Rainy day

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Wettest, dryest, hottest – it seems that weather patterns are breaking records across Europe and it’s very concerning for anyone who grows food.  This year the plants on the allotment have had to cope with all sorts of stressful events, and it must be much worse for farmers. Neither heatwaves or torrential rain are much help for growing crops, and it’s a pity that weather reporting focuses so much on our personal convenience rather than our actual long-term needs.  It is a shame that this is turning out to be the wettest August since records began, but it’s not just a shame because it messes up the school holidays. The forecasters usually manage a mention of the “morning commute” when it rains, without making the link between our addiction to the car and the climate emergency.  In Bath we frequently have to breathe air that’s so polluted it breaks European safety limits.  Having a government that believes the best way to deal with a problem is to stop collecting statistics isn’t going to change anything soon, and if my freedom to sit in a traffic jam with my engine idling causes a single child to have an asthma attack it’s not a freedom worth preserving.

So in a make-do and mend sort of way, had a very rainy day visit to Bath City Farm yesterday with two of the grandchildren while the other one was in hospital having yet more tests.  Being a SWAN (syndrome without a name) requires a whole team of wonderful NHS consultants.  She’s phenomenally resilient and yesterday after having a general anaesthetic, an endoscope, and saline solution injected into her lungs she told her dad she’d had a ‘lovely day’.

We had a lovely day too, weaving the rain into the story so that the chldren could experience slides that are twice as fast when they’re wet.  The youngest thought it was hysterically funny to crash time after time into my legs after sliding down out of control. Later we went to McDonald’s as a special treat, and exactly as I did the last time, I managed to make a complete hash of the order and landed up with no chips and an extra cheeseburger. I know I’m supposed to be contemptuous of this kind of food, but it’s the exception rather than the rule for the children and we have many misgivings. However, and this isn’t a defence of junk food, if I were a hard pressed parent without much money, few cooking skills and no time, feeding a family of four for £15 must be a very tempting prospect. Haranguing people isn’t going to change the economics.

Back at the Potwell Inn, rainy days are a chance to get some preserving done, and we’ve been drying chillies, making half-sours with a huge crop of gherkins, and also making raspberry vinegar.  The leftover Seville oranges on the right of the picture were brined in January in exactly the same way you would pickle lemons. Just a quarter of peel with the pith scraped off and rinsed, adds a marvellous salty, orangy piquance to a sauce. This is (another) favourite season when we turn the surpluses into food for rainy days in the broader sense. Most years the concept of a rainy day doesn’t go much beyond an occasional treat, but this year there’s  greater sense of urgency as we start to contemplate the likelihood of food shortages and general upheaval. I wonder how we ever drifted into this perilous situation, and although I’m no believer in any ‘iron laws of history’ or of gods for that matter, I do think there’s a sense of inevitability about the collapse of an economic system that acts as a giant Ponzi fraud. When cultures begin to change no amount of longing for the good old days will bring them back, because to recall my first ever ethics lecture, as I frequently do,  – you can’t make an ‘ought’ into an ‘is’.

“Not Bath any more?”

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Most posts begin with an idea, even a title, or a photograph. I took this photo through the kitchen window three days ago, but I could have, just as easily taken it today because the scene outside is not much different.  We’re in a spell of fairly typical south -westerly weather with alternating hours, of heavy showers and (if we’re lucky) days of sunshine. Photographs work hard for us, capturing in a fraction of a second an image that bears a huge amount of information.  Here, the empty green, the trees in full leaf, the Georgian terrace and the moody sky combine to suggest a time and place. As everyone says when they see the flat – “you’re so lucky to have the view”, and we are very fortunate – the photo shows it.

There are things the photo doesn’t show, like for instance the fact that we’re here, and and not somewhere else far less attractive, because when I retired we became technically homeless. The flat is owned by the Church of England and we got it for no better reason than the fact that it became vacant just as we were looking desperately for somewhere to live. If I called it ‘social housing’ it would slot us into a far less desirable milieu, placing us with all the other displaced, ephemeral, faintly dodgy and occasionally deranged people of a dozen or more nationalities who also live here. But we, and all the others happily populate this area which mostly comprises social housing.  There are students, singles, nurses, retired university professors, artists, refugees, rugby players, teachers, designers  and retired clergy – the list goes on. It’s a splendidly diverse culture that demonstrates Plato’s notion that the city is a work of art.

And there in a nutshell is an awkward and difficult problem with nature, described using human actors and environments. Is an environment best described by its appearance and history? – ‘the view’?  Much of Bath is a World Heritage Site, for instance,  and Royal Crescent illuminated by the setting sun is astoundingly beautiful.  Or is it better described scientifically, with the heavy lifting done by sociologists, anthropologists and economists? Bath makes millions from tourism, notwithstanding the difficulty of crossing the city at the height of the tourist season and especially the Christmas Market. Or is the essence of Bath embedded in its human ecology, its sheer diversity, the mixture from ostentatious wealth to grinding poverty, the novelists and the drug dealers. How do you weigh neighbourliness and human community?  If it’s a work of art, in essence, how much of Bath would you have to destroy for it to become another place – “notbathanymore”?

I’ve written about this challenge a lot in the past few days.  Yesterday we walked across the river to the Gulag to see the new park.  It was officially opened the week before last and I felt I owed it a chance, having slagged it off.  You’ll remember this very large and ‘prestigious’ (aren’t they all?) development was built on what’s known as a ‘brownfield site’ which was really very green indeed and housed a regionally important population of invertebrates – bugs in English. My initial impression was of surprise – our entrance coincided with a large border of weeds that ran the northern edge of the riverside park and was maybe fifteen feet wide. I was even happier that it had been seeded with a well thought out mixture of largely native grassland plants.  Full marks to the person who passed up on pan-european seed mixes and paid a few quid extra to get the real deal. How long the border will last in the face of opposition from the owners of the £1million+ flats who think they’re messy is another matter, but in trade-off terms, this patch is a sop. a salve to the conscience, a token.  Fifty well-meaning Knapweeds is not enough when the area of Gillette shaved ryegrass is twenty times greater and dully limited by notices that forbid almost anything human beings like to do. The original environmental survey was done by reputable ecologists – I’ve heard one of them speak, loyally and regretfully on the subject.  The seed mixture was obviously chosen by someone well-trained enough to do the right thing.  Here’s Murray Bookchin, quoted in “Deep Ecology” – and well worth reading –

…. The choice must be made now before the ecology movement becomes institutionalized into a mere appendage of the very system whose structure and methods it professes to oppose. (p4)

How long until we get to “Not bath any more”?  How long until we get to “Not nature any more.”

The one approach that’s not much spoken of because it has a very high ‘cringe factor’ for our materialistic culture, might be called the spirituality of nature. I know instantly that this will be dismissed as hippy dippy tree-hugging, but those sorts of responses speak more loudly of fear than they do of confident atheism; fear that the baby has gone down the plughole with the bathwater.  Here’s the Potwell Inn kitchen early this morning –

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Messy ain’t it! First thing we have tea in bed (made by me).  Then I knead the sourdough (top left bowl) and go back to bed for another hour’s reading, we try to limit “busywork” at the Potwell Inn. Then, when the mood takes me I get up again and strain the kefir ready for breakfast. We didn’t grow the tea but we’re profoundly grateful to those who did. The sourdough starter is nothing whatever to do with me.  I can claim no credit for what is a gift of the earth, and neither can I claim any virtue for the kefir grains on the same grounds. I didn’t buy either of them, they were given to me by my son and the air we breathe.

On the allotment yesterday we harvested the first batch of potatoes along with all the usual seasonal suspects. Supper last night came entirely out of our own bit of earth, aside from some cheese.  It is quite impossible to harvest from the allotment without a deep sense of thanksgiving directed at who knows what? Harvesting has a profoundly non-sectarian and non-theistic spirituality. Feast and famine alike are the gifts among which we live, and so too is the natural world.

We have a Blackbird outside the flat – he’s gone quiet at the moment, but on spring days he sings in a way that weaves my entire past and present into a single song.  Even in the depths of our miserable basement among the rubbish bins, we hear his song.  How should I respond to it?  Should I photograph him? make a written record for the Natural History Society? Count the syllables of each phrase? Fight to create a site of special scientific interest? write to UNESCO and ask if they knew we’ve got blackbirds as well as Roman baths? Or should I rather fall into the arms of it and allow myself to be held by him and healed of all my melancholy? The first time I really looked at a Forget me not, I thought that I was seeing through the portal of the blue petals into some kind of unreachable heaven beyond.

Nature needs recording and counting of course, and it needs scientific understanding.  We need what nature offers by way of sustenance and medicines. We’re part of the same ungraspable unity – “the Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao”  Blackbirds and Forget me nots are not rare, and neither are potatoes and courgetttes or the micro-organisms that feed the soil and ferment wine and beer, sourdough and kefir. They’re not rare, that is, until we take them for granted and they disappear. And who will heal us then?

 

Despair is the last weapon they have left

 

I think something shifted yesterday afternoon when we all shipped up to Uncle Jo’s pizza place for an impromptu Sunday lunch. It was fairly quiet and so Jo was able to come out from beside the oven and chat. In the love and peace department families are never all they’re cracked up to be – that’s a figment of the official ideology – and so it’s a blessing beyond value when they work, even occasionally, and  I wonder if the grandchildren will remember lunch at Uncle Jo’s when they’re my age. Next to the family album is a basket of vegetables we picked on the allotment yesterday – courgettes, broccoli, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers and gherkins. Later Jo came back with hs Polish girlfriend and one of our fermented half-sours was presented to her to taste.  She gave them her seal of approval although I thought the home-grown garlic was a bit too fierce in the quantity I used. Interestingly our oldest son was complaining the other day that his biometric passport never works properly and he always gets called in for interrogation.  He asked a passport official why, last time he came back from Europe, and was told that it was probably the ‘Pole’ surname. You have to wonder what kind of software can’t tell the difference between a surname and a nationality.

So with the day punctuated by benevolent thoughts for all our family I got back to reading in the evening. This latest binge is seeing me get through a new book every couple of days and at the moment it’s Mark Cocker’s book ‘Our Place’ which I thought might be a bit of light relief after Fred Pearce’s book ‘The New Wild’ . When I put it down for about the fifth time I realized I am only able to absorb a certain amount of bad news at a time. You’d think a book with quite as many references to Committees and Governmental enquiries would be a bit arid but this book makes it dreadfully clear that the ecological distance between where we were a century ago, and where we now are is not paved with misunderstanding and innocent lack of knowledge but by greed, selfishness and a determination by the powerful to enrich themselves at the expense of the environment, and all paid for by taxpayers’ money. When I see the Forestry Commission exposed as a government assisted tax avoidance scheme for the further enrichment of the aready rich, I need to walk around the room for a while before I can calm down and read more. The subsidy system is an elaborate and utterly destructive con trick, with the biggest beneficiaries being the wealthy.

And it was precisely that thought that lifted me out of a gathering sense of gloom. In a moment of mad insight I realized that the sense of powerlessness and despair which, according to some recent figures 60% of us share, is a last ditch attempt by the powerful to hold on to their privileges. Of course they want us to think there’s nothing we can do about it because ……. wait for it …… they’re scared, absolutely terrified that the rest of us will wake up and demand change. Their one last throw of the dice is to persuade us that we’re sunk and then put up a “strong” leader  (chosen by them of course) who will bring everything back to the way things used to be – that’s to say their way.

That’s why we see so much divisive comment in the press. We’re told all the time that the way things are is the responsibility of the ‘selfish baby boomers’. Really? Or is the worry that we who were forged in the community politics of the sixtes and seventies have too much in common with the young? That we might form a formidable grouping? They want to divide us by race, by gender, even by diet or occupation or interest because that way we’re easier to marginalise, because they know all too well that a house divided cannot stand.

I’m laughing out loud at the thought of their secret late night committee meetings and ‘influencer’ friends on the internet all turning their gimlet eyed attention to the next secret weapon.  Here’s a heads-up chaps (for they are mostly chaps) we don’t read the Daily Mail or the Times and we know how to block effluent from our laptops and phones.

We are the new powerful! and we take our inspiration from the earth, its tides, its inbreathings and outbreathings and its capacity to mend our shrivelled souls and bring food and shelter and joy even while it repairs the damage we have inflicted on it. The Earth is not for sale however many petrochemicals and insecticides the Prophets of Baal pour on the altar – and it would be better for the human race if they realized that the game is well and truly up.

 

 

I’m not quiet I’m thinking!

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Actually that’s not totally true because like many grandparents find, school holidays offer lots more opportunities to be with grandchildren and this last couple of weeks we’ve also got together with all our grown up children. However that’s not where most of my energy has been going, because I’m in the process of changing my mind. This isn’t a small matter of believing X rather than Y, but a fundamental problem with the way X and Y have been understood. LIke the vast majority of people who are interested in natural history I’ve gone along with the prevailing view that the preservation of threatened species of all kinds hinges on re-creating the precise ecological communities – if necessary behind high fences –  that once allowed them to flourish. The vocabulary of conservation is spattered with words like ‘virgin’ and ‘pristine’ that imply that nature was OK until we messed it up and so we need to rewind the programme to the point where it went wrong and then press the freeze button for the rest of time. It implies that there is some kind of evolutionary plan that resulted in everything being the way it used to be before we spoiled it, and, even worse, that these ecological relationships were somehow ‘right’ and any deviation from them – for instance when so-called ‘alien’ species (the very word gives the game away), move in, they need to be removed, or perhaps ‘cleansed’ in order to return to the pre-lapsarian state of grace. Forgive the religious language but it’s actually a religious thought wearing a white lab coat, but it’s all wrong, and that’s where I’ve been stranded, reading furiously (in every sense of the word) and trying to catch up with a field I know very little about.

At the very moment I was finally getting settled into my botanical studies, I started to get interested in weeds because there are a lot more of them nearby to study; one thing led to another and now I’m in limbo trying to figure out what it’s all for.  What’s the direction we need to travel in in order to repair the ecological damage we’ve done, without  reducing the natural world to a desert with a few gated reserves dotted around to remind us what we’ve lost? What does a healthy and productive earth look like? – feel like? How can we live our lives fruitfully without making things worse? How did we get to the point where we defined the best interests of a tiny part of the human race with the interests of the whole earth? … and I don’t have any answers at all yet. Doubtless they’ll come along eventually but in the meanwhile I’m prowling around the Potwell Inn in a mist of self doubt needing to examine a large part of my experience and memory, paying special attention to the presuppositions that have been pit props and retaining walls to my inner world for decades.

Of course there’s a wider context for all this.  The political chaos that hangs over us like a black cloud is an inescapable source of anxiety, but personally too, things have happened that threw me off kilter.  A farmer I’d known well in one of my parishes fell down the stairs at the weekend, broke his neck and died the next day. It’s a heartbreaking event for his own family, but it leaves us all feeling that life is fragile, fugitive. What with the morons in charge and accidents and illness threatening, what’s the context in which we can  understand the earth, its tides and weather in the broadest sense.

It feels like grief.  Cooking and gardening feel like going through the motions, displacement activities. Yesterday I went to the local stationers and to my great surprise I was able to buy a card index – the beginnings of the Flora of Muckyannydinny Lane.  It’s a card index because you can’t design a database until you are able to define it detailed purposes and I’ve no idea yet what that purpose might be so it’s back to the technology of the quill pen.

But now I’m off to try to mend the fridge on the campervan before we take a break driving as far North and West as we can in England. Yet again we were drawn to the West, and we’re going further North too – right to the Scottish borders, completing the last link from Cornwall in the South and catching up with friends on the way.  There’s nothing systematic in this, just happenstance and curiosity and a big pile of books of which the latest is Fred Pearce’s “The New Wild”. Read it – it’ll explode your mind!

 

A very genteel affair!

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Yesterday afternoon, after a long fish and chip lunch (working class dinner) with friends, we both needed a walk so we wandered up to the Botanical Gardens with no particular quarry in mind except the vague hope that there might be some traces of a physic garden in amongst the plantings. No such luck, though – the garden has its seasonal moments, but apart from a couple of very nice borders the trees are the main survivors of the relentless pressures of austerity.  The garden is just far enough from the tourist hotspots to allow the City Council to neglect it without much fear of being called out. Any protesters can be labelled as ‘minority activists’ citing the pressing and greater needs of social care and claiming that these sorts of things are expensive fripperies  – like libraries and galleries …… and – the list goes on, the cuts get deeper and the fabric of society begins to disintegrate. The Garden is only a short walk from Royal Crescent which is constantly crowded with visitors who photograph the lovely architecture without giving a thought to where the money came from.  William Beckford whose folly overlooks Bath from a commanding position on Lansdown was one such landowner.  His Wikipedia entry gushes on about his achievements as an art collector, novelist and politician but remains silent on the slave plantations that provided his inherited wealth.

So it was a relief to find Carters Steam Fair setting up next door.  Carters is unlike any other funfair you might have been to – for a start you’re safer at the fair than you would be crossing the A4 to get to it.  When I was a child, travelling fairs were thought of as being a bit rough and risky.  On the hot evenings fights would break out like summer showers and I can recall the boxing booths where the local lads would get up and have a go.  There were still a few freak shows and I even remember the name of one burlesque act, called “The Naughty Nineties Girls”.  These all added to the erotic undertones of the funfair.  During the afternoons it was mainly attended by families and children, but as a teenager when I was first allowed to go at night, it took on an altogether darker and more exotic life.  As you approached, you could hear the raucous music and see the lights. What was so wonderful about it?  Well, it was edgy, liminal – you had to cross the penumbra of scattered light to enter – it was everything that life at home wasn’t – joyful, noisy, disorderly, open-ended.  They played rock and roll music and there were girls. The young men running the rides were like young predators stalking their supper. It was Weimar Berlin, bathed in diesel fumes and the smell of the summer night.  There were huge noisy generators run by men who’d seen it all, there was mud and straw and the greatest thing of all was that it would disappear after a week leaving just tyre tracks and yellowed grass. A truly proletarian event.

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Carters has all the old rides, the paper roll steam organs and the rock and roll music. There are generators and candyfloss and hotdogs but it’s resolutely respectable and run by a family who spend their winters restoring the unloved relics of the dangerous days. They even run courses on funfair lettering and painting.

Re-live Grandma’s Yesterday

That’s the slogan on one of the lorries and we’ll be there on Saturday afternoon when it opens, listening (I hope) to the Everly Brothers and photographing the spectacular machinery. All very low-tech, 1950’s and hauntingly beautiful.

Known unknowns and unknown unknowns.

The advice from the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) is pretty unequivocal.  Don’t submit a record for a plant unless you’re absolutely certain of it, or if it’s been counter-checked by someone who actually knows what they’re doing. There was me galloping through the Pembrokeshire list and today I suddenly got cold feet.

It all started so well when I spotted a plant on the wall in the middle of St Davids, as we were going to the supermarket. I didn’t know exactly what it was but I was sure what family it belonged to, so – easy peasy – straight to the books where I just couldn’t find it where I expected it. So I go into pondering mode – what does it remind me of? ….. Coltsfoot ……… they’re an early spring flower so it can’t be that.  OK then – it sort of reminds me of Stonecrop when I look at the fleshy leaves.  Bingo – it’s a Rock Stonecrop – Sedum forsterianum – a two star or even three star rarity growing on a wall in a busy street near a supermarket.  But here’s the thing, it’s nice to find a rarity but it’s one of those plants that it would be hard to confuse with anything else.

I’ve had a busy time and the list has now reached a tantalising 99 plants identified – BUT – looking through my notes today I discovered a couple of ID’s that I made when we were here in May and now I’m not so sure. Yesterday I ID’d a plant and accidentally wrote down the wrong name.  I only discovered my mistake when I found a close relative today and had to double check yesterday’s work. In the midst of feeling rather pleased with myself I realized that competency in field botany is a much slower process than I thought. Any progress I’m making is at a more general level, and I’m much better at reognising families of plants – which brings a bonus in saving time when it comes to sorting out the species. As for species and sub-species, I discovered when I found the exquisite little Eyebright on the top left photo, that it belongs to a large bunch of subspecies (75) that even baffle experts. I’ll have to let it go at Eyebright and remember how beautiful it was, nestling on the clifftop. I think I’m a while away from feeling confident enough to submit my own records.

IMG_5783But after a damp start early this morning (with a view like this even damp starts are magical), the sky cleared slowly and by the time we got back from St Davids and had a greedy bacon sandwich, the sun was shining, we whacked on our boots and went for a long walk with me ticking off plants as we went. I’ve now found four of the five Plantains here and I found the other one in the middle of Bath a couple of years ago, so that’s a botanical royal flush. As we walked we wondered if we’d somehow wandered into paradise:  the sea, the sun, the wildlife and flowers  feeding our souls as we went along. Even the discovery that the Willowherbs are a much more complicated family than I’d imagined couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm – every dificulty became an opportunity  – hooray, more features to look at and absorb – even my knackered knees felt as if they were enjoying themselves.

Why should anyone be remotely interested in all this? Search me! I only know that this is a blog about being human, and when I do this kind of thing – when I can call plants by their names, when I can draw and paint them and grow them and understand their properties and something about the lives they lead and how they survive, it makes me feel more human, more embedded in this staggeringly, promiscuously over-generous world.

When I was a curate, training to be a parish priest, my boss thought that every moment not spent working was a moment wasted. I became friends with the owner of a fishing tackle shop who seemed to take to me. I would go out on an imaginary ‘visit’ and drink cups of coffee with him and his wife in their back room behind the shop – needless to say they never darkened the door of a church.  Bob would collect me every Wednesday morning after the ten o’clock communion.  I would wear my fishing clothes under my cassock and at the end of the service I would bolt across the churchyard, through the house and out into the back lane where Bob would be waiting (hiding) in his three wheeler (honestly!)  to take me to one of his favourite spots.  One day we were sitting in complete silence on the riverbank and he said “you know, I never felt the need for church when I could come here and watch the water and listen to the birds singing”.

He wasn’t wrong.

And to finish, a little bunch of purple numbers we spotted today – two are in the same family, but which two?

Another day, a different grandchild

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Dyrham Park, today, with our youngest grandson. I love this place – it’s run nowadays by the National Trust, but sixty years ago when I first climbed over the wall, as a young trespasser, I fell in love with it. Ten years later there was a riding centre in the grounds and once more we (yes we were a ‘we’ by then) – explored it legally on horseback and I had my first experience of a runaway horse attempting to scrape me off its back by galloping under a low branch. I (just) won that round but lost reins and stirrups in the process, and clung on for dear life until it was over.  The horse, called ‘Copper’, gave me a bit of a funny look and we reached an understanding.  Later the same horse threw a friend and dislocated his shoulder – so not an easy ride!

We come here often these days. It’s a wildlife paradise, with roe and fallow deer, cattle today – which was a first – and some extraordinarily rich plant life. Sadly I couldn’t tempt our little grandson up to Whitefield which is a quite marvellous unimproved meadow very close to the place I first climbed over the wall.  There are bee orchids there, and I’ve never seen one.  Many other plants as well, spotted while driving past it on the way out.  My heart was aching to be in there with the orchids – were they Pyramidal or Southern Marsh – hard to tell from a car, even at ten miles an hour. If you’ve never seen an unimproved meadow it’s like plant heaven, and you want to lie, like the young Laurie Lee, amongst the grasses and flowers with a cheek on the cool earth, while the myriad bees, flies, butterflies and hoverflies go about their business. “Jack go to bed at noon”, Marbled Whites”  and so many yet-to-be-named flora and fauna. In all these sixty years I’ve never been inside the house.

Grandchildren give us permission to see the world through a child’s eyes once again. There were many children there with grandparents – free childcare you might say, except grandparents offer something different.  Some of the mums there with children looked pretty tired, and they mostly had one eye on the phone as if the loss of autonomy and status was not compensated for by the relentless demands of parenting.  I remember that stage so well – for both of us the demands were almost overwhelming.  Grandparenting is an entirely different thing. We’re untroubled by any worries about whether we’re doing it right because we know we’re probably not.  We give in to them, feed them unsuitable food without a twinge of conscience (parents do it secretly and feel guilty afterwards) and for some inexplicable reason they love us as unconditionally as we love them.

My biggest worries are for the future of these children. We worry about it because they’ll have to live in it and we’re leaving it in a dreadful state. I’m so pleased that our two year old grandson lets me take him around the gardens offering him leaves and flowers to smell.  Our six year old is already a wildlife fanatic and the middle one is an absolute toughie, untroubled by the challenges she faces as a SWAN, carrying but never suffering from a syndrome without a name.

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Madame’s Grandparents were the single stable influence in her peripatetic life, and my maternal grandfather was, notwithstanding my most strenuous efforts, the greatest influence in mine. We are formed by our histories, just as this tree was formed by its own.  Constricted by a fence that’s now been removed, the trunk is scarred by the experience but nothing daunted it went on to grow to a full sized tree.  Even after being partly felled, it still refuses to give up and has started to grow new branches.

On Sunday we’ll go back alone to Whitefield and I’ll bend my thoughts to all the plants I can’t yet name.  In a week it will have been mown and baled so some fortunate animals can dine on the richest hay to be had anywhere, and I’ll dream of another year when I can make even more friends among the plants.  The Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao.  Wise words, but I still want to thank the Tao that cannot be spoken with words that cannot be written.

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A drop of the good stuff ?

 

Finally – today the very first load of compost came out of the new row of bins and was spread across the beds we’d just removed the broad beans from. I said a few days ago that, at the time I built them, I thought I’d made them much too big, but with the sudden acceleration during spring, and now we’re harvesting crops, the first bay was filled to the top and ready for its first turning – which meant I had to clear the second bay of compost that was moved from the previous setup.

I think we must have tried every conceivable method of making compost over the years, and for a long time we’d settled on double cylinders made from sheep wire and lined with thick cardboard. These were wonderful but had one major disadvantage – it was very difficult to turn compost from one cylinder into another without constantly catching the tines of the fork in the sheep net, and in practice we usually dismantled the nets altogether – which was time consuming and a bit messy.  So when the opportunity came along to build some more conventional bins in a row, we decided to make the switch. We knew we were making good compost the old way but we had to weigh up whether the benefit of having an efficient system would be more worthwhile than the loss of a twelve by four bed. The answer to that question has come in two ways.

Firstly the value of the compost has been more than demonstrated by our crop of potatoes.  They were grown on a borrowed patch of ground that had been a bit cold and neglected.  Our soil is clay loam, potentially very fertile but inclined to waterlogging and easily poached when walked on – another reason for moving to raised beds. It hadn’t seen much by way of organic material over the years and so it had a look and feel I can only describe as ‘starved’. Last autumn we gave it a thick layer of compost and covered it with builders black plastic until it was time to plant the potatoes. Even in that time much of the compost had disappeared and the worm count was very much higher.  Better still the ground was easier to work by far.  We planted four varieties in the ground and they’ve all thrived – we’ve almost finished eating the Jazzy and we’re into the Arran Pilot. Pink Fir apple and Sarpo Mira are both flowering and the earlies we’ve lifted have given pretty reasonable yields. What’s more, when the plants are lifted the soil is sweet and friable, quite different from its condition last autum.

So that’s the first reason and the second is the sheer ease of turning – so easy in fact that I’ve been regularly turning the ‘live’ heap in situ to add shredded paper and cardboard if it starts to get a bit anaerobic. Our son brings big bags of grass mowings every fortnight, and these can be a nightmare to compost without creating a stinking mess.  However we shred all our paper waste at home, and down in the basement there’s a large bin for cardboard waste and we regulary filch the good stuff because it’s so handy for weed control, or temporary covering and in this instance tearing up into small pieces and mixing it with the grass cuttings.  What’s particularly noticeable is how much the worms love it. If we chuck a big piece of corrugated carboard in, a week later it’s got its own population of brandling worms, often in the hundreds. So the heap consists of all our green kitchen waste, shredded paper, cardboard and egg boxes (which seem to disappear quicker than you could imagine, along with all the green waste from the allotments. I’ve said before, its difficult to know whether it’s a compost heap or a giant wormery and – to be honest – it really doesn’t matter because all that counts is the quality of the compost.

Do we add any activator to it? Well, there are no rules but if it’s gone cold and slow the best activator of all is a drenching with urine, or sometimes a sprinkling of pelleted poultry manure or fish blood and bone.  The urine has the added advantage that it discourages people from nicking our food if they know it may just have been watered with a ten to one mixture of what Lawrence Hills used to call “human activator”. It’s best to imagine the heap as a dynamic environment that thrives when interest is shown in it. Getting the carbon/nitrogen balance is critical, and so is controlling the moisture levels.

If it gets too wet, neither the worms or the bacteria are happy just as they’re unhappy if it gets too dry or too hot. Paying attention to the details means that we can make far more compost in a given time.  Of course a neglected pile at the end of the plot will eventually make something like compost but on our site it would always be full of bindweed roots as well.  Weeds are often lazy and thrive in a neglected heap. We never put any pernicious weeds or annual seeds in the compost because we deliberately keep the heat down for the benefit of the worms.  Consequently annual seeds, couch and bindweed are not killed in the process and the’re best disposed of elsewhere – a green waste collection or a well controlled incinerator or couch fire in the autumn. We try to keep bonfires down to the minimum although if the temperature is kept low by controlling the air intake they will last for days with barely a whisper of smoke or steam.

At the end of the day, good compost is probably one of the most important crops we grow and absolutely worth all the attention.  Having the bins in a line, with removable slats at the front, makes turning a pleasure.  It’s still hard work, but it takes a fraction of the time and buying compost – we’ve used tons of the stuff getting the plots into shape – is very expensive.

So the crops are flowing in faster than we can eat them which is good news for the family.  A couple of days of hot sunshine has given us chance to plant out everything that was left in the flat, the greenhouse and the cold frames – quite a moment to savour.  I love planting things out after they’ve been in a series of pots.  There seems to be a qualitative difference when they discover their roots are free to stretch themselves and I swear I can hear them singing in their own plant language.

The sunshine has also brought out the crowds on to the green outside the flat.  The university students are all pretty much finished now and we play musical neighbours with a stream of parents (for freshers) and vans (from the second year onwards) fighting a guerilla war with the traffic wardens. It’s lovely to see the barbeques and to hear the sound of the young people enjoying themselves.  I even find a bit of late night music and partying strangely comforting.  But it’s also brought out a huge number of rough sleepers,  we even get tents on the green until the police turn up and move them on. Last night I was watching the fun when I spotted a young man crouching between two cars smoking crack from a piece of foil. The dealers like this place because there’s no CCTV and an abundance of escape routes on both sides of the river.  The police have taken to riding bikes but it doesn’t seem to have made much difference. It’s heartbreaking to see so many young people in deep trouble with disordered lives, homelessness and mental illness. How much is a human life worth? Almost any time we walk into the centre we see someone toppled over, unconscious or comatose after using spice. Last week we heard a young woman hurling abuse at an invisible person, and then a little later a fire engine nosed down the road to put out a fire she’d started. Moving the problem out of sight isn’t working and by and large our neighbours are sympathetic to their plight. Last year neighbours were remonstrating with the police after a man and his partner who’d been camping peaceably on the green were heavy handedly moved on by the police. The council policy seems to be to keep the tourists happy at any cost – even human cost.

There are days when even the joy of growing our food is tainted by the thought that so many people will never be allowed to experience it!

Sometimes life requires log-rafting skills

I’m still not completely sure I’m doing the right thing by passing so many of my books on, but the decision stands and the total I’ve disposed of is in excess of 350 – or nearer 750 if you count the ones I got rid of when we moved here. But they were the easiest ones, and now it feels like I’m eating ino my own history as box after box goes into the car boot. The ‘disposed of’ group includes a surprise hoard of college library books that I’d completely forgotten I ever had, but felt obliged to return to their rightful owner – which I did yesterday, and then discovered another four stowaways.

It’s feels like a rather revealing thing to do, as I hand them over a box at a time to the woman in the Oxfam shop. She was kind enough to say what interesting books they were, and inadvertently threw me into a bit of a tail spin because I felt I’d handed over something immensely personal – like a secret diary – to a complete stranger who would be listing them in some kind of inventory. No different than Google or Amazon and every other internet company who steals my most revealing information and then sells it on, but this was more personal and almost intimate.  When I was an early teenager and because I was incredibly shy, buying books or clothes became an absolute torment because I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I’d be judged by what I was buying.  It was only through the kindness of a bookseller called John- he was a bit of a legend – that I was given permission to browse all day if I wanted and buy whatever I wanted, but  I never realized that disposing of my books would land me in the same place.

So now each book that goes into the boxes leaves me second guessing what the reaction will be – goodness knows what today’s four boxes of rather arid theology will have done to my street cred – especially after four similar ones on Monday. So not for the first time I blurted out the first thing that came into my head, and I wondered aloud why on earth I’d kept them all, and postulated that it was in case I forgot who I was. I could almost see her thinking I was trying to tell her I’d got some sort of dementia, not least because on Monday I’d said (in another moment of brain fade) that I was doing this so our children wouldn’t have to “when I popped my clogs”.  I’m half expecting a letter of condolence from Oxfam and then my pointless shyness will turn into a clusterblurt.

So four more boxes of books and two guitars gone today, and my oldest son has contacted a removal company to take the piano to his house, while enquiring anxiously about the philosophy books which I promised I wouldn’t get rid of because I know that (eventually) he’ll give them  good home. Meanwhile Madame has jokingly accused me of fancying the woman in the Oxfam shop, but I think I’m suffering a bit from some weird variant of Stockholm syndrome.

So the reason for the reference to log rafting in the title is that the raging flume of my unconscious has also to allow for the fact that this is busy busy time on the allotment. Now the crops are coming in earnest, and we’re struggling to cope with the pace of things.  The overwintered broad beans have, at last, all been harvested and so we’ve had two sessions in which the Potwell Inn kitchen is transformed into a freezer production line. The three experimental plantings of garlic have now also been taken up and it’s clear that of the three varieties we tried the early purple bulbs were far and away the most successful.  The batch of five elephant garlic yielded four real lunkers.

As the beds are emptied and become clear, our aim is to hoe the weeds off, give the beds a covering of composted manure and a handful of chicken pellets or fish blood and bone and get them back into production as soon as we can.  This year we’re able to try the no-dig idea more easily because after three seasons of hand weeding we’re pretty much on top of most unwanted perennials, and the annuals are hoed off as they germinate. Today while I prepped the beds, Madame planted more runner beans raised in root trainers and also some modules of celery. After a bit of a wobble with the weather last week, the sun shone and after a few hours we were able to celebrate the solstice with the allotment looking at its most productive. “Blimey” – said Madame – “this feels more like a market garden”.

And as I type the title ‘Madame’ once again, I’m reminded that a friend said recently that she didn’t like me calling her by that name because it made her sound like a brothel keeper. Although nothing would delight me more than the thought of the Daily Mail reporting something like “retired priest found dead in Bath brothel” I’m afraid the explanation is much simpler.  Madame prefers not to have her name published in the blog because she doesn’t want to lend her implicit imprimatur to the words I publish before she’s seen them, any more than I would suggest improvements to her drawings before they’re finished. There are certain subjects over which we do allow forceful dissenting views – not least the planting, disposition and maintenance of the allotments because we are both very srong willed and neither of us wants to assign agency to the other.  It must work pretty well beause so far I’ve never had to remove a sharpened fork from my back, and it’s never got beyond the withering look and toss of the head stage.

And so  we’re in ‘second crop” mode while we’re feasting on the first, almost at the stage of being able to choose what to eat off the allotment and then taking it home, while the autumn harvest is beginning to take shape in the ground. When I built the line of compost bins I was convinced they were far too big and we’d never fill them – but as you see the first bin is now pretty much full and in a couple of weeks it will be ready to turn.

Boom and bust on the allotment

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In a perfect world – i.e. not the one we’re actually living in, crops would come along like parts in a car factory, perfect, exactly on time and in just the right quantities. The Potwell Inn allotment, on the other hand, is a boom and bust operation subject to the vagaries of weather, impulse buying and whatever pests happen to blow, creep or slither in. Therefore we are unable to impress anyone with photographs of complete gourmet meals straight off the allotment with no more than a rinse in our private springwater supply. The potatoes, which were worryingly slow to get going have now all flowered at once.  The strawberries are in the midst of producing a glut, as are the Hungarian hot wax chillies, and don’t even mention salad leaves, but the onions were a lost cause, the tomatoes grew leggy while we waited for it to warm up and most of the squashes died at the seed leaf stage. We are – categorically – not experts

Apart from the glamorous world of coffee table gardeners, this time of year is relentless in its demands. The ground, which was thick with bindweed three years ago, is still capable of growing a towering six foot specimen in a week even after we thought we had picked every tiny piece of root out. Couch grass is easier to tame – provided you conduct a vengeful campaign of uprooting every time it pokes a leaf out above ground. But the worst ones are the annuals that grow from seeds blown across from the unlet plots. Willowherb is a particular and common villain, but we have a problem with a much less common plant which, notwithstanding its name – “common ramping fumitory” is not at all common in our area and so uprooting it seems like a small crime except for the fact that it has secret plans to take over the world – hence the “ramping” bit of the name.

In the winter I was slaving over the ‘civil engineering’ of beds, paths and bins and longing for the summer. Now it’s almost the solstice and every day, it seems, we’re unable to complete all the jobs that need doing because there just isn’t time and so neither are we able to doze in the deckchairs and listen to the bees humming – which is what most people think gardening is for, although – to paraphrase Ghandi – it would be a good idea.

IMG_5520AND – I’ve also been trying to sort out my study which, as I’ve already written, involves getting rid of several hundred books that I’d been clinging to in case I forgot who I was. Consequently the twin planets of the allotment and the study have swung into malevolent alignment.  That said, though, the business of handing over boxes of books at the Oxfam shop and then rearranging the survivors in proper order on the shelves has had a very happy effect. I hadn’t realised how reproachful a shelf of unread books can be, and if – like me – you’re an olympian self-doubter, the constant look of unread-ness relating to a past enthusiasm can sap the will dreadfully. I’m sure this is the blindingly obvious core of the decluttering movement  – old stuff ties you down, keeps you looking backwards. I’ve had persistent images of my (suitably sad) children taking the exact same books to the same Oxfam shop after my death and, frankly, I’d rather spare them the pain and reward myself with the sense of release that comes from sitting at my desk and being surrounded by books I use constantly and love.

Of course there are many that I’ll hang on to – Edward Johnston’s “Writing Illuminating and Lettering” which I bought when I was about thirteen;  Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” which I chanced on accidentally when I was nineteen and which changed the course of my life – just two of the milestones that I could never part with. My Grandfather’s copy of “The History of Mr Polly” where I found the Potwell Inn, has been promoted to glory among the very special novels.

Back on the allotment it’s pleasing to be able to say that the seaweed mulch that we applied in the winter to the asparagus bed has had the most astounding effect, and it’s growing taller all the time – I mean over five feet tall and climbing!  We’ve been keeping a close eye on it because last year it was ravaged by asparagus beetles, but all we’ve been finding is lacewings which must have got there first. One painful lesson learned once and (hopefully) never forgotten is that asparagus beetles are not the same as lacewing larvae – so look before you squeeze. Luckily the presence of the adult lacewings and innumerable other pollinators working the flowers has prevented us from any spraying with soft soap, and so no harm was done by the misidentification.