Nature as prophylactic?

Once again today, in the newspaper, an article spelling out how uplifting and mentally stabilising is a dose of nature. I’ve seen dozens of these pieces recently and I recall reading somewhere that John Seymour has expressed some regret that his book “Nature Cure” had been rather misunderstood as a self-help guide for the depressed – it isn’t at all, but that didn’t stop someone writing and expressing their disappointment that there were only a couple of pages in the whole book devoted to the subject. I’ve read loads of excellent books describing an author’s recovery or self-discovery through engagement with the natural world, but that engagement has always been much greater than a walk in the woods. My first thought was to make a list of all the books that I think fall into the category but it would have been huge, and the first one that came to mind – Helen Macdonald’s “H is for Hawk” – which I loved – has disappeared into the chaos of my bookshelves.

I’d be the last person to criticise outdoor exercise and I’m sure that a bit of fresh air and sunshine can lift the spirits in a way that almost nothing else can, but the natural world isn’t a one-a-day prophylactic for all the derangements of life in the lockdown when it’s passively consumed – especially by way of television programmes! What most people discover is that it’s deep engagement that triggers the endorphins and gets all of those crazy biochemical events going.

Four years ago I made a hubristic resolution not to walk past a plant I couldn’t identify without at least trying to give it a name. It was a bonkers idea and Madame nearly killed me from frustration that our brisk walks turned into 100 yard crawls as I dragged along a bagful of books and a hand lens – but pretty soon I could get quite a few yards without having to stop and walking became a deeper pleasure than it had ever been before. My suggestion is not to go for a walk without choosing a common plant as a target (make sure it actually grows in your area) and going to look for it. Dandelion – tick; hawkbit – tick; cat’s ear – umm – tick? I think natural history works because it takes you out of yourself which, strangely, is what the word ecstasy is derived from. It’s hard to be worrying about getting old and fat when you’re face to face with a water vole in a ditch (mind you I was pretty drunk that time!)

As for allotmenteering and gardening being good for your mental health, try telling our neighbour who had one of the pots stolen from outside his front door last night. My second contribution to the prophylactic qualities of gardening is that it teaches you resilience.

Overnight the rats, or maybe mice, raided our broad beans and ate maybe fifteen pods, scattering the remains all over the path. Merciless traps have been set but they seem to recognise them and use them as a kind of table. The slugs too have visited the strawberries – so no, allotments do give joy but it’s always well seasoned with disappointment.

Is there a third prophylactic quality? Well I think it links to my theme of the week, as it were because growing things is always a dialogue in a language you haven’t quite learned. We can dispense with Dorothy Frances Gurney’s awful doggerel about being ‘closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth‘ – and say that the best we can ever hope for in gardening is a successful relationship with nature. And finally, I really enjoy the mindless repetitions of gardening. Hand weeding, pricking out and planting out, tying in, taking out side shoots. It’s hard to brood when you’re fully occupied, even in a very simple task.

But I suspect that some of my friends are quietly concerned that I’ve been brooding – perhaps it’s something I wrote – because I’ve received two books by post in the last 24 hours. So thank you Rose for sending me Patrick Barkham’s book “Islander” and thank you Mags for F G Brabant’s 1920 pocket guide to Snowdonia – both now perched at the top of the bedside stack, although I couldn’t resist a look at Barkham’s chapter on Bardsey and Brabant’s photos of places we’ve been to often. I’m really not depressed or anything like it; I was born with a restless, questioning temperament and a complete inability to relax – ask Madame!

And there’s always something new to try – like, for example – the new WordPress block editor which is miles better than the old one, with many more features but is a bit of a step up. Things aren’t where they were and adding photos to the media directory is much harder than it was. Well actually, it was pretty much automatic before but now it demands planning. This was all prompted by a solemn warning that there would be a switchover in ten days time. This has happened to me before and bitter experience teaches that getting your head around the new software is best tackled in advance. But I like it very much and this posting is the first I’ve written and edited in the new software. I’m a writer and anything that gets in the way of the process of writing is a terrible nuisance so I’m feeling quite pleased with myself.

Outside it’s blissfully sunny with high gusting winds bending the trees so that, if you closed your eyes, you could hear a sound like the sea in Cornwall or on a beach on Lleyn. Yesterday we staked and tied in all the tomato plants and the sunflowers in anticipation of the wind today. We’ve had a couple of sharp showers too, enough just to wet the ground and prove that the revised guttering on the shed roof is finally sending the rainwater where it’s meant to go.

Clay pipe bowl – possibly Richard Tylee of Widcombe and made in the 1690’s

And finally, another piece of archaeology from the plot. We often dig up clay pipes. There was a factory in the centre of town and another across the river in Widcombe where we think – from the incomplete stamp – this one was made. There are apparently signs that the site was a vineyard in Roman times, and here’s evidence of workmen in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. It been a market garden too, but since the war – an allotment site. It gives us a sense of history, linking us into the past as well as into the future. Our little plot gives us history, spirituality, natural science, organic food, great neighbours, fresh air and exercise. Not bad for less than £100 a year.

Losing my religion II – a visitation

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So I’m in a familiar church where I once worked and there’s a communion service going on. The celebrant who is an old friend and mentor comes across to me and mumbles a few incomprehensible words over my chalice. I ask where I’m supposed to take it and he says something like “oh, go and find someone” but when I look down at the chalice it’s filled with milk and not wine. I know that I need to find some wine so I go down the stone stairs into the vestry which is thick with dust; a long abandoned room, and everywhere I look there are empty wine bottles as if a party had been taking place but which has been over for many years.

It turns out, then, that growth and change in personal faith – if it involves discarding some previously important positions is – far easier than letting go of the religion and its rituals.  I don’t miss the constant anxiety about heresy and I certainly don’t miss bishops and what an old friend once called “stamp and circumponce” , but I still occasionally ache for the beauty of the music and the way the worship could draw people together, even in the most terrible circumstances.  It is worship in its truest sense when it reaches beyond the words and into a place without the restrictions of language, a place where theological orthodoxies become redundant.

I don’t analyse all my dreams but this is clearly another significant one, following so closely after my earlier posting “Kaddish” a week ago. You may think that dreams are just a load of random stuff, auto generated by an idling brain, but then you you might be missing out on ‘the royal road to the unconscious’ – as Freud put it. The dream tells me that the sacramental wine is spent and there’s nothing in the old way left to share. So what’s to replace the unbearable absence without compromising?

As the French poet Paul Valéry said

“A difficulty is a light ; an insurmountable difficulty is a sun .”

I’m not trained to take the problem by siege, and so I have to take the poet’s path – stalking the quarry for months, following its signs and leavings. As R S Thomas put it, to put my hand into the depression of the empty hare’s form and, feeling its warmth, know that it was there; edging along by inference with the occasional bold step. 

Yesterday morning, on the allotment, Madame was picking broad beans and there he was, drying his moist wings in the sun; slowly unfurling them in the warm light. She called over to me and we both spent minutes watching the emerging emperor  – the largest UK dragonfly and not one you bump into every day. In fact, short of finding one in this semi torpid state, I doubt if you’d ever actually bump into one. It would be so tempting to reach for the alien metaphors; there’s not much we share in common, looks-wise, with a dragonfly. But my thoughts hovered around the question of who, or what exactly was playing the part of the alien in this meeting.  He’d been around vastly longer than me and looked far better adapted to our broad beans than we do, even though he was several hundred yards away from the river or more likely the large pond on the other allotments beyond the lane. He was the emperor, and we can normally only watch his imperious cruising from a distance as he snaps up his lesser prey. He has the power and presence greatly to enrich our world and we, in our arrogance, usually diminish his.

I used to think that this was a reason for requiring some sort of god – someone to say thank you to, as well as someone to clean up the mess when we screw up, someone to come galloping over the horizon like the Seventh Cavalry and smite our enemies.

Madame and me once collected thirty pounds of blackberries – far more than we could possibly eat – but we couldn’t seem to stop ourselves. It was one of those occasions when I felt the overwhelming desire to thank someone for this generous gift, but since they were growing wild and without human intervention we could not.  I wish I could weave a morally improving tale around this snippet of history but in truth we made a very large quantity of the worst chutney ever confected from a surplus and a bad recipe. Then, to make matters worse, we gave it away as gifts to friends who deserved better.

I suppose our instincts generally lead us to invent an invisible but useful entity to thank and cajole for the way things are but I’ve increasingly come to believe that we don’t need to look beyond the created universe. Maybe the great spiritual challenge of this age is to bring to science – which can only deal with mathematics, measurements and testable hypotheses – an opening for wonder and worship that can takes the whole of creation for its object without resorting to gods, whether kindly or malevolent; because humans are not just vulnerable to viruses but to the idolatry of wealth and power. We suck up nature and turn it into electric light, and cars, and plastic and murderous weapons of destruction.  We turn the basic matter of creation into chemicals and fertilisers because we are besotted with power and have no eyes or ears for the suffering earth.

So maybe we do, after all, need to repurpose some of the old things. Maybe we need structures for penitence, thanksgiving and reconciliation. Maybe we need to recover the sense that the food we grow and prepare is properly seen as sacramental rather than instrumental.  Just imagine the impact that nontheistic prayer and meditation might have on our behaviour.  Imagine the impact of compassion as a basic human virtue taught to us all as children. In fact none of the traditional virtues require enforcement by omniscient and omnipotent gods and their agents.

But enough.  Spring drives on, and we are struggling to keep up. We re-pot seedlings and in days they double in size; this extraordinary vitality in which we share and which feeds us – and could house and clothe us too if we could find our right minds – this huge encompassing force in which we live and breathe is vulnerable and there is no invisible Seventh Cavalry to ride over the horizon and save us.  We have seen the enemy – it is us. 

Today we ordered more glass bottles and jars for the preserving season. If the coronavirus pandemic has shown us anything it is that subcontracting our food supply to the supermarkets was a deadly error. For us at the Potwell Inn and, we hope, for many others, we won’t be going back to the old normal. We’ll grow and save and store, buy locally and try not to waste, but not from fear but from a bigger vision, one that transcends extreme materialism and ancient dualisms, and is is content to say that the whole of creation, including the earth, is our mother and father and our grand and great grandparent back to the beginning of time. One family that includes all that is, all that has been and all that will be.é

Losing my religion – 1

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My sourdough starter is happy. This is the kind of statement that drives philosophers crazy, but to me – and hopefully to you – it makes complete sense.  When dogs wag their tails, we say they’re happy too; inviting philosophical sceptics to raise their eyebrows and turn away.

For weeks, during this lockdown, I couldn’t get any rye flour – which is what my starter was ‘conceived’ in (sorry, that’s another one) and what it’s been fed on ever since – for years and years. For almost two months I was only able to feed it with refined white bread flour at first and wholemeal spelt flour later on.  The white flour was not a success.  the starter fizzed up for a few hours and then slowed right down and began to settle into a sludgy mess at the bottom and a dark liquid on top. It also smelt quite different. One of the distinguishing features of my starter is that it smells strongly of apples, but fed with white flour it began to smell vinegary. I should add that it still worked perfectly well but never quite felt the same. The spelt flour was better but still tended to settle out. But this week, back on the rye flour, the starter has begun to thrive again, bubbling away for several days without needing a feed and has also returned to its old apple smell. In short, it was happy.

Sourdough can be happy; plants – we gardeners all understand – can be happy and so can soil and even cattle.  I once saw a herd of local cattle which had been led up to the Aubrac hills in France, during the transhumance, and I swear they were happy too – smiling broadly in a contented sort of cowy way. The local cheeses – made by the farmers – were fabulous as well.

So there’s a conundrum here. We, in our careless linguistic way, ascribe feelings to dogs cats and cows. We stretch the concept to include plants, trees, butterflies, sourdough starters and even – if you’re into that sort of thing – rat tailed maggots and, in our careless sort of way we ascribe some form of consciousness to them. If rat tailed maggots can be happy they must have feelings and must, ergo, be conscious.  We gardeners and allotmenteers are always happy to see their hoverfly stage eating our pests. 

There’s a philosophical conundrum lurking in the middle of all this that’s pretty complex and it affects the whole way we look at the earth and creation.  If we say that only humans possess consciousness then it’s harder to make a moral or ethical case against exploiting another part of creation that (we believe) – doesn’t, because it only exists for our benefit. You see where this is leading – all human societies have their theoretical underpinning – call it common sense if you must – and the worst of this one is that it separates humans from the rest of creation. If you want to read a whole lot more about this I recommend Philip Goff’s book “Galileo’s Error”.

The takeaway point is that consciousness could be a fundamental quality of nature – from the tiniest subatomic event to the formidable consciousness of the human mind. The argument’s all there in the book, and it’s a bit disintegrating if, by that, you understand that we tend to lean on a whole set of assumptions to get through the day and when those assumptions are demolished, the simplest actions get more complicated. We think that trees, by our standards, lack consciousness – but they not only communicate with one another, they share sustenance – favouring immediate relatives, warn one another about pathogens and insect attacks over wide areas but – get this – they accomplish this by collaborating with fungi, using their network of microscopic threads as a kind of natural cable network. But, of course – if all of nature is talking but we stand aside, contemptuously refusing to join the conversation, we can’t hear what all nature is trying to tell us – that we are rapidly destroying ourselves. Tree hugging, it seems, is not so silly when the tree and its inhabitants are trying to warn us about the oncoming train.

All this, of course is a first draft.  It may be that it’s a quirk of my own nature that I’m always asking ‘why?’ but my scepticism isn’t one of those smart things I might say when I’m trying to impress, it’s hard wired into me – examining gift-horse teeth, examining the entrails of common sense and being generally annoying. Socrates, after all said that the unexamined life wasn’t worth living, and it cost him his life.  I hope to get away with a few sleepless nights and a headache, but ‘because I say so’ has never got me to sign a direct debit form!

There’s much, much more I want to write but for the moment I need fresh air – and the allotment is perpetually thirsty. As for Naomi Klein, I can only read her in small doses because I find her so disturbing, but here’s a cheerful photo I took a couple of days ago in the centre of Bath. It’s a hoary plantain – not really rare, but let’s say unusual.  You might pass it by but it’s a tiny, inconspicuous gem – the only one among its cousins that’s pollinated by insects rather than by the wind. Why’s that? I wonder.IMG_20200516_181322

 

Kaddish

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I fell asleep reading a new book – ‘Galileo’s Error’ today – absolutely no criticism of the author Philip Goff, I was just feeling exhausted, for no obvious reason save for the fact that we feel lost, confused, abandoned by our government; and my son had sent me the book after several of our long philosophical telephone discussions about materialism and consciousness.  One of the cruelties of the pandemic is being separated from our family. It’s been my mission. all my life, to find ways of talking about, and being, fully human; and the allotment, cooking, natural history, remembering and celebrating are all a part of the picture.

But being fully human seems to involve other, more controversial elements which can often become points of division. There are words I dislike using – like ‘spirituality’ or ‘soul’, for instance – not because they don’t correspond to anything meaningful but because the settings in which they’ve been developed and discussed have been fatally compromised. They became keywords in the history of religious slaughter and abuse. However, it seems almost impossible to do without them if we want to embrace life in all its fullness. My son recommended the book as a possible way towards a solution of the difficulty – ‘”it’s a popular book” – he said – “A four hour read, but a real challenge” 

I always find the very best books get me on my feet, pacing about; thinking carefully.  Sleeping isn’t normally a way of pacing around, but today – in a throwback to a previous life – I dreamed a part of the way out. Until today I would have associated the word Kaddish with Allen Ginsberg the American poet.

My dream took place exactly where I was, in fact, lying asleep but I seemed to be fully conscious of all the sadness surrounding us; and somewhere in the background was the sound of the Kaddish being sung.  I’ve never heard the Kaddish being sung but I knew for certain that this was it – glorious, defiant, haunting. There were dream tears running down my face and then I heard the altogether closer sound of a cat purring just behind my head.  I reached behind to the arm of the sofa where it was sitting and stroked it. And then I woke in the absolute certainty that this was what the Jungians would regard as a significant dream needing to be brought into the light of day.

If ever there were a more telling dream lesson of what we’ve neglected through our greedy materialism I’ve yet to hear it. We’ve had anger in abundance; we’ve had politics and economics, and every half-wit with a computer has offered their theory.  But there’s been no lament; no Kaddish for the dead but merely statistics, theories and the counting of money.

What about the cat? Well, the thing about a cat, or a dog or whatever other pet is that essentially there’s a relationship – even a relationship of love. But materialism has even turned big nature into a paid-for TV experience. We could perhaps do well to emulate our love for pets in our love for weeds and birds and insects and wildflowers.

I’ve no idea what to do with this insight – yet – but I guess I will one day.

 

 

We’re a neighbourly lot

Having barely left the flat for weeks – except for going to the allotment – we went out for a walk yesterday evening, drinking in the unusual peace and quiet. The trees on the green are stunning at this time of the year, not least the horse chestnuts in full flower.  The initial object of our enquiries was the state of the elderflower blossom which looks as if it will be ready to pick on Friday.  Cue for a great manufacture of cordial to last the year. Our neighbours have excelled themselves this spring with front door displays. These houses may look like haunts of the wealthy but they’re not. Moving clockwise from the top left, the third photo was taken outside a house that’s been abandoned for years.  The lovely display of Mexican fleabane is entirely spontaneous. The other doorways are all maintained by individual flat dwellers and they really lift the feel of the street. The photo of the window boxes on the bottom right are our window boxes from June 2017 – so a bit IMG_20200503_110448of a cheat. This years are going to be less opulent because we haven’t been able to get the plants from the garden centres which are all closed, but we’ve been propagating geraniums and ivy and we managed to get a few petunias by mail order so we’ll catch up eventually. But the main doorway to our flats is a bit barren and decorated only by a bit of graffiti that appeared a couple of nights ago. I suppose it slightly advances our edgy credentials, but it’s a shame.

So having checked out the elderflower crop we wandered on into town via some of the tourist hotspots.  Royal Crescent was all but deserted and the streets around it were much the same.  The main visitor car park was completely empty – not a car in sight, and as we walked along the deserted road towards the Circus a full moon was showing beautifully above the trees. Everywhere we walked was deserted with businesses closed – some for good –  and notices for creditors on the windows.  The Loch Fyne restaurant was boarded up.  There were out of date posters advertising long cancelled events, and the only signs of movement were cyclists delivering takeaway food. Delightful to see Bath in this way, but quite spooky too – something terrible is happening and it feels as if a whole way of life with its infrastructure of cafes, restaurants, bookshops, pubs, clubs and theatres is under threat. What will emerge is a hugely important question, but we can sense the drive amongst some politicians to get back to normal as soon as possible oblivious to the fact that it was the old normal that got us into this disaster in the first place.

For us at the Potwell Inn, this crisis is causing a complete rethink of where and how we buy the things we can’t grow ourselves. The deficiencies and inequalities in our society have been forensically exposed by covid 19. We can do better than this.

When the telos gets broken ….

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I didn’t post yesterday because it was one of those energy sapping days.  I foolishly read an overheated news piece involving millions of pounds of investment into developing a new kind of nitrogen fertiliser that will contain GM bacteria that allow cereal crops to make their own nitrogen – marvellous (I’m kidding – it’s potentially disastrous). And so it went on.  I tried to write using the new and greatly improved Project Gutenberg editing interface but I simply couldn’t get the hang of it and in the end a whole chunk of yesterday’s post disappeared into the ether. I spent hours on the allotment with Madame, planting out, and then more hours trying to make the diverter on the water storage system work properly instead of sending most of the rainwater under the shed. After more hours today I ripped out the old system and installed (bodged) a new one that looks messy but at least captures all the rainwater. Nothing went disastrously wrong and yet nothing went well either.

It’s not that I feel depressed – I know what that feels like and it’s horrible and disabling; but thinking about it today, I reckon I’ve nailed the cause for my sense of unrest.  There are many things that I think we need, to flourish as humans, but among them are two that are particularly under threat in the present pandemic. The first is telos – the sense of where we’re going and what we’re for – what we’re intended to become; and the second is agency – the capacity to direct our energies towards objects that we choose freely.  When things are going well the first – telos – gives us a sense of what it is we’re growing towards, and the second – agency – allows us the freedom to conduct our lives in the way that leads to our goal. When these are broken or denied to us we lose any sense of belonging and it feels as if we’re in a tunnel that may emerge somewhere we didn’t choose and don’t want to be, and that’s when we lose any sense of delight in things that normally fill us with joy.

Without being too dramatic about it, the flow of life has turned into a torrent and the lies, evasions and incompetence of some of our elected leaders suggests that they took a wrong turn some while back and are actually taking us towards the rapids instead of away from them.  Cue dramatic music but also a huge sense of disappointment and loss.

The hedgerows are full of flowers, cow parsley, mayflowers, dandelions and all the early risers.  The horse chestnuts are laden with blossom  and when the sun shines the earth seems to embrace it.  This should be one of the peak moments of the year and yet it’s tinged with loss and bereavement. We plod on, missing our families and friends; missing our normal textured lives and hoping  – some of us may even be praying – that we can wrestle a blessing out of this darkness.

 

H’m

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I’m in two minds about this posting, knowing how uneasy I can feel when writers I’ve enjoyed seem suddenly to change tack, shape shift; enlarge and offer a glimpse into another possibility of being human. Here’s this imaginary place called the Potwell Inn in which an allotmenteer and his partner live and where they cook and grow food and travel a bit and muse about this and that; alluding occasionally to past, pre retirement lives, children and grandchildren. All very neat and tidy until the big crises of the twenty first century intrude and we have to pay attention to the environment and economics and politics. But even then, a predictably leftist, new age, hippy dippy character who if not actually in a box, is certainly capable of being measured up for it.

Really? Is that it?

Once, in an early session that began years of therapy I burst into uncontrollable tears. This was before I finally left the armchair and walked to the couch – it’s a long way in a small room. I was talking about Odysseus’ return to his home in Ithaca where his wife Penelope, who doesn’t recognise him dressed as a beggar, orders her maid Eurycleia to bathe him.  Eurycleia, his childhood nursemaid recognises Odysseus by the old scar on his leg. The simple recounting of that story unexpectedly reduced me to helpless vulnerability.

Looking back, I think the extraordinary reaction was due to the exposure of my need to be known. I don’t mean famous, rich or powerful – just known, and that demands a level of trust that most of the time neither I or anyone else can easily manage, and so we spend (forgive me for generalising, I don’t think I’m alone here) – we spend more time concealing than revealing ourselves, and then we beat ourselves up when people don’t ‘get’ us.

And all this reflection was provoked because last night we watched the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s book “Normal People” – which Madame had read and thought I’d enjoy. To tell the truth I was deeply touched by it; by the parallels in our own early relationship but perhaps more than anything by the way it evoked the confusion, the bewilderment and the overwhelming sensuality of falling in love as a teenager surrounded by people who don’t get it – parents, teachers, friends – grown ups in general. I haven’t watched the rest yet, I don’t know if I want to, because there’s no drama in happiness, and no happiness in drama, that’s for sure.

But that’s teenagers, and now we’re all grown up and far too sensible, far too willing to settle for less, far too willing to judge harshly when others break out, (I thought to myself), and then, quite out of the blue, I realized that in some complicated sense I’m still a teenager, but that now the disapproving voices are all younger than me. Something dreadful happens and growing up brings with it the terrible danger of first becoming a metaphor of oneself and then a cliché. We can become the same hatchet jawed judges who once judged us and sneered that we’d soon know better.  We can become them, but we don’t have to, and we can even stop it if we wish to.

What this pandemic seems to have done is to evoke in me the same sense of powerlessness, of being subject to the will of others who don’t understand, who can’t live in the bright tumultuous sun, who can neither love or be loved but treat life like a game of musical chairs and will fight to the death to be the last man sitting.

And so the rain came last night, absolutely on cue.  If only the rest of our lives were so predictable.

*H’m is the title of one of RS Thomas’ collections of poems.  The photo was taken on one of the beaches in his parish.

Oh the grand old Duke of York

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No – nothing to do with the photo or the present royal family but more of a mea culpa because yesterday, having thought about it, we marched back down the hill and put the tomatoes back into the greenhouse where they should be safer. Tomatoes don’t really like going below 10C and night time temperatures at this time of the year are inclined to drop a little below that. On sunny days like today and under a cloche, the plants would almost certainly make do with the radiated warmth of the earth; but we’ve got a grey and cooler week coming and we can’t rely on good fortune getting the plants through.  All of which reversal of the previous strategy leads me to warn that I’m no gardening guru – just muddling through the perplexities of growing crops in strange times like everyone else!

The asparagus in the photo represents the amount we’re able to cut every other day on our small patch at the moment.  It’s the third season and so we’re allowing ourselves the luxury of cutting for a few, maybe three, weeks before we let the plants grow and feed their roots for one more year before we crop them properly. Over the last two weeks the production has grown steadily, but it’s clear that asparagus is more of a seasonal treat than a staple.  On the other hand, after the first few rather skinny fronds that can be a little bitter, the flavour is (to borrow a line from ee cummings) as big as a circus tent. There’s only one other luxury that comes close and that’s our artichokes, but they too take up a lot of space for which they repay us by being astoundingly beautiful. Allotments are as good at feeding the soul as they are at feeding the body.

Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen, our indoor basil crop had matured and we were able to cut 200g of leaves, which is quite a big pile, and so Madame made a big pot of pesto that filled the flat with the fragrance of the mediterranean – and was very good later on a slice of toasted sourdough brushed with oil and grilled on a big ribbed cast iron pan, topped with salad greens and the asparagus – much of which was our own produce.

But now, apart from the propagators, the flat is free of young plants; the greenhouse is full once more and we were able to dismantle the array of improvised tables that filled every south facing window – so now we can close the shutters after dark. The allotment is looking fine, but our gentle terracing is expensive of topsoil, and having ridged up the potatoes twice, there was nothing left to cover them with so I’ve ordered a ton of topsoil which is arriving today and will need wheelbarrowing down the site. A whole ton sounds like a lot, but it’s surprising how quickly the allotment swallows it up. Someone suggested yesterday that we pinch the soil we need from the vacant plot below us.  I was stunned to hear it!  This was a perfectly law abiding and very pleasant person suggesting that we steal the fertility from another plot, depriving its future tenant of its goodness. No doubt the soil that’s delivered will have come from some poor paved-over garden, or maybe bulldozed off from a pristine woodland standing in the way of the HS2, but at least we’ll give it a new life, like a liberated battery hen. There’s a sermon to be preached there which I’ve no intention of burdening you with – but it’s a wonderful example of the way an ideology, in this case the way of thought that the earth is no more than an exploitable resource, can warp and corrupt our whole view of life. Breaking out of the cage is a struggle, but the change of perspective is exhilarating, like being reborn – if I dare say so.

We like to blame agribusiness, intensive farming or the chemical industry for the plight of the earth, but we all play our part in patrolling the ramparts of the ideological prison; buying the products, buying the big story and imagining that life inside the prison is the only show in town.

Enough! and praise be for the sunshine today. At last all the beds will be pretty much level with enough topsoil to grow championship parsnips – not that growing championship parsnips is a particular ambition.

 

“God for Harry, England and …” oh do shut up!

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First thing this morning, as soon as I turned my phone on, came the proclamation of St George’s Day tomorrow. I like St George’s Day because it’s a fixed point in the year unlike Easter that wanders all over the place.  I also like it because it’s peak dandelion time in the UK and I like it because it’s the closest memorable festival to the date of the last frost here. What amuses me greatly is the fact that the flag of St George has been adopted so enthusiastically by the extreme right who appear blissfully unaware that he was almost certainly a dark skinned Maltese. Shakespeare, sadly, introduced a lot of beautiful but daft clutter into our national consciousness.

Aside from the stereotype that the British are obsessed with the weather – (in my book it can’t be a stereotype because it’s true) – for an allotmenteer or a gardener weather matters big-time. Weeks of preparation and nurturing of young tender plants can be ruined in a night, but the difference between gardening and allotments is that gardens are adjacent to the house and so a last ditch trip outside in the dark can save the day.  On an allotment there’s a risk that you’ll wake up half a mile from the ruins.  Madame used to work at an apple research station where in one experiment , during blossom time, they would spray a fine water mist over the trees because paradoxically it didn’t damage but protected the crop even when, at dawn, the orchards were a fairyland of icicles – much loved by local TV crews when it was a slow news day.   The ice would melt, the trees would shrug and life went on. Historically, less high-tech solutions would be strategically placed bonfires, and on our allotments we’ve fixed fabric barriers to slow the frost that rolls down the hill and parks itself over us. It’s easier when the trees at the top of the site come into leaf; but in gardening the best you can ever do is slow things down to avoid the worst of the risk. Nets, cloches and fleece are all lifesavers – but only if you remember to put them out.

On the internet – which, like Shakespeare, has a lot to answer for, you can gather an array of last frost dates and this morning when I looked I saw that one gardening site has moved our last date back by a week to the ‘end of April’. Good news if it’s true but I’ve got May 6th in my diary for the last time our runner beans got slaughtered and so that’s the date we’ll go with here at the Potwell Inn, thank you very much. The thing about frost is that it can be ridiculously local – down to the corner of a field. Here as in so many things, local knowledge beats Google hands down.

All the gardening books talk about ‘hardening off’, but I think I prefer the term ‘tempering’. Plants are funny creatures and a large part of so-called ‘green fingers’ is being able to read their moods.  At this time of the year we’ve raised almost all of our tender plants in the propagators and then they go through a slow progression through the warmth and sunshine of the tables against south facing windows and into the hallway which has a softer light and is probably seven or eight degrees cooler, and thence to the unheated greenhouse followed by days outside and nights inside. It can take several weeks to go through this tempering process and all the while we’re watching the weather. Last week we moved some chillies into the hall and, after a couple of days, we could see that in some indefinable way they weren’t happy.  Moved back inside they said ‘thank you very much’ and got on with their lives. ‘Hardening off’ suggests a rather harsh, one-off life lesson centred solely on temperature,  ‘Tempering’, on the other hand feels more like education; a preparation for life outside in the beds.

Inevitably there’s a brief pause between the sowing of seeds indoors and the planting out, perhaps a month later. Meanwhile there are always last minute preparations to the beds, harvesting the early risers and feeding the fruit trees. For the third year running we’re enjoying a sunny few weeks in April, although this year it’s been a bit compromised by cool easterly and north-easterly winds. But you can’t have it all – the south-westerlies are the best bearers of rain and so we also spend quite a lot of time watering the recently planted out hardy seedlings. Even in the harshest of times – and these are harsh indeed, the modalities of sun, rain and earth remind us that there’s a bigger story that won’t go away. Every day, as gardeners, we learn that we must relinquish any dreams of control over these great forces and do as the Taoists do – learn to trust and move with them.

Sweet Cicely again.

Here at the Potwell Inn we’re beginning the sixth week of our lockdown because we started a little earlier than the Government. There have been many moments of doubt, but on the whole it’s been a positive experience because it’s affirmed the choices we’ve already  made over the years about the way we live. So baking, for instance hasn’t come as a new skill, nor has gardening or cooking. We hardly ever ate out; we gave up going abroad when we retired because we couldn’t really afford it any more. The biggest changes due to the lockdown have been the clean plates. We’ve eaten well but carefully and because we’re cooking smaller portions we finish it all. That’s it really.  The cleaner air, the absence of traffic and noise have been an absolute bonus. The biggest loss has been the fact that we can’t use the campervan and so a whole missing season of walking, botanising, mountains and seaside  therapy  has left a huge gap in our lives and we’ll never stop yearning for France. So far as I’m concerned that really doesn’t add up to saintly renunciation.

My biggest concern – it’s becoming an obsession – is that the covid 19 pandemic has displaced almost every other issue in public life.  I feel like the cartoon character with a billboard that proclaims the end is nigh! – people laugh, dismiss my concerns and take a wide berth; but the smallest glimpse at history teaches that civilisations and cultures really do come to an end when they are overwhelmed by their contradictions and overreach themselves. When Thomas Cromwell appropriated the wealth of the monasteries they were already well on their way to collapsing. The supply of peasant labour that kept the farms going was beginning to dry up and many of the monks were far from home, collecting rents.  The fabulous wealth of the church was ripe for the picking, it had become spiritually bankrupt and far too interested in projecting political power. It was Cromwell who had the cunning plan.

But when the prevailing ideology of a civilisation or culture is exposed as bankrupt, unworkable, fraudulent or downright dangerous it’s only a matter of time before it collapses.  That’s a fact of history, not a prediction for the future. This isn’t a long holiday paid for by the state, but it may be a moment in an historical earthquake. Climate change, economic collapse and species extinctions are not going to take a furlough while the politicians get the old, damaged economy back on its feet. The only question is – do we want to do survival the hard way or the catastrophic way? 

All of which gloomy thoughts have provoked me to write about Sweet Cicely because whatever the future, these precious weeds will have a part in it. Welcome to the Potwell Inn windowsill which is pressed into service as a greenhouse, a source of free light and heat and an entertainment centre through which we can watch the world even though we’re confined – aside from daily trips to the allotment. I’d long wanted to grow it because it’s an early riser like rhubarb and its natural sweetness and faintly aniseed flavour make the perfect companion to it. The best culinary herbs are often not the ones that shout at you like a trumpet in a Sicilian marching band. They’re more subtle – so much so that you only notice their absence and not their presence. So yesterday we gathered both and cooked them, and the addition of a few Sweet Cicely leaves makes an indefinable but profound difference, adding depth. Home grown rhubarb straight out of the ground is marvellous anyway, but this way it’s even better.

I spoke of it, just then, as a weed – and, in Yorkshire for instance, that’s what it is – as common as Cow Parsley is down here in the South West. Our plants had a difficult beginning. I actually bought some seeds three years ago, shoved them into some seed compost and waited – nothing happened. Did I ever write about the RTFM notice? Years ago I worked in a satellite radio station where there was a large notice written over the desk.  “In the event of equipment failure RTFM” I asked an engineer one day what it meant. “Read the manual” he replied tartly.

So after the Sweet Cicely had sulked for a very long time I read the manual and it appeared that they were tricky little devils to germinate because they needed a period of cold (vernalization).  So into the fridge they went, pots and all, in a plastic bag where I forgot all about them. Later we went to see friends in Yorkshire and there were plants growing absolutely everywhere – like weeds – in Nidderdale, where we were. So I grabbed a handful of the interestingly large seeds, shoved them in my pocket until we got home and then I put them into pots and left them outside without much hope. Up they sprang and I planted them into a corner where I thought they couldn’t do too much harm and that was that. Eventually I remembered the ones in the fridge and sunk the little pots into a bigger one and left them outside on the allotment where they too germinated. I can definitely confirm that once they’ve got their roots down they are completely worthy of their weedy reputation just as they are worthy of a place on any allotment – just for the rhubarb, although the green seeds are also delicious and have a lot of potential for cooking.

The other two plants on the windowsill were Dill and Lovage – also early risers on the allotment. Dill is just wonderful (in small amounts) added to parsley in a fish pie; and Lovage is a marvellous addition to any vegetable stock (oh and in Pimms too). In the trug yesterday was another cutting of Purple Sprouting Broccoli which is at its peak at the moment. The important point about it is that although it’s in the ground for almost two years, the sprouts themselves grow and ripen in days and so they are immensely tender – stalk and all. I suspect that’s the reason why commercial growers have adopted the term “tenderstem” – because non gardeners might cut the stalks off (oh horror!).  They’re as good as asparagus and a lot more prolific. At the moment our 12′ X 5′ asparagus bed is yielding a small feed every two days.  The Purple Sprouting (5 plants) would yield a trug full in the same time.

The other seasonal blessing is Spinach – it doesn’t care for midsummer and wants to bolt, so now is the time to harvest, and you can sow more in late summer for the winter months.  Meanwhile  the chards will take over.