Flour, water, salt and a little oil

Grumbling about the misdescription of allotmenteering and natural history as being necessarily therapeutic has become a bit of a theme for me at the Potwell Inn, and I feel it’s time to balance things up a bit. Last weekend, in the Observer, there was a fascinating piece written by Jay Rayner, who’s a proper food writer, unlike me, about the film director, actor and foodie Stanley Tucci – centred around the cooking of an Italian dish known as a timpano – which originates from Calabria where his grandparents were born. Great article by the way, but one thing led to another and so we watched the film of the dish – “Big Night” and then, because Tucci was acting and directing, we watched “Julie and Julia” – his film about Julia Child whose two volumes on French Cooking were fundamental to my own cooking journey; oh and then we watched “Pig” which was the most dark and philosophical film about truffles you’ll ever watch but nothing whatever to do with our hero. Naturally we bought Tucci’s latest book as well so you can see the way we, at the Potwell Inn, pull the shutters in late autumn and console ourselves by thinking about and cooking food.

Meanwhile, and because the allotment has been too wet to get on to, I’ve returned to some serious experiments with bread. Among the many false dawns of hope and grace in my life the consolations of bread baking have never let me down – not in fifty odd years. Sourdough was late on to the scene for me, probably because until it became fashionable again in the US it stayed firmly below the media radar. Then, of course, everything changed, except that whenever I saw the subject mentioned it was always in the context of huge difficulties and arcane practices that put the whole thing beyond reach – until, this is, I gave it a go myself.

There are other posts here on the subject of getting a starter going; and after getting bored with dancing naked under a full moon and collecting stones of divers colours whenever there was an R in the month I made the elementary discovery that when you mix flour and water in a pot and leave it exposed on a window ledge it will sometimes, but not always, ferment in a helpful way. But it was always very hit and miss and I was too busy to do the groundwork until one day I started a controlled experiment. I’d already figured out that flour and water were the only necessary ingredients although the initial starters used bottled – ie non chlorinated water to give the yeasts a leg up in the first week. So all I did was mix a starter with each of about half a dozen flours I had in the cupboard for yeast loaves, tended them all equally for six weeks, and selected the best performing – ie the most lively starter; discarding the rest.

And the winner was – dark rye (which I could have found out in almost any book, but I’m stubborn like that). The downside of dark rye is that it’s very – well, dark and coarse and so it can make an 80% white loaf look surprisingly like wholemeal. The other thing is that it’s got a remarkably strong (and beautiful) flavour that can sometimes overwhelm the foods you’re eating with the bread. In the end, this half pint container of starter has kept us in delicious bread for at least the last ten years.

I should say that the final arbiter in the matter of crust and crumb experiments is Madame who loathes having butter run down into her armpit via the large and overrated holes in what’s come to represent the gold standard sourdough loaf. She loves butter almost as much as Julia Child did) – and so like all sensible cooks, I bake bread the way my customer prefers. For a couple of years the go-to recipe has included (all organic) wholemeal wheat flour, hard white flour (for the elasticity) and dark rye in the starter and as a final addition during kneading. That gives us a loaf that keeps down to the last slice and tastes lovely – OK it tastes like the granary floor, which in my world is the highest compliment! But it is a beast of a flavour and anything less than strong home made marmalade, or a mustard, marmite and parmesan sandwich is likely to be overwhelmed.

So I wondered what would happen if I made another starter using only light rye flour because all of the original white flour starters had been slow and bad tempered. So beginning with the original master, I began feeding the experimental starter then I used the light rye starter with white flour to make a batter and discovered that it worked really well – not quite as energetic as dark rye, but less rustic, paler and more genteel in its fermentation. Then yesterday I took the first loaf out of the oven (pay no attention to size in the photo; the darker loaf is the end crust because we’d eaten the rest, and the two loaves, baked in the same banneton were broadly identical in size. My only thought was that the “white” loaf could easily have coped with a longer second rise in a bigger banneton because it was still quite energetic.

All this is not so much to show off but to demonstrate that there’s really nothing complicated about sourdough; however the variables in play stack up really fast. What flours? what starter? how much or little salt? oil, butter or no fat? how long to ferment the batter? one or two rises? what starting and what finishing temperatures? with or without steam? The interplay of all these variables can send you screaming to a recipe book to take away all the pain; but honestly, most of the variables remain unaltered and even the difference between summer and winter can change the timings. The take-home point is that baking has huge consolations so long as you don’t for one moment imagine that there’s a right or a wrong way to bake bread. Over the years you get better; you develop a sixth sense through your hands in the dough and as you watch the rise – which is always faintly miraculous.

Michael Pollan wrote a marvellous book entitled “Cooked” which uses bread as an example of cooking with air. To accompany the book, a film appeared later following the same framework of elements – earth, air, fire and water; and in the section on bread he talked about the way in which sourdough transforms the flour which – if you ate nothing else would cause you to starve – into bread which is one of the few complete foods – doubling in size and food value along the way. The best thing about the new loaf was that Madame really liked it and so – in a larger banneton, a longer second rise and a few artistic slashes it will become the new everyday bread unless I miss the old growler recipe too much.

The term everyday bread deliberately references the daily bread in the Bible because it shares the same shape shifting quality. In fact the Greek word that’s used in the Lord’s Prayer and was translated as daily bread (I think) by Miles Coverdale, back in the day – is epiousios and no-one knows what it actually means, and so I’ve always thought of it as meaning something like “give us today the around and about us things we need”. Those things that promote our emotional and spiritual lives as well as meeting our material needs. The King James bible wisely recognised that bread is just such a thing; food, consolation and joy all in one transitory moment. I reckon that’s a genius bit of translating!

“HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME”

A little literary tease!

So we were wandering back from the market clutching a refillable bottle of locally produced milk from a dispenser and I wasn’t getting any pleasure at all from it. The phrase grass fed cows ought to have pressed the endorphin button – wherever that might be found; but it didn’t. This feeling has been creeping up for weeks now and it’s come to a head, leaving me feel cranky and sad. Of course there are explanations. I don’t like these days of declining daylight and deteriorating weather – who would? – but by nature I’m an enthusiastic sort of person; I get excited by new ideas and grand projects.

The spiritual abscess came to a head and burst as I listened to a radio programme about COP 26 at lunchtime. The crisis we’re facing, the (carefully chosen) experts seemed to be saying, is no less soluble than any other technological challenge. A few bright scientists and engineers and a pile of state investment eagerly swallowed up by declining industries, will save the earth in the blink of an eye. Money, technology and investment opportunities will ride over the hill like the Seventh Cavalry and save the earth. The earth herself was never mentioned, so excited were the prospective saviours.

I was re-reading Ann Pettifor’s “The case for the green new deal” this morning and in her introductory section she makes the sensible but challenging observation that

At the same time , environmentalists have treated the ecosystem for too long as almost independent of the dominant economic system based on deregulated, globalized finance

But it’s worse than that, I think. Those of us who are concerned for the future of the earth all too often hitch our hopes on to one specialised aspect of the problem – change our diets, regenerative farming, end animal cruelty, save the trees and campaign furiously and largely ineffectively for our tiny corner of the problem. And if you say to me – ‘well you do pretty much the same, going on about allotments and moths and buying one or two things from the local farmers market’ – I’d have to plead guilty as charged. In my moments of enthusiasm I can half convince myself that the Potwell Inn allotment is part of a movement that’s saving the earth – as I once read – “one cabbage at a time”. Change can seem almost more attractive from the bottom up – especially when you’re governed by those wholly owned servants of finance and industry, known in this country as members of parliament. But, like the unhelpful advice that if we were going to get to zero carbon we wouldn’t want to start from here, there isn’t time to row back to a more propitious starting point. There’s so much at stake I could weep with frustration when I read that the Department of the Environment’s best advice is to fill some more sandbags and put the chairs on the table when it rains; or that Boris Johnson is pouring yet more money into nuclear power stations that take decades to design and build and aeons to make safe afterwards.

While I long for the day that the last feedlot shuts down and Bayer/Monsanto go bankrupt because no-one wants their filth any more; that’s never going to happen by tinkering around with a few regulations. The action that’s needed is both dramatic and quite frightening, and it involves a fundamental change in our culture, our politics, our food chains, our transport and above all the economic power of transnational finance. Anything less than such a fundamental change will fail.

Now I know how to grow carrots and lettuce; I can cook, bake bread, pickle and preserve along with the best of them. I can shop locally and walk whenever I can’t use public transport, and more; but I don’t think that entitles me to feel complacent or virtuous. The bare minimum level of citizenship is to live as ethically as the system allows, to invest our savings (if there are any) in areas that can change the future for the better, and to get sufficiently involved in this fragile democracy to compel governments to get green or get out! It’s an overwhelming agenda.

So that’s why I’m feeling flat – because I don’t know much about international finance except that it doesn’t care if thousands of people starve so long as the money rolls in. I would love to be able to suggest that another million allotmenteers could save the earth, and I truly believe that the more people grow their own food the better they’ll understand the fact that all life comes from the sun and the earth; and every leaf and blade of grass is a miraculously efficient solar panel.

Should I worry that perhaps some who’ve struggled through this jeremiad might think I’m over egging the problem? – that readers might drift away and look for comfort from more carroty bloggers? But that’s not me. I lament every single reader who pulls the plug on me but, at the end of the day – and we’re terrifyingly close to it – if we don’t embrace the challenge – things will get worse – so much worse!

Just for a moment it seemed as if we we could be pushing at an open door

Nuff said!

When I saw a piece in Farmers Weekly declaring Jeremy Clarkson as the 2021 champion of farmers I thought to myself – well the lunatics really have taken over the asylum! I tried to kid myself it was a bit of postmodern irony but – well no. I guess if you wanted to appoint an ambassador who could rise above the facts and blame everyone except himself for making a miniscule profit in spite of the subsidies – and do it while pouring insults and bile over tree huggers and vegans he’s definitely be your man. I know it’s only entertainment, but out here in the real world there does seem to be something of a cultural sea change going on in the more thoughtful parts of the farming community. The talk on the street is that public money will, in the future be attached to public goods, and that means paying more than lip service to the soil and the environment.

So Madame and me have been looking around at some of the local farmers who are heading in the same direction as us and today we revisited this farm which ticks most of the boxes, that’s to say they’re doing the things on the signboard – broadly regenerative farming – and they’re marketing direct to the local community. Less food miles, more emphasis on building up good soil. They don’t appear to call themselves organic but there are many farmers – particularly in the US – who want to go beyond the rather lax standards of “official” organics. Too many loopholes and exceptions which you can see for yourself if you search on the internet for the official organic specifications. Best of all they seem to be making a living which, if you’re a farmer who’s interested in dipping a toe in the regenerative waters, is going to be important. After all, if you’re at all interested in building your soil you’re surely not going to be inundating it with persistent chemicals.

So that was a cheerful early start to the day; and then we turned to the allotment and while Madame sowed spinach and lettuce for the winter I mixed a barrow load of potting compost, filled fifty pots (all recycled from previous lives) and planted out the overwintering garlic using the best cloves from last season. They’ve all gone into what was supposed to be the new strawberry bed, which was conceived and built before we thought about getting a polytunnel, but we’ve used it this year to grow the some of the alliums because it’s so easy to hoop and net. If you like, it’s an overlong cold frame. Garlic needs a period of cold before it will start into growth and so this is the perfect place for it to begin its journey. Later on in the spring the young plants will be planted out into a much larger bed. The strawberries are in their luxury quarters in the polytunnel as the young offsets develop ready for their first season. This time we’ll devise some kind of narrow hanging bed that can be suspended in such a way it doesn’t rob too much light from the base level which is half full already with winter delights.

We’re so busy at the moment we seem to be living on bread and soup; but we talked about the pleasures of this season today and we agreed that it’s lovely that we’ve made a strong start to next year’s season already with time in hand before the bad weather sets in.

As it happens the travelling fishmonger was outside the farm shop and he’d got masses of fish straight up from Newlyn. We bought enough fish to feed a small army, including some locally (just up the River Severn) smoked kippers – I assumed the herrings must have made a longer journey. Anyway we had a late breakfast of kippers and fresh sourdough bread with mugs of tea. Very traditional!

In a nutshell? I can’t fit myself into a nutshell (and neither should you!)

We were sitting in the pub one night with a bunch of friends, and somehow or another the subject got around to Martin Heidegger – once commemorated in a satirical poem as “..that pellucid Teuton.” You get the picture I’m sure. Some continental philosophers are a bit impenetrable and always irritated the hell out of the English school who preferred Dr Johnson’s stone kicking method. Anyway, the point is, one of my friends called Andy – who shall remain nameless asked me “In a nutshell …. what’s this Heidegger man on about?” I’m still looking for the big nutshell.

So today we were walking along the beach at Aberdaron beneath St Hywyn’s church where R S Thomas was once vicar and which was the setting for one of his most famous poems “The Moon in Lleyn” which I wrote about a couple of days ago. As we walked along the sand, I was wondering whether the poem, as well as including a reference to W B Yeats, also included a glancing reference to Matthew Arnold’s poem “On Dover Beach” – which uses the metaphor of the retreating tide to reference the “melancholy soft withdrawing roar” of faith. Three poems, all obliquely referring to the terrible loss of enchantment we’ve suffered in the past hundred and fifty years. Materialism is a poor deal, really, because it exchanges dreams meanings and visions for money – usually peanuts to be honest.

Taking a bit of a leap of faith myself, I have often wondered whether we are drawn to the sound of the sea’s roaring and the rhythmic pulse of the steam engine for the same reason. Perhaps at some deep level they remind us of the sounds of our time in the ocean of our mother’s’ womb. The sea sounds, from gentle lapping to menacing roar never make us laugh or fill us with happy thoughts but associate more readily with loss; of times missed.

Now that’s a lot of pondering in fifty yards whilst simultaneously holding a conversation – but that’s the way of it. Conscious human life can’t be put in a nutshell because it’s just too big; and my attention soon switched to a couple of large rocks half buried in the sand just as Madame began picking pebbles off the beach.

It isn’t a particularly beautiful beach because the cliffs comprise deep banks of eroding mud which are being sculpted by wind, tide and rain into shapes that might be more familiar in the desert. The pebbles, as you can see, are wonderfully colourful – but why so colourful? Putting on (yet) another hat I could see that of the two large half buried rocks, one greenish and the other markedly purple – must contain copper (green) and manganese (purple). We know that minerals and semi precious stones were mined all over the peninsula and particularly we know that among them was serpentine. Serpentine, being colourful and soft enough to turn in a metal lathe was enormously popular in the first half of last century and as late as the 1970’s there were half a dozen wooden shacks on the Lizard in Cornwall where you could buy a little lighthouse complete with a battery powered bulb at the top.

Only a couple of days ago I showed a photo of the remnant of one of the manganese mines at Rhiw. To a potter, manganese iron and copper are familiar glaze pigments. Copper is particularly versatile because depending on the glaze ingredients, temperature and atmosphere inside the kiln it can yield colours from the intense turquoise of Egyption paste through the more common greens all the way to the fabulously beautiful but very difficult to achieve red colour known as sang de boeuf to collectors of Chinese ceramics. Manganese and iron too can yield a whole palette of colours. So the thought came to mind on the beach – where do the red pebbles fit in? Serpentine is almost always thought of as green, but I’ve seen exactly the kind of red pebbles we were finding, described as red serpentine. Who knows? the processes that formed these pebbles were geologic and volcanic, involving prodigious pressures and temperatures and what emerges is something that combines usefulness with beauty. We have usefulness and contemplation in the same object. Are the red pebbles nature’s original expression of sang de boeuf?

These are big thoughts – of an earth where fungi and algae had yet to join forces and bacteria were all alone in the world. And here on the beach today we could see the world in a grain of sand as Blake promised in Auguries of innocence. The earth is not an object, it’s a story – or perhaps better, a song in which we are all sung into existence. History, geology, chemistry, poetry and storytelling, poetry and gardening and all the rest are not separate disciplines but lines in a gigantic performance of something like Tallis’ Spem in alium but with so many more parts that we can truly call it the Song of the Earth.

So I can’t fit myself into a nutshell and neither should you. Allowing ourselves to be categorised and slotted into CV’s drains the imaginative life out of us. If I want to read, or write poems, draw and paint, make ceramics and grow plants; cook food and rage against the dying of the light, and dare to challenge the way we do things round here – then I will. And if I want to sing and dance around and get over excited about a wildflower or act with Madame as if we were 18 all over again and in the first flush of love, then I will not tolerate being ordered to act my age. And if my passions for books and theories and ideas and spiritualities look as if I’m spreading myself too thinly just take a look at how thinly the scholars spread themselves.

Because – there is no nutshell. We flow into one another and into the earth. Being human is the most lovely gift; so long as we cherish it.

The best of times and the worst of times

But first the blokey propellerhead stuff

I take back all I said about our trip train across Snowdonia. I thought we would be pulled by a diesel but to our (my) great delight the engine that hauled us over 25 miles and 600 feet in vertical gain at Rhyd Ddu was the strangest beast I’ve ever seen – an NG16 Garratt built in Manchester in 1935 for South African Railways and designed for working very similar routes there. It certainly isn’t beautiful in the conventional sense – a bit of a mule in fact, but as tough as old boots. What’s odd about it is that it’s really two engines spliced together and sharing a boiler. If you look at the photo you’ll see a completely unexpected set of pistons and connecting rods at the back, under the tender. The engine was actually in service until 1985. Predictably, when we pulled in to Caernarfon station a large gathering of faintly priapic men – including me – rushed to the front of the train to take photographs. For the truly lost, the engine is described as a 2-6-2+2-6-2T NGG16 Garratt Design, built by Beyer Peacock Ltd. The bit that I loved is that this arrangement – known as a double bogey setup, allows the engine to be twice the power of the more familiar single bogey and it also allows the engine to traverse sharp bends on the mountain terrain by sashaying around the corners. The front and rear bogeys both pivot around the boiler section allowing a snake-like movement

For the human bit, being towed 600 feet up a winding narrow gauge railway line, surrounded by mountains, rivers and lakes, and listening to the sound of the engine working hard and clattering over modern steel bridges; seeing smoke and steam flying past in streamers like shoals of translucent fish – was a profound blast of memories for me – my father was a railwayman for his whole working life.

Coming down from the highest point towards Caernarfon

Madame thinks the reflections of the window on the photo look like the ghostly outline of an industrial landscape. The line was commenced in 1832; just a year after the Bristol riots and at that time much of Snowdonia really was an industrial site. Reform was in the air as the aftershocks of the French revolution reverberated around Europe. The railway company bought its first steam engines in 1856, just three years before Charles Dickens published “A Tale of Two Cities”, whose opening lines popped into my head as I was writing:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities

There’s a reason I love writing these cats cradles of association. Steam engines, railway companies, slate mines, coal and copper extraction and even – very near where we’re staying at the moment – one of the world’s largest manganese mines, back in the day – are all the visible inscription of our human impact on the landscape. The landscape and its artifacts – to put it in posh terms – is a palimpsest; written on, erased and re-used, sometimes over millennia. I was unable to shake off the difficult feeling that even the steam engine that pulled our train, was somehow implicated in our colonial rule over South Africa. Life is complicated – that’s what makes it so interesting and challenging.

The remains of a manganese mine on Rhiw

Anyway – to get back to the day-trip, It was raining in the way that only Wales rains when we arrived at Porthmadog station. The temperature had barely crept above 10C and it was sheeting down in curtains driven by the gale. The railway has a permanent staff, but many of the jobs are filled by volunteers who do a wonderful job, and whose absolute loyalty and commitment manifests itself in a slightly religious attitude; so perhaps I should explain that by saying that there were times when we were checking in, that we felt as if we were entering a much loved Anglican church with the average age of the congregation creeping towards threescore years and ten. I was asked half a dozen times whether we were travelling first class or standard class; a denomination that was confirmed when we climbed aboard and found that the heating wasn’t working. This oh-so British class distinction was amplified by the fact that our standard class carriage was embossed (in gold lettering) third class on the outside, and the bewildering choice of hampers that someone had filled with their idiosyncratic vision of what constituted luxury and what ordinary should be. The net result of all these references to class was to make everyone feel slightly uncomfortable – like a first date confronted by a ten page wine list.

On a mountain, the rain doesn’t hang about for long – and so everywhere we looked there were waterfalls and ad hoc spouts bursting from the hillsides and flowing down increasingly dangerous looking whitewater races. The track was shallowly underwater near the Aberglasyn tunnels and alongside, the Afon Glaslyn was raging. It was if an entire mountain range had sprung a leak. As we reached the top at Rhyd Ddu, the water ceased flowing towards Porthmadog and started afresh making for Caernarfon with equal ferocity. The peaks, of course, were obscured by the rain and mist and so we only caught the merest glimpse of the Snowdon summit. The journey last about two and a half hours each way and by the time we reached Caernarfon we were thoroughly cold. Some of our travelling companions had put their waterproof trousers on to keep warm.

If anything the rain was even worse in Caernarfon and, waterproofed to the teeth, we made a desultory tour of the town centre. Madame unhelpfully suggested I take off the broad brimmed hat I was wearing and use the hood from my waterproof jacket. It was good advice but imperfectly timed because when I pulled the hood over my head, the icy water it contained ran down my neck and inside my shirt. There wasn’t much going on in the town centre – a couple of drug dealers in the square; a solitary prostitute and a lot of tourists huddling in doorways. If charity shops or bookies were your thing you’d have been in heaven.

Does this sound like a bad Tripadvisor review? Well it’s not, because I love Wales and what’s happened in these once great towns and cities is an absolute scandal. Wales was one of the first English colonies and has, for centuries, had the marrow extracted and taken away by the wealthy. Everywhere there are signs in Welsh reading no more second homes – but I would say to the pamphleteers – what if the tourists stayed away? what if the profitable conversion work that keeps builders, electricians and plumbers in work – what if it all ended? what would that do to a local economy that’s on its knees already. What Wales needs is vision and freedom. Freedom for local councils to borrow money and build the thousands of low cost homes that are needed so the young and gifted don’t all have to leave the neighbourhoods they’ve grown up in. Then – by all means restrict second homes and end the tax breaks because there will still be abundant work for the tradespeople. Then give the councils powers and finance to support startups and to develop the kind of tourist related attractions that will bring visitors in.

Caernarfon is the depressing sign of a conservation approach to planning. Just like many of the local farms struggling to survive – what’s needed is not conservation but regeneration. A planning system that values wooden sash windows and slate roofs above apprenticeships and skilled work is on the slippery slope to extinction. Am I sounding like William Cobbett here. He was a rabid old pamphleteer whose book “Rural Rides” has always been a lodestone for me; telling it like it is , or rather was, when it was published in 1853 – there’s a coincidence!

After a fruitless hour in the rain we went back to the station cafe to get warm, and were gradually joined by a throng of sodden passengers all dreading the journey home. Madame overheard one person trying to arrange a taxi. We managed to get back onto the train half an hour before the off and found to our absolute delight that the heating was working – and so the journey home was doubly pleasurable despite the turkish bath atmosphere.

Sadly, though, on the return Madame overheard a depressing conversation between three young women in their twenties discussing their attitude towards the police following the murder of Sarah Everard. It really shows how constricted and intimidated women are in this deeply defective culture. Enough, though. We love these day trips and no matter how uncomfortable the transport and lousy the weather we always come back feeling challenged and energised; and enough material to draw and paint and write for a month.

Meanwhile, back in the real world

A marvellous piece of lettering by Welsh artist Jonah Jones, seen at an exhibition of his work at Oriel Plas Glyn y Weddw, Llanbedrog in March 2019

The good thing about coming away to this beautiful place to walk, read and try to put together all my thoughts in words is space; sheer space to expand into, free from distractions and chores. The bad thing about it could almost be the same sentence. There’s a point at which the way forward becomes so problematic a kind of paralysis sets in. The remedy, in this instance is to accept that the Jacques Ellul book I’ve been struggling with is not going to help, because its source materials and analysis are now sixty years out of date . Magnetic North moves about by a good bit and trying to find your way to the pole (no pun intended) without the right correction isn’t likely to end happily.

What exactly is the real world anyway? I sometimes wonder, since it seems to be a contested area of knowledge at the moment; but anyway I’ve forsworn any philosophy in this brief post and I’ll talk about the weather in the most descriptive and non blaming way I can manage.

The fierce south westerly gales haven’t given over for days and in the cottage the chimney roars, the vents flap and the occasional sheets of rain hammer at the windows. It’s all very cosy until, as we did this morning, you get a power cut. Yesterday’s photos of the beach at Porth Neigwl missed a couple of shots that would have needed a telephoto lens which in our case we have not got because it’s at the bottom of a bog on Mendip. Apparently there are exceptionally rare mason bees in the dunes there, except I’m not sufficiently experienced as an entomologist to recognise them. But on our way back down the narrow road we spotted around 30 curlew feeding on the marsh – enough to gladden anyone’s heart. When I say this place is a birders’ paradise I’m not exaggerating. Something else worth noting is the light. The good citizens of St Ives in Cornwall like to claim that their light is brighter and more clear than anywhere else on earth. Obviously they would say that because it keeps the artists rolling in; but the light here is equally if not more pure and luminous and it’s so much quieter. The south westerlies rattle the cold fronts across, and each time the rain is followed by glorious movements of intense light that bless the landscape, caressing and intensifying the autumn colours and leaving the artist in us joyfully mystified as to how it could ever be expressed.

Tomorrow morning at the crack of eight o’clock we’re off to Porthmadog to catch the wonderful Welsh Highland Railway up through the Snowdon range to Caernarfon and back. Last time we made the trip in brilliant weather but tomorrow’s forecast is makes grim reading with 20mm rain expected and 50 mph gusts of wind. In normal times you can wander about and get a very good Welsh rarebit from the buffet car but because of covid we’ll be locked into our perspex divided carriages and probably see almost nothing except rain and mist for the whole journey. It’s the last trip if the year so expect it will be crowded with steam train enthusiasts who may not have noticed that we’ll be taken across the hills by a diesel locomotive tomorrow. In the absence of any food from the buffet I’ve ordered a couple of hampers – which each contain a small bottle of prosecco, and so we’ll celebrate the autumn like a couple of budget class swells.

I’m sorry there are so many Welsh sounding names in these posts but Wales is a country with its own precious language. Luckily, Welsh is a completely phonetic language and so once you’ve learned the basics it’s pretty straightforward. The stress usually comes in the penultimate syllable. The only one I haven’t used is the proper name for Snowdon which is Yr Wyddfa which looks unapproachable but sounds like uhr-with-va. Welsh is the queen of languages and I’ve always wanted to learn to speak it properly but haven’t had the chance or anyone to practice with. Anyway it’s a courtesy to the people who cherish their language to be able to ask for directions, sounding as if at least you care.

* “But a voice sounds in my ear. Why so fast, mortal?”

The moon rising over the apple trees behind our borrowed cottage in Lleyn

Full marks if you already know the title and author of the quotation at the top of this post. RS Thomas of course; poet and once parish priest of Aberdaron, just down the road from here. Sometimes when I feel completely dry and empty from too much reading and too many hopes squandered by politicians, RS is the one I turn to because he was one of the few poets who dared to stay in that mindspace and wrestle a blessing from it.

Coming back yesterday from our apple scrumping expedition we drank cider and sat peacefully in the sunshine, looking westwards towards Ireland. I’d struggled through the first 100 pages of Jacques Ellul’s “The Technological Society” and I was finding it difficult to see a way forward beyond his gloomy picture of a technological future that seemed to grow like a tumour; vascularizing and metastasizing until the life systems of the earth collapse. Are all the greener, more regenerative alternatives I’ve been happy to read about really just distractions from the only show in town?

We may quote here Jacques Soustelle’s well-known remark of May, 1960, in reference to the atomic bomb. It expresses the deep feeling of us all: “Since it was possible, it was necessary.” Really a master phrase for all technical evolution

Quoted in “The Technological Society”

So that Syngenta factory in Huddersfield that we drove past three years ago, and which produces Paraquat to sell in only in the developing world because it’s banned here – is it there by virtue of some iron law of technological development? How do I know what they make there? Because of a case in the High court in which they were fined £200,000 for a leak amounting to three and a half tons of the deadly stuff. How do I know what it does? Because a friend from art school committed suicide with it, and also I was once called to the bedside of a woman in hospital who was lucid and just about conscious and waiting for her organs to fatally break down. She was sedated but the nurses were in pieces.

Ellul seemed to think it was a logical error to suppose that any individual could alter the course of technological development but history has challenged his pessimistic view. In fact paraquat was responsible for so many deaths, both deliberate and accidental that it was banned across the developed world. That it’s still being made in Huddersfield is due to the continued sale of the weed killer in the developing world where, lacking regulation and safety precautions, the company wilfully allows the sale of a mortally dangerous compound. That’s no kind of iron law of technological development but a sign of corporate greed and moral failure at the same level as arms manufacturers who absolve themself from any responsibility for the use of their products to kill and maim. Printing a warning not to ingest a product on the side of a large container that will almost certainly be broken down into unmarked bottles is of no help to a semi-literate subsistence farmer.

Sixty years on from the publication of Ellul’s book we’ve experienced decades of economic growth, and nuclear weapons are way down the list of most peoples’ preoccupations. What bothers us since the Berlin wall came down is that the iron laws of history turned out to be no such thing, and the iron laws of economics have left most of us wondering what all that economic growth has actually brought us in terms of human happiness; and why is there always an enemy worth fighting a war against. And of course, now the earth’s vital systems are closing down; fatally poisoned. But only technology remains untouchable; the shape-shifting beast of the apocalypse like the one with the body of a lion and the head of a man that *Yeats saw in his vision and *RS Thomas mentions: ” …. [whose] hour come round at last,  slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Well, not so fast! RS says to himself, and weighs the power of the religious past against the power of the “spiritus mundi” – the consciousness, the culture, the spirit of the age. Are we that much in the thrall and power of a technology that watches our every move, predicts and shapes the choices we make to steer us away from dangerously insurrectionary thoughts. Do we really love that technology which impoverishes our lives and takes away jobs without the least scruple and sends the victims to the food banks. Do we really love the technology that feeds us with industrialised food that makes us sick and obese and then blames us. Do we really love the technology that disseminates lies at the speed of light and corrupts democracy. And when we talk about freedom isn’t it usually the trivial kind of freedom to choose between a dozen identical small objects of desire in a supermarket? If it looks like a turd and smells like a turd it probably is a turd and sprinkling a few sparkles on it won’t change its nature.

Of course technology’s principal beneficiaries would like us to believe that there is no alternative, but we’ve seen organic farming and gardening grow and grow. We’ve seen rewilding schemes demonstrating that life without chemicals is possible. We’ve seen regenerative farming gain serious support at government level. We’ve seen the power of vegetarians and vegans to force change in the offer of the food industry. We’ve seen the extraordinary growth of awareness of the coming linked crises of economic collapse, global climatic disaster and the mass extinction of pollinating insects. More particularly we’ve seen how nervous the industrial food complex and the agrochemical industry have become; spending millions on disputing with and then and trashing scientists who challenge their autonomy; funding fake experiments with fake results and spending more millions on lobbyists to bypass the science altogether and knobble the politicians directly.

Why shouldn’t it be true that the writing is on the wall and they know it. All epochal changes or paradigm shifts are like one economist described going bankrupt – it’s very very slow and then it’s very fast.

So now’s the time to hold fast.

And if you’ve stayed with me all these thousand or so words here’s a picture taken today at Porth Neigwl in the teeth of a south westerly gale and sheeting rain at times. Known in English as Hell’s Mouth the wide bay is the scene of innumerable shipwrecks; and reading the information board today I discovered an ironic reference to the fact that a small schooner named The Twelve Apostles was beached and completely wrecked by a fierce storm. Luckily the crew all survived. The problem is that there’s no escape from a southwesterly gale and so the ships – and there were many of them – were inexorably blown in to their doom. Can’t think of a better image of a paradigm shift!

* The WB Yeats poem that I refer to is “The Second Coming”; and RS Thomas wrote the equally marvellous poem “The Moon in Lleyn”.

Seek no further, pig’s snout but sadly no goose arse

We haven’t had such a rewarding hour of apple scrumping in years – I mean, catalogues are one thing but an actual orchard full of native Welsh apple varieties, ripe on their trees – well, what would any apple lover do? After photographing and sampling as many as we dared we wandered off – all innocence – with our pockets bulging and our minds singing with the intense flavours. At one point I found Madame sitting on a bench crunching on a variety with no label and joyfully transported to the times she used to work in a research station orchard.

If you’ve grown tired of supermarket apples; bland and oversweet for the most part, these native Welsh apples might be worth considering – but you’d have to grow them yourself or perhaps better still start a community orchard where you could grow loads of apples; eaters, cookers, dual purpose and cider apples with delightful and eccentric names. The thing about apples is that they’re promiscuous inter breeders and only very rarely come true from seed because pollinating insects travel from tree to tree carrying pollen from many different varieties. The downside is that they’re quite likely to produce inferior stock, but when a really lovely variety comes along they develop a strong local reputation and they’re very easy to grow by grafting a cutting on to a rootstock, and then every grafted tree is a clone of the mother stock. So if you’re not confident enough to do it yourself, there are specialist nurseries that will do the work for you. I just Googled “Welsh apple variety breeders uk” and loads came up. The next task is to choose a suitable rootstock which will determine the final size of the tree, and this is where you’d need to take some professional advice. For allotmenteers like us, cordons on dwarfing rootstock allow us to grow 10 varieties on our 200 square metre plot. All the rootstocks come with the letter M followed by a number. The M stands for East Malling – the research station in Kent that developed them and the number refers to the final size and habit.

The thing about apples is that they are often at their very best eaten straight from the tree, and there are so many seasonal varieties you could eat them in prime condition through early summer until autumn. Some will keep if stored carefully, and supermarkets have them stored in controlled atmospheric conditions – they’re the ones you buy in February, March and April – but they’re a shadow of the real thing.

The only thing I would add is that you shouldn’t be seduced by the romantic names and the rare designation. Most of these local varieties are habituated to extremely local conditions and what may grow well on Bardsey Island may not enjoy the milder conditions in Kent. The best thing to do would be to investigate the local varieties where you live. Our friends Kate and Nick whose smallholding is fairly high in the Brecon Beacons are growing a selection of Welsh apples at what must be near their altitude limit. The Potwell Inn in North Somerset can boast the “Beauty of Bath” and a little further north in Gloucestershire there are many local varieties straddling orchards along the River Severn. Here are a few more we sampled today:

But why are these varieties becoming so rare? Sadly many of them would be regarded as misshapen in this age of uniformity. They don’t give themselves to having all the flavour bred out of them in favour of the high yield and bombproof portability that commercial growers and supermarkets demand. Some of them are effectively biennials, and all of them can lose an entire crop if frost strikes the blossom. But when they come right they’re truly, memorably delicious and if you can only have them for a couple of weeks – does that stop you growing asparagus?

There’s something about industrial agriculture and horticulture that’s profoundly unnatural. Tell me something I don’t know – you might be thinking. Our unreconstructed 21st century view instinctively leads us to think that all our efforts in scientific breeding and selection move us in the direction of the perfect – whatever; apple, cabbage, pig even. But in a nature’s way – which is a profoundly counterintuitive way – the response to the multitude of soils and climates we have is to breed for diversity. Diversity is nature’s way of overcoming difficulties and exploiting new opportunities.

That’s precisely why we should keep a wary eye on the monopolistic instincts of the big seed companies like Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta who are buying up huge numbers of seed varieties and taking them off the market to conduct moneymaking breeding experiments on their resistance to chemical sprays and artificial fertilisers. The next stage will be to hold us to ransom and force us to buy their patented seeds. Following up, my query about Amish farming methods yesterday I did a bit more research and quickly discovered that the publisher of the paper that claimed that Amish farmers were enthusiastic users of chemicals was a pseudo research front organisation funded at the time of publication by Monsanto. I went a bit further and discovered that the agrochemical industries spend millions of pounds supporting compromised research, dodgy publications and lobbyists. Here’s a link with further information.

The terrible truth is, in the face of the coming climate catastrophe, farmers, growers and gardeners will need to be drawing on the wisdom of the earth in providing us with so many adapted local varieties. Winds, cold and drought and changing seasons will demand new adapted varieties, many of which are being covertly put beyond our reach. I was astounded that big business employs 30,000 yes – thirty thousand – lobbyists in Brussels alone; using their money and power to influence parliaments. If you read the evidence you’ll be more than angry. Saving locally adapted seeds may be one step in the direction of saving the planet.

Just look at the size of the foundation stones in this wall!

Rainy day thinking

I think this one is Rhodymenia pseudopalmata – rosy fan weed

It’s a rainy day today, although the wind has died back a bit and the temperature has dropped a little further. We managed to get out for a walk down to the beach during a break in the weather and Madame collected seaweeds and pebbles to draw while I dozed in the sun watching a common seal popping its head out of the water from time to time, giving me a thorough inspection. The curiosity was mutual, I’m bound to say but I’m intrigued at our sentimental attitude towards a pretty serious predator. This sentimentalisation of the animals is almost encouraged by the kind of natural history films that present nature as a comforting spectacle full of anthropomorphised animals whose every action reflects the finest human values.

Anyway, rainy days are great for reading challenging books and I haven’t been able to read more than about 20 pages of Jacques Ellul’s “The technological society” at any one time without taking a break. I could say that I wished I’d read it when it was first published in 1957 but, aged eleven, my French was at the la plume de ma tante stage under the merciless eye of Whacker Allan whose Parisian pronunciation constantly got me into trouble, driving around on holidays in Provence.

Perhaps now is the perfect time to take it on, though, because my entire life has been lived since his forensic takedown of the more idealistic post-war twentieth century sociology. The last chapter of his book is a prophetic look at the year 2000 which did not have the ‘benefit’ of living through currency crashes, pandemics, monetarism and economic game theories, mass migration, energy wars, environmental catastrophe and the rise and rise of computing; and it’s been much worse than he predicted. On the plus side, I am learning a great deal about the underlying reasons for our lemming like rush to the cliffs.

Apart from reading and looking at seals – which we always seem to spot accidentally – we’re pretty much on our own here. The sensible walkers, having looked at the weather forecasts – have nearly all gone home and there’s just out of season people like us, and a few birders dragging their giant scopes and cameras along the clifftops. There’s no garden to speak of where we’re staying, just a deep valley lined with impenetrable brambles, blackthorn and hawthorn towards the top and then shrubby willows down towards the stream that flows out across the small beach. At the back we’re surrounded by elderly apples, shriven by the constant gales. It’s a perfect environment for birds and so we can spend hours looking down the valley with binoculars.

On the clifftop, apart from a brain teasing array of gulls; there are carrion crows, rooks, chough and jackdaw as well as the jays in the valley. Most of them are easier to identify by their calls if they’re at a distance; but the choughs seem to have the extraordinary ability to perform 360 degree rolls when they’re showing off. Our quiet clifftop walk yesterday was accompanied by the crashing of waves thrown up by the wind driven swell, punctuated by fighter planes roaring overhead and a single engined plane nearby that was performing similar tricks to the chough – barrel rolls, diving and looping the loop. Three ages of flight charting the unstoppable growth of technology and culminating in the formidable killing machines that can fly from here to Northern Ireland and back in the time it takes us to walk down from the cottage.

Sadly we’re here just that bit later this year and so it looks as if the field mushrooms have either come and gone – or perhaps they’re waiting for more clement weather. The circle of fairy ring mushrooms is there at the end of the footpath. They’re easy to dry and string together to hang in the kitchen and although they’re not in the porcini league they make a decent contribution to a stock. Apart from that there are loads of psilocybin as well – which would probably make an even more interesting stock but I’m a bit of a coward when it comes to hallucinogens.

Time will come, I think, when the war on drugs will finally end and we shall be reading even more breathless articles from the selfsame journalists who were all for banging up recreational drug users for life – singing the praises of the new wonder drugs and printing verbatim the press releases they get from big pharma who’ll want to get in on the act as well. Cynical … moi? I’ve always remembered James Belsey, leading reporter on the local paper in the days when that meant something, saying to me – “Dave you’ve got to remember that journalists are bone idle and if you write their copy for them you’re much more likely to get it in the paper”.

What ails you?

As I was reading today the question popped into my mind whether Amish farmers, who avoid any kind of modern technology, have capitulated to the spirit of the age. From a bit of fairly shallow research it seems that not all Amish farmers are organic and some may even use chemicals. I’ll carry on investigating because it would make an interesting study . But in the course of following that question up I realised that to characterise organic farming, the rewilding movement and the innovative grazing systems now being explored as sentimental and backward looking is precisely to miss the point. One thing about technological society (mechanical mind if you like) is its capacity to sweep up small inventions made across history and amalgamate them into emergent technologies. We can’t save the earth by regressing to an imagined golden age but we have to move into the future with all the challenges and dangers that the technological mind presents, and make it safer and more sustainable for the earth and all its creatures including us and beginning with the grail question – “what ails you?”

Where to start?

Blackberry tourists II

The Irish sea from Tudweiliog

It’s two years since I last used the phrase blackberry tourists in a post and I won’t repeating the content in that one so, I suggest you might like to take a look at it. The search facility is so much improved on the blog these days you can type almost anything into the enquiry line and get a whole host of posts that contain the term.

The tag came from a TV film about the Lleyn Peninsula which is all it took to persuade us to come here and take a look for ourselves and – like so many others – we’ve been coming back ever since. RS Thomas the poet and parish priest back in the day would have hated us. He had a reputation for driving his Morris 1000 around the roads here at 15mph, exulting in the delays he was causing to the tourists.

Anyway we’re back again after the usual convoluted journey that takes six hours because it’s more fun to drive through the Brecon Beacons, the Cambrian Mountains and past the Berwyns in order to get to Snowdonia. We’ve driven across the mountains in snow, rain and fog and on one occasion we got thoroughly lost after a detour to look at the Arenigs so we could see the landscape that inspired John Dickson Innes to paint some of the finest post impressionist landscapes by any artist anywhere. He could beat his painting companion, the much better known Augustus John, into his own (JDI’s that is) felt hat. I’ve spent hours on the internet looking for a hat just like it, but such glorious rain shedders and shade providers are no longer needed for a largely indoor world. Yesterday we stopped at Llyn Clywedog as we usually do, for a cup of the usual flask flavoured tea and it was immediately obvious that the water level must be at least 15′ lower than we’ve ever seen it before. The changes in the weather continue to amaze us and after the warmest and driest start to September in many years we were fortunate to have unloaded the car when the first real weather front in weeks shipped up across the Irish Sea from the Atlantic. And it rained and blew all night long as the temperature dropped by approaching 10C and we woke to proper autumn; fresh, gusty and clear, with the last of the cold front moving eastwards towards Monday morning commuters searching desperately for some fuel to get them to work; and leaving small cumulus clouds scudding across towards the mountains where they will join forces once again and help to fill Llyn Clywedog.

And so we’re here armed with cameras, laptops and drawing pads – oh and a fiendishly heavy bag of books I that I intend to read. I won’t bore you (or attempt to impress you) with the complete list because I’m bound to mention them later, as I read them, but for starters I’m into Jacques Ellul’s “The Technological Society”. Sadly the £10 edition I got hold of was the cheapest and nastiest bit of badly printed kitchen paper I’ve ever seen and so if it weren’t so challengingly good I’d have thrown it on the fire. But sadly the hardback costs £109, the paperback £79 and unbelievably the Kindle edition £75. It’s a scandal that academic publishers are able to get away with it – relying on students with library access and academics who can lay off the cost against their departmental budgets. I suppose they think there aren’t enough of us poor autodidact oiks around to make them a profit. So just for the record, unless you’re desperate, avoid the cleverly named “mass market edition” which looks as if it’s been poorly scanned and had all the line spaces made smaller as if they were budget airline seats.

The object of reading the book is to try to get behind what Charles Massy calls “the mechanical mind”. I’ve written recently about the danger of a fetching turn of phrase that only seems to mean anything as long as you don’t think about it too much, and so I’ve turned to a ram-stamped and implacably logical French radical sociologist (once a member of the French Resistance – so a firm relationship between his money and his mouth) -to help guide me through a tangle of worthy verbiage and wishful thinking until I can grab the beast by the throat and cut its intellectual hamstrings. If we’re serious about saving the earth we’d better know the enemy better than they know themselves!

I’m not opposed to technology – without it I would be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it – but it’s a useful tool and a terrible dictator if we allow ourselves to be seduced by it. So here’s a fun bit of gossip I picked up recently – names left out to protect the source (and me from being sued). A certain company that makes or designs GPS equipment increasingly used in intensive farm machinery discovered a software glitch that caused zillion pound robotic machines to run into trees. I’ll always treasure that image! The software company that was employed to sort it out suggested the cheapest remedy was a device to switch the engine off when the behemoth failed to notice the tree. But no that’s not right – and it’s the trouble with the technological mindset – all solutions must necessarily include more technology. How about getting a driver on board? …. or, dare I say, solving a hundred problems at once by not building and using these giant earth turners and chemical dumpers at all. There we are – problem solved! My invoice will be in the post.