First fruits

It’s a bit of a cheat to call these first fruits I suppose, but the parsley has thrived in the polytunnel along with strawberry plants, peas, lettuces and spinach. I’m sure we could have done much better in the tunnel but it’s been our first season and it’s a steep learning curve. The rhubarb is one of the treats of the early season and we eat it greedily, but there’s not a sign of the sweet cicely yet but the faint sweetness and aniseed flavour of sweet cicely really is the cherry on the cake – and since it was planted it’s appeared regularly. We’re really quite a long way from its home in the north so there’s always a possibility that it will give up on us, but it’s always lovely to see it poking its head above the earth.

Here’s another sign from a different setting. Away from the vegetable gardens the more decorative ones are just beginning to gather strength. During our stay on the Roseland peninsula we walked from Gerrans down the field lanes to Place – yes that’s the name of the place – Place. One purpose of the walk was to look for flowering wild plants, of which more later, but as we walked the last hundred yards down the narrow road we came across the splendid sight of the lodge cottage surrounded by camellias in full flower. Trad english countryside on steroids!

Place has a rather lovely house which is now in use as a wedding venue – there’s a photo left – which is built in such a way as to have the high tide reach the retaining wall of the lawn twice a day. Apart from that it’s a mud flat with a stream flowing down the middle, but it’s where we saw our very first Little Egret some years ago. On Tuesday we saw two there with a heron and the usual cohort of more familiar herring gulls having occasional scraps with the local crows. There’s also a ferry here in the summer that will take you to St Mawes where, if you like, you can catch a further ferry to Falmouth. Great for South West Coast Path walkers who don’t want to get too fussy about walking every little creek up and back.

The third setting for enjoying the early signs of spring is to watch the emerging wildflowers, and that was the main purpose of our walk. The final tally of plants in flower was around twenty. I’ve already written about my travails with the iRecord system which is quite difficult to master. I have learned to successfully add single records and I’ve even figured out the little triangular warning signs that accompany some of my (either) fanciful or ( remotely possibly) brilliant sightings. I reckon a little four inside a triangle is a clue that there will be some tooth gnashing going on somewhere.

Cow Parsley

My biggest problem has been to submit a whole list of all twenty five species in one go. They are, after all, on the same footpath. But this time the system defeated me and I appeared to accidentally delete all of my list twice! Ho hum. I thought I bore it very philosophically but I dropped a mild email to the overworked minders of the scheme and although no formal reply arrived back, I noticed this morning that they had been restored. It was very kind of them but unfortunately their helpful gesture resulted in a bit of double entry which could make the whole lot pretty useless for researchers. So I think I’ll probably have to delete the lot again and start from scratch having learned the point at which the software can’t follow my random approach any more. I will learn it! I really will – because there isn’t a better way of putting something back into the community than recording its natural assets. I’ll always be a footsoldier in the enterprise but going out and doing some field botany is all the more absorbing if you happen on something a bit different. It’s no use anyone saying “stick to dandelions and you’ll be OK” because you need a PhD to sort them out beyond the wretched “agg (regate)” status. An acquaintance in the Bath Nats was one of the authors of the standard monograph on the blackberry whose promiscuous sexual habits have resulted in hundreds of subspecies. Sadly it is not mentioned which ones are the best to eat. For that you have to go blackberrying and find a secret spot or plant a delicious variety in your allotment. The most ordinary things are boundlessly fascinating.

As we walked down the lane I noticed a tiny white flower shining through the undergrowth. I knelt down to photograph it from half a dozen angles so I could ID it properly back in the campervan. It was hairy bittercress – a very common weed, you might say – personally I don’t believe in weeds – but blow me down when we went up to the allotment this morning there were hundreds of them. They’d obviously been there all along but until I’d taken the trouble to look minutely at a single one them they’d escaped my attention. Hairy Bittercress – very good for improving your eyesight, but not by eating it; just knowing its name.

Sunken lanes

There were 21 species of wildflowers that we found in a rapid count along our favourite lane here in Cornwall on Thursday. Today we took a long loop around the coast path and then finished by walking back up the same lane and I identified four more – ground ivy, hairy bittercress, germander speedwell and common fumitory. I have to say the fumitories are a bit of a monster to identify, but I think I got there in the end and there are now 25 entries in my list. Of course there are many more to come because plants sensibly arrange themselves to emerge in sequence through the growing season. Sadly we’re unlikely to be here to identify them all unless we come back every month – and with the allotment demanding attention that’s not likely to be possible.

Sunken lanes – and there are lots here in Cornwall – are an absolute joy to walk along and to look for wildflowers. We were blessed with a strong northeasterly wind today and although the sky was clear and the sun shone without interruption, it was bitterly cold along the coast path where there was no shelter. Northeast being an offshore wind, however, we were able to sit at the base of a rather dodgy cliff and enjoy the sea. When we turned up the lane we entered an entirely different microclimate. Sheltered from almost every direction and yet wide enough to be in sunshine for much of the day, it’s hardly surprising that many of the flowers we were finding are very quick out of the gate; stealing two or three weeks of early spring.

When I used the metaphor of an earth-sized PV cell yesterday I could have explained the idea better. Without the sun there would be no life on earth. Every blade of grass and every leaf of every tree is busy converting sunshine into carbohydrates – that’s to say that water plus sunshine plus essential minerals transported to plants by subterranean fungi make food for us and for every other living creature; and so at this time of the year I always sense the prodigious energy gathering within the earth ready to burst into new life. You can almost hear it on a day like today.

Winter wheat

I’m not going to nag about this. The way we abuse this annual gift is creating huge problems that we’ll have to answer for – soon and painfully; but the pain of giving up some of the things we’ve learned to rely on – mostly fossil fuels – could be offset to a degree by the re-enchantment of the earth. Wandering around bent over looking for mostly tiny plants might seem like a rum way of enjoying yourself on holiday, but don’t knock it if you’ve never tried it. The earth and her fruits get more lovely, more complex and more full of joyful discovery the closer we look.

It’s often a pain to identify a plant, but the exercise takes us deeply into their structures and processes; it is – if you like – a meditation on the thusness of nature. Drawing is another way. Gardening reminds us that at best we do best when we walk with the earth and her processes. It puts us in our proper place, and that place turns out to be very good.

While I was writing this Madame was drawing some cones from a Corsican Pine that we picked up on the walk. The two of us in the campervan, so absorbed in our work we didn’t even notice that it was getting dark.

Heligan – the return

Crossing the jungle

Last time we camped here at Heligan the campervan leisure batteries – (and therefore almost everything else) -gave up and we spent best part of the week (it was February) freezing cold and huddling in the sleeping bags with only head torches to see by. This time we crossed all the T’s and dotted all the I’s and after a lot of maintenance work the van is restored to its full glory. Sadly the weather has been awful, with almost continuous rain, and so it’s been obligatory wet weather gear. Nothing daunted though, we’ve been out and about to see the spectacular beginnings of the magnolia and camellia blossom. The kitchen garden looks a bit like the allotment at home – all dressed up with nowhere to go. What we need, of course, is a bit of decent weather. It’s all very well the Met Office determining that March 1st is the first day of Spring, but for gardeners and astrologers, not to mention traditionalists, the equinox is the real deal. Someone should tell them that nature doesn’t read books – however well indexed. Those extra three weeks make a world of difference. Today as we walked the perimeter of the Heligan estate we could see all manner of leaves pushing upwards but relatively few flowers.

Gunnera plants.

For sheer horror you could do worse than film these Gunneras unfolding in time lapse mode. They might well have been part of the background research for Aliens and if we had the gift of standing completely still and watching for a month we’d probably need psychotherapy! So just to balance things out a little, here’s a Magnolia bloom representing the acceptable face of gardening.

Magnolia

Still it’s true that sometimes the most memorable finds are not the show stoppers, but the ones that nearly got away. I brought a new field guide down with me to try and I was anxious to give it a test run. Weather being weather it would have been hazardous to give it a first run in the rain – the Collins Wild Flower Guide is not for the faint hearted. Before we set out I weighed copies of the Rose “Wildflower Key” which came in at around 800 grammes. The Book of Stace was about 1500 grammes and the mighty Collins swaggered it at 1700 Grammes. You really need some thew to carry it around in your bag ……… so I didn’t!

Anyway, as we were wandering alongside the stream in the woods at the southern edge of the estate I spotted something odd, lurking amongst the vegetation, in this case mostly primroses in leaf. At first glance these tiny (3mm) flowers looked as if they belonged to a sickly Veronica; the leaves looked yellowish and chlorotic. But after I’d walked past a couple of clumps I could see that they were in full flower except the flowers seemed to have sepals but no petals – rather like tiny euphorbias. So lacking the book I took a couple of photos and did some research back at the van where I found that they were golden saxifrages – specifically the opposite leaved form – Chrysosplenium oppositifolium. After confirming it in the Collins WFG and checking the distribution on the BSBI online maps I felt brave enough to record it on iRecord. It’s not showy, it’s not in the least rare but I’d never noticed it before. Sitting in the van and uploading the record with the rain beating down on the roof, felt like a vindication of the day. There are very few activities where a complete amateur can make a difference, and when it comes to the destruction of the environment we need witnesses. Witnesses that can put hard, verifiable records up against the magical thinking of the climate change deniers.

And that’s also why it’s worth recording even the humblest and most common of the plants. If I have a beef with natural history films it’s their tendency to stress the spectacular over the mundane and wrap every living creature into a homesy narrative overwhelmed by overblown musical scores. Natural history as folk religion.

When you think about it, rarity and scarcity are not quite synonyms. Living organisms first become scarce and only then do they become rare. How will we know when an old familiar friend is becoming scarce if we don’t record them when they’re plentiful? Ten thousand records for lesser celandines seems about right, against one for the ghost orchid. But if no one ever recorded the ordinary everyday plants we wouldn’t notice until they almost disappeared – like the cuckoo! Today, standing in the woods, we heard a woodpecker drumming. As a child on my grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns, such a sound would have been commonplace; but today it made my spirits leap. In the 1950’s my squirrels were all red squirrels. My grandfather was doing his best to shoot the greys, for which he was paid a penny a tail, I think. It didn’t work, though, and now we have to travel afar to see them. After another rainy day here tomorrow, we’re off to a site on the Roseland Peninsula with a more promising weather forecast.

It’s been an additional pleasure to write this post because a couple of weeks ago we decided to lash out on a portable WiFi router that runs on a data SIM. It seems to be working very well with all our laptops and phones networked and able to stream video. I think it’s known as a MiFi system. Anyway it works for us – so no more standing out in the wet trying to get a signal. With campsite WiFi here costing £15 for three days and not even functioning very well, it’s goodbye to tethering and hello to happy days.

All tooled up!

Gosh we’ve been busy getting ready for the next trip. I think I’ve finally got the courage to start officially recording some of the plants we hope to find and so it’s been a rush to gather together all the tools and to figure out how to use them. So I hope you’ll forgive me for failing to find a ghost orchid or anything remotely rare but settling on an ubiquitous weed like couch grass simply to check on some ID keys and test out the macro extension lens on the phone; and I’m feeling ever so pleased.

There’s a bit of a knack to taking photographs for plant ID’s because they need to capture as much as possible of the kind of technical information you’ll definitely wish you’d recorded when you get back to base; things like grid references and what kind of soil and light conditions not to mention – in the case of grasses – all manner of obscurities concerning ligules, auricles, lemmas glumes, stolons, rhizomes and spikelets. So while we took a break from planting out broad beans I pulled a lump of the revolting weed out of one of the allotment beds and tried to remember all this stuff as I took the photos. I know it’s all a bit technical but there’s something very lovely about grasses because they hide their differences so completely. Half a millimetre can be important. This reminds me of one of my theology tutors who used to run what he called CAT sessions – close attention to text. We discovered that the really important understandings demanded time, attention and focus. Drill down hard enough and what appears to be a uniform field of grass can become a garden of delights. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it!

The other bit of plant recording I’ve had to learn is the software. There’s a mountain of data out there in databases which must have taken millions of voluntary hours of recording and checking. OK I’m a complete nerd but I think I’m happier growing and examining plants than I am frothing at the mouth while I scream at the television. So couch grass became a rehearsal for the really good stuff which I’m so looking forward to finding this season.

Later, just for fun, I dug into the herbals and discovered that however much we gardeners loathe the stuff there are people out their who are prepared to pay £10 for 100 grammes of the offending roots. By all accounts (and lacking any scientific proof as far as I could find out) couch roots have some healing properties. By my reckoning there must be many thousands of pounds worth of herbal remedy underground at the allotment site but the sheer agony of digging it up would need the price to go a lot higher than that. It is, however, the most tremendously vigorous plant. I read later about an experiment where 20 week old couch tillers grew 5 metres – 15 feet in a few weeks while throwing up over 200 buds. Oh to think that it’s an incomer brought in centuries ago. My mum was an inveterate smuggler of purloined cuttings from every garden she ever visited – perhaps it was an ancestor of hers that brought the wretched weed here.

Anyway, the kit is assembled, tested – and we’re ready to rock and roll this season. Fortunately while I crawl around in the dirt in lovely places, Madame will be bingeing on drawing with ink and bamboo pens; inspired by David Hockney’s latest book. In the background I can hear our waterproofs taking an interminable time to dry in low heat after being re-proofed. We’re optimistic but not reckless.

Hello Eunice

Lizard Point – in 2014

It’s not so much that we’ve never had weather like this before. The big difference is that severe weather is afflicting us more frequently; and so although I could try to support the ‘argument’ that climate change is fake news by citing this photo taken in 2014 and claiming that the weather has always been like this the only fact that matters is that there are many more extreme weather events than we had in the past, and it’s not down to sunspots, 5G telephone masts or Russian hackers it’s down to our profligate use of fossil fuels.

And so yesterday we were up at the allotment trying to make everything as secure as possible and then we went to the campervan to make sure it is as safe as we can make it. It’s parked within a hundred metres of the Severn Beach sea wall which, today , is the subject of red alert weather and flood warnings. Spring tide + force 10 winds always equals a storm surge so we’re paying constant attention to the mobiles for alerts . We once lived at the tidal end of the river Avon when we had the same combination of events combined with a snow melt and I’ve never seen water rise so rapidly, or menacingly. It was eerily silent as it topped the harbour walls and raced across the road towards us. Mercifully it stopped rising just a few inches below the point at which our basement would have flooded. This morning the only damage so far seems to be a flying fence from the Air BnB opposite the flat; and the scratches and dents were confined to the car which was abandoned by a previous tenant who took care to remove the plates before dumping it. At Green Park Station the glass roof – which was already in a precarious state – is shedding panes on to the ground, so probably no farmers’ market tomorrow. Ah well!

This week we’ve had two named storms; the first, Dudley, affected the north of the country but today’s storm Eunice is all over the South West. It kicked off at about 7.00am and built to crescendo during the morning. Apart from the flying fence the only other casualty looks like a smallish tree across the green. These winds growl and search at the windows with a real malignancy. Opposite my window as I write this, there’s a 20′ extractor chimney above a burger joint that’s become semi-detached at the top and is waving around alarmingly. It’s all very scary.

So the question is – how can we live sane, flourishing and fulfilled lives in this insane society – or should we even try to do so? Years ago we were at the much missed Bristol Flower Show when we encountered a man in a wheelchair who’d had both of his legs amputated. He was being pushed by his son who had lovingly attached an ashtray to the arm of the chair with a jubilee clip so that his dad could carry on smoking, having no feet to stub out his dog-ends. Obviously it’s not sensible to be angry or berate either the man or his son for assisting the habit that was so obviously killing him. My reaction was to feel overwhelmed by a strange kind of hopeless compassion for someone who was being slowly killed, not entirely through his own idiocy but through human weakness and a powerful culture created and funded by the tobacco industry.

I don’t want to spend a moment more than necessary being angry. How much time am I prepared to waste on shouting at the television and frothing with indignation – because that too is a killer! Most of us have a role in the decay of this society. We’re all a mixture; somewhere between the son and the father; and so we’re all both victim of climate change as well as being part of the problem. Nothing suits the fossil fuel lobby better than a situation where we all blame and fight against one another; cyclists against motorists, vegetarians and vegans against omnivores, city dwellers against farmers – and so on ad infinitum. In the end we all have to live in each others’ crap so let’s forget the squabbles and go after the real villains and their stooges in the press and in government. It seems to me that one way of changing things is to make sinning as difficult as possible. We should be hitting the fossil fuel corporations where it hurts them most – in the bottom line. We should go after their lobbyists – naming and shaming them for pandering to their employers. Public scorn – as we are seeing at the moment – can really wound the powerful.

But we needn’t be angry – it saps the soul. With the allotment, the campervan and a hand lens in my pocket; and with a copy of the Tao te Ching somewhere to hand – I can live as sane, as flourishing and as fulfilled a life as is granted to me. Who could ask for more?

Postscript

Once the red alert had dropped to amber we went to look at the allotment and noticed a number of roof tiles near the entrance to the back door of the block where we live – any of them would have killed someone walking below. The allotment was completely hammered, with overturned sheds and broken greenhouses. Lots of glass flying about obviously. Our plot was mercifully intact but others were a sorry sight. The flood alert affecting the campervan site continues until tomorrow but we’re hoping with less wind and a smaller tidal surge we’ll be OK.

I’m no expert!

Well let’s be clear, I’m not an expert – not in any of the subjects that I write about in these posts. All 624,378 words – if strung together – would probably not represent enough expertise to grow a hyacinth in one of those glass thingamajigs. In fact the whole idea of being regarded as some kind of guru fills me with horror. This blog isn’t about sharing expertise, it’s about the endlessly puzzling business of being conscious and trying to make some kind of sense of it. My best hope is that I can share some of the little epiphanies that unexpectedly arrive in the course of gardening, cooking, baking, pickling and fermenting , walking and botanising; oh – and loving of course.

The photo is of the asparagus bed – covered for the winter; the garlic which I finished planting out from November pots yesterday and the new strawberry bed (the longer of the two) which I dug out entirely and added four barrow loads of wood chip; then replaced the soil and a layer of compost. Wood chip makes a good substrate when there’s not enough soil to raise a bed; but it rots down quite fast so needs replacing every year or so. I know that the experts say wood chip can acidify the soil but we use it for paths, mulch and raising beds with no discernable ill effects. The strawberries – which are all offsets from the original six special offer plants, have overwintered in the polytunnel.

The smaller of the wooden raised bed is the old hotbed which we’re not heating this year because of fears of persistent vermicides in the stable manure we used to use. So it’s got four foot of first class topsoil in which we have grown lovely carrots but to rotate this season it’ll be cucumbers or squashes. I’ve now got a tremendous backache!

“Do not go gentle into that good night” – first, clear up the mess in your head!

The vandalizing of the allotment at Christmas knocked the stuffing out of us. Aside from the feelings of vulnerability which are inevitable, I suppose, the replacement toughened glass for the greenhouse has been difficult to source and the whole area inside and out needs clearing of broken shards. The polytunnel – less than a year old – is now patched with tape. In fact we were so knocked off course I mooted the idea of giving up the allotment and working as volunteers in a community garden – it’s fair to say that one didn’t go well with Madame. We discussed whether to step back and grow more perennials and fruit, which need far less attention, so we could spend more time away in the campervan. That was one of the underlying reasons for trial renting the cottage in Cornwall; selling the van would pay for a lot of holidays.

On the other hand, the campervan brings us the freedom to travel as and when we feel like it, without booking months ahead; and it’s bought and paid for – although storage, maintenance, tax and insurance can mount up unpredictably. A van is a very costly bit of kit – especially when it’s sitting outside in the rain rotting away gently at roughly the same speed as we’re getting older. Two years of lockdown had given us plenty of time to reflect on what the van gives us, and it’s clear that it’s become essential to us. When we’re away we sleep better, walk and explore more. I treasure the time and space to turn on my botanical eyes so that plants I’ve never seen before suddenly become visible. We find time to talk and reflect and – if I’m honest – carouse and drink wine and abandon the ghastly effort of acting our age. You can’t do this when your children (and grandchildren) are around because it makes them cringe!

The net result of the holiday was a kind of mixture because we decided that we would keep the van and try to take much more time away in it, as well as carrying on with the allotment and on meeting up with friends we’ve not seen for two years. Last week we lashed out on 4 new tyres and windscreen wiper blades – they hadn’t been replaced in over a decade, and a new (yet to be installed) WiFi aerial and router to get over the constant lack of signal when we’re out in the wilds. In any case the old satellite dish is so enormous we look like a TV outside broadcast van in spite of the fact that – large as it is – it can’t see past a tree with leaves on.

I think any allotmenteer will recognise that feeling when the plot isn’t going well and you almost dread the thought of going to it. As a seasonal (winter) melancholic I often have to force myself to get off my backside and do some work. On the other hand any allotmenteer will recognise that once the work is in progress there’s a tremendous sense of wellbeing: why ever did I make such a fuss? you ask.

Truth to tell, though, I think it was the greenhouse bringing me back to life

Yesterday the sun shone and we went to the plot where I cleaned up the mess in the greenhouse while Madame weeded and tended the polytunnel. Safety glass shatters into a million fragments and so kneeling in a confined space with so many sharp edges around needed extra care; however after a couple of hours the greenhouse was clean, safe, and relatively tidy and I was surrounded by reminders of past seasons like root trainers – empty and stacked neatly in their containers. Is there a psychological term for that warmth that spread through me as I worked there? Previous notions to replace the glass with polycarbonate sheets seemed to fade and I began to think – ‘let’s replace and restore it properly, otherwise the vandals win. It’s depressing seeing the greenhouse, shrink wrapped in weed control mat, bits of black polythene and duct tape, so let’s bring it fully back to life.’ Truth to tell, though, I think it was the greenhouse bringing me back to life. As we worked there in our usual contemplative silence it was obvious that the allotment was as essential to us as the campervan. Madame had a long conversation with a fellow allotmenteer whose home built polytunnel had also been slashed and he told her that watering for us while we were away in the summer was an especial pleasure because the perfume of the ripening melons, basil and tomatoes filled the tunnel. As soon as we got home I turned to the photos on the laptop and I knew that there’s no way we we can thrive without growing food. Without the allotment we shrink; our souls starve.

We’re growing old, so there’s not so much time left we can afford to waste any of it. We’ve been inseparable since we met when Madame was fifteen and the prospect of our eventual infirmity and even separation hangs over us. The earth, our earth, becomes more precious as we share in her processes and dimly understand her grace and complexity, and although this might sound counterintuitive to a much younger person, it gives us comfort. We can’t win the environmental battle without a revolution fired by collective action. So long as we’re governed by wilfully stupid, squalid, and greedy governments none of the actions we know we need to carry out, will happen. Lying awake at night in a fury because they have just licenced the use of poisonous neonicotinoids to protect sugar beet – and who needs reminding that excess sugar consumption is killing and maiming millions of people? – well, it’s a waste of emotional energy.

So long as we have our wits, and enough physical energy to do it we’ll grow food and travel whenever we can so that we can record and enjoy the natural world in all its ludicrous generosity; write about it, photograph it and draw it. What’s happening to the earth demands witnesses because without witnesses there will be no time of reckoning. So no – we won’t be going anywhere quietly, thanks!

Meanwhile – back at the Potwell Inn

They say that fine words butter no parsnips so I thought that – amidst the philosophising -it would be good to show that even while we’re away the allotment goes on producing. If ever there was a defense of no-dig gardening it would look something like this. With a bit of frost on it from last week, this parsnip will be sweet and delicious – as will the leeks and the other winter veg which just get on with it. In the polytunnel we’re cutting radishes and fresh lettuce; parsley and coriander too. Winter veg are so much less fussy than summer ones. This week will see the propagators in action again as we prepare for the spring. The just in time principle which emerged along with lean thinking in Japanese car plants of all places, is especially suited to allotment planning because we need the plants at (as nearly) the right moment as we can manage; climate change permitting. So we haven’t overwintered broad beans this year because for the last two years severe east winds in March have decimated them. What we don’t want is a load of stressed out plants being kept in pots long after they were ready for transplant. So the annual gamble begins tomorrow, having received all the seed orders and planned (almost) where everything is going to go.

But allotments and more in-depth study are only a part of this year’s plan because I’m determined also to get out and do some serious botanising after a two year enforced layoff. I also want to do some serious work on the insects that visit us around the house and on the plot and so I’ve just shelled out on a macro lens adaptor for my Pixel 5 camera. Although I’ve got a very fine Leica macro lens it takes an eternity to set up shots and you almost always need a tripod and flash units. This 25g treasure arrived yesterday and I had a brief chance to play around with it. Some initial photos of random things on my desk are below. I also took a photo early yesterday of one of our orchids in flower. It’s entirely by natural light – there’s an abundance that floods in through the south facing windows in the flat, and as I walked into the room the sheer beauty of it grabbed me and so I just took the picture. It’s not edited or altered in any way.

And here are a few of the test shots with the macro lens. I can’t wait to get out there!

The role of maypole dancing in confronting the climate catastrophe.

Carter’s wonderful steam fair.

This is a postscript to yesterday’s piece which mentioned the philosopher Roger Scruton and the way in which some of his dodgier ideas seem to have infiltrated the writing of David Fleming and his book “Lean Logic; a dictionary for the future and how to survive it”.

I knew when I went to bed that there was some unfinished business on this subject and it came to me in the middle of the night that one among many dangers that face us is the sentimental turning back to the old days – you know the kind of thing; village greens, cricket, warm beer and old ladies on bicycles as John Major tried to explain it.

Of course it’s very tempting to look for an off the shelf strategy for coping with the oncoming catastrophes of global heating, collapses in biodiversity, economic collapse, mass migration and so it goes on; but the key point is that the current crisis has no real precedents, and so you might use the metaphor of a failed relationship: it’s no use either party in an acrimonious relationship breakdown asking why can’t we go back to the way we used to be? because the bridges have all been burnt. Moving on means letting go.

These thoughts were prompted by a conversation with our son last night. I had been thinking about the way in which I discovered that many of my early heroes had feet of clay when it came to facing the challenges of the last century. In my twenties I read the whole of Henry Williamson’s output. Tarka the Otter, of course; but also the multi volumed (15 in all) Chronicle of Ancient sunlight and the four volumes of “The Flax of Dream”. I borrowed all the books through the library and I was initially completely in love with them. His knowledge of natural history was so deep I began half living in his mystical Devon landscape. But as time went on and volume followed volume; small doubts began to accumulate and eventually I did a bit of research and discovered that Williamson had become a fascist sympathiser. I was devastated.

Ezra Pound also tumbled into the broken box; as did so many other artists and writers. Talking to our son last night he reminded me of another hero of mine, the philosopher Martin Heidegger who went even further and became an active supporter of Hitler and never subsequently repented. I began to wonder whether the passionate love and advocacy of the natural world was (and may still be) just one false step away from authoritarian and backward looking beliefs.

This isn’t a big deal if we understand it and guard against it. There’s always risk, so we should be really careful which thinkers we invoke when we’re trying to plot a course into a saner future. It’s too late to ask David Fleming why he repeatedly quoted Roger Scruton in illustrating his theme, and it may be that he was doing so because a selective use of those particular words seemed to support his argument. Fleming stood for many of the features of a possible way forward that we would support. Commonality, local networks, carnival, ritual and so forth. But if, lurking in the background, there’s an unspoken narrative that excludes – ‘others’ – strangers and pilgrims from other cultures, then that’s not on. If the image is of an old society that collapsed through its own inequity or cruelty, it should be a no-go for us, because real life is not a costume drama. Maypole dancing might be a powerful metaphor for community life; but no amount of prancing around on a plastic village green is going to usher in a sustainable and more equitable future.

Orion’s spell

Madame is in the kitchen cooking pasta al fagioli and the earthy fragrance of the borlotti beans, simmering with the onion, carrot and celery and a bunch of rosemary from the allotment is already wafting around the flat. With the excesses of Christmas out of the way we’ve needed to rest not just from the cooking, but the eating of so much rich food. If there’s a symbol of seasonal excess it’s the enormous French cast iron paté mould that I bought on impulse maybe fifteen years ago and which annually lures me into making more paté than we could ever eat at one family meal. We eat it all eventually, with the help of the freezer, but it takes most of the year. So: home baked everyday bread and this hearty cross between a soup and a stew is what we’ll eat today. The borlotti beans are our own, grown on the allotment along with most of the other ingredients apart from the pasta and some lardons. It’s the day of the seed order and, fortified with cake and cups of tea, we negotiate next season’s crops, sort out boxes of leftover seeds to eliminate the out of date ones, and complete the online orders. Oh and we have our annual discussion about indexing seeds better so that we don’t double buy on impulse, or forget something really important.

Completing the seed order feels as much liturgy as chore. Our discussions invoke memories of meals, successes and failures as well as new opportunities. We work from a computer list that I wrote years ago and update each January. You’d think that level of organisation would display at least some talent for planning, but every year the list is overwritten with so many pencilled amendments and flashes of inspiration that it becomes a kind of aspirational but redundant piece of crumpled paper. As I said; it’s liturgy – confessions and absolutions. The smell and the creamy taste of the cooking beans are so far beyond the agri industrial canned products you could cheerfully eat them with no more than some salt and a dash of oil. In fact you could keep the beans for another day and just drink the cooking water! It’s not about virtue. Virtue is just the spinoff from the sheer pleasure of growing, cooking and eating.

Depending on the way you frame it – whether or not they have any spiritual significance for you – these weeks between the solstice and the epiphany are days of waiting. Solstice is a moment, but it always seems to me that this is one of those great seasonal pauses; a kind of transitional silence as the enormous inertia of the solar system resolves itself and settles for the months until the summer solstice in June, into ever longer days. Traditionally – I mean possibly even for millennia – this period has marked a break in the farming year overlaid by twelfth night and inscribed beneath that, yuletide. The land was too cold, too hard or too wet and so the labourers deserted the unworkable fields. The day after Epiphany, on the 6th January marked the return to work.

So there’s an ingrained sense of therapeutic idleness tucked away somewhere in our unconscious memory; a break from the routine marked by partying and also – quite often – by being out and about, intensely alive and perhaps a bit drunk, late at night. All of which is a long winded way of saying that the constellation that I associate especially with this time of year is Orion. It would be nice to call these the dog days, but that title has already been bagged by Sirius in high summer, when it rises just before the sun. Normally the word “dog” before almost anything in nature is a sign of something inferior or unworthy but in this instance the term comes from Canis Majoris, the constellation in which Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest object. Anyway, the listless and sultry days of high summer are not in the same league as the high energy memories of dancing home in a winter frost with the stars so bright they seem to generate an angelic music beyond the reach of your ears: as if you could listen to a single phrase of Tallis’ Spem in Alium through some undiscovered faculty of bone and brain. You look up and there is Orion the the hunter, sword in belt, and the meaning of that music is on the tip of your tongue not to be spoken, ever.

However this year I haven’t seen Orion because not only was it the mildest December on record, it was also the dullest; cloud upon cloud heaping up from the south west. Clear skies and partying opportunities have all but disappeared; courtesy of Covid and climate change. Madame – who specializes in delphic announcements in the middle of the night – woke me against the sounds of the young people upstairs, partying on New Year’s Eve and declared “ There’s no-one we can have a laugh with.…… ” – and she’s right. Our social life has all but withered on the vine these last two years; we’re not evolved to live like this. How can we sing our song in this strange land?

Such mournful thoughts were soon blown away when we went scouting for Seville oranges and found them on exactly the same day – my journal records – as we did three years ago. And so we brought three kilos back and we shall have marmalade again after months of abstinence. I love blackcurrant jam and damson jam (my personal favorite) but breakfast without marmalade is an impoverished feast. We eat so much of it I should make around forty pounds to keep us going until next January with a bit to spare. We’re going down to Cornwall, to the Lizard, soon and God willing and a fair wind as my old friend Joan Williams would often say, I’ll be able to lie on my back on the grass to seek out Orion in a clear sky, and listen to the angels singing again.

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