Economics and the Prophets of Baal

The Littleton Wassail – January 2020

Bear with me on the title of this post, but the Old Testament contains a glorious collection of stories which I’ve pressed into service many times in the course of a long and (as far as the bishops are concerned) disreputable mission to make them comprehensible in a very different context. That’s what writers do! we nick stories from all over the place and put them to service in a new way. I well remember hearing one of the team of writers who create scripts for “Eastenders” admit that they often took a storyline from the Bible, or the Greek myths, or indeed William Shakespeare. In fact; if your subject is adultery, incest and murder you need look no further than the Old Testament.

Having spent some of the week studying Basil Bunting’s often obscure poem “Briggflatts” I feel obliged to say that I’m not using the story in an attempt to look better educated than I really am. I first heard it from the lips of Primitive Methodist lay preachers who delighted in nothing better than a bit of smiting, and this story of a battle between Elijah the Prophet and 450 of the prophets of the Canaanite God, Baal, was a positive gorefest as – having won a bet on whose god could light a bonfire with a lightning bolt – he slaughtered his opponents in a merciless display of “righteousness.” The irony of the story and the reason for the fact that I’m pinning a post on it is that Baal was the God of fertility (crops mainly but probably a bit of the other thing as well), and also sun, rain and storm with a side hustle of war. The point of this meandering introduction is to explain that considering the probable fate of the earth if we don’t get off our collective bottoms and do something dramatic; you might see this as an appropriate moment to reinvent Baal. After all his CV includes dominion over crops, sun, rain and war. Exactly the portfolio of challenges facing our next Prime Minister. Job done – next question please!

However half the fun of the story is that Elijah was so sure he was on the right side, he demanded that huge quantities of water should be poured on his pile of sticks before getting down to serious prayer. The Prophets of Baal, equally certain of their own God, danced around the bonfire, making their noisy invocations for what may well have been hours, before Elijah stood up with a swift one-liner to his God who obligingly sent the thunderbolt – that was meant to be Baal’s gig! Cue smoke, flames and a lot of smiting until the 450 were all dead.

Or were they?

It seems to me that the Prophets of Baal might – in a spooky way – be the direct ancestors of our present generation of economists. It’s perfectly fair to accuse them (and many of us) of worshipping the economy. We speak of it reverentially, as if it were some kind of supernatural entity which rewards its priesthood and smites its detractors. ‘Who will ignite the economy?’ we ask, and the economists who all speak the same arcane, almost liturgical language, step forward from the shadows and begin their little dance around the way we do things round here which is clearly breathing its last stertorous breaths; the so-called death rattle of the verities. As they circle the corpse they whirl and chant like Sufi dancers and sing of profit and loss, of efficiency and margins while others chalk obscure mathematical formulae around the victim. But the victim does not rise because economics has never learned to speak of fertility, of crops and sun and rain. Its reductive ideology has excluded almost every ethical and human consideration; aside from the costs and opportunities of war in pounds sterling. In the face of their failure they fall silent; their instruments slip from their bloodless hands; the rain washes their dismal formulae away.

Painted with the brush of objective science and rationality and enveloped in the mythology that there is no alternative, mainstream economics continues, with great effect, to cleanse our ecological crisis of its profoundly political origins and resolutions.

Adrienne Buller “The Value of a Whale. On the illusions of Green Capitalism” 2022 Manchester University Press, Page 51

It happens all the time, of course. The gods of unintended consequences have brought the economists low because they mistook their theological assumptions for science. While they snorted with derision at determinist philosophies, and knuckled their heads in disbelief at Marxism; they developed their very own iron laws. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. What these new prophets of Baal couldn’t grasp was that by excluding any consideration of relationship; by refusing to include human thriving – which is itself a relational concept; and by failing to notice that the earth is not a resource but a finely balanced ecosystem – they were not worshipping Baal, but Moloch – the god of child sacrifice.

“Run the economy like a business” – are you completely batshit crazy? we need to run it like a garden!

Another night of strange dreams led to a sleepless night for Madame as I tossed and turned and made (as she described them) weird noises. I dream a lot, and years of work – hard work too – with a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, have taught me to treat them with the utmost seriousness. So here’s the deal – my dream was about cutting metre square sections of rough grass full of weeds, and setting them out in the usual unspecified way, to conduct an experiment concerned with watching weeds grow. I even dreamed of setting the trailcam to time lapse mode in order to get a continuous film of them growing. Principal among them was our old garden enemy – Bindweed.

Then this morning I was reading Robin Wall Kimmerer marvellous book – “Braiding Sweetgrass” when a connection dropped into place and I was able to see a very small part of a remedy for the crisis we’ve now created for ourselves.

The hot seat!

Allow me a small diversion to help explain the background. I was a school governor for over forty years and in that time we interviewed at least six head teachers. In spite of endless pains we still managed to appoint one complete dud but otherwise they were great human beings with a passion for making children into moral grownups. We interviewed them over two days, handed them heaps of data and gave them an hour to read and digest it then come up with a viable step by step plan. We tested their management and leadership skills by asking them to debate the difficult data with other candidates. We watched and noted those who could embrace challenges thoughtfully and without becoming defensive. It was exhausting for us and even worse for the candidates, but slowly the best candidate for our particular school – with its own unique history and challenges – would emerge.

If you compare that level of diligence with the present election for Prime Minister you will understand immediately how our political system makes such terrible decisions. As I once heard on a bus on the way home from Southmead – “That Jack B …….. he can’t tell shit from pudding!” I have a whole collection of those kinds of remarks, overheard from people who stretch the colloquial into Shakespearean beauty. We have a parliament full of people who share Jack B’s incapacity.

So back to dreams and weeds and revelations, and the connection is this. When we plan the next season on the Potwell Inn allotment we pay attention to the space we have, the nature of the local climate and its variabilities; the soil and its state and – in particular – we pay attention to our own needs. Do we need fifty purple sprouting plants? How many pounds of tomatoes do we really need?

And we also know that our land isn’t just for us – it’s for the thousands of species that – while we can’t eat them – play a vital role in the ecology of the plot. Some of the pests who predate upon the pests who damage our crops are visible – frogs, toads, parasitic wasps and so forth. Some are microorganisms. Some are mixed blessings – badgers for instance; and foxes, cats and even rats play complicated roles of fleas and smaller fleas in the terms of the old rhyme.

Weeds and pests and their many interactions play such a huge and poorly understood role in the overall health of the plot that we leave them alone. So to chase down an analogy – we either draw a binary distinction between friend and foe, and then bomb the foe out of existence in the manner of intensive chemically driven agriculture, or we nurture the richest possible mix of living creatures and edible plants and allow nature to find the kind of balance that allows us a crop, reduces pest damage and leaves the soil in good heart. And it really works!

Running the economy – and especially the ecology – of the earth as if it were a business completely focused on financial profit and loss is a form of ideological madness. Public goods are very hard to monetize, and yet we know that climate destruction brings tremendous costs. We know that farming practices which lead to wholesale species destruction will result in food shortages. We know that viruses can cross over between animals and humans and cause pandemics, and we suspect that the destruction of animal habitat through forest clearance makes this possibility greater. We also know that intensive farming of any kind causes pollution; carbon release and therefore global heating. The point of this line of argument is to emphasise that running the earth as a business so often ignores the cost of adverse consequences. If the full long-term costs of maintenance and disposal of radioactive waste are added to the business plan no investor in their right mind would take the risk. Sadly our government is able to use our money to make us compulsory investors in this dangerous industry.

Running the economy – basing our governance on its impact on the whole earth would make big business howl. Just as an example – the current price of all electricity is based on the inflated price of fossil fuels. This represents the mad economics of subsidising the oil companies by penalising renewables. In a genuine – that’s to say not rigged – market. The renewables would outcompete the fossils on price and the oil and gas producers would have to invest their ill gotten gains in renewables in order to stay in business at all. This is not fantasy economics.

Why weeds then? Why embrace pests and predators? Because any unstable ecosystem will be made more stable if a natural balance is reached. Climate catastrophe is the end point of ignoring the instability made worse by politicians who make stupid policies such as running the economy like a business – and then facilitate the predatory activities of corporate behemoths.

James Lovelock died this week. His Gaia theory gives us the best possible tool for understanding the harm we’ve done to ourselves and future people. The key is going to be diversity. The binary world of bad science and dangerous politics needs to be swept away so we can learn to tend the whole earth – in all its inspiring diversity – as a garden.

Wildflower? Weed? Herb?

In the foreground Creeping Thistle, and in the background Ragwort

Allotments very quickly get out of hand, such is the vitality of nature, and so the photograph of this neighbouring allotment isn’t the product of idleness or long abandonment but simply because the allotmenteers were unable to tend their plot for a couple of months due to circumstances beyond their control. Most interesting to me is the fact that the shot shows two of only seven UK plants which are legally notifiable. They must be removed by law. If Ragwort is incorporated into hay and dried it’s capable of killing livestock – whereas whilst growing in the ground – livestock avoid it. Creeping thistle is a menace because its rhizomes spread aggressively – rather like bindweed – so from an allotmenteers’ point of view it’s the more pernicious of the two. I won’t bother to illustrate the bindweed because anyone who’s ever gardened will instantly recognise those white underground rhizomes. But the Creeping Thistle is tricky because most ordinary gardeners are less likely to recognise it. Here are some more photographs :

It’s all too easy to uproot one of these thistles and, finding something that looks very like a tap root, conclude it’s one of the other less pernicious ones. Unfortunately you have to dig deep – really deep – to find the thick white rhizome that spreads like wildfire. Those plants that grow from seed – and it produces a great number – grow a tap root in the first year and then develop the rhizomes in the second. Fortunately the seeds aren’t that successful, but even a tiny percentage of many thousands can soon turn into a problem. The best way of dealing with them is to uproot them before they flower – as in the left hand picture – when much of their energy has gone into making seeds. The four roots in the middle picture were loosened with a fork and pulled firmly to extract as much as possible, but even so they snapped off leaving much of the rhizome intact and ready to produce more plants. All we can do is hope to weaken it by frequently pulling them up. Madame and I were talking about this yesterday and we thought that the only domestic animal capable of eating thistles is probably a goat. We kept one back in the seventies and she would eat absolutely anything. Brilliant for clearing scrub!

Ragwort is a biennial and, once again, needs careful pulling to reduce numbers; but neither plant will ever be eradicated entirely because they have developed resistance to farm chemicals. Organic control (there’s a good leaflet on the Garden Organic website) is the only option for those of us who opt out of using chemicals.

Of course there’s a downside to controlling these plants because they are both highly attractive to pollinators and they make a lot of nectar ; so removing a weed also removes an important nectar or pollen source as well as a food plant for some of the butterflies and moths we most treasure. Our attitude towards so-called weeds exposes the mindset that places our human needs above the needs of all the other creatures. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should let these weeds take over our plots, but I am suggesting that many of the small decisions we make on the allotment have an ethical and philosophical component that make our lives that bit more complicated; more morally responsible.

I’ve spent fifty or so years working with people who’ve got themselves into terrible trouble, because they came to a tipping point through countless tiny steps. Nobody sets out to kill all the bees, but they die anyway because a lot of people making little bad decisions can add up to a crime against the earth. These days we’re all creating wildflower gardens, but we shouldn’t neglect the contribution of less popular weeds. Even couch grass offers a particular niche for the Gatekeeper butterfly, and stinging nettles are vitally important for the Comma. Ragwort too is the foodplant for caterpillar of the Cinnabar Moth. While I was taking the photos for this piece I noticed that our Buddleia was devoid of butterflies, whereas I spotted five separate fly/insect/beetle species on the Ragwort. So what I’m suggesting is probably enough to give many gardeners apoplexy, but what is the real danger to an allotment site that would result from a few neglected patches around the edges? Another of our neighbours had an allotment that was truly out of control and, when she got a rude letter from the council, she sprayed it with glyphosate. The grasses and “weeds” all dutifully turned brown and keeled over which, in the present drought, presented a distinct fire hazard. But now after a couple of thundery downpours, they’re nearly all growing again.

So here’s a thought that dropped into my mind yesterday. Many of us enjoy watching gardening programmes on TV. We also love watching celebrity chefs promoting regional foods from across the world and cooking perfectly irresistible dishes. We watch nature via the TV screen and could almost come to believe that all’s well in the world. My challenging thought is this – do television, newspapers and magazines present a falsely rosy view of our situation within global ecological and climate breakdown? And if that’s the case are they functioning as a Panglossian ideological tool which, by presenting a false picture, allows us to think that things aren’t that bad after all?

I spend much of my life in a kind of enervating despair when I look at the present crop of politicians in the UK; the overwhelming majority of them unwilling to act effectively to address the challenges that face us. News bulletins recycle the dangerously stupid ideas dreamed up by politicians so morally corrupt you wouldn’t let them look after your pet dog for an hour. They cry “peace! peace! when there is no peace”.

I even worry that the Potwell Inn, when I write about the way we try to live in the midst of a collapsing culture, might feed the impression that at least some bits of the world are working optimally. They’re really not. We’re lucky enough to live in the centre of a World Heritage City and on some days as we look out over a green space lined with trees we could almost believe that we’re in the grounds of a Georgian stately home. But more often than not we look out on a public space where addicts gather to buy drugs from dealers on bikes (easier to escape on). The air we breathe is dangerously polluted by the constant traffic and the river is polluted to the extent that great rafts of foam float down it during flood conditions. While hundreds of dwellings have been taken out as AirBnb rentals, the waiting list for decent affordable housing in the City grows longer and longer. GP appointments are almost impossible to get; the waiting list for NHS dentistry is a minimum of three years and the local hospital is frequently overwhelmed. Meanwhile the more photogenic parts of the City are regularly closed off to facilitate the filming of endless TV series that draw ever greater crowds to see the places where invented characters do imaginary things. We live in a hallucinogenic haze of Jane Austin, TV soaps and Roman centurions suffused by fast food and the aroma of chip fat.

It’s the political roots of the present crisis that need to be dug out. We’re all too ready to ignore the roots of the pernicious weeds that thread through our political culture, choking out anything that might feed and sustain us. We don’t live the good life. The most we can hope for is to live the best possible life within a broken culture. Our tomatoes are just a tiny skirmish in the battle against climate collapse.

It seems perverse to call a drought followed by a heatwave a watershed moment, but let’s hope it is!

This year’s first giant Sunflower – bird food!

Another day of extreme heat here in Bath keeps us confined to the flat with the shutters and windows closed. We go to the allotment early to water and then sit in the gloom reading and writing. Yesterday – which broke temperature records we tested the “closed windows and shutters” regime with some thermometers and consistently managed the indoor temperature to 10 degrees below the outside.

I hear a lot about our alleged feebleness in confronting temperatures that are quite familiar in, say, Southeast France. These inadequate arguments almost always fail to address the fact that our infrastructure is geared to a temperate climate; so in continental Europe, transport doesn’t grind to a halt because it’s designed not to. And it’s not for lack of warnings. Our privatised utilities have known what’s coming for years but ignored the scientists in favour of dividends to the shareholders. In Southern France, for instance, it’s normal to have very thick insulating tile roofs, thick stone walls and external shutters and the traditional working day embraced a long break at midday. Crops are harvested earlier in the year and the village fêtes occupy much of August. Here, in the UK, farmers and gardeners struggle with the unpredictability of climate change and many homes are not insulated against temperature extremes. Allotmenteering – and also farming- becomes a constant gamble against the unexpected turns of the climate.

The other argument – which is an offshoot of the first – claims that we happily take holidays in hot climates and manage perfectly well. I saw this argument advanced recently by Jeremy Clarkson, the moron’s philosopher. This is a half truth dressed up as a clincher because although it’s true we seek out hot places, we do so to relax, not to work; we often stay in hotels with air conditioning and swimming pools and we have absolute freedom to seek out shady places and cold beers whenever it suits us. Working in impossible conditions is no fun at all. I once unwisely asked a retired South Wales coal miner if he missed it and he said “no I bloody hated every minute of it!”

We’ve been warned for decades about the imminence of global heating and yet our politicians and planners have been pushing back at the kind of changes that we know will need to be made. With a four year electoral cycle there’s always an incentive to avoid climbing the mountain by taking a more pleasant and scenic diversion. So let’s think a bit about the word watershed, as we’re inclined to see those moments when the consultant leans over sympathetically and announces that all those years of overeating, smoking or drinking are demanding their payback.

If sitting in a UK room at 26C (80F) in high summer with the windows and shutters closed and with the electric lights turned on because it’s too hot to venture outside – if that’s not a watershed moment then there’s nothing to do except sit and wait for the end. Among the many things the politicians have remained silent about, there’s been a drought since the beginning of the year and suddenly we’re being told to be careful with our water use because the river levels have fallen too low to replenish the reservoirs.

I’m indebted to the Mashed Radish website for a proper explanation of the term watershed. If, for instance, you drive South through the central spine of France you will reach a signposted point where the rivers which had been flowing Northwards throughout the first part of your journey, suddenly reverse direction somewhere on the Massif Centrale, and shed their water in a southerly direction. A watershed is a place, or an instance of profound and significant change – a paradigm shift if you prefer. “Go with the flow” for too long, and there will be a point at which the direction will, of necessity, change. At the heart of any discussion of watershed moments is an acceptance that resistance is futile. The change, however unpleasant or costly is going to happen and our only path is to adapt. A watershed moment is a non-negotiable fact on the ground. Voila! welcome to the climate crisis – our bridges are well and truly burnt and there ain’t no return to the Promised Land.

If there’s any good news in all this, it’s that no amount of fiddling with the great ship of state is going to help. The media, the corporate lobbyists, the industrial behemoths and above all their plaything politicians have failed comprehensively. Endless growth was a Ponzi scheme heading for disaster, and the bad news for capitalism is that climate disaster is nothing if not democratic. No one can relocate to a more favourable earth. Relying on uninvented technology to save us is like waiting for the Seventh Cavalry to ride over the hill – it only works out well in films. In real life we are left standing to confront the folly of our behaviour. My entirely provocative personal opinion is that not a single drop of oil should be pumped from a new well until the last Range Rover or similarly wasteful SUV has been consigned to a giant scrapheap along with all the products of the weapons industry.

Do I sound a bit cross? I generally try to avoid getting too excited about politics on this blog so you can be thankful I’m not the least bit interested in getting into politics. Complete cultural change, on the other hand, is a different matter.

I’m sick of being told by journalists that because I’m both old, male and white I must, perforce, be a gammon faced right wing climate-denier. It’s not true for me and it isn’t for huge numbers of older people. The Potwell Inn – understood properly – is a provocation; an act of defiance against the politics of the status quo, and a shout-out for a deeply fulfilled humanity, lived in all the huge potential for diverse expression within the earthliness of the “at hand”; the other life forms upon which we depend for food and (dare I say) spiritual growth. Alternatively allotments usually do the trick.

Corn Salad!

Corn Salad – Valerianella locusta

The monks’ gardens or herbularii contained beds in which were separately grown rosemary, mint, sage, lilies, iris, rue, gladiolus, roses, fenugreek, fennel, cumin etc. [ ……. ] What is significant is the survival of this ‘knowledge’ in seasonal culinary practices, among Greeks, Italians, Catalans, in a tradition unsupported by literacy. The ‘knowledge’ is handed down, chiefly from mother to child, while stooping to gather the plants. (Fallow deer behave in the same way, the mother showing the fawn which plants to eat.) The question now is – without Greek village ladies, Etruscan Dirce,and little girls like Eugenia, how are people to begin to recognize and identify plants? The answer is, I suppose, to consult good books on the subject, although this will be a slower and more uncertain method than those described above. One book to consult is Roger Phillips’ Wild Food. In it you will find a warning. The subject – edible weeds – has aroused an interest just when its pursuit is threatened by the use of pesticides and weed-killers. One has now to acquire an acute awareness in any locality of the use of chemicals. In the Salento the user of these commodities hangs up a bottle or tin from a tree at the entrance to his terrain as a warning sign.

But there is another problem: in Britain, for example, certain wild plants are ‘protected’, and one must know which they are. Ignorance of the law can lead to heavy penalties.

So, quite apart from the ability to discern the edible plants, and awareness of their seasonal apparition, exact knowledge on two counts is required – the Law and the application of pesticides.

It is unfortunate that many modern plant books, relying on colour photographs, ignore the nature of the roots of plants, often vital to the identification of edible weeds by amateurs. The entire plant is to be considered, not just its visible parts.

Nor are botanists particularly interested in edible properties of plants today, with a very lively exception in Geoffrey Grigson (The Englishman’s Flora). His considered opinion of particular edible English weeds, even when prepared by a Queen of Cooks, is not always encouraging.

Patience Gray – “Honey From a Weed

This long section from “Honey From a Weed” is taken from the chapter on edible weeds. Just by way of explanation, Patience Gray was a contemporary of Elizabeth David (I don’t think they cared for one another very much) but each followed very different lives, as did Jane Grigson whose husband Geoffrey is referenced at the end of the quoted section. Very different though they are, for me they are the Holy Trinity of mid 20th century food writers. Between them they did so much more than give me some favourite recipes, because they articulated the foundational truth that cooking is a cultural activity. It’s rooted in the everyday lives of human beings who live in vastly different settings. When I open Patience Gray I can smell the wild oregano and hear Puglian olive trees as their leaves rustle in the hot sun. Patience Gray gave me one of our favourite courgette recipes – Zucchini al forno – but also taught us about human lives, lived out of difficult unforgiving soil and embracing both fasting and feasting. Lives full of seasonal rhythms and texture which led to a book stuffed with insight. I’d urge you to get a copy and embrace it, because I know that if we carry on in the crazy way we’re going and when the climate suddenly switches into something far less temperate – then we’re going to have to live very different lives.

Anyway, this merry thought came to mind as we were watering the allotment early in the morning, trying to beat the suffocating heat. Just recently I’ve spent a lot of time looking at little white numbers, rather like the picture at the top. Many of them are known as Crucifers because they have four petals, symmetrically arranged in a cross shape. Easy peasy. However if you count the petals on the flowers in the photo at the top they all have five petals, which means they’re something else. I had a little chew – don’t try this if you’re not familiar with a plant, but it was pretty sweet and salad-like. It’s Corn Salad, also known as Lamb’s Lettuce probably self seeded from a neighbour’s allotment. But regardless of whether it came via a seed packet or a stray wild seed, it brought Patience Gray immediately to mind. She was a great one for the spring purgative of wild weeds to clear the blood.

To return to a theme that’s been occupying my mind recently, it seems completely random to divide plants into binary groups; edible/inedible, food plant/ medicinal herb. We are both fed and healed by the food we eat, if we choose wisely; and as Gray points out, that leaves the onus on us to choose wisely.

In the kingdom of the blind

So with these thoughts in mind, I set off on a Bath Nats field trip yesterday and found myself being the only person with a modicum of botanical knowledge. Normally I coast along at the back, content to leave the ID’s to a real expert; but in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king and so it fell to me to rummage around in my disorderly memory to try to assist the other members with even less experience than me. I think I blagged my way through it pretty well simply because nearly all the plants that came my way were ones I’d recently struggled with and identified; and I have to say it was terrific fun – I really enjoyed it.

The walk took us in a long four and a bit miles loop around the village of Newton St Loe, which is pretty much owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and shared between several farms, a stunningly beautiful village and one of the Bath Spa University campuses that contains a couple of fishing lakes. The wildlife was, as you might imagine, very rich and varied – lots of birds, insects, dragonflies and the kind of plants you expect to find in mixed woodland and open grassland. The species list will emerge in due course, I’m sure, but I wanted to focus on just two fields which we passed through as we climbed towards the Wilmington Ridge with spectacular views across some archetypal countryside. The first field had a mixed crop of field peas and barley that really threw me, because when I first looked at it I thought it was a complete mess. However a bit of research when I got home, suggests that we’re going to see more and more of this kind of crop as landowners turn to regenerative farming. The peas are grown to augment the protein content of the conventional grain and as a substitute for imported soybeans. Being legumes, the peas also fix nitrogen in the soil and store carbon – so it’s a win win. Obviously there’s a question to be addressed about growing these mixtures to fatten cattle but this is a relatively small mixed organic farm doing its best to adapt to climate change. I’m sure George Monobiome wouldn’t approve but I’m not clear he approves of anything these days (except forests and nuclear power stations ????)

The other field showed a long term result of increasingly intensive cereal farming. A crop of wheat was completely infested with Black Grass – Slender Foxtail, Alopecurus myosuroides. This is a weed of arable crops that has become a massive problem for farmers because it’s easily infected by ergot fungus which it passes on to the host crop – possibly even making it unsaleable. The refined extract of Ergot, Ergotamine, is used by midwives to induce labour. In historical times when it infected rye, it caused a disease known as St Anthony’s Fire which killed around a million people at the end of the first millennium and caused immense suffering through boils and hallucinations. This is not a road you want to go down! This didn’t used to be a problem when crops were mostly spring sown, but these days cereals are sown earlier and earlier in the autumn; germinating at exactly the same time as Black Grass. This challenge converged with another one – the overuse of chemical herbicides – and the Black Grass began to develop immunity to almost all the herbicides that had been used to keep it under control. A small problem suddenly became a really big one. The good news (if there’s any good news in this sorry tale of industrialisation) is that farmers are now having to cope with astronomical rises in the costs of diesel fuel, nitrogen fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, and so, suddenly the organic, regenerative and – dare I say – traditional mixed farming skills are getting a lot of attention.

So to go back to Patience Gray, we’ve fallen for the great lie that we can have feasting, feasting and more feasting if we follow the path of industrialisation. There’s nothing preventing us from moving towards a far more sustainable future so long as we can accept that every day can’t be Christmas Day without destroying the earth. There can be no more feasting unless we accept that a full and sustainable life has to embrace fasting as well.

Taking a step backwards to go forwards – and another new visitor to the allotment.

Madame hard at work

Ernest Hemingway wrote a letter to his daughter in which he said something to the effect that the only point of an education is to recognize bullshit! I very much agree with that, and over the past few years my own bullshit detector has almost worn out under the onslaught of vintage crap. I want to scream when politicians claim that they are following the evidence – when it’s evidence that they only just finished dreaming up on the back of an envelope. Science, of course, is supposed to be free of those kinds of bias – except it’s not. Too much science is bought and paid for, or suppressed by huge conglomerate industries who want you to believe that there’s nothing new or troubling about having glyphosate in your urine.

Of course it’s always been a bit like this. An old friend – a scientist with a mission to debunk dodgy claims – once showed me the catalogue of a local supplier of herbal remedies. It was full of testimonials to the fact that after only two days the correspondent had coughed, passed or otherwise voided tumours of considerable size and been returned to perfect health. Herbal medicine has always suffered from charlatans who prey on the desperate – which is a shame because in genuinely scientific trials, thousands of herbal remedies have been shown to have some merit. Drug companies have played a dirty double game making vast fortunes by identifying and synthesizing useful components of herbal medicine whilst lobbying to make sure that small scale herbalism is hamstrung by regulations preventing any claims of efficacy.

Madame and I have been reading the same book – “A Midwife’s Tale” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, which unravels the 27 years covered in the diary of Martha Ballard; an American midwife and local healer. For her, the plants she harvested in the neighbourhood and those she bought from the local doctor were the mainstay of her work, and although sometimes it takes a little research into local names, many of them find a place in Culpeper’s Herbal. What’s fascinating is the way that over the period the Harvard trained – therefore male – doctors began to dominate and push the women to one side.

Reading some of the entries you quickly realize that Martha Ballard’s herbal treatments didn’t – weren’t intended – to cure the multitude of injuries and illnesses that presented themselves, but to relieve symptoms; to bring comfort and some hope where there was none. This kindly battle against ordinary everyday suffering took place in a society without the means to heal many of the diseases modern medicine has almost vanquished. The drift into scientific medicine has immeasurably improved our life expectancy, but not without the loss of a huge resource to deal with the everyday complaints.

I was so intrigued by the diary that I began to think about the Potwell Inn allotment. Over the years we’ve planted a few things that we were aware have some healing properties. We make Calendula ointment every year, for instance because it’s tremendously useful for minor skin problems and costs a fortune to buy. The upshot was that I had a quick search through a modern translation of Culpeper edited by Steven Foster and discovered that we presently have forty two plants, mentioned and used by Culpeper, growing on the allotment – and it’s only 150 square metres. There are at least twenty more growing on the whole site, and I could find another twenty or thirty growing in the immediate vicinity – up and down the river and the canal. The canal is an especially useful resource because the narrowboat community would have sown patches of useful herbs along the length of their route to London. Essentially, these aren’t rare plants at all, but they’re potentially very useful – if not miracle cures – for the everyday ills we all know.

Fennel

I’d argue that the loss of the traditional knowledge of these remedies is a factor in the overloading and breakdown of the primary care system. The doctors won the monopoly to treat all our ills, but now that the funding has shrunk, they’re completely overwhelmed – often by precisely the kind of ordinary and non life-threatening problems the old remedies were best at dealing with.

The other point worth mentioning is that the list of useful plants on the allotment seems to sit somewhere in the middle between food and medicine. I suppose it’s blindingly obvious, but the distinction between the two categories is entirely arbitrary. Eating well keeps us well – is that so hard to understand? Let’s be clear, I’m not suggesting for a moment that we all become amateur herbalists, but that knowing that a plantain leaf is even better than a dock leaf for soothing nettle stings is one to pass on to the children, and the commercial herbal remedy we use for coughs is more effective and less dangerous than some of the heavily advertised alternatives. There are dozens of potentially effective remedies for minor ailments that would help to keep us out of the doctor’s waiting room – that’s if you can find one anyway!

So that’s a third arm to my argument in favour of gardening – it keeps us fed, it keeps us fit and healthy and it keeps us mindful. Someone should write a book about it – maybe it’s me?

Anyway the excellent news is that we now have a common frog living in the little pond. Here’s a photo – we think it’s beautiful.

Mindful gardening.

Honeybee feeding on Marjoram

We were eating lunch today whilst listening to the Food Programme on BBC radio. We’d missed the beginning but it didn’t take long to realize that the theme of mindfulness was everywhere apparent but nowhere expressed directly. Among the contributors was Tom Calver, a local cheesemaker who turns up every two weeks at the local farmers’ market. His stall couldn’t be less ostentatious – a trestle table with a large round of Westcombe Cheddar, another of Duckett’s Caerphilly – also made by him – and some ricotta. You’d have to ask just to find out the maker’s name, because there’s not even a sign. The first time I tasted Westcombe Cheddar I was transported back to my childhood, where we’d never set eyes on industrial cheese because my mother hated the flavour. Our cheese came with cotton scrim still clinging to the rind. Of course there are other fine handmade and raw milk Cheddars around, but Westcombe remains my absolute favourite. Naturally it costs much more than Cathedral City but over the months we’ve discovered it goes much further because it’s not a food that you snack on whilst passing the fridge. It’s definitely a sit down to savour kind of cheese – down to the last scrap of rind.

Many months ago we resolved to buy locally wherever possible and all our milk now comes from Tytherington Farm in Frome which offers a delicious low temperature pasteurised milk from a vending machine in Green Park Station – where the Saturday market takes place. We’ve also found (at last) a butcher there who sells high welfare organic meat from off the farm. Kimbers sell the best Gloucester Old Spot pork you’ve ever tasted and their lamb is produced by their son in law. You can buy fungi of every delightful variety; organic vegetables and so it goes on. The list is impressive. Combined with the vegetables we grow on the allotment we eat better and healthier food than you could buy in most restaurants; and so long as we’re careful we can live within our budget. It just means reducing the amounts of these expensive foods, principally by eating meat much less often.

Of course there’s an argument to be had for cutting out meat, dairy and eggs altogether; an argument that I don’t want to get into here except to say that to claim that all milk, eggs and meat production are equally polluting is to fly in the face of the evidence. How food is produced is crucially important to any discussion about the impact of farming on the environment so we need to move away from false arguments that treat the impact of small mixed farms as being identical to that of enormous industrial feedlots.

Tom Calver made the really interesting comment that cheesemaking can be quite boring if you don’t relish paying minute attention to each part of the process from pasture and herd management through the natural processes of cheesemaking right through to promoting and distributing the finished product. In fact every single contributor to the programme was making the same point. It’s complete dedication to every part of the process that makes the difference between food as a commodity and food as a joyful cultural celebration.

So to get back to today’s lunch at the Potwell Inn, there were new potatoes, peas and French beans all picked or dug this morning ; and beetroot harvested yesterday. None of them had travelled more than a quarter of a mile. We also had cold breast of lamb, rolled and stuffed that has lasted us a week, which was driven up to the market from Frome – all of 20 miles away. If you’ve never eaten peas harvested and then steamed for a couple of minutes, then you’ve never eaten peas. We grow a tall variety called “Show Perfection” by Robinsons and also a better known variety called “Alderman”. They’re big, fat and incredibly sweet.

In previous years our peas have been badly afflicted by Pea Moth but this year, although we’ve lost a few pods, has been quite different. In fact so far as pests are concerned we’ve had one of the best seasons ever. With all deference to the impossibility of any valid controlled trial, our hunch is that the transformation of the allotment from straight rows and bare earth to messy and a bit wild has brought in a host of insects – they’re everywhere. All the agonised discussions about pollinators ignore another huge advantage of getting the insects in. Many of them aren’t much use for pollinating but they’re ferocious predators. Some of the tiny wasp-like hoverflies and their kind like nothing more than to lay their eggs inside their hosts; eggs which hatch into maggots and ….. well I leave the rest to your imagination. So perhaps one of the advantages of our kind of organic messy wildlife gardening is that prey and predators are locked in a grisly battle that keeps us all happy. Even the Blackbirds join in the fun by eating the slug eggs around the path edges. When plants get attacked we leave them in the ground so the attack is confined – one lettuce in a group, for instance.

The borders are all planted with herbs and known pollinator attractors, and where herbs like Lovage and Fennel have flowered and set seed, we leave them in place. The sunflowers perform the same function and so the birds soon figure out where the food is. A rough and unscientific survey conducted from a deckchair suggests that wild Marjoram is one of our most popular nectar plants. This year we’ve seen the largest variety of insects, butterflies and moths, spiders, hoverflies, damselflies and dragonflies ever. But the key question is – “does all this attention on wildlife diminish the overall yield from the allotment?” and the answer is an unequivocal no!

There’s no scorched earth and no bare earth anywhere to be seen on the allotment. The 100% ground cover shades the earth and helps keep it moist, even in a heatwave such as we’re experiencing at the moment. It provides food and cover for a toad, and any number of small mammals from mice, through rats, to foxes, badgers and a ginger cat. We know this because there’s a trail cam that we move around the allotment to see what’s happening at night. The mindfulness demanded of cheese makers and brewers applies equally to us on the allotment. It might look a bit messy but we’re constantly monitoring the crops and the pests to see how things are going along. Some of our allotment neighbours might think that our obsessive attention to detail is a bit much and whilst we respect their right to take a fortnight off now and again, each and every setback through – for instance – too much or too little water accumulates and produces smaller weaker plants, smaller crops and higher pest attacks.

So let’s add the notion of mindful gardening to the equally important idea of messy gardening. My mother used to say “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits”. That’s a lovely way to describe gardening. Like music, the beauty is inescapably created by alternation of sound with silence, of mindfulness with activity, and – at the end – a profound sense of gratitude for the thing created. It’s very hard to experience that gratitude for a lump of industrial processed cheese or a packet of frozen peas. It’s always worth the wait for the real thing!

Not quite Adlestrop – but almost Potwell Inn!

On the day that fuel price protesters were blocking the motorways all over the country, we opted to catch the Weymouth train out of Bath Spa. It’s the small train which leaves the London main line at Bathampton turning right (that’s a technical term) via a set of points and on through the Avon Valley. In these days of diesel trains and welded rails, the characteristic sounds of the steam journey have changed from irregular beat to an even thrumming without interest – except, that is, when the train hits a set of points and clatters off to left or right with a diddley diddley diddley dum and a bit of a wiggle thrown in for good luck. At Bathampton it always feels as if we’re on the Hogwarts Express; veering off to an entirely different kind of countryside where the 1930’s Great Western Railway posters suddenly come to life and men wearing tweed jackets and trilby hats walk their labradors along the riverbank, trailing clouds of Cavendish tobacco smoke from their pipes.

Of course we weren’t going to Weymouth The train stops as often as a country bus; but the fare with our Railcard is cheaper than petrol plus parking; it’s the greener way to travel and we can stop for a pint or two at a country pub and get driven home by someone else. Anyway I love trains so it’s a no brainer. In fact we were only going as far as Avoncliff Halt and planned to do a new circular walk on what’s known as the “Two Valleys Walk” – a clever marketing ploy by the rail company . You follow the River Avon along the riverbank back to its confluence with the River Frome at Freshford. This was an excuse to revisit Friary Wood which we explored for medicinal herbs last Wednesday.

You’d think – with the A36 barely half a mile away and running along the upper half of the valley – that it would be noisy and overcrowded but it’s not. The roads into this stretch of woodland are not much wider than farm tracks and often end with a solitary group of buildings, hardly qualifying even as a hamlet. For once, in this car scorched earth, the best way to arrive is at one of the railway stations, on foot, and take the train. And, should you be lucky enough to alight at Avoncliff Halt, you climb a flight of concrete steps and meet the John Rennie aqueduct which carries the Kennet and Avon canal across the River Avon. It’s along this stretch of the river that road, rail and canal share a contour around the steep sided valley, but here at the lower level, water and peace prevail. There’s even a pub, the Crossed Guns, that does a decent meal and a pint or two; serving walkers, canal-goers and cyclists not to mention those who take the hazardous winding lane by car.

River Avon in quiet mode from the aqueduct.

Looking across the lily pads in the river to the pub it could almost pass for the Potwell Inn, but of course – being imaginary – nothing and nowhere ever lives up to the dream.

Naturally the poem that came to mind as we stood on the platform and watched the train clatter off towards Weymouth was Edward Thomas’s “Adlestrop”. A musing punctured by the cheerful heave ho of the diesel engine’s klaxon.

So off we walked down the southern bank of the Avon. It turned out to be as much a bird day as a plant hunt. Overhead we could hear and then we could see a Red Kite. A song thrush practiced its phrases in the trees where later we heard a Green Woodpecker and a late to bed Tawny owl. At the conjunction of the two rivers at Freshford Mill we turned up the riverside footpath to Friary Wood and on towards the village of Iford. We had never explored the river Frome before and knew very little about it. The village of Iford is so perfect you really feel you’ve stepped back a century and providentially, just as Madame was tackling a stile with a deep drop, the River Bailiff opened the gate for us and later, on the narrow bridge over the river, we had a long conversation about the river, the fishing and a mutual friend called Bob Talbot who ran a tackle shop in my first parish where he and Rene became my firm friends. Bob became my mentor over many an expedition on a Wednesday where I would wear my fishing clothes under a cassock while I took a communion service and scoot through the house discarding the clericals and out through the back gate where Bob would wait behind the high wall in his three wheeler, ready to whisk me away beyond the sharp eye of the Verger who would have grassed me up. The Bailiff – Ed – was a persuasive man and very nearly got me to join his angling club. We peered over the wall and saw multitudes of small Chub congregated there. He reminisced about the times when large Barbel were frequently caught and talked about the voluntary work that members did to maintain the river bank and the fish stocks.

Then a very steep climb to cross back to the Avon Valley and return to Avoncliff and the Crossed Guns – about five miles in all. Later – after lunch – we crossed the aqueduct again and waited for the train home. A perfect day, then!

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