Racing the weather today, we were up at the allotment early to try to get the pond finished before the storms arrive at the weekend. This has been quite a steep learning curve because it’s the first time I’ve ever built one – and every step in the process took longer than I’d anticipated; but you can see the process in the photos above.
I changed my mind at the last minute and reshaped the pool with three distinct and level steps rather than one continuous slope. There was a bit of a worry about something like a hedgehog not being able to scramble out across a very steep and slippery slope. I once rescued one from a kitchen drain where it had become firmly stuck and inundated with waste water from the sink. It took some getting out but in the end, after a feed, a wash in clean water and some mollycoddling, it made its way back to wherever it had come from. Hedgehogs are in such decline now that we can’t afford to lose a single one. So, after reshaping the slope, we lined the hole with two layers of underlay and then fiddled the waterproof membrane into place with a good deal of muffled cursing and even more rather untidy pleating. It was like wrapping the negative space of a very awkward birthday present, but after about an hour we were ready to start filling with water.
Luckily there has been enough rain to fill the water butts with clean water, and so we used our generator to power a very nifty pump and shift about 500 litres into the pond in a surprisingly short time. All the while the pond was filling we adjusted the lining to avoid stressing or stretching it and then, once it was filled and as smooth as we could make it, I refilled the outside of the frame with thirty of the bags of topsoil I’d removed and stored a few days ago – so that amounted to half a ton of water and the same amount of topsoil, no wonder my back is aching!
The plan now is to surround three sides of the pond with insect friendly, tall flowering plants and leave the paved side open for visiting animals to take a drink – all of which we hope to capture on a camera trap. Obviously we’ll also plant the pond up with water loving plants and with luck, next year we’ll give at least one of the local toads somewhere to spawn. We’re also moving tall herbs like lovage, angelica and dill, mixed with sunflowers for the birds, alongside the paved area, and hopefully I’ll have finished a pergola from which we’ll hang bird feeders.
Does this all sound a bit eccentric? I also had next year’s seed order in my pocket and tucked in at the end is a list of new fruit trees; a Shropshire damson, Victoria plum, Conference pear and a Bramley cooking apple – oh and new strawberries, some primocane blackberries (just now appearing in the UK, I think they were developed in the US); a Tayberry and a Japanese wineberry – all this, remember, on our 250 square metres. I could go on about the need to grow as much of our own food as possible, but lurking in the background is a rather deeper and even more spiritual pursuit. There are no prizes for figuring out that the earth is in a mess at the moment. Bad politics, bad economics and bad science have led us into a predictably bad place, and gardening, especially gardening with food, beauty and wildlife all sharing in the enterprise, is a chance to hold on to those precious values that we’ll need if we want to rediscover what being fully human feels like.
My inner critic whispers ‘why bother spending all that money when you’ll probably be dead in twenty years time?’ – and that’s true. But is it so pointless to lift our spirits, to set an example of what’s possible with time and a bit of hard work and to feed ourselves well in the process? Putting a little beauty back into life could never be a waste of time, and every worthwhile project needs to embrace the risk of failure – otherwise we’d never allow ourselves to fall in love.
Our allotment is so much more than a way of feeding ourselves and our family – it’s love letter to the earth.
We have a friend – Harry -who’s a retired orthopaedic surgeon; and an all round good guy. On his 90th birthday he gave a truly witty after dinner speech in which he tried to account for his long life and 60 years of happy marriage by listing the virtues that he thought might have contributed. The virtue I remember most clearly was thrift, which he illustrated by telling a story about apples. Harry has a large garden and orchard and he said that he had the utmost difficulty in leaving windfalls on the ground – it just seemed wrong to waste them, he said – and the consequence, he noted, was ” …. of course you never eat a decent apple!”
I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that all these synonyms have a faintly negative air about them – but I know exactly what Harry meant. We’ve got a load of really nice, almost perfect, Lord Lambourne apples stored in the meter cupboard; but those aren’t the ones we’re eating because we like to finish up the windfalls and blemished ones first. And so every morning when I prepare our muesli I cut the bad bits out of yesterday’s windfalls and grate the rest – they still taste just as good and, pound for pound, they contain exactly as many nutrients as their smooth cheeked cousins in the cupboard. The point. though, is that we couldn’t even give them away. When we go (infrequently) to the fruit and veg stall in a supermarket, we see nothing but perfect examples of each variety, flying off the shelves complete with all the residue of the repeated sprays that have bestowed their cosmetic perfection on them. “Another slice of organophosphate and neonicotinoid pie?” is the one question we’re most unlikely to ask at the dinner table.
But simply by working the allotment our worldview has changed. Because we’ve planted and nurtured our own vegetables; tended and watered them through drought, storm and snowfall; pruned, fed and picked the fruits we’re a lot less inclined to discard them because they don’t look like the ones in the supermarket (or especially the seed catalogue). Yesterday I was writing about how pleased we were to have a small crop of Florence fennel and I forgot to take a picture to share – so here it is – and, as you can easily see, although I extolled the flavour and texture yesterday, it’s hardly a textbook example of the genre; on the very edge of bolting and not about to win any prizes at any flower and produce show I’ve ever been to. When you grow your own veg, you’ve got to learn to love them in rather the way you love your children – seeing nothing but sheer beauty and giftedness in them in spite of all the evidence to the contrary!
There’s an old saying that says “everyone should eat their peck of dirt”. and equally if you’ve never seen a slug or an earwig on your plate you’re probably part of the reason that our rivers are so heavily polluted by runoff from farms. It wasn’t for nothing that the Edwardian gardeners at the Lost Gardens of Heligan called their stirrup pump sprayer the widowmaker.
Isn’t it a supreme irony that we’re so scared of insects or a bit of dirt, or especially the idea of composting toilets and using urine as a fertilizer; while we are quite prepared to tolerate some of the most dangerous nerve-gas derived chemicals ever invented, all over our lettuce or fruit. How on earth did that happen? Well I guess it’s because we can’t see it, and a lot of money has been spent on persuading us it’s perfectly safe.
Allotmenteering teaches so much more than a few horticultural tricks. It teaches some of those virtues that Harry was praising on his 90th birthday. It teaches us to value diversity, stop dreaming about the perfect and above all to stop wasting the good things that the earth has given us. And, how could we leave this one out? – allotmenteering gives us a sense of awe and gratitude that’s so easily lost in this era of mendacity and stupidity. That’ll do for us.
A grace day today because we were expecting rain all day and instead, the sun shone.
I would quite like to be the kind of gardener/allotmenteer who is so on top of things that they’re never surprised at the way a project turns out, but on the other hand a bit of serendipity adds a certain excitement to life. Last season when I built the compost bins I thought they were miles too big; but in the light of experience they’re just about right. In fact they’re pretty much perfect for the amount of green waste we can compost each year. The water storage supports looked miles over spec until the water butts filled up and the whole lot collapsed; so I’ve had to completely rebuild them and add extra strengthening; and then when I first thought of building a new raised strawberry bed I didn’t really think through what an enormous amount of soil I’d need to fill it.
The same sense of surprise will probably go for the pond as well. I had thought that I could find much of the soil I needed for the strawberries when I dug the hole for the pond, but, having started to remove the topsoil, I realized that the pond would need to be about 6′ deep to get enough subsoil to raise the level of the strawberry bed. The net result of all my (mis)calculations is that the whole plot is beginning to take on the general appearance of a building site: not – I should say – at all unusual for our plots in October, because this is the time where we figure out where everything needs to go, and we’re doing some fairly wholesale hard plantings of trees, involving a rebuild of one side of the fruit cage.
But I love it; the sense of possibilities that comes at this time each autumn. We think back how the various varieties we’ve grown have done, and base the seed order on our experience. The strawberries, for instance, have never really lived up to their catalogue descriptions so today Madame ripped the lot up and added them to the compost. You have to be ruthless with allotments sometimes. Better to lose a year and replant than stick with the old ones and lose five. When the new bed is finished, we’ll replant with some (hopefully better)choices. By Christmas we’ll have four or five new cordon fruit trees, three replacement soft fruit bushes and we’ll have created new boundaries with some hard woven hazel fencing, and some vigorous blackberries and maybe tayberries trained on wires, with a rambling dog rose trailing over the shed.
All of the tall biennial and perennial herbs will have been divided and moved to an entirely new bed, and replaced with a row of lavender bushes and finally (so far) I’ll have built an open extension connecting the shed and the greenhouse with a rather complicated roof to give us somewhere dry to sit. I’m too embarrassed to show you a photo of inside the shed! Next season we’ll also be growing a bed of cut flowers for the first time. We’ve been able to release some of the vegetable space because our son now has his own allotment; and so next year we’ll be sharing our plot with the birds, the insects and pollinators and still grow enough to keep ourselves fed. All this, I should add, on under 250 square metres of land. Allotments can be very intensive even if they are organic!
But as I dug out the topsoil for the pond, I was delighted that in less than three years it’s gone from being waterlogged clay, largely subsoil – because the previous tenant had left two layers of carpet on it – to deep and rich loam. Mind you, we’ve cosseted that patch with grit, leaf mould and goodness knows how much compost. It’s good to see how quickly you can turn around a plot that we were told ‘wouldn’t grow anything’. The pond will complete the greening works this year, and we’ll be keeping a keen eye out for some new amphibian residents. We already know we’ve got at least one toad living in the specially created void under the water storage.
I don’t doubt that all the challenges will be resolved by next spring and that next season will be the best ever (fingers crossed on that one). One small disappointment is that so many of the keen new allotmenteers who joined us during the lockdown and worked so hard on their plots, have melted away now that they’re back at work. In the unlikely event that any of them will read this, I’d beg them to hang on in there. Allotments can very quickly look terrible at this time of the year, but a bit of blood, sweat and tears and a great deal of guile can soon win them back. It was absolutely evident that the sudden influx of newcomers represented a genuine longing for a richer, more fulfilling life than endless meetings, deadlines and school runs. We run our allotment on the basis that we’re available pretty much every day to tend it, but it would be easy enough to design a minimum intervention plot – lots of soft fruit and cordon trees with perennial crops and herbs. Anything that contributes even something to the kitchen and gives you an outdoor space to enjoy has got to be good. If our plot demonstrates anything it’s that allotments begin to take on the personalities of their allotmenteers just as dogs look like their owners – they say; I couldn’t possibly comment.
I’ve never quite understood how fine words could fail to butter at least a couple of parsnips – as long, that is, as someone is paying you to write them. Sadly, though in my case nobody pays me to write anything and so the Potwell Inn parsnips are only ever buttered thanks to our extremely modest pensions. Still; what’s the price of a pat of butter against the pleasure of eating our own organic parsnips straight off the allotment.
Yes it’s parsnip time again; having seen off the last of the summer vegetables. Parsnips and all the other roots shuffle modestly to the front of the queue and surprise us as they do every year. I imagine you could (just about) eat them boiled with a knob of butter; or mashed with the aforementioned and a bit of pepper but for me the glory of the parsnips is roasted until they’re golden – in olive oil rather than butter which burns too easily. For even greater transports of delight (so long as you’re not a vegetarian) I’d roast them with carrots, squash, and possibly beetroot in the meat juices left in the pan while the joint is resting, but that, for us these days, is a very occasional extravagance (and all the more enjoyable for it). But really any which way is good, and with care and attention you can even achieve the chef’s holy grail and possibly mythical quality – balance. Balance, I think, is how you describe a perfect culinary chord in which (to carry on the musical analogy) neither the first violins or the horns are getting all their own way.
Parsnip soup is one of those dishes beloved of pub chefs with a limited budget, who want to honour local sourcing without lashing out on salt marsh lamb. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved by a bit of TLC. I’ve tasted some truly grim versions. Don’t rush it; get the best fresh ingredients and give it time. Parsnips, especially shop bought ones, can be a bit woody towards the end of the season; so preparation should include cutting out the woody cores, because however long you blitz the resulting soup for, it will still taste as if you dropped a corner of the kitchen table into the pan. Your guests will not be impressed as they pick the splinters from their teeth if you extol the rustic virtues of their lunch. And finally, don’t over season it – let it speak for itself – and give it a swirl of sage oil and a dollop of crème fraiche. There isn’t a better way of marking an otherwise dull day.
It’s mid October and the daylight hours are shortening dramatically. When the sun shines, the autumn colours of the leaves are wonderful; but on a day like today when it’s drizzling; the allotment stares back at us like an estranged teenager and the earth is cold. It’s hard to see beyond the moment if the rain’s running down your neck and even the grass has taken on the blue green hue that’s an autumn speciality. Any pause in the traffic and you can almost hear the slugs munching. So we drifted off to a garden centre to get supplies of potting compost, sand and fine grit for a new garlic bed which needs to be well drained. We could make our own potting compost, but if the lockdown goes on we’ll have run out by the busiest time in March.
If you think that my occasional forays into philosophy or poetry, environmental politics, or spirituality are unexpected or random, I’d have to push back a bit and say that being human – I mean really human – can’t be boiled down to cooking and eating parsnips (thank goodness) or, for that matter, growing them. The allotment and the kitchen are two of the most important spaces in the (imaginary) Potwell Inn; but only two of them. Neither the natural history of Bath nor the contents of the bookshelves or the paintings on the walls, finish crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. I couldn’t even begin to make a list of my favourite marks of humanness and neither would I dare to suggest that my list enjoyed any kind of privilege in the great order of things. But the unique and glorious bird’s nest of borrowings and learnings that furnish my/your/anyone’s inner life is a symphony, a work of art.
And on the wet days and the ones where nothing seems to go right, it helps to have that precious bird’s nest. Goodness knows I was fed up today – so fed up I started reading Rilke! What I wanted to say is that full humanity needs its stories and poems and pictures and perhaps above all, its spiritualities, songs and music. It’s only through these shared arts that good and bad can be held together in hope. So although fine words may butter no economic parsnips, they can raise two fingers to the gods of chaos, war and destruction. And without those internal resources, there’s no symphony, no texture; just a solitary busker with a hat full of rain.
No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
MEDITATION XVII Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
I want to start with a verse from John Donne’s 17th century poem in order to work together two threads of an argument towards a green spirituality; not a particularly ambitious attempt – which would require many more threads, but to try to lay down some markers for myself and for anyone who’s interested to read my post. Hopefully there are one or two out there in the darkness!
The significance of Donne’s meditation on our connectedness with all human life was never more significant than it is today, when it’s so under threat. The second thread, though, concerns time; our understanding of it and the way that understanding shapes our lives.
I watch the television (my grandfather always called it ‘the idiot’s lantern’ – although he was the first person in his Chiltern village to own one because he was also an inveterate early adopter. There are phrases and ideas that come up over and over again on TV – so often, in fact, that they take up residence in our minds as a dreadful kind of common sense. ‘Taking control’ is probably a good idea if you’re a passenger in a speeding car when the driver has just collapsed – but if it comes to be applied in every aspect of your life it’s a thoroughly bad one. My favourite example of this perfidious lunacy is the idea of taking control of the covid virus – after you Boris! If we really want to take control of something it makes sense to consider whether control is appropriate or even possible. King Canute demonstrated his limited powers by sitting in the path of the oncoming tide and ordering it to stop. Point taken, then. In nature, taking control can be delusional.
‘Because I’m worth it’ is another one. Why anyone except an idiot would consider that their personal appetites should override any other consideration demands an explanation. What both popular phrases demonstrate is what happens when we stray from John Donne’s insight that we stand or fall together. We are either a part of the human race in our whole lived experience, or we have become parasitic grazers of experiences that please us.
So let’s insert this dangerous selfish gene into the DNA of another idea, the idea of time. Boldly put, is the unfolding of time a kind of line that begins with the big bang and ends when the sun runs out of heat? In a sense that’s undeniable, but the timescale over which it happens is so vast as to be beyond our understanding. There are more pressing problems at hand than the cooling of the sun in millions of years time, because our concern has to be whether the earth becomes a barren wilderness within a few hundreds of years. The ultimate fate of the earth becomes an almost metaphysical argument when it’s compared with the extinctions that are pressing upon us.
The limited argument here is that ‘taking control’, ‘because I’m worth it‘, and similarly superficial slogans, have become a default defence for the destruction of the environment.
Never mind about these temporary worries, we’ll soon find a fix and we’ll all march together into Canaan where there will be food for everyone and we’ll all live forever in magic houses where robots do everything for us.
There should be a mea culpa at this point from Christian theologians for inadvertently providing the ideological weaponry for our troubles; and yes, I have read St Francis and Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhardt and Matthew Fox and all the others, but sadly they were always outsiders. Mainstream theology focused on sin, redemption and getting into heaven – popularly known as ‘pie in the sky when you die’. The idea of challenging the status quo, right here and right now, so often landed up being trumped by the thought that it didn’t much matter in the end because this miserable life was a bit naff unless you were a bishop. To put it in more academic terms, the theory of evolution plus Christian eschatology (the doctrines of the ultimate ‘last things’) leads into a linear mindset that (when the religious impulse fails) supports an ideology of endless progress towards the perfect society. It’s an entirely instrumental view of life without a shred of validity or vitality and with more in common with Marx than it does with the future of the earth.
So let’s oppose this linear, instrumental view of life with something very different. It’s worth doing this, I think, because trying to oppose the extractive ideology of the present day by offering counter facts doesn’t seem to work. The government say fracking is a great idea because we (actually it should be they) get lots of free fuel. We put up all the scientific arguments against, but nobody is listening and no-one is changing their mind because they’ve got too much invested in the way we do things round here. The agents of destruction don’t believe what they do because they are in possession of a different set of facts which we can alter by offering some better ones. They are able to do these things because their entire worldview is contained within a powerful culture. ‘Because they’re worth it‘ means they have every right to ‘take control’ because that is the law that flows from their understanding of nature.
For all practical purposes the fullest human lives are lived in a more cyclical manner. What I’m getting at is that we’ll never change the world by only pursuing counterarguments. It’s important that we carry on arguing but it’s a hopeless task because we’re always fighting on their linear, instrumental turf. They offer facts, we offer counterfacts and they offer counter-counter facts and someone says ‘lets’ set up an enquiry’ and before it’s finished deliberating for a couple of decades the lights have gone out and it’s ‘goodnight Irene’.
Putting aside the inevitability that the earth will one day perish, (because it’s always better to deal with the proximate danger first); opens up the possibility of arguing that because the inglorious moment of the last instance is so inconceivably far away, that we can forget the idea that there will be a cunning plan someday soon and adopt a radically different notion of passing time.
So what if we were to engage people by living better? Instead of inhabiting this linear worldview where there’s always something better just down the road that never arrives; the ship that never ‘comes in’: we could choose to incorporate and live out the polarities, the cycles and rhythms that have sustained the earth and all her ecosystems over millennia and would continue to do so for millennia more if we only let them? Let’s not fight just with facts, let’s change perspectives because once we’ve changed someone’s perspectives their collection of facts will have to change too because they don’t work any more.
I think it’s fair to argue that when I look at the sun rising in the morning, I can be sure that if I were around in twenty million years time it would still look much the same. The cooling down of the sun is slow slow slow. But global extinction is fast. The earth is finite – just like us. The earth has her cycles and seasons; the moon has hers too drawing up and releasing the tides. The seasons were once beautifully represented in the Christian liturgical year – it’s all gone now, but Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, Pentecost, Harvest, Remembrance and – finest of all – Ordinary Time – all reflected the rhythms of the earth and our own lived experience of feast and famine, joy and sorrow; the sadness of loss and bereavement and the witnessing of new life in the fields and in our homes. We’ve lost the ability to dream our dreams and sing our songs. This is absolutely not an appeal to get back to the local tin tabernacle for a prayer and a bollocking but it is an appeal to consider our humanness as essentially sacramental rather than instrumental. The will to fight for the environment is, (to pinch a phrase from the evangelicals), better caught than taught, and there is an alternative that we can communicate in its lived form, rather than belittling people’s innocently acquired beliefs with angry counter-arguments.
We grow food because it is in our nature to grow things and it teaches us gratitude and humility. We love to eat together because we are essentially creatures of community. We care for one another; the old, the young and the sick because that’s where our humanity grows. We can build on core values like joyfulness, gratitude, openness and – dare I say – thriftiness; and the greatest benefit of living sacramentally is that it’s completely sustainable because that’s the nature of earth, and we can live in peace rather than in violence and greed because in the end, any other way of life is self-defeating.
Of course some will say this is idealistic nonsense, and the favoured trap, laid especially for us, is fear. “It’s all so complicated” we’re taught to think – “we don’t even know where to start; what happens if it goes wrong; better the devil you know etc etc …..”. But the choice isn’t between the groundhog day of eternally repetitive cycles – peasant life, in fact; and the pursuit of technological dreams that are destroying the earth. Sacramental life is endlessly creative; no two seasons are the same any more than any two people are identical. Nothing in nature’s cycles precludes innovation and change for the better. It’s a way of life forged in music, songs and stories, dancing, drama and pictures. The only limiting factor is that we must stop laying waste to the environment simply because we were taught to believe that we’re worth it. In fact we’re worth much more. We’ve seen the enemy – it’s us.
So yesterday I completed the new raised strawberry bed in a bit of a rush because the weather forecast was predicting a week of rain. It was in the same place as the two glass cold frames that were stolen last year, so I just used the same board foundations. However, the business end – ie. the new planting surface – is about two feet higher than the old frames, and the idea of simply burying all that topsoil was too much to bear (about £150 to replace) so I dug it out, down to the subsoil, and moved the good stuff on to two nearby beds. I’ve got a bit of a ‘thing’ about never wasting soil. When we moved on it was very poor after years of neglect, and covered with not one but two layers of buried carpet. The official description of the soil is ‘clay loam’ but that hardly described the waterlogged and claggy mess that we inherited. The previous owner had assured us that the ground was hopeless and nothing would grow on it – but he’d failed to investigate beyond the top three or so inches, so he never figured out why it was so bad. We’ve also got two underground streams running through the middle and along one edge of the plot, so you can see that soil management became the number one priority.
When building an allotment on quite a steep slope as ours is, terracing is the obvious answer. Initially we dug deep trenches to form the wood chip paths which function (quite successfully) as drains, and threw the topsoil up on to the beds, so it’s hardly rocket science to point out that left us with rather sunken ‘raised beds’. Over the last four years we’ve added tons of compost, brought in topsoil, leafmould and, in the wettest places, agricultural sand and gravel to increase the depth and improve drainage; and the upshot is that every ounce of topsoil has become precious, with nothing ever going off site. Now, after four years, the beds are level and uniformly deep (a full spit and more of rich dark earth) and we’ve managed to steer a middle path between too much and too little drainage. The driest areas are at the bottom of the plot where the retaining boards are 18″ deep and the drainage must be quite fierce.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and without any intention of conducting an experiment, Madame recently shoved a few desperately weedy looking Swiss chard plants into one of the plots because there was a space, and they just roared away. Now they look like veg catalogue supermodels. The empty strawberry bed is waiting for me to dig out the new pond, and all the subsoil from the big hole will go into the base of the raised bed where we’ll cover it with a layer of woodchip, followed by a mixture of compost, topsoil and sand. I’ve heard experts say that woodchip increases acidity and locks up nitrogen, disrupting fertility for ages. They also say that leaf mould does much the same thing and I can only respond by saying – not in my experience. Wood chip rots down pretty quickly on the paths, and whenever I dig into it I always find an abundance of earth worms in the degraded layer. As for leaf mould, the soil is hungry and will consume all the leaf mould we can produce. Indeed when we moved on we covered several of the beds with six inches of leaves straight off the trees and covered them with sheeting. By the spring they’d all disappeared, taken down by the worms, and the soil texture was greatly improved. If I put on my potter’s hat for a moment, leaves and wood from different species all have different chemical characteristics and Chinese potters exploited this to control their glazes – some leaves rot fast and others don’t. It’s life’s rich tapestry and the lignin in the leaves is the resistant residue that does wonders for soil structure. In our experience both wood chip and leaf mould make excellent mulches; they don’t however, add much by way of fertility so plants still need compost and any other food you care to use. The exception might be raw seaweed, straight off the beach and, stinky though it may be, rots down quickly and adds some very valuable minerals to the soil. In the photograph top left, beyond the stolen cold frames is the asparagus bed. It produced so freely in the summer that we (almost) got fed up with eating it. But that too needs lots of compost and a good mulch. Two years ago we brought an enormous sack of seaweed back and mulched the bed and the asparagus and the soil both loved it. The bed was so smelly when we spread the seaweed that our neighbour packed up and went home.
There’s no magic ingredient or secret recipe, heritage variety or anything else you can market that makes good produce. It’s about soil.
Press here for the politics!
The soil is the beginning and the end of it all. When I look at some of the impoverished stony waste that much industrially farmed land has become and watch farmers struggling to force one more harvest out of it with ever more powerful chemicals, I’m sad rather than angry. Having worked in rural parishes for 25 years I grew to admire and respect the farmers I knew, even though I profoundly disagreed with the path they’d taken. It was the British government that started the madness during and after the war by driving productivity at the expense of everything else. Industrial chemical manufacturers were left with nothing to sell after the use nerve gases was banned and so they repurposed their factories and their research departments to make insecticides and herbicides. Then the supermarkets bludgeoned the farmers into a downward spiral of land abuse and falling prices aided by industry lobbyists acting as advisers. Finally the CAP made everything even worse by subsidising quite the wrong things. How did this all happen without a fuss? Well maybe the way in which government ministers are offered ludicrous amounts of money to work a few hours as corporate ‘advisors’ in these industries when they leave government has something to do with it. It’s not corrupt in the most direct sense. Nobody is suggesting that the big companies actually bribe government ministers, but surely the prospect of huge corporate earnings after a career in parliament, acts as an incentive not to annoy the future paymasters? In the case of the defense industry it’s even easier – you just let them drive a tank and they’re yours forever!
In the end, as the Ash Wednesday ceremonies have it – we are dust and to dust we’ll return -glorious, holy, space dust (you don’t have to be religious to see this) living in all our infinite diversity on the thinnest of layers on the surface of the earth. Every atom in our bodies has been circulating since the big bang in a myriad of forms, both animate and inanimate because the earth wastes nothing – nothing that is until the human race came along and imagined in our hubristic way, that it was all put there by some beneficent God (insert variety here) who put it all there for our exclusive use and pleasure.
And that thin layer, the ecosphere on which all our futures and possibilities are rested, is dying. Everything we know or have ever known or loved and treasured has come out of that vulnerable crust of soil.
And that’s why the allotment is – in the broadest and least sectarian manner – holy. Allan Ginsberg (and Patti Smith) were right. This is urgent!
I’m a bit wary about complete happiness – I probably read too many Iris Murdoch novels when I was young …….. but! last night something unmistakably like complete happiness stole over us as we worked together on the allotment in companionable silence, transitioning between last season and the one that’s coming – the one that’s always going to be the best, the most productive and the least troubled by weather and pests and random troubles. And if you are wondering what happened to Sunday’s more sombre mood I’d argue that it’s the nature of happiness to be ephemeral and we can only accept it on its own demanding terms. We have to accept it as an act of rebellion, of resistance.
So we’ve travelled from the spring to the autumn equinox during the strangest year. Everything was strange, the weather, the extremes of wind, drought, heat and rain and, of course the plague. I like the idea of calling Covid – ‘the plague’ because in many ways it fits the linguistic standard for plagues which manages to draw together all sorts of explanations and responsibilities that, boiled down, suggest we had it coming. Of course there’s the scientific and medical explanation for the plague, but there’s an ideological reason too, and an economic and political reason; an ethical reason and an environmental reason and all of them demand contrition – that’s the thing about plagues as opposed to simple old pandemics – they demand a response; vaccines are not enough.
But aside from that, a shot of happiness on a warm late summer evening was like a surprise visit from an old friend. The allotment’s like that. We have more cucumbers than we know what to do with but as we contemplate the fall, the bin full of leaf mould that they were growing in so successfully needs to be emptied and spread on to the beds. The courgettes and aubergines that have served us so well won’t thrive in the approaching colder weather and the winter crops need a feed and a clear out, followed by a deep mulch. We took down the early runner beans and put the poles into store again while we are still feasting on the Lady Di’s. Calendula flowers are being extracted in almond oil. Tomatoes, chillies, peppers, aubergines – how much ratatouille can a couple on a diet eat?
Then there are the apples. As we walked up the path Madame bit into the first of the Cox’s and groaned – honestly. We’ve got five varieties growing but we’re all in the same boat as our neighbours; in a good year we all produce more apples than we can eat. So we tolerate a good deal of what you might call permissive browsing. Everybody plants Cox’s, and when they’re good they’re unbeatable but they are sensitive to any number of beasties and bugs so they are less reliable than some of the varieties that have been bred at East Malling or Long Ashton in the olden days when Madame worked there. In the bowl there are four, and possibly five varieties – all different and with different qualities. Some store well, and some are only any good straight off the tree. One of the games we play at this time of year is to try to identify the variety from the fruit. Much consultation of the books goes on and every now and then we get it right. Real experts can identify a variety on sight – George Gilbert, one of Madame’s old bosses was a master. I suppose these days you send a piece off to the lab to do the DNA tests. Where’s the fun in that?
This autumn we’re going to plant more soft fruit and two or three more cordon fruit trees around the boundaries of the plot. The original fruit cage is far too crowded and we’re going to savage it to create a better, more open environment for the existing row of apples. That became a cue for a large order from the sawmill so I can reshape some of the beds, build a new strawberry bed and (da dah!) dig a pond.
I think we gardeners have a weird way of living in several dimensions at once. All that stuff about being in the moment is well and good, but any gardener will tell you that we also channel the spirits of our teachers, parents and grandparents from the past while we also have the gift of seeing beyond the present weedy mess into the future. Autumn yields glimpses into winter and spring and the leafless branches bear their buds as a kind of earnest for the future.
So who’s afraid of the equinox? Autumn is the mother of winter and winter is the mother of spring. The earth rests and a moment of happiness is a moment of grace in whatever shape it comes.
This is a long post and it’s possibly more open about some fairly personal stuff than you may feel interested enough to read. It deals with the challenges of retirement and the emotional impact of health problems. Normal service will, I promise, be resumed immediately so if you skip this one that’s fine, but it’s here in case anyone else might find it helpful.
I was maybe fourteen years old when I first read this passage and allowed it to take up residence in my mind, along with Peggoty and Duffy Clayton (you’ll have to look that one up).
“A month later a leisurely and dusty tramp, plump equatorially and slightly bald, with his hands in his pockets and his lips puckered to a contemplative whistle, strolled along the river bank between Uppingdon and Potwell. It was a profusely budding spring day and greens such as God had never permitted in the world before in human memory (though indeed they come every year), were mirrored vividly in a mirror of equally unprecedented brown. For a time the wanderer stopped and stood still, and even the thin whistle died away from his lips as he watched a water vole run to and fro upon a little headland across the stream. The vole plopped into the water and swam and dived and only when the last ring of its disturbance had vanished did Mr. Polly resume his thoughtful course to nowhere in particular”
The History of Mr Polly – H G Wells
It was always going to be a bit of a culture shock, coming back to Bath after ten days in the most idyllic and secluded place you could imagine, overlooking the Irish Sea in North Wales; and in the way that astrologers write about trines, and other unusual alignments of the planets and astronomers plot eclipses and consequential movements of the planets; my own little solar system threw up a large spanner in the form of an anniversary. In fact the fifth anniversary of my retirement.
I remember asking my old friend Mags, whose partner had retired three years previously, how long it had taken for her to settle. The answer – “three years at least” took me by surprise – I’d come to think of my retirement in rather conventional terms, you know – big party; warm words (mostly exaggerated); a few glasses and off into the sunset and a new life – just like Mr Polly. Then Rose, another friend, warned us that one of the biggest perils was that every night became Friday night. They were both right but both underestimated the length of time it would take for the dream of my/our retirement fantasies to morph into a much deeper reality.
On Monday last, (a beautiful late summer’s day), we drove across the mountains once more and six hours later arrived home. Nothing had happened particularly in the meanwhile: the flat hadn’t burned down and the allotment was pretty much as we’d left it; but the city – lying in its natural basin – was airless, thronged with visitors taking a chance with COVID; students moving towards their new independent lives, armed with implausibly large amounts of alcohol and – of course – the Easy Jet planes were overhead, bringing Typhoid Mary and her mates back from their holidays. Ambulances as always were crawling through the traffic, setting out from and returning to the Royal United Hospital.
One thing however was very different. A large stretch of the river had drained by a depth of about five feet – due to a problem with one of the sluices – and dozens of boats, some of them peoples’ homes, had dropped, one-sidedly, on their mooring ropes and filled with filthy water. This much photographed riverside area, worth millions to property developers began to look like a 1970’s photo of the old Caldon branch of the Trent and Mersey Canal; cluttered with abandoned and stolen metalwork – bikes, a stolen motorcycle, dozens of supermarket trolleys, old computers and general rubbish….. Hm!
The bottom right photograph (just about) shows the rarely seen overflow from the hot springs that drains warm water into the river after passing through the official Roman Baths and also through the rather expensive and privately run Spa. All the newly exposed river bed needed was a few dead dogs and Morris 1000 complete with skeletal passengers to complete the dystopian vision.
So what to do? Snowdonia ached in our memories and we were facing an enforced desensitisation back into our normal lives; living like urban foxes, avoiding unnecessary human contact and constantly COVID watchful. Plato said that the city is a work of art, but then he was a relatively wealthy and well educated man who probably lived in the better part of town. While Bath is, doubtless, a work of art – it’s more Bosch than Leonardo. The city looks great on a sunny evening when you’ve come in a coach and the buildings glow like ripe apricot as you are driven along London Road and back up to the motorway; but living here is very different.
Enough! We’ve forged our lives here now – I chose the word carefully – and much of the time our lives are so full we hardly notice all this. A therapeutic trip to the allotment surprised us. The first of the parsnips was a giant, the chillies, peppers and aubergines had all flourished in the days of our neglect. Another 5 kilos of tomatoes to prep, chillies to brine and ferment and more good things to eat. All good news there.
Our re-entry strategy was to revisit our favourite walks. The local ones are all calculated take us around the quiet edges of the city; be around five miles long, and capable of being taken at a bit of a challenging pace. There are no walks here that don’t involve hills.
To put all this exercise in some kind of context we both finished the first lockdown seriously overweight – my bread baking was probably the engine of much of it, but being indoors so long didn’t help, and comfort food was our principal survival mechanism. But there was more – Madame had endured a knee replacement; we’d both scored badly on blood glucose (pre diabetic) in the last set of tests and I’d had a series of troubling encounters with endoscopes, followed by a separate diagnosis of paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. My heart would go into uncontrolled pointless and ineffectual racing leaving me feeling faint and (so I discovered) very likely to have a stroke or a heart attack. Our visits to the gym were more dangerous than I’d ever realized.
My medical issues were quickly resolved by medication to control the wayward heart rhythms and reduce my blood pressure, but emotionally the effect was deeper and more difficult to budge. Looking back, I began to make accommodations, telling myself it was only natural to slow down at my age, and all that blah blah blah. Fear of becoming a wreck was making things worse, and introducing negative feedback can only go one way, putting the brakes on life. We were shrinking in ambition even while we grew slower and bigger and so we did something about it. Long before the lockdown; we gave up alcohol – it’s fourteen months now with no more seven Friday nights a week and – (this is not a nag) – after a few months we felt so much better it was difficult to understand why we hadn’t done it sooner. Some of the worrying symptoms disappeared, and then six weeks ago we put ourselves on a low carb diet; I lost 20lbs and all my other stats – blood glucose, blood pressure, body fat, BMI and resting heart rate dropped quickly into the normal or even optimal levels. After a lifetime of never listening to good advice we bit the bullet and it worked. The diet is demanding but we soon got used to it. One of the biggest obstacles was getting past the pharmacists who seemed to think it was wrong for me to check my own blood sugars in case I “wore my finger out” taking samples, or (more likely) was too stupid to get medical help if self-testing showed up a problem.
But accompanying the appearance of these promising new shoots; the reappearance of my waist, and the clothes I never thought I’d ever be able to wear again, there was something else lurking in the background that came so from from left-field it knocked me flat because the way in which the inner world inflects our experience of the outer world is always present whether we notice it or not. The dystopian experience of coming home from the unsustainable idyll should have been a warning that something needed sorting.
So we took the campervan for its annual MOT at a garage in one of my old parishes and while we waited I thought we’d drive around for a while, near some of the places we’d both loved during the time we lived there. We turned off up a narrow lane from the main road for no reason that I could explain and then in a moment of completely clear insight I knew two things. Firstly that I’d been trying to forget, to push to the back of my mind, the whole 25 years of work in the parish, although much of it was pure joy, because there were some bits of it that had been terrible and that had inflicted real damage on me. But the second insight was that it was OK to own all the good things. I needed to remember them safely because they represented a third of my life. So two insights in a narrow lane that (who’d have thought it?) led directly to a farm and to someone who’d been good to me in a completely unaffected way, and we banged on the door and were welcomed as old friends.
A lot of my life has been taken up with unravelling birds’ nests of memories. We say casually that so-and-so ‘was in pieces‘ and that’s often truer than we think. Years of helping other people to put their lives back together demanded that I took my own puzzle just as seriously – it’s a work in progress, you might say.
Anyway that could be the longest imaginable introduction to a couple of walks – one of them a restorative stroll around Bannerdown where we were delighted by two usurpers, both probably garden escapes but Michaelmas daisies are so much a part of autumn, and the Canadian goldenrod was just as pretty, neither of them the least rare or even genuine native wildflowers but hey! The real ram-stamped native was the plant gall known colloquially as a robin’s pincushion.
Then yesterday we went across to the Mendips to walk down the length of Velvet Bottom and instead of turning back up the Longwood Valley, we carried on down through the Black Rock nature reserve as far as Cheddar Gorge – who could resist those names? I’ve talked a lot about the peculiar geology of the place which, due to lead pollution from mines that have been operated since Roman times, has its own very specialised flora. I’ve written about it, but some of the plants are harder to spot than you’d think. Not, however meadow saffron – sometimes known as ‘naked ladies’ because the spectacular flowers appear after the seeds have been set and the leaves have disappeared for the winter.
And there’s another reason for writing at such length. I once taught a young South Wales man doing an incredibly long prison sentence for affray. He used to joke and say that if I crossed him he might have ‘one of his blackouts’. Let’s call him Owen. Apart from a gift for throwing furniture and televisions through windows, he knew more about Romano British settlements in South Wales than anyone I’ve ever met. If anyone ever demonstrated the fact that you can’t stuff a real life into a bag marked ‘historian’ or ‘botanist’ it was Owen. As Stephen Blackpool was inclined to say in “Hard Times” – ‘it’s all a muddle’ – and in real life, as opposed to the relentlessly (artificial) successful and happy bloggers’ persona, for every meadow saffron there’s an awful lot of ragwort that can’t be swept under the carpet. The Potwell Inn remains committed to life in all its fullness, richness and joy – allowing for the fact that some idiot could leave the sluices open at any time.
Sorry, it’s not the best photo ever but today the blog is held together, if it holds at all, by the photos. We were out walking the clifftop today. The sky was a colour I’ve always thought of as ‘china blue’ and I’ve never known until very recently why that name fitted this particular sky so perfectly but it came to me – as these things do – that it’s very like the pale blue of some Chinese blue and white pottery. I have to say ‘some’ because although all ceramic blues come from cobalt, the colour was sourced from different minerals that contained other elements, for instance manganese, which subtly affects the colour. For most potters since the 19th century, blue meant – well, darkish cobalt blue; but for thousands of years the Chinese had valued this colour for its almost spiritual quality and equally valued the various hues to be got from minutely different sources. Manganese, for the sake of an illustration, when mixed with cobalt might well yield a colour not unlike the devils bit at the top of the page. Goodness what glorious ceramic piece it was that took up residence in my mind; and neither do I recall where I might have seen it but it lodged there as the colour of the autumn sky; faintly milky but infinitely deep, and which is a feature of the sea sky and big wide estuaries. China Blue it will always be, so I’ve capitalised it to nail the point.
Anyway, there it is – autumn, the Irish sea stirred up by a blustery South Easterly and more birds than you could shake a stick at – greater black backed gulls, herring gulls, black headed gulls, common tern (I’m pretty sure), shag, kestrel, swallows, turnstone, oystercatcher, meadow pipit, rock pipit. We sat and watched them, especially the tern which – now we’ve got them in our heads – are more and more interesting to watch; diving like gannets but delicately and acrobatically, aborting a dive at the last moment and turning in the air to resume their patrol.
But everywhere along this northern coast of the peninsula are signs of abandonment: collapsing corrugated iron sheds flapping noisily in the wind, rusting gear and capstans half buried in the sand at the head of abandoned slipways. All landscapes have this capacity to hold their histories written in heaps and mounds, or walls and chimneys. This particular landscape is rich in earthworks that could be ancient but more likely are the leavings of attempts to drain the marshy ground inland from the sea. An abandoned customs lookout reminds us that this area was once frequented by sail-coasters crossing from Ireland, which is so close here that our mobiles have, once or twice, tried to connect to Irish phone masts. Roaming here can be costly.
The largest farms are replete with the latest technology – one in particular with hostile warnings about entering what looked like a small industrial site. Others – the ones that haven’t converted all their outbuildings to holiday cottages – look careworn and shabby; needing a lot more than a lick of paint. This is traditional farming practised under the constant threat of the bailiffs – you can smell it in the air – fishing, shipbuilding, coastal trade and farming all slowly sinking. A late boom in tourists might not be enough to mitigate the effects of coronavirus and a hard brexit.
But to get back to the beginning, the devils bit has a good back story. Until the nineteenth century it had a big reputation for its healing qualities, and the tale goes that it was so good that the devil intervened and bit off part of its root to prevent the people being healed – you can see where this is going. So here’s another photograph – same walk, same sky and this time it’s a large roofless and abandoned enclosure.
Of course, with one door gone, you wouldn’t necessarily recognise it but there it is again; the same militant slogan and probably the same graffiti artist but this time half of the door has been battered off by the storms and now the gateway to nowhere is blocked by a huge pile of plastic jetsam awaiting collection. The fruits of another unfolding tragedy.
I wrote a couple of days ago that if I were a Welsh voter I’d be thinking hard about independence and after I’d pressed the ‘send’ button I wondered if I’d thought this through clearly. Trust me, readers punish me if I overstep the mark and for 24 hours I waited for some kind of reaction. With this blog it’s as clear as a bell; the numbers drop – I can almost hear the screens being slammed shut. But – on the other hand – we’ve got to think about these difficult issues, and this blog is about being human and not necessarily being perfect. If I thought there was a solution to our current multifaceted crisis – the collapse of species diversity, uncontrolled global heating, gross pollution, poverty and unemployment, homelessness, the disappearance of whole cultures (it’s not just the Amazon we need to worry about) and the relentless gathering of wealth into fewer and fewer hands – if I thought there was any way of addressing this without speaking out and making people feel uncomfortable – then I’d give up and do field botany.
Being fully human isn’t a part-time job and it involves some agonising dilemmas. Looking at the lonely nationalist slogan and the accompanying pile of rubbish today forced me to realise that the only way we’ll ever save the earth from our own behaviour is to draw together, not split apart. The present governance of the Western world is kept alive by division. Common goods are all too easily destroyed – like the roots of devils bit in the telling story. Where our few leftover treasures and cultural possessions, languages, memories and stories stand in the way of profit, they are excised, and the more we can be persuaded that the cause of all our problems is those Welsh, or those Scots or those English or those refugees or those Europeans or whatever other separated scapegoat for the disastrously wrong turn the human race took after the 1950’s; the easier it is for them to pick us off one group at a time. So to answer my own question in an epically convoluted way – no I wouldn’t be campaigning for devolution I’d be campaigning for change, for a functioning democracy that gives us all representation.
One flower I haven’t mentioned is yarrow – there’s lots of it in flower on the cliff tops here. Traditionally yarrow stalks were used in the casting of the I Ching. I’ve got a set at home, gathered for that purpose decades ago and as I passed a plant today with all this swirling around in my mind I remembered that the whole ethos of this ancient art – it’s called divination pejoratively as if it were like reading tea leaves- is to seek the path of balance. Good government doesn’t comprise conning everyone into thinking they can have what they want. When balance is achieved, when we work in harmony with the Tao that calls the ‘ten thousand things’ -including the ‘hawkish’ plant below, the hair grass bending to the wind, and the chamomile – into being, then we thrive.
More rainy days, and so the Potwell Inn kitchen becomes the centre of the universe again. Summer has fled but in compensation we are bringing back so much food from the allotment we’re almost glad it’s raining today. Early this morning, before the rain came, we went up to collect more tomatoes and before we’d finished picking the clouds darkened and the rain began sheeting down. Ironically that just made it more fun and we larked about and laughed with the water running down our necks as we picked tomatoes, apples, beans and figs to fill the preserving jars. We’ve used up so many jars this year I’ve had to order more, and now, as I’m writing this, the flat is full of the perfume of roasting tomatoes, shallots, herbs and oil which I’m about to turn into a batch of rich passata.
Bottling and preserving is one of the greatest compensations for the loss of summer, and storing food for the winter becomes a fulfilling challenge. Freezers are all very well, but brining, pickling, fermenting and bottling all add complex flavours to their raw ingredients, and can bring a taste of summer to a February meal, and in any case glass preserving jars can be stored without using electricity or gas and they can be used over and over. We use different types of jar for different purposes – Kilner jars, for instance are good for pickles because there’s no metal to come into contact with the vinegar fumes, and we always keep a supply of new rubber rings for them, and lids for jam jars because we avoid using them more than once. A fresh top costs much less than a whole jar of spoiled preserved fruit, and if you bulk buy jars and lids from a beekeeping supplier rather than a kitchen shop they’re miles cheaper. Of course you can recycle old jam jars too, but I find that cellophane tops held on with elastic bands and waxed discs won’t protect the contents nearly as well as a new lid, although my mother and grandmother used nothing else.
As you can see, the Potwell Inn kitchen is a bit of a galley really – nothing big or grand about it but we’ve always bought the best equipment we can afford because it lasts so much longer. The oldest Pyrex bowl, which is used several times a week, is 53 years old, full of warm roasted tomatoes right now, and still going strong.
I’ve written often about the fact that growing, cooking and eating your own produce is much more significant than saving a few pennies. It’s no accident that so many of the world’s religions celebrate their key moments through gathering and eating. Day by day we see people passing our window on their way into work – heads down or talking into their mobiles – drinking coffee, eating snacks on the hoof and engulfed by their headphones in a solitary world. When our family were young we had instances of their school friends who came to our house and had never eaten a meal at the table before. Tables are great! gatherings are great too, and eating together is a constant joy through which we renew relationships and share meals that express continuity. Arguing, laughing and joshing one another around a table is one of life’s great pleasures and while I’m cooking for such a gathering I’m always thinking of the people who will eat the food and trying to remember what they love and what they don’t. In restaurants they call it “service” and that’s not a nod to an obsequious tradition of waiters and customers – it’s about treating a customer as well as you would your best friend. Ready meals eaten in front of a quiz show on the telly simply don’t do it for me.
Maybe there should be a slow eating movement to complement the slow cooking one. Growing your own food and, where you can’t, buying locally from growers and farmers you trust and living well but frugally, means you can live better, eat better and waste less while doing something for the environment at the same time.
And so, today in the kitchen I’ve been in heaven. You might disapprove of the way I use vegetables that might be thrown away by cutting off the bits that have been chewed by slugs or grubs and using the rest, or the fact that I try to think of something to cook with leftovers, but if you’d spent months growing them and dealing with their problems, or gone out in six inches of snow to make sure they were well covered maybe you’d see waste differently. What’s really left after all the re-purposing can still be recycled; “leave no trace” applies as much in the kitchen as it does on a weekend, camping on Dartmoor.
Anyway that’s enough about the Potwell Inn kitchen. Our flat is quite small, and every nook and cranny is filling up with winter stores. Leaving our European neighbours in an acrimonious divorce will (not “could” – will) lead to food shortages in the new year, let alone the disruption that will almost certainly be caused by a surge in Covid 19 infections, and so I feel like I’m channelling my parents and grandparents who knew what food rationing felt like; although I don’t think we’ll be keeping a pig secretly. However our friends with the damson tree phoned this morning and invited us over for a socially distanced picking, so there will be more jam, vodka and even – if there are enough – some chutney to be made. I’m sure the family will be pleased to help us out with the forbidden carbs at Christmas
Finally, on the allotment yesterday, while the sun shone, we cleared away the remains of the sweetcorn to leave access to both sides of the borlotti beans. We’ve had a first taste of the new crop of borlotti in one of Madame’s thick beany soups and they’re lovely – well worth eating young. As soon as they’re harvested we can clear the bed and start to prepare for the new pond. Weather permitting there’s a good deal of carpentry to be done before winter sets in. Life really is good at the Potwell Inn.