Well, Mr Wordsworth, you were right about emotion recollected in tranquility. Our trip to Cornwall was entirely unexpected, and so, with no more travel plans in place, this is the beginning of the rest of the Potwell Inn autumn and today we sat down and reviewed all our summer photographs on a big screen. I was taken aback at quite how intense an experience it was, and this picture of a Sneezewort plant just about had it all for me. As we went through all the new plants, I remembered the exact spot we found this one. It’s not particularly rare and no-one apart, perhaps, the painter Giorgio Morandi, would write poems to its beauty. He’d love it for its restrained colours and I can just see the buff and white flowers somewhere in the background of one of his still-life paintings.
It was the colours that first caught my eye, and then the fact that I’d never seen it before. The identifications you have to work hard for are by far the most memorable and as time goes on I can usually place a plant somewhere in the right family. But once I knew its name I realized I knew a little bit about its medicinal uses in the past and instead of being a stranger it was a friend at the first meeting.
There were lots of meetings like that during the summer and I took hundreds of photographs in which I could instantly recall where they were taken and then refer back to my waterproof notebook to find the name. Sometimes it was easy and sometimes there are a sequence of letters or numbers that mean I had to key it out by answering a series of questions exactly correctly to take me to the right place in the book.
But there was more, because many of the plants had features that just cried out to be painted; the brilliant hues of blackberry leaves, the exact texture of the skins of sloes, the sealing wax red of hawthorn berries and rose-hips. Some of them also stood astride more than one field of interest – illustration, medicine, abstract structure and form, folk names. The natural world suddenly becomes a far richer, more precious place. As I’ve written often before, it populates it with friends whom the prospect of losing fills me with sadness and the resolve to stop that from happening.
I saw at once what I need to get done during the winter months when the allotment takes up less time and I can set up my tiny cramped drawing space once more. I feel blessed and inspired to be back at the Potwell Inn.
Sometimes the success or failure of a day out hinges on something essentially random – like finding a shop that sells crystallised angelica. We last bought it in Penzance at least three years ago, and so as we set off up Causeway Head I had little hope of finding the shop, which even then had the air of a pop-up, still in business. But there it was, very much in business and pleased to sell me enough for three Christmas sherry trifles at least. I’d despaired of ever finding it again but somewhere there’s a person with the energy to simmer angelica stalks in increasingly strong sugar solution for days, until the tender stalks are preserved ready to add a touch of green to contrast with the morello cherries floating on whipped cream atop the trifle. The Potwell Inn always produces Christmas puddings as well, but we rarely eat them until well into the year because sherry trifle made according to a recipe given to us by an old friend has become a Christmas fixture. As you can see my thoughts have turned instinctively to Christmas for no better reason that the preserving and pickling are all but finished. Once upon a time, Gill made us the trifle as a gift every year, but when she became too old I took on the task as a tribute. No Christmas could be complete without it, and because she always aded angelica it never looks right without it.
When I think about it, most of the canonical tasks of Christmas involve quite inexplicable feats of endurance. We know perfectly well that the puddings, cakes and treats are ridiculously rich and life-threateningly full of fat and sugar but a good life deserves a bit of occasional feasting as well as fasting. We are far from the mindset of a couple known to Madame whose idea of the perfect Christmas lunch was to warm up an Iceland frozen turkey dinner and eat it on their laps. Somehow the angelica is even worth a trip to Cornwall, and always tastes better as a happy accident.
We grow it on the allotment – it’s a magnificent sight in the summer as it grows to six feet tall – each plant producing enough of the leaf stems to decorate a hundred trifles – but once again this year, we didn’t find time to create our own store in the kitchen. The little shop is, in itself, a model. There is virtually no packaging to be found in it, you could bring your own containers and buy a huge range of ingredients from bulk. How strange that even in cosmopolitan foodie Bath there isn’t an equivalent shop – I’m sure it would do well.
We walked up and down the pedestrianised street and found an excellent bookshop (Barton Books) the contents of whose bookshelves closely resembled our own at home. I think I’d read about a third of the stock, and would happily have read the rest. I joshed the owner a little and asked him if he’d only stocked his favourite books and he responded that good booksops always reflected their owners’ tastes. I couldn’t agree more, and I came out with John Wright’s latest book on foraging which I’ve already started reading.
Penzance is a place of contrasts – three years ago I’d have been glad never to visit again after we watched an unhinged young woman pouring abuse and beating her dog in the street. Today we were in Newlyn buying some fresh fish and the fishmonger said he lived in Penzance but it had become “a hole” over the years. Exactly as if we were at home, we watched a couple selling drugs on the street – both obviously addicts themselves, both hollowed out by drugs and life in general and with no provision for any help out of their mess.
Mousehole, where we’re staying, is stuffed with ludicrously pretty cottages which are all that remains of a once thriving fishing community. Next door in Newlyn there is still a big fishing fleet but Moushole, with its tiny harbour, confines itself to selling souvenirs and doing a bit of occasional crabbing. The purpose has gone out of the place. In Newlyn the fishmonger said he’d voted for Brexit. I sincerely hope for the town’s sake that he doesn’t get his wish. Virtually all the fish we eat as a nation we buy in, and virtually all that’s caught here is sold abroad, overwhelmingly in Europe. If tariffs were applied to the catch, the fishing would become as unprofitable as the tin mining and that would leave tourism – which only really pays for a third of the year – as the principle industry, bringing even more poorly paid jobs, homelessness and unemployment, helplessness, anger, drugs and alcohol abuse.
But the incomers seem to be taking up at least some of the slack by driving up house prices and providing work for an army of builders, painters and plumbers. The landscape and its wonderful light are largely untouched by change and the granite landscape of West Penwith is as magical as ever it was. Am I too hard on this place? We lived in Falmouth for a year as students and were both captivated by it whilst, at the same time, being wary. You’re always an ’emmet’ here, one of the teeming hordes of ant-like tourists who come, as if to a left-luggage office, looking for something you’ve lost but can’t quite describe. The little battery lit serpentine lighthouse you used to be able to buy from the turners’ shacks on the Lizard has come to stand as a lament for that loss.
We walked to Newlyn today and passed the memorial on the original site of the Penlee Lifeboat station from which the Solomon Browne set out in 1981 in a hurricane force storm to try to rescue the crew of the Union Star coaster. Both crews were lost in the 60 foot waves, and the tradition of Christmas lights here must surely reflect and bring to mind that terrible tragedy as the lights shine out across the sea as if to welcome back the men who will never come.
There’s nowhere to park here: the village was fully formed before the car was invented and the old fishermen’s cottages form a maze of narrow alleyways but there’s an excellent bus service back and forth to Penzance and from there onwards to anywhere in the county. On the roadside facing the sea there are allotment gardens, with some sculptural and whimsical scarecrows.
So, as always we celebrate a few days in Cornwall with mixed feelings. Loss and tragedy are never far below the surface and yet there are few places quite so likely to get the creative sap rising. The railway line to Penzance brought with it not just the tourists, but the painters of the Newlyn School, and later the St Ives artists who, for a while, changed the course of art history. It’s a culture that’s never quite at ease with itself, often feeling isolated and angry with the ‘upcountry’ politicians who have served it so badly. If ever a place needed strong regional government this is it. There’s an uncanny resemblance to Wales where the mineral wealth was extracted by a semi colonial economics leaving the place sucked dry. Love it? Hate it? It’ll still be here long after we’re all dead!
The Potwell Inn has moved briefly to a new location in Cornwall which is very beautiful but could be described as KB/sec land. More pictures tomorrow but the connection speed is agonisingly slow and whether this will ever appear I don’t yet know! I’m aware some readers would rather I confined myself to the sort of sourdough/allotment/wildlife topics that often feature in the blog. I love writing them too, but there are some issues that haunt me and what follows is one of them.
On Monday we had the first of the Bath Natural History Society indoor meetings and heard Prof David Goode talk on “the ecology and conservation of bogs”. If you ever thought of a specialist talking about bogs might be a bit dry (couldn’t resist that one) then think again. In fact don’t just think again, grab a magnifer, take a trip to a bog somewhere near you and take a really close-up look at some mosses – they’re really beautiful, colourful, and it seems extremely important, especially at this moment of ecological crisis.
Mosses aren’t just a bunch of plants, they create their own ecosystems by acidifying and adding phenolic compounds to the water they’re growing in and so create exactly the kind of anaerobic conditions which prevent rotting, thereby preserving Tollund Man and millions of tons of carbon in perpetual storage without the intervention of a single yet-to-be-made invention. Even better they have a bunch of structural but dead cells called hyaline cells which resemble tiny bladders that can store up to 26 times their dry weight in water. All of which means that blanket bog is better at storing carbon than the Amazon rain forests, good news because the UK has 13% of the world’s blanket bogs.
At this point, and in fairness to Prof David Goode, I should say that the message I took away from his excellent talk and the way in which I’m going to develop it, is entirely my responsibility.
While we are pleased to sign petitions aimed at foreign dictators and multinational companies who are enabling the destruction of the Amazon rainforests are we guarding our own precious home-grown carbon stores – the blanket bogs of the UK?
Well sadly we’re not.
When you drain a bog – possibly by abstracting water to drain it for farming, or in order to create a better environment for commercial grouse shooting, it begins to die. It dies even quicker when the blanket bog is deliberately drained and burned so a very few extremely wealthy people can get to shoot wild birds. We less privileged mortals are only just beginning to turn away from using peat in our gardens, so you can’t reduce this problem entirely to wealth and privilege.
On grouse moors the bogs themselves are degraded and depleted whilst any creature remotely threatening the grouse is trapped, poisoned or shot. The upshot only adds to the catastrophic loss of wildlife on these habitats, while the depletion of the massive water storage capacity of the bogs results in more run-off into rivers and dangerous flooding downstream. In addition, as the bog conditions disappear all that stored carbon as well as methane is released back into the atmosphere to wind up the ratchet of the same global heating that is already helping to dry out bogland across the world. Peat extraction has the same effect, and I was astonished to learn that in the past it has been burnt as a fuel in power stations.
So here is a terrifying figure. The earth’s remaining area of near natural peatland stores more than 550 gigatonnes of carbon, representing 42% of all soil carbon. The hotter the earth gets the more of this carbon is going to be released into the atmosphere, along with millions of tonnes of methane from the melting permafrost.
Some people are advocating planting trees to stabilize the climate but this is something of a scientific mirage because a tree only stores carbon during the period it’s growing. Let’s imagine for the sake of argument we planted 100 million trees tomorrow. For the next 25 or perhaps 50 years they would take carbon out of the atmosphere but once they die, or are felled, we would have to use the timber as a building material to preserve its carbon storing integrity, or bury it deep in the earth under controlled conditions. I suppose eventually (over geological time, that is), it would turn into coal which would at least be stable as long as we left it there in the ground. But any talk of bio-fuels or renewable energy based on burning wood or plant material is a chimera because without yet-to-be-invented methods of carbon capture, these supposed renewable fuels are as dangerous as any other hydrocarbon fuel.
Let’s get real about this. There is no way that we can avert the related disasters of global heating and species extinction and keep living the way we do. I’m fascinated at the psychological mechanisms we unwittingly deploy to ignore the warnings. I wrote recently about the psychology of grieving which, I think, plays a part. There’s also the fact that we don’t experience directly or immediately the effects of our behaviour. It took decades for cigarette smoking to reduce because hardly anyone died immediately of lung cancer. The same goes for drinking too much; it’s most insidious property is its plausible deniability. People rarely die of asthma attacks right alongside the queuing traffic jams on London Road (Bath) and its all too easy to think something like “my little car won’t make much difference”.
But there’s another way of looking at our behaviour, and that’s our attitude to moral wrongs. Let’s suppose there’s a crowd of people in a room with a table in the centre on which stands a bowl of sweets with a notice that reads “please don’t take the sweets”. In a crowd, where wrongdong is hard to get away with without invoking peer disapproval, we’re more inclined to do the right thing. But imagine that same crowd of people passing through the room one at a time with no-one observing them. I’d wager that more than a few sweets would disappear. Social disapproval is a powerful force for behavioural change, and so if we really want to stop people buying those enormous 3 litre gas guzzlers we need to express our disapproval. Nobody wears a real mink coat these days expecting a round of applause. That’s not to argue that a voluntary code will be sufficient. In the end, our strategies for dealing with this crisis will have to be enshrined in law, because the current beneficiaries of ‘the way we do things round here’ are not going to give up their privileges without a fight. By adopting the principle of making the polluter pay and only subsidising activities that bring definable public goods, our present unsustainable and dangerous lifestyle would have to change.
The impact of neo-liberalism isn’t confined to financial markets, it’s insinuated itself into our cultural bloodstream to the point where we can’t think straight about the environment. Somehow, flying across the Atlantic in an aeroplane or feeding fillet steak to your dog is regarded as a ‘freedom’ whereas breathing fresh air, drinking unpolluted water, listening to a turtle dove, having a roof over your head and a rewarding job with a modest but sufficient income is a burden on society.
So – just now, bogland has absolutely no rights, but if it disappears we disappear too. So I’m not trying to enter the hideously technical argument as to whether any non-sentient being can have rights. My argument is simpler and suggests that my rights, our rights as flourishing human beings are contingent upon the flourishing of the biosphere. That’s not a lump of sphagnum moss at the top of this post, it’s a life support system!
Just two trays of green tomatoes left to ripen, thank goodness and the cupboard is absolutely jammed with sauces, relishes, passata and now chutney. I cannot look another tomato in the eye.
Blogging can get awfully repetitive, I fear. There must be a limit to the patience of longsuffering followers when I enlarge yet again on the tomato. It’s been a long season and I’ve entirely run out of things to say, but just imagine how much worse it would be if I was a dairy farmer – day after day when nothing much happens except milking the cows. “Daisy looked a bit off colour today” is even less interesting when Daisy is reduced to a number. The whole enterprise of blogging is an encouragement to big-up the achievements at the expense of the truth. “Finished seventh novel today, quick photo shoot with Vogue to model my latest line in dungarees and wellingtons”.
My days really can be a bit boring, apart from the fact that I’m rarely bored by the same thing more than a couple of times a month. I’ve often enough written about the rather sacramental quality to cooking and gardening, but the impact of that internality is the need to explain what’s going on inside my head while I cut up onions or dig potatoes. Revelations, unique insights and life enhancing lessons only crop up rarely and there’s essentially nothing external to look at, or describe. The photo at the top of the page next to the unmentionable bottles of GTC is of Madame’s Grandmother’s collection of recipes. As it happens it’s a recipe for tomato sauce which, being a wartime recipe, has the tomatoes bulked out by a whisked egg and some breadcrumbs to make it go further. Its only connection with today’s activities is the slender thread that connects our lives to hers – and it’s a good feeling to honour the past even by completely ignoring this particular lesson. I’ve never been tempted to make parsnip cordial either. Much ordinary life is just same-old same-old, – except it’s not, because it’s the lived experience of being human and that’s a wonderful thing even when it looks a bit boring….
So today we dug the last potatoes, hopefully enough to keep us going for a few months. We scrumped an apple off a tree on an abandoned allotment (photo), and I cooked venison meatballs in T sauce (sorry). One of our neighbours beamed at us in the street, and we saw a man from the Christadelphians carrying a crate of cups and saucers out of their meeting room. I saw a gluten free pizza being cooked – it looked truly horrible – and we feasted on a few chocolate marshmallows – see what I mean? Step away from the blog please, there’s nothing going on here.
All this, of course is displacement activity because what I ought to be doing is reminding you how important the latest “State of Nature” report is and explaining why it might be that these peaches were rotten before they were ripe, but that would involve an elaborate reconstruction of their immersion in gases, their interminable journey at low temperatures in large ship-borne containers or giant lorries. The fact is, they’re on the compost heap right now along with a big pile of cardboard that took ages to tear up into small pieces. It’s essential to add plenty of carbon to a compost heap and that’s a bit of luck because one of our neighbouring flats has been refurbished and we’ve been able to recycle heaps of cardboard from the newly delivered white goods. The downside is that the old and probably functional items were simply stacked in the basement and when we kicked up a fuss with the management company, the guilty party just dumped the rest in the road outside.
I may be a bit more grumpy than usual because living, as we do, in a block of flats with a high turnover of tenants means we get the odd nuisance upstairs. Yesterday we spent all day listening to them having a noisy time until about midnight when all went quiet – only (it turned out) because they went out clubbing and came back at about 4.00am and started all over again. Childishly we retaliated this morning by turning two radios up to full volume in the hope of spoiling their lie-in. Did I ever claim to be a saint?
So that’s it – another ordinary day at the Potwell Inn – but we got some stuff done, we’re prepared a little better for the winter and for the clusterf**ck that is about to be visited upon us and I cling to the tiny hope that this is all a bad dream and that we won’t need those wartime recipes after all. But then, did the Romans who built this bath house in Ravenglass ever imagine that within a couple of decades they’d be on the boat home. Wherever that is?
This little boxful was the third crop of chillies this season and I’m properly pleased with the way they’ve gone. All five varieties provided a crop, and following James Wong’s advice to stress them a bit has paid dividends in the heat department as they’ve all reached somewhere near their potential. What’s been so interesting is the difference in flavour between the varieties, and the fact that some of the milder ones did better out in the sheltered parts of the open allotment than in the greenhouse. So next year I’ll look around for perhaps one new variety but I think I’ve found a good range of heat and flavour with an abundant crop. We’ve made chilli oil, chilli sauce; we dried some and we’ve eaten some raw. When I first thought of growing them, like most people I suspect, I thought they’d be far more difficult than they turned out to be. I didn’t use any special compost and they only got fed with liquid seaweed. The only specialist kit we used was the propagator with its daylight lamps to get them going in the late winter so we could give them the longest possible season. Looking back over the past two years the only real failures have been in germination – I think in the first year I had the temperature set far too high, in nervous anticipation of the supposed difficulty, because a steady 20 – 25C brought more reliable results in our set-up. The organge ones in the photo are Habaneros and the smaller red ones are the third flush of F1 Apache – much smaller than their earlier flushes. The organic farm shop in the market were selling these at 35p each, so they’ve more than earned their keep.
But much of today was spent at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath where we went to see an exhibition of ceramics by James Tower, and very fine it was.
It’s great to see a finished piece with its preparatory drawings – this one’s called “Copse” and I think it’s very beautiful. Yesterday’s RWA Open was a selling exhibition and as always, very densely hung. I often find one or two pieces in a show that I really like, but the Open left me stone cold and I couldn’t quite figure out why. The pieces of work were often very competent (that sounds like faint praise, I know) but seen en masse it felt like gorging on sweets. The James Tower exhibition gave the work (and us) room to breathe and we loved it. Suffering as I always do, from morbid introspection, I wondered why this work seemed so much better. One awful possibility is that I’m old and set in my ways and unwilling to accept new media and ideas. But really I don’t think that’s the case so much as the difficulty I have with much recent work that’s trying to teach me something. Didactic, concept driven art often lacks the contemplative and quiet side that I prefer. I sat once in the Rothko room in Tate Modern, I was there for about 3/4 hour and during that time dozens of people walked in, walked around and out again. The work demands, and repays time spent with it. The much derided practice of copying favourite paintings is actually a rather good way of understanding them, and the sheer discipline of drawing is all-but disappearing from the curriculum. Does that make me an old fogey? I’m sure there’s a great deal of recently produced art that emerges from the kind of obsessive study and contemplation I’m talking about and, in fact, it’s possible think that those artists who are still pursuing drawing as a means of understanding, are still carrying the flame. We always make a point of going to the Jerwood Drawing Prize exhibitions, obviously only possible if you’re in the UK.
Anyway, there we are – I expect I’ve annoyed quite enough people by mixing up allotments and art but tough. I’m also interested in philosophy, the price of fish, heading off the coming ecological and climate crisis and (consequently) economics. I’ve spent a lifetime refusing to be simple and so should anyone who cares about thriving. Our culture wants us all to live as if we could fit life into a small shed, but I’ve discovered (with a great deal of help) that I actually live in a large, rambling and poorly maintained stately home which I choose to call the Potwell Inn. There are still rooms I haven’t been in yet; we’re not subsidised by the National Trust; it’s open all hours, and we’re always happy to have a lock-in with the right company. Tonight’s special is toasted cheese on sourdough.
So today, as planned, the Potwell Inn crew turned out to build the recycled greenhouse on our second son’s allotment in Bristol. I had thought we’d only get as far as levelling the foundation, but the threatened rain didn’t come, and we managed to assemble the whole frame before we left. Madame and our daughter in law brought the grandchildren down with hot pasties at lunchtime, and the day was a delight from start to finish.
Second hand greenhouses can be a bit of a liability; the glass is very fragile and doesn’t travel at all well, the process of assembly can be a nightmare if you don’t know how the bits go together. The assembly instructions – which can often be downloaded if you know the make and model of the greenhouse – are sometimes a bit impenetrable. In this case we had dismantled the greenhouse ourselves a couple of months ago, and I’d already built a similar but smaller model on our own plot, so I had a pretty good idea how it all went. My best advice if you’re taking on an old greenhouse is to try and dismantle it yourself as we did – so you know all the bits are there. I don’t know of any way to buy individual missing parts. My other recommendation is to buy all new nuts and bolts, spring clips and rubber strip and get a special greenhouse spanner -they’re worth their weight in gold.
But the greatest pleasure was simply being together and working together without any tensions. Everyone talks about the challenges of parenting babies and teenagers, but our experience has been that the transition from being parents of children to parents of adults has been the trickiest of all. We had to take a step back and let the boys lead and there were many moments when we felt a bit marginal to their lives. But a decade on, we’ve weathered a few storms and come out closer than we’ve ever been. I used the jokey heading about barn raising because when we work together as a family on a shared project it becomes (without getting religious about it) sacramental. Outwardly hammering pegs, fixing boards and raising beams while inwardly celebrating each other’s gifts.
All three of our children are good cooks, good gardeners and thoroughly committed religious sceptics – the last part comes from years of seeing the church from the inside! Allotmenteering seems to be on the increase again, possibly the prospect of unaffordable organic food post brexit, and the likelihood of global climate breakdown has focused our minds on providing for ourselves. But a day on someone else’s allotment is as rewarding as a day on our own – maybe we should offer training opportunities so new allotmenteers could increase their skills. Gardening is better as a community activity.
The title came to me as an imaginary reading from the i ching. The photo is of a pretty ordinary patch of common weeds on the towpath.
It’s eight o’clock on Sunday evening. I spent most of the evening making bread and pastry while Madame prepped the filling for some Cornish pasties for tomorrow’s lunch with the boys (all in their thirties and forties now!) . We’re working together on our middle son’s allotment tomorrow to start building the greenhouse we dismantled a few weeks ago in Bath. It was going free and it was in pretty good condition and so he took it on. Apart from that we went up to the allotment early to beat the rain – that didn’t work – and so we plodded on through increasingly sharp showers to clear more beds, cover them with compost and sheet them up for the winter. By the time we got home we were very damp and very tired. I’d turned the three active compost bins, a very gratifying job because the resulting compost was some of the best we’ve ever made. It’s hard to overestimate the impact of soil fertility on allotments – it’s not just bigger crops, it’s healthier and more resilient soil which makes for healthier and more resilient plants. Our clay/loam soil which is prone to poaching and waterlogging is capable of withstanding flood and drought after three years of very heavy applications of organic material. “What’s the secret?” people ask, and the answer is “there’s no secret – just compost”. We stopped digging this year and the beds are firm enough to stand on now even when they’re wet. Goodness knows where it all goes, the asparagus bed swallowed up six inches of seaweed last winter and where we spread leaves as a mulch last autumn, there’s no trace of them now. What we do have is worms – everywhere. Did you know there are a number of British worm species? – and they all live at different levels, so the fact that we don’t see some on the surface doesn’t mean they’re not there.
I didn’t feel much like writing today, we were both so tired after the session on the allotment we fell asleep in the armchairs. But there’s something rather special about working in the rain. My broadbrimmed hat keeps the rain from running down my neck, and at this time of the year the rain and wind aren’t that cold.
I’m aware that writing about the allotment, the whole Potwell Inn way of life, travelling around in the campervan all adds up to a faintly mythologised life. But it’s not mythic at all, it’s all utterly ordinary. Things go well, things go extraordinarily badly; I read books all the time, some inspire me and some fill me with fear for the future. I know a few wildflowers so I’m never alone, there’s always something or someone to talk to. We work, cook, eat, garden – often in companionable silence. For every idea that bears fruit there are a dozen that don’t. The motivation for sharing by writing about it is that if we could teach more people to live within the ordinary – or perhaps I should capitalize it and call it the Ordinary, there would be a lot less sadness in the world. In a day or a week when not much happens except for leaning on a fence and watching the plants grow, I never feel the need for anything more exciting. A slice of bread from a well made sourdough loaf spread with home made marmalade in the morning is a celebration of some terribly underrated domestic skills. Good stock in the fridge and tonight the smell of pasties cooking in the oven, fresh veg from the allotment – what more could anyone want? – there is real authority in the Ordinary, the kind that makes many politicians look like two year old children in a tantrum.
The Potwell Inn isn’t some kind of metaphysical philosopy, in fact it’s the least metaphysical idea you could entertain. Stuff, dirt, earth, nature. Marvellous!
People often say things like – ‘you’re so lucky to be able to paint/draw, it must be very therapeutic’ – and I smile and think to myself lucky me? it sometimes drives me completely round the bend! The same idea of therapeutic activity is now being attributed to gardening and it surely can’t be long before the RHS is offering modules, if not courses, in garden therapy. Last night we watched a BBC programme called Gardeners’ World that was entirely devoted to the therapeutic benefits of gardening and of being in amongst nature.
We’re gardeners too and it’s impossible to disagree. There’s nothing quite like a morning or a whole day on the allotment, out in the fresh air with some hard work and, with a bit of luck, some good company. Today we decided to defy the rain and we spent a couple of hours with Madame weeding and clearing beds and me moving about 3/4 ton of leaf mould and compost next to the beds they’ll be feeding this coming week. I hasten to say that much of the compost was bought in advance of our getting our own heaps flowing. I now have a backache but we came away feeling – as ever – that the allotment has been instrumental in our thriving over the last four years of adjustment. Of course we feel sad when we lose plants, and cross when our stuff gets stolen but I suspect that a significant part of the therapeutic effect of gardening is learning to cope with loss. Gardening is a perspective changing activity and it rewards our commitment in a manner quite out of proportion to our input. Putting food on the table has the power to transform a meal into a feast – every day. Anything that makes you thankful every day has just got to be good for you. It’s risky of course because an allotment can never be a fortress and you have to accept that all sorts of strangers have access to it for good or ill. But if one person sees an opportunity to enrich themself at our expense, I’ll guarantee that there are a hundred who look across from the footpath and think it’s beautiful, and a handful might even decide to try an allotment for themselves.
So today was a good day. My experiment to try reducing the cooking time of the sourdough bread by 15 minutes worked out really well, and the crust was crisp but not too thick. The oven is one of our extravagances, and it’s so highly efficient that we’ve had to recalibrate almost all our cooking times.
I woke early and for no particular reason felt completely energised. Although, as I wrote yesterday, I try to avoid writing too much about politics here, I do think that what I write is highly political. I’m an inveterate fact checker, I listen and read and then I check. Today I was searching around the issue of carbon costs and I found that much of the received wisdom around which politicians and some journalists set out their green credentials are open to serious challenge. We’re so used (well, some of us are -) to challenging racism and sexism when we encounter it but we get very shy about challenging the way that data is used. What does nuclear energy really cost? What’s the most efficient form of renewable energy? Is bio-fuel a good or a bad idea, is it true that generating electricity from biomass is better than generating it from coal? The truth is that many of the assumptions from which we work are the fruits of lobbyists with a vested interest in their particular industry. At the very least we could demand to know ‘who said this’ , who paid for the research? and what does the independent research say?.
As it happens I think I know the answers to most of the questions I posed but I’m not stating them because it’s much more important that we each find out for ourselves. It’s a very radicalizing moment to discover that you been completely hoodwinked. Just as it was very radicalizing to discover huge beds of samphire when we were on the seashore next to the western fells, but not dare to forage any of it because it was just a few miles downstream of the Windscale nuclear reprocessing plant which has a history of unacknowledged disharges. We test everything on the allotment. So called biodegradable bin bags seem to be far more resistant to composting than the label suggests; ultra green coir modules appear to be wrapped in plastic mesh. We have to cut the mesh off before composting the spent coir. Do we even know whether the big seed companies treat their seeds with insecticides?
I think the answer to negotiating our way around the challenges of the 21st century has got to be to take a much greater interest in the data that’s used to persuade us and to become proper nuisances when it comes to asking questions. Let’s be confident about handling the data and get the environmental costs on to the bottom line of every big company. They’ll soon change when it hits them in the pocket.
I think I’ve been reading too much – and it’s all the fault of the southwesterly winds. We did at least manage 3 hours on the allotment yesterday, but today, after setting out on a fruitless (yes) mission to pick damsons, it hammered down so much we turned around and came home again whereupon I spent the rest of the day watching 2 films about Arne Naess and reading his book “Ecology of Wisdom”. I had to check him out because his name, and the concept of ‘deep ecology’ have come up quite a lot in my reading recently and I always find it better to go back to the source and make my own mind up..
The introduction was a bit repetitive, whereas the initial chapter on place was really intriguing. But I came away from the first three essays thinking that, after looking at his CV, I felt more disabled than enabled by his mountaintop vision. There was something a shade too muscular, too charismatic, for me. I’ll never build a primitive hut on the side of a mountain, or read Spinoza in Latin, or learn Ghandian boxing. So does that mean that the Potwell Inn is forever condemned to the sidelines? Does it mean that my proposed ecology of Muckyannydinny Lane, the rubbish filled alley connecting two estates, will never see the light of day because it’s too ordinary?
I liked the man and some at least of his writing, but it seems to me as if his disciples (where have I heard this story before?) have added whole chunks of metaphysics and rather extreme conclusions to his initial words. Isn’t it always the same? The moment we canonize someone, the followers feel free to claim pretty much anything they like and then stamp it with the saint’s imprimatur to put it beyond debate.
So here I am with a seed catalogue in one hand and the disabling thought in my mind that I really don’t know what we should be doing for the best. Is the bib and brace overall and the Tilly hat more of a deferential tug of the forelock to the past? (see postbox). Is there some complete system for the ethically perfect life that I haven’t stumbled across yet or am I condemned to stumble around in the dark? I know there are people who’ve found the answer because you can sense by their absolute certainty and their gimlet eyes that they have the truth – I’m not being smart and ironical here, I’m both envious of and repelled by their purity.
Loving the earth and the natural world is easy, and counting ourselves among the creatures surely involves loving one another as well as the birds, bees and wolves, and yet the most forceful expositions of rewilding seem almost Malthusian – discarding human lives as if they (we) are a form of infection. The most common exposition of the technological dream, of carbon capture and fusion power et al seem to me to be putting your trust into the power of the unicorn, and somewhere in the middle you land up being despised by almost everyone. All I can think of is to try to live ethically as best I can, reduce my impact on the earth and keep the Potwell Inn going so we, the bewildered, can spent our twilight years with shaking hands and rheumy eyes discussing the price of onions over a pint of Ushers cider.
Today I baked another sourdough and took 15 minutes off the baking time to try to create a less daunting crust. Madame cooked ratatouille – possibly the last of the season from our own produce.
My son asked me at the weekend why I don’t blog about politics. It’s for the same reason I don’t go around bludgeoning people who steal our coldframes, it’s all got a bit too poisonous and I think it’s bad for me. One of my ex parishioners facebooked to say I was being very stoic. OK Chris – you’ve found me out!
It was my turn to prep the veg tonight. We’d brought back a red cabbage, the last of the summer broccoli, carrots, beans – the usual suspects at this time of year – and they all went into the sink for a swill. Generally we give the leaf veg a quick soak in salted water so any beasties float to the top – a couple of well fed slugs surfaced tonight. The carrots had got a mild attack of carrot fly and rather than reject them all I cut the iffy bits out – you probably know the score. We cut any green bits off the potatoes but unless they’re green right through we eat the rest. Blackfly, whitefly, caterpillars we see them all and we try not to cook them, but if one or two slip through the net we don’t worry. It’s an organic allotment and we don’t inundate our crops with chemicals, we just take the pests off. We don’t peel if we can help it and we don’t even scrub them with abrasive pads because ……
everybody needs to eat their *peck of dirt before they die –
Some are so fearful of dirt and bugs that I’ve even heard of people spraying lettuce with antibacterial spray but sadly the converse of the proverb isn’t true at all. Not eating your peck of dirt might impoverish your immune system of challenges and make you less resistant to infections – I remember our GP saying years ago that we all washed far too much and then got skin problems. If the evidence of the Potwell Inn kitchen is anything to go by, we’re wading through an invisible soup of micro-organisms every day. We use them to make bread and pickles and to preserve food for the winter. Our kefir helps to keep our gut healthy and it’s everywhere apparent that our immersion in the creatures with which we’ve evolved is, by and large an essential part of remaining well. I was reading this week that even the somewhat messy events of our birth can give our immune sytem a head start.
By way of a caveat I should say that there ae some micro-organisms that should be avoided. My particular bitter experience has given me a useful aversion to campylobacter, which I’ve had three times – probably making me a candidate for the Darwin award. In every case I’d eaten processed chicken which I’d barbecued badly — that’s to say on the outside of the grill and in a strong wind. Yet another reason for thinking carefully about cheap meat! But a bit of ordinary dirt, or the occasional accidentally boiled caterpillar doesn’t pose an existential threat nearly as great as a kitchen full of chemicals and a careless chef.
And just to add an amusing postscript to my solemn pronouncements on sourdough loaves, I mentioned at the weekend that I’d started a loaf to cheer myself up after the theft of our coldframes. In my haste I forgot to put the usual 20% of soft plain flour into the mix, and so I was hoping that the resulting loaf would prove my theory that what’s needed is to lower the protein content of the flour a bit in order to get that sought-after open texture, and provide me with a ‘with’ and ‘without’ side by side photo so I could brag about my scientific method. However nature stepped in and I seem to have created two almost identical loaves. Ah well, I’m not as clever as I thought – as if I didn’t know that already!
*And if you were wondering, a peck is 1/4 bushel – but we all knew that didn’t we? In American dry measure it’s 8 quarts, which is a lot to eat all at once so it’s probaby best to spread the load over a long healthy lifetime.