Hey – those sunflowers are mine!

Grey squirrel feeding on our sunflowers on the allotment today

Every now and again a proper conundrum comes along – usually because two ways of understanding collide. Here’s a version of it that came along today. We went out early for our walk to day and spotted some good things on our way around. Bath Deep Lock had our friend the heron and a family of two swans and their four cygnets. The house martins were nowhere to be seen on the first pond above the canal entrance but on our way back on the riverside we saw our first kingfisher from the riverside. Who’d have thought to see one alongside a busy building site in the centre of the city, but there it was like a jewel catching the light, flashing its prismatic colours. Opposite the railway station we saw a lesser black backed gull catch a fish from the river. Why that should be a surprise is a sign of the times! Then, to crown the morning, a professional hawker was back flying his Harris hawk on the Green; the gulls – highly alarmed – were circling and diving, mobbing the seemingly unconcerned hawk. I think, because we were standing and staring, the hawker flew the bird across to a tree just above our heads where we were able to see it more closely, and as the bird perched there a parent with a young child hurried past oblivious of the hawk sitting feet away above their heads. We would have pointed it out but the father was fiercely focused on hurrying the child somewhere and missed the moment.

So how does that lively morning’s experience interlock with mindfulness, or the Taoist discipline of non conceptual engagement. Is it OK for me to name the flowers? or should I put all those concepts to one side and simply contemplate them in that oddly detached way that I’ve occasionally encountered. Is it obsessive and dangerous to the spirit to care which species of ragwort is growing in the car park?

The Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao

Lao Tzu

I get it, I think, that the ‘thing in itself’ – the kestrel or the kingfisher, for instance, can never be contained within any words, concepts or pictures. The thing in itself is elusive, intangible, fleeting. We know this perfectly well when, for example, we gaze in wonder at a flower meadow knowing that it is always in a state of flux – growing, fading and dying and then regenerating. We know that we are like the flower of the field. Autumn whispers the ephemerality of our own lives to us, and so we know that it cannot be fully understood by just measuring its span or its rainfall and temperature

And then, this afternoon a kind of answer to the conundrum came during a visit to the allotment to pick herbs. As I came down the path I spotted the squirrel nonchalantly munching the sunflower seeds. If I put the sequence of my thoughts into slow motion they went something like this:

  • Hey those sunflowers are ours – we wanted to save them for the birds
  • Gosh how lovely to see a squirrel close-up
  • Squirrels are pests, I should drive it away
  • No I should take a photograph and leave the squirrel alone

I’m perfectly sure it was a lot more complicated than that but on reflection I could see how my Western dualistic mind had split the event into three – squirrel, sunflower, and me. In my instinctive response I’d set up a gap between the three of us, conceptualized a property relationship and a feudal hierarchy in which I was the Lord of the manor, the sunflower was my inalienable property which the squirrel was poaching. It’s when we react without thinking that we are most likely to expose our inner processes.

Water overflowing Bath Deep Lock

What non-dualistic thought does is to try to push to one side all those conceptualizations and reach into what cannot be spoken or understood, but is the thing in itself. It doesn’t mean that I won’t be miffed about getting seeds pinched but were they ever mine in any way that makes sense? How on earth does categorizing the squirrel as a pest mean anything? And who grew the seeds? Am I not dependent on the earth and the seasons without which there would be no sunflower and no seeds to anguish about? Of course it doesn’t suggest that I shouldn’t be seized with sufficient curiosity and wonder about a flower to want to understand it better, learn where it fits into the family of flowers and perhaps photograph or draw it. But when all that’s done I still haven’t captured or understood anything except an idol of the thing in itself which always exceeds and overflows it like a stream. The danger of too much focus on concepts is that they blind us to the extent of our unknowing. I can never imagine being a twitcher, or a botanical collector or a butterfly hunter completely focused on ticking every species on a list, but it’s just lovely to engage with a species I’ve never seen before, not because I derive any virtue from our encounter but because I found a friend I’d never previously met. Being mindful doesn’t mean struggling to empty your mind of everything, and non dualistic thinking doesn’t mean that I should search for my inner squirrel or sunflower seed; it just means that even botany has its place for wonder and we often learn more by standing in the stream without expectations.

It’s a common birdsfoot trefoil – Lotus corniculatus (but not an actual bird’s foot).

Finally some rain

If there’s a quieter, more beautiful or more remote place than this, I want to be there.

Bearing in mind that this photo was taken a year ago in the Yorkshire Dales, a couple of miles away from the border with Cumbria; the storm here, was very similar but the setting a million miles away. It was a long time coming, and after days at 36C there was a false start in the early evening when the clouds gathered so densely that a party on the Green began packing up. But at around 11.00pm the rain started properly and you can choose your own metaphor – biblical, if you must; stair rods? – but who knows what a stair rod is these days? – or cats and dogs? none of the usual clichés comes close. On the television yesterday we saw a derailed train, cars floating down rivers and I don’t doubt there will be crops beaten to the ground and ruined. Mercifully, the allotment is made of sterner stuff and seems unscathed after an urgent inspection in the morning. Yes, the rain was welcome but the intensity of weather events this year is an ominous sign of what’s coming and there’s little sign yet that our wretched government, which failed to prepare for Covid even after months of warnings, is prepared to listen to the fifty years of warnings since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, and species began to disappear under the onslaught of oil, chemicals and extractive agriculture.

So being human, which is – and always has been – the principal area of interest for the Potwell Inn, is getting harder but more important with every breath. The environmental catastrophe which is bearing down on us, is a result of losing our sense of what it means to be human in nature. Even the Shooting Times, for goodness sake, forty years ago, used to acknowledge that our responsibility towards nature was one of stewardship. It may have been down to self interest in preserving habitat for animals to be killed in for sport, (and I’d have that ethical discussion with them any day), but we might be better off thinking that at least some of the assumed enemies of change, are halfway towards us already. Now’s not the time for division and name calling. I remember once spending a day at an army camp in Wiltshire talking to the chaplaincy team and to some of the young soldiers who were training there, and being astonished at their moral maturity. During the run up to the Gulf war I noticed that the number of service personnel attending church suddenly increased dramatically as they approached deployment. I didn’t meet a single one who thought that it was a just war in any sense at all.

I don’t want this to be gloomy, and so I’ll stop there with the thought that being human is a desperately difficult road to walk, and to do it well we need to be aware of ourselves and our deepest needs. As you get older (and I’ve got a lot of experience in that subject) you can take a longer view, freed from timetables, busyness, childcare and then parent care; and things begin to become more clear.

I’ve been pondering for ages whether to take the blog down this track, but I fear that without the underlying philosophy, without a spirituality which is so essential to being human; all my talk of the allotment, of field botany and cooking and making bread, the junkies on the street, the environmental crisis and our beloved grandchildren might be taken as a number of separate disconnected interests that I happen to pursue. That’s not the case, and it’s essentially not the case. What I’m trying to tease out, because I don’t know the answer myself, are the threads, the warp and weft of being fully human. What are the essential aspects of a fulfilling and fruitful life, lived well?

I’ve tried religion (and I mean tried! thirty years of intense work is a bit more than a dalliance!), but as time went on I found myself more drawn towards Taoism and Buddhism. I was exhausted by trying to fit myself into a system that pretended it could make everything fit, but only by excluding so much of my whole being that I felt I hardly existed. Let’s not go there except to say that somewhere near the top of my list of crucial qualities is a thoroughgoing scepticism. Scepticism is a greatly underestimated strength.

Personal well being depends on relatively well understood factors. The problem is that resisting the spirit of the age can make you sound like a gimlet eyed extremist. A good diet, physical exercise, strength, heart health and time to stand and stare, contact with nature, love and friendship – human community, dreams and projects, curiosity, the love of science and creative art and some kind of spirituality that grows our ability for all these threads to work in harmony – this is what being human is all about.

Today I turned up an ebook of class notes by my old Tai Chi teacher Alan Peck. I was a pretty useless student, too busy to practice properly; endlessly missing sessions because of meetings and yet I always, without exception, felt better after a session and found some peace in the midst of all the demands being made on me. I opened the book on my laptop today and in a strange way I heard his voice as I read the familiar phrases from his sessions and I noticed an idea that positively jumped off the page at me. He was saying that it didn’t much matter which form you were learning, or how advanced you had become. All that really mattered was letting go into the practice and only then would you be able to receive. No amount of straining and grabbing would ever get you there. I can’t think of a better description of being fully human.

To “let go of everything” refers to an experience of understanding beyond concepts. Usually we label everything either consciously or unconsciously and experience very little that is fresh to our mind without previous conditioning. “To let go of everything” refers to a level of experiencing that does not rely on previously formed patterns of response. In this case, there is less judgement and more potential for creative response. It is an act of surrender.

Alan Peck teacher of Natural Way Tai Chi who died in 2010.

Getting control

It’s a concept I’ve always been a bit suspicious of – controlling can be a dangerous addiction for anxious people and yet these last few months of lockdown have revealed a more kindly, almost therapeutic aspect to taking control. This devastatingly unoriginal thought came to me this morning in the kitchen when I was working my way through half a dozen routine jobs and suddenly experienced a ‘flow’ moment while I was straining the kefir.

I guess during the lockdown and the general strangeness that surrounded us, especially at the beginning when we were unable to rely even on essential supplies, routine became comforting. Getting bread on the table, getting our hands on 16 Kg of bread flour, replenishing almost any supplies can go from being full of stress to offering strong reassurance that in spite of everything we’ll get through. In our case a stone heavier because we’ve been eating all that therapeutic bread, and don’t even ask about biscuits. But getting by, being even a little bit in control, is a a small blow against the chaos – a finger in the air against the malign gods of incompetence. All the queuing and bulk buying of toilet rolls and flour turned out to be a proxy battle against something else, even if we never worked out quite what it was.

The picture at the top is of some Lords and Ladies – Arum maculatum, the roots of which were occasionally eaten during famine times when it was known as Portland sago. It’s fairly dodgy stuff that needs careful preparation – roasting and grinding to destroy the irritant sharp needles that, if eaten carelessly could make you very ill. However for me today it was a reminder that we’re in high summer now and there are hints of autumn everywhere.

There is a real sense of sadness that the seasons have passed us by this year, although I’ll be forever grateful that being grounded for several months has forced us to explore locally; and there’s been so much to discover. The allotment has been our saviour of course and we were glad to be working flat out during the spring and early summer. Now, in high summer there’s a bit of a lull and that’s given us the time to resume some longer walks and explore some local delights.

Today, once I’d finished a pile of prepping in the kitchen – bread, kefir, stock – and brining some onion rings for tonight’s panzanella – we went up to Bannerdown in search of butterflies and for me to do some more grasses. Slowly slowly I’m becoming more familiar and realising that giving consideration to the habitat, for instance woodland, unimproved grassland or marshy ground, simplifies things enormously.

I was also using the Panasonic Lumix camera with a 45mm Leica macro lens. Phone cameras are so so good these days that most of the time they’re perfect, but some days, like today, I really want to play with aperture and speed to get effects like bokeh (which is a pretentious way of saying blurred backgrounds). Learning to control exposures and apertures takes a while but it’s always worth the effort. When we were at art school, technique was rather frowned upon – which was why so much poor work was produced. For me the beauty has always been in the detail, and although I do photograph whole landscapes from time to time, they’re usually taken as a scene setter for the detailed view. There are some of today’s pictures below, but there’s one I couldn’t take because even with pretty good kit it’s just too small.

I grew up with false oat grass – it was the one from which you could strip the seeds between your thumb and finger as you walked past – like popping bubble wrap but back in the olden days before it was invented. However, being familiar with something and walking past it every day is not the same as knowing it, and because it ages, ripens and deteriorates during the season it’s sometimes difficult to decide whether the mangled bit of dry straw is false oat or something else. I was examining an aged plant today and I took a very close (x20) look at the awn, it’s the bristle on the outside husk, if you like, of the tiny seed casings and it’s tiny, but so beautiful. It’s a world of arabesques and curlicues from the bend of the hook to the spiral markings at the base it could have been fashioned in gold by a fairy blacksmith. If I can’t get a photo I’ll have to make a drawing from the microscope and put it up. That’s what gets me about nature – it’s so unnecessarily and extravagantly lovely however you look, from telescope to microscope.

The other thing that blew me away today was how loud the insects are when they are working in such a rich environment. On a scale between exhausted industrial grass and irreplaceable pristine meadow, Bannerdown inclines towards the neglected grassland tag. But that’s still rich. I imagine they must cut it regularly or it would become scrub, but the flowers today were wonderful and the bees, flies and other insects were having a wonderful time. Their hum was continuous and generated by thousands of pairs of wings – like a symphony orchestra holding a long ppp note, full of harmonics; lush, fruitful and happy.

There were no wonders among the butterflies but the B Team were all playing. There were common blues, a couple of brimstone, speckled wood, meadow brown and innumerable little brown mothy jobs in the grass. As we left another butterfly spotter was just getting into his car. “Did you see any chalk-hill blues?” – he asked. “No we haven’t – are they around?” “Well I heard a report about one the other day but I haven’t seen any here for years”. Perhaps they should amend the notice board and put a “not available” sign beside it.

Back on the allotment we decided to give up on a group of bush tomatoes that have contracted brown stem rot, so we picked all the remaining green tomatoes – probably five or six pounds of them – and I’ll make chutney with them. The rot is caused by heat and water stress, and made worse by watering on the leaves. We’ve had temperatures going up and down like a fiddler’s elbow; we’ve had hot humid weather, days of intense sunshine and days of heavy rain. It’s enough to cause any plant troubles. With the green tomato crop secure now, we can let the rest of the Crimson Crush ripen on the vines. They’re our mainstay for the winter, and we make many litres of sauce and passata with them. With a bit of pasta and some parmesan, you can make a cracking meal in ten minutes. But tonight it’s going to be panzanella – my favourite tomato salad ever!

Wide

This has got to be one of the best views within 20 miles of Bath. Inevitably, given the limitations of a phone camera it’s no more than a taste, but from the top of Blackdown on the Mendip Hills you can see the River Severn as a pale streak below the sky and you’ll have to believe me that with no more than a turn of the head you can take in the Bristol Channel from the mouth of the Severn to the open sea, the end of the Cotswolds to the North, and to the West across the river you can see the Forest of Dean and beyond to the Brecon Beacons. Today we could even see Hay Bluff in the far distance, something like 80 miles away by road. Below and on the plain are the Somerset Levels and it’s an easy walk to Cheddar Gorge and Burrington Combe. It’s almost unfair to have so many nature reserves, SSSI’s and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty within the span of one gaze. Unfair, but who’s complaining? Here I am, the champion of post industrial landscapes and car parks; and William McGonagall of the urban wilderness, celebrating a far more conventional kind of nature.

If ever there was a place made for reflection and contemplation and blowing the dust off, this is it. The birds aren’t singing much at the moment, the chicks are hatched and fledged and there’s no need for showing off to potential mates, but in any case as we walked up from Tynings Farm we were swamped by the sound of a forage harvester getting silage in. We had to crest the hill before we could enjoy the silence that often seems to cloak the Mendips.

Roesel’s bush cricket – which was unscathed after being held very gently by our seven year old grandson.

Yesterday we spent the day in a very different landscape with our grandchildren and their mum and dad. In a busy suburb of Bristol, the countryside seems to reach into the city by way of fingers. An aerial photograph of Bristol might remind you of a wonky wagon wheel with spokes of green, but these spokes are under threat as never before from development. Our family can walk from their densely terraced street to their allotment, behind which there are open fields. They’re never going to be designated or protected notwithstanding the fact that we picked pounds of large sloes there yesterday, and our oldest grandson had tremendous fun catching grasshoppers, as he calls them. He’s lively and curious and these rather stressed fields, leaving aside the quantities of dog shit left everywhere by thoughtless dog walkers, are the bit of the natural world that he and his younger siblings can actually explore and enjoy. Soon they are going to be built over, and the horses that used to provide free manure to the allotmenteers were moved off on Friday. Our middle grandchild was deeply upset as she saw them being led away. Don’t ask me how we can resolve the constant tension between housing and open space, because it’s a nightmare; but wild and open space is as important for child development and grown up recreation as is warm and safe housing. We can’t let it all go into the developers’ offshore accounts.

Family sloe picking

As always, the paucity of the wildlife in the fields was more than made up for by the children. I’m always touched to see their parents struggling to solve the same problems and dilemmas that we faced in a previous generation. For good or ill our children, when they become parents, take with them the experience of our earlier attempts at playing mum and dad – not all of them very good because we had to learn on the job too.

And today belonged to the first field mushroom, the hosts of eyebright and tormentil, the heathers, vetches and trefoils, the cotton grass in the bogs, the south westerly blowing up from the sea, the space to talk and celebrate the fact that we are able to be out there in it and not least to thank our knees and one metal hinge for putting up with us.

Gert lush

I’m not sure if the phrase gert lush ever properly existed as Bristol slang. Lush certainly did, and meant really good; and gert did too, meaning big. But the combination seems to have come into existence as a bit of a joke when non Bristolians tried to speak like us. However the Bristol accent is not to be trifled with and the dialects tied you down to a single parish sixty years ago; so adding an ‘ul’ to China and saying Chinul or Africul wouldn’t get you very far into my affections. I say I’m a Bristolian because it’s an easy way of describing a complicated situation. If I was being pedantic I’d say that I come from Gloucestershire, but that opens a whole can of worms because the boundaries have changed so frequently over the years that for my first twenty years I lived in three counties without moving an inch. I now live in a fourth newly minted county but I could walk in a few hours to the place I was born. Where I was brought up we still used thee and thou when we thought no-one was listening; and when strangers or teachers were around we could lapse into impenetrability very easily. I love my accent even though once, in a restaurant in Birmingham, the waiter leaned across confidentially as we were leaving and asked “are you a farmer?” I thought it was very funny, but I’m not sure she saw the joke. Nonetheless I have needed to remind one or two people that having a local accent – even a very mild one like mine – doesn’t mean I’m stupid.

Anyway, after that long excursus, we were on the allotment last evening and a hot air balloon took off from Victoria Park a couple of hundred yards away. It’s always a lovely sight, and I once had a balloon ride from the exact same spot on a similar summer’s evening some years ago. The launch site is surrounded by tall trees and buildings and so it’s necessary to gain height very quickly; therefore the technique seems to be to fill the balloon with hot air to the point it’s straining at the leash, and then release it like a cork from a bottle. A pretty thrilling experience. In my case we flew south and east, following the course of the river Avon until we swung north and landed somewhere around Marshfield. When the burner was silent we glided noiselessly above the fields and at one point followed a fox which was apparently unaware of our presence above him. All this was thirty years before we moved here and tracking the flight from memory on a map today, I can see that we would have passed exactly over Bannerdown where we spent the day yesterday.

It was – to use the phrase I started with – lush – and I’ve only just remembered that the owners of the balloon were our new next-door neighbours when we first moved here. Lush, then and a bit weirdly prophetic too. The pilot on my flight was a police inspector and I probably found a way of thanking him without using the dialect word to avoid evidencing any potential criminality on my part.

“Lush” – such a rich word; made for a couplet like “lush grass” … Lush, flush, blush; all wonderfully suggestive of fullness, of flow, of generosity or suddenness.

Odd then, to think that what encourages the immensely rich flora of meadows and limestone grassland is a kind of poverty. We’re planning to make a pond on the allotment this autumn, and we’re also going to create a small area for grasses and wildflowers, and that’s led us to an interesting conundrum. We’ve spent four years increasing the fertility of our ground and now, the bed we intend to convert is far too rich to support much more than the rankest of rank grasses and weeds. So the rather complicated plan is to remove most of the topsoil on the proposed “meadow” bed and move it to some new raised beds where it will be just what we need and better than any soil we could buy in. Next we’re going to do the same with the topsoil where the pond is going, and then while digging out the pond, move the less fertile soil and subsoil to the meadow bed to bring it back to level. The exact composition of the surface layer will need to be worked out, but to reduce fertility any other way would mean cutting and disposing of plant matter for years and growing something like yellow rattle to discourage the rank grasses. It’s my favourite occupation – making experiments. For wildflowers and their associated invertebrates, less is most certainly more. We couldn’t resist another trip to Bannerdown yesterday and I went armed with a notebook and a couple of plant cribs. So while Madame hunted butterflies I did a quick survey and in a couple of hours I’d listed fifty species and increased the grass total to fifteen and all of this on very thin limestone soil with rocks poking through in places.

And what struck us most was the heavenly smell of wildflowers. Madame said it was like being a child again. If there was a downside – and it wasn’t a big one – we were accompanied by a land rover towing a seed collecting box behind it. This was part of a project (with input from the Cotswolds Conservation Board), to create a wildflower corridor through Bath and yesterday’s seeds were on their way to Swainswick to re-seed a piece of land there. As we were leaving we passed the fruits of the day’s collection on a large tarpaulin on the ground, and we talked to the recipients and owners of the about to be reseeded field, who were tremendously excited about the project. We can only presume that our little allotment patch of a few square feet will form a tiny part of the whole in years to come.

It sounds counterintuitive to think that to regain lost species we need to make the ground less fertile, less lush; but one of the principal causes of our ecological crisis is the current agricultural policy of driving the land harder and harder using chemicals and artificial fertilizers, and if you’d been able to stand with us yesterday and enjoy the ridiculous numbers of wildflowers and grasses, you’d see why it’s so important to change our whole attitude to farming. But of course the takeaway point is that we can’t avert the coming destruction by writing new rules just for farmers, although that needs to happen. None of us will escape the coming moment of truth unless we all of us change our ways.

I’ve been reading Ann Pettifor’s book “The Case for the Green New Deal” and I think it’s the clearest summary I’ve seen yet on what needs to be done. Better than that, it seems really do-able if we can just knock the idea of continual growth off its perch and stop worshipping the economy as if it were some kind of abstract God, demanding constant obedience to the “Market” – a set of concepts I find almost as difficult as systematic theology. Today, as I write this we’re sheltering in the flat with the temperature approaching 30C. At what point do we start noticing that the king has no clothes?

What was the date of the last time you heard a cuckoo?

Arrhenatherum elatius ssp bulbosum otherwise known as a bit of dead grass

To be able to answer that question you’d need to have heard the cuckoo, recognised it and made a note of where it was that you’d heard it. I know where I heard the last one – it was with friends whose smallholding is near Crickhowell in Wales and I could find the date by looking for the photos I took on that day. That was getting on for two years ago and sadly I haven’t heard one since which gives me a little pang of sadness. What if that was it? – no more cuckoo ever …..

So maybe there is a point in being a bit of a list nerd, even if becoming one means you have to irritate the hell out of all your nearest and dearest while you read (buy) incomprehensible and expensive books, spend hours with pencil and notebook writing in secret code and develop a pronounced bend in the spine as you spend days on end looking at the ground, and enthuse about tiny bits of plants that no-one in their right mind cares a hoot about …. except – I should stop there! But if you’ve done all those things and write the event up and even send an account of it to someone who also records these things but on a grand scientific scale; then it’s just possible that something could be done in time to stop the cuckoo becoming a footnote in an annotated student’s Shakespeare crib.

On Tuesday I gathered 10 samples of grass from Bannerdown and as I mentioned earlier, I was up early yesterday morning and after some pretty intense work I managed to identify nine species; and I even managed to match them with all the other plants we saw yesterday and come up with my first ever NVC (National Vegetation Classification) code. More than a year after my resolution to “do the grasses” I’ve finally reached the point where I’m pretty confident with identifying them, and half a dozen I can recognise from twenty paces. A red letter day for me and possibly of no interest to anyone else, unless like me you’ve embarked on a stupidly difficult quest without much by the way of experience.

So why bother then? Why not leave it to the professionals? Well the answer is that there aren’t nearly enough professionals to do what’s needed. There are now hardly any opportunities to study botany at degree level in this country. We’re in the midst of an environmental catastrophe that will lead to the disappearance or even extinction of a huge number of species from environments that no one has ever recorded – and I don’t just mean Amazonian jungle and Arctic tundra, I mean the derelict site next door, the unappetising urban stream with the supermarket trolleys in it, and the allotment sites that hard up local authorities would love to sell off. The article from today’s Guardian newspaper that I cited above is concerned with UK mammals, and just like the mountain gorillas and snow leopards, our wild mammals live on wild plants, insects and other wild mammals and they are disappearing because their environmental niches are disappearing. As meadows, hedgerows and streams disappear along with all their specialised plants, their larger and more glamorous inhabitants disappear too; so saving the hedgehog means saving the hedgehog’s environment and the multitude of invertebrates that it lives on – which means saving the plants on which those invertebrates feed in turn. The earth is a joined-up ecosystem – with the emphasis on system and it can’t work even if small parts fail. Just as when the hinge on my laptop breaks it becomes a pile of junk. During my grass binge I have spent a lot of time on the internet looking for answers and I promise you I found a website (run by a agrochemical business) headed “How to identify grasses and eradicate them. “Attaboy – lets civilise the lawns and fields of this great country!”. Letting the nettles and the couch grass flower around the edges of your allotment shows you’re a part of the resistance movement.

Natural history has always had its share of amateurs. There are few other disciplines where we can make such a significant contribution. It’s true we don’t have the knowledge or the equipment to study plant DNA at home, but increasingly we’re becoming the infantry in the battle to save nature, (with saving ourselves as a side-order). There’s a place for everyone at every level and the amateur recorders are the intelligence corps, helping to collate the evidence. I first got involved in this kind of thing when I was a schoolboy and sent postcards (remember them?) back to a science project investigating thunderstorms. I remember I had to record the number of seconds that elapsed between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder, and add a few details about the storm. I think I had to buy my own postage stamps.

However, the reasons for getting stuck in aren’t just about saving our skin. To lift a phrase from a well known naturalist:

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

Karl Marx – “Eleven theses on Feuerbach” – (and inscribed on his grave)

So let’s hear it for the sheer beauty of nature, for the way it frames us and sets us within our proper place, for the way it inspires the sense of the numinous, the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans“, the terrible and compelling face of nature that draws worshippers and list makers alike to record what might be the last great moments of a collapsing civilisation. “Glory be to God for dappled things” said Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem “Pied beauty” and although these days I find the whole idea of God – especially the great gammon in the sky version promoted by most churches – impossible to understand, I know well enough what glory feels like!

This isn’t just a landscape

Had the strangest experience last night as I settled down to identify a grass that I’d gathered on our walk to Sham Castle (yesterday’s posting). There must have been something about it that caught my eye, because when I opened the polythene bag that I carry around with me – just in case – there was another identical sample inside that I’d forgotten about. So why was this particular species of grass- which turned out to be (I’m pretty sure) common bent – Agrostis capillaris – speaking to me so loudly?

If you’ll allow me a tiny digression, the microscope has been a wonderful help with grasses, but also with random bits of unspeakable things like earwax which turn out to be pretty interesting as well! Anyway, the bent grass, to get back to the point. The thing about it was that it seemed to be carrying an inordinate amount of emotional freight with it. The pursuit of grasses has been as much an intellectual challenge as anything else. I’m trying to know them well enough to identify them confidently, simply because I was challenged by someone I respect greatly and I love a challenge.

So on the microscope I went through the increasingly familiar routine, much helped by the BSBI webinar material, and then keyed the sample out and there it was; one of two possibilities and in the end I plumped for common bent. And that might have been the end of the story if I hadn’t been mulling it all over in the early hours of this morning during that half awake, half asleep time that’s so full of lateral thoughts and unexpected revelations, and it became clear to me that I needed to go to Rodway hill.

If it weren’t for Rodway Hill, or Rodway Common as it’s also known my life would have been radically different. It was a place of powerfully charged moments. I had a strange, almost religious experience there as a young teenager when I once laid down on the grass and moments turned into infinite time. It was the first, but not the last of my experiences of what came to be known as the oceanic state. At a much more mundane level it was the place that Rogers’ Fair set up one warm summer evening and I first heard the Everly Brothers in a moment charged with eroticism, generators and diesel fumes. It was there with Madame that we once gathered 40lbs of blackberries with which we made dreadful chutney. It was where I went to school and it was the view from the window that sustained me through hours of tedium. It was the territory of my adolescence and so everything about it must have become charged with significance. And the common bent had something to do with it and so I dragged Madame over there in torrential rain this morning to get some photographs and to track down the ghostly presence.

It was a pretty scary experience – I felt a bit silly chasing down the bizarre idea that I am somehow connected to that landscape. Even as we set out I was wondering if the landscape was acting as an immaterial hard drive; if it could be possible that some of my memories were held there waiting for me to reclaim them. But however mawkish and stupid it might sound, the moment we set foot on the common they were there waiting for me.

I’d already done a bit of research into the surface geology of the area and I couldn’t find any real connection between the calcareous soil up on the Skyline walk and the mildly acidic soil on Rodway common, but either plants don’t read textbooks or they’re far more adaptable than we think, because there was the grass, the grass I once laid down next to and lost myself; the grass through which the wind would flow with a silvery kind of sound if you listened carefully enough. But there was more, because the harebells were still there and then in a proper flow moment I found woodruff – Galium odoratum one of the bedstraws and what I think was blinks – Montia fontana which I can’t remember ever noticing before. The gorse and the bracken were all there in abundance too; despite being surrounded now by a six lane circular road and thousands of new houses but the school and the common have survived. It was an extraordinary moment – to be there in the rain, reconnecting with my very young self and being able to name at least some of the plants that had lodged in my unconscious mind.

Of course the downside of the avalanche of feelings and memories was the thought that I might have been a complete weirdo as well, but there we are – Madame must have found something tolerable in me, (although she occasionally reminds me about her patience and forbearance in staying put!).

But if anything comes out of this strange day, it’s the extension of the notion of hefting that I’ve written about before. As I looked across the common, which is smaller than I’d remembered, I could see in an instant that the landscape is marked by what the Mendip people call gruffy ground. For whatever reason, whether surface mining took place there? – since it’s within the South Gloucestershire coalfield and there are records of a coal mine in Mangotsfield; or perhaps quarrying for stone? – all the local walls are built with that kind of sandstone, or whatever other reason. It doesn’t matter. The poor soil, delicate grasses, the pockmarked ground have become a sort of default in my mind and in the most peculiar way they hold me and I still seek them out like a sheep turned out on to the hill in the summer. Everything changes and nothing changes.

On the way home we took a detour past my old home which, ironically, is at the other end of the Bristol Bath cycle path; the other end of the same old railway line that still passes today. It looked much the same with new windows. Mr King’s allotment which was at the bottom of the garden over the tunnel entrance is now completely overgrown but can never be built on. No-one will ever re-create what he did, an old retired miner who would walk five or six miles to Parkfield in the morning and walk halfway home underground; his allotment was the paradisiacal vision that drives the Potwell Inn.

On hot nights and secret lives

It’s been as hot and sticky as a short story these last few nights. If I look at the sunrise time on my phone in the evening it’s a fatal invitation to be wide awake by 4.30am, and if – on top of that – I feel guilty because I haven’t posted for a couple of days, I’ll inevitably spend half an hour trying to go back to sleep before I get up and face the creative music. Trying to go to sleep is, of course, an oxymoronic concept like trying to fall in love. Then there’s the microscope, sitting on the desk next to the laptop in the most distracting possible way. I give it a half hearted stroke as if to placate it, but putting a new and important object on the desk demands something like the traditional way of training a hawk; you have to stay awake for whole nights, locked in a shed together until the resistance is broken and you can begin to work together.

During the past two unrecorded days we’ve been busy with our family. Babysitting duties were joyfully revived after a four month break – Zoom meetings might be OK for the office, but children don’t do them. Somehow, and without planning it at all, we took a break from constant work at the allotment and spent a good deal of time researching and seeking out new parts of the city and its surroundings. The sunshine has allowed us to explore further down the river than ever. There’s real joy in building up our understanding of our new home (of five years) by exploring all the interconnecting footpaths and roads that express its deeper history as much as they provide convenient short cuts. Behind the showy Georgian architecture – more closely connected to slaving wealth than we like to admit – there are visible remains of stone mining and coal mining. The canal was the trading motorway of its brief period, supplanted by the railway and now by the motorway that runs to the north of the city; and the Bristol/Bath cycle path which runs past our flat completes a wildlife corridor that runs almost uninterrupted from East to West. The upshot of all this is that you can see otters and peregrine falcons (if you’re lucky and persistent) in the middle of the city.

The tourists flocked to the Roman baths and the Jane Austin Disneyland experience (and of course the shops); and missed much of what’s most fascinating about our adopted home. Now they’ve gone, the shops pubs and restaurants are really struggling; unemployment is soaring in the occupations that onced serviced them and we can walk through a largely quiet town on sunny evenings and enjoy it in a way that’s become increasingly difficult over the past decades.

If you include humans in the wildlife of the city it becomes even richer. A couple of days ago we found a whole new north/south crossing of canal, railway line and river. On the river we watched a solitary wild swimmer making her way gracefully against the flow, but in the background we could hear the hoots and screams of young people having great fun tombstoning off the bridge and into the Avon. I think we’re supposed to disapprove of all this and remind them that this kind of mating behaviour is expressly forbidden by the notice. Yes it’s dangerous, and yes they might get into all sorts of trouble, and yes, I knew a child when I was young myself who drowned near here and yet ….. I think we both said a silent prayer for them and left them to their fun. These days of sunshine shot through with erotic desires and the certainty of living for ever don’t last. Tempus fugit and before we know where we are, we know where we are.

But don’t run away with the idea that only the young get themselves inflamed by a summer’s day. As we walked along the canal last night a middle aged couple met at the middle of the footbridge above the Widcombe flight – each coming from the different direction; and kissed one another with ferocious intensity. Well well, we thought, putting aside for a moment thoughts of the deceptions and misery that lurk in the hinterland of an affair. People watching is almost as engaging as spotting the cormorant preening itself on one of the chimney pots of the old granary, opposite the bus station or seeking out the fledgling gulls that make the most terrible screeching during those weeks when they’re just about capable of flying but still depend on a parent for food. Last night we spotted a couple of young peregrines touching base for a moment at their nest before soaring off again.

Thoughts of grass (not that sort!) have also been occupying me, and I discovered four and a half hours of a webinar on grass identification run recently by the BSBI and now on YouTube. They’re pretty chewy sessions but well worth the time if you’re at all interested in identifying these tricky subjects. The greatest challenge in combining botanising with walking is the need to identify things very fast. Too much kneeling down, rooting around, note making and photography can lead to friction in our perfectly harmonious (ho ho) relationship; and so the art of snatching a bit of material and identifying it without stopping needs to be backed up with a great deal of reading and study so that, for instance, I can finally nail the ragworts without actually getting caught botanizing – slightly less dangerous, I have to say, than kissing strangers on bridges, especially at my age!

The secret life of the City can be compelling, and a welcome antidote to the tide of lunacy that besets our politics at the moment. Whether we shall emerge from all this with a new understanding of how badly (and quickly) we need to reshape our relationship with the earth remains to be seen, but the parallels with Weimar Germany and the memory of the way that whole civilizations can perish under the weight of their own contradictions, is just another of the things that keeps me awake at night. Being human has never seemed so challenging.

A bit of wonder

So this isn’t anything special, as photos go – it was a bit of a studio set-up (if my desk counts as a studio) with a lightbox background and a bit of fill from a lamp and taken on a Pixel 3 phone camera.

Warts and all, then, this picture of a couple of globe artichokes from the allotment, with a fair bit of insect frass and whitefly remains thrown in to add gritty realism. These plants were among our first imports to the allotment but we value them far more for their architectural beauty than for their food content, Sure they taste good, but you’d need to harvest a whole row for a decent feed, and the wastage would be truly shocking. For us they’re a great boundary plant, being horribly prickly and tremendous insect attractors in addition to being stunning to look at. The true harvest is in Madame’s room where they have been the subject of many drawings and paintings over the years.

I’m really interested in the rather messy conjunction between the natural, the aesthetic and the spiritual ‘frames’ within which we try to understand the sense of wonder which grips us, if we’re lucky enough, when we pause to contemplate something as simple as an artichoke, or a dragonfly or even the tiniest detail of a plant. I remember one memorable walk I shared during a pilgrimage with a friend who’d spent most of his life buying and selling grain. It was the day I learned the way to identify cereal crops early in the year, simply by examining their leaves. The day that I first heard the terms ‘ligule’ and ‘auricle’ not from a naturalist but a salesman, and I remember the sense of excitement, approaching awe, at the way the natural world somehow makes sense if you know, or are taught, how to look.

That sense of awe transforms our inner lives in a way that little else can. We can read disturbing stories illustrated with statistics about the state of the earth and push them to the back of our minds, and yet when we try to describe matters of the most profound importance to us we instinctively reach for the imagery of nature.

Our days are like the grass;

We flourish like a flower of the field;

when the wind goes over it, it is gone

and its place will know it no more.

Psalm 103

I’ve long since lost my copy of Raymond Williams’ book “Keywords” but I can remember that he wrote at length on the complexity and ambiguity that surrounds the word natural. I can understand perfectly well – intellectually – that we are a part of nature and I could write at length about the way that changing our understanding of our place as a part of the whole creation is a prerequisite for our return to wholeness, but nothing quite expresses the fragility of life than to observe the brief life of a flower. Nothing quite expresses our grief better than the memory of the wind passing over moorland grass in winter. Our lives are measured in seasons, our passions in roses, our personalities in creatures – we are tigers and sloths, owls and larks, rats and cats. So much of our interior lives is furnished with natural imagery it’s amazing that we treat the natural world as badly as we do; but without being the least religious about it I can understand the way that the fictional story of Adam and Eve embraces the profound sense that we have, through our perverse belief that we are the sole purpose of creation, been cast out from paradise. The story isn’t about sex – it never was – it was about getting too big for our boots. But that’s not a soapbox I want to climb on right now. Religion has done so much damage to the creation myths they’re no longer useable.

Natural history stands as a kind of bridge between nature and science. It’s driven to science by wonder and fascination. But human language is also saturated with natural history and, as I’ve already said, furnishes our sense of the numinous with images from the natural world. So the inner language we use when we think about the global environmental crisis is bound to be expressed in ways that some scientists and almost all economists and politicians would rather dismiss. Talk of God or Gaia or even nature can’t be measured in degrees centigrade or gross domestic product; you can’t quantify wonder and it would be difficult to bring paintings, drawings, poems and drama; music and all the variety of human artifacts as evidence because in thinking about the global crisis we are both the accusers and the accused. Francis Schaeffer, the founder of L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, described human beings as “glorious ruins”

A recent piece in The Ecologist magazine takes a well known paper by Jem Bendell to task for using bad science to back up a cataclysmic view of climate change which, the authors say, is more likely to lead to fear and paralysis than action to stem catastrophic climate change. Within the article there’s a section that deserves repeating –

One reason for its popularity is that Deep Adaptation does a couple of things effectively that other works do not. First, it talks in stark emotional terms about something that is undoubtedly very scary. It does not shy away from describing feelings that all people concerned with the climate crisis feel on a regular basis.

This emotional expression is something that scientific writing and reporting rarely employs, as scientists strive for detached objectivity in presenting facts. While frank discussion of the psychological and emotional impacts of the climate crisis is sorely needed, it must still be a discussion grounded in reality. “

Thomas Nicholas
 Galen Hall
 Colleen Schmidt
 | 15th July 2020

I absolutely agree with that whole sentiment – bad science is a curse , but as long as science, creative language and spirituality continue to eye each other suspiciously and refuse to engage seriously with each others strengths, we’ll never be able to muster the forces we really need to change the world. All great paradigm changes need their novelists and poets and their spiritual leaders as well as their chemists, engineers and sociologists.

The mid nineteenth century was fortunate to have Joseph Rowntree to highlight the horrors of the industrial revolution, Charles Dickens to bring them to the attention of a huge public, Joseph Bazalgette to build the sewers that ended cholera epidemics, Charles Booth to take Christian spirituality to the poorest areas in the country and Charles Darwin finally to put us in our place, not as the purpose, the telos of creation but as a rather gloriously interesting part of it. I could add many more; what about Marx for instance? We’d have to have a space for write-ins, and I can’t imagine them getting on very well, but that’s not the point.

There’s a lovely interview with James Lovelock in the Guardian today in which he speaks about the divisions between scientific orthodoxies as being every bit as damaging to science (and the earth) as sectarian religious disputes.

I realize my argument could easily be parodied as a kind of hippy dippy “why can’t we all be nice to each other?” indulgence, but I’m totally serious. Couldn’t our headlong rush into environmental catastrophe be said to be in need of redemption without invoking the whole ghastly apparatus of religious belief? It makes perfect sense to me that if you want someone to end their self-destructive behaviour you have to present a more powerful image of a possible future for them (that’s the bit that artists and writers are best at) and you also have to embrace some means of relieving the burden of guilt about past behaviour (that’s the spiritual) before you can help them over the threshold into a new lifestyle, that must necessarily be guided by the best science we have. Why try to invent an entirely new way of leading that process when we have all the tools we need at hand?

We have met the enemy, and they are us.”

The updated version was first used in the comic strip “Pogo,” by Walt Kelly, in the 1960s and referred to the turmoil caused by the Vietnam War.

Surviving in a hostile environment

I realized a while ago that I was going to have to get much closer to some of my botanical subjects in order to identify them properly and study them in more depth, and I’ve invested in a very useful 20x LED hand lens. Then a friend – out of the blue – offered to lend me a microscope, which will be a tremendous help. My desk is getting pretty full at the moment, not least because I’ve been experimenting with my Panasonic camera with a Leica 45mm macro lens photographing against a lightbox background.

I was casting around for something to practice with yesterday, and I spotted a piece of stonecrop – Sedum acre – that I’d collected while I was doing the plant survey of the car park. My desk is a mess at the best of times, and at the moment it’s also dotted with bits of drying and dying plant material that I seem to have a resistance to throwing away. So amongst the dead and dying this piece of stonecrop caught my eye and I set up the camera on a tripod (it’s almost impossible to take macro photos without one) got the flash unit going and after a few duds, got the picture.

The contrast between set-ups and the phone camera is absolute. I’ve said before that they each have their place and I wouldn’t be without either, but there’s nothing spontaneous about the set-up photograph. You’re forced to think what do I really want to see in this shot? and so I can use a small lab clamp, studio lamp, wireless flash and anything else that helps to capture the principal details. On a good day the aesthetic and the observational combine and you get a cracker, but most of the time they’re reference material for the future. I only wish my cataloguing skills could keep up but my tiggerish instincts are always racing on to the next excitement.

Anyway, enough of the technical stuff because what blew me away when I looked at this sample was that it is clearly alive and waiting patiently for the good times to roll again. They don’t put Sedums on wildflower roofs for nothing. Plants have their survival strategies and these can seem very smart indeed. The rue leaved saxifrage that lives on the wilderness of the fire escape survives by flowering and setting seed before the summer sun bakes its remains to a crisp. One of the abiding challenges of amateur botany is the brief lives of many species. Finding some plants is like getting six numbers up in the National Lottery – right place, right time, right weather ….. and so it goes on.

This gift of resilience is a marvellous thing, but I don’t at all underestimate our capacity to chemically outstrip the most resourceful life form – ourselves included. I’m reading Mark Avery’s book “Fighting for Birds” at the moment and he shows the way that extinctions are brought about so often by changes in farming practices which are not just to do with chemicals but also times of harvesting and sowing. But when the going gets tough …. and the real survivors are the kind of plant species – now totalling 26 – that can survive in the hostile environment of our car park.

But is that the kind of world we want to live in? Although I sing the praises of the sturdy beggars below my window, is that all I want? Of course not, but desperation drives us all. Yesterday as I looked out on the Green I saw a previous Director of the National Botanical Garden of Wales kneeling down with his phone to photograph some wall barley. Good for him – perhaps I’ve won him over at last, or perhaps he’s doing a survey of the Green where we’re making small progress on preserving an un-mown strip around the edge.

And if this was simply about preserving some hobby examples for grumpy old botanists and birdwatchers then you could maybe concede the point that it’s an unbalanced and unsustainable view of the world. But if we regard the reduction of our ecosystems to a few super resilient survivors, if we treat the symptoms like the canary in the mine – then it’s horribly clear that we may be the next species to disappear.

I’ve spent the greater part of my life thinking that our self-destructive way of life would end with a bomb and a nuclear winter. In many ways a sudden end to everything would be a more comforting vision than the possibility of a relentless decline into anarchy with terrible flooding, mass migrations from areas no longer capable of sustaining life and the desperate search for food, water, and ultimately air to breathe. I don’t want my grandchildren or their descendants to end impoverished lives like fish writhing on the deck of a boat, gasping for air.

I’ve written before about denial being one of Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s symptoms of grieving. But there has to come a moment when denial is overcome and a new life – with all its difficulties and disappointments – has to begin; and this is the moment. Right now.