The suffix (3) in the title is because it’s the third time I’ve used the same title although the content is different as you’ll see if you click here. If you read the piece in the link you’ll also notice – apart from the photo of elderflowers – a useful description of the archaic tobacco enema should that be of any interest.
Anyway the three pieces were written at very roughly this time of year in 2019, 2021 and today and they share the sense of liberation that comes with late spring and early summer made especially poignant by the fact that the earlier two postings book-ended the COVID epidemic. We thought it was all over then, but it wasn’t and it still haunts our politics, memories and dreams today. Without wanting for a moment to parallel the trauma of war with the pandemic, I remember my Father and his contemporaries with renewed respect when I try to imagine the thoughts and memories they carried and the impact it had on on our whole family.
Anyway, we treasure our slow emergence from COVID with each moment of joy, and today, making the first batch of elderflower cordial I realized how much it celebrates and marks the early summer for me. We’re lucky to be living on the edge of a patch of public green space that has many Elders amongst the other riverside trees and so yesterday we harvested about 100 flower heads and soaked them overnight with lemon and orange zest. Last year we had a problem with some of the seals on the flip top bottles and about half of one batch went mouldy, so this year we’ve bought all new rubber seals and scrupulously scrubbed and sterilized the bottles before refilling them. Up at the allotment there’s a marvellous purple variety so we’ll harvest another load of flowers from there and make pink cordial. We don’t bother to filter out all the pollen because it takes forever to drip through a jelly bag – and of course the longer it’s exposed to the air the more likely it is to pick up airborne moulds. I hate the taste of sulphite, so we combine a little extra citric acid before simmering it and bottling it. Somehow – in spite of the cost of fruit and sugar – it seems that we’ve received a free gift from nature before the allotment starts properly yielding crops.
On the other hand we’ve been eating rhubarb and digging the volunteer potatoes that were missed when we dug the crop. Miraculously we’ve even eaten a few maincrop potatoes which survived the winter and the slugs unscathed. We’ve had plentiful spinach and swiss chard so although we’re a million miles from self-sufficient, we still have the benefit of fresh veg during the hungry gap.
Yesterday, with watering out of the way, we sat out on the green reading when we heard a loud crash and looked up to see that one of our elderly neighbours had taken a tumble. Within seconds three of us sprinted to help and a passer by stopped as well. Within the constant churn of just passing through residents, there is a core of neighbours who’ve been here for many decades, and we often have impromptu parties on the pavement when the sun shines. It just happened that the first aiders were two nurses, a retired vicar and a retired post office worker – so we were fully equipped for any eventuality! In the end our neighbour suffered nothing worse than a cut on his head and another on his finger, but it underlines the great benefits of a functioning community. On the other hand the constantly changing tides of students, Airbnb’s and just passing through’s can feel a bit alienating at times. Often they do a moonlight flit and leave their rubbish in the basement for someone else to clear up.
The other problem we have is with aggressive dogs and their owners being let loose on the green to crap, bark and intimidate the rest of us. We still have a massive problem with drug dealing, and yesterday I was greatly amused to overhear a conversation between a customer on the street and the dealer in a car. The dealer was protesting that if the customer wanted whatever it was, he’d have to order it and he’d get it in for Saturday. Life’s rich tapestry, I suppose. Enduring over a decade of incompetent, corrupt and greedy government leaves its mark on the communities that we live in and which they rarely see. On the other hand we’ve had to become adept and resourceful; mastering the kind of skills that the clowns in charge will neither possess nor enjoy.
I hesitated for a while before writing the first part of the title because I’m very aware that scripture quotations have a very high cringe factor for many readers; so I’ll summarise and say that rust – or perhaps rot, moths and thieves – play a very real and challenging role in running a garden or allotment. The second part of the title is a traditional saying which reminds us that just being on the allotment, walking around slowly and taking everything in means that invasive weeds get pulled up and pests are identified long before they become a threat. So basically, stuff grows better and stronger when it’s well looked after. Dousing plants with chemicals when the problem’s escalated out of hand is a poor substitute for attention to detail. In gardening terms, “laying up your treasures” often means waiting for seasons – even many seasons – before gaining your reward. A deep understanding of your patch of dirt is both the precondition and the fruit of all that attention to detail. Calling it Green Fingers rather misses the point.
So today Madame found the caterpillars on our apple trees and carefully removed them to stop them from sapping their energy by chomping on the leaves. Later on I’ll be spraying the asparagus plants with a nematode mixture to kill off the asparagus beetle larvae – they’re completely harmless to other pollinating insects and other creatures. As for today I was using the thumb and finger technique which is only about 50% effective because the moment you kill one of them the others all drop to the ground. I wrote on Monday that he asparagus is dining in the last chance saloon, but we’ve decided to leave it for another couple of seasons while we prepare and plant up a new bed with what we hope will be a more productive variety.
All these tough decisions are a reminder that we live on a challenging earth. Our upstairs neighbour texted today asking what to do about a pigeon which had somehow got into his flat, built a nest and even laid eggs in it. How on earth they came not to notice all that home preparation escapes even my imagination, but I could see that there was an ethical dimension to destroying the nest, the eggs and possibly the pair of pigeons as well. All I could think of was to drive out the pigeons, remove the nest and leave the eggs out on the green where the magpies would soon find and eat them. For me it’s always better to do the tough work yourself than to farm it out to others and try to forget it ever happened.
Not everyone agrees of course. Later on we were chatting to a fellow allotmenteer who’s a vegan and Madame mentioned that we were using sheep’s fleece in the fruit cage to deter weeds and to mulch around the stems (very successfully). She was horrified at the very idea of using fleece even though it would otherwise be discarded as valueless. For her it seemed desirable and possible to avoid all these moral difficulties but I’m not so sure. I recall that she was happy to catch and kill slugs when they attacked her vegetables. Somehow it seems to me that a virtuous life is better lived by embracing the hard choices than by avoiding ever having to make them.
Anyway, yesterday was also momentous for rather different reasons. Our neighbour is a distinguished South African botanist who once ran a national botanical garden. He’s also very good company and so we were gossiping in his garden when he brought out a plant which – being unfamiliar with British plants, he couldn’t name; giving me the chance to show off just a bit. I perhaps failed to mention that it was one I’d often looked for unsuccessfully so that was a find– not on a rocky outcrop in a remote place but on a wall next to the dentist in the centre of Bath. Then he brought out a Rock Geranium growing in a pot which explained in a glimpse why it’s called Geranium macrorrhizum – fat root. Another first for me. Finally, at my first Council meeting of the Bath Nats the local recorder mentioned that she’d seen a Sea Spleenwort growing in the city centre . We’d spent hours looking for it along the cliffs when we were last in Cornwall and because I now know where to find it, I can claim three ticks in a day. In return I showed off even more by showing her how to use Google Photos as a searchable database. Cue for a date to give one of the indoor talks to the society this winter. Good day!
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday, We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning, We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day, Today we have naming of parts. Japonica Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens, And today we have naming of parts.
Henry Reed, “Naming of parts” 1942
I love the way that, when I’m writing, images and ideas surface in my mind. My first thought when I sat down to write this post was that these four Cranesbills would have been exactly the species which inspired William Morris in his designs. Next I pondered for a while (it’s 5.00am after a sleepless night) on the extraordinary fact that in nature these closely related species are so plentiful. Do we really need twelve of them (Harrap’s “Wild Flowers”). Colin French’s “Flora of Cornwall” lists 34 species and subspecies; such an abundance that the only possible conclusion is that abundance, excess and diversity are somehow hardwired into nature. To return to a previous thought, if Nature is structured like a language then this abundance represents the dialects; the regional and environmental inflections of the same idea – like each one of us; all (potentially) beautiful if only we could break out of the prison we create when we each see ourselves as the only show in town.
And then Henry Reed’s poem plopped into my mind and I had the clearest recollection of myself in my early teens, sitting in a hot and airless classroom and gazing longingly out of the window as our teacher struggled to interest us in this poem. Not me, though. The poem sold itself to me in an instant. Here was another human being, feeling exactly like me at that moment and I took it to constitute permission to daydream. I’m quite sure that our teacher had no such aim in mind, but that’s the dangerous and disruptive power of poetry.
I’m indebted to Alan Rayner, by the way, for the idea of walking in nature rather than through it. It came up during a long conversation on a Bath Natural History Society field outing when we were overtaken by a runner pounding by us and seeing nothing at all. This last fortnight the experience repeated itself endlessly as we stood and watched a Kestrel hovering, or knelt in the grass delicately uncovering Spring Squills or – in this specific instance paused to photograph no less than four species of Geranium along a quarter of a mile of sunken lane bordered on both sides by Cornish walls as butterflies jazzed around tracing marvellous curlicues in pursuit of rivals, mates or nectar.
Without that special kind of relaxed mindfulness none of this diversity would have been visible. I suppose you could go out after a specific quarry – some rare or interesting plant – and cover more ground – eventually dragging your photographic elk back to the cave; but my favourite way of walking in nature is to move slowly, turning up all the senses to ten and let the plants do the talking. I’m not sure what practical use this kind of meditation has, other than cleansing the mind of thoughts about the endless dishonesty and stupidity of some politicians or the grinding anxiety that all this beauty is being threatened by the greed and selfishness of war and oil. Perhaps that’s the link with the poem about sitting in a stuffy room and learning how to assemble and fire a rifle in the context of the Second World War.
Looking, seeing and beholding seem to me to constitute a hierarchy of mindful attention. For all the superficial similarities, each one of the Cranesbills is quite distinct. The shape of the leaves, for instance is crucial; compare the deeply incised lace-like divisions of the Cut-leaved Cranesbill in the larger photograph with the more modest Dove’s-foot Cranesbill in the centre of the strip of three to the left. Notice the fern like leaf of Herb Robert and the unusually pale flowers of the other * Dove’s-foot Cranesbill – each one an expression of the irrepressible creativity of Nature, and each one asking of us to name them because naming something – in a strange but powerful way – brings it into existence for us. The more we can name, the bigger the world becomes and the more intense our relationship with it. Even the word “Cranesbill” tells us something about the history of our language. If you look at the forming seed behind the flower at the top left – the Herb Robert – you might see the resemblance to a bird’s head and beak. But when was the last time that the sight of a Crane (the bird, I mean) was sufficiently commonplace to attach its name to a plant? Some centuries, I guess!
So it was farewell to Cornwall on Wednesday as we woke early and packed the campervan. This time we were on the Roseland peninsula, a very different place from the Lizard and a very different feel to the natural history as well. But we’ve already booked to return in September. Curiously, we were talking to our allotment neighbour when we got back and we discovered that without ever meeting one another we had been staying on the same campsite for over a decade. He was planning to drive down today for the half-term week. It’s a small world – worryingly and vulnerably small!
Back home, though, we turn our full attention to the allotment which – thanks to some good neighbours – survived the very hot weather, but urgently needs weeding and TLC.
*I submitted just one of what I initially thought were four species to the local BSBI Recorder – the marvellously skilled Ian Benallick for verification – and he corrected my identification earlier today, so apologies for any apoplexy caused by my mistake. His kind correction led me to double check all my ID’s in Tim Rich and A C Jermy’s “Plant Crib”. Geraniums, it seems, are a difficult group. Yet another example of the way we learn so much more from our mistakes than we do from our successes.
Having enjoyed every moment of sunshine on holiday, we spent some of today working at 35 C in the polytunnel which is now almost planted up with summer residents and looks lovely.
After my exhausting battle with language in the last post I thought, maybe, that I, along with any readers who follow this blog sequentially, needed a bit of a lie-down. Unfortunately most readers clearly don’t read it sequentially and so a very long and slowly unfolding idea will only be found by searching on the tag “green spirituality”.
I just need to add one further dimension to a rather one-sided discussion by suggesting that the aesthetic is, in a peculiar way, another sense to add to the five more commonly accepted ones – sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. At its most basic, the aesthetic embraces all of the five, and often makes sense where the logical mind fails. I never could understand Madame’s passion for art until (I was nineteen and she was fifteen) I suddenly got it in front of a semi abstract painting of the back of a Georgian terrace in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. My conversion felt like a several gigabyte data dump constituting the key, and taught me in an instant the difference between seeing and beholding. That’s all I wanted to add to the previous post. If our unconscious minds really are structured like a language then the language is more likely to be musical, poetic or artistic than logical and scientific. To drag an ancient canard out of the confit, truth is beauty and beauty is truth – ask any mathematician.
Anyway one of the most visible plants around down here at the moment checks in at best part of six feet tall; it’s Charlock and in terms of beauty it’s way down the scale. The Book of Stace describes it as an archaeophyte and denizen. I had to look denizen up and it’s a plant that can compete with native plants and generally act as if it is a native. For goodness sake don’t let the Daily Mail get hold of this information or they’ll be organizing vigilante Charlock squads.
So Charlock is no beauty and yet if you should want to distinguish it from its multitude of close cousins who have been stowing away on grain ships since Roman times in order to pollute our pristine land with foreign genes; one thing you can do is stroke the stem and the leaves and if it’s five or six feet tall, let the sense of touch flush it out. It’s very bristly and rough. You have to look at the sepals – the tiny little leaves poking out directly beneath the flowers (which should be yellow) and if they stick out at right angles you can toss your head in disdain at this wretched jumped up weed. Or alternatively you could say “Good luck mate, I wish I had half your energy” .
I much prefer talking to plants and birds because there’s always the possibility of a silent conversation beginning, and who knows where that will lead? These moments of intense contemplation can be almost erotic in their intensity. I’ve spent days trying to capture the texture and form of a single Hyacinth blossom in watercolour. In the early days of my artistic adventures I remember seeing a drawing of Clevedon Pier by Peter Lanyon; a completely relaxed charcoal line that perfectly expressed the pier in a way that a prissy architect’s drawing could never have achieved.
So never neglect the aesthetic power of plants and flowers. They don’t have to be rare. I suppose there is a bit of the trainspotter in all of us, but the pleasure of finding (top left clockwise) Kidney Vetch and Sea Carrot growing in full spring colours was only marginally less than finding the Spring Squill and the Cut Leaf Cranesbill; or the little pathside explosion of Primrose, Buttercup, Soft Shield Fern and Ivy; the Cuckoo Flowers which I climbed over a fence to photograph and found a couple of hours later had all been mown off. A little bereavement. And then, finally the Pale Flax whose flower is so intense that you could spend an afternoon gazing into its depths and pondering how long it is since it was part of a valuable cloth industry.
So it’s been a wonderful couple of weeks. Yesterday we were sitting outside the campervan drinking a cup of tea and we recorded no less than seven birds strutting their stuff nearby. We heard a Robin, a Blackbird, House Sparrows, a Dunnock, a Wren, a remarkably faint Curlew, and the usual garrulous cries of Crows, Magpies and Jackdaws. During our walk we watched House Martins scooping mud up from a drying puddle to build their nests and saw sparrows having a noisy dust bath on the tinder dry coast path. All this on a day that I completely failed to find a single Sea Spleenwort after thrashing sweatily along every cliff and sea facing Cornish wall I could find – in spite of all my attempts to research it beforehand. That’s the other thing about nature: it’s always surprising.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
Dylan Thomas – from “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.
I could go on, I suppose, but too many quotations (there are more to come) can make you look like a smartass rather than an intellectual – see Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees Mogg for abundant evidence of that! However I remember a piece of advice I received from a lovely retired priest when I was a curate that has all the patina of a much handled relic. “You should,” he said, “preach one very clever sermon a year, but never more, because that way the congregation will know you’re clever but won’t get bored to tears with you”. The second piece of advice was that I should never preach about adultery for fear of inadvertently landing a right hook on an unprepared penitent. I once recounted this as a very ill conceived joke in a sermon and leaned across to focus on the most impeccably virtuous person I could think of, upon which a deep burgundy blush rose from his throat to the top of his head. Months later it all came out. Lesson learned.
Anyway this might turn out to be my annual clever piece – I’ll do my best, anyway but even I don’t yet know how to express this rather complicated notion.
Walking is very good for philosophers; well it’s very good for thinking anyway – and one of the great things about our holidays in Cornwall is that they give abundant opportunity for walking and thinking. On Sunday we were wandering down the usual ecstatic bridle way on which I’d already amused myself by listing all the wildflowers I recognised; so I was enjoying a rather relaxed feeling as Madame tried to photograph an Orange Tip butterfly and I was wondering whether at least some of the Cow Parsley in the high banks was actually Hemlock. And then – apropos of nothing at all – the thought popped into my mind – “is nature structured like a mind?” Now these sudden thoughts often turn out to be a complete waste of time, but it seemed a good idea to write it in my field notebook. So I write it down and then – in a rather Pooh Bear moment added “Gaia”. Just to remind myself that I should be careful not to reinvent the wheel. Then, ten minutes later and a bit of chin scratching I added to – “is nature structured like a mind? …… four more words – “or like a language?”.
Click here if you want to see where these weird European thoughts came from – it’s not that bad I promise.
That was enough to set me off on what turned out to be a rather tortuous reflection on a famous (well a bit famous) quotation by Jacques Lacan whose impenetrable writings almost exceed Martin Heidegger (“That pellucid Teuton”) in obscurity. He wrote that “the unconscious is structured like a language” – an idea which, after several years of psychoanalytic psychotherapy, I think I have a tentative hold on. Then of course, remembered quotes fluttered around my brain like Hitchcock’s birds, and Wittgenstein “if a lion could speak we wouldn’t understand him”, joined Eliade with “We live in a story shaped universe”.
A hunch is just just a theory without footnotes
So, to borrow an image from police procedurals on the telly I started a kind of virtual mind-map in my head, as you might pin post-it notes on a screen. In no particular order, we now know that plants and trees really do communicate with one another; sometimes through the mycelial networks of fungi and sometimes through the release of tiny amounts of organic compounds; sharing food, sending warnings about pests. On the allotment we occasionally make use of these properties, for instance by sowing Tagetes (African Marigolds) to warn off eelworms. We know quite a bit about these functions but hardly anything about the finer detail. The point here is that interactions between plants; between the tiniest single cell organisms through and between all of the many Kingdoms up to and including ourselves could be described as languages, and one of the essential properties of language is that it’s structured; there are syntaxes, rules that need to be respected if successful communication is going to happen.
All that this suggests is that as clever humans we’re able to crack some of those codes – we know when the dog is angry or frightened, when the cat is hungry, when the bird is startled or just looking for a mate. Not all of these interpretations are founded in fact. The medieval doctrine of signatures denoted Lungwort as a cure for chest complaints because the spotted leaves looked rather like the nodules on diseased lungs. Some herbal remedies were founded in hypothetical links between appearance and curative properties; but some were well found in experience, which is why Big Pharma is scouring the earth looking for plants able to synthesise organic compounds as yet unknown to science. Just think of the current interest in Cannabis and Psilocybin. Here again, the active ingredients in both, have a powerful and often curative function in human medicine. These tiny organic building blocks in plants and fungi are miraculously able to lock on to molecules in our own bodies and change whole systems. It’s as if we were made of the same stuff.
You may wonder “what about poisons then?” I once worked in a satellite broadcasting studio and over the desk – you know, the thing that looks like an aeroplane flight deck – was a sign that read “In the event of equipment failure RTFM” I asked the engineer what it meant and he simply said “Read the manual”. The business of vegetable molecules locking on to our own is a serious matter, and however much Hemlock Water Dropwort roots look like parsnips they’ll kill you before you’ve had time to look them up in the manual. In the linguistic interactions between humans and other life forms there are melodious moments and grammatical disasters.
All of which suggests that we have a great deal more in common with other life forms than we often think. Those moments of ecstatic connection with nature are much deeper than nice feelings. They’re a recognition that we are made of the same stuff – how could it be otherwise?
Thrift, shale and Sea Beet all evolved into their present forms in a process so remote and complex it’s hard even to imagine. But if all creation evolved in an orderly way even through mutations and adaptation; if the theory that nature is structured like a language should be tenable, then maybe – just maybe – that language may be faintly communicable not through translation into any human language but through interactive imagination and moments of insight. Our unconscious may be a better listener than our rational selves.
I know this might sound like a return to tarot readings and astrology. I’m certain that many “regular” scientists would dismiss it as heretical nonsense. But even in my most recent floras, there’s always genetic information that describes how many sets of DNA the plants possess. The reproduction of plants is generally very rule-bound and when a new generation breaks those rules it is often infertile. Some genera get around that by reproducing without fertilization by another plant. As with Blackberries they’re nature’s little joke to keep naturalists off the streets as they struggle to identify hundreds of sub-species and write monographs about them.
Maybe you didn’t press the uncover button above, and missed Mircea Eliade’s quote that the universe is story shaped, and Wittgenstein’s famous statement about not being able to understand lion speech and finally Lacan’s assertion that the unconscious is structured like a language. Of course there’s a whole universe of natural language that will remain unintelligible to us because we are not trees or hoverflies. But we can know the circumstances under which trees and hoverflies and elephants thrive. The instinctive unity with nature which is gifted to some can be learned and must be learned if we are not to perish as the species that thought it could manage on its own.
Which brings me to the last post-it note. In a largely irreligious culture many people are unaware of the wealth of creation stories that our ancestors told one another to explain how we came to be. If I pick just one Old Testament story it’s because it’s a brilliant insight into the way of things. In that story God created the earth and all its creatures by speaking. There are many other creation stories across the world that reflect the astonishing thought that language is the substance and condition of our existence.
To recap for a moment – if Nature is structured by some form of broadly considered language; and if the unconscious mind is also structured like a language, then mind, language and nature have this in common. We are one with nature not out of some voluntary act on our part but because that is the way of it. We can ignore it but we certainly can’t change it.
In a worldwide culture which has lost its way in greed and selfishness and where the consequences selfish and destructive behaviour can be airbrushed away, we need good stories more than ever because, in a sense, Eliade is saying that to tell stories is to shape the universe; so to contest and reverse an ecological disaster we need stories that answer the most terrible question ever asked of a human by a god, when the Hebrew God demanded of Cain – “What have you done?” and Cain, whose hands are wet with his brother’s blood, answers “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
I’m constantly writing and thinking about the reason the natural world so deeply affects me (and so many of us), in such a way that it’s almost impossible to express in words. Feeling good about the natural world hardly does justice to it when for instance – at the moment of taking this photograph of the Percuil river – I was so filled with inexpressible gratitude and joy. It was an intensely spiritual moment, I might say; except that any half sensible interrogator would ask – “Well what does spiritual actually mean?”
We’d just walked down the path in the photo, through open woodland that was just alive with wildflowers. Now and again we caught glimpses of the river across a gated field entrance but mostly we were concentrating on re-finding the reliable patch of Early Purple orchids we’d found several years running. The dappled woodland was a perfect setting for the yellows, blues and reds of Celandines and Buttercups; Bluebells, Cow Parsley, Herb Robert and Red Campions. Little moments of visual intensity suspended in air above the green background; a silent triumphant chord turning one of the five senses into another.
Plant hunting turns out to be an incredibly sensual experience. With a bit of experience the exploration of any new plant – it needn’t be rare at all -uses all of the senses. The texture, colour, minute details of form, taste, (used with extreme discretion) and smell. The geology underfoot, time of day and time of year, exact setting – mid field, hedgerow, open woodland or dark forest; all these play into a reflection that draws on our memory and previous experience distilled down to a single moment with a single expression of Nature.
Yesterday I was idling along looking at different kinds of Dock – I was able to comfortably name three – all of them ubiquitous in this country – Broad Leaved, Curled and Common Sorrel. I could have managed a couple more but they weren’t there, but in naming them I used exactly the sensual plus procedure I described above. When I started out I almost always forgot the diagnostic powers of stroking and sniffing, until I encountered Hedge Woundwort whose crushed leaves smell horrible.
When we reached the little boatyard at Percuil we sat on a wall in the sun, looking at the moored boats when Madame caught sight of a familiar plant right in front of us. “Its Fennel” – she said – “Go and look”, and so I did. It wasn’t difficult because we use Fennel and grow it ourselves. So a roll between the fingers and a sniff confirmed beyond any doubt. But at this point the story took another entirely new turn because the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland), have just published an online database of all the plants, their distribution, their increase and decrease in the face of this environmental catastrophe. Thirty odd million records processed and mapped. So out came my mobile phone and with a few taps we discovered that Common Fennel is indeed very common around the coast but hasn’t been recorded in the little four kilometer square in which we were sunbathing. So that’s a new record that sits like the last piece of a jigsaw in a long coastline.
But once you’ve photographed, checked and rechecked and consulted the field guides and satisfied yourself that the name is factually correct, there’s always a remainder. A chunk of the experience that refuses to be reduced to dimensions and probabilities and pays no heed to logic and expertise. It doesn’t even have to be a rare plant – it could as easily be a Dandelion. Maybe some kind of spirituality is where that remainder lives. When all the pub quiz / trainspotter stuff is over and done, something is left that feels as if it’s mostly made from love, wonder and gratitude. A whole other sense above and beneath the tactile, the sensual and the intellectual. Maybe the beginnings of a Green Spirituality lie within this barely explored sense. The earthy, material, exhilarating phenomenon that we call Nature speaks through our senses. Here’s the orchid – still there and below that, some bits and bobs including a stunning bit of walling.
If you’re interested in food – especially in the slow food movement, you may well have read John Barlow’s excellent book “Everything but the squeal” – which is an account of a year in Spain during which he attempted to track down and eat the whole of the animal as expressed in the wide range of Spanish pork cooking. The title says it all; it’s a not for the faint hearted guide to not wasting a single scrap of a living creature after it has been slaughtered for our benefit.
Vegetarians and Vegans may, by this time, have decided to abandon this post but I’d argue that wastefulness afflicts us all. As a meat eater I entirely accept that I bear a moral profound responsibility for my choices and one of the ways I try to live that out is to eat meat less and then usually the cheapest cuts and make sure that they are sourced from farmers with high welfare standards. In fact, that point alone means that we could never afford the kind of daft offer that Waitrose came up with this weekend, inviting us to celebrate Coronation Weekend with a rib of beef joint costing £185.00.
Meat eating is a kind of in your face introduction to the earthiness of food and the biggest problem for our culture is that we are not (generally speaking) cooks and so prefer any engagement with meat to be as fast and painless as possible -which in turn obliges us to eat the leanest and most expensive cuts. Coupled with that is our fear and aesthetic loathing of raw meat because it shouts mortality at us and finally because we have no time left after our neo capitalist culture has eaten up any fragment of it there’s none left either for cooking or – tragically – for eating together.
So let’s take a look at sheep meat. These days we all know about sheep because of the glut of TV programmes in which we can easily see half a dozen lambs born before Sunday supper. Ah …. baby lambs we coo. In the spring we are bidden by the supermarkets to eat Spring lamb for Easter just as we are bidden to eat turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Our culture demands that we eat meat as frequently as possible whilst not counting the cost in suffering and methane production in the industrial fattening units. Boning a piece of pork belly is a meticulous operation that brings us irrevocably to the moral issue of meat eating. We can’t face eating tripe these days, nor chitterlings nor any of the 80% of the animal that we are far too sophisticated and fastidious to eat. “Stuff a heart? – I’d rather starve!”
So the meat industry – and that includes the restaurants as well, needs to find a way around our aversions and we came across a particularly egregious example here in Cornwall this week. To begin at the beginning, sheep meat comes in various forms. Spring lamb is the youngest and possibly the least flavoursome of the trio, but almost anyone can chuck a piece on the BBQ and make something of it. The next stage is the one to two year old lamb which is called hogget and if you can find it, is lovely. The third stage is mutton which is meat from a sheep that has had lambs but is no longer productive. It could be almost any age depending on when successive pregnancies have worn it (or rather its teeth) out. The trouble is, mutton has a bad rep because it’s the quintessential slow food and so – unless the chef or cook knows what they’re doing it can be as tough as old boots and taste like cardboard. So how do we get around this insuperable obstacle? The answer, of course, is to promote mutton for its real strengths and train chefs and cooks to deal with it properly. Naturally that’s never going to happen because it costs money. So the PR poets barge in with a cunning plan. “Let’s” – they say – “call it Cull Yow! – nobody knows wtf it is but it sounds pretty ethnic “
Obviously they’ve been watching too much TV because ‘Yow’ – anywhere in the country except Cumbria which is entirely populated by warrior models who cut hay in miniskirts – means ‘yew’ – everywhere else. So it’s a slam dunk win for the industry. Distancing from the real name of the meat which is really ‘dead old sheep’ we now have the entirely virtuous name “Cull Yow” – local; slow food and entirely life enhancing.
I don’t mind a great mutton revival – for reasons I’ve already explained -but I do loathe the sheer dishonesty of putting mutton on the menu at an up and coming gastro pub as if it were some hitherto undiscovered delicacy. We’re actually booked in for lunch there next week as a holiday treat and I will report back on whether the mutton was any good!
On tuesday our grandchildren’s school was shut for a teachers strike, and it was the tail end of a NHS nurses strike. As it happens, our grand daughter was booked in for some reconstructive orthopaedic surgery on her foot; notwithstanding any strikes (which incidentally we fully support). Her operation was carried out without delay or problems and she was home again by tea time, grumpy but hopefully fixed. As we drove past their school with the other two I tooted at the pickets who waved back cheerfully at the sight of two of their young students out for a day trip with granny and grandad.
Dyrham Park is close and (for National Trust members) cheap and the children love the freedom to race about and build dams in the streams. No-one has ever objected to them so we let them get on with it. Of course they also get a free natural history lesson – here are a couple of St Mark’s flies we photographed while they were mating. They’re the dozy black flies with dangly legs that seem not to mind flying into you – which makes them faintly scary to some people. They’re called St Mark’s because they emerge from their burrows in the grass in their tens of thousands in late April around the feast of St Mark; who – if you’re not a Christian and a full-on churchgoer – probably means nothing at all. On Tuesday they were present in many hundreds of thousands. We also hunted for St George’s mushrooms without luck (I’ve already made the point about saints days!) and enjoyed the peak dandelion period. We saw Cuckoo flowers, Maidenhair ferns and Harts Tongues. We talked about everything we saw and taught them to listen for birdsong and how to use a mobile phone app called “Merlin” to help identify them. Oh and we talked about the way barley straw is used to clear murky ponds and found some tadpoles and enjoyed the huge views out towards the Severn and the Mendip Hills. I absolutely defy anyone to say that a family day out is no substitute for a day in school.
Then, wandering around we came across a lonely maypole (this being the day after May Day) but you’ll see that the grass surrounding the pole looks pretty untroubled by even little feet. Clearly we haven’t yet embraced paganism with any enthusiasm in spite of the dark forebodings expressed by the Strict and Particular Brethren.
When we got back the children taught us how to order a Deliveroo from a mobile and then ordered all their favourite things. The oldest said afterwards “We love coming to you because you spoil us!”. So we all learned something new although ours was by far the more expensive lesson.
On Wednesday we were walking back from the allotment when we came across a bunch of people on the A4 protesting about the 20mph speed restrictions, the clean air zone and all things associated with wokery, 5G telephones, vaccinations and communism. Passing motorists tooted their horns enthusiastically without the tiniest thought illuminating their bewildering prejudices. I’m glad to say that the local elections 24 hours later saw the eviction of a raft of councillors who’d campaigned against the clean air zone and the new speed limits. Overwhelmingly the voters of Bath see the virtue of slowing down and breathing unpolluted air. Of course that won’t stop the campaigners (who are associated with all manner of far right causes), from telling us that they know better than we do – what we believe.
There was me, writing here a few days ago lamenting the absence of what I chose to call cultus; call it what you will really but it’s about moments of communal celebration – and then today it’s May Day.
Not that anything very discernable happened. No maypole to be seen on the allotments; no May Queen, no carousing and drunkenness; no dangerous and profligate behaviour. All you could say was that the allotments today were busier than they’ve been since last autumn. We’ve endured long periods of solitary allotmenteering as winter extended its grip to a full six months and we wondered whether we would ever see the sun again. Now we have two consecutive bank holidays and a coronation and aside from a meet the street gathering here next Sunday it seems that big and boozy community events were dealt something of a death blow by Covid. Somehow we’ve got out of the habit – out of the habit of harvest festivals, Christmas carols, plough mondays, Whitsun; and beating the parish bounds; other flavours are available if you can remember them.
There are probably many who wish good riddance to the lot of them – Christian festivals are a bit passé now – except for the fact that most of the meaningful festivals that still exist were pinched from the pagans centuries ago. Oliver Cromwell did his level best to ban the lot of them but the moment the Restoration happened they emerged from their brief hibernation as full of energy as before.
When St Augustine of Canterbury arrived in Britain in around 597 he discovered that a fully functioning pagan religion had returned in the period since the Romans left. He sent a desperate email – (OK letter!) – asking the Pope what he should do and in one of the few sensible decisions in the history of Christian evangelism; some months later the Pope replied that it was better to take on the pagan buildings and traditions and give them a Christian backstory. Welcome to Plough Monday, the first Monday after the (Christian) feast of the Epiphany – OK then, Twelfth Night – when traditionally the sowing of crops began after the Christmas lockdown. Plough Monday was the pagan festival celebrating the beginning of the agricultural year. In fact there’s an uncanny tie-in between the surviving Christian festivals and the old pagan calendar; and some, like Wassailing, that were never successfully co-opted at all.
All of which is a rather long winded approach to the fact that today, May Day, is also celebrated as Beltane; the traditional festival celebrating the beginning of summer. Fires, singing and a bit of carousing would once have taken place all over the country. I’ve got a photo of my mother as a child (born in 1918) dressed in white, with a garland of flowers round her head and standing next to a ribbon decked maypole on an Oxfordshire village green. Sadly since the triumph of the Evangelicals – Cromwell’s withered soulmates – most of the Christian Churches see these entirely innocent reminders of the earth cycle as heretical if not as devil worship. If you really want to see devil worship go and stand outside the chemical works in Huddersfield that still produces Paraquat and sells it to poor farmers in India.
The point here is that the earth cycles – the solstices, Winter (Christmas); Summer (Midsummer Day); equinoxes; Spring (Easter); Autumn; (Michaelmas) and the intervening quarters; Imbolc (Candlemas); Beltane (May Day); Lughnasadh (Lammas) and Samhain (Halloween) need to be detached from their captivity within institutional Christianity not because I would like to damage what became my own spiritual dialect but because the context has changed; history has moved on and – in the story shaped universe that we created and now inhabit – the earth cycle has (once again) become the story we desperately need to move us away from the dominant narrative – neoliberal economics and politics – towards an earth centred spirituality, not because it feels like a nice idea, but because our lives depend upon it.
So today we were on the allotment. Madame was mulching our fruit bushes with sheep fleeces given to us by our friends NIck and Kate who live in Bannau Brycheiniog – the old and original Welsh name for the Brecon Beacons. We’re expecting a plot inspection any day now and, to be honest, it looks as if a small flock of Jacobs Sheep has died in the fruit cage, under the blackcurrants and gooseberries. Fleece, which is almost valueless these days, makes an excellent mulch and slug repellent and it’s very good as an additive to the compost heap. Anyway we hope we don’t give our neighbours palpitations.
While Madame was engaged with the fruit cage, I was earthing up the potatoes. Years ago I bought a ridging tool which I only ever use once a year but it’s exactly right for earthing up spuds. The soil is black and friable and smells lovely with a bit of sun on it. It’s worth ridging up this time of year because it protects the emerging leaves from a late frost better than fleece, which allows Jack Frost to do his destructive work wherever it touches the leaf.
Everywhere there are signs of growth. The immense energy of spring drives the plants upwards into our realm and as I hoed the soil, I touched, for a moment that sense of sacredness that occasionally visits a gardener in quiet thought. This moment of inspiration was accompanied by a speaking; not at all an auditory hallucination but the clearest intimation that the soil itself is the mother of all life. We might imagine for a moment that those Buddhist monks who rake gravel temple gardens have, somehow, a higher form of spirituality. It’s not true of course. The sacred is always ordinary; the ordinary seeking us out.
But I can’t leave this thought with any suggestion that the paganism which I have referred to here is in any sense inferior, heretical or dangerous. My point in using it is to suggest that its connection with the earth cycle may be an insight whose time has come again. In 1966 First Nation Canadian, Buffy Sainte Marie, released a song called “Little Wheel Spin and Spin” and it just wouldn’t leave me yesterday. You might like to listen to it – it’s on YouTube music. Fifty seven years on it’s as powerful and prophetic as it was when I first heard it.
Christianity has been a rather poor guardian of the ancient traditions it once co-opted. Maybe it’s time to ask for our ball back? Happy Beltane.
This is going to be a very short post but I think it’s important to think aloud occasionally, if only to begin to set out some kind of a stall. My aim here is to tease out a couple of missing threads in the environmental movement; threads that – if we could fill them with life – might release enough energy to get this heavy stone to the top of the mountain.
The only data I really understand is myself and my feelings which seem constantly to suck the life out of any hope. Despair is utterly destructive. I’ve mentioned before (often) that any kind of earth spirituality needs a structure, a framework in which to function, to act, to think and to conduct our daily lives. This doesn’t seem to me to require the invention of any supernatural entities; there’s more than enough awe in nature to inspire the biggest of thoughts and responses and even to drive to our knees from time to time. That’s the first missing link – a structure or framework which will need to be maintained and expanded by our best thinkers.
This would be the first task of what I’ll call the geologians – the earth philosophers who know how to ask good questions and frame good answers. Theologians do God which is a good deal easier since “because I say so” is a circular argument which I’ll come to with the next missing link. Geologians will help us to think sensibly, coherently and truthfully without waving big sticks like damnation and purgatory.
The second missing link after the framework begins to take shape will be to form a canon – a collection of writings that can command general acceptance. This wouldn’t be too hard, there are loads of books on my shelves that call themselves “readers”- selections of writings that seem to demand our attention because they help us to think more clearly. I’m certainly not proposing we turn our geologians into a high priesthood. A canon is a collection of trustworthy writings that come with the assurance that they won’t lead us into the wilderness – and I’m sorry for the occasional reference to more biblical notions but they’re handy shortcuts sometimes. However, as I hinted before, even canonical literature needs to be constantly examined and revised if it’s not going to die and become putrid. That’s why “because I say so” ican never be on the agenda.
The third, and possibly the trickiest component will be what we have to describe as the cultus – without for a moment implying a derived cult. The cultus might involve – for instance – thanking a plant for meeting some of our needs before we dig it up; community harvest or planting festivals and so forth.
These three threads already exist extensively within native, first nation and ancient cultures. They have elders and wise people who maintain the culture and guide actions, they have highly refined structures of belief and they abound in ceremonies and rituals which enfold communities and hold them together. However this can’t mean that we could just take a system off the shelf and apply it to ourselves. Many of the existing systems are highly localized – to plains communities; herding communities or forest communities. We in the overdeveloped and greedy west have obliterated the concepts of theology, cultus and canon in order to remove any opposition to neoliberal capitalism. The vision I’m talking about refers more to a possible post apocalyptic future. The driving force is the hope that the most thoughtful and creative minds of our generation; artists, poets, scientists engineers and philosophers (well not my generation perhaps; I’m pretty ancient!) – may forge a new vision that can act as a bridge towards a new sustainable future.
Most revolutions are fought without much of a vision of what happens afterwards and this is what leads to populism and dictatorship; easy to fall into and hard to dispense with. Lashing out might feel good for a moment but the bad actors have all the power and they won’t hesitate to use it. What they don’t have is the power to eradicate a contagious vision. Faith – as the evangelists often say – is caught and not taught. Belonging is far more powerful than believing. We’ve got local elections in the UK in a few days time and I’m immensely disheartened by the fact that the Greens have the right policies expressed in the style of a university seminar reading. To borrow and adapt an idea from Monica Furlong; feminist theologian “anger is hope overwhelmed by despair”. Only visions can express theories with sufficient power to change “the way we do things round here”.