Backstage at the Moulin Rouge

Well no, no really, but we’ve go two really fine exhibitions going on in Bath at the moment – one is an exhibition of posters – many of them by Lautrec – at the Victoria Art Gallery, and the other at the Holburne Museum is a large collection of Grayson Perry’s early works.

I love Lautrec’s work; I love its vigour, the sweep of his line and the way he seems to make something beautiful out of tawdry, demi monde Paris. There’s a whole argument about the relationship between truth and beauty that I won’t bore you with, but Lautrec never had the rather cruel, forensic eye that you see in say Grosz or Beckmann and I think it’s because he was an outsider himself. I don’t want to write an art history essay here, but looking at the poster of the dancer La Goulou (“Greedy Guts”) there’s something about the drawing of the look on her face, described very economically in profile, that shows  compassion for her. I can imagine Lautrec sitting sketching in the wings and watching her perform to the crowded audience, and noticing something in her eyes that suggests she is simply working. She’s not engaging with the crowd, she’s certainly not flirting with them, she is not owned by them or dependent on them, not out for hire but just working. Lautrec gives her a kind of nobility.  He does that a lot in his posters – you can see that his characters aren’t taken in by the superficial glamour of what they do. The booze, the prostitution, the infidelites are all there but they don’t define the performers.  You notice that he’s far less sympathetic to the punters and that may be because he was an outsider too.  Disabled by a childhood injury – I can imagine that his bones were broken near the growth plates and they just stopped growing – he would have known what it felt like to be stared at, what it felt like to be regarded as both fascinating and horrible at the same time. And of course he had a gift that meant people had to engage with him on his terms. In a world of outsiders he was just another one; but he was totally accepted in the favela of the cabarets, the bars and the brothels.

Grayson Perry has the same ‘outsider’ quality. We went to see his work the day after the exhibition was opened and it was absolutely heaving with people.  He’s immensely popular, especially – it seems – with the over sixties, judging by the crowds. We liked his work very much – apparently quite a proportion of his earliest stuff was bought by people who lived around here. My biggest impression was just how hard he worked; it seems that ‘being yourself’ demands the kind of fierce concentration that few people would be prepared to give.

And then there’s Adam Nicholson’s book “The Seagull’s Cry” which I’ve been raving on about for long enough. I took a look at some of the reviews that came out when it was published – all of them very positive, but this one by Alex Preston in the Financial Times struck me as rather odd.

The poet Michael Longley said that nature was a way into, rather than an escape from, politics. “My nature writing is my most political,” he wrote. “Describing the world in a meticulous way is a consecration and a stay against damaging dogmatism.” The more you read The Seabird’s Cry, the more you recognise that this is not nature writing — generally a trite and provincial genre — but a powerful polemic, a call to arms. Science, Nicolson writes, “is coming to understand the seabirds just as they are dying”. He asks us to save the seabirds, but to save them through a radical sympathetic shift …

Now nature writing is undergoing a true renaissance at the moment; the list of fine writers on the natural world is long and distinguished, but to write – “this is not nature writing — generally a trite and provincial genre”  is, if you’ll forgive me, a particularly suburban and smug remark based on a false syllogism:

  • Nature writing is generally trite and provincial
  • This writing is not trite and provincial
  • Therefore it is not nature writing

The flaw is in the premise – as usual –  and Alex Preston clearly has no idea what is going on in the world.  I suppose you could call Gilbert White provincial but only in the strict sense that Selborne isn’t in the East End and inhabited exclusively by currency dealers and hipsters. In theology this kind of prejudice was known as “the scandal of particularity”. Nothing exists except as a shadow of its essence, he might argue, and therefore to concern oneself with the absolutely unique and material beauty of the dandelion in the crack on the pavement outside my flat is to miss (so he might say) its dandelionarity.  Surely you might expect a novelist to understand that no-one wants to read a book about stereotypes!

Nicholson’s chapter on the Guillemot makes for harrowing reading as he describes the way that the social mores that historically held these bird communities together through constant reinforcement, broke down as the food sources moved away from the nesting sites due to global warming. Deprived of the abundant food, the guillemots began to turn on one another, chicks were slaughtered by neighbouring birds that once might have fostered them. Reading the chapter, it was impossible not to extend the sense of danger to human communities as well.  Once the social bonds are broken there may well be hell to pay in the most literal sense.

And back in the very real and particular world of horse shit and hotbeds I’m pleased to report that ours has risen from 10C to 30C in less than a week. In Lautrec’s day the market gardens of Montmartre relied on hotbeds to grow early salad crops for export to London. Jack First’s great book on hotbeds – all you need to get going – quotes McKay whose book, published in 1908 said:

The French sent over to London up to 5000 crates of lettuces with 3 dozen lettuces per crate, 500 crates of carrots with a dozen bunches per crate, plus 100 crates each of asparagus and turnips and 50 crates of celeriac – every day – and all between Christmas and March.

All that and there was still time to go down to the Moulin Rouge and watch La Goulue.  I could get used to it!

Storm Dennis forces indoor gardening

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it got worse. When we first heard the wind soughing through any gaps in the windows it sounded suitably mournful, almost lovely. It felt good to pull up the bedcovers and entertain ourselves with thoughts of the driving rain and crashing waves outside the door. But that’s just an indulgence.

Actually being flooded is quite a different experience as we discovered one evening alongside the tidal Avon almost underneath the Clifton Suspension Bridge.  We’d been living there for some years and we were used to the occasional inundation of the Portway, but this particular night a west wind was heaping up a spring tide and driving it upstream at the same time as a snow melt was travelling in the opposite direction. What was most unnerving about it was just how quiet it was.  The water just kept on rising, over the dockside, across the low wall and then began to move across the road towards our house. We stood there in disbelief for an age, before Madame called a taxi to take the children to a safer place as I wondered how to stop the water flooding the basement. Mercifully the tide turned and the water retreated, but I’d never experienced water as malignant before.  Dark, relentless and malignant.  I think of the hundreds of people in the North for whom the water hasn’t stopped.

And now we live much further upstream on the same river – we haven’t moved far – but the river hasn’t lost its capacity to threaten and bully its way through the city. We know when it’s high when we can see the surface gleaming through the trees across the green, and still it’s largely silent when it’s at its most dangerous. There’s no theatrical roar, no whitewater, it’s just dark; swirling silently and sliding past as fast as a cyclist could keep up on the towpath. Global climate change is one problem we’re not going to be able to export to a place we don’t have to look in the eye. Which is perhaps an overly melodramatic way of cueing the fact that we didn’t go out today.  We’d made safe the allotment as best we could, and we just waited for storm Dennis to blow it (him)self out over the weekend while we got on with sowing seeds for the propagators.

It seems a bit ironic to be sowing chillies and peppers this weather, but they need a long season and so we always seem to land up sowing them when the winter weather is demonstrating that there’s still time for frost and snow. Each year we juggle the dates to try to get them ready to go up to the allotment at the exact moment the weather changes for the better. It’s called gambling, and the odds are always in favour of Nature having the last laugh, which is why you need to develop plenty of resilience, and a sense of humility to be any good as a gardener. If I had one piece of advice – or rather two pieces – for a novice allotmenteer they would be

  1. Get your seeds in early
  2. Don’t get your seeds in too early

See what I mean? That’s why this blog is about being human, rather than being clever. My guess is that in about eight weeks we’ll be trying to keep a load of very leggy and tender capsicum plants alive in the flat until the snow melts at last. Anyway, this is the time of year when almost everything you’re planning to do on the allotment is virtual; aspirational.  A few cotyledons here and there; some unopened seed packets along with some empty beds in which – we hope – remarkable vegetables will grow.

Outside the flat, the window boxes are being thrashed by the wind and rain, and I’m not sure they’ll ever reach their full potential this year. All across the UK people are enduring this seemingly endless sequence of Atlantic storms, and I’d like to think that the light is gradually dawning in the collective mind.  But then I think back to how long it took for the science around the dangers of smoking to take us to the point of giving it up.  There were huge commercial pressures and vast fortunes were spent by the tobacco industry to prop their lethal product up, and successive governments delayed any genuine action – probably because of the huge tax revenues they were gaining. We must expect that common sense will only prevail after every other option has been investigated – the trouble is we don’t have fifty years.

If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I’m very interested in finding out how farmers are responding to the climate challenge. I don’t think anyone – even farmers – believe that nothing needs to change, but I do think that some of their critics have been cherry picking the evidence against farming. So here’s another random article that landed in my inbox today.  This one is another defence of traditional mixed farming over and against feedlots and chemicals.  I found it very interesting although I can’t vouch for all the data it’s based on.  But whatever solution we reach for has simply got to gain the support of farmers and landowners if it’s going to work. I have no confidence in the capacity of the present government to challenge its own funding sources so it’s going to have to be a battle for public opinion.  The information, all of it, is out there and we need to collate and understand what it’s saying and not reach for scapegoats to carry the blame. The future of life on the earth depends upon us reaching the correct conclusion and then acting on it.

 

Like dragging an elk back to the cave

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Actually the photo is a bit of a cheat because I took it exactly a year ago to the day.  On the other hand after a few days of work this week, the allotment looks uncannily – or rather – exactly the same, because in truth there’s nothing at all uncanny about the yearly routine since with small variations from year to year it just happens that way.

A friend emailed today with a link to an Imboic celebration she’d taken part in.  I’d never heard of Imboic before but it’s described both as a Wiccan and a Celtic festival to celebrate the beginning of spring and takes place at the beginning of February, coincidentally the date when Candlemas is celebrated in the Christian church. The religious are a larcenous lot with regard to festivals and this is obviously an ancient, probably pre-Christian festival that’s been repackaged to suit successive orthodoxies. What it does achieve is to touch the very deep need in our lives to recognise and celebrate the seasonal turning points. Looking at the YouTube video it’s clear that everyone was having a grand time and that, in my usual latitudinarian way I don’t give a stuff if they all believe different things; the fact is, the crowds knew why they were there and what they were celebrating.

And the crowds were entirely right. The year has turned decisively and even if there were no humans left to celebrate it (a distinct possibility if we don’t change our ways) the plants and wildlife certainly would. Today on the allotment we heard and saw –  wrens and robins, jays, magpies, rooks, and a green woodpecker; all without making the least effort. We allotmenteers seem to have an instinctual drive to make ready for the new season and Madame and me have been afflicted by the urge to work all day and think about work all night. The beds are all ready, bar a tiny bit of weeding, and the second propagator will be switched on tomorrow (rainy day job).  The pile of pernicious weeds and roots – mostly bindweed and creeping buttercup since the couch has been vanquished – has not dried out, and so the vexed issue of whether to burn them in a couch fire or drive them to the tip and let someone else burn them, hasn’t arisen – but it will.  The battle of the composts has been resolved, and a new bag of Sylva Grow is in the back of the car. I would have tried to get a bag of Carbon Gold, about which I’ve heard good things, but it’s not widely distributed in garden centres yet.  We are astonished that they are still apparently selling mountains of peat based composts, and it occurred to me this morning that it’s no use grumbling about the way things are; this is a capitalist society and the one thing, the only thing agribusiness is interested in is the bottom line. So if we’re concerned about peat extraction we just stop buying it, and put the garden centres on notice that we’ll take away their greenwashed credentials if they don’t stop.

Anyway, enough bolshy gardener stuff – I really wanted to write about the absurd pleasure of prepping the ground.  Our allotment is at the bottom of a steep slope, probably about 30 vertical feet below the access track, and that means that wheelbarrowing materials down the grass path is pretty hard work. In the last few days I’ve trucked down 20 bags of horse manure, 4 bags of topsoil, 2 bags of horticultural sand, a week’s kitchen waste and maybe ten loads of wood chip. Then today as I surveyed the flattened remains of the autumn leaf pile, I realized that there was a good eight inches of almost black topsoil, full of old leaf mould and it was calling out to me – take me now! When we took on our hillside allotments, the only thing we could do was terrace them. Timber is expensive, but we bit the bullet and gradually built proper beds as funds permitted. Some topsoil was salvaged as we dug out deep paths for drainage, but our so-called raised beds have spent much of their lives being a bit sunken. Filling them with topsoil would have been outrageously expensive and so our strategy has been to recycle every gram of dirt, every plant pot’s worth of compost and to acquire more whenever the chance arose.  A neighbour over ordered and so I bought the surplus from him.  Today yielded four full barrow loads of marvellous topsoil and at last the most needy bed is genuinely raised.  The hotbed is fully charged and has reached 13C at the surface of the earth layer, and I added the surplus horse manure to the compost bin as a bit of extra nitrogen, and turned it all in. This was truly hard work and yet it gave me the most absurd amount of pleasure. It was, in the words at the top of this post, dragging the elk back to the cave kind of work. The purple sprouting broccoli is ready to harvest, and we’ve still got potatoes and parsnips- we dug the last today. I swear if the government ever found out how much joy and pleasure this gives, they’d tax it or ban it.

And then to the garden centre to look for seeds and (inevitably) we spent more than we should because to an allotmenteer a packet of seeds or a new garden tool has more than paid for itself before you even reach the till! So a new draw hoe attached itself to me and begged me to buy it – how could I refuse?

Is gardening good for your mental health? of course it is! It’s good for your spiritual health as well, oh and your physical health too, provided you steer clear of the sirens on the chemical stands. We shall dine on parsnips and elk tonight and I’ll put on my best bison skin to impress Madame. Just to cap it all, I’ve been reading Adam Nicholson’s book “The Seabird’s Cry” – I like to take a break from frightening myself now and again. This is a wonderful book and it would make a birdwatcher out of a stone. If you take my advice and buy it, you’ll never look a sea bird in the eye again without awe and respect.

Feel the pulse

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I know I’ve been a bit remiss over the last few days, but things are hotting up on the allotment and – because the evenings are lighter – we tend to forget the time and arrive back at the flat late, leaving an unholy rush to get food organised.  But the beds are looking good and the broad beans have survived the latest storm with another on the way.  The hotbed is now full and has gained 6C over the past 48 hours, so now it’s capped with soil it will romp away. The infrastructure jobs like moving and plumbing the water butts are at last looking possible.  There’s a whole list of things to do, but at least we’re not chafing at home.

We are, however, chafing a bit up at the allotment because the annual challenge of seed compost has made its appearance and we’re unable to agree on what to do.  It really is difficult to find well made peat free seed composts.  We use coir modules for many things, but there are some vegetables that need to be pricked out.  We’ve experimented with SylvaGrow and it’s not the best for seed sowing.  We use it for many other purposes but we’ve not been successful with some.  Home made peat free compost – unless we buy in all the ingredients – uses soil and compost that haven’t been sterilised and so could in theory lead to damping off and other fungal problems. I’m sure a solution will eventually be found but it’s been a headache.

But I was browsing this morning, thinking about borlotti beans – which we really like.  I was musing on whether we really do need to move towards synthetic or manufactured proteins as we decrease our meat consumption.  A very little bit of research showed that the kind of pulses we can grow easily in the UK – like borlotti beans, lentil, dried peas and so on – are packed with protein and rich in no end of other important vitamins and minerals.  This is important because the preferred route for many in the food industry is to grow and almost always import soya and high protein wheat to use as a feedstock, not just for animals but for manufactured foods as well.   So it seems a perfectly possible and well  tolerated way forward for all of us to eat less meat and more pulses – not only are they rich in protein and nutrients but they’re also high in fibre – that’s got to be a double whammy and the best thing of all is it locks out the industrial food manufacturers. From what I can discover this makes a perfect diet for vegetarians and vegans.  No need for tofu and Quorn, and fake burgers and bacon; no need for spirulina products to be allowed to flood the market.

This, of course can only address the climate and species crises if at the same time there’s a total change of heart over farming policy and the subsidy system. For decades farmers have been paid to remove hedges, invest less in labour and more in machinery, and increase productivity at the expense of both soil and wildlife habitat. by dousing the land in poisons. I was completely taken aback this morning when I turned up an opinion  piece by George Monbiot, written in 2010, in which he accepted that his previous position of advocating universal veganism is, or rather was wrong and that the way forward could be to allow some meat production in small and ethically run farms and smallholdings. Now to be fair he seems to have changed his mind since, but surely there is room for a less polarised discussion on meat production with a view to contributing to a solution to the present crisis.

All power to vegetarians and vegans for pointing out the ethical issues in meat (and fish) eating; but it remains an ethical choice and not a pantechnicon solution to be imposed at the expense of many thousands of jobs and without any guarantee of success. There’s no reason we couldn’t bear down on the cruel treatment of animals, and the reopening of many more (properly supervised) local slaughterhouses would make a big difference. We need to support local initiatives through the way we buy food. We used to keep chickens in our orchard some years ago, and although I never enjoyed killing them I got myself trained to kill them quickly and humanely by a local butcher. It’s not an act to be undertaken lightly or thoughtlessly but I believe it was an ethically justifiable thing to do.  We gave up because foxes took to raiding in the daytime and trust me – they don’t kill chickens quickly or humanely at all. If you find the very thought of this disgusting or appalling then I’m sorry.  I respect your principled stance as I hope you will accept mine.

There are other – many other – actions we’ll need to take, but the key point is that we can do it locally and sustainably and without relying on food manufacturers and agribusiness to feed us. The only green thing about the green revolution were the countless people who swallowed the lie.  Bring on the lentils!

 

Muck, but no mystery!

….. and suddenly, at last, the sun shone, the rain stopped and were able to get out on to the allotment.  In spite of the cold wind we took a chance on filling the hotbed, and so we drove over to one of my old parishes to sack up and bring back the first of two car loads of fresh, hot, horse manure. Most gardeners want the well rotted kind but for this purpose we need about twenty bags of strawy stable manure as fresh as possible.  Last year being the first time we’d tried this technique we asked my friend Annie to keep out as much straw as possible, but that proved a bit of a mistake because the bacteria that heat the heap don’t just need nitrogen they need carbon too – and that’s what the straw provides.  The theory is that this mixture will heat the bed quicker and hotter – but we shall see.  Our car is quite small and even with the seats down it’s difficult to get more than 10 full bags in at a time.

So as each bag was tipped into the deep frame – it’s a spade depth below ground level – we trod it firm and watered it.  We continue that process of topping, firming and watering until the heap is around 3 feet deep, and once it’s started to heat up we cover the manure with a home made mixture of topsoil, well rotted compost and horticultural sand.  This not only gives a good well drained bed for sowing, at the end of the season the whole lot of soil, compost, sand and manure go back on to the beds – about a cubic metre of it.  It’s most useful where we’ve terraced the beds, and every year we’re able to raise them a little more. Since our cold frames were stolen the hotbed will take over the work of germinating and bringing on early tender plants.

It’s amazing what a pleasurable experience a few hours of hard physical work can be after months of moping about indoors.  Annie was saying that they’ve been unable to let the horses out even for a taste of grass because the land is so wet.  As we drove across Lansdown on Friday we saw a herd of cows grazing on the few shreds of grass that have survived the wettest winter in memory.  When I mentioned it to Annie she said “he probably ran out of silage – he must have been desperate”. Desperate or not they were back indoors again today but that’s a measure of how hard this winter has hit farmers.

I read a lot about the impact of farming on climate change and so much of it is almost sectarian in its hatred of any opposing opinions. As we were filling the bags today, I was thinking about the way in which these small farms of a few hundred acres are maligned when they’re lumped together with enormous feedlots which really do create problems. Our half ton of manure is produced by horses which aren’t ruminants and don’t make the same methane contribution as cattle do. It’s a rich source of soil nutrients and helps to build up soil structure while it captures carbon in the process.  We use the soil to grow healthy organic food in a completely sustainable way.  After we’re gone the soil will be in a much better state than when we took it on. There’s a kind of virtuous circle going on here.  All our veg trimmings are recycled back into the same ground, and we even use our own urine as a liquid fertilizer.  Good, small scale farming operates the same virtuous circle. Crops are grown, the soil is enriched and the animals are fed.  Our southwest UK climate favours grass above all else, and so dairy and beef farming are the obvious way of using the ground. Grass fed beef – that’s to say beef that’s not been fattened on a high protein diet of expensive soya and grain – is far superior to feedlot beef. Animals that are free to roam in natural herds outside in the fresh air and with the sun on their backs are not, on the face of it, being cruelly treated. Any old-school farmer will tell you that  stressed animals get sick more often and don’t make either good milk or fine tasting beef. The snag, and there’s always a snag, is that we can’t have it both ways. High welfare, grass fed organic beef is bound to cost much more money and for most of us that means eating a good deal less of it.  The same goes for almost any meat, whether chicken, pork or lamb, we simply can’t go on eating it in the quantities and at the price we’ve become used to, if we want to tackle global climate change. As for species extinction the same kind of argument applies.  The price of cheap food is always going to be pollution, widespread use of chemicals, soil erosion animal cruelty and agribusiness. But to blame all forms of farming without discriminating between more and less harmful practices is counterproductive. Just to give one example from coastal restoration, the choughs that are slowly reappearing on the western coasts are doing so because they feed on grubs that feed on cattle dung.  Free ranging cattle on the clifftops have enabled the reappearance of this charming and acrobatic member of the crow family. The dung is dropped by ruminants in small and manageable quantities and is quickly broken down. That’s a far cry from spreading vast volumes of evil smelling anaerobic liquid manure on the land where it quickly runs off and pollutes streams and rivers.

A less meat based diet would be better for us.  Farmers could experiment with tree planting their expanses of grass, a technique that looks very promising. The trend for ever larger fields monocropping feed maize could be phased out, as could the relentless removal of hedges to make space for bigger and heavier machinery.  Less could really be more; better for us, better for the wildlife and better for the planet. At the moment it’s the poorest people on the planet who are paying the true cost of cheap food. That could end, but not until we – farmers, growers and consumers alike – are prepared to make some sacrifices ourselves.

 

Meanwhile, back at the ranch ….

Yesterday being taken up with working on the campervan, when the sun shone today – well, glowed a bit  – we set off for the allotment to plant some of the early veg that have been sitting out the winter in the greenhouse. So we planted out winter hardy peas and spinach which had been growing on in coir modules.  We’ve had mixed experience with the Jiffy 7 modules, because although the coir seems as good as peat for germination, the outer mesh looks to be virtually indestructible in the soil and can cramp crops like beetroot. Many plants just grow straight through so we’re happy on the whole, but today Madame removed the nets on half of the peas to see if there is any difference in subsequent growth. We love peas, but so do hungry mice, and our first sowing in the autumn disappeared completely until we found the seeds heaped up under the large pot protecting the rhubarb.  Growing them in modules has meant there were no losses to rodents at all. The shallots and garlic are all thriving and a peep under the cloche protecting the herbs was encouraging.  Even the tarragon seems to be alive and well. Until we started to grow it ourselves we rarely used it but I  wouldn’t be without it now.

Because we’re in a frost trap, we tend to protect most of our plants with cloches of one sort or another.  For some reason spinach – especially in the early summer – does much better under the open mesh cloches, probably because it likes a bit of shade.  The other reason for covering up is the abundance of hungry pigeons on the site. Unwary allotmenteers can find a whole crop of broccoli or kale stripped to the ribs in a night.

This time of year can look a bit desolate on the plot, and so today I planted an early flowering clematis in the sheltered spot between the shed and the greenhouse.  We’ve decided to plant more flowers, not just to attract insects but to encourage us humans when we’re tired of rain and early sunsets. The window box daffodils at the flat are just about to burst into flower – it really does feel like spring is on the way.  We’ve even got the potatoes chitting in the cool hall outside the flat, and it won’t be long before the propagators are full with tomatoes, aubergines and chillies again. Last year we were a bit too early so we’ll leave them for a week or two yet.

We rarely talk much when we’re gardening except, perhaps, about where to put things – always contentious in my experience – and so I drop into a meditative frame of mind very easily.  Hours can pass because, in essence, the work is simple and repetitive – but that adds to the potential for fruitful thinking. I don’t think I ever come back from the allotment without feeling better than when we arrived.

More feasting please

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There’s a line in Peter Shaffer’s play Equus that’s stuck in my mind. It sounds a  bit religious but it’s not – here’s the full quotation:

Have you thought of the fellow on the other side of it? The finicky, critical husband looking through his art books on mythical Greece. What worship has he ever known? Real worship! Without worship you shrink, it’s as brutal as that…I shrank my own life. No one can do it for you. I settled for being pallid and provincial, out of my own eternal timidity.

Wow! “without worship you shrink”. I’ve used that quotation dozens of times because it seems so profoundly important; and perhaps never more so than this moment in the history of the earth. Now this is absolutely not about getting you to go to church or adopt any strange supernatural beliefs.  Worship comes in all sorts of unexpected ways, like at the end of a headline set at Glastonbury when the air seems to thicken and stand still; or when a barn owl flies silently within inches of your head as you walk home in the dark; or when you hold your newly born child in your arms and the air suffuses his skin and it changes colour from slate to rose pink; or when the sheer undeserved generosity of the earth makes you catch your breath over a basket of fruit.

For many years my life was punctuated by festivals. A whole year was a book. Advent, Lent, Easter and Pentecost were the chapter headings, but there were paragraphs, sentences and even words that could bring me to my knees.  On Easter Eve I would sing a long unaccompanied modal song called the Exultet that was so powerful to me I needed to lock myself in the church and sing it over and over until I could get through it without breaking down.   It was never the theology that attracted me but the channelling of the emotions.  Who doesn’t long to be liberated, brought to life again out of captivity?  It was the blues, it was Gospel music, it was an ancient form of music that had been sung for maybe 1600 years just once a year without a break.  For the four minutes or so that it lasted I was always touched by an overwhelming sense of the divine. Music is potent stuff – that’s why they always try to crush it.

Now I live largely without the big festivals because the meaning seems to have drained out of them. My own favourites among the dishonoured escapees from paganism were always wassailing, Plough Monday and the Rogation services; all of them celebrations of the earth. Then there were other renegades like Harvest Festival and Remembrance Sunday that managed to draw the community together precisely by remaining doctrinally agnostic, and of course Christmas carols which in any case had been dragged in from the pubs. I always saw the church as a kind of lost property office where you might go to look for something you couldn’t quite remember but know for sure you once possessed.

But it’s all dying and our opportunity to experience real worship is more and more compromised, just at the very moment we desperately need to rediscover and celebrate our creative connection with the earth. And here I want to unpick the idea of worship a little bit because I know that we can all individually, and in the solitude of our own hearts find inspiration and perhaps bliss or even ecstacy –

 – and I am dumb to tell the crooked rose

My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

But I think we need more.  I think we need to rediscover forms of community liturgy; spoken word, poetry, dance and song; shared feasting and perhaps fasting as well. We need to liberate ourselves to worship the stars and the sun and the whole creation of which we are just a part, and which bore us and held us in its arms for millions of years. We need these community strengthening moments because there is no pleasure and no power in being isolated and right – we’re never right if we’re on our own. Individual salvation is a punishment for egotists.

So in the midst of the work we need to do if the earth is to become whole again we need to remember to add community building and worship to the recycling, the careful use of money, the growing and tending of crops and feeding ourselves with regard to the needs of the whole. Fasting (perhaps from meat) then becomes a gesture of solidarity rather than a demonstration of personal rectitude – it has some purpose beyond imaginary purity. And the liturgy, the work of the people, is an essential part of it.  It’s not as if we don’t have any precedents. Even a flower and produce show can be an act of public thanksgiving – it doesn’t have to be cringeworthy sub religious claptrap.

Without worship you shrink”  – that’s the harsh absence that allowed them to call the despoliation of the earth and its peoples a “green revolution”.  It’s time to turn worship around and reclaim it for our own.

 

When push comes to shove it’s all about parsnips (and other unglamorous stuff).

IMG_20191207_164441I know I can get very intense about all the politics and philosophy that swirl around us at the moment. I can even get cross with myself, and worry that I’m alienating the readers who’d rather be reading about cooking or the allotment; but I’ve also set my face against turning this journal – because that’s what it is – into a one dimensional thread focused on one particular aspect of our life at the (imaginary) Potwell Inn. There’s a Chinese saying, or is it a curse? -about living in interesting times and, like it or not – these are interesting times and I don’t much care for them.

And when we live in such interesting times, even the growing of parsnips can become a political statement or an act of defiance, and so the politics and the philosophy and joining some kind of counter culture are all entwined. Which means that although I could probably give some sensible advice about growing parsnips – like being patient while they germinate; only using new seed; making sure the soil is deep enough and so-on, the fact is, they get affected by carrot fly and other pests and the question of what to do about it is only simple if you’re happy with indiscriminately poisoning anything that might pose a remote threat. Allotmenteering is only simple if you go with the flow. If you don’t, you land up playing chess with a thousand pieces and  rules that can change overnight. I’m not trying to be off putting here, just noticing that without the comfort of what therapists call “splitting off”, the bowl of soup on your table can become a microcosm of the crisis.

I made parsnip soup today, for a friend who was dropping by to see us.  I made it a few weeks ago for another friend because I like parsnip soup – we grow them so  it’s ridiculously cheap and  easy to make and  (I think) people enjoy it. In the course of our conversation we got to talking about what our children were up to and it turns out that one of her children is doing very well working for one of the agrichemical giants, helping to sell insecticide delivery systems in the developing world. Curiously – or – as the Jungians would say ‘synchronously’ the last friend I made the soup for has spent so much time demonstrating outside one of their sites that she was invited in for a “conversation” with the managers. “Oh for goodness sake!” – I thought …… “this soup is getting too contentious”.

The fact is – there is no escape from the cultural, the philosophical and the ethical issues that beset us and so I’ve taken up the challenge of studying them and, because I’m a bit lost myself, I write about it and share my thoughts with you because (I assume) you must be interested in the same difficult questions. At the moment I’ve got loads of ideas swarming around in my mind. I don’t want (or need) to preach to the converted but I am very seriously committed to finding ways of communicating the positive things that would accompany a new green deal, to those who (have been encouraged to) bury their heads in the sand and who believe that nothing can be done.

What I’d like to do is sleep soundly without worrying, grow vegetables, search for plants and live in a culture rooted in the sense of community  with one another and with the whole of creation. In order to achieve that we need to make a huge cultural change. I was watching  a TV interview with Naomi Klein today and she put the central issue very concisely. We can’t choose between radical change and a quiet life.  If we do nothing there will be a catastrophe – and that surely is radical change; or – we can take charge of a radical agenda that will rescue the earth while preserving us from the menace of resurgent fascism. 

Better a dish of herbs where there is love, than a fattened ox where there is hatred.

Turning over an old leaf

It’s a bit of a funny time on the allotment, especially for no-dig allotments, because where in the past we’d be using up every suitable occasion during the winter to dig the last few patches of ground, now there’s not so much of the warming work to be done. That’s with the exception of path making and mulching. We’re lucky to have supplies of free leaves and woodchip provided by the Council, and it can be hot and heavy work taking it all down in the wheelbarrow. The paths are nearly all finished.  When they were made, it took many barrow loads of woodchip because they were 18″ deep so they could function as drains to the beds. They function very well, but the chippings rot down surprisingly quickly and we need to add at least a couple of inches every year to keep them full.

The leaves, taken from all the parks in Bath and shared between the sites are incredibly useful for building humus in the soil.  Most of us put anything up to six inches on any empty beds, and then cover them with some kind of membrane. It’s amazing how they seem to disappear before spring, taken down by the worms and chewed into small pieces by woodlice, earwigs and all the other insects, but the impact on soil structure is profound, and even after four years there’s no comparison with the heavy and dense clods of clay that used to be there.

So today we moved a couple of gooseberry bushes into better positions, made possible by removing the strawberry bed to another plot outside the cage. If there’s one lesson that comes up over and again with gardening, it’s the negative effect on yields of overcrowding the plants. Then, after a weeding session I started trucking the leaves down while Madame spread them around the cage in a thick layer. There was no-one else working on the site and no competition for the leaves, so I was able to hunt around at the bottom of the heap to get the ones that had been compressed and begun breaking down.  I find my ancient stable fork perfect for the job, and the leaves go into a council cardboard sack which, when full weighs a ton (figuratively speaking) but  I can get three barrow loads into one bag.  Five full loads later the job was almost finished and I had a backache.  That’s the point at which you say to yourself “we’ll be glad we did it in the spring” which is true but no consolation.

Our departing neighbour also bequeathed us his storage bench and half a dozen office water cooler bottles which have been outside in the frost, sun and rain for at least four years functioning as mini cloches. They work brilliantly with newly planted sweet corn, but at the moment they’re encouraging some chard.  There’s a load more stuff in the greenhouse waiting but after weeks of rain and a few nights at -2C we’re waiting for the soil to dry and warm up a bit. Now’s one of the weird times when the weather can go from wonderful to frightful and back again in a day.  In previous years we’ve sown seeds too early and had to protect tomatoes and chillies while they grew leggy and weak.  This year we’ll be more careful – this is where a diary is particularly handy.

The potatoes have all gone now.  The sack of Pink Fir Apple I was storing in the garage have all chitted too early to be of any use for eating or growing, but in any case we’ve lost the big chunk of land which we borrowed from our neighbour, so we’ll grow far less potatoes this season. But the other roots are still in production  – Madame would love to know how to dig a parsnip without putting the fork through it somewhere! The roots in general have done well, the alliums were disappointing and we’re still holding our breath hoping that the purple sprouting will deliver.  Every year we discuss whether it’s a waste of space and every year it comes good at the last possible moment and we have our feast. The other crop we’re eagerly awaiting is the asparagus which we’ve mollycoddled for two full seasons while it got its feet down.

The weeds are all under control at the moment, although I noticed a few acer seed propellers in the leaves, so I daresay they’ll all germinate. The couch grass is all but vanquished in the beds but the bindweed never gives up.  They don’t call it devils guts for nothing, although that’s a name that’s used traditionally for all kinds of pernicious weeds like dodder which we hardly see these days. We worked quietly until about 4.30, appreciating the growing day length, and then misty rain and gathering darkness drove us off and, because we were the last people on site, we came home and wolfed down a couple of mugs of tea and some biscuits.

Our youngest son, who’s a chef like his older brother, has just inherited a new general manager who can’t say a sentence without management-speak creeping in. He’s full of the kind of inspirational garbage that makes you want to chew your own arms off, but our son entertains us with such wicked impressions of him – it would make a tremendously funny novel!

“We cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it”

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Albert Einstein – quoted by Vandana Shiva in her book “Soil not Oil”

I had a faintly disturbing conversation with a retired farm worker at the wassail on Friday evening. There were two things he said that made me prick up my ears – firstly something to the effect “we are going to lose all our subsidies and get paid to plant trees” – I’ll come back to that one – but secondly he said that the farm he still helps out on has changed the approach to foot rot in sheep (very successfully apparently) and so they no longer trim the feet – there’s sound evidence that this increases lameness – but now spray infected feet and then inject the sheep with long acting antibiotic such as oxytetracycline which is apparently very successful.  I came away with the impression that this treatment was being administered prophylactically in the flock which is probably nice for the sheep but possibly not quite so nice for us humans if it helps create more resistant strains of bacteria.

It’s just another example of the mindset that’s got us into the environmental mess we’re in. The land on which the flock is kept is very wet and is drained by a network of rhynes, (ditches) that feed larger ditches and  and pumping stations.  The prolonged wet weather these last few months has left farmers unable to sow spring cereals and even moving flocks of sheep has been problematic. The solution, as is so depressingly frequent, has been to reach for a new technology.

The question of farm subsidies is crying out to be examined, but as my friend spoke I had a premonition that even in the entirely sensible ambition to plant more trees, big business will sweep into the field with new and even more expensive technology offering a one-stop solution to farmers that’s almost inevitably going to be indiscriminately applied and propped up with even more chemicals. Which is where the moss comes in.

Ever since the mid 20th century agribusiness has been treating the earth as a simple industrial input. Land is graded from the very best through to the marginal, and farmers, hill farmers for instance, have been heavily subsidised to keep sheep on land that’s not really suitable. During the past centuries peat bogs have been exploited for fuel and horticulture to the extent that 95% of them have simply disappeared. It’s now becoming clear that peatlands are performing an indispensable service to the earth by soaking up half a trillion of tonnes of carbon – the data is here – twice as much as is stored in all the forests combined. Yet peatlands only cover 3% of the land areas of the earth. It almost makes you want to weep that only fifty years ago Scottish peatland was being ploughed and drained and planted up with imported trees. I’m quoting here from Dave Gouson’s book “The Garden Jungle” –

Over the past 10,000 years, UK peatlands have quietly sequestered 5.5 billion tones of carbon – nearly forty times the 150 million tonnes of carbon stored in our woodlands.

– and we’re still digging them up to spread peat on our daffodils!

It also happens to be the case that peatlands grow proportionally faster during periods when the global temperature is rising. So here’s just one part of the puzzle that we need to solve, and we can solve not by buying into impressive new technological fixes but by doing almost nothing. We need to ban the extraction of peat altogether and we need to halt and then reverse the draining of peatland for agricultural use.  We need to allow them to flood again which will not only increase the amount of carbon being sequestered far more efficiently then tree planting can but will also hold vast quantities of water that would otherwise run off moors, mountainsides and hills filling rivers and flooding good land and towns downstream. Peatland holds the carbon in storage for as long as the bog exists.  Trees only sequester carbon while they’re actually growing and when they die and rot they release it back into the atmosphere again.  So tree planting can only be a temporary solution while we make all the other changes, the ones we haven’t made during the fifty years we’ve known about the problem! Inevitably this will impact farmers’ livelihoods, but the subsidies can be reapplied to the maintenance of peatlands and their vital impact on wildlife and biodiversity. So my friend was right in outline, but not – I sincerely hope – in detail. Yes of course we should massively increase tree planting as well, but in the right places, not just anywhere farmers can shove a couple of thousand saplings in and book their summer holidays on the subsidy.

So if my newly found interest in bryophytes – mosses, liverworts and the rest – seems a bit perverse or leftfield, it’s because these poorly understood branches of creation just might be in a position to help solve what no amount of cash, science, technology and PR has managed. George Monbiot is right in many of his diagnoses but some of his prescriptions are terrible, especially when he seems to have bought into the fantasy that technology can solve our problems. More nuclear power stations fuelling factories that produce gigatonnes of industrial seaweed and fungus gloop really aren’t the solution.  I’m not even sure if they’re part of the solution.

There’s no reason why you should know that our word martyr derives from the Greek verb ‘martureo’ – to bear witness; it used to be my job to know stuff like that! Each age has its own witnesses and it so happens that in our own time of turmoil, the environmental scientists, the botanists, mycologists, bryologists, ecologists, meteorologists, climatologists, organic gardeners and farmers, the young activists and all the others are the witnesses to what’s going on. It’s about the earth, the soil – and it’s no accident that organic allotments are between four and eleven times more productive than intensive farms. Is anybody listening?