I know it’s a mess but it’s my mess

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My son will feel faint when he sees this mess, but I find it comforting. The little tin of Leonardt pen nibs just to the left of the laptop, the Rite in the Rain notebook with so many botanising adventures written inside, the red cabbage leaf patiently waiting to be painted.  He’ll laugh out loud at the early morning espresso that will shortly make me feel faint and – knowing him – he’ll be looking at the book to see what I’m reading. He’s a philosopher so his life and mine are both made from books which we eat up eagerly and then after an interval of indigestion, wait for our minds to turn into food.

Digesting a book is a slow process. The good ones are often very expensive and so they need to be prepared for. Fifty quid for the new, fourth, edition of Stace will need a long period of deliberation followed by a reckless moment of ordering (it’s not the sort of book you can get from the local Waterstones), anxious days of waiting for the post to arrive from Summerfields and then ….. first anxious look …… plants have mysteriously uprooted themselves from their familiar page and re-homed themselves with another family. Looking up the simplest thing is agonisingly slow and so back to the old familiar.  This can take months! Finally (I haven’t even dared to order it yet) we shall become friends.

Most books need a period of resting before I can read them – let’s call it shelf life for the sake of an easy joke. I need to get over the extravagance and remember what the exact impulse was for buying them in the first place. Sometimes, no – often – the original impulse was associated with a particular vein of thought which has become a worked out lode.  The roof collapsed, or got too low to follow. Sometimes I consume them hungrily but either the book’s not ready for me or I’m not ready for the book, and it goes on to the shelf again until I’ve caught up – maybe years later.  The best books are the ones I read when I was nineteen and understood perfectly – until I read them again at thirty, or fifty or even seventy and each time discovered I’d never understood them at all. I have the clearest memory of a boring summer afternoon in a library where I pulled down a copy of Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” and read it standing up as only a hungry teenager can. I didn’t understand a fraction of it; I only discovered that Leach was a Sufi many years later – hence the profound spirituality of a book about pots  – and even today my first impulse on handling a pot is to turn it upside down to see the base, touch the bare, unglazed rim to my lips and ping it.  Everyone I know except my son’s partner, who was born in Stoke on Trent, thinks this is a bit weird. The best books are long affaires, kept secret from any chance of mockery.

Sometimes me and the book need a period away from each other while we both catch up.  I read them once, put them back on the shelf and then come back years later with an older mind. The book on my desk took 25 years, or rather it took me 25 years to catch up. I probably bought “This Sacred Earth” – Roger Gottlieb’s compendium of writing from around the earth in 1996, the year it was published. At that time I would have been deeply involved in parish life, and I’ve no recollection of reading it the first time.  It’s still in print in a second edition, along with a number of other books on green and deep ecology and radical political thought. It came off the shelf yesterday and I was transfixed by the relevance of the essays and extracts.

Yesterday I was talking about the Extinction Rebellion movement with my son. He told me he’d been shocked to see an old edition of “Spitting Image” (TV show) in which may of the ER issues were aired, more than a decade before many of its members were born. Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published before most of their parents were born! Species extinctions and climate catastrophe aren’t new ideas, they’ve been around for more than half a century and, by and large, we did nothing about them. If the young have a charge against the old it’s our inaction in the face of the incontrovertible facts that were staring us in the face.  We turned away – and that was a sin against the earth.

Now, wherever I look, I see the voices of the unheard shouting across the years. Did it only become a ‘proper’ problem when the dominating culture of the west appropriated it? Did we only take it seriously when it became an ‘ology’? – to borrow a phrase from an elderly friend who would say (disparagingly) “Oh he’s very clever, he’s got an ‘ology!'”.

Gosh I can’t remember the last sentence I wrote with four consecutive punctuation marks.

So there it is.  My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of slowly composting ideas that will, in the fullness of time, be returned to the earth. To borrow an idea from another book I needed to put aside, because I didn’t know if anyone was listening any more, may we be granted time for repentance and the amendment of our lives – not just for ourselves but for our children and their children down the years.

 

How to turn anger into food

Last night turned into a bit of a lost cause, I’m afraid. I was angry at the unfolding election results, the people in the flat upstairs had their television turned up loud so I couldn’t get away from the mindless excitement of the commentators who seemed emotionally detached from the harm being caused, because they had framed the election as a heavyweight boxing match. So I got up and made bread – an everyday sourdough and some soft rolls for the morning.

I can’t sleep when I’m angry and one strategy is to get dressed and wander the streets – it was easy in our previous place, but much dodgier here – the burger bar at the back is open until 3.00am and has more than its share of angry confrontations. The other is to cook, which in many ways is more successful because it’s active and there’s always something positive at the end. So a sourdough loaf proving on the stove and ten morning rolls represented the positive transformation of venom into breakfast – an almost alchemical feat which left me a lot calmer.

But we were both very tired and needed some fresh air in the morning and so we drove over Dyrham Park for a walk around the boundary. The wind was roaring in from the west but it felt as if it had come straight off the Russian steppes. Within minutes we were shriven with the cold and we walked quickly to keep warm. A large flock of roe deer kept a wary eye on us as we walked the ridge in the full force of the wind but then we dropped down into the more sheltered valley and thereafter we had the wind in our backs. An occasional breach in the clouds allowed the sun to drench the bare beech trees in intense light , illuminating this year’s new wood and next year’s buds as a reddish brown halo around them. Underfoot many of the perennials were pushing out rosettes of leaves – winter is anything but static. Overhead the rooks and crows were making the most of the wind, tumbling down like black leaves and rising again in the wind, playing,  like the buzzard cruising the fields below. Immediately overhead two gliders found the updraught and circled in complete silence. There were a few other walkers around but apart from a brief greeting there was no will to stand and talk. Yesterday’s rain had drenched the ground and there were deep puddles to be negotiated.

The walk did its own healing and we drove home in a reflective mood.  I’d been fascinated by the fallen tree and its surprisingly shallow and small root ball.  The park seems to have a policy of leaving a good deal of dead timber lying around – which must be a boon to the invertebrates.  Later the boys phoned, one by one, having gone through exactly the same emotional journey as we had.  Our teacher son said that these days when angry parents ask why their child is being taught by a supply teacher he replies – “didn’t you know there’s been a recruitment crisis in schools for the past ten years?” But these middle class parents often have no contact with the real world.  They’re young and fit and well paid and so they never come into contact with the world of frozen benefits and deprivation and don’t yet need social care or the NHS. It’s a failure of the imagination compounded with complacency that provides ideological cover for the government. What people don’t seem to fully appreciate is that the air we breathe and the water we drink; the food and the environmental matrix of our wellbeing is not defined by wealth and social class it’s something we all depend upon and which should bind us together in concern.

What can we do?  Well it’s nothing like sufficient, but paying attention to our own use of the earth is a vital first step towards changing perspectives. Just putting a sign over the taps marked “To the earth” would be a salutary reminder that the chemicals we dump down the sink will be back in our drinking water before very long. So paying attention to our own lifestyle, doing a bit of volunteering for a charity and not instinctively interpreting our neighbour’s new six litre pickup truck as a classy move would all make a contribution.  When winter comes and the future looks bleak, it’s best to wrap up warm, keep busy and look for the signs of spring – because the personal really is political.

 

More tea Vicar?

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So yesterday, being rather wet, was a day for writing and catching up with friends, and that meant plentiful quantities of tea and coffee.  I’ve always loved tea – black tea, builders tea – the stronger the better. The worst cup I ever drank was in the course of a visit when I was offered a cup from an aluminium pot – still boiling on the stove after what could have been hours. On being asked if I wanted milk and sugar I was offered a can of condensed sweetened milk with a half submerged teaspoon in it. I swear my teeth were chattering by the time I finished it –  but I did finish it.

I once counted how many cups I was drinking in a day and it was more than I dare confess, but it never seemed to have any adverse effects and I would happily drink a mug of tea at bedtime and still sleep well. Actually that last sentence should be qualified to say that I didn’t actually sleep any worse than usual. Restless, dream infested nights were my metier as Madame will testify. When it became possible to make decent coffee at home I started drinking espressos in the intervals between mugs of tea – and made it much worse by buying a huge teapot – big enough for an extended family party – and emptying it slowly as the brew became ever stronger. Yesterday I discovered that my caffeine consumption might be a bit of a problem ….

First off there were the usual 2 mugs in bed, followed by a double espresso while I did a bit of reading. Then I started on the green tea which (I thought) was very low in caffeine.  Not, however, when it’s been steeping for half an hour. More black tea. Off then to meet up with friends at Waterstones (2 more strong coffees) and then back home (2 more mugs of builders’).

Then I had a dizzy turn.  I’m very used to dizzy turns – hah!

Ever …….so …….. slowly …… the notion began to seep into my stupid mind that my AF attacks could be linked to something more than stress – and goodness knows it’s been stressful watching our political system implode for the last three years. But could it also my ridiculous caffeine consumption? and so I quickly drank three glasses of water and the weird feeling subsided.    Not evidence I agree, but a sledgehammer of a hint.

Blogging usually means putting your best foot forwards and making your life look like a paradise of virtue, uninterrupted bliss and an example for all to follow. Not the Potwell Inn!  I’m happy to share the screw-ups as well as the successes, because human flourishing has to take place in the weather of events, misunderstandings, resistances and sheer doltish stupidity. I made a small start this morning with just one mug of builders’ tea and then spreading single small cups of green tea out for the rest of the morning. After about 5.00pm I’ll turn to chamomile tea, and I’m giving up the espressos for a while just to see what happens. The problem is that it’s so easy to normalize our everyday behaviour that we (I) don’t ask the right questions and, ‘though we might not be making ourselves exactly ill, we push ourselves into that grey area between thriving and ‘just doing OK’. 

We were supposed to be camping in the Forest of Dean for a couple of nights, returning today – but the weather has been so relentlessly cold and wet we cried off. Earlier today we went down to the polling station to vote.  There were crowds of young people passing through – which left us hopeful for the results tomorrow. I long to tell the crooked rose that our age is no longer bent by the wintry fever of austerity.

Rain starts thoughtful play

IMG_3033There’s nothing doing on the rain soaked allotment at the moment but, or rather so, The Potwell Inn kitchen is a fragrant place  since I started a few small scale experiments on medicinal herbal extractions. My recently acquired teetotal credentials are getting a bit dented by the amount of time I spend in the supermarket searching for extra strong vodka, but it seems easier to get hold of pure alcohol for tinctures in America than it is here, and many of the reference books I’m using come from the US. I content myself with what the experts rather dismissively call ‘the folk method’.

However, buying the ingredients is a whole lot more complicated than clicking on websites. I’ve discovered that very few companies who sell herbal preparations actually have  sustainable re-planting schemes, and it’s difficult to find out who does. The THR certification scheme does no more that tell us that the herb in question has a history of use in the EU. Plantlife have some interesting/scary stuff on their website about the international trade in plant material and its impact on whole species.  Inappropriate harvesting of the whole plant instead of just the leaves or berries, and overharvesting in general have brought some species to endangered status. Arnica montana, American ginseng bearberry and liquorice are all threatened.  Meanwhile, a dispiriting search around the shelves of Holland and Barrett and Boots suggests that the 25% of the UK population which is said to use herbal medicine regularly may be an underestimate. As David Hoffmann rather acidly suggests, the market is nothing more than a means of delivery of green sounding benefits, far from the holistic approach he teaches. Big business is endlessly adaptable to the latest fashion, and it’s always sensible to read the label carefully.  I’ve counted any number of versions that seem cheaper until you notice you need to take four a day instead of the one a day quoted by more expensive products. The principle of extraction here is from your pocket rather than the generosity of the earth.

As for me, my interest in the whole subject is inspired by my interest in wildlife and plants and not at all by any repressed desire to live forever. I read recently about foragers being caught with 45Kg of fungi in one haul, and it would be unsurprising if the same extractive economy didn’t apply to wild flowers and plants here. My single exception perhaps would be couch grass – Elymus repens –  for which our allotment site could sign up an agreement any day! In the summer I harvested some Mugwort, some Ribwort Plantain and a little bit of Pellitory of the Wall, which are all dried and sitting in a cupboard. But I didn’t touch the drift of Betony or the large clump of Dodder and it didn’t even occur to me to harvest any of the Eyebrights.  We make 5 litres of Elderflower cordial for our own use every year and I hardly think that will damage the species.

So what happens when I want to buy some herbs because I’m not prepared to deplete the local wild plants?  Isn’t it possible that I’m simply evading my responsibilities by passing them on to some less scrupulous forager? The answer is we don’t really know and so we’re left in the gulf between scientific medicine which is not nearly as safe as it would like to pretend, dangerous misidentifications (have you tried this lovely soup I made from some white mushrooms I found in a wood?) and potentially damaging thoughtless harvesting. Right outside the window as, I write this, is a clump of Burdock from which I could easily harvest roots, but I don’t because it’s not just about rarity; many plants are specific food plants for insects, moths and butterflies.  pellitory of the wall is much liked by the Red Admiral, and the rarity might not inhere in the plant, but the species it feeds, and if I overharvested the burdock it would deprive the local children of their endless fun throwing the burrs at their friends. We’re all a part of the great scheme of things.

In the seventies one of my prized possessions was a dog-eared copy of the Whole Earth Catalogue on the cover of which (against one of the first pictures of the earth taken from space), were the words

“we can’t put it together, it is together”.

No, we can’t put it together but we can certainly rip it apart – and we’re doing it every minute of every day. I realized while I was reading that I’ve never positively identified vervain, another valuable medicinal herb.  That doesn’t mean to say it’s rare, it’s far more likely that I haven’t noticed it because (thankfully) it doesn’t shout out like a dahlia on steroids.  Now I know that I don’t know it I’ll keep an eye open  – it’s an interesting variant of the tree falling in a deserted forest koan. Without an observer does any plant exist meaningfully within our culture? But when I find it – it’s fairly common according to the local floras – I’ll bow and say hello, take a photo and then ponder whether I have the moral right to gather any.  I think that if I could add a day’s symptomatic ease to my life at the expense of a threatened plant, I’d put up with the symptom and never tell a soul where I found it.

The answer, or at least a part of it, would seem to be on the allotment after all. Some, but by no means all of these plants could be grown on a small plot.  Many more could be grown by farmers taking advantage of a niche market which could follow from our re-evaluation of the place of meat and dairy in our national diet. Some candidates – like liquorice –  are just waiting to be taken up because the cannabis bubble is bound to burst sooner or later. But sustainability needs deep and careful thought, and and a good deal of expertise, alongside the willingness not to exploit a resource – and that’s something that market economics finds it almost impossible to do.

 

Time’s running out

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A friend in Australia wrote today about the situation in Tamborine Mountain, South East Queensland. Here’s what she wrote:

The water situation is now getting desperate. Families are completely running out of water, and having to wait weeks while the only local supplier tries to keep up with demand.  Meanwhile, multiple commercial extractors continue to take millions of litres of water to fill plastic bottles.  The creeks are dry and the trees are suffering …….

It’s a scary example of the global phenomenon we’ve come to describe as the climate catastrophe.  But of course the example says something else which is, or should be, equally challenging, because the global climate catastrophe and the global economic structure aren’t two problems, but one. The uncontrolled commercial extraction of water; the drought which is causing widespread suffering, the uncontrollable fires, the degradation of the environment and the destruction of forests, are symptoms of a single problem – I could go on, but I know there’s no need for me to write it because every single person who reads it will understand – it makes us feel sick with anxiety or overwhelmed with anger or at its worst, cynicism.

There’s a reason I don’t write much about UK politics.  The fact is there are no easy answers because we are living in a time of what Thomas Kuhn called ‘paradigm shift’. Anyone who claims to know what life will be like in 2050 is almost by definition a charlatan. It feels as if the ship has sunk already, and we’re in the water arguing about which lifebelt to grab hold of and which of our fellow passengers knows how to pilot the lifeboats, now the crew are all drunk after raiding the stores.

Do you remember the political fashion, so beloved by New Labour, of ‘evidence based policies’?  Loved, that is, until the evidence started to show that things were going to hell in a handcart because the patient was fundamentally sick, and a few paid ads saying that ‘everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds’ was not selling well in the derelict mining towns of the North East. This is the most terrible and heart wrenching mess and it’s all connected in a rat’s nest of trans-national  greed.

However we have the opportunity in the UK this week to turn protests into policy. Saving the earth from climate catastrophe begins with challenging an extractive economy that destroys the water we drink, the air we breathe and the food we need to eat. It throws people across the world into slavery and poverty in the name of international trade, and blithely dismisses mass extinctions – including even the human race. When I walk around the grand Georgian crescents of Bath, built on slave money, and see the same people in power, I know that nothing’s changed, and I know that unless we seize the opportunity nothing will change.

There is no area of our lives that hasn’t been disfigured by so-called austerity, whether it’s health care, pensions, social care, education, cultural development, employment protection, environmental policy, transport – you name it.  So I’m voting for change, real change. I want to be able to teach my grandchildren their plants and butterflies in the knowledge that they’ll still be there when they’re my age. I want our sons to move out of squalid rentals into properly built houses and I want them to feel secure in their work without facing arbitrary contract changes. Selfishly, I’d like for us to be able to look to a future in old age without fear, and to walk down the street and hear ten languages spoken and a dozen cultures celebrated openly.  I’d like to be able to write about the allotment without the lurking fear that the council will sell the land off to another property developer, and if that meant paying a few quid more in tax I’d be happy to oblige as long as the offshore muggers paid theirs too. 

There isn’t an option out there to allow us to ignore the climate catastrophe in the hope of building some new technology to purge our sins and let us carry on as before. Our electoral system is rigged against us in the name of stability – i.e. more hardship – and so this coming Thursday is possibly the only opportunity we’ll have to vote for change; paradigm change, and in the US – your chance will come next year. We already know they’re scared, from the tide of promoted lies that flood like effluent into our minds every day.

I had a radio producer once whose recorded message said “you know what to do, so do it!” Let’s do it then.

 

Everyday sacred

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Writing about baking bread the other day I was casting around for a way of expressing just how important ordinary actions and objects can be. I’ve written in the past about the ‘ordinary’ and I’ve no doubt I’ll keep coming back to it. Ordinary is a word inflected by its use by the church to describe the authority of regularity, of obedience, of order, but in  institutional hands it came to mean repetitiveness, blind obedience and hierarchy. Sometimes it’s possible to blow the dust off an old word and restore it to its full meaning, but maybe ‘ordinary’ has been taken to the charity shop once too often and so it just means ‘a bit meh’.

So my loaf of bread, ordinary though it is to me, because it embodies a whole network of responsibilities and regularities – and great beauty too, aside from its utility as a shared food – ‘ordinary’ doesn’t quite stretch to it.  So I tried another word. ‘everyday’.   Everyday bread perhaps, for some people, conjures up a faint memory of ‘daily bread’. The word stuck in my mind and although I’ve tried writing on a number of other subjects I keep coming back to the idea of ‘everyday sacred’.

I’m really worried about using these kind of words because they’ve been so hijacked and starved by by their association with organised religion with which I’ve had a long relationship in the past.  But that leaves me with a problem because if ‘spirituality’, ‘sacred’, and all their associated concepts are put beyond reach by the institutions that hold the concession at the moment, we have to start from scratch in describing what for many of us is a deeply felt connection with the earth, and with one another, that transcends the ‘selfish gene’ nonsense peddled by Old Testament atheists like Richard Dawkins.

I no longer have a belief in the supernatural.  I dreamed about losing it and then it just happened one day as I stood watching the River Severn in flood, and I saw it float away in the fierce water.  It wasn’t at all dramatic; I wasn’t as much ‘losing my faith’ as being set free to find it again in another place, free of the rigidity and dogma. I’ve never spoken about this before and it may come as a bit of a shock to some of my friends so I’ll have to pace up and down  a bit before I press the ‘publish’ button, but there we are – it’s a relief to have written it.

So now I can write about everyday sacred without any ambiguity about my intentions. This blog isn’t about selling anything it’s about being human – delightfully, stupidly and increasingly decrepitly human.  When I’m in the kitchen making bread I feel connected.  When I’m on the allotment I feel it too.  On my way through the park today I stood face to face with a pair of long tailed tits in the hedge who seemed as curious about me as I was about them, and the urge to thank somebody, something, surged inside me.

Everyday sacred is that sense of gratitude because the earth provides so much that we need. The photo is of a sketch I made of a garlic bulb – this was a more successful one, I did dozens of others that turned out like schoolboy phallic graffiti – it’s hard to get it right. Knowing that it’s so good for us to eat and knowing something about the quite amazing molecular transformations that go on within garlic, within so many plants whose secondary metabolites can cure our diseases and put us back together again – that induces the same sense of the everyday sacred.  The hawthorn – we called it ‘bread and cheese’ as children and ate the leaves when they were new and not full of tannin – hawthorn has an outrageous array of natural gifts to offer.

So the Potwell Inn is for: dancing, singing, making music, eating together, telling jokes, falling in love, breaking the rules, growing our food and listening to each others troubles; healing, challenging and forgiving – these are the everyday sacred, and I say to the churches – “thank you for looking after the ball for so long,  but please can we have it back now.”

Mindfulness makes better bread (and doctors)

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Mornings are my  time. I love pottering around in the kitchen and, of course, it’s the time for kneading the sourdough. Over the years I’ve learned a lot about making bread and one hard lesson, when I was new to the game, was to leave things alone.  I was always prodding, poking and fiddling about with the dough at the time when it most needed leaving alone. But paradoxically I wasn’t paying the kind of minute attention to it at the right time either.

Recipes are essential, but they’re only the start – because it seems every batch of flour can be subtly different from the last in the amount of water it will need to reach the right consistency. So my recipe suggests adding 300g flour to the batter before kneading. In reality it might need anywhere between 320g and 360g to be right for my ‘everyday’ loaf. How I arrive at the exact amount is by trial and error.  300g will give a basic but very sticky mix, and for the first couple of loaves from a new batch I just add flour as I knead.  As time goes on I’ve got a pretty good idea how much I’ll need – today it was 340g, which was spot-on. Clearly different brands of flour can make an even bigger difference.

Frustrating as it may seem, the only way is to gain more experience – it takes time and attention to do it. In my kitchen I judge the consistency of the dough by the way it sticks to the wooden table. If I’m constantly scraping the table it’s too slack. If it’s not sticking at all it’s too firm – you’ll know that anyway because it’s so hard to knead. It’s just right when I stretch the dough, pushing it forwards with the heel of my right hand, while the fingers of the left hand are resting on the back of the dough, ready to make a quarter turn before starting again. The combination of light fingers and just the right adhesion makes the job easy. Too sloppy a dough will stick to the banneton and turn out like a pancake – all crust and no crumb. Too stiff a dough will turn out cleanly but it will have a too dense a crumb. The right consistency will (just) turn out without sticking, and rise triumphantly, the bubbles not being held in by the dough. As a drystone waller I once knew would say to customers who complained about the price – “It’s a pound for the stone and ninety nine pounds for knowing what to do with it!”

Every stage of the baking process prospers when it’s accompanied by minute attention to detail. As any student of Tai Chi or Chinese painting would tell you, true spontaneity springs from constant practice. I love the story of Charlie Parker being blown off the stage by a bunch of far more experienced jazz players when he was sixteen and full of his own importance. They just kept of changing key until ran out  of steam.  His response was to go out and practice until – much later – he was able to go back on stage and blow them off.

Time, patience, practice and multi-sensory attentiveness are prerequisites for good baking and – come to think of it – good medicine as well. I’ve had a minor heart problem for years and I kept going back to the doctors who would do an ECG and tell me that nothing was wrong. They looked at their data – never at me – and told me that it said I wasn’t ill. Over a period of years I never spent more than 10 minutes in the surgery and rarely had any eye contact at all with a doctor.  When we moved here I was advised by a friend to sign up with a practice that trained GP’s because the trainees were often terrifyingly up to date (my friend was a trainer herself). They also get 20 minutes for their appointments rather than 10.  So when it happened again I made an appointment and was assigned to a trainee. 20 minutes later he’d listened to me, he’d arranged for some monitoring via the local hospital and reviewed all my meds. During the 24 hour monitoring period I had four episodes that could have resulted in a heart attack or stroke – and I’d been having them at that rate for years. The technician who looked at the data said that she was always seeing people like me because my problem doesn’t show up on a straightforward ECG. Now I’m taking medication the risk is greatly reduced – just because that inexperienced trainee took time, stepped away from the preconceptions and listened intently to me. Would I prefer a more naturally based regime? – of course, and I’ll do my best to move sensibly in that direction, but for now it’s the pills.

So here’s a thought.  While we agitate constantly for new, expensive technology based medicine, would there be any mileage in training so many more GP’s that they had time to spend half an hour getting to know the big picture of the patients’ lives? That extra ten minutes may have saved mine and given me the time to learn more about making bread. I love the NHS and I feel for the overloaded GP’s who know they’re not giving what they’re capable of because they need more funding. And they also need a new kind of training that develops those scary skills like attentiveness, empathy and appreciation for the whole person ….. oh and let’s have a bit less hostility to four millennia of good old human experience.

 

A smelly discovery at the botanical gardens

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Maidenhair Tree – Ginkgo biloba

But first, writing this is pure heaven because – thanks to a surprise gift from our son – I’ve finally migrated out of the Apple empire into the equally dubious but far more joined-up empire of Android. It was a tremendous gift because I was expecting a small tablet and when I opened the box it turned out to be a full-on laptop, all of which meant that with a bit of jiggery pokery, a few face to face tutorials from him, and a whole lot of automatic stuff the whole system works brilliantly. Just to recap I’d already inherited his previous Google Pixel phone a couple of weeks ago and this weekend, with the new laptop, I moved the last few files across and I no longer had to wait 25 minutes for my ancient MacBook to boot up and wheeze its way to some kind of functionality. I’m overjoyed at the knowledge that I can just get on with writing and not have to spend hours cleaning the system because the 4Gb RAM filled up with junk. I can even look at all the photos in the library without having to stop for a coffee in the middle of  a session. My ancient dread at changing operating systems turned out to be a folk tale put about by Apple. A couple of days offline was all it took. The Potwell Inn carrier pigeons and the old smoke signal machine have been retired to the outdoor privvy.

But back to today and, system up and running, we all went for  a walk up to the Botanical Gardens. The gardens have lots of good stuff in them but with constant budget cutbacks it’s a largely voluntary effort these days, and bits of the gardens are a bit rough round the edges.  However we had great fun using the Google Lens features on our phones to identify some of the plants and bushes in flower – it’s surprisingly accurate, quite as fast as some of the paid-for apps I’ve used in the past and well worth trying out, if only to narrow down the choices before making a formal ID using a key. We didn’t need to look for the Ginkgo because there was a nice big label on the tree.

There was no problem, then, in identifying the tree but the most interesting thing was the smell of the fruits rotting on the ground. I really didn’t know that they smelt so bad until we walked through the gate and T said “ugh – what’s that smell?” What indeed? A  quick check and we were offered rancid butter and vomit as possible descriptions.  I’d say dog poo and dead sheep came into it as well. For a plant with such powerful healing qualities it certainly does its bit to repel visitors. Fortunately the leaves were well beyond being worth saving and we’ve no means of extracting oil from the single seed inside the fruits, and so we escaped with a little more knowledge but no further need for dealing with the stink. The tree was right next to the entrance and it wasn’t hard to see other visitors taking surreptitious looks at the rest of us to see who’d stepped in something.

Late autumn and winter’s a funny time.  Everything feels as if it’s shutting down, but if you have a hunt around there are lovely things to be found.  The purple berries of the Callicarpa bodinieri were lovely, and the Verbena brasiliensis too was showing off just a bit. But I’m a sucker even for drifts of dead plants, and the birds in the area must be able to take advantage of the seed heads as a food source. 

As the solstice gets closer I get just an occasional insight into the significance of this season. As a sunshine loving activist I’m inclined to get fretful if I can’t get out on to the ground, and yet dealing with dearth and plenty, feast and famine, is fundamental to our human-ness. The earth is a complex, dynamic and interrelated system that has its own idea of what constitutes good practice. An annual season of reflection and contemplation is essential for our welfare. Screaming at an empty supermarket shelf because something we want isn’t there, is a sign that we need to get out more – not find a way of squeezing another crop out of the exhausted earth. So bring it on – the solstice will soon be here.

Mexican fleabane bids for world domination

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I am absolutely full of admiration for this little plant. Three years ago someone further up the street planted some in a container and ever since then it’s made a slow march towards us, colonising every spare crack in the pavement. It’s tough, that’s for sure – forget anything the books say – it’s enjoyed relentless heat during the summer on the south facing terrace outside, and after the first hard frost I popped downstairs to see how it was and, as you can see, it’s still going strong. Every summer our caretaker, in her relentless pursuit of a sterile landscape, douses it in Roundup despite our protestations.  The man from the council – if he’s got a minute – hoes it off too and the dear old fleabane shrugs its shoulders in a planty sort of way and gets on with its long march to the western seas. Interestingly, its cousin the Canadian fleabane keeled over after the frost – which seemed counterintuitive, but then, plants don’t read textbooks.

Meanwhile the allotment is in winter mode.  Apart from the turnips, celery, celeriac,  beetroot, spinach  – actually I’ll take back what I just wrote – what I should have said was that much of the allotment is in winter mode. In truth the early purple sprouting is just beginning to push out little buds where the crop will soon appear. Every year we say it’s a waste of space because they take so long to grow, and every year we change our minds when we eat the spears.

We’re well into the winter truce, and while the allotment takes a deep breath and digests all the compost we’ve put on, Madame and me negotiate next year’s ideas. We’ve agreed (without rancour) that we’ll grow more cut flowers and increase the number and quantity of culinary herbs because they’re so expensive to buy. Whether I’ll get away with any more medicinal herbs remains to be seen but Calendula, lavender, thyme and hyssop will be there with many others in any case and most of the ‘wilder’ ones are great pollinators  – plus they’re beautiful.

Many of the typical ‘medicine chest’ herbs grow wild locally and could be foraged carefully without any adverse impact. I’m not entirely sure why I’m doing this – it’s not as if I’m a great consumer of herbal remedies, in fact I’m a bit scared of some of them, but they’re a part of the ‘gift’ of nature; deeply entrenched in our culture – especially our literary culture – and to know some of the properties of plants helps to foster a non-dualistic, non religious worldview.  That sound much grander than it’s meant to – when  looking at a plant becomes a kind of beholding, something happens at a level much deeper than the rational.  I suppose I could resort to that overused term spiritual, but I’d rather think of it as a deeper level of being human – no supernatural concepts are needed.

Anyway, the advantage of a bit more time is that it means a bit more time in the kitchen and the beginning of the annual war on black mould.  Living in a concrete building means learning some new skills and avoiding using the filthy smelling chemicals used for combating mould has been a priority.  But we’ve been experimenting with white vinegar which must work by changing the pH of the plaster.  Initial results look good and diluted vinegar is brilliant for cleaning the windows as well. Meanwhile it’s been bread, cakes, and pancake experiments for me.  The winter is a real change of gear, with abundant lectures, talks and exhibitions here in Bath.  Tonight we’re off to a book signing by Celia Paul, who has an exhibition on at the same time as her book is published and was  Lucian Freud’s muse.  I’m wondering how she’ll handle it because she’s reputed to be rather shy and not given to small talk. Her sister, Jane Williams, was my tutor for a while.