Sometimes it’s good to take a step back from the allotment and all its day to day detail and think about the bigger picture. I came across a Chinese proverb the other day that said “The best fertilizer is the farmer’s shadow” – the identical twin to its English equivalent “The best fertilizer is the farmer’s boot.” Boot or shadow, the takeaway point is that the farmer/gardener/allotmenteer’s physical presence and close attention to what’s going on is more effective as a stimulant to healthy and productive plants than many buckets (or tractor loads) of chemicals. Knowing your patch of earth; where the sunny spots are; where the frost gathers in winter; where the soil becomes waterlogged, and where dry; where the easterlies wreak most damage and where the south westerly storms will beat young plants flat.
On our allotment there’s a line where we can plot the point at which the sun rises above the trees for the first time at the spring equinox. We know the bed where beans flourish and the bed where they struggle. All of these important fragments of understanding fall under the seventh principle of permaculture – ‘design from patterns to details‘; and flow from the first – ‘observe and interact‘. All the best gardeners I’ve known have spent huge amounts of time leaning on a gate or a spade and watching; celebrating gardening as a form of meditation.
So are the twelve principles really about gardening at all? Well no, my belief is that they are a rule of life – similar to the rules that novices in religious orders embrace; like the words you sometimes find written above the entrance to the chapel in a Benedictine monastery – “To pray is to work“; and above the exit from the same chapel it will say “To work is to pray” – ‘labore est orare’. We are expected to pay the same devout attention to our everyday work as we would to a more rarified spiritual exercise.
There are other principles bound up in the twelve – such as earthcare, peoplecare and fair share. There is a whole political and economic vision expressed through simple principles in the sense that they could guide a community project or a whole planning department; but there’s no weird dressing up or hierarchy, no private languages and no insiders and outsiders; no saints and devils.
So here they are in all their non sectarian simplicity and I think they’re elegant and rather beautiful; an easily adaptable rule of life rather than a party manifesto but yet could be a way forward for farmers and fishing folk; scientists, economists and even, (oh please) the agrochemical industry and its shareholders.
You know when you’re feeling a bit down when Harold Macmillan’s well known quip comes back to haunt you; but in the minor key. When events start floating past like the ghosts of things that once seemed more important, it’s a bit of a sign that it’s all getting too much: all this endless and aimless governmental button pressing to try and factory reset the country back to an imaginary default state. I read an interesting piece by a behavioural psychologist a few days ago describing the state of mind that, having invested heavily in a solution that’s evidently not working, idles in a catatonic state, hoping that something will turn up.
Here are three signs that it’s not working. One … there was (yet another) provocative op-ed in the Farmers Weekly in which their star winder-up writes that he doesn’t understand the point of regenerative farming. I have written to him in the past about his headline grabbing tendencies (there’s a lot of it about) and point out that the crisis facing intensive farming is well understood, well researched and roaring down the line with no brakes. At what point does not understanding something so important, become a sign of sheer stupidity? I shan’t write of course because last time I did he simply rolled over with a shrug and said ‘maybe I did exaggerate a bit”. The danger is that some of his readers might use his idiotic opinions to shore up their faith in the collapsing citadel of scientific progress and Bishop Bayer.
Next, I might mention the UK government’s announced intention to revisit the debate on what they are now calling “gene editing” which is, they suggest, quite different from “genetic modification”. They used the same trick when they renamed the explosive and leaky nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield, and called it Windscale. Anyway, gene editing sounds pretty much the same to me. I read somewhere that what they mean is that they won’t be inserting genes from a different species but merely mucking about with the ones that are already there. Science fictionally that’s a shame because I’d enjoy the thought of venus flytraps crossed with alligator genes so that they could take a poacher’s leg off. Imagine the kudos of 100% organic fencing. At the point where a species of – let’s say – wheat, is reduced to a complex sequence of genetic code, I have to wonder whether we are so down the reductive path that any talk of species is a rather romantic – what’s wheaty in a single gene? and in reality, it seems to me that interspecies genetic editings and borrowings have caused more than a little trouble at the pandemic level. The inventor of the Kalashnikov rifle always denied that he had done anything more morally culpable than save the Russian government a heap of money on the cost of killing people. You can’t argue with economics …. can you?
“Item the third” (is that Sam Weller in Pickwick papers?) Our Government has just lifted the ban on a neonicotinoid spray in order to save losses in sugar beet crops. Let’s take that one step at a time. The neonicotinoid has been banned because of its capacity to kill pollinating insects. The crop it has been licenced for is sugar beet which is used to make refined white sugar which kills people. So the government had the option of encouraging sugar beet farmers (through subsidy if necessary) to grow crops that we actually need, and which don’t cause diabetes while simultaneously protecting the environment and saving insects. But then, bees don’t give money to politicians but big refined sugar companies and agrochemical manufacturers do.
I could go on forever like this – Scottish fishermen say their income has dropped by 80% since brexit. Poor children are offered the kind of subsidised food parcels that could bring back rickets while our excess death toll due to covid is now in excess of the numbers for the Second World War.
The soil and with it our souls shrink and die a little more every day; Rachel Carson’s silent spring presses hard on us and I’m locked in introspection as the sad captains of industry and their scientific infantry process, wraith like past me, reciting their little fragments of management wisdom all the way down to the pit. In Dante’s “Inferno” the outer circle of hell is reserved for those who didn’t give a shit:
And I , who felt my head surrounded by horrors.
Said: ‘Master, what then is it that I am hearing?
And what people are these, so crushed by pain?’
He answered: ‘That is the manner of existence
Endured by the sad souls of those who lived
Without occasion for infamy or praise.
They are mixed with that abject squadron of angels
Who did not think it worth their while to rebel
Or to be faithful to God, but were for themselves’
Dante The Divine Comedy – Trans. C H Sisson
Who says literature is a waste of time? That last verse has sustained me through many challenging times.
“Enough already”, I say. There comes a point when it’s best to imitate rebellious Chinese scholars and take up fishing for a while. The Potwell Inn allotment has been an illumination and a salve during what they like to call “these difficult times“, when what they actually mean is “your difficult times”. The new season approaches and we’ve finally made the decision to buy a polytunnel; in fact we’ve ordered it and paid for it and watched the video about erecting it. What could possibly go wrong?
We are well and in good health, we have enough food; somewhere to live and yet …. Has brexit and covid distracted us that we’re so focused on the immediate – on the “events, dear boy,” of day to day politics, that we’ve lost the big picture.
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield
Allotmenteers and gardeners can be a disputatious and even dogmatic lot, and like many religions and political parties the smaller the points of difference the more formidable the firepower directed on dissenters. Dig/no dig; raised beds or footpaths, Glyphosate or hitting your own fingers with a lump hammer (I made that one up); and the matter of timber borders around beds is another such choice that has passionate advocates and detractors.
We use gravel boards as bed dividers for several reasons, but in particular because our plots are inclined to waterlogging, being at the bottom of a valley through which the river Avon passes and occasionally floods to within ten vertical feet of the plots, raising the water table with it. So some of our paths are dug almost two feet deep and filled with wood chip to help drain away the water. It’s not as effective as proper field drains or gravel, but it’s free because our wood chip is delivered to the site by the council.
A second reason for timber frameworks is that on a slope, all our beds are effectively terraced and the soil needs to be contained to prevent it being washed off. The third and least convincing reason is that I’ve got a tidy mind, but I’m working on that one. The naysayers will shake their heads and tell me that wooden boards harbour slugs and that’s certainly true. Occasionally the slugs will lay waste to row of seedlings – except knowing that means we can take precautions. Unlike our rat traps which the rats have learned to spring without harm to themselves, slugs fare less well with the beer traps and we protect our vulnerable seedlings with them. Sadly the slugs are much more partial to rich malty and expensive brews than they are to Aldi’s cheapest. Yes wooden boards provide an ideal overwintering spot for slugs – you almost always find their pearly globular eggs somewhere there if you have a poke about.
But we don’t have a massive problem at all and the reason is almost certainly because slugs have their predators apart from humans. We’ve been puzzled in recent weeks by the fact that something has been systematically working its way along the borders, digging down into the wood chip alongside the gravel boards so neatly that it looks like they’d been hand weeded with a penknife. Each bed is 12′ x 4’6″ – so that’s 33 ‘ of board per bed and we have about twenty of them across the two half-plots. We had no idea what was doing it – rats and mice were among the suspects, until Madame spotted the culprit – a very tame first year (male) blackbird scratching down into the path and greedily eating slugs and their eggs. It’s just another bit of evidence that encouraging wildlife into the garden works wonders – toads, hedgehogs, birds, even foxes and (less helpfully) badgers, will all eat pests like slugs and snails – so slug pellets really aren’t as effective as the wildlife who come to the plot and work tirelessly and for free to clear our pests for us. Hoverflies, ladybirds and all the other invited guests pollinate our crops and decimate the opposition and, in the case of the blackbird, sit high in the trees and sing songs so beautiful it makes you want to weep. It’s just a matter of accepting that nature is a shared space and the less we muck about with it the happier we’ll all be. This will be the first year of the new pond which, without even touching it, is showing signs of coming to life with a bit of algae forming on the shallow surfaces. We’ve redesigned the beds and the planting plan to introduce many more tall, insect attracting perennials; and built a very safe hidden area under the water butts where a toad or a hedgehog might take up residence. There will be more flowers than ever, using vertical planting and interplanting to increase the diversity.
Beyond the allotment, our walks have been curtailed again by the new lockdown and so Mendip is off limits once more; but locally we’ve spotted a flock of long tailed tits in the trees near Sainsbury’s car park. Who says there’s no wildlife in the city? In the last few days we seen the herons, three or four cormorants who are immediately recognisable as they swim, because most of them is kept underwater, with just their long black necks and heads visible. They like to sit on the chimney pots of a converted grain store on the river and air their wings. I like to think of them warming their armpits in the hot air from the chimneys. There are wagtails, robins, blue tits and great tits – all common as muck just like us. The mallard are beginning to pair up and the several pairs of swans along the river and the canal are still together. We’ve got three kinds of gull – black headed, herring and lesser black backed; and there are kingfishers and even a pair of peregrines. We met a fellow member of the Bath Nats last week who has been watching them and he caught them in the midst of a mating display, plunging towards the ground together and breaking out like a red arrows display. Lucky man! Then there are sparrows – much rarer than they used to be – and many more. You could spend a happy day birdwatching within sight of the Abbey.
Then there are the otters. We’re desperate to see them but we haven’t been lucky. That will be a very special day indeed.
On the allotment today I finished building the experimental vegetarian hotbed (no shit!) , capped it off with compost and shoved a thermometer into the middle to keep an eye on the temperature. The ambient temperature is around 3C max at the moment and when I pulled the thermometer out of the oldest compost bin I was surprised to see that it’s still 9C – six degrees above ambient – and it looks very good, with plenty of worms and a lovely sweet smell. The last of the seed orders are trickling in along with warnings that it has become illegal to ship to Northern Ireland and the rest of Europe. Apparently DEFRA have no idea whether the exports will be allowed to re-start any time soon, but the big worry is that imports will be affected and the seed trade sources many varieties from European countries. Yet another reason to think seriously about seed sharing of local and traditional vegetable varieties. We noticed today that John Harrison – big time allotment blogger – has published a book on heritage varieties based around the wartime “dig for victory” theme. The writing’s on the wall!
We thought we were in for a good shriving when we went up to the allotment today. The plot is very well sheltered from the prevailing south westerly winds and so we don’t worry too much about Atlantic storms unless they get into the forties and fifties, but even then – when the sheds at the top of the site are keeling over – we can usually rely on the sheltering line of cypress trees. Today though the wind was blowing from the east, the coldest and least sheltered quarter, and it was due to veer later towards the north and the west while increasing in force. These are the winds that do most damage to us. Grape vines are particularly vulnerable to icy winds, and today there was no avoiding going up there and making the growing crops as windfast as possible. The broad beans (aquadulce claudia) are pretty bombproof and seem to relish the winter, but too much wind rocking sets them back, so we attached a windbreak to the big net cloches which we only use to keep the pigeons off. The biggest danger was to the purple sprouting broccoli which are five feet tall now and will fall over in extreme winds. They were already staked with canes but today we drove in tree stakes and tied them in with old polythene shopping bags which make surprisingly good plant ties and gives then a third use before we have to recycle them.
So within half an hour we’d warmed up banging in the stakes and clearing away all the dead leaves and since we were enjoying ourselves we looked around for another winter job to get on with. This year, because of travel restrictions, we can’t drive over to our usual source of fresh horse manure which a friend kindly heaps up for us every year about now. That goes into the bottom of the hot bed and gets covered with a soil/compost mixture to give us a quick start in February when it usually takes the soil temperature to over 20C. Twelve months later the whole lot has composted down and is full of worms so we recycle it on to a couple of lucky beds – it’s gloriously rich stuff. After an experiment with growing cucumbers and squashes in grow bags sited on top of the leaf mould bin last year, we discovered that the fabulous crop had been enabled by the roots breaking out through holes in the bags and working their way down through the leaf mould, drawing abundant moisture as they went. So today we capped the bin, newly stacked with another one and a half cubic metres of leaves, with about half the contents of the hotbed manure – getting on for a foot thick. This year we’ll plant squashes and ridge cucumbers directly into the super rich soil and then, in a year’s time we’ll recycle the mixture of leaf mould, manure and topsoil on to the beds again as a soil improving mulch.
The other half of the hotbed contents went on to the rhubarb bed where we intend to plant a third variety in the next few weeks, giving us continuity of supply over the summer. We both love eating rhubarb and it’s a remarkably tolerant and generous plant that needs very little attention aside from water and rich food. The water isn’t a problem because the bed lies above one of our underground watercourses, so we’ve incorporated a good deal of grit into the bottom of the bed so it doesn’t get waterlogged in the winter.
The third job, then, was to build an alternative hotbed using only the materials at hand on the site. The council had dumped what looked like a couple of hay bales up in the leaf bay; still green enough to give at least some heat I hope. So we started a new deep bed (just over 1 metre deep) layering up the grass with more leaves and wood chip, and with a sprinkling of dried chicken manure now and again to add more nitrogen. With a gallon or two of human activator and capped with our usual soil/compost mix we’ll see if it reaches any useful sort of temperature.
All of which shovelling, wheelbarrowing and forking had utterly vanquished the bitterly cold east wind, leaving us warm and content in the way that only a winter morning in the fresh air can do. There is no feeling in the world to match a completed job on the allotment snatched from the jaws of the sort of lousy weather that keeps most of us indoors.
But all the thoughts about wind and rainwater; underground streams and hotbeds; trees and perennial plants lead inescapably to a mea culpa on my part. We’re completely organic, we make compost, we don’t dig, we recycle almost anything including (the liquid bit of) our own waste, we’ve spent much of our working lives in community groups and even started an artists’ studio cooperative. We’ve lived in a couple of communes …. come on ……. join the dots and one obvious philosophy surely comes to mind 🙂
Twenty years ago we had a brief flirtation with permaculture – I even took part in an astoundingly popular TV film about it and – (utterly tongue in cheek) – displayed the dreadful 1950’s woollen carpet given to us by our neighbour – being used for weed control. In those days we kept a flock of chickens and, to be honest, the film company were desperate for someone who could talk confidently on screen and who lived close enough to Jekka McVicar to justify bring a film crew down from London. It was her fault for putting me forward! So chickens; a row of California cylinders steaming away; some nice veg and an orchard complete with a pair of pants that had blown off the washing line – what could go wrong? For goodness sake – I even showed them where the dog and various cats were buried! The garden was a total mess so I told the crew we were using permaculture principles. You simply wouldn’t believe how many complete strangers said to me “saw you on telly last night“.
But it’s taken all this time to overcome my inexplicable prejudice against permaculture. Maybe it’s to do with the way some of its advocates seemed insufferably smug, or treated it like a religion. I couldn’t seem to shake off the feeling that it was an immensely wasteful way of using land; that it was first cousin to foraging but would never be any use to anyone except rich kids who could afford to shop at Sainsbury’s and save the world by picking a few blackberries.
I was wrong on almost every count – I’ll repeat that out loud – I WAS WRONG! – this confession will possibly amaze my friends. There is a marvellous book of meditations by Anthony de Mello that I once used in group work all the time. One of my favourites was the story of a fish that decided to look for the ocean, not realizing that the ocean was the very matrix in which it lived and swam – so ubiquitous that the fish couldn’t see it.
I don’t believe in the god you don’t believe in either!
The misconception about permaculture being about a sort of foraging is very widespread. Ken Thompson, in his otherwise pretty sensible book “The Sceptical Gardener” completely dismisses it (P106) while confusing its whole overarching philosophy with forest gardening. Just for the record, I don’t think that forest gardening will feed the world either; nor do I think that permaculture is the same thing as regenerative farming, but I do think that aligning our whole way of life to the rhythms and patterns of the natural world; living sustainably and generously with our neighbours; breaking free from the prison of endless growth and using whatever we find “to hand” – whether wind or rain or sunshine or soil as creatively as we possibly can by designing systems that balance inputs and outputs.
All my sleepless nights pondering hot beds, thermal storage, hydraulic ram pumps, composting, water storage, tree planting, hot spots and frost pockets, wind power solar panels, ponds polytunnels and insect friendly planting schemes ….. blah blah blah. Like Anthony de Mello’s little fish I couldn’t see permaculture anywhere out there because we were already doing it – up to our necks in it, but just on the small 250 square metre plot we happen to have at our disposal rather than on a grander but imaginary smallholding. Which means that we won’t be able to use my design for imaginary portable chicken arks or indeed eat the imaginary eggs which, fattened by grass and grubs would be the goldenest and most delicious and sitty uppest eggs you ever saw; but we’ve done that and it was marvellous, and we hope that many others will be able to enjoy it as much as we did.
So there we are. We were looking for a philosophical home and it turned out we were there already. The Potwell Inn is like that – full of surprises.
I’ll get back to St Francis in a moment but I know that many of you will be desperate to see the Potwell Inn Christmas Day Menu. Excluded from Europe and the physical company of everyone we love, we decided to tear up tradition and please ourselves entirely as regards what we ate in splendid isolation – and so:
Tea in bed
Breakfast: muesli (made by me)
lunch: Christmas pudding with crême fraiche – nothing else
Supper: Chicken fajita
The children were a bit shocked to see that we had wilfully abandoned the family tradition; rather more, I think, because it somewhat undermined their own efforts to keep it alive. But in these circumstances I always quote the famous last six words of every great institution – “we always do it this way” – and being old is the perfect time to become an iconoclast because no-one else seems to want to put Christmas out of its misery. It was surprisingly easy to do; to wave away the orgy of overspending and overeating; and under the circumstances we felt no compulsion to pretend that everything was back to normal. “Bah humbug” – you accuse, and affecting not to understand we reply “que?!”
And so to St Francis.
I did say that I intended to write something about some kind of green spirituality, but the more I thought about it the harder it became until Joe’s Christmas present was delivered. It was a bit of a shock I must say. How would you describe something that’s hilariously funny, excruciatingly kitsch and borderline blasphemous?
I’ve always had a soft spot for heresy, whether the religious sort or the Christmas dinner menu makes no difference. A good heresy is the engine of change because good heresies are always tempting, otherwise they wouldn’t be any good. All great paradigm shifts are kicked off by a heresy. So St Francis of the boot rack (the name came to me instantly in a moment of pure grace), put me on the back foot in the most wonderful manner and rather than accepting the gift with a fake smile and gritted teeth I thought to myself – “this is marvellous”. But why???
Forgive me if you’ve read a previous post where I told this story but it fits well here. Some years ago we visited Chartres Cathedral which, on first impressions, was a kind of religious Disneyland. Queues of pilgrims clutching plaster models of the Virgin Mary waited to have them blessed. The building was heaving with visitors and I was rigid with the kind of anger that comes from fear; fear because I couldn’t understand what was going on. Nothing in my aesthetic experience had prepared me for such a festival of utterly bad taste. Until, that is, I was overwhelmed by a sense of holiness that was completely impervious to the cattle market atmosphere. I was so overwhelmed that I took off my shoes and socks and, for a hour, walked barefoot around the building as it spoke to me through my feet. It was one of the shortest pilgrimages ever conducted and I still haven’t fully digested it but, like a zen koan, it shorted out my overeducated theoretical mind and showed me another mind space altogether.
Pop. There goes another one!
So St Francis of the boot rack – what’s he saying? Well I think he’s teaching a lesson about idolatry – and I’m sorry for the big, loaded word but it’s a crucial shorthand way of describing the way we habitually try to cram an ocean of meaning into a fishbowl. This piece of fibreglass kitsch has no aesthetic merit at all and yet its strength lies somewhere else altogether – perhaps in its innocence, its naivety, its acceptance that it claims no more for itself than the grid reference can claim to be the mountain. Idolatry just means worshipping the part, thereby diminishing the whole. St Francis of the boot rack is a device for popping ego bubbles.
Next, sometimes reading a book can lead to the uncanny sense that the writer has somehow broken in to your mind and carried off your memories. I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the second clue to constructing a green spirituality came to me when he wrote about an experience that exactly parallelled my own – not that it was a special revelation at all, but simply the puzzle, for a non believer, of dealing with the sense of thanksgiving for an entirely undeserved gift that comes out of nowhere. When picking blackberries in the autumn; when coming across a field full of fresh mushrooms; when harvesting a crop on the allotment. Who to thank?
I suppose we could walk away from such an experience congratulating ourselves on our foraging expertise, mycological acumen or horticultural skill; but it never seems enough because, in truth, we make very little contribution to our good fortune .
Of course there are any number of theological readymades queueing up to claim these oddly numinous experiences for themselves, but they all come with a heavy price tag. They all require that you buy into the whole system with all its inconsistencies and occasional cruelties just in order to give you a mailing address where you can post your thank-you’s.
For the avoidance of idolatry that narrows these experiences down until they become trivial; and the avoidance of the great systematic theologies that confine these ecstatic experiences like wild animals in a zoo; any credible green spirituality would, for me, need to remain largely silent. In fact you might steal a concept from the Carthusians and other religious communities who keep a great silence after compline each day. Such a great silence would need to stop struggling to explain things while giving us a space to which to bring our thanksgivings and laments. There is so much that lies beyond our present capacity for explanation (maybe our science needs a paradigm shift as well) – that there’s no need to invent supernatural entities to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. There is the earth whose ways are still largely unknown to us. There is the sun, the moon; there are stars and there is weather and there are the great orders of living things. I’ve naughtily paraphrased St Francis great Canticle of the Sun because I still kind of identify with him in his artless extremism; his simplicity and his love of nature. I should own up to the fact that I was once a lay member of the Anglican Third Order of the Society of St Francis and like all the best teachers, Francis embedded himself in my mind even though I moved on and away from the orthodoxies.
The religious systems of the past don’t have the monopoly on concepts such as humility –humus, the condition of the earth – on forgiving or on generosity, on equality or thanksgiving or human love. They’re all there ready to be recycled and repurposed in ways that work for us, speak to us and generate new meaning. Naturally the concessionaires and leaseholders of the existing spiritualities will kick up a fuss – they would, wouldn’t they – and we shall always have to look out for a new breed of snake oil salespeople who talk the talk but don’t do the other bit, they’re human after all, just like the rest of us. But – I’m just speaking for myself now and I don’t expect you to agree – for me a Green New Deal without some kind of spirituality would be too thin to survive. A farming method or an algorithm for life without poetry, music and dance , without thanksgiving and (dare I say?) liturgy would be a poor half-starved creature; unfit for purpose.
Just forget the dogma, the hierarchy, the keyholders and all the bureaucracy. Forget all that “we always do it this way” stuff and gaze in wonder at the daft plastic statue of St Francis of the boot rack. What better reminder of our frailty do we need.
The headline quote is a characteristically sharp observation by Wendell Berry, one of my favourite writers and quoted by Michael Pollan who adds that Wendell Berry could, equally appropriately, have called eating a political act as well. This reflection begins and will probably end in books, so having promised a list a few days ago I’ve decided to publish a very provisional one today that represents my personal meander through the question of farming and food. I’ll head the list with Michael Pollan because his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was among the first to be published, and was groundbreaking in the way it embraced the whole of food culture from producer to consumer. As a critique of industrial food it’s brilliant, but as a critical friend he addresses many of the questions that sceptics might ask of the alternatives he considers – which, after industrial food production, are – industrial organic food; “beyond organic” farming – basically pasture based livestock production; and foraging. I’ll start the list with this book because I was directed back to it when I started to read Tom Philpott’s new book “Perilous Bounty”, which looks at the state of American farming two decades after Michael Pollan’s research began.
It would be easy to imagine that my reading has focused entirely on American agriculture, but the next four books are UK centred – although in agricultural terms where the US has led, the UK all too often follows to its cost. The feedlot and giant milk production units are here in the UK already and increasing in number.
My third book is Simon Fairley’s “Meat – A Benign Extravagance” – a forceful, evangelistic and highly entertaining book on the virtues of mixed farming. Fourth (and these are in no particular order), Chris Smaje “A Small Farm Future” and finally a couple of more technical books; Dieter Helm’s “Green and Prosperous Land” is an economist’s take on reordering farming and building a greener economy and Tim Lang’s “Feeding Britain – our food problems and how to fix them” is a comprehensive survey of UK food policy, what’s wrong with it and – as the title says – how it could be fixed. Finally James Rebanks new book “English Pastoral” has the advantage of being written by a proper hill farmer and it’s a highly readable book, just like his last one.
There are so many other books on the subject ranging from deep ecology through green spirituality and practical handbooks to monographs on single ecological challenges but I’ve mentioned these particularly because I spent 25 years working in farming parishes and I’d be confident to recommend any of these books to the farmers I came to know and respect even though I had many reservations about what they were doing.
Overseas readers will need to know that the Potwell Inn, virtual though it may be, is firmly situated in the South West of England whose soils are nowhere near as suitable for arable farming as they are for grass. The temperate climate, and soils all favour the production of grass and so (since humans don’t have rumens) by far the most economical use of the majority of the landscape is grazing which allows cattle to turn sunshine into concentrated food that we can eat. And so there is an inescapable focus on meat and milk production which, when it’s done intensively is undoubtedly a cause of real environmental concern.
I’m interested in food security and so the lorries, thousands of which are stacked up against the closed border in Dover today, represent the almost 60% of food that we import and the fragility of the supply line – in one news report. Therefore if we’re to increase self-sufficiency to a much safer 80% it seems inevitable that we will have to make the most effective use of all the land we have and play to our strengths. Sadly, (vegans and vegetarians may think), the future will have to include a significant amount of traditional (and rotational) mixed farming because much of the South West is unsuitable for the kind of large scale grain and pulse production that would be needed to avoid importing huge quantities of protein food. The point about the ecological catastrophe that’s bearing down on us is that it’s universal. It doesn’t respect borders.
Incidentally I noticed an article in this week’s Farmers Weekly on a similar track, discussing whether lupins could replace imported soya as a protein food for cattle. Personally I think the future lies in eating much less meat and feeding cattle on grass which they’ve evolved to digest, rather than concentrates that keep them in a perpetual state of stress and digestive disorder. The irony in the article came when I saw that the breakthrough has come through the licensing of several new weedkillers, one of which is called “Nirvana”. Is that some kind of sick joke?? I quoted Wendell Berry only a couple of days ago saying that intensive farming takes a solution and turns it into two problems. There’s only one way of ending industrial meat production and that’s to eat less meat and only buy the best and most sustainable meat as occasional treats. Those who argue that such a move would mean meat for the rich and starvation for the poor miss the point that:
(1) once the subsidies are removed from industrial farming, the prices will converge, although they’ll never meet.
(2) We will have to address inequality within any green new deal.
(3) The environmental benefits will be felt universally.
(4) The potential health benefits of ending the reign of junk food are almost incalculable.
” …. all of which is to say that a successful local food economy implies not only a new kind of food producer, but a new kind of eater as well, one who regards finding, preparing and preserving food as one of the pleasures of life rather than a chore”
Michael Pollan – “The Omnivore’s Dilemma
So without resorting to a long piece that I’m completely unqualified to write; it seems to me that we have an urgent need to develop the skills we’ll need to invent or more likely rediscover in order to achieve a sustainable and ecologically safe food future, and perhaps surprisingly much of the emphasis will have to be placed on changing our food culture on the consumer side. I’ll reserve the philosophical and spiritual aspects to this to another post, but practically speaking we’ll need to bring the teaching of growing, harvesting, cooking and preserving back into the mainstream as Michael Pollan suggests.
We’ll have to hugely increase the provision of allotments by local authorities because these are the laboratories for a greener future. Anyone who has experience of growing their own food, even in small quantities, will quickly learn to recognise quality and pay less attention to price. Informed consumers make better, greener buying choices and waste less. Allotments can be much more productive than the equivalent area of conventional farms.
We’ll also have to build a huge network of local food and farmers’ markets to reduce food miles and completely overhaul the agricultural colleges to address a wholly new ethos; turn agriculture and horticulture into a better paid and better regarded occupation and offer training at local colleges to give people the skills they need to get the most out of gardens and allotments. Finally we need to grow more fruit and veg – much much more of them. One of the tragedies of the CAP was the subsidy paid to established fruit farms to grub up their trees, only to pay them some years later to replant them.
Food security really is possible without resorting to ever more intensive and destructive chemical farming and the destruction of the environment; but as I’ve been arguing, the change in our food culture will need to be huge and it will demand leadership and vision that is nowhere apparent in our present political system. But the thought that it’s our Christmas lunch that’s rotting in the back of a lorry on a border somewhere ought to focus our minds pretty sharply.
And if I don’t get the chance to write again tomorrow have a very happy christmas if that’s your thing; and if it isn’t – do enjoy the next few days!
According to the meteorologists winter started almost three weeks ago but here at the Potwell Inn we pay no attention to these unnatural dates. It’s always been the solstice for us because instead of simply looking backwards at the autumn and summer – always a bit depressing, especially this year, the solstice marks the shortest day. In fact it celebrates a particular moment because at 10.00am tomorrow the North Pole is tilted as far away from the sun as it will be this year. Mid morning tomorrow the earth slowly begins tilting the other way until mid march when (and I know earth coordinates are a bit meaningless in space terms) it’s ‘upright’ – and we celebrate the vernal equinox and, as the tilt continues, exposing more of the northern hemisphere to the direct rays of the sun we hit midsummer in mid June. And then the earth starts to tilt back again and the cycle begins anew. So the good news is that tomorrow marks both a beginning and an end.
In a more nature orientated culture than ours we’d be eagerly awaiting this moment. Historically, farm work slowed down during the winter because the soil was too heavy and cold for seed sowing. The farm year kicked off with the Epiphany celebrations around 6th January and often included Plough Monday celebrations where a plough would be brought into churches along with seed corn (usually wheat, rye and barley in the UK and not maize in those days). By Plough Monday it’s usually possible to see the lengthening days and the winter pursuits like hedging and ditching gave way on the farm to sowing once more.
But grass seems to grow more or less throughout the year. In fact I remember giving our vicarage lawn a light mow one Christmas Eve, and I was reminded yesterday that grass is by no means as simple as you might at first think. I was re-reading Michael Pollan’s 2006 book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. It’s an excellent read and today I noticed a 2016 piece in the Washington Times by Pollan that celebrated the fact that the US has seen a significant growth in food awareness accompanied by increasing numbers of artisanal food producers, organic and post-organic farms and farmers markets. But it wasn’t all good news because the dominance of corn had increased in the national diet.
However it was grass that caught my eye last night, because when I first read the book I knew next to nothing about it in spite of living and working in the countryside for 25 years. Then, when we moved here and joined the Bath Natural History Society we were on a field trip one day when I told one of the leading lights that I found grass identification hard. “Oh she said” pointedly, “grasses are easy” – which challenge was more than I could resist and so I’ve spent three or four years improving my grass skills. Then, earlier this year a friend lent me a microscope and a whole new world opened up and began a new romance for me.
Why is this important? Well, in his book Michael Pollan draws attention to one central criticism of intensive farming in a way that I found irresistible. Grass, he says, harnesses and stores the power of the sun and because of its properties of self regeneration and the sheer density of its coverage and capacity to photosynthesise even during autumn and winter, it represents the nearest thing to a free lunch in the natural world. When we see a meadow, especially a traditional meadow with all its wildflowers – we’re looking at a far more efficient solar energy store than any field covered in solar panels.
Intensive farming, on the other hand, replaces all that sustainable solar energy with unsustainable oil – for driving farm machinery, transporting animals and crops over huge distances, and for manufacturing the fertilizers and chemicals which then go on to promote global heating and cause pollution environmental damage and health problems. The problem is that we humans lack a rumen, the part of a grazing animal’s stomach than can digest grass. So the only way we can access all that stored solar energy for food is by feeding the grass to a ruminant animal like a cow, and then eating it. If you add in the concept of buying locally, he food and the consumer are in the same place.
Grass fed cattle do well although they fatten slower than cattle stuffed with corn and antibiotics, The grass and its herbs provide a still unknown number of micronutrients and healing properties to the cattle’s diet and so they are better able to thrive without the panoply of wormers, drenches and other chemicals that are essential in the feedlots which, incidentally, are becoming more and more common in the UK – this isn’t an American problem. Grass fed beef is lower in health damaging cholesterol and it’s said that it tastes better too. It’s very expensive because it’s slower and less intensively farmed, and the food – that’s to say the grass -doesn’t attract the same level of subsidy. The inescapable logic is that traditional mixed farms are better than intensive farms for a host of environmental reasons but we will have to eat far less meat because the low price of meat in the supermarkets reflects an unsustainable and environmentally destructive food culture.
The question of methane is always the first thing to come up and it’s true that cows produce methane. But intensive farming produces far more methane because cowpats dropped on a low intensity pasture generate far less methane than the lakes of cattle slurry that accumulate on intensive farms and, all too frequently leak into the surrounding watercourses. A second benefit of grassland is that grass is a prodigious carbon store. No dig and low tillage systems don’t release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere at anything like the same rate. So, as Wendell Berry memorably said, by abandoning mixed farming and grass pasturage, intensive farming has taken a solution (mixed farming) and turned it into two problems: soil erosion and nutrient depletion on the one hand and massive pollution on the other, The manure that cattle leave on the pasture and which improves both soil structure and fertility becomes a lethal poison when concentrated in slurry. The land taken from pasture to grow feed grain releases carbon back into the atmosphere and can only remain productive through the use of chemicals.
And so grass is perhaps as important as are trees when it comes to carbon sequestration – and that’s great because the one thing we can grow here in the southwest of the UK is grass. Anyway I woke up the morning with my botanical whiskers all of a quiver and as we did our customary walk along the river and the canal I did a very rough and ready count of the plants we could see in flower. It’s been an odd autumn and early winter and although we’ve had a couple of frosts they’ve not amounted to much. The rain has been a much bigger problem for us. I didn’t have a pen with me so I couldn’t write them all down but from memory there were Canadian and Mexican Fleabane, a single dead nettle, groundsel, yarrow,common ragwort, one dandelion, red valerian, nipplewort, perennial sowthistle, ivy and some ivy leaved toadflax, plus (and this is a long shot) on the flood prevention scheme on North Quays where there was a lot of inappropriate wildflower re-seeding and I’m pretty sure there was a single corn marigold flowering on the spot where a very out of place clump of them grew last summer. As ever, plants don’t read the textbooks and to reverse the ethical aphorism, in field botany you can’t make an is into an ought. There were also new shoots breaking through on an old man’s beard vine, and a clump of very lush green prickly lettuce leave emerging on the river bank. Fourteen plants in flower on December 20th isn’t bad, and you could smell the strange almond perfume of the winter heliotrope all up the canal. Spring is hiding behind the bushes!
Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the solstice with a roastie and I’m wondering whether I can risk embarrassing Madame with a little candle-lit ceremony at 10.00am and then we can enjoy a solitary Christmas with a mexican meal that the children would never have let us get away with: they’re far greater traditionalists than we are! Then we’ll go for a walk amidst the hordes of similarly stranded grandparents.
It’s utterly depressing, but the answer is going to be no. At the present moment living in the UK feels as if we’ve strayed into an episode of Blackadder, except there are no jokes. I’d like to be writing warm, lyrical and encouraging posts about how wonderful life is at the Potwell Inn – except it’s not – and I don’t mean that I’m lying here on the floor with an axe embedded in my head, although the thought may have entered Madame’s mind. The reason it’s not wonderful is that we’ve spent eleven months in a suspended state; very largely on our own and separated in any meaningful sense from our family and friends. During the first lockdown and the first easing we enjoyed the fine weather on the allotment, where we almost lived for months; but now in the winter there’s hardly anything to do there because we used the autumn to prepare for next season. So we’re deprived of the exercise and the sense of engagement that kept us sane for the first five or six months. Hence the renewed interest in long distance walks and the renewed exploration of the Mendip Hills, of which a little more later.
Of course there are always books. Madame reads novels and biographies, and pretty much anything else she can lay her hands on but I’m firmly in the grip of the protestant work ethic and my reading tends to be highly directional and (dare I say) improving stuff with footnotes and references and centred on the green new deal, environment, natural history, food and that kind of thing. I wish I felt more improved than I do but for the most part it leaves me feeling sad, utterly depressed or screaming at the TV in anger at the incapacity of either interviewers or politicians to ask or answer the simplest (but most diligent) question – more Blackadder. I remember once talking to a depressed consultant oncologist who confessed he was so overworked his first thought on meeting a new patient was how am I going to get this person out of the room? I always felt that any culpability for his reaction was far more due to the distant political choices that put him in that terrible position, than to any deficiency in him.
I probably shouldn’t unload any of these personal anxieties except that I know that it can break through the isolation that leaves so many of us wondering if we’re the only ones who feel this way. Isn’t the first aim of gaslighting always to isolate your critics and convince them that it’s all their fault. But it’s not our fault that covid and brexit have been so badly managed. I look down the list of countries in which Potwell Inn readers live and I can see that many of us have been let down – in different ways – but still let down.
Not feeling safe; not knowing what to believe and what not to believe; not understanding what it is we’re meant to do; missing the everyday pleasures of chance encounters with neighbours and friends; missing the lectures and meetings that cement us as a cohort of like-minded individuals; missing the hugs and the smell of our grandchildren’s hair (OK that’s a bit out there, but you know what I mean). All these etch into us like frost and rain etch their way into rock, and leave us feeling empty and exhausted. I read too many articles about the benefits of nature for mental health, but the principal benefit may be to writers writing books about the benefits. I reckon I’m a pretty resilient person, and I know that Madame is too; and yet we both feel hollowed out by this experience, and sometimes the walking and even the cooking and gardening seem more like displacement activity than wholesome activity should. Staying sane seems to be an immense effort of will.
One question has been bothering me in particular because, in the light of the constellation of crises we’re facing, the issue of food security must surely come near the top. Do we really want to get back to normal if that involves the pollution, the destructive farming and the sickness that associates with bad economics, poverty and junk food. So I’ve spent quite a lot of time reading around the question of food security, trying to see if there’s an answer to the question – could the UK be more self sufficient in food without going deeper into the abyss of intensive chemical dependent farming; and the answer – I’m pleased to say – is “Yes – But”.
If there are any vegans and vegetarians out there who think we can save the world by eating processed non-animal gloop, then the answer is no. If there are intensive farmers who think the way forward is more of the same, the answer is no as well. It’s no to industrial organic farms and no if you think we can feed ourselves on mediterranean delights grown on the allotment or purchased in the supermarket. If there are any people sitting in 3 litre SUV’s prepared to embrace anything except changing the way they drive, it’s also no. And it’s no to airlines, and no to food miles and criminal waste. In fact the answer can only be yes if we’re all prepared to change – quite a bit. This isn’t just a personal view, it’s a summary of all the scientific evidence I’ve managed to get my hands on.
Number one – (two three and four as well!) – is we need to eat less meat, much less meat; preferably chicken because it has a much more efficient conversion ratio. We need to embrace a plainer more sustainable diet sourced as locally as possible – to quote Michael Pollan – ‘eat food, not too much, mostly veg‘. The over embracing plan is summarised by Tim Lang in his book “Feeding Britain – our food problems and how to fix them” * – and he describes it as “a great food transformation”. Crucially this isn’t a book about organic farming or vegetarian diet, it’s an important book about farming, diet, public health, social policy, politics and food culture. You would profit from reading it wherever you stand on the food and farming spectrum. Of course, the cynics will say that the population will never embrace such far reaching change, to which he would respond that in a crisis – let’s say the onset of war in 1939, for instance, there won’t be any alternative but to change. The storm clouds that are gathering on the horizon right now are coming our way and our political system is proving itself unfit to deal even with one challenge, let alone three or four existential crises at once.
They would say that wouldn’t they?
Mandy Rice Davies
But this is good news. We are categorically not all doomed – we can make the changes we need to make and what’s more important, we can create a far better, far less divided and infinitely safer world as we do it. We mustn’t allow the powerful to claim that nothing can be done except more of the same. They would say that wouldn’t they?
Well there we are, and just to prove it’s not all been eye strain these past couple of days, the long Mendip Way walk is being chipped off a few miles at a time. On Monday we walked from Tynings Farm down to Shipham; back through Rowberrow Warren and across Blackdown. Why would I bother with these obscure place names when many people who read this will never see them? and the answer is that place names are beautiful in and of themselves, like tiny topographical markers that set up home in your mind and remind you that the earth is made of places which, just like us, have names and histories and are often very beautiful. The walk took us down the most lovely valley, following a stream most of the way, and then back through a forestry plantation and out on to the open moorland of Blackdown. Barely five miles but offering three quite distinct landscapes. Best of all we found hazel catkins flowering in profusion in the sheltered valley. The photograph shows one such catkin, coated in melting ice formed in the overnight frost but demonstrating that spring will come – and it can’t come too soon.
I’ll make a proper booklist soon – most of the books have been mentioned but I’ll assemble a proper list in case anyone is interested.
Well, it was a rainy day so there was nothing for it but to spend it at the stove, catching up on the list of to-do’s, the first of which was to turn the calendula flowers, harvested from the allotment in the autumn and infused in sweet almond oil – into a most useful cream to use at home. Among herbal remedies, calendula is a reliable go-to for eczema and itchy dry skin. Bought from commercial suppliers it’s pretty expensive – the best brands cost around £6 a tube, and so we decided that this year we’d make our own. There is, however, something of a dilemma to be addressed in making it because almond oil is way beyond the resources of our allotment so we have to buy it. But there’s a choice to be made that turns out to be quite an expensive one. Our usual supplier lists two types of sweet almond oil – the organic and non organic, and the standard non organic oil costs £12.59 a litre. The organic oil, on the other hand, costs £52.85. So on price alone, the non organic wins hands down – but wait – because if you look up the source country you discover that the organic oil is produced in Spain and processed in Germany. The country of origin of non organic oil is not listed so it’s probably a blended generic oil from many places ……… including California?
So what’s the problem with California? you might ask and the answer is that according to Tom Philpott’s excellent new book “Perilous Bounty” it’s not just the fires that have brought disaster to California. In the Central Valley there is a massive industrial scale almond farming enterprise. The valley has always been fed by the meltwaters of the Sierra Nevada snows until, that is, drought and global warming began to take their toll and so the farmers started to pump groundwater at an increasing rate – it takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond. The result has been fairly catastrophic. As the wells deepen, the water becomes more saline. The aquifers are emptying rapidly because they are being drawn on far more quickly than they can be refilled by the melting snow and so the land is literally sinking – up to two feet a year; causing havoc with the local infrastructure – roads, pipes aqueducts and canals. A second problem has affected the industry because the margins are so tight, it can only make a profit by employing migrant labour at the lowest possible wages. Before the long drought began in 2011, this area produced $20.7 billion worth of fruit, vegetables and nuts – 53% of the US total (all these figures are from Tom Philpott’s book).
So it turns out that the cheaper almond oil comes at a cost that is simply not reflected in the price. Cheap almond oil depends upon cheap labour and the overuse of cheap water – and it’s destroying the environment. For all we know, precisely the same slow destruction is taking place in Spain. One of the great unspoken problems with the organic movement is the way in which it is being slowly industrialised. However, that’s why we bought the expensive organic oil which, of course, will be much more expensive again after brexit if (when) tariffs are applied. That’s how politics, economics and ethics are hanging together when we think about a Green New Deal. There’s no way of building a greener future without changing our political, economic and ethical assumptions. As I wrote yesterday, it amounts to such a profound change it will feel like a bereavement as long as we refuse to embrace the evidence that’s before our eyes.
Anyway, the home produced organic calendula cream still came in at 50% of the price of the commercial products and there was nothing whatever added; just the flowers extracted into the oil, and some beeswax. As for the method, you simply melt the beeswax slowly in a double boiler and stir in the strained oil. It’s best to check that the cooled ointment is the right density, so we tested it like jam – on a cold plate. Then we bottled and labelled it …. ta da!
But that’s not enough to keep us out of mischief for a whole day, so I made a favourite old stager from the Potwell Inn book of borrowed delights. This one came initially via a friend (and occasional diner) at the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny – just one of the huge list of marvellous restaurants we could never afford to eat in – but who needs a restaurant when you’ve got a recipe? – after all I can do my own washing up. This dish comes up all over the place so it’s hardly a scarce and exotic signature dish; just plain Italian cooking whose flavour is like the brass section in a Brahms symphony.
Then there was stock to be finished. This time it was a proper pot au feu with a whole chicken and a small piece of beef plus all the usual herbs and vegetables. The beef gets turned into Salade Parisienne with a spicy salsa verde of gherkins, capers, shallots, parsley and oil. The chicken is picked and will make at least three meals and a soup, with stock to spare. We always freeze surplus meat rather than leave it in the fridge until it has to be wasted. On a cooking day it seems like a lot but this batch will last us the whole week if not longer, served in as many ways as we can think of. But there is just as much of an ethical and economic challenge with our diet as there was with the almond oil. I’m also re-reading Michael Pollan’s brilliant book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. Pollan is one of the best writers around on food and its constellation of issues and I’d happily recommend this book as an excellent starting point for a big think on living responsibly. Dieter Helm, Simon Fairlie, Tim Laing and James Rebanks have all written about the ethical issues surrounding food and food production and they’re worth the effort as well.
So, (lecture over), finally I baked a wholemeal sourdough loaf – our everyday bread. Let’s be honest, it’s never going to win any prizes against a bloomingly adolescent loaf made with white flour but if flavour counts at all, this loaf is a constant pleasure. You can look in vain for a 100% wholemeal recipe for sourdough bread, and there’s a reason. It can never compete in the crisp crust and open texture competition. It won’t rise to the same degree without adding a significant (say 50%) amount of white flour – which we’re not eating at the moment. But it’s not a competition, silly. Cooking at home means you can eat exactly what you want at a fraction of the price – it’s a no-brainer. Happy days!
So this post comes in two unequal parts – part one is the walk we went on today and part two is the fruit of the walking meditation that went on at the same time.
The sun was shining when we got up today, and there was every prospect that our usual walk around Bath would take us into the company of thousands of rugby supporters, plus many more Bristolians and visitors from our surrounding tier three areas who seem to imagine that you can’t catch covid here because we’re only in tier two. This is (forgive me) a grave error of judgement, but there we are – believing six impossible things before breakfast is what we now do here in la la land.
And so we went for a brief drive and a long walk on Mendip where, we were sure, asymptomatic walkers would all be at a safe distance in a fiercely cold wind. Velvet Bottom (how could you not love a place with a name like that?) is a place I’ve written about before (have a search and see) so I won’t repeat myself except to say that the moment you leave the warmth of the car and step out into the fresh air, you also enter a place of unique silence – a reflection perhaps of its location in Charterhouse – the site of a long gone Carthusian monastery where generations of monks wrestled through song and prayer in the silence; always bearing the fear that no-one was listening . And it’s a place where millennia of history underlies the present day almost visibly in the lead mining slag unexpectedly gleaming against the grass and trees. But there’s another secret hidden beneath the earth here, the only evidence of which are small depressions in the ground, gated with steel sheets and padlocks and forming the entrances to cave networks that can be extensive in both depth and distance. I explored many of the easier caves many years ago when I was much younger, but the exploration has continued and now there are many caves whose names I’ve never known. Rhino Rift, Upper Flood Swallet and many others dug out by cavers who would have been the first humans ever to set eyes upon their secrets. Anonymous entrances into underground labyrinths formed by torrents of slightly acidic water percolating through the softer carboniferous limestone over the same millennia that saw Roman miners excavating for lead. The silence of the valley is one thing; the silence of being 100 feet underground is something else entirely. The history of Velvet Bottom is even expressed in the flora which includes a wealth of heavy metal tolerant plants. In fact during our walk we passed half a dozen places where real botanical treasures grow. It’s a place that repays the slow and purposeful walk as well as the challenge of running from bottom to top which seems to be a favourite as well.
We walked down Velvet Bottom and there at the junction with Black Rock the path was closed due to work to remove trees affected by ash dieback disease. So we turned right and instead of walking, as we often do, up the course of Longwood Valley, we took the path that forks to the left and forms part of the West Mendip Way – one of our target long distance walks. It was cold and windy but it was a good to be alive day and after an energetic series of steepish climbs we arrived back at the car after about two hours. My new walking boots had thrived on grass, mud and rock and I was feeling pretty good about it -so to the next part which you might think is a slightly odd conclusion to a very contented walk – but you need peace to think properly.
An entirely un-morbid reflection on death the climate emergency and ecological crisis.
We find it difficult to imagine a world without ourselves in it, and much of the concept of ‘ourselves’ is built on our whole culture – the way we do things round here. So paradigm changes like the ones we now face -climate destruction, ecological crisis, health and food crises, zoonotic diseases – are very difficult to address because we have to learn to imagine a world which would be so utterly different from the one we know that it amounts to the emotional equivalent of embracing our own death.
The Greek word ‘epiousios’ is the mysterious term that gets translated as ‘daily bread’ in the Christian Lord’s Prayer, but since that’s the only place in which it’s used in the whole of ancient Greek writing, the translation – as all translations must be – is a creative, culture bound guess at what it might have meant. Literally it means something like ‘the around and about us things’ the ‘at hand’ things, so not just food perhaps, but all the other stuff that defines us as who we are.
Losing our epiousios things is what happens when catastrophe comes upon us. Nothing means what it did any more; none of the structures that frame our lives and our self understanding are available to us and we are obliged to contemplate having to start over from nothing; nowhere. It’s a profound bereavement not a day without treats.
If you’ll stay with me here for just a few sentences more; this is the greatest challenge of any faith. In Christianity it’s the cross, (and here I move into the new place of no-meaning), – so if a faith uses belief in some kind of posthumous resurrection to elide the dreadful reality of death it’s like playing a “get out of jail free” card, and avoiding the life-changing struggle of genuine rebirth.
So – and I know this is a very first attempt at expanding the present group of economic, political and ecological crises to include a spiritual dimension which, if we fail to embrace it, will lead us into the endless repetition of the same mistakes until we, and eventually perhaps all living species become extinct. Failure to embrace the arduous path of letting go of ourselves as we presently define ourselves – which is a kind of death – will make the probability of our extinction as a species inevitable.
But it’s vital to understand that this isn’t an argument for the individual solitary path. The most important challenge we face is collective, and the mess we’re in can’t be undone one individual at a time, however attractive an idea that might be. Any programme or strategy for saving the earth has to embrace a communal sense of contrition for the state we’re in and, because throughout history we have so wilfully participated in the destruction of other human belief systems and their unique ‘epiousios’ (which we may now need to build over again if we want to save ourselves), we have to own our responsibility. Any exercise in planning a journey – especially a spiritual/material journey like this one – depends absolutely on knowing where you’re setting out from.
So – if you’ve managed to reach this point – I’m sorry for the absence of recipes, allotment tips and anecdotes from this post but doing a bit of hard thinking is as much a part of being human as cooking and eating the borlotti beans that are in the oven right now. For the extreme masochists I’m tagging the very last sermon I ever preached which, if you’re into these things, you may agree takes me over some kind of line. I finished writing it in tears because I knew it was taking me away from a very important part of my own epiousios – I was feeling the fear of setting sail from what had always seemed a safe harbour. It was at a celebration for the 50th anniversary of the ordination of my friend Nev who, over ten years of Friday lunches (it wan’t for the food, they were mostly terrible) taught me how to be – and not to be – human, and how to read the Lord’s Prayer properly..