barrel of Lifesaver rather than brandy he’d have dissolved before he arrived.

I think my successor in the parish has reservations about the outrageous and completely open paganism, but it’s never troubled me in the least and so – with his permission – it’s the one service I still perform, and if I weren’t performing I’d still be there just to meet up with all my old friends. The great advantage of Littleton was that hardly anyone went to church – they never bore me the least ill will, and were happy as long as I confined my attention to weddings, funerals, harvest, Christmas carols, wassailing and and fetes and met them all in the pub regularly. Madame also ran a life-drawing class there and the the day when her (male) model turned up sporting a Prince Albert piercing is still spoken about by the village ladies!

So that’s a date then, 7.30 at the White Hart, Littleton on Severn, on January 17th. There are some photos of the event on my posting for Jan 1st Last year, and coincidentally we went for a New Years Day walk along the canal (where else?) and as we walked back through Widcombe we caught up with the finish of the Widcombe Mummers performance. Earlier I’d spotted the first hazel catkin of the new season, along with a groundsel plant in full flower. Cow parsley and cleavers are also gathering strength as they push out their early leaves.  I couldn’t be more pleased to see these signs of the new season amidst the gloom of the last weeks.  Today we walked in a fine mizzle of rain among dozens of walkers and cyclists taking the chance of a bank holiday break.

 

 

 

Oh yes there are!

IMG_20191228_141919

I’m not sure whether what we do here amounts to serious research of any kind, but when noticing plants or wildlife takes a step up and becomes systematic, the data that’s recorded takes on a life of its own, especially in unregarded areas where developers may try to push plans through without leaving time to do proper longitudinal surveys.  These kind of surveys are the lifeblood of natural history, and over time the gathered data becomes more and more significant, because what’s never been recorded can’t be counted as lost. For once it’s a great help to be old, because we know what we’ve lost – but it’s not a great experience.

We have a favourite walk into town which – if we walked the quickest route would take us right to the centre in ten minutes. But if we follow the river to the point where the canal enters it, and then follow the canal as far as Sidney Gardens, doubling back through the gardens and up Pulteney Street it’s about five times as far but a hundred times more interesting.

Spotting plants can sometimes be a race against the strimmers, for instance the Tansy I photographed only a few days ago had been strimmed off when I went back two days later. On the towpath, tidiness reigns – it’s an unnecessary pain, but the council seem unable to resist it.  The riverbank is a different matter, though, and all sorts of anarchy  breaks out there, offering a feast of weeds both rare and common as muck, growing through the supermarket trolleys.  Who cares? they’re all lovely.  Then there’s the park, where there’s always something unplanned happening in the borders and the long grass – (steady on, I’m talking about plants here) – and finally the streets which have a good deal more botanical interest than you’d ever imagine. What the long route takes in time it repays in interest and, over the years, you get to know where to look for old friends with the ever present possibility of spotting something new.

IMG_20191228_141232I wrote yesterday that I was just longing for some sunshine and a few flowers, and today I half hoped I might spot an early flowering Coltsfoot so I had my eyes firmly on the canal bankside when I spotted a plant in flower. I’d seen the leaves in a dense patch for a couple of years, and I’d guessed it might be Coltsfoot or Butterbur but I couldn’t be certain.  It was one of those plants that you know you need to identify properly but never get round to doing because you half know the answer. The fact that my mystery plant was in flower today – at the end of the year – meant it could only be Winter Heliotrope, a close relative of butterbur and, for that matter, Coltsfoot too.

I can’t tell you how happy I was to have named the plant.  It may be as common as could be, but suddenly a stranger became a friend, along with all the others I’ve identified along that length of the canal. The last time I spotted a large clump of Coltsfoot I was on my bike cycling around the Severnside villages after a snowstorm. They glowed at me from the verge and I could almost warm my hands on them. I knew those villages and their plants really well after 25 years, and after 4 years in Bath I’m just beginning to experience the same feelings. Finding a new plant can almost make you break out in a jig.

So today was a day in which at least one wish was granted, but there was another. I mentioned the other day that I was lusting after the 4th edition of Clive Stace’s “New Flora of the British Isles”. I was taking a secretive peep on the computer this morning and Madame said “why don’t you just buy it?” . “Because it’s £59”, I said, in an outbreak of inexplicable candour – I usually lie about these things and round them down a bit, well a lot. “You’ve got a book token and some loyalty card tokens – use them too” .  I needed no persuasion and so at the end of our walk we wandered into Waterstones and I ordered it. The shop assistant looked it up and said  – I guess trying to warn me – “It’s £59“. I raised myself to my full 5’8”, put on my most condescending smile and assured him that I did know – it was such a delight! I love books.  I even sniff them when I think no-one’s looking, because no Kindle ever came close to the smell of fresh printing ink and good paper.

So that’s two lovely things about today, and the third was the roastie tonight when I cooked our own potatoes, celeriac and parsnips. I boiled them for as long as I dared and then dumped them in olive oil in a horrendously hot oven, giving them a little crush about halfway through. They were the crispiest, fluffiest roasties I’ve ever done. Life is good.

 

Let’s hear it for Brussels sprouts

 

Bath. now the Christmas market has packed up and gone, becomes beautiful once again.  I photographed the Abbey just before the market kicked off, but the other photo is of the veg stall on Kingsmead Square taken in the pouring rain today. In fact it doesn’t seem to have stopped raining for weeks, and because the purple sprouting hasn’t ripened yet on the allotment we’ve been buying some Brussels sprouts.  They’re best on the stalks which keep them fresh for days, and as I was cutting them off one by one tonight it occurred to me that we couldn’t grow anywhere near the quality and consistency on our allotment. I know I have the odd poke at farmers, and these sprouts weren’t organic – and so I can’t say what was or wasn’t sprayed on to them during their lives – but in conditions such as we’ve endured during this last couple of months, how on earth the farmers manage the crops is a mystery, especially when the selling price is kept so low. Most years we’ve grown three or four plants and frankly they’re usually embarrassing.  The sprouts are breaking open, they’re a wild mixture of large and small sprouts and the stems – after a prolonged growing season are as tough as old boots – so woody I have to break them up with the back of an axe before I put them in the compost.

I’m very proud of what we grow, and maybe the problem is to do with our soil, but hats off to the farmers who manage to get something on to the table for Christmas.  In fact it’s quite hard to find organic sprouts, and so maybe they’re just too difficult for allotmenteers.  Either way round, if we want to eat good organic sprouts I suspect we’re going to have to pay a lot more for them – or – get used to the kind of blemishes and variability that go with nearly all home grown crops. In the end, we’re the ones doing the choosing and so if we turn our noses up at anything below grade one quality, we’ve no-one to blame except ourselves if that’s what farmers produce.

I suppose many people would say “good thing too – we hate sprouts” but I love them and I’d just love to grow them looking less like green firework displays on a stick, but meanwhile we’ll have to choose between physical perfection or organic perfection.  The ball’s always in our court.

Meanwhile, back on earth

I find these last few days before the solstice almost unbearable, especially when the weather is as gloomy as it’s been here.  As the earth drops down and tilts away from the sun, the darkness dominates and it doesn’t take a (so called) primitive consciousness to feel it. Of course we know – or rather scientists have calculated – that the slow tilting descent will pause at 4.19am on Sunday 22nd December, just four days from now and the northern hemisphere will begin to tilt back again, gathering more sunlight each day until mid-June. But on the allotment it’s as if some of the plants at least have anticipated the changing season. Garlic, broad beans, shallots and winter lettuce are all stretching their wings, and when, as we did on Monday, we get clear skies and sunshine you can almost taste the spring, it’s a real joy.

We agonise about our compost bins because this is the time of year when the rats tend to turn to an easy source of food, and almost every time I open the bay that takes most of our green kitchen waste, I’m greeted by a sleek and well fed rat, an agile jumper who always manages to miss me as it runs off. The answer of course is not to put kitchen waste into the heap – but in the winter, apart from a few dead cabbage leaves,  there’s not enough to keep the heap going.  The number of worms living in there is quite staggering and I suppose one way to solve the problem would be to start an enclosed  wormery, but then I’m sure the rats would soon get wind of it and move their attention to chewing through it. I’ve read that you can bury the waste direct into the ground in a bean trench but a little bit of research shows that rats are able burrowers. I suspect that people don’t see the rats because they’re more active at night, and so they assume they haven’t got them. It only affects me because I keep turning their cosy home upside down. Even the most canny rat is going to bale out at the sight and sound of a dirty great yard fork slicing into its nest.

There’s bokashi, but that’s an expensive method which only pickles the waste, and still needs to be rotted down afterwards.  Its proponents claim that rats don’t like the smell, but the evidence is more anecdotal than scientific. My only experience of deliberate anaerobic rotting was a barrel full of comfrey. It smelt dreadful and perhaps more importantly, anaerobic rotting releases methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Some people claim the rats don’t like the smell of humans, and especially human urine – but they thrive in sewers which must mean something! We activate the heap in summer with urine, and so I gave it 5 litres of human activator yesterday, but I’m not hopeful. If we let the heap get waterlogged the rats will leave it but so will the worms, and then it’s liable to go anaerobic. That leaves only one alternative – trapping. I don’t like killing anything unless it’s absolutely necessary, but we’ve already seen rat poo on the garlic, and the thought of getting Weils disease from our summer lettuces is a bit of a turn off. We don’t use poison because of the impact on our foxes (also a nuisance), hedgehogs owls and anything else that might fancy poisoned rat for supper. So it’s traps – big, powerful (ie ‘humane’), and encased in a box so that cats, foxes, hedgehogs,  and other larger beasts can’t get into them. One of our neighbours keeps parakeets on his allotment and says that he’s been battling the rats for twenty years – they’re brilliant climbers and can scale a shed wall or a nearby tree quite easily.

So that’s rats.  I’ll bait but not set the traps for a week and leave them in or near the heap – crunchy peanut butter is recommended – and then arm them all until I’ve thinned them out, and then stop.  When spring comes they’ll move off to easier pickings when the green kitchen waste is diluted with much more garden waste. It would be lovely to live in a perfect world but allotmenteering is all about understanding your competitors and staying ahead.  In our previous garden we had our cats to do the business, but they were also very partial to the birds.

I’ve stayed away altogether from newspapers and broadcast news and I feel all the better for it.  No more shouting at the telly. I felt so utterly betrayed by the media during the election campaign that I’d started channelling the darkest parts of my mind. On the bookshelf in front of my desk is a copy of the 1965 Faber Book of Modern Verse. I suddenly remembered  a poem by Hugh MacDiarmid – called “Perfect” –

I found a pigeon’s skull on the machair,

All the bones white and dry, and chalky,

But perfect,

Without a crack or a flaw anywhere.

 

At the back, rising out of the beak,

Were domes like bubbles of thin bone,

Almost transparent, where the brain had been

That fixed the tilt of the wings.

I love the sense of fragility that the poem captures so well, and the killer line is the way that MacDiarmid uses the tiny skull to reference the brain that ‘fixed the tilt of the wings.’ Our minds and brains too will, one day, no longer be here to fix the tilt of our wing, and if our living minds are full of falsity, then we shall not be able to fix the tilt of our wings while we are still alive.

Plants at least don’t tell lies, and the White Dead Nettle at the top of the page reminded me that there was a time when every child would have recognised it and plucked the flowers to suck out the nectar.  It’s a lovely plant to find at this time of the year and I had to photograph it, in all it’s commonplace ubiquity. I just think it might help me to fly straight.