When I saw a piece in Farmers Weekly declaring Jeremy Clarkson as the 2021 champion of farmers I thought to myself – well the lunatics really have taken over the asylum! I tried to kid myself it was a bit of postmodern irony but – well no. I guess if you wanted to appoint an ambassador who could rise above the facts and blame everyone except himself for making a miniscule profit in spite of the subsidies – and do it while pouring insults and bile over tree huggers and vegans he’s definitely be your man. I know it’s only entertainment, but out here in the real world there does seem to be something of a cultural sea change going on in the more thoughtful parts of the farming community. The talk on the street is that public money will, in the future be attached to public goods, and that means paying more than lip service to the soil and the environment.
So Madame and me have been looking around at some of the local farmers who are heading in the same direction as us and today we revisited this farm which ticks most of the boxes, that’s to say they’re doing the things on the signboard – broadly regenerative farming – and they’re marketing direct to the local community. Less food miles, more emphasis on building up good soil. They don’t appear to call themselves organic but there are many farmers – particularly in the US – who want to go beyond the rather lax standards of “official” organics. Too many loopholes and exceptions which you can see for yourself if you search on the internet for the official organic specifications. Best of all they seem to be making a living which, if you’re a farmer who’s interested in dipping a toe in the regenerative waters, is going to be important. After all, if you’re at all interested in building your soil you’re surely not going to be inundating it with persistent chemicals.
So that was a cheerful early start to the day; and then we turned to the allotment and while Madame sowed spinach and lettuce for the winter I mixed a barrow load of potting compost, filled fifty pots (all recycled from previous lives) and planted out the overwintering garlic using the best cloves from last season. They’ve all gone into what was supposed to be the new strawberry bed, which was conceived and built before we thought about getting a polytunnel, but we’ve used it this year to grow the some of the alliums because it’s so easy to hoop and net. If you like, it’s an overlong cold frame. Garlic needs a period of cold before it will start into growth and so this is the perfect place for it to begin its journey. Later on in the spring the young plants will be planted out into a much larger bed. The strawberries are in their luxury quarters in the polytunnel as the young offsets develop ready for their first season. This time we’ll devise some kind of narrow hanging bed that can be suspended in such a way it doesn’t rob too much light from the base level which is half full already with winter delights.
We’re so busy at the moment we seem to be living on bread and soup; but we talked about the pleasures of this season today and we agreed that it’s lovely that we’ve made a strong start to next year’s season already with time in hand before the bad weather sets in.
As it happens the travelling fishmonger was outside the farm shop and he’d got masses of fish straight up from Newlyn. We bought enough fish to feed a small army, including some locally (just up the River Severn) smoked kippers – I assumed the herrings must have made a longer journey. Anyway we had a late breakfast of kippers and fresh sourdough bread with mugs of tea. Very traditional!
It was a bit of a culture shock coming home from Snowdonia for sure. As the fortnight drew to an end and the weather continued cold wet and windy, notwithstanding the forecast of unseasonably hot weather almost everywhere except where we were. But more than that, we were missing the allotment and worrying about our winter sowings in the polytunnel and all the usual autumn jobs still needing to be done. The plus side of a rainy holiday is the amount of rest and reading we were able to do without feeling that we should be somewhere else – like on the allotment!
The first frosts of autumn are almost impossible to predict and so we prepare for them around the second week of October just in case. Knowing that the basil wouldn’t survive we took most of the outside plants to the compost heap, knowing that we’d got a reliable supply of pesto in the freezer. The best of the tomatoes were processed before we left, but today we shelled and dried the borlotti and, because we were proposing to treat them for any lurking weevils by heating them to 60 C for two or three hours I grabbed a bowlful of wrinkled tomato runts and shoved them in the oven at the same time so they can be dried to a still moist consistency and packed into olive oil. It seems a crime to waste anything; but sometimes we get properly caught out. Last year, determined not to waste a single iota of vegetable waste , we chucked all the extracted seeds from the passata machine into the compost. A year on as we spread the compost on the tunnel beds we had a magnificent flush of tomato seedlings within days.
We’d never had an infestation of bean weevil before, but last year’s saved seed was somehow completely infested and had to be thrown away. This is a bit of a conundrum which I’m quite sure the commercial seed merchants solve by fumigating the seed – but we don’t have the means or the desire to do that so it would be good to know how to kill the weevil eggs organically. This year because of the odd weather we decided to dry the whole crop, but I might hold back a handful of seeds to see if they’ll still germinate after heat treatment. I’m not holding my breath.
Autumn has a whole set of compulsions of its own. Even as I’m writing this there’s a big pan of leek and potato soup on the stove, next to a sourdough loaf that was started yesterday, plus the aromatic perfume of the drying tomatoes. Yesterday I was desperate to make a pie, and we feasted on our own French beans, broccoli and carrots along with (vegetarians please look away now!) using my mother’s recipe for a shortcrust pie (25% butter and 25% lard and 50% plain flour), that uses no flavourings at all apart from stock, salt and pepper. It’s the very essence of my autumn memories. My sister still makes exactly the same pie to the same recipe.
Allotmenteering or any other kind of gardening never quite feels like the glossy magazines describe it. Casually describing it as therapeutic hardly covers the gamut of emotions that it induces – it’s hero to zero and back again every season, even every week in our case. Nobody who’s ever been in therapy, made a pot and fired it, painted a watercolour or written at length would ever call any of them therapeutic except for the way they teach you how to ride the punches, celebrate the fleeting triumphs and do the essential work whether or not you feel like it. As for me I’d never do anything except by the grace of deadlines; and so we’ll sow more rouge d’hiver lettuces this week because if we don’t there may be no lettuce, or spinach or whatever next year. No food for you Mr Smarty Pants! We’ll also sow some Christmas potatoes to grow on in the polytunnel.
Part of the autumn compulsion will be, I know, the urge to sow broad beans – aquadulce claudia overwinter very well – usually; and this year the young plants, instead of tillering obediently and bringing in an early harvest of delicious beans, suffered from a month of cold east winds and passed away before flowering. This year we’ll give the early sowing a miss and start again in March which will, of course, ensure a balmy spring with record crops of early broad beans.
What certainly will be going in is some garlic. A good deal of the holiday reading was taken up with getting my head around epigenetics. The basic DNA – the genetic material of a plant which determines its general form; doesn’t change aside from mutations. However, apparently different genes can be switched on and off by all sorts of environmental factors – and this is one possible reason for the fact that seed saving of successful crops can lead to better results (on your unique patch of earth) – than expensive commercial varieties because the starting variety gradually adapts from year to year. Anyway, the upshot of this is that this year we’ve selected the best of this year’s garlic crop which we’ll replant tomorrow. We had them netted all last season so there was no trace of fly damage but some of the plants suffered from basal plate rot where the selected seed cloves didn’t. We’ll label these athletes carefully and grow them alongside what we South Gloucestershire peasants like to call boughten seed. Six years of being told off at school for using that dialect term showed it was a surefire way of annoying teachers who thought educating us involved severing all our roots. We shall do a properly scientific comparison next year and onwards to see if any of these epigenetic changes occur: so long as the plants don’t get sicklier and sicklier.
Finally, here’s a photo of a stranger who dropped in for a rest and a warm up on one of our fence posts today. It’s a common plume moth that’s apparently mainly a night flyer. When I first saw it a thought it must be a lacewing but it wasn’t. One of its endearing habits is to roll its wings up like a brolly when it’s resting. But it’s most endearing habit of all is that it lays its eggs on the bindweed which its caterpillars like to eat. We have an abundance of the foodplant lurking on the edges of the allotment silently waiting for the moment to tunnel in under the fence. I had a word with the little moth and she promised to come back mob handed with her mates next week.
Having allowed my imagination to run free in the last couple of posts, it’s time to get back down to some allotment basics – after all, one of my principal aims for this holiday was to get stuck into some serious reading about regenerative farming. I certainly got stuck at first but switched course and now I’m beginning to think that I ought to make a proper list of the books I’ve been reading so readers can join me in the journey. I’ve now just about finished reading Gabe Brown’s “Dirt into soil” and although it’s hardly aimed at our 200 square metres of allotment and is really slanted towards mixed farming with grazing animals, it cleared up a few mysteries for me and turned my thoughts about soil improvement completely upside down. It’s also given me a much clearer perspective on what is, and what isn’t regenerative farming and since our UK government is talking the talk about changing agricultural practices it’s up to us to make sure they’re also walking the walk. After all for a government that announces it’s going to move towards carbon zero and then announces it’s considering opening a new coal mine – followed by the assertion that we’ll need more nuclear power stations – this isn’t an encouraging start.
Until now I’ve always thought of soil improvement as largely a matter of adding lots and lots of compost. We started off committed to organic gardening and then, a couple of years ago we went no-dig as well. This last season we grew a variety of insect pollinators and companion plants alongside the vegetables in all our beds, and it’s gone well – and with the pond we’ve had vastly more visiting insects. Of course we’ve changed so many variables and the weather has been so random, we’ve only got anecdotal evidence that our changes have worked but we’re pretty sure that the following strategies worked:
Netting all the alliums from sowing to harvest with fine insect net
Using nasturtium to draw blackfly away from food crops
Sowing Calendula and Tagetes on most beds
Butterfly and bird netting all the brassicas
Sadly the expensive treatment with nematodes had little impact on the slugs, and the beer traps sheltered more slugs underneath than drowned in the beer.
The asparagus was spared the heavy beetle attacks that we’ve had in the past, and given that our near neighbour had his plants devastated it looks as if the border of calendula and the increased parasitic insect population may have helped. I’ve written a lot about our liability to waterlog in the winter – partly due to underground streams. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort digging woodchip filled paths between the beds to drain the water away and the two worst affected beds came through the winter very well. We’ve also added grit and sand in the worst places along with masses of compost and leaf mould. The upshot has been that our need to water in dry spells has greatly decreased. We escaped the blight with resistant varieties and early cropping of the container potatoes so, looking back it’s been a pretty successful season most of which was spent battling against a headwind of adverse weather.
If you’re still with me, you’ll have noticed that every single effort to improve our earth has been via applications to the top surface. What the Gabe Brown book – and all the others I’ve been reading – brought to the top of my thoughts was to see what’s going on under the surface, and the usefulness of ground cover crops during the winter, so that the plants go on feeding the soil through their roots all year round. And there’s the revolution, because most of us instinctively think of plants as a kind of one way street for water and nutrients when in fact they’re completely biologically interlocked with billions of soil organisms which, in return for carbon in the form of photosynthesised sugars, provide the plants with many of the micronutrients they need to grow and thrive. All this mutual aid is conducted through the truly huge mycorrhizal networks that wrap the roots and occasionally even grow inside them. Plants send signals seeking specific nutrients and the fungal networks ship them in. The astonishing discoveries of science now tell us that the creation of soil can be much faster than we originally thought and that in contrast to the received wisdom that everything goes on from above, soil creation is as much concerned with the recovery of nutrients from the subsoil. Soil can actually grow from below. This is a vast simplification but it has big implications for the way we grow plants, because these networks – having evolved over millions of years – mean that we can no longer think of what goes on underground as separate from the plant we harvest. Soil microbes have the astonishing ability to break down subsoil and rock and dissolve the essential nutrients in a way that’s barely understood. We need to start seeing our crops as giant solar energy farms, converting carbon dioxide into food through the process of photosynthesis.
So when we add artificial fertilisers to a crop the plants just grab up the 25% of the fertiliser they can use and the rest goes into the soil and gets washed into our polluted rivers. Worse still, the plants get lazy and just go for the industrialised fast food and the sugar/carbon trading mechanisms get broken. When we drench the soil with insecticides and herbicides exactly the same thing happens. Industrial farmers and gardeners then start to try to make up the deficiencies with more additives and chemicals. The other way we break those mycorrhizal connections is by digging and turning the soil, and these relationships are precisely the mechanism by which carbon gets stored in the earth.
So farmers, gardeners and allotmenteers, not to mention every other human being on earth have a common cause in not ploughing, tilling and digging; not using artificial fertilisers and not using chemicals. What ought to be the good news for farmers in particular is that chemicals and diesel oil are increasingly expensive and eat into profit margins – plus, the premium value of the produce from regenerative farms means better profits. What’s not to like?
Here’s the downside. It looks as if the agrochemical business and their captive bureaucrats in the Ministry of Agriculture are greenwashing as usual in pushing no-till, direct drilling supplemented by – you’ve guessed it – herbicides to kill weeds, plus the usual pesticides and fungicides which will do nothing to solve our problems. There is another way, for instance, to suppress weeds and reduce rainwater runoff, and that’s carefully calibrated cover crops.
But it’s not all good news for vegetarians and especially vegans because the very best and most efficient way of improving the soil is by doing (or not doing) all of the above plus carefully controlled grazing – sometimes known as mob grazing. This kind of approach can capture carbon in the soil far more efficiently and more quickly than by planting trees alone. Further – and I know what question will be next – controlled grazing on healthy soil means that dung, a potent source of methane when stored in lagoons and sprayed on the soil later – is quickly broken down by prodigious numbers of insects and soil organisms and feeding the soil. Not only that, by feeding cattle on their evolved diet of grass and forbs rather than industrial grain, their digestive systems function far better and the need for constant worming and antibiotics almost disappears. Meat will, of course, become much more expensive, (perhaps more realistically priced) which should please everyone with a concern for animal welfare.
Of course this won’t make catastrophic climate change go away – we’ll still have to break our addiction to oil in every other department of life – but farmers, allotmenteers and gardeners can at least do something to help, and everyone can help by supporting change, buying better rather than blaming farmers and growers and calling out politicians when they try to pull the wool over our eyes.
We were sitting in the pub one night with a bunch of friends, and somehow or another the subject got around to Martin Heidegger – once commemorated in a satirical poem as “..that pellucid Teuton.” You get the picture I’m sure. Some continental philosophers are a bit impenetrable and always irritated the hell out of the English school who preferred Dr Johnson’s stone kicking method. Anyway, the point is, one of my friends called Andy – who shall remain nameless asked me “In a nutshell …. what’s this Heidegger man on about?” I’m still looking for the big nutshell.
So today we were walking along the beach at Aberdaron beneath St Hywyn’s church where R S Thomas was once vicar and which was the setting for one of his most famous poems “The Moon in Lleyn” which I wrote about a couple of days ago. As we walked along the sand, I was wondering whether the poem, as well as including a reference to W B Yeats, also included a glancing reference to Matthew Arnold’s poem “On Dover Beach” – which uses the metaphor of the retreating tide to reference the “melancholy soft withdrawing roar” of faith. Three poems, all obliquely referring to the terrible loss of enchantment we’ve suffered in the past hundred and fifty years. Materialism is a poor deal, really, because it exchanges dreams meanings and visions for money – usually peanuts to be honest.
Taking a bit of a leap of faith myself, I have often wondered whether we are drawn to the sound of the sea’s roaring and the rhythmic pulse of the steam engine for the same reason. Perhaps at some deep level they remind us of the sounds of our time in the ocean of our mother’s’ womb. The sea sounds, from gentle lapping to menacing roar never make us laugh or fill us with happy thoughts but associate more readily with loss; of times missed.
Now that’s a lot of pondering in fifty yards whilst simultaneously holding a conversation – but that’s the way of it. Conscious human life can’t be put in a nutshell because it’s just too big; and my attention soon switched to a couple of large rocks half buried in the sand just as Madame began picking pebbles off the beach.
It isn’t a particularly beautiful beach because the cliffs comprise deep banks of eroding mud which are being sculpted by wind, tide and rain into shapes that might be more familiar in the desert. The pebbles, as you can see, are wonderfully colourful – but why so colourful? Putting on (yet) another hat I could see that of the two large half buried rocks, one greenish and the other markedly purple – must contain copper (green) and manganese (purple). We know that minerals and semi precious stones were mined all over the peninsula and particularly we know that among them was serpentine. Serpentine, being colourful and soft enough to turn in a metal lathe was enormously popular in the first half of last century and as late as the 1970’s there were half a dozen wooden shacks on the Lizard in Cornwall where you could buy a little lighthouse complete with a battery powered bulb at the top.
Only a couple of days ago I showed a photo of the remnant of one of the manganese mines at Rhiw. To a potter, manganese iron and copper are familiar glaze pigments. Copper is particularly versatile because depending on the glaze ingredients, temperature and atmosphere inside the kiln it can yield colours from the intense turquoise of Egyption paste through the more common greens all the way to the fabulously beautiful but very difficult to achieve red colour known as sang de boeuf to collectors of Chinese ceramics. Manganese and iron too can yield a whole palette of colours. So the thought came to mind on the beach – where do the red pebbles fit in? Serpentine is almost always thought of as green, but I’ve seen exactly the kind of red pebbles we were finding, described as red serpentine. Who knows? the processes that formed these pebbles were geologic and volcanic, involving prodigious pressures and temperatures and what emerges is something that combines usefulness with beauty. We have usefulness and contemplation in the same object. Are the red pebbles nature’s original expression of sang de boeuf?
These are big thoughts – of an earth where fungi and algae had yet to join forces and bacteria were all alone in the world. And here on the beach today we could see the world in a grain of sand as Blake promised in Auguries of innocence. The earth is not an object, it’s a story – or perhaps better, a song in which we are all sung into existence. History, geology, chemistry, poetry and storytelling, poetry and gardening and all the rest are not separate disciplines but lines in a gigantic performance of something like Tallis’ Spem in alium but with so many more parts that we can truly call it the Song of the Earth.
So I can’t fit myself into a nutshell and neither should you. Allowing ourselves to be categorised and slotted into CV’s drains the imaginative life out of us. If I want to read, or write poems, draw and paint, make ceramics and grow plants; cook food and rage against the dying of the light, and dare to challenge the way we do things round here – then I will. And if I want to sing and dance around and get over excited about a wildflower or act with Madame as if we were 18 all over again and in the first flush of love, then I will not tolerate being ordered to act my age. And if my passions for books and theories and ideas and spiritualities look as if I’m spreading myself too thinly just take a look at how thinly the scholars spread themselves.
Because – there is no nutshell. We flow into one another and into the earth. Being human is the most lovely gift; so long as we cherish it.
We haven’t had such a rewarding hour of apple scrumping in years – I mean, catalogues are one thing but an actual orchard full of native Welsh apple varieties, ripe on their trees – well, what would any apple lover do? After photographing and sampling as many as we dared we wandered off – all innocence – with our pockets bulging and our minds singing with the intense flavours. At one point I found Madame sitting on a bench crunching on a variety with no label and joyfully transported to the times she used to work in a research station orchard.
If you’ve grown tired of supermarket apples; bland and oversweet for the most part, these native Welsh apples might be worth considering – but you’d have to grow them yourself or perhaps better still start a community orchard where you could grow loads of apples; eaters, cookers, dual purpose and cider apples with delightful and eccentric names. The thing about apples is that they’re promiscuous inter breeders and only very rarely come true from seed because pollinating insects travel from tree to tree carrying pollen from many different varieties. The downside is that they’re quite likely to produce inferior stock, but when a really lovely variety comes along they develop a strong local reputation and they’re very easy to grow by grafting a cutting on to a rootstock, and then every grafted tree is a clone of the mother stock. So if you’re not confident enough to do it yourself, there are specialist nurseries that will do the work for you. I just Googled “Welsh apple variety breeders uk” and loads came up. The next task is to choose a suitable rootstock which will determine the final size of the tree, and this is where you’d need to take some professional advice. For allotmenteers like us, cordons on dwarfing rootstock allow us to grow 10 varieties on our 200 square metre plot. All the rootstocks come with the letter M followed by a number. The M stands for East Malling – the research station in Kent that developed them and the number refers to the final size and habit.
The thing about apples is that they are often at their very best eaten straight from the tree, and there are so many seasonal varieties you could eat them in prime condition through early summer until autumn. Some will keep if stored carefully, and supermarkets have them stored in controlled atmospheric conditions – they’re the ones you buy in February, March and April – but they’re a shadow of the real thing.
The only thing I would add is that you shouldn’t be seduced by the romantic names and the rare designation. Most of these local varieties are habituated to extremely local conditions and what may grow well on Bardsey Island may not enjoy the milder conditions in Kent. The best thing to do would be to investigate the local varieties where you live. Our friends Kate and Nick whose smallholding is fairly high in the Brecon Beacons are growing a selection of Welsh apples at what must be near their altitude limit. The Potwell Inn in North Somerset can boast the “Beauty of Bath” and a little further north in Gloucestershire there are many local varieties straddling orchards along the River Severn. Here are a few more we sampled today:
But why are these varieties becoming so rare? Sadly many of them would be regarded as misshapen in this age of uniformity. They don’t give themselves to having all the flavour bred out of them in favour of the high yield and bombproof portability that commercial growers and supermarkets demand. Some of them are effectively biennials, and all of them can lose an entire crop if frost strikes the blossom. But when they come right they’re truly, memorably delicious and if you can only have them for a couple of weeks – does that stop you growing asparagus?
There’s something about industrial agriculture and horticulture that’s profoundly unnatural. Tell me something I don’t know – you might be thinking. Our unreconstructed 21st century view instinctively leads us to think that all our efforts in scientific breeding and selection move us in the direction of the perfect – whatever; apple, cabbage, pig even. But in a nature’s way – which is a profoundly counterintuitive way – the response to the multitude of soils and climates we have is to breed for diversity. Diversity is nature’s way of overcoming difficulties and exploiting new opportunities.
That’s precisely why we should keep a wary eye on the monopolistic instincts of the big seed companies like Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta who are buying up huge numbers of seed varieties and taking them off the market to conduct moneymaking breeding experiments on their resistance to chemical sprays and artificial fertilisers. The next stage will be to hold us to ransom and force us to buy their patented seeds. Following up, my query about Amish farming methods yesterday I did a bit more research and quickly discovered that the publisher of the paper that claimed that Amish farmers were enthusiastic users of chemicals was a pseudo research front organisation funded at the time of publication by Monsanto. I went a bit further and discovered that the agrochemical industries spend millions of pounds supporting compromised research, dodgy publications and lobbyists. Here’s a link with further information.
The terrible truth is, in the face of the coming climate catastrophe, farmers, growers and gardeners will need to be drawing on the wisdom of the earth in providing us with so many adapted local varieties. Winds, cold and drought and changing seasons will demand new adapted varieties, many of which are being covertly put beyond our reach. I was astounded that big business employs 30,000 yes – thirty thousand – lobbyists in Brussels alone; using their money and power to influence parliaments. If you read the evidence you’ll be more than angry. Saving locally adapted seeds may be one step in the direction of saving the planet.
Some days start badly. Mine did yesterday, being woken by dystopian dreams in which I was exploring the branch of an old canal surrounded by decaying industrial buildings. The basin was full of huge shiny boats of the kind beloved by billionaires and they were cleaning themselves without human intervention. Detergent was pouring down their gleaming sides from hidden valves and into the polluted and dead water. “I wonder where it’s all going?” I said to a man nearby and he replied “To Westminster I hope”. I explored the buildings surrounding the basin and stumbled on what seemed like a therapeutic group whose members looked at me with kind of hostility reserved for interlopers and strangers. Elsewhere a couple of men were wheelbarrowing rubbish and dumping it inside another building. There was a full-on evangelical church in session, with a lot of shouting and witnessing that didn’t seem to relate to what was going on outside. As Thomas Berry wrote:
So concerned are we with redemptive healing that once healed, we only look to be more healed. We seldom get to our functional role within the creative intentions of the universe.
Thomas Berry in chapter 4 of ” The dream of the Earth”
All of which dreaming, along with my familiar autumn gloom, set me up for a disconsolate and unrewarding equinox. Madame, who sometimes suffers as much from me as I do from my temporary afflictions – took herself off to the allotment while I fiddled about with some new technology that was refusing to speak to any of my ancient (more than five years old) peripherals. In the end and in the face of a blank mind and blank screen I thought – “I’ll go up and take her some fruit gums, then I’ll measure temperature of the compost heap and I’ll look at the pond” – and yes, even I can see the hilarious vacuity of the plan, but hey! – any plan is better than existential self-pity.
Someone had left a large quantity of shredded cardboard in the recycling room several days ago – which is like finding a five pound note to a composter. So I was able to finish filling another of the compost bays mixing the cardboard with all the autumnal clearings from the plot. Yesterday’s temperature inside the heap had reached 35C from 20C in not much more than 24 hours, so that was a cheering result. Then I leaned on the fence that separates our small pond from the path and gave some time to simply looking. Aside from digging and lining the hole last winter, we can claim no credit whatever for what’s followed. There are tadpoles still – most of the froglets have gone – and there are always a few hoverflies, bees and other insects hanging around. Yesterday a southern hawker dragonfly was hovering, but we see any number of damselflies mating and egg laying in the pond as well. There were the usual pond skaters skating about and as I was wondering what they were feeding on I spotted an odd red blob, less than half an inch across and which was moving oddly in the water, as if propelled by something invisible.
A leading light in the Bath Natural History Society has a rather wonderful pair of binoculars that are specifically designed for scanning short distances – mosses, lichens and fungi are his bread and butter and he can identify tiny subjects without lying down in the mud. On the other hand, I’m rather short sighted and intriguing subjects such as self propelling red discs in the pond are a bit abstract. When you look at the photo I took at great personal risk of toppling into the pond, you may think that my phone merely made it look bigger but no less abstract.
However – what the photo revealed to my curious mind was that even though I couldn’t actually put names to organisms, something very complicated was going on. A sort of four dimensional rubik’s cube of predation and recycling. I have no idea what the red blob is – in fact the whole photo has a rather Japanese flower arrangement look about it. But something – maybe a hawthorn berry, I thought, has fallen into the water and is gradually being reduced to its components on its way to becoming rich sediment. Around this nodal point, pond skaters seemed to be feeding on the remains of whitefly, but the occasional movements of the anonymous red blob remained inexplicable.
It was only when I got home and took a closer look at the photo that I noticed what seem to be eggs attached to the floating twig; eggs with what could be tiny air bubbles attached to them. In fact, the closer I looked the more I could see of the teeming life in our pond which has yet to celebrate its first birthday. The eggs may well be damselfly eggs, but with so many predators around the mortality rate must be prodigious. With a bit of luck there will be rat tailed maggots down there next year and, what with dragonfly larvae the pond will resemble a Roman Arena; a gladiatorial combat between the hungry and the tasty.
I suppose the sensible and more scientific response would be to buy a fine mesh net and some water sample bottles, and get to work with the microscope so I could start (yet) another list. And I certainly don’t want to knock that approach. The very simplest enquiry revealed that not all pond skaters are water boatmen; in fact none of them are. So my somewhat generic knowledge of pond insects has been enhanced and refined and added to because there are things called backswimmers too – and I really want to find some of those right now.
But that everyday experience of having my interest piqued by species that look similar but are in fact different, took me back to the very beginnings of my own botanical adventures when I realized that not all dandelions really are dandelions. Discrimination gets a bad rap when it comes to the human species; but the power to discriminate between genuinely different species – (all humans are human however different we may look) – is crucially important; especially at this moment of environmental crisis. Let’s say our little pond is polluted by chemical runoff from a neighbour’s allotment. I know it’s highly unlikely, but bear with me for the purposes of illustration. So if, one morning, I look at the pond and there’s nothing alive in it, how many species have been poisoned? how many have I lost? Is it just those little floaty things, or is it one, or three, or thirty species of pond dweller?
The rich density of the pond life is matched with the truly teeming density of the inhabitants of the compost heap. In an average year the two of us grow maybe thirty edible species for the kitchen; but those thirty edible species stand at the top of an almost miraculously complex association of insects, bacteria and fungi. Which of us can claim the sole credit for the basil, the raspberries and the lettuce we brought home today. The generosity of the earth is so inexplicable we are, or should be, brought to our knees with gratitude for the first potato of the year.
It seems to me that any way back from the brink of the abyss will – if it’s to succeed – need us to rediscover those human traits we’ve almost lost touch with in the past two hundred and fifty years. Of course we shall need the very best efforts of science and technology to guide the way, but that will entail a fundamental change of focus from an exploitative and extractive economic structure towards a system based in our deepest human needs.
We cannot save the earth without a recovered sense of wonder and glory; without gratitude, without human community and a return to genuine seasonal celebration rather than explosions of consumption; without a spirituality that expresses the mutuality and interdependence of everything on earth. We need to find an understanding that regardless of theological orthodoxies we can all accept that the earth, or in Chinese terms the ten thousand things are – in a manner we can never fully understand – spoken into existence. The pond skater, the frog spawn, the rotifers, the rats, hedgehogs, cats and badgers the multitude of flowering plants, the trees, the fish, the vegetables and even human beings emerge as if by the speaking of a primal energy of infinite creativity. Wilfully to destroy even one species is a grave insult to the processes of the earth.
I don’t normally suffer from insomnia, but sometimes I’m reading a book that’s so mind changing I can’t wait to wake and start reading again. Charles Massy’s “Call of the reed warbler” is one such book that straddles half a dozen fields of interest that, until now, I’d pursued separately. I’ll write at much greater length later, but meanwhile here’s a quotation from the last chapter – Towards an emergent future – that, even before dawn at five o’clock this morning, filled me with excitement and hope for the future. This book is a wonder. At around 500 pages it’s not a breeze, but it will stand as a bulwark against the phoney greenwashing schemes of the (literally) unholy alliance of the politicians and the multinational companies who are reducing the earth to dust and our lives to exhaustion and sickness.
“Significantly, the new regenerative agriculture is not just being practiced on small backyard plots or half-acre (quarter-hectare) allotments (for these too are part of the solution, and some of the practices apply and are indeed being practised there). No, the approach is also being applied on tens of millions of acres, while elements of it have the potential to be applied equally broadly worldwide, as I have described in this book. These include holistic grazing management, grassland grains, pasture cropping and natural intelligence agriculture, a new agroforestry, farmer-managed natural regeneration, biological agriculture and many others.
Therefore, this revolution has the potential to make massive inroads into addressing the key Anthropocene challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, distortions to the nitrogen, phosphorus and other biogeochemical cycles, land degradation, malfunctioning of the water cycle, and so on. In addition, regenerative agriculture has astounding potential to address human ill health; to therefore address the huge burden of modern health costs on society; to make farmers more profitable and free of the clutches of banks and large multinational chemical and energy suppliers; and to free farmers and urban cousins alike from capture by the merciless behemoths of agribusiness, commodity trading, financing, retailing, food processing and the like. Consequently, we need to be aware that a new regenerative agriculture is subversive: but in a truly constructive way. That is why I call it an ‘underground insurgency’, for it is a bottom-up revolution instigated by a new mind.”
The Chinese five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water) have their equivalents in the seasons which are listed in the same sequence – spring, summer, long (otherwise known as late) summer, autumn and winter. We have the idea of an “Indian summer” which refers to exceptionally warm weather in late autumn, much later than this present month of September; but there is always, I think, a perceptible change around this time of the year between the harvesting of almost all the crops at the end of August, and the beginning of September, but before the onset of true autumn usually counted at the equinox. These are blessed and luminous days when the earth seems to be resting and soaking up the last of the sun’s warmth before the declining days with the onset of autumn and winter. These are the days when the blackberry and sloe and if we’re lucky – the field mushroom teach us that all food is a gift.
Today it’s been raining, but last week, away in the campervan in Pembrokeshire we were enjoying historically fine weather. Whether we call it long or late summer wthere is this turning point where we gather food; preserving and storing it to take us through the winter months. We harvest and process the last of the tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and melons and clear the polytunnel ready for the winter; and it takes on the mantle of a spiritual observance.
The inflow and outflow of the earth’s energy that sustains us; the sun’s energy that – through the miracle of photosynthesis – we harvest as food; and the moon’s energy that drives the tides and the more subtle seasons. The Taoist concept of yin and yang; strength and weakness; forcefulness and yielding – is a far better way of understanding our place in nature. There’s a great deal to be learned about the spirituality of gardening as seen in this fundamental cycle of birth and death; growth, ripening and senescence. We’ve grown so addicted to our illusory power; our great polluting machines and our chemicals, that we almost believe that there is no problem that cannot be solved by technology. As Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) once wrote. “If we declare war on nature we declare war on ourselves.” Perhaps it’s expressed even more powerfully in Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao te Ching:
When man interferes with the Tao
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles,
creatures become extinct.
Lao-Tzu, Tao te Ching – part of chapter 39, translated by Stephen Mitchell.
This is a season of ingathering and inbreathing and it feels appropriate that the Chinese season of late summer is associated with the earth – one of the Chinese five elements. On the allotment trail cam we found a short video of a field mouse swaying precariously at the top of one of our Calendulas in the middle of the night, greedily eating the seeds. There was something beautiful about its enormous eyes and ears; its lightness, clinging to the stalks, its vigilance and vulnerability to predators. I wouldn’t begrudge it a single seed.
Back in Pembrokeshire last week, times we could hear the tide in Ramsey Sound almost roaring through The Bitches, but as it approached the null points of ebb or flow there was a late summer moment where it flowed neither here nor there but just rested, waiting until the balance changed and began the whole cycle again. The seal cows were gathering to birth their pups on their secluded hauls at the bottom of the cliffs – out of the reach of humans.
Some years ago we were camping near Skomer Island during the puffin season, when a huge cruise liner drew close to the island and discharged a dozen high speed ribs from the side, like invading marines. The birdwatchers swept in towards the island laden with binoculars and cameras, and within an hour had gone again. What do you call that kind of ecotourism if not dangerous and exploitative? What sort of good could ever come from this phony immersion in nature?
On Tuesday, as we walked the coast path, we spotted a grey seal cow, heavily pregnant, lolling in the sea, eying us curiously from a hundred feet below . She looked old – something about her grizzled muzzle was weatherbeaten and aged. We were sufficiently close, with the help of my binoculars, for her face to fill the lenses. She had huge black eyes and nostrils and was so profoundly different a lifeform that, putting away any anthropomorphic nonsense, we had little else in common except for being alive and being there in the same place watching one another. There was no part of her being that I could appropriate to my own experience – we were both equally deserving of our part of the web of nature and yet her aloof thusness was complete. Around her were several other seal cows and their pups.
Sadly the seals have become a tourist attraction and from where we were camping on the clifftop we could see one powerful boat after another, all loaded with visitors, pause their engines momentarily at the regulated distance for photographs to be taken, and then accelerate away leaving a double wake that agitated the calm water of the sound for minutes, before the next boatload arrived.
However, aside from all the philosophical maunderings it will please the borlotti worshippers to know that we are about to harvest this year’s crop, which has gone well. Not so well in the three sisters experiment where rust and moth didn’t bother us as much as thieves breaking in to steal. Between the rats and the badger the sisters were nibbled, sat upon and starved of light – which goes to show that some horticultural ideas are very regionally specific. Luckily we hedged our bets and the individual sisters have all yielded a crop for the winter.
The allotment is looking uncharacteristically weedy and tatty now, but we don’t take it personally – it’s always like this at this time. The good news is that during last week’s hot spell the aubergines finally started to yield a late second flush. The real challenge is to remove the old and replant the new so that not so much as a square inch is left exposed to the winter wind and rain.
I’ll write something more later about our trip to Pembrokeshire last week but on Friday we drove over to the Brecon Beacons to see friends we’ve been unable to visit for almost two years because of the covid pandemic. We stayed over for a couple of nights on their smallholding, which gave us all time to catch up, meet their new Welsh Terrier puppy, talk a lot about small farm economics and get stuck in on building a replacement stock fence. It may sound perverse but it’s both fun, and rewarding to get outside and do some hard manual work with an old friend. We had to drive in new fence posts in pretty unpromising ground; and the larger of the two crowbars we were using was over a foot taller than me, a couple of inches in diameter and took two of us to drive it in. I’m pleased to say it all went pretty seamlessly until we tried to tension the fence with the tractor and pulled out the rather ancient end post that looked as if it still had some life in it. It didn’t! But there we are. Everything on this smallholding gets recycled, repurposed and treasured until it actually falls apart.
Such are the excesses of rental costs for land and houses in the area that it’s impossible to make a living from farming or smallholding alone. Two and three jobs are commonplace; but we discovered as we drove around a long diversion through tiny lanes, that incomers, second homers and holiday rentals have displaced almost all the young people from even living in the area, let alone thinking of a career in agriculture. Where there were a dozen farms, now there are a couple of smallholdings and dozens of immaculately restored facades. It looks like the countryside but it’s rapidly becoming a vast suburbia with fields.
I’ve written often about the need to break up the agribusiness conglomerates along with intensive chemical farming; restoring local small farms with direct links to their local communities – but without action to restrain land speculation, this just can’t happen. Schools are closed, social care is handed over to a diminishing band of elderly volunteers, hospitals and health centres are concentrated in inaccessible places when there’s virtually no public transport. Local shops close down against the competition of supermarkets in the larger towns, and don’t even ask about banks, libraries, post offices and pubs; all of them part of the social and cultural capital of any thriving local community. And for what gain?
Aside from banging in posts and talking about farm economics, we ate together. This is where you can really taste the possibilities of local and sustainable farming. If you’re a city dweller you’ll probably never have heard of a hogget. It’s a sheep that’s too old to be a lamb and too young to be classed as mutton – between one and two seasons old. We ate roast hogget, raised on the smallholding on its abundant hillside grassland. The flavour (so long as you’re not a vegetarian) is so much better than supermarket lamb. We had home cured bacon – equally delicious – and as many vegetables as we could eat, straight out of the garden. A near neighbour runs a microbrewery for pleasure – and for barter. I was able to drink two old Bristol Beers that disappeared half a century ago and recreated in a Welsh valley. Simmonds and Georges were the big brewers when I was a child and I can still remember the smell of malt and hops that filled the area around Old Market and Temple Way on brewing days. The beers – if you needed telling – were indescribably better than the mass produced keg beers that displaced them. Who says that market efficiency improves standards? it just increases profits at the expense of everything else. Saturday breakfast comprised poached eggs that sat up in a way that you only witness when you keep your own hens. Ask yourself why eggs are so hard to poach, and the answer is because they’re bound to be stale by the time you get them from a supermarket.
While we were there I helped smoke some cheese in a cold smoker assembled from an old wood stove, some bits of plywood and a chimney made from a repurposed toilet downpipe – as I said, nothing ever gets thrown away. The sawdust for the smoker came from the giant combination planer, router and circular saw that’s used to cut and prepare planks – often oak – that are used across the house for furniture and a dozen other projects. On one of the oak trees growing alongside the barn there was the beautiful beefsteak fungus I photographed above.
Is life idyllic three miles from the nearest main road and on the side of a mountain? No it’s relentlessly demanding. The farm is subsidised by outside work and the animals and vegetables are all cared for in what – for most of us – is spare time. And yet it’s also a place of great beauty – a sometimes higgledy piggledy patchwork of unfinished projects and objects that have yet to find a new purpose. You can see the stars – it’s in a dark skies area – and you can listen to tawny owls at night and during the day a congregation of carrion crows or ravens might gather over a dead sheep on the hill. Life on a farm is full of beginnings and endings; of darkness and light – and it demands a lot in return for a gift beyond any price tag.
I sometimes worry that it’s all too easy to romanticise, to glamourise the small farm – but compared with an intensive dairy farm, poultry or pig unit it’s a paradise. Comparatively speaking, intensive farming is a death cult when compared with a well run organic farm or smallholding. Of course there are deep ethical and moral issues about taking any life, and the small farmers I’ve met take that very seriously. It’s a decision for each one of us. The killing of an animal for food is a big deal and we can’t escape responsibility by handing the act over to a supermarket that hides it under plastic packaging. When we kept chickens I killed a few every year for the pot. I arranged for a lesson from the local butcher before I began and he taught me the most humane way of doing it. I never enjoyed it but I thought it was my moral duty to do it myself. We only culled surplus cockerels and I would take them first thing in the morning as they waited at the bottom of the ramp ready to oblige the first unwary hen that popped her head out. I like to think that their last thoughts were happy and expectant ones! and once you’ve watched them hatch, raised them and seen them living free in an orchard with abundant grass, windfalls and delicious bugs, slugs and worms – I promise you’d never take the meat for granted or throw away and waste a single bit.
Farming isn’t for the faint hearted – but then, neither is living. So to finish, here are some moths from their garden, and a novel use for unsaleable sheep wool as a slug barrier.
If you’ve ever spent agonising hours trying to push tomato pulp through a chinois or sieve, then you’ll know it’s very slow and very very inefficient. There’s a strong correlation between percentage extraction and the number of times you’ve seen the sun set through the kitchen window. So I’m mentioning this gadget because it will save you a load of time; not because I’m trying to be an influencer – whatever that may be – anyway I’m too old and ugly for that malarkey.
A passata machine seems as if it might be one of those hopelessly pointless gadgets that you persuade yourself you need against all sensible odds: but it isn’t. You might only use it for a couple of weeks a year but you will thank the Gods of the kitchen that you lashed out the £40 for it every time you process a big batch of home grown tomatoes. Ours is made by an Italian company called Rigamonti and you can get it easily in the UK from Seeds of Italy– or at least you could before the idiocy that is brexit was brought to us by the knuckle draggers of Westminster. You can still find it on their website, I just checked.
Our little machine looks like a plastic imitation of the real thing but in fact it’s very strong and we can process 25lbs of tomatoes from trug to pan in about an hour; leaving little behind except dry skins and seeds – mind you I put the pulp through four times because I’m a skinflint. This will make 5 litres of straight passata or rather less when the tomatoes are roasted down first with onions and herbs; but the more it’s reduced the more intense the flavour. If you’re an allotmenteer or a gardener you’ll know that there’s no better standby in the cupboard than a variety of differently flavoured tomato sauces from straight passata as a base to roasted tomato purees of one sort or another for pasta or whatever else takes your fancy in the dead of winter. We process about 80 lbs of tomatoes back at the Potwell Inn ; enough to last the whole year. Plus we have the fresh tomatoes for a couple of months during the season. Anyway that’s a helpful suggestion rather than a shameless plug, I hope. Of course you could go for an all singing and dancing electric and stainless steel model but they’re in the hundreds of pounds and probably take an hour to clean, plus they don’t work at all when the electricity fails!
Here at the Potwell Inn we’ve always had a policy of buying the best equipment we can afford. Our large pudding bowl, for instance, is fifty five years old. It was a wedding present (cue gasps of amazement).
Handing out fiddles – especially to friends – while Rome burns
So while I’m on the job I’m recommending Dave Goulson’s new book “Silent Earth. I’ve read all his books and without exception they’re entertaining, informative and full of ideas. I won’t do a précis here but I will bullet point some of the striking findings about the effectiveness of allotments:
Six reasons for being pleased but not smug.
According to a Bristol University study, allotments have the highest insect diversity of any urban environment – gardens, parks, cemeteries etc.
According to a study of allotments near Brighton, Beth Nicholls found that most allotmenteers use few or no chemicals.
According to the same researcher many allotmenteers produce around 20 tons of food per hectare, against the 8 and 3.5 produced on farms growing wheat and oilseed rape respectively.
Allotmenteers are responsible for almost no food miles, zero packaging and almost no chemicals.
Research shows that allotment soils are healthier than farm soils, with more worms and higher organic carbon content, thereby combating climate change.
A study in the Netherlands found that allotmenteers tend to be healthier than neighbours without allotments, particularly in old age.
All the above data came from chapter 19 (the future of farming) in Dave Goulson’s new book.
I have to say, that if you want to brief yourself fully on the decline of insects, the causes of extinctions, the cost of chemical intensive agriculture and some ideas for the future this is a good place to start. What’s painfully clear is that apart from the Green Party, the main UK political parties have no sensible plans for saving the earth. Too in hock to powerful interests and too frightened to appear the least bit radical, their policy amounts to handing out fiddles (especially to friends) while Rome burns.
On the other hand when we went up to open the greenhouse and the polytunnel this morning I was thinking about the image of gardeners and allotmenteers as being elderly and inherently conservative muddlers. When I looked around at ours and our neighbours’ allotments today I could see that although we’re probably the oldest by far, we’ve grown old on environmental protests and self sufficient allotmenteering. It’s easy to judge books by their covers but in the case of the new wave of allotmenteers; governments and politicians would do well to remember that we are powerful, creative, skilled and extremely well informed on environmental issues. Some of us, being old, have campaigning time on our hands. Of course the government will be trying to drive a wedge between the young and the old by characterising us as greedy pensioners. Just for the record we live on our state pensions and I have a small church pension. Madame was not allowed to join a pension scheme because part timers (overwhelmingly women) were locked out – in her case for 25 years! We’re not rich – period!
So this morning, and with the book in my mind, I looked around the allotment, thinking what a challenge it presents to the intensive agrochemical model and filled with the knowledge that this 200 square yards is just one piece in an emerging campaign with justice at its core and with no less an aim than saving the earth from the economic strip miners. I’m a bit old to be an eco warrior, but I’ll sure as hell give it a go.