I actually spotted that concept in a book on permaculture that I’ve been reading recently – but when I looked up the source of the quotation it turn out it was first used by the philosopher Alfred Korzybski in 1931 when warning his readers of the danger of confusing concepts with reality. I think it was used a bit around a once fashionable management/self improvement tool some years ago known as NLP (neuro linguistic programming). It was pretty much a load of old pseudoscientific snake oil but we had one bishop who went in for it as a way to sharpen his communication skills. The trouble was it usually clattered into every conversation with all the subtlety of a steam traction engine so it didn’t really work with us professional sceptics.
However, as a useful counter to trusting in maps too much it can’t be faulted. The two photos at the top were taken today on the allotment as I worked there in the pouring rain trying to figure out with the aid of a long tape, a calculator and a load of steel pegs trying to figure out why I couldn’t fit the prospective polytunnel on to the allotment plan.
Much cursing later I discovered that my schematic map had tidied up the rough edges on the allotment so much it had become a bit fictional in places; not least because there is not a straight line or a right angle or a parallel path anywhere on the entire plot. I had been seduced by the ‘draw rectangle’ tool and the embedded grid at the expense of accuracy. There aren’t many days when Pythagorus’ theorem is the most useful tool in my life but this afternoon I offered up a small prayer of thanksgiving to Bill Willams who taught generations of us to be better mathematicians than we deserved to be. Wiping the rain off the mobile I discovered that I could calculate the square root of the sum of the squares of the other two sides and then set my right angles square and accurate. I was so pleased I even fixed little flags on my four corner poles.
That done, I realized that it’s going to be a close thing to get the polytunnel legs into their respective holes but – as I explained to Madame later, it’ll be such a snug fit you might imagine that I did it deliberately. I do love a bit of civil engineering and we’re so looking forward to using the tunnel to extend our season at both ends.
The hotbed is now up to 20C and so as soon as this storm is over – it’s blowing a hooly outside – we’ll start sowing. In a couple of weeks we’ll be setting up the second propagator – the first one’s full of basil plants at the moment – and we’ll begin again. The next season is always the best and there’s always an excuse for the last one and so we soldier on. Winter can be fun too.
What is it about the call of a fox looking for a mate that’s so primitive and scary? Although I’ve heard it hundreds of times, the breathy scream of a vixen is enough to send a shiver through me. This morning at three o’clock though, it was a dog fox calling – you might say keening – as he trotted along the deserted road, yelping at the back of the flats. Logically I say to myself ‘it’s a fox; go back to sleep’ but I never can because that cry always invites me into the world of the fox; a world of homelessness and constant watchfulness – a world whose rules I don’t understand. The cry makes me fearful, knocks out the wall between us so that I can almost feel the wind and rain on my skin and reminds me of the incoherent longings that followed me through my teenage years. The call of the fox reminds me that there are other ways of being in the world and being human is only one of the many stories out there. Tingling with fear as I did when I first heard it as a child, that sense of intruding into a parallel universe never leaves me and I lay awake listening as the sound grew louder and then diminished into the distance.
Curiously I woke feeling energised. A quick check on the weather forecast suggested that we could get a few hours in on the allotment before the next Atlantic storm started brewing. Having ordered the polytunnel and discovered it might arrive as soon as Thursday, we’ve got a great deal of preparation to do. Today’s project was to clear the polytunnel site of its existing nets and posts and move them to another space. My obsessive planning in past years meant that the 10×10 net, supported by 6′ poles driven into the bed found a planned space that fitted exactly so the biggest problem was digging the posts out.
Luckily another bit of forward planning means that the tunnel will go across three beds whose crops are all about to finish, so there will be very little disruption to food supplies. However I’ve never been very happy with the wooden planks supporting the lower terrace and so the biggest job today was to drive in a new set of retaining posts, each being sunk to about two feet into the earth. Doing it this way will give us strong fence and an extra few precious inches to work with when we drive the footings into the ground. So no indoor exercises for me today because the crowbar weighs about 10 lbs, the lump hammer is about 5lbs and the post driver weighs around twenty pounds. That’s a lot of hole making, hammering, checking with a line and spirit level, and then thumping each post down. It’s easier with six foot poles. The eight foot ones mean I have to balance on a wheelbarrow and lift the driver over my head to get it over the post. Luckily I’ve only fallen off once when I avoided any injury but the spirit level was bent into an unuseable curve. It’s on days like this that you realize that if you’re not going to rely on expensive machinery to do the job you’re going to have to find the exact same amount of energy through your own bare hands.
Meanwhile Madame was tying up broad beans and tending the asparagus bed but whilst doing that she opened a bag of composted horse manure that had become waterlogged and gone anaerobic. My word what a stink! So we mixed the noxious sludge with some leaves and tipped it on to the compost heap where it will have a chance to do some good.
The hotbed – which is made just from leaves and wood chip fired up with several gallons of human activator – has heated up to a steady 18C so we’ll plant lettuces there as soon as storm Christoph has packed its bags. Is it my imagination or have we had a lot more named storms this last year? In the past three days the whole appearance of the allotment has changed as we move supports and cages around for the coming season.
Since the industrial revolution the processes of growth have been speeded up to produce the food and raw materials needed by the population and the factory. Nothing effective has been done to replace the loss of fertility involved in this vast increase in crop and animal production. The consequences have been disastrous. Agriculture has become unbalanced: the land is in revolt: diseases of all kinds are on the increase: in many parts of the world Nature is removing the worn out soil by means of erosion.
Sir Albert Howard: “An Agricultural Testament”.
Great stress has been laid on a hitherto undiscovered factor in nutrition – the mycorrhizal association – the living fungal bridge between humus in the soil and the sap of plants
Op cit: both passages from the preface.
To be frank, the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962 seems an age ago, but “An Agricultural Testament” was published in January 1940 – eighty (yes eighty!) years ago and in the intervening years very little seems to changed. It’s a useful, if chastening, exercise to read these books. We so easily slip into the lazy thought that the world began at the same time as we each first became aware of it; and worse still, we can lazily assume that any science of real significance has happened within our own lifetimes.
This thought bubbled up from the bottom of the pond today as I was reading and Madame read out a couple of passages from a newspaper article on communal living. It’s all the rage once again, apparently, but I’m not expecting anyone to write and ask how it was for us when we lived in a couple of communes in the early seventies. Living in a commune seems to be a bit like having your first baby; the last thing you want is to know how your ghastly and out of touch parents managed to bring you up. The newly born baby is your tabula rasa whose unfortunate joy will be to have every one of your random habits inscribed indelibly in their minds. The fact that your random habits were almost never acquired in the study of ancient religions or the poetry of Wordsworth but in the kitchen of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam is the living proof that culture eats strategy for breakfast as the management consultants like to say. Living in communes, like bringing up children can be marvellous and it can also drain you of the will to live especially when you live in the midst of a clash of giant egos.
Anyway, that excursus off my chest, reading Sir Albert Howard today reminded me that the identification of the earth’s problems wasn’t something that happened recently, but back before I was born and it’s not just been ignored, it’s been made worse and worse as these eight decades have passed; or to put it more personally, my entire life has been spent fruitlessly protesting about it while nothing much changes.
Partly, I think, it came from a misplaced faith in the ability of science and technology to solve all our problems because, of course, the problem isn’t just scientific and technical, it’s a moral problem; our greed. But, as I hope my little vignette of family life shows, we rarely examine or question our basic attitudes – the ones we inherited when we were children. As a school governor for thirty years I saw many generations of children who were mildly radicalised by being taught about the environment. Yoghurt cartons were collected, tins saved and crushed for recycling and gardens grown and yet this early exposure to the problem of our environment rarely seemed to make it into action later on in life. Perhaps we needed to believe the story we were told that everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds without realising that the phrase itself was a parody – but the system seemed to work and unless you looked under the bonnet (risking your faith), it was easier to believe that there was no alternative, and anyway – why would my one little plane journey actually damage the earth? And so, to use another well worn phrase, “we are where we are” and all those lovely holidays and fillet steaks were being paid for by quietly selling off the family silver; and now the final demands are beginning to land on the mat.
I find the reading of books on the environment by previous generations of writers enlightening and challenging. For them the challenge to grow food rested in experience and human labour not giant machines and clever chemicals. Ninety percent and more of their wisdom and knowhow is still directly applicable even on our little plot which is, for us, a kind of laboratory for a sustainable future.
Today we worked for four or five hours clearing posts off the site of the polytunnel and preparing the new bed for five more trees. As I was digging out the posts I salvaged every useable piece of timber, every vine eye and tensioner and I even rolled the straining wires carefully because it’s really hard to get them at the moment. Just as my grandfather had done, I was storing and recycling anything at all, no matter how rusty or bent, because it might come in handy one day. The beds were weeded on hands and knees and we relocated dormant soft fruit bushes and perennial herbs. Back in the flat we’ve taken hardwood cuttings of favourite bushes. The main room is littered with piles of seed catalogues and gardening books. This isn’t hair shirt for the sake of it. The truth is that we live royally on the fruits of our labour; the things we can’t afford we do without and if we eat seasonally we can put something we grew ourselves on the table 52 weeks of the year. It’s not perfect but it’s completely absorbing as the shape and scope of the allotment evolves. At last the water storage is working properly and we can draw modest amounts of rainwater whenever we need it with enough pressure to run the auto watering drips in the greenhouse.
I’d love to be able to say that passive involvement in nature gives no benefits but the science proves otherwise. However, getting dirt under your fingernails in the fresh air; cooking and eating your own produce puts it up a couple of gears. A pound of borlotti beans in the shops is a commodity – they cost pennies. But baked beans made with your own beans and your own tomato sauce is a feast. I like to think that each time we harvest and cook we share the wisdom and experience of Sir Albert Howard, of Rachel Carson, Lawrence Hills and countless other pioneers who dared to challenge the hegemony of agribusiness. All we need now is for those thirty years plus of schoolchildren who saved yoghurt pots and crushed tins and fished for newts in the pond – most of them are now in positions of real weight and responsibility – we need them (you) to say enoughof this exploitative and dangerous culture– we want to explore being really deeply human again!
Sometimes it’s good to take a step back from the allotment and all its day to day detail and think about the bigger picture. I came across a Chinese proverb the other day that said “The best fertilizer is the farmer’s shadow” – the identical twin to its English equivalent “The best fertilizer is the farmer’s boot.” Boot or shadow, the takeaway point is that the farmer/gardener/allotmenteer’s physical presence and close attention to what’s going on is more effective as a stimulant to healthy and productive plants than many buckets (or tractor loads) of chemicals. Knowing your patch of earth; where the sunny spots are; where the frost gathers in winter; where the soil becomes waterlogged, and where dry; where the easterlies wreak most damage and where the south westerly storms will beat young plants flat.
On our allotment there’s a line where we can plot the point at which the sun rises above the trees for the first time at the spring equinox. We know the bed where beans flourish and the bed where they struggle. All of these important fragments of understanding fall under the seventh principle of permaculture – ‘design from patterns to details‘; and flow from the first – ‘observe and interact‘. All the best gardeners I’ve known have spent huge amounts of time leaning on a gate or a spade and watching; celebrating gardening as a form of meditation.
So are the twelve principles really about gardening at all? Well no, my belief is that they are a rule of life – similar to the rules that novices in religious orders embrace; like the words you sometimes find written above the entrance to the chapel in a Benedictine monastery – “To pray is to work“; and above the exit from the same chapel it will say “To work is to pray” – ‘labore est orare’. We are expected to pay the same devout attention to our everyday work as we would to a more rarified spiritual exercise.
There are other principles bound up in the twelve – such as earthcare, peoplecare and fair share. There is a whole political and economic vision expressed through simple principles in the sense that they could guide a community project or a whole planning department; but there’s no weird dressing up or hierarchy, no private languages and no insiders and outsiders; no saints and devils.
So here they are in all their non sectarian simplicity and I think they’re elegant and rather beautiful; an easily adaptable rule of life rather than a party manifesto but yet could be a way forward for farmers and fishing folk; scientists, economists and even, (oh please) the agrochemical industry and its shareholders.
You know when you’re feeling a bit down when Harold Macmillan’s well known quip comes back to haunt you; but in the minor key. When events start floating past like the ghosts of things that once seemed more important, it’s a bit of a sign that it’s all getting too much: all this endless and aimless governmental button pressing to try and factory reset the country back to an imaginary default state. I read an interesting piece by a behavioural psychologist a few days ago describing the state of mind that, having invested heavily in a solution that’s evidently not working, idles in a catatonic state, hoping that something will turn up.
Here are three signs that it’s not working. One … there was (yet another) provocative op-ed in the Farmers Weekly in which their star winder-up writes that he doesn’t understand the point of regenerative farming. I have written to him in the past about his headline grabbing tendencies (there’s a lot of it about) and point out that the crisis facing intensive farming is well understood, well researched and roaring down the line with no brakes. At what point does not understanding something so important, become a sign of sheer stupidity? I shan’t write of course because last time I did he simply rolled over with a shrug and said ‘maybe I did exaggerate a bit”. The danger is that some of his readers might use his idiotic opinions to shore up their faith in the collapsing citadel of scientific progress and Bishop Bayer.
Next, I might mention the UK government’s announced intention to revisit the debate on what they are now calling “gene editing” which is, they suggest, quite different from “genetic modification”. They used the same trick when they renamed the explosive and leaky nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield, and called it Windscale. Anyway, gene editing sounds pretty much the same to me. I read somewhere that what they mean is that they won’t be inserting genes from a different species but merely mucking about with the ones that are already there. Science fictionally that’s a shame because I’d enjoy the thought of venus flytraps crossed with alligator genes so that they could take a poacher’s leg off. Imagine the kudos of 100% organic fencing. At the point where a species of – let’s say – wheat, is reduced to a complex sequence of genetic code, I have to wonder whether we are so down the reductive path that any talk of species is a rather romantic – what’s wheaty in a single gene? and in reality, it seems to me that interspecies genetic editings and borrowings have caused more than a little trouble at the pandemic level. The inventor of the Kalashnikov rifle always denied that he had done anything more morally culpable than save the Russian government a heap of money on the cost of killing people. You can’t argue with economics …. can you?
“Item the third” (is that Sam Weller in Pickwick papers?) Our Government has just lifted the ban on a neonicotinoid spray in order to save losses in sugar beet crops. Let’s take that one step at a time. The neonicotinoid has been banned because of its capacity to kill pollinating insects. The crop it has been licenced for is sugar beet which is used to make refined white sugar which kills people. So the government had the option of encouraging sugar beet farmers (through subsidy if necessary) to grow crops that we actually need, and which don’t cause diabetes while simultaneously protecting the environment and saving insects. But then, bees don’t give money to politicians but big refined sugar companies and agrochemical manufacturers do.
I could go on forever like this – Scottish fishermen say their income has dropped by 80% since brexit. Poor children are offered the kind of subsidised food parcels that could bring back rickets while our excess death toll due to covid is now in excess of the numbers for the Second World War.
The soil and with it our souls shrink and die a little more every day; Rachel Carson’s silent spring presses hard on us and I’m locked in introspection as the sad captains of industry and their scientific infantry process, wraith like past me, reciting their little fragments of management wisdom all the way down to the pit. In Dante’s “Inferno” the outer circle of hell is reserved for those who didn’t give a shit:
And I , who felt my head surrounded by horrors.
Said: ‘Master, what then is it that I am hearing?
And what people are these, so crushed by pain?’
He answered: ‘That is the manner of existence
Endured by the sad souls of those who lived
Without occasion for infamy or praise.
They are mixed with that abject squadron of angels
Who did not think it worth their while to rebel
Or to be faithful to God, but were for themselves’
Dante The Divine Comedy – Trans. C H Sisson
Who says literature is a waste of time? That last verse has sustained me through many challenging times.
“Enough already”, I say. There comes a point when it’s best to imitate rebellious Chinese scholars and take up fishing for a while. The Potwell Inn allotment has been an illumination and a salve during what they like to call “these difficult times“, when what they actually mean is “your difficult times”. The new season approaches and we’ve finally made the decision to buy a polytunnel; in fact we’ve ordered it and paid for it and watched the video about erecting it. What could possibly go wrong?
We are well and in good health, we have enough food; somewhere to live and yet …. Has brexit and covid distracted us that we’re so focused on the immediate – on the “events, dear boy,” of day to day politics, that we’ve lost the big picture.
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield
We thought we were in for a good shriving when we went up to the allotment today. The plot is very well sheltered from the prevailing south westerly winds and so we don’t worry too much about Atlantic storms unless they get into the forties and fifties, but even then – when the sheds at the top of the site are keeling over – we can usually rely on the sheltering line of cypress trees. Today though the wind was blowing from the east, the coldest and least sheltered quarter, and it was due to veer later towards the north and the west while increasing in force. These are the winds that do most damage to us. Grape vines are particularly vulnerable to icy winds, and today there was no avoiding going up there and making the growing crops as windfast as possible. The broad beans (aquadulce claudia) are pretty bombproof and seem to relish the winter, but too much wind rocking sets them back, so we attached a windbreak to the big net cloches which we only use to keep the pigeons off. The biggest danger was to the purple sprouting broccoli which are five feet tall now and will fall over in extreme winds. They were already staked with canes but today we drove in tree stakes and tied them in with old polythene shopping bags which make surprisingly good plant ties and gives then a third use before we have to recycle them.
So within half an hour we’d warmed up banging in the stakes and clearing away all the dead leaves and since we were enjoying ourselves we looked around for another winter job to get on with. This year, because of travel restrictions, we can’t drive over to our usual source of fresh horse manure which a friend kindly heaps up for us every year about now. That goes into the bottom of the hot bed and gets covered with a soil/compost mixture to give us a quick start in February when it usually takes the soil temperature to over 20C. Twelve months later the whole lot has composted down and is full of worms so we recycle it on to a couple of lucky beds – it’s gloriously rich stuff. After an experiment with growing cucumbers and squashes in grow bags sited on top of the leaf mould bin last year, we discovered that the fabulous crop had been enabled by the roots breaking out through holes in the bags and working their way down through the leaf mould, drawing abundant moisture as they went. So today we capped the bin, newly stacked with another one and a half cubic metres of leaves, with about half the contents of the hotbed manure – getting on for a foot thick. This year we’ll plant squashes and ridge cucumbers directly into the super rich soil and then, in a year’s time we’ll recycle the mixture of leaf mould, manure and topsoil on to the beds again as a soil improving mulch.
The other half of the hotbed contents went on to the rhubarb bed where we intend to plant a third variety in the next few weeks, giving us continuity of supply over the summer. We both love eating rhubarb and it’s a remarkably tolerant and generous plant that needs very little attention aside from water and rich food. The water isn’t a problem because the bed lies above one of our underground watercourses, so we’ve incorporated a good deal of grit into the bottom of the bed so it doesn’t get waterlogged in the winter.
The third job, then, was to build an alternative hotbed using only the materials at hand on the site. The council had dumped what looked like a couple of hay bales up in the leaf bay; still green enough to give at least some heat I hope. So we started a new deep bed (just over 1 metre deep) layering up the grass with more leaves and wood chip, and with a sprinkling of dried chicken manure now and again to add more nitrogen. With a gallon or two of human activator and capped with our usual soil/compost mix we’ll see if it reaches any useful sort of temperature.
All of which shovelling, wheelbarrowing and forking had utterly vanquished the bitterly cold east wind, leaving us warm and content in the way that only a winter morning in the fresh air can do. There is no feeling in the world to match a completed job on the allotment snatched from the jaws of the sort of lousy weather that keeps most of us indoors.
But all the thoughts about wind and rainwater; underground streams and hotbeds; trees and perennial plants lead inescapably to a mea culpa on my part. We’re completely organic, we make compost, we don’t dig, we recycle almost anything including (the liquid bit of) our own waste, we’ve spent much of our working lives in community groups and even started an artists’ studio cooperative. We’ve lived in a couple of communes …. come on ……. join the dots and one obvious philosophy surely comes to mind 🙂
Twenty years ago we had a brief flirtation with permaculture – I even took part in an astoundingly popular TV film about it and – (utterly tongue in cheek) – displayed the dreadful 1950’s woollen carpet given to us by our neighbour – being used for weed control. In those days we kept a flock of chickens and, to be honest, the film company were desperate for someone who could talk confidently on screen and who lived close enough to Jekka McVicar to justify bring a film crew down from London. It was her fault for putting me forward! So chickens; a row of California cylinders steaming away; some nice veg and an orchard complete with a pair of pants that had blown off the washing line – what could go wrong? For goodness sake – I even showed them where the dog and various cats were buried! The garden was a total mess so I told the crew we were using permaculture principles. You simply wouldn’t believe how many complete strangers said to me “saw you on telly last night“.
But it’s taken all this time to overcome my inexplicable prejudice against permaculture. Maybe it’s to do with the way some of its advocates seemed insufferably smug, or treated it like a religion. I couldn’t seem to shake off the feeling that it was an immensely wasteful way of using land; that it was first cousin to foraging but would never be any use to anyone except rich kids who could afford to shop at Sainsbury’s and save the world by picking a few blackberries.
I was wrong on almost every count – I’ll repeat that out loud – I WAS WRONG! – this confession will possibly amaze my friends. There is a marvellous book of meditations by Anthony de Mello that I once used in group work all the time. One of my favourites was the story of a fish that decided to look for the ocean, not realizing that the ocean was the very matrix in which it lived and swam – so ubiquitous that the fish couldn’t see it.
I don’t believe in the god you don’t believe in either!
The misconception about permaculture being about a sort of foraging is very widespread. Ken Thompson, in his otherwise pretty sensible book “The Sceptical Gardener” completely dismisses it (P106) while confusing its whole overarching philosophy with forest gardening. Just for the record, I don’t think that forest gardening will feed the world either; nor do I think that permaculture is the same thing as regenerative farming, but I do think that aligning our whole way of life to the rhythms and patterns of the natural world; living sustainably and generously with our neighbours; breaking free from the prison of endless growth and using whatever we find “to hand” – whether wind or rain or sunshine or soil as creatively as we possibly can by designing systems that balance inputs and outputs.
All my sleepless nights pondering hot beds, thermal storage, hydraulic ram pumps, composting, water storage, tree planting, hot spots and frost pockets, wind power solar panels, ponds polytunnels and insect friendly planting schemes ….. blah blah blah. Like Anthony de Mello’s little fish I couldn’t see permaculture anywhere out there because we were already doing it – up to our necks in it, but just on the small 250 square metre plot we happen to have at our disposal rather than on a grander but imaginary smallholding. Which means that we won’t be able to use my design for imaginary portable chicken arks or indeed eat the imaginary eggs which, fattened by grass and grubs would be the goldenest and most delicious and sitty uppest eggs you ever saw; but we’ve done that and it was marvellous, and we hope that many others will be able to enjoy it as much as we did.
So there we are. We were looking for a philosophical home and it turned out we were there already. The Potwell Inn is like that – full of surprises.
I couldn’t resist this photo opportunity on the canal this morning – these two cats, cute though they were, also looked rather anxious to me. There were quite a number of dogs being taken for walks on the towpath so as well as the puzzle about the earth moving, they had to cope with the constant anxiety of predators nearby.
I can completely empathise with their state of generalized anxiety. What with Covid 19 mach II rampaging around and a government that functions each day by believing six impossible things before breakfast, and then the gathering climate catastrophe I sometimes wonder if I’m one book away from a breakdown.
A novel, a book of literary criticism, a poem, an environmental warning and a lost and found manuscript.
I also wonder how it is that we, as a species, can live in so many ways against our best interests. I’ve been reading Tom Philpotts’s book “Perilous Bounty” about the crisis in both agriculture and horticulture in California and the Midwest. Is it just America? I’m not so sure that Americans have some especial mindset that leads their country into bad ways. Some of the best writing about nature has come out of America, and my bookshelves are probably full of books about the American crisis because so many writers, thinkers, and enough ordinary folk to buy their books, are way ahead of us here in the UK in recognising the danger. That’s one reason; and another reason for being very leery about blaming America for it all is that – whatever culture found its way across the Atlantic began life here in Europe, and unless we’ve embarked on a separate burst of cultural evolution then we are still walking in step with our cousins.
These thoughts about America came this morning with a quotation from a book that popped into my mind. The book is Charles Olson’s “Call me Ishmael”, published in 1947 – the year after I was born. I have a long association with this book. I first read it in annotated photocopied typescript form in about 1971. It took a long route. Olson taught at Black Mountain College (with a galaxy of other writers, poets and painters who became household names. One of his fellow lecturers was Ed Dorn (Of “Gunslinger” fame – the poem not the film!) who subsequently moved to the UK to teach American Literature in Essex and brought with him a typescript copy of the book. His course was attended by a friend of ours who borrowed the manuscript and photocopied it himself, then lent it to me at Art School. The book is a short piece of the most marvellous literary criticism which shows Olson trying to get to grips with Herman Melville the writer, and “Moby Dick” his strange masterpiece. I never forgot the first few paragraphs, and after a long search I recently managed to buy a facsimile copy that looked as if it came from the same hand as the one I’d seen – very exciting.
The opening paragraphs, as they fell into my mind, seemed to say something terribly important about the culture that has penetrated western thought like an evil miasma. Here it is:
I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy.
It is geography at bottom, a hell of a wide land from the beginning. That made the first American story, (Parkman’s) exploration.
Something else than a stretch of earth, – seas on both sides, no barriers to contain as restless a thing as Western man was becoming in Columbus’ day. That made Melville’s story (part of it).
PLUS a harshness we still perpetuate, a sun like a tomahawk, small earthquakes but big tornadoes and hurrikans [sic], a river north and south in the middle of the land running out the blood.
The fulcrum of America is the Plains, half sea half land, a high sun as metal and obdurate as the iron horizon, and a man’s job to square the circle.
Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. I see Poe dug in and Melville mounted. They are the alternatives.
Americans still fancy themselves such democrats. But their triumphs are of the machine. It is the only master of space the average person ever knows, oxwheel to piston, muscle to jet. It gives trajectory.
To Melville it was not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and as a people. Ahab is no democrat. Moby Dick, antagonist, is only king of natural force, resource.
Charles Olson “Call me Ishmael (1947) this edition by Forgotten Books Grove Press New York and Evergreen Books Ltd. London.
Moby Dick in Ahab’s mind is nothing more than resource – a truly terrifying thought. And the restlessness of post Columban humanity that wants to subdue all that obdurate wildness first, and then – when the journey west meets the Pacific Ocean, to subdue the sea and its inhabitants too. Not the curse of the American mind, then, but the curse of western culture – our father, our mother and our language. I think Olson expresses something that comes close to our contemporary original sin, the will to subdue nature and treat it as nothing more than resource. Find the book and read it.
But (I hear the exceptionalists argue) – that’s America, not here. As I was reading Tom Philpott’s book the same thought hovered around at the back of my mind too. What has the Central Valley in California to do with Britain? Water and its management is a part of the answer. Our farmers may not wear dungarees and baseball caps, and Barbours may be more representative wear here, but arable crops still demand water, lots of it and in the arable lands of south east Britain, nearly all of it (when it’s not actually raining) comes from underground aquifers. California may be a nose ahead of us, but we’re just as guilty of reaping where we have not sown when it comes to water. Here in the South West we have plenty of water most of the time, but the constant erosion cause by bare farmland over winter causes the same level of soil loss. The rivers of Devon run red as they pass through bare fodder maize fields. So here in the west our problem is rapid runoff and flooding in the winter and spring, and in the east it will be drought in the increasingly hot summers. The conflict between agriculture, industry and homes over water, and the rising problem of pollution from nitrate runoff as it percolates (it takes decades) through the rock along with pesticides will be a profit consuming test for the privatised water companies. The landscape may be different in the US and across Britain, but the extractive, mechanised and intensive rationale is exactly the same. There’s an excellent explainer on groundwater extraction here.
So in answer to my own question, no I don’t think America is in any sense an environmental outlier. We have seen the enemy – it is us!
Madame will kill me for putting her photo on the blog but one or two unkind friends have suggested I make her sound like a brothel keeper or a dominatrix so I thought I’d put the record straight. She is, as should be immediately obvious, a stranger to the whip and handcuff.
Anyway, it was freezing cold today and yesterday we had to shorten our walk because there was so much ice around; breaking legs is most definitely not on our agenda for the New Year – so today we looked at the outside temperature, which was -1C and settled for a day indoors. As you may have noticed, I’m an almost promiscuous reader and it’s no particular hardship to spend a day with a book – today’s read was Tom Philpott’s “Perilous Bounty” which addresses the economics of intensive farming as well as the environmental problems it’s causing; the two are intimately linked, you won’t be surprised to learn. Anyway it’s a thoroughly well written and well researched book which I’d recommend (bearing in mind that by recommending a book a day I’m writing for an audience of one.
But Madame and I have been gardening for so long that we often converge in our thoughts and today as I was reading the book she was researching allotments around the world, investigating the styles and methods employed in many different countries. During the summer several of our allotment neighbours employed a Polish handyman to build them sheds, and this one looked remarkably akin to some of the buildings on Eastern European allotments. So our conversation drifted this way and that, and as we talked about some of the projects we’d like to tackle – we both experienced a rising sense of optimism looking forward to next season.
These dog days of December and January can sap your creative energy and diminish your enthusiasm for the unfinished jobs on the allotment, but today my head’s full of ideas; to finish building roofs over the line of compost bins, to drive new posts and boards along the bottom to shore up the terracing and to build the shelter between the shed and the greenhouse. The, in the last few bitterly cold days, I’ve been wondering about building a polytunnel. Obviously this would extend our growing season but there’s another reason too. Our site is plagued most years by tomato and potato blight. Potatoes aren’t so much of a problem because first earlies – the tastiest potatoes to grow – aren’t affected; they’re out of the ground before the humidity and temperature combine to create blight conditions. Tomatoes are another thing altogether because they’re always going to be vulnerable. For some years we’ve grown an F1 hybrid tomato with tremendous resistance and we’ve had marvellous crops. But this year one of our other resolutions is to start seed saving and that means eschewing the Fi hybrids and some of the commercial seeds because, whatever the name on the packet, it seems they pretty well all originate in the same old industry cartel. Tomatoes grown in a polytunnel would benefit from the extra protection from cold weather, winds and blight. The biggest challenge with a tunnel will be watering, but I’m hoping a combination of permaculture ideas and crafty storage and re-routing from the water butts will allow us a week away in the campervan now and again. At present our new resolution to walk the Mendip Way is on hold due to the new regulations.
We probably all grew up with the fixed idea that evolution is an immensely slow process and, in some cases it is. However with plants, because they produce seed every year, the annual selection of the best/strongest/best flavoured/most resistant plants can – it seems – result in useful new strains through cross pollination. The huge abundance of varieties of maize in South America is down to selective breeding for many different altitudes, soils and weather patterns; and some of these varieties – some grain varieties too – become what’s known as ‘landrace’ types. In Wales at the moment at least one food coop is trialling a traditional landrace form of wheat. So it’s all up in the air at the moment but we’ve been very successful with seed saving some of our herbs and prolific easy flowers like marigolds and nasturtium. In the summer we’ll try some saved peas and borlotti and see how we go. Of course it needs organisation and proper cataloguing, but having looked at our seed bills this year, a few brown envelopes and some time could be a great moneysaver. One of our neighbours in our previous house had grown a completely unique cherry tomato for years – nobody had the faintest idea what variety it was because he’d been saving seed all that time, but it was lovely.
Due to the lockdown we’re unable to fill the hotbed with horse manure this year, so we’re going to experiment with layered beds of woodchip, leaves, compost and top soil. They probably won’t heat up but we’ll give it a go with some additional human urine and see what happens. We’ve already prepped a new strawberry bed in the same way.
So it’s new Year’s Day. Our upstairs neighbours defied the rules and had a right old party last night and I can tell you that one young woman had no idea how to sing Auld Lang Syne – and no idea when to stop either. We wish them, you, and all our regulars at the Potwell Inn a better year than the one that’s gone. For us we can say without fear of contradiction that 2021 looks like the best year ever. So far!
Another day another book – blame the weather, the lockdown and the new covid strain; but sometimes a moment of boredom can bear fruit. I was sitting looking at a bit of leftover everyday sourdough in the kitchen (OK I’m a bit of a slob) when I noticed a fine mist of white mould growing on it, and so I took it to the microscope to have a closer look and the mould emerged from the blur as a delightfully sculptural mass of ovoid/spherical and translucent fungus. Then I wondered what would happen if I photographed the image with my mobile and above left is my very first attempt at a microphotograph, from which I learn that I need decent clamp to hold the phone still over the microscope eyepiece so I can focus more accurately. Nonetheless I was pleased with the idea that low budget microphotography is at least possible – if only for note taking. So aside from creative doodling and flashes of inspiration I’ve been reading a newly published book entitled “Green Meat” – subtitled “sustaining eaters, animals and the planet” Edited by Ryan M. Katz-Rosene and Sarah J. Martin and published by McGill-Queens University Press.
Some books are good because they give reliable, verifiable information on their topics. This book certainly scores on the verifiable side with each of the eleven essays fully supported by footnotes and extensive references. But I’d say its greatest strength is to frame the ethical and environmental problems facing meat production and meat eating in such a way as to articulate the difficulties with searching questions. In the words of their own formulation, to “problematize the problem”; to question the many bumper sticker simplifications that obscure a hugely complex challenge that can only be addressed in appropriately complex ways. As they say in the introduction”
For any hardline carnivores or vegans out there seeking to find material that bolsters their claims of superior dietary practices -look elsewhere!
What the book does is give space to nine writers, all specialists or practitioners experienced in meat production and farming from holistic planned grazing – (think Joe Salatin, for instance) through First Nation hunting and trapping, to intensive industrial farms and CAFOs – concentrated animal feeding operations. All of them look critically at the data that circulates widely and is often used selectively by partisans of one view or another; by agroindustry looking to ‘greenwash’ its activities and by groups promoting extreme dietary change – universal veganism, for instance – in order to save the planet. I won’t rehearse the many arguments here but if you’re interested in engaging more thoughtfully with your food purchasing I’d certainly recommend you read this book; but what I will do is focus on one or two ways which were particularly illuminating for me.
In our five years on the present allotments, we’ve always borne in mind the need to build up the soil from its original rather neglected state but I don’t think we’ve ever fully articulated the notion that we have been growing two crops all along – the crop which we eat and the crop within the soil itself, the invisible crop of carbon and other minerals, of humus, mould, micro-organisms, fungi, nematodes, worms and insects; the billions of living things that constitute the invisible, or perhaps generally overlooked crop. It’s almost impossible to design a calculus that includes a value for all that accumulated wealth but it’s at the heart of our project and “Green Meat”brought that home to me.
At first sight the essay “A feminist Multi-Species approach to Green Meat” looked a bit off-putting and yet it turned out to be one of the most thought provoking essays in the book and led me to understand that the reductionist approach to climate change – simplifying the problem down to a minimum of variables – methane, greenhouse gases, national food statistics and so forth, is in itself a symptom of industrialised framing. What about the animals and the suffering they endure by not being allowed to express themselves ‘animally’? What about the other stakeholders beyond the shareholders? – those whose lives are affected whether negatively or positively by the system. What about the societal structures that make some rich and some poor? What about the poorest consumers who, instead of being adequately fed are made sick by processed food? What about whole ecosystems and their associated wildlife?
What about localised cultures? – and this was what made me think long and hard about our fishing communities. Arguments about fish quotas obscure whole human cultures because they are framed exclusively in terms of catch. Complex ecological and social relationships are thrust to the margins of discussion. By complete coincidence we watched the multi award winning film “Bait” (poster shot above) – this evening and it flawlessly documented the destruction of the local fishing culture by tourism. The culture that sustains fishing in this country also sustains the Royal National Lifeboat Institution whose volunteers include many professional fishermen. The network of local food relationships which would be essential within a rethinking of our food sustainability is rendered invisible when an industry is reduced to considerations of efficiency. Too many discussions of sustainability want to start from scratch; reinventing the wheel. Why build it again when it was there already?
Another essay examines the catastrophic effects on First Nation sustainable hunting and fishing by mining and mineral extraction in Canada – shades of Cornish fishing once again. Apparently the fishing industry generates less than 1% of the GNP in this country, but does that justify the destruction of an ancient way of life? And then, difficult thoughts flow about, for instance, mining communities. However much we may accept the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and the extractive economy , the fact is – as the old joke says – at the bottom of every mine in the world there’s a Welshman or a Cornishman, and those communities embodied community values like solidarity and a passion for education that our individualistic culture has lost at great cost. The remedy for these difficult questions won’t be reduced to a slogan. Perhaps the real enemy is the one powerful tool that has transformed the world – the reductive industrialised way of thinking has become the new common sense thinking. Gramsci’s warning that common sense isn’t always sensible gets quoted in one of the essays.
Let me give an example from this week’s Farmers Weekly. There is in development a new way of treating cattle slurry with plasma (whatever that may be) which reduces its methane releasing properties by 90%. Bravo you might say, but “Green Meat” suggests that our industrialised mindset is always taking one micro-problem at a time and attempting to solve it technologically rather than stepping back and reflecting on the whole. By all means bombard the shit tanks with high energy death rays, but that still leaves another thousand problematic areas of intensive farming untouched. Industrial farming is constantly playing catch up with the next side effect of its intensity. In medicine they’ve got a name for it – “iatrogenic illness” – which means illness caused as a side effect of treatment, and it kills tens of thousands every year.
I should end this here, except I want to raise one other issue that will raise great difficulties. In every probability, meat consumption will continue to be a part – we hope a much smaller part – of the national diet. The conversion of vast areas of pasture to arable land would bring in its wake huge losses of biodiversity and without access to animal manure, even greater consumption of artificial fertilizers and yet more chemicals. The most likely answer is to allow the shrinkage of the existing meat industry while increasing the quality of food through holistic planned grazing or similar restorative schemes. The other aspect of the policy must be to decrease food miles by building new or restoring old local food networks. The tricky question then will be – “where do we site the new, small slaughterhouses”? – and I fear the answer will be “anywhere except here!” A second tricky question – and one which is greatly troubling the farmers in national parks is -“if we’re going to step back from industrialised machine supported farming, we will need to find and train many thousands of new agricultural and horticultural workers. Where are we going to house them?” – and here the nimbyism of the incomers will chorus once again – “anywhere except here!”.
If you’re looking for the cause of the success of right wing populist politics here and elsewhere, you have to include the anger of communities in the countryside – not least hill farmers; but also miners, steelworkers, fishing communities and the many others who correctly believe that the political structure of our country has excluded and silenced them. Could it be that we have our own dispossessed people here, and they look just like us!
I’ll get back to St Francis in a moment but I know that many of you will be desperate to see the Potwell Inn Christmas Day Menu. Excluded from Europe and the physical company of everyone we love, we decided to tear up tradition and please ourselves entirely as regards what we ate in splendid isolation – and so:
Tea in bed
Breakfast: muesli (made by me)
lunch: Christmas pudding with crême fraiche – nothing else
Supper: Chicken fajita
The children were a bit shocked to see that we had wilfully abandoned the family tradition; rather more, I think, because it somewhat undermined their own efforts to keep it alive. But in these circumstances I always quote the famous last six words of every great institution – “we always do it this way” – and being old is the perfect time to become an iconoclast because no-one else seems to want to put Christmas out of its misery. It was surprisingly easy to do; to wave away the orgy of overspending and overeating; and under the circumstances we felt no compulsion to pretend that everything was back to normal. “Bah humbug” – you accuse, and affecting not to understand we reply “que?!”
And so to St Francis.
I did say that I intended to write something about some kind of green spirituality, but the more I thought about it the harder it became until Joe’s Christmas present was delivered. It was a bit of a shock I must say. How would you describe something that’s hilariously funny, excruciatingly kitsch and borderline blasphemous?
I’ve always had a soft spot for heresy, whether the religious sort or the Christmas dinner menu makes no difference. A good heresy is the engine of change because good heresies are always tempting, otherwise they wouldn’t be any good. All great paradigm shifts are kicked off by a heresy. So St Francis of the boot rack (the name came to me instantly in a moment of pure grace), put me on the back foot in the most wonderful manner and rather than accepting the gift with a fake smile and gritted teeth I thought to myself – “this is marvellous”. But why???
Forgive me if you’ve read a previous post where I told this story but it fits well here. Some years ago we visited Chartres Cathedral which, on first impressions, was a kind of religious Disneyland. Queues of pilgrims clutching plaster models of the Virgin Mary waited to have them blessed. The building was heaving with visitors and I was rigid with the kind of anger that comes from fear; fear because I couldn’t understand what was going on. Nothing in my aesthetic experience had prepared me for such a festival of utterly bad taste. Until, that is, I was overwhelmed by a sense of holiness that was completely impervious to the cattle market atmosphere. I was so overwhelmed that I took off my shoes and socks and, for a hour, walked barefoot around the building as it spoke to me through my feet. It was one of the shortest pilgrimages ever conducted and I still haven’t fully digested it but, like a zen koan, it shorted out my overeducated theoretical mind and showed me another mind space altogether.
Pop. There goes another one!
So St Francis of the boot rack – what’s he saying? Well I think he’s teaching a lesson about idolatry – and I’m sorry for the big, loaded word but it’s a crucial shorthand way of describing the way we habitually try to cram an ocean of meaning into a fishbowl. This piece of fibreglass kitsch has no aesthetic merit at all and yet its strength lies somewhere else altogether – perhaps in its innocence, its naivety, its acceptance that it claims no more for itself than the grid reference can claim to be the mountain. Idolatry just means worshipping the part, thereby diminishing the whole. St Francis of the boot rack is a device for popping ego bubbles.
Next, sometimes reading a book can lead to the uncanny sense that the writer has somehow broken in to your mind and carried off your memories. I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the second clue to constructing a green spirituality came to me when he wrote about an experience that exactly parallelled my own – not that it was a special revelation at all, but simply the puzzle, for a non believer, of dealing with the sense of thanksgiving for an entirely undeserved gift that comes out of nowhere. When picking blackberries in the autumn; when coming across a field full of fresh mushrooms; when harvesting a crop on the allotment. Who to thank?
I suppose we could walk away from such an experience congratulating ourselves on our foraging expertise, mycological acumen or horticultural skill; but it never seems enough because, in truth, we make very little contribution to our good fortune .
Of course there are any number of theological readymades queueing up to claim these oddly numinous experiences for themselves, but they all come with a heavy price tag. They all require that you buy into the whole system with all its inconsistencies and occasional cruelties just in order to give you a mailing address where you can post your thank-you’s.
For the avoidance of idolatry that narrows these experiences down until they become trivial; and the avoidance of the great systematic theologies that confine these ecstatic experiences like wild animals in a zoo; any credible green spirituality would, for me, need to remain largely silent. In fact you might steal a concept from the Carthusians and other religious communities who keep a great silence after compline each day. Such a great silence would need to stop struggling to explain things while giving us a space to which to bring our thanksgivings and laments. There is so much that lies beyond our present capacity for explanation (maybe our science needs a paradigm shift as well) – that there’s no need to invent supernatural entities to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. There is the earth whose ways are still largely unknown to us. There is the sun, the moon; there are stars and there is weather and there are the great orders of living things. I’ve naughtily paraphrased St Francis great Canticle of the Sun because I still kind of identify with him in his artless extremism; his simplicity and his love of nature. I should own up to the fact that I was once a lay member of the Anglican Third Order of the Society of St Francis and like all the best teachers, Francis embedded himself in my mind even though I moved on and away from the orthodoxies.
The religious systems of the past don’t have the monopoly on concepts such as humility –humus, the condition of the earth – on forgiving or on generosity, on equality or thanksgiving or human love. They’re all there ready to be recycled and repurposed in ways that work for us, speak to us and generate new meaning. Naturally the concessionaires and leaseholders of the existing spiritualities will kick up a fuss – they would, wouldn’t they – and we shall always have to look out for a new breed of snake oil salespeople who talk the talk but don’t do the other bit, they’re human after all, just like the rest of us. But – I’m just speaking for myself now and I don’t expect you to agree – for me a Green New Deal without some kind of spirituality would be too thin to survive. A farming method or an algorithm for life without poetry, music and dance , without thanksgiving and (dare I say?) liturgy would be a poor half-starved creature; unfit for purpose.
Just forget the dogma, the hierarchy, the keyholders and all the bureaucracy. Forget all that “we always do it this way” stuff and gaze in wonder at the daft plastic statue of St Francis of the boot rack. What better reminder of our frailty do we need.