A rainy day brings me face to face with my chaotic records.

Until quite recently I’ve been rather dismissive of record keeping. I’ve seen so many people sitting hunched in front of screens, entering data for hour after hour, and thinking to myself that such ant-like industry was a bit tame compared with having the wind in your face in some wild and remote corner of the countryside. However I had a sort of Damascus Road conversion this week when I realized how much I rely on my fallible memory.

So, for instance I recently came across a single Corn Marigold growing at the edge of the coast path. It’s one of those species that’s slowly disappearing because it contaminates grain crops and can make them go mouldy; and so farmers can get exemptions to spray them with weedkiller. OK I recognised it because I’d seen it before and took all the photos necessary to send it to the local Vice County Recorder for verification. All very laborious but the record was accepted and I was extremely pleased with myself.

Pleased, that is, until I tried to find the photos I’d taken of the same plant in Pembrokeshire, which was where the farmer explained to me the paradox of needing to spray off a vulnerable plant in order to make a living. I’m pleased I didn’t have to adjudicate in that case, but it was – he insisted – a very involved process. He was no cowboy; he played his farming by the book. This all took place in 2016, and in spite of a lengthy and time consuming search through thousands of photos I couldn’t find them. In fact, of the thousands of photos I’ve taken of plants, I’ve always relied on memory to find them again. There are no grid references, just dates – and no notes or I/D’s. So to verify a ten year old photo I just have to hope that the photo was good enough to convey the essential details, and with some plants that might mean a 3mm long seed. Usually they aren’t that good. I’ve tried using a very expensive Panasonic camera with an even more expensive Leica macro lens but it weighs a ton and slows down our walks to divorce speed. It’s been a steep learning curve to make the best of my Pixel 6 phone with an add-on macro lens.

Anyway, enough technical talk. The nub of the problem is that I don’t take the necessary notes on the spot, and I’ve never made my photos searchable by using keywords. Even worse, now I’ve started successfully submitting records to the BSBI I don’t have a personal copy of the plants I’ve recorded, along with all the other useful information. If it takes an optimistic one minute to make a record, it’ll take somewhere in the region of 200 hours to enter the data; and realistically it could take twice or three times that because many of the records would need identifying all over again. My respect for those industrious ants hunched over their laptops has soared.

Of course I’ve got handwritten notebooks going back fifty and more years; but they’re spasmodic, unsearchable and without photos. Worse still they contain stacks of shopping lists and phone numbers and references to books – you know the kind of thing. The only sensible option is digital and after a lot of searching through applications that monitor your mood, send you inspiring messages and increase your productivity I came back to the beginning and Google Photos where they’re all stored already with their EXIF data which in the case of the Pixel 5 stores location, although in an incomprehensible and difficult to convert form. Phew.

Hedge Woundwort

I think the heart of the problem is that I’m a bit of a Tigger; always on to the next thing, and because I’m a writer I use photographs as much to record feelings as for raw data. I love writing; I love writing this blog – but behind the scenes there are two almost conflicting aims. The writerly aim is to capture and hopefully convey the inspirational beauty of the earth. The scientific aim is to understand and to record the things I see in a way that can add to our knowledge and understanding of the earth. The conflict is expressed neatly in the names of flowers. Will it be the English names; imprecise and sometimes downright misleading, but often poetic and expressive of historical uses and ancient magic; or will it be the Latin? Will it be Hedge Woundwort or Stachys sylvatica? I would never want to choose because both English and Latin names are indispensable to me. The poetry and beauty of Eyebright, with its intimation of ancient usage carries so much metaphorical freight, we’d be all the poorer if it were shoved aside by the pedantic application of its scientific name – unless – that is, you’re trying to figure out whether it’s thriving or failing when getting the name exactly right for the species is a matter of real importance.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

There are literally millions of records of British and Irish wildflowers, all searchable and nearly all down to the ant-like industry of thousands of volunteers recording and entering the data and the handful of poorly paid professionals who struggle to keep the whole show on the road. Why is it important? Mostly because the only weapon we have left to oppose the destruction of the earth or the gifting of our land to extractive industrial agriculture is strong and reliable evidence of the biological diversity of the land they covet. There’s no credible argument against this. The future is either green or it’s Goodnight Irene for all of us and our putative descendants. Governments will argue in bad faith that there is no evidence for X or Y, knowing full well that there is no evidence because they starved these essential scientific bodies of the funding they needed to gather the evidence.

My chaotic records, I’m ashamed to say, are of no use at all in this threatened world unless I get them organised. I get it. This blog is just one thread of my fascination with what makes us human. It’s the visible conversation about the relationship between the Potwell Inn and being fully human; our lived experience in all its partiality and confusion. The other thread is the urge to identify, record and understand what is here in order that we can make a reliable inventory of what we have, what we are losing and what we have lost. Hard nosed and factual, industrious and perhaps a bit dull; except that I spent a couple of hours yesterday dissecting and photographing some Cow Parsley and comparing it with some Rough Chervil. I can’t begin to tell you how enjoyable it was!

“Good in parts – my Lord”

It only takes one blast of wind in a storm

The quotation, for the benefit of the under 70’s, comes from an Ealing Comedy film during which a poor curate feels obliged to eat a gone-off boiled egg prepared for him by his rather lordly bishop. When asked if it is tasty, he replies –“good in parts my Lord”. Like the tree in the photograph, blown down by one of our winter storms; yesterday was good, even very good in parts; but in one part a bit depressing.

We were doing a long amble through Bohortha, down to Place and then along the creek back to the campsite; seven or eight miles I should think, with a fair few hills to get across. Just after Place Ferry (the small ferry service over to St Mawes) we bumped into a couple walking in the opposite direction and began chatting. “You’re not from round here?” he asked. That’s the thing about local accents; (I mean local and not regional). The thought of banjos, verandahs and shotguns flashed through my mind but I knew that although we were complete strangers we shared a voice and a speech pattern that’s unique to one part of Gloucestershire. It was a good start. I don’t usually tell people about my parish priest days because somehow it’s enough to kill any conversation stone dead; but when it emerged that they had close friends in one of my old parishes I knew we were on the slippery slope. It was a friendly enough conversation with an amiable couple, but rather marred by him asking me “so are you the vicar that took out the pews?” “Yes I am” I said, and by then the conversation was holed in the side and sinking rapidly into the muddy estuary. 25 years of unremitting hard work reduced to an accusatory phrase. I still don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. “Where do you go to church now?” came next and I thought “stuff it” and said “nowhere”. His wife tried to ameliorate the situation by asking whether I was suffering from PTSD, and I could see that this was all turning into a proper farce; so we put the conversation out of its misery and wished each other a safe journey passing the most uncomfortable seat for one I’ve ever seen. Luckily we were too tired to talk much on the way back, and the simple routine of filling the water tank and emptying the toilet put it all into perspective. There’s no room for self importance in a chemical disposal point.

On, then, to the good bits which far outweighed the rest. Just for starters the weather was lovely for walking with a bit of wind and the temperature hovering between 16C and 18C. Cornwall does the most perfect spring days. I was desperate to know whether my find of a Smith’s Pepperwort would be accepted by the Vice County Recorder and find its way on to the national database. Vice Counties have nothing to do with misbehaviour, by the way, they’re an old established way of divvying up the country into workable areas that never (or at least rarely) change their boundaries at the behest of gerrymandering politicians.

Anyway, desperate as I was to hear from the East Cornwall referee, I left my smartphone in my pocket until it nearly drove me mad constantly pinging for fragments of meaningless celebrity drivel. In the end I turned it off. Smart though it may be, I don’t need to know that on this particular fifty metres of coast path there is no signal ……. and then there is …… and then there isn’t again.

Accepted!

So there was joy in excess of common sense when the email verifying my identification arrived. I felt I’d crossed a rubicon – getting a record accepted after only being a BSBI member for 2 days; but in truth the two are entirely unconnected. Later my son asked me if getting a record accepted makes me a professional botanist. I said I thought being professional involved getting paid in some way and at that moment I was £35 down. In fact the vast majority of field botanists are probably true amateurs whose collective expertise is awesome and (for me) inspiring. Anyway he said he was going to open a savings account and put a small sum into it every time I got a new record accepted – in order that I might call myself a professional. What a kind gesture! Although not quite kind enough for me to come out of retirement. But that’s one down and another thousand (or probably two thousand) species to go.

Meanwhile – as an aside on chance meetings – I was on my hands and knees once on a footpath on St Brides bay, looking at this plant and trying to figure out what it was; when a woman stepped over me (I was blocking the path) and asked what I was looking at. “I’m trying to figure out what this is but I don’t know where to start”. “You need a decent field guide” she said. “I always recommend Rose to my students”. “Are you a teacher?” I asked. “I teach botany.” What are the chances of that? Just at the most opportune moment an angel comes along and tells you what you need to know – I mean bookwise not about being pregnant! The plant, by the way, is Hemlock Water Dropwort – and it’s as poisonous as plants get. Foragers would do especially well to memorise it.

Now, years on, I’ve got shelf loads of books and field guides and an entirely new life as an allotmenteer, amateur botanist and gossip – plus I’m in Cornwall and therefore very happy.

Once again, walking down to Percuil, our hearts are lifted.

Potwell Inn regulars will know that I get a bit grumpy when people take the therapeutic powers of nature as the fixed and immutable reward for stepping outside the door. Hand on heart I suspect I’m a victim of the protestant work ethic that guarantees there’s no gain without plenty of pain. I lay the blame for that disposition squarely on the Primitive Methodists who were rather keen on rewards but much more on punishments. Then, like today, we occasionally go for a gentle stroll with no particular quarry in mind, and we return almost breathless with joy.

Cornish lanes are never lovelier than they are in Spring and the footpath down to Percuil from Gerrans was as lovely as any lane ever has been.

We walked this way six weeks ago and the change has been astonishing. One of the most intriguing features of our walks is to see the successional drifts of flowers following one after another. You can no more hold back the emergence of the next wave of plants than you can hold an eel in your bare hands. I took this photograph because the combination of colours: the pink of the Campions, the white of the Stitchworts and the blue of the bluebells looked so beautiful in the sunshine against the green vegetation. You don’t even have to know the names of the plants to appreciate their beauty. Looking more closely you can spot Navelwort, Dock, Herb Robert and Hogweed. Further down the path we spotted a patch of Early Purple orchids – some with spotted leaves and others without; plants don’t read textbooks.

As we went down the path we could see the successions working out. Six weeks ago there was a mass of Winter Heliotrope, mostly finished flowering. with Alexanders emerging through them. Today the Alexanders were almost finished and the Cow Parsley has thrust through them, closely followed by Hogweed. Already the Cleavers (Goosegrass if you prefer) is threading up through the competition and even showing some tiny white flowers. There’s something wildly, needlessly extravagant about nature – like a Sufi dance – that can lead, (I say grudgingly), into direct awareness of the Power, the Spirit, the Tao; whatever you want to call it.

Percuil harbour

Down at the harbour we perched on the concrete wall of the chandlery come boatyard and laughed about the time we got beaten by the tide and the wind as we paddled back in our kayak and had to be towed in by the instructor. One of the boatyard workers drove past us on a tractor and as he walked back I asked if they were busy. “Yes,” he said, “The season always takes you by surprise”, and he graced us with a friendly smile. Behind the wall an invisible woman was having a loud conversation on a mobile and a hundred yards away the sound of a conversation on the verandah of a holiday let, skimmed across the hard sand towards us. We’d hoped for the sounds of Curlew or Cuckoo but today we were content to listen to a whole choir of other species. Upstream on the creek, a Heron and an Egret eyed each other cautiously over a patch of territory.

We walked back up the road with Madame’s rucksack stuffed with Corsican Pine cones for her to draw. I think she’d scaled the fence of a rather grand house to snaffle them under the gaze of a dog walker who she’d confused with me. That’s the joy of a meandering stroll with no particular purpose in mind.

On the other hand there’s serious work to be done and I’d spotted a couple of plants of what I think is Smith’s Pepperwort – Lepidium heterophyllum on a footpath. I checked on the BSBI database and although it’s been recorded all around us on the map, it’s not been seen here. Distribution maps can sometimes tell you more about the distribution of field botanists than they can about the private life of plants. Anyway, with the prospect of filling the last missing square in the jigsaw I was like a dog with a bone and sent a preliminary enquiry with a couple of poor photos to the local Vice County Recorder. That cost me £35 because in all conscience I couldn’t continue relying on the BSBI, (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland), for help without at least joining. And so I proudly present the evidence below with very little expectation that anyone else will be interested. Little things please little minds.

This little lot cost me four visits, one of which was to sniff a crushed leaf. The fact that it didn’t smell foetid or of garlic turned out to be important. So were the hairy leaves and the tough old perennial rhizome, not forgetting the purple stamens.

There’s a huge difference between looking and beholding

My old music teacher AF Woodman had an assortment of names for me. Sometimes he would address me as “rod, pole or perch“, and on others he would extend my name by stressing every letter into a strangulated “poe-ill”. I didn’t care what he called me because he gave me a lifelong love of music. One of his pet phrases was – “I know you heard it Poe-ill; but were you listening?

Much later in life I was on a retreat at the La Retraite convent in Clifton, and we were invited to take the hands of a complete stranger but rather than something easy like telling them what we had for breakfast, we were instructed to behold one another. This turned out to be incredibly hard for me because it involved letting my guard down. It was, in its own small way, a life changing experience, because it uncovered a complexity and depth of possibility in an encounter with a stranger that eventually became the key to my pastoral work. Dangerous, messy and (in a very limited sense) erotic beholding, enabled a form of listening which involved all of the senses.

It took its toll, of course, and eventually I just ran out of steam. Too many bereavements; too much grief. I needed to get out before I burned out.

Anyway, that was then and as I’ve written here before, the key to surviving crises is a capacity to reinvent yourself using the strengths that are left after the broken bits have been laid up; all of which maunderings lead to a further look at the alleged healing powers of nature. The italicized “alleged” is not there to knock the idea but it’s just asserting that the healing powers of nature are a hypothesis not a natural law.

On Monday last we went back up to Velvet Bottom in a further search for Spring Sandwort – Minuartia verna. Our recovery from Covid – which we caught a month ago – has been very slow. The acute phase was pretty horrible, but that was followed by all sorts of symptoms that seemed more psychological than physical. Combined with a really busy time on the allotment it was as much as we could do to keep up with the routine work because any physical effort seemed to drain us both completely. So our trip to Mendip was compromised by my incapacity to focus, or draw any inspiration at all from what would normally excite and engage me. Madame was kind enough to keep her counsel, but I must have been a miserable companion. All I could think of was to lie down on the grass and sleep. Fortunately, a week on, we both feel almost normal again.

The urge to lie down on the warm grass, though, was inspired by an experience in my early teens when I lay on the grass on Rodway Hill and had what Romain Rolland described to Freud as the oceanic feeling. I’ve no idea how long it lasted but I seemed to be completely absorbed into the earth and her processes. From my point of view it was a completely passive experience and even though I was very young I just gave myself up to it. It was a completely unasked for healing that I’ve never forgotten. I lay there looking up at the blue sky, dappled with summer clouds and listened to the wind riffling through the drifts of grass. Now, with hindsight, I would include this in a description of the healing powers of nature only with the proviso that it can never be sought – it’s an experience of undeserved grace that can’t be guaranteed in any particular place, and which only fell to me a couple of times despite many attempts to force its hand.

But there’s another way of engaging with nature that’s quite different and is capable of and responsive to being sought; and it involves a kind of beholding, directed at natural rather than human subjects. Yes of course it’s possible to reduce field botany to a kind of trainspotting, and I’m certain that there are people out there who ask nothing more of nature than a new record. But when I go out on a field trip with some people, I sense that their engagement with the tiniest of nature’s gifts is far deeper; a two way engagement that both speaks and listens. To walk with such a person is – to quote a favourite heretic

To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour

From Auguries of Innocence – William Blake

For them a tiny rope of mycelium tracking across a dead tree; the elaborate hieroglyphic of Graphis scripta lichen a couple of inches in diameter on a tree trunk , the little Moschatel with its cubic flower head giving it the name Town Hall Clock; these are not ticks in a box but true encounters – beholdings, if you like – engagements with nature that have spiritual power and maybe even (if the seeing becomes a true beholding) an offer of healing. So in this sense too, it means something more than wishful thinking to speak of the healing powers of nature.

I hesitate to introduce terms like dangerous, messy and erotic to the pursuit of field botany, but if they have any use, it’s to move the heart of the enterprise away from the rational calculations of the identification key, spreadsheet and grid reference towards something more akin to wonder. Perhaps the healing powers of nature could be more easily embraced after her re-enchantment.

How to change the world

If only it were so easy. I was originally going to call this post “The morning after”, if only because, having done a fair bit of research and finding several target species I wanted to emphasise the fact that as sure as night follows day, there’s always a stack of work to do. I was feeling mightily pleased with myself and I envisaged myself cantering towards the finishing line and pressing the send button on the reporting software. Pleased, that is, until I started to look more closely at the photos.

I’m very used to the dead hand of confirmation bias when I’m out and about looking for a particular plant. I find something that looks a bit like it and instantly every nerve strains towards putting the tick in the box; even – or perhaps especially when there’s something that doesn’t quite fit the frame. As I was writing that sentence I thought of one of my most forensic, and therefore valuable tutors at theological college who would seize on the slightest mention of any hard work that had gone into the draft sermon I’d just delivered and say – “really Dave; no-one wants to listen to you pissing from the pulpit!”

Bugle – Ajuga reptans

Indeed not, but I hope I’m making a point of general interest here. Point one is that there are an awful lot of little white flowers around at this time of the year. They’re often quite tiny and inconspicuous and I usually have to prostrate myself with a hand lens and take a closer look. Point two is that a phone camera with a decent zoom capability is the most useful gadget in the world for recording a pile of information you didn’t notice at the time you were squinting at the specimen, but discover you desperately need when you start leafing through the 1266 pages of Stace 4 (no pictures) at home. Macro photos are so immensely useful for identification that I even bought a little clip-on macro lens which makes life even easier.

Nonetheless, the morning after feeling creeps in like mental wet rot as you stare at the photos and realize that in the cold light of day, Hairy Bittercress; Alpine Pennycress, Dwarf Mouse Ear, Common Whitlow Grass and even Barren Strawberry look like – how shall I put this delicately? – cousins, and my report if I ever send it will be seasoned with doubts. Today at a Bath Nats meeting I shared some of those doubts with a really ace botanist; so good he can enlarge at any length you like on the 275 plus subspecies of Blackberry. I say I shared, but as soon as he discerned the drift of the conversation he paled visibly and offered to look at my emails in the same tone of voice you might use to say ‘you must come round for supper some time’ – with not the least intention of specifying an actual date.

So maybe it would be better to have walked on by and enjoyed the lovely skies last week; but here’s the point. After you’ve sat and struggled with an ID for a while, the world becomes an infinitely richer place. Instead of noticing the little white flower and passing by, you now understand that it could be one of … who knows; it could be hundreds! Suddenly the world needs to expand to accommodate this new piece of knowledge because now there are five new friends where there was once only one.

Changing the world, especially at the moment, seems like a fruitless and depressing waste of emotional energy but changing it just by making it bigger, more diverse and more beautiful than it was before, is achievable. These little white flowers aren’t especially rare, although they can sometimes survive in a place that no other living thing could survive in. However they are under threat and whilst I’ve no pretensions about my own modest abilities, we footsoldiers; the botanical infantry if you like, can record them so that they can’t become rare or even extinct without someone noticing.

You’ll know where we are if you’ve been following!

Yes – of course we’re back on Mendip but this time just above Velvet Bottom because today we thought we’d explore the Ubley Warren and Blackmoor nature reserves. This is such a unique environment that it comprises getting on for ten nature reserves, some of them SSSI’s (sites of special scientific interest) and all of them with a handful of rare and nationally rare plants.

You’ll see that the ground well and truly deserves the local description of “gruffy” – that’s to say thoroughly worked over by lead (and possibly silver) miners since Roman times. These deep cuttings are known as rakes and the spoil heaps, although mostly no longer bare, are a specialized environment for plants tolerant of heavy metal contamination.

Having found the Spring Whitlow grass – Erophila verna in Velvet Bottom a couple of weeks ago I was keen to see if we could find another specialist called Spring Sandwort and so we concentrated on likely looking ground – all to no avail because I think we were a bit too early.

Anyway, we did find a rather knackered Early Purple orchid (Orchis mascula) snapped off at the bottom of the stalk – possibly by a marauding dog – and then as we carried on looking through the list of likely/possible rarities we came across Dwarf Mouse Ear – Cerastium pumilum – which is nationally scarce, and also Alpine Pennycress – Noccaea caerulescens which is similarly rare. And if that sounds either lucky or clever I’m reminded of a story I heard about a very well known local drystone waller who was asked how much he charged. He answered that it was £100 a yard – at which his questioner backed away, saying it was a lot to pay for a load of stones. Well, he said, it’s a pound for the stone and ninety nine for knowing what to do with it! My luck today owed everything to the research I was able to do before we even left the flat, and I contributed nothing at all to the incredible databases and local floras that showed me exactly where to look. As per Mark Twain; it’s 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.

The only downside to a delightful morning were the bags of dogshit abandoned almost everywhere we went – come on you retards – you’ve already picked the disgusting, slimy (and warm) mess, up. Just take it home for goodness sake!!!

All of which ranting brings me back to an often visited question – “does the Potwell Inn really exist?” Well yes it does – in one sense only; because its only physical manifestation is the campervan (called Polly) in which we can close the door against the Idiocy. But it principally exists in the form of a conceptual framework that gives me just about enough head space to survive. The Potwell Inn is the place in my head where poetry and art jostle with spirituality, green politics and where walking and botanizing or looking out for living things are not merely allowed, but encouraged. The Potwell Inn is a space in which the gentle domestic arts of growing and cooking and eating together and building community are not treated as a bunch of hippy idealism or even communist infestation.

So the Potwell Inn hereby permanently bars the cretinous bunch of sociopaths, adulterers, drug abusers, liars, fantasists and thieves in the government, along with all their media supporters, lobbyists, climate change deniers and Russian backers who abuse our intelligence day by day. They should not enter the premises because they will not be served, and if they persist they will be sent to the end of the nearest pier where they can parade their meagre comic talents before an audience of stuffed weasels. This is the only way I can stay sane; by carving out a small space where I can grow to be as human as is possible for me and the people I care about, by creating an alternative to our etiolated spiritual and moral environment which sucks all possibility of creativity out of the air we breathe.

The Potwell Inn is a challenge; a one fingered salute to polluters, poisoners and to the entitled. The Potwell Inn is a refuge; a retreat house and a portal. Everything that happens here is true; but “here” can pop up anywhere – wherever the Potwell Inn sets its foot on the ground. Even if that ground happens to be an old slag heap, buddle pit or mine tip.

Of course we talk to the allotment – how else would we know how to keep it happy?

It’s Good Friday today and English tradition demands that we plant potatoes. Of course traditions can be very local or just plain wrong. With Easter tied to the phases of the moon, Good Friday wanders about a fair bit because Easter Day is calculated by the first full moon after the equinox which – this year – falls on Sunday 17th April; making Good Friday the 15th. The obvious explanation underlying the tradition is that the Easter weekend has always constituted a four day public holiday in this country and so for working people it was the ideal opportunity to get the new season’s crops underway. Jetting off to Spain wasn’t even on the cultural horizon and so my childhood memories of Good Friday are always triggered by the smell of freshly turned earth – scientific name, petrichor; the queues at Palmers seed store and at Flook’s the fishmonger, the owner of which had been working with fish so long he closely resembled a tall cod in his wellingtons and oilskin apron.

Here at the Potwell Inn, the latest frost (since we’ve been living here) was on May 6th so it’s clear that although potatoes, being planted below the surface, would be OK; there are many frost tender plants that wouldn’t. In the real world of allotmenteering, potato planting demands warm earth, no sudden cold or frosty spells on the horizon and time to get the job done and, as far as we’re concerned that means tomorrow because the potatoes are all chitted and ready.

As we were busy setting up nets and prepping beds yesterday I was mulling over the perplexing reason that allotmenteering is so good for the soul, and I think the answer (if there is one) has changed greatly over time, for me. Our first allotments and gardens – if I’m honest – were a bit of a struggle. Weeds and pests demanded constant hand-to- hand combat and any successful crops were snatched from the jaws of death. I can remember once losing an entire crop of beautiful Marmande style beef tomatoes to blight and watching potatoes turn to black slime for the same reason. It was hard to feel any kinship with the earth when it seemed to push back so harshly. We were always opposed to using chemicals, and so our options seemed limited. Sometimes we just gave up and walked away; disappointed and resentful.

But yesterday I realized it all felt very different. We’ve learned the hard way that birds and caterpillars will decimate brassica crops if we don’t protect them with nets. Allium leaf miner and asparagus beetle too are endemic on the site but we use a lot of fine insect mesh to keep the bugs out. We grow blight resistant tomatoes and maincrop potatoes (Crimson Crush Sarpo Mira), and we clear up any dead leaves; minimise the places slugs like to lay eggs and let the blackbirds take the rest. We net the fruit trees until the buds have set and so-on. Finally we don’t plant out tiny fragile little slug takeaways but grow them on until they can take a nibble or two. Badgers need something approaching the Maginot line to keep them off the sweetcorn – and so it goes on.

We also do a lot of companion planting and in the last two years we’ve doubled the number of perennials; increasing hugely the number of insect attractors and pollinators. We don’t dig and we make over a ton of compost every year; the net result being that our allotment can look a bit scruffy but the food plants grow well and we just accept that in a sane world, we simply have to share with all the other creatures. Gardening has become a silent dialogue with the plants, small; mammals, birds and insects who share the space with us. There are no weeds and no pests because we all have a right to exist.

Of course the non-polarized world of the allotment comes up against the binary world of allotment bureaucracy pretty regularly. Recently we had an epistle from on high regarding “non fruiting shrubs” which the writer wanted us to other and promptly remove. What’s a non-fruiting shrub? I wondered. What about cotoneaster for instance? – much loved and needed by birds in the winter. What about our Achillea plants: they have no humanly useful food – although the stalks are useful for casting the I Ching – and they provide pollen for insects – isn’t that fruit in a broader sense? Does our Borage fail the food test? What about Good King Henry? which side of the friend/enemy dichotomy does that fall?

Perhaps the Bible really is to blame in this one respect; (it’s a wonderful collection of texts with some really duff bits!) -maybe the idea of sovereignty over the earth has been really bad for the human race and we’ve got ourselves addicted to smiting anything that’s not directly useful. My own view of the Kingdom was formed more by my Grandfather’s huge row of sheds where anything and everything that ‘might come in handy one day, boy’, was piled high. He was a great rescuer of broken things, and among the finest of the remains were two or three old paper roll pianos (nickelodeons). He would give me and my sister a few pennies and we could bring them to life again. Is that a resurrection story? It’s a bit late for me to be called a heretic now!

Growing things is the silent dialogue between the gardener and the earth and it has to be a life of constant thanksgiving. We learn the proper names of all our plants, including the invasive grasses and the bindweeds that pierce through the soil out of sight and where they’re becoming a nuisance we remove them by hand and say ‘thanks but not here‘. Many of them are very beautiful in any case and to divide the earth into good (food for humans) and bad (food for everything else) – is a corrosive state of mind. The little annuals that take their chances early in the year; the Dandelions, the Rosebay Willowherbs that drift in clouds, the chancers that drop by for a year and then disappear; all full partners in the earth.

So will we be spending any time in church this Easter – (Oestre – work it out) – weekend? Well no, thanks but no thanks. We’ll be planting potatoes and if it seems right I might even sing the exsultet to the apples.

This is the season when most of the allotment is the kitchen

That’s a bit of an exaggeration because we’re still harvesting an abundance of broccoli, leeks, chard and parsnips from the open ground, and lettuce, coriander, parsley and spinach from the polytunnel; but these are the last of the winter crops and we’re just entering the hungry gap; the period between the past and the coming season when there’s not much about. Most people would assume that the hungry time is in midwinter but it’s not. This is the time when the stores come into their own. The jams, preserves, pickles and the food in the freezer are what get us by even though the temperature may be in the late teens and we’re dressed in T shirts. Revelation of the year is the wonderful flavour and texture of our own home-grown borlotti. So plump and soft and full of goodness. This year we’ll grow even more, because they store so well. But in reality it’s that time when the myth of self sufficiency is punctured by the cold logic of the seasonal year. The last frost can be as late as May 6th here and it’s heartbreaking to see prematurely exposed plants wilt and die.

The strawberries from last year’s runners, that I moved to their new bed a few weeks ago are flourishing under a fleece covering and even showing a few flowers. Angelica, lovage and French sorrel are all going well and the first asparagus tips are poking gingerly through the soil. Broad beans are safely under bird nets and every bare patch of ground is eagerly covering itself with opportunist weeds. The saddest casualty of winter is my beloved Sweet Cicely which is at best a short lived perennial. It’s a devil to get going but we’ll try again in the autumn. Last year we doubled the number of dwarf fruit trees and they’re all looking good with the apples in flower. Even the speculative planting of tiny rhubarb stools (Fulton’s Strawberry Surprise) have come good; but we’ll leave them to gather strength this season. There are now three successional varieties of rhubarb to supply us from March through summer.

In the kitchen, though, it’s all going well with the tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, lettuce, melons, courgettes and peas all potted on, and there are seed potatoes out on the landing. So this is Spring; the season of hopefulness and big dreams.

More on foraging

The glossy magazines continue to publish articles on foraging; some even daring to suggest that foraged food might help bridge the poverty trap for some people. I’m a foraging cynic. Recently we had reports of professionals stripping Cornish lanes of wild garlic. In Epping Forest the foraging of fungi had to be banned after entrepreneurs were found taking tens of kilos of fungi for sale to flashy restaurants. Nearly all the articles I see are written by people who make a living either by stripping the land themselves, or by running courses on how to do it. The idea that taking huge amounts of food away from its habitat – because it’s ‘free‘ – is somehow more “green” than growing some, (but never all) your food, is a dangerous fantasy that draws on precisely the same selfish and greedy instincts that underpin factory farming and fossil fuel extraction.

If, and when, we find something wild and delicious – field mushrooms for instance – we take enough for one feed and that’s it. I’m absolutely not arguing that picking a few blackberries, elderflowers or sloes is going to drive the trees to extinction but I’d apply a test that was suggested to me many tears ago by one of my mentors. Take (or give) enough not to be ashamed, but never enough to be proud.

The very moment in a foraging expedition where you have enough is the moment to stop. When gratitude for the gift slips into pride, the gift becomes toxic. One of my books on herbal medicine makes the admirable suggestion that the harvesting of plants and flowers for our healing should always begin with an act of thanksgiving. It sounds a bit cheesy, but I think it’s absolutely right, and I often find myself saying thank you out loud when we’re harvesting from the allotment. My maternal grandmother had a little saying that I hated when I was young because it always seemed to go with not being allowed any more pudding. She would say “enough is a feast” .

The single most awe inspiring thing about nature is not the big televisual stunts but her sheer undeserved generosity. When we abuse that generosity we become the prodigal children who want to spend the family inheritance in excess and then come back when it’s all gone and beg for more with a mumbled and insincere apology.

Good hunting!

Sweet Vernal Grass – Anthoxanthum odoratum

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things ….

Gerard Manley Hopkins; “God’s Grandeur”.

Yesterday I set out with the target of finding one single grass species, and we were on a 270 acre site where there’s an awful lot of the green stuff, so it was a test of patience mixed with good luck and Madame’s extraordinary eye. She was the first to spot the tiny flowers amongst the ruffians, not knowing at all what it was. Our minds converged and I had my plant.

It’s not that it’s the least uncommon – just that it’s very small; flowers very early in the year before the other grasses and then lingers as a dried skeleton for the rest of the season. I don’t suppose anyone in the UK could justly say that they’d never seen it but it’s also true that very few indeed would have noticed or known what it was. It’s all in the name; or very nearly all. It’s probably known as sweet more for its perfume than its taste. The thing about it is that it really is the smell of fresh hay; and that’s down to the alkaloid coumarin that gives the same perfume to Meadowsweet: a kind of delicious and evocative vanilla fragrance. The second part of the name, verna, comes from being one of the earliest grasses to flower. Most of the perfume resides in the roots and, as is so often the case, smelt close-up, to me it’s more like Dettol than vanilla. It’s also true that although it was once sown in meadows, Coope and Gray say that it’s neither very productive nor palatable to cattle and so it’s out there on its own.

We also went back to the dark rings in the grass to see if we could find any St George’s mushrooms – Calocybe gambosa and we were lucky that overnight a clump had emerged. They’re the easiest of fungi to identify as long as it’s spring. The white gills and the strong mealy smell are vanishingly unlikely to be anything else. Later on in the season, however you need to be very careful indeed because there are some truly dangerous nasties out there. Here’s an unexpectedly atypical Death Cap we photographed in September 2019 in Cumbria. As always, the devil’s in the detail and – just like all the other plants – you have to consider tiny details of shape and form; smell; season and habitat. That single death cap would certainly be enough to kill you!

Later on we trudged back to the Meadow Foxtails to see what other successional grasses might be on their way and found Yorkshire Fog in leaf there. I really should go back and do a full inventory but my grass I/D skills are still quite rudimentary and I fear it would be a slow job. It occurred to me while we were looking that I may not have noticed the Meadow Foxtail growing there before because until recently there was a free ranging herd of deer that would have eaten the tops off as soon as they emerged. Sadly they became infected with Bovine TB and had to be slaughtered, and so the grazing has had a two year rest. Preparations are obviously being made to reinstate the herd with hundreds of yards of new deer proof fencing going in. Hopefully they’ll soon restore the grass to its previous state.

One brilliant little find was a quantity of Flattened Meadow Grass; the same species that I found in Cornwall recently and which I’m still waiting to get signed off for the record. A double check on the BSBI database later confirmed that it’s known in that 10K OS square, and that’s good enough for me. Once you’ve sweated for hours over a plant you tend to remember it in the future!

Revisiting the scene of a crime.

I thought I remembered writing about this several years ago, but a search failed to deliver. I was thinking back to a Bath Nats fungus foray when a visitor harvested an entire stand of Parasol mushrooms behind the back of the group leader who, moments earlier, had asked us to leave them for others to enjoy. Anyway that memory has stuck in my mind ever since because it’s a bit of an argument for the so-called tragedy of the commons; the pernicious (to my mind) argument that the peasants couldn’t be trusted not to take more than their share of the commons and so enclosure was the only humane solution. More humane, it transpired, for the landlords than the peasants who were driven off the land and into the towns and cities. The afternoon was made all the more poignant by the fact that the larcenous offender was the daughter in law of one of the biggest landowners in one of my parishes.

Anyway that patch of land has always stayed in my mind and what with lockdown and closure of the grassland we haven’t been able to see whether any permanent damage was done. Fungi are very seasonal and you have to be there at the right time. However on the back of this doleful memory I taught our grandson how to look for patches of darker grass in the field where, if you were lucky, you would find fungi at the right time. He was a quick learner and was eventually sprinting from patch to patch, finding fungi. In this instance they were St George’s mushrooms; one of the simpler ones because they fruit early in the year, around St George’s Day, 23rd April.

So today after a frosty start we went back to the same walk and before long I spotted a clump of much greener grass amidst the winter colours. Poking through were what looked (from a distance) like the flower heads of Ribwort Plantain – which would be a very odd time for them to flower. A closer look immediately showed that the grass was Meadow Foxtail; handsome with its roots in a nitrogen rich fungal feast. I looked around and it seemed that there was some sort of association between the grass and what I know will be St George’s mushrooms within the next few weeks, because the Foxtail was entirely limited to the the darker green patches in the field.

Anyway with that little question/project hovering in the back of my mind, we wandered on down through the terraces and spotted a clump of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Trachystemon orientalis) growing in the shade of a wall and gate as we entered the formal gardens. Slowly; too slowly, learning your flowers moves from the starting point of answering the “what’s that” question with a blank mind, towards a much better starting point – that’s to say – “I know I don’t know that one, but I know what family it belongs to.” I knew that I didn’t know what this pretty borage – looking plant was called. I should say I’ve got into the habit of naming plants we pass (silently) and trying to remember as much about them as I can. It’s a great way of learning and shortens the recognition process greatly.

The big decision to come from our spontaneous visit today was that we should adopt the circuit of the park, including Whitefield the magical wildflower meadow, as our regular walk. Even though the car park can be hideously crowded the fact is most folks don’t stray far from the house and formal gardens; dogs are banned, so apart from arriving and leaving we’re pretty much on our own.

In the back of my mind at the moment – jogged by a new series of a popular TV series – is the idea of pilgrimage. I’ve had some experience of pilgrimages since I invented a 45 mile walk from Malmesbury to Littleton on Severn and led yearly pilgrimages for years. I also walked a 200 mile stretch of the Camino. I need to think some more about this but it seems to me that the difference between hiking and pilgrimage concerns intention and reflection. Pilgrimage, in my mind, is a form of liturgical walking; expressing rhythmically through legs and feet what’s more normally expressed in music and song. What I can say with absolute certainty was that an accidental and very short pilgrimage to St Non’s Chapel in St David’s yielded more spiritual insight that any of the tougher walks I’ve done; so it’s absolutely not about blood, sweat, tears and suffering. It’s about vulnerability.

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