Well, Mr Wordsworth, you were right about emotion recollected in tranquility. Our trip to Cornwall was entirely unexpected, and so, with no more travel plans in place, this is the beginning of the rest of the Potwell Inn autumn and today we sat down and reviewed all our summer photographs on a big screen. I was taken aback at quite how intense an experience it was, and this picture of a Sneezewort plant just about had it all for me. As we went through all the new plants, I remembered the exact spot we found this one. It’s not particularly rare and no-one apart, perhaps, the painter Giorgio Morandi, would write poems to its beauty. He’d love it for its restrained colours and I can just see the buff and white flowers somewhere in the background of one of his still-life paintings.
It was the colours that first caught my eye, and then the fact that I’d never seen it before. The identifications you have to work hard for are by far the most memorable and as time goes on I can usually place a plant somewhere in the right family. But once I knew its name I realized I knew a little bit about its medicinal uses in the past and instead of being a stranger it was a friend at the first meeting.
There were lots of meetings like that during the summer and I took hundreds of photographs in which I could instantly recall where they were taken and then refer back to my waterproof notebook to find the name. Sometimes it was easy and sometimes there are a sequence of letters or numbers that mean I had to key it out by answering a series of questions exactly correctly to take me to the right place in the book.
But there was more, because many of the plants had features that just cried out to be painted; the brilliant hues of blackberry leaves, the exact texture of the skins of sloes, the sealing wax red of hawthorn berries and rose-hips. Some of them also stood astride more than one field of interest – illustration, medicine, abstract structure and form, folk names. The natural world suddenly becomes a far richer, more precious place. As I’ve written often before, it populates it with friends whom the prospect of losing fills me with sadness and the resolve to stop that from happening.
I saw at once what I need to get done during the winter months when the allotment takes up less time and I can set up my tiny cramped drawing space once more. I feel blessed and inspired to be back at the Potwell Inn.
Sometimes the success or failure of a day out hinges on something essentially random – like finding a shop that sells crystallised angelica. We last bought it in Penzance at least three years ago, and so as we set off up Causeway Head I had little hope of finding the shop, which even then had the air of a pop-up, still in business. But there it was, very much in business and pleased to sell me enough for three Christmas sherry trifles at least. I’d despaired of ever finding it again but somewhere there’s a person with the energy to simmer angelica stalks in increasingly strong sugar solution for days, until the tender stalks are preserved ready to add a touch of green to contrast with the morello cherries floating on whipped cream atop the trifle. The Potwell Inn always produces Christmas puddings as well, but we rarely eat them until well into the year because sherry trifle made according to a recipe given to us by an old friend has become a Christmas fixture. As you can see my thoughts have turned instinctively to Christmas for no better reason that the preserving and pickling are all but finished. Once upon a time, Gill made us the trifle as a gift every year, but when she became too old I took on the task as a tribute. No Christmas could be complete without it, and because she always aded angelica it never looks right without it.
When I think about it, most of the canonical tasks of Christmas involve quite inexplicable feats of endurance. We know perfectly well that the puddings, cakes and treats are ridiculously rich and life-threateningly full of fat and sugar but a good life deserves a bit of occasional feasting as well as fasting. We are far from the mindset of a couple known to Madame whose idea of the perfect Christmas lunch was to warm up an Iceland frozen turkey dinner and eat it on their laps. Somehow the angelica is even worth a trip to Cornwall, and always tastes better as a happy accident.
We grow it on the allotment – it’s a magnificent sight in the summer as it grows to six feet tall – each plant producing enough of the leaf stems to decorate a hundred trifles – but once again this year, we didn’t find time to create our own store in the kitchen. The little shop is, in itself, a model. There is virtually no packaging to be found in it, you could bring your own containers and buy a huge range of ingredients from bulk. How strange that even in cosmopolitan foodie Bath there isn’t an equivalent shop – I’m sure it would do well.
We walked up and down the pedestrianised street and found an excellent bookshop (Barton Books) the contents of whose bookshelves closely resembled our own at home. I think I’d read about a third of the stock, and would happily have read the rest. I joshed the owner a little and asked him if he’d only stocked his favourite books and he responded that good booksops always reflected their owners’ tastes. I couldn’t agree more, and I came out with John Wright’s latest book on foraging which I’ve already started reading.
Penzance is a place of contrasts – three years ago I’d have been glad never to visit again after we watched an unhinged young woman pouring abuse and beating her dog in the street. Today we were in Newlyn buying some fresh fish and the fishmonger said he lived in Penzance but it had become “a hole” over the years. Exactly as if we were at home, we watched a couple selling drugs on the street – both obviously addicts themselves, both hollowed out by drugs and life in general and with no provision for any help out of their mess.
Mousehole, where we’re staying, is stuffed with ludicrously pretty cottages which are all that remains of a once thriving fishing community. Next door in Newlyn there is still a big fishing fleet but Moushole, with its tiny harbour, confines itself to selling souvenirs and doing a bit of occasional crabbing. The purpose has gone out of the place. In Newlyn the fishmonger said he’d voted for Brexit. I sincerely hope for the town’s sake that he doesn’t get his wish. Virtually all the fish we eat as a nation we buy in, and virtually all that’s caught here is sold abroad, overwhelmingly in Europe. If tariffs were applied to the catch, the fishing would become as unprofitable as the tin mining and that would leave tourism – which only really pays for a third of the year – as the principle industry, bringing even more poorly paid jobs, homelessness and unemployment, helplessness, anger, drugs and alcohol abuse.
But the incomers seem to be taking up at least some of the slack by driving up house prices and providing work for an army of builders, painters and plumbers. The landscape and its wonderful light are largely untouched by change and the granite landscape of West Penwith is as magical as ever it was. Am I too hard on this place? We lived in Falmouth for a year as students and were both captivated by it whilst, at the same time, being wary. You’re always an ’emmet’ here, one of the teeming hordes of ant-like tourists who come, as if to a left-luggage office, looking for something you’ve lost but can’t quite describe. The little battery lit serpentine lighthouse you used to be able to buy from the turners’ shacks on the Lizard has come to stand as a lament for that loss.
We walked to Newlyn today and passed the memorial on the original site of the Penlee Lifeboat station from which the Solomon Browne set out in 1981 in a hurricane force storm to try to rescue the crew of the Union Star coaster. Both crews were lost in the 60 foot waves, and the tradition of Christmas lights here must surely reflect and bring to mind that terrible tragedy as the lights shine out across the sea as if to welcome back the men who will never come.
There’s nowhere to park here: the village was fully formed before the car was invented and the old fishermen’s cottages form a maze of narrow alleyways but there’s an excellent bus service back and forth to Penzance and from there onwards to anywhere in the county. On the roadside facing the sea there are allotment gardens, with some sculptural and whimsical scarecrows.
So, as always we celebrate a few days in Cornwall with mixed feelings. Loss and tragedy are never far below the surface and yet there are few places quite so likely to get the creative sap rising. The railway line to Penzance brought with it not just the tourists, but the painters of the Newlyn School, and later the St Ives artists who, for a while, changed the course of art history. It’s a culture that’s never quite at ease with itself, often feeling isolated and angry with the ‘upcountry’ politicians who have served it so badly. If ever a place needed strong regional government this is it. There’s an uncanny resemblance to Wales where the mineral wealth was extracted by a semi colonial economics leaving the place sucked dry. Love it? Hate it? It’ll still be here long after we’re all dead!
The Potwell Inn has moved briefly to a new location in Cornwall which is very beautiful but could be described as KB/sec land. More pictures tomorrow but the connection speed is agonisingly slow and whether this will ever appear I don’t yet know! I’m aware some readers would rather I confined myself to the sort of sourdough/allotment/wildlife topics that often feature in the blog. I love writing them too, but there are some issues that haunt me and what follows is one of them.
On Monday we had the first of the Bath Natural History Society indoor meetings and heard Prof David Goode talk on “the ecology and conservation of bogs”. If you ever thought of a specialist talking about bogs might be a bit dry (couldn’t resist that one) then think again. In fact don’t just think again, grab a magnifer, take a trip to a bog somewhere near you and take a really close-up look at some mosses – they’re really beautiful, colourful, and it seems extremely important, especially at this moment of ecological crisis.
Mosses aren’t just a bunch of plants, they create their own ecosystems by acidifying and adding phenolic compounds to the water they’re growing in and so create exactly the kind of anaerobic conditions which prevent rotting, thereby preserving Tollund Man and millions of tons of carbon in perpetual storage without the intervention of a single yet-to-be-made invention. Even better they have a bunch of structural but dead cells called hyaline cells which resemble tiny bladders that can store up to 26 times their dry weight in water. All of which means that blanket bog is better at storing carbon than the Amazon rain forests, good news because the UK has 13% of the world’s blanket bogs.
At this point, and in fairness to Prof David Goode, I should say that the message I took away from his excellent talk and the way in which I’m going to develop it, is entirely my responsibility.
While we are pleased to sign petitions aimed at foreign dictators and multinational companies who are enabling the destruction of the Amazon rainforests are we guarding our own precious home-grown carbon stores – the blanket bogs of the UK?
Well sadly we’re not.
When you drain a bog – possibly by abstracting water to drain it for farming, or in order to create a better environment for commercial grouse shooting, it begins to die. It dies even quicker when the blanket bog is deliberately drained and burned so a very few extremely wealthy people can get to shoot wild birds. We less privileged mortals are only just beginning to turn away from using peat in our gardens, so you can’t reduce this problem entirely to wealth and privilege.
On grouse moors the bogs themselves are degraded and depleted whilst any creature remotely threatening the grouse is trapped, poisoned or shot. The upshot only adds to the catastrophic loss of wildlife on these habitats, while the depletion of the massive water storage capacity of the bogs results in more run-off into rivers and dangerous flooding downstream. In addition, as the bog conditions disappear all that stored carbon as well as methane is released back into the atmosphere to wind up the ratchet of the same global heating that is already helping to dry out bogland across the world. Peat extraction has the same effect, and I was astonished to learn that in the past it has been burnt as a fuel in power stations.
So here is a terrifying figure. The earth’s remaining area of near natural peatland stores more than 550 gigatonnes of carbon, representing 42% of all soil carbon. The hotter the earth gets the more of this carbon is going to be released into the atmosphere, along with millions of tonnes of methane from the melting permafrost.
Some people are advocating planting trees to stabilize the climate but this is something of a scientific mirage because a tree only stores carbon during the period it’s growing. Let’s imagine for the sake of argument we planted 100 million trees tomorrow. For the next 25 or perhaps 50 years they would take carbon out of the atmosphere but once they die, or are felled, we would have to use the timber as a building material to preserve its carbon storing integrity, or bury it deep in the earth under controlled conditions. I suppose eventually (over geological time, that is), it would turn into coal which would at least be stable as long as we left it there in the ground. But any talk of bio-fuels or renewable energy based on burning wood or plant material is a chimera because without yet-to-be-invented methods of carbon capture, these supposed renewable fuels are as dangerous as any other hydrocarbon fuel.
Let’s get real about this. There is no way that we can avert the related disasters of global heating and species extinction and keep living the way we do. I’m fascinated at the psychological mechanisms we unwittingly deploy to ignore the warnings. I wrote recently about the psychology of grieving which, I think, plays a part. There’s also the fact that we don’t experience directly or immediately the effects of our behaviour. It took decades for cigarette smoking to reduce because hardly anyone died immediately of lung cancer. The same goes for drinking too much; it’s most insidious property is its plausible deniability. People rarely die of asthma attacks right alongside the queuing traffic jams on London Road (Bath) and its all too easy to think something like “my little car won’t make much difference”.
But there’s another way of looking at our behaviour, and that’s our attitude to moral wrongs. Let’s suppose there’s a crowd of people in a room with a table in the centre on which stands a bowl of sweets with a notice that reads “please don’t take the sweets”. In a crowd, where wrongdong is hard to get away with without invoking peer disapproval, we’re more inclined to do the right thing. But imagine that same crowd of people passing through the room one at a time with no-one observing them. I’d wager that more than a few sweets would disappear. Social disapproval is a powerful force for behavioural change, and so if we really want to stop people buying those enormous 3 litre gas guzzlers we need to express our disapproval. Nobody wears a real mink coat these days expecting a round of applause. That’s not to argue that a voluntary code will be sufficient. In the end, our strategies for dealing with this crisis will have to be enshrined in law, because the current beneficiaries of ‘the way we do things round here’ are not going to give up their privileges without a fight. By adopting the principle of making the polluter pay and only subsidising activities that bring definable public goods, our present unsustainable and dangerous lifestyle would have to change.
The impact of neo-liberalism isn’t confined to financial markets, it’s insinuated itself into our cultural bloodstream to the point where we can’t think straight about the environment. Somehow, flying across the Atlantic in an aeroplane or feeding fillet steak to your dog is regarded as a ‘freedom’ whereas breathing fresh air, drinking unpolluted water, listening to a turtle dove, having a roof over your head and a rewarding job with a modest but sufficient income is a burden on society.
So – just now, bogland has absolutely no rights, but if it disappears we disappear too. So I’m not trying to enter the hideously technical argument as to whether any non-sentient being can have rights. My argument is simpler and suggests that my rights, our rights as flourishing human beings are contingent upon the flourishing of the biosphere. That’s not a lump of sphagnum moss at the top of this post, it’s a life support system!
I think I’ve been reading too much – and it’s all the fault of the southwesterly winds. We did at least manage 3 hours on the allotment yesterday, but today, after setting out on a fruitless (yes) mission to pick damsons, it hammered down so much we turned around and came home again whereupon I spent the rest of the day watching 2 films about Arne Naess and reading his book “Ecology of Wisdom”. I had to check him out because his name, and the concept of ‘deep ecology’ have come up quite a lot in my reading recently and I always find it better to go back to the source and make my own mind up..
The introduction was a bit repetitive, whereas the initial chapter on place was really intriguing. But I came away from the first three essays thinking that, after looking at his CV, I felt more disabled than enabled by his mountaintop vision. There was something a shade too muscular, too charismatic, for me. I’ll never build a primitive hut on the side of a mountain, or read Spinoza in Latin, or learn Ghandian boxing. So does that mean that the Potwell Inn is forever condemned to the sidelines? Does it mean that my proposed ecology of Muckyannydinny Lane, the rubbish filled alley connecting two estates, will never see the light of day because it’s too ordinary?
I liked the man and some at least of his writing, but it seems to me as if his disciples (where have I heard this story before?) have added whole chunks of metaphysics and rather extreme conclusions to his initial words. Isn’t it always the same? The moment we canonize someone, the followers feel free to claim pretty much anything they like and then stamp it with the saint’s imprimatur to put it beyond debate.
So here I am with a seed catalogue in one hand and the disabling thought in my mind that I really don’t know what we should be doing for the best. Is the bib and brace overall and the Tilly hat more of a deferential tug of the forelock to the past? (see postbox). Is there some complete system for the ethically perfect life that I haven’t stumbled across yet or am I condemned to stumble around in the dark? I know there are people who’ve found the answer because you can sense by their absolute certainty and their gimlet eyes that they have the truth – I’m not being smart and ironical here, I’m both envious of and repelled by their purity.
Loving the earth and the natural world is easy, and counting ourselves among the creatures surely involves loving one another as well as the birds, bees and wolves, and yet the most forceful expositions of rewilding seem almost Malthusian – discarding human lives as if they (we) are a form of infection. The most common exposition of the technological dream, of carbon capture and fusion power et al seem to me to be putting your trust into the power of the unicorn, and somewhere in the middle you land up being despised by almost everyone. All I can think of is to try to live ethically as best I can, reduce my impact on the earth and keep the Potwell Inn going so we, the bewildered, can spent our twilight years with shaking hands and rheumy eyes discussing the price of onions over a pint of Ushers cider.
Today I baked another sourdough and took 15 minutes off the baking time to try to create a less daunting crust. Madame cooked ratatouille – possibly the last of the season from our own produce.
My son asked me at the weekend why I don’t blog about politics. It’s for the same reason I don’t go around bludgeoning people who steal our coldframes, it’s all got a bit too poisonous and I think it’s bad for me. One of my ex parishioners facebooked to say I was being very stoic. OK Chris – you’ve found me out!
It’s not all gloom and doom on the allotment, in fact I’m not a very gloom and doom person – I’m melancholic, which is altogether different and a lot more creative. But lifting these big pumpkins had me as happy as could be and groaning loud enough to attract a small group of spectators on the footpath, and some ooohs and aaas as I staggered over to the wheelbarrow. We don’t have any means of weighing the big one, but compared with a 25K bag of sand, I’d say it was more like 30Kg – around 66lbs – far from the record breakers that need a fork-lift to move them, but very gratifying for us. We could have let them go on growing, but we need to get the soil prepped ready for the autumn, and the outbreak of larceny on the site has made us cautious about leaving them in full view. Pumpkins are as cheap as chips in the supermarkets, but big ones like this seem to attract thieves.
So we were clearing the decks today and heaping the bean vines on to the compost heap which is now groaning under the weight. At the beginning of the year I calculated that we’d have to fill the first bin four times to generate enough compost to cover the whole plot. We haven’t managed four, but it’s been full to the top three times, and I’ll turn it all into the second bay next week and start again. The end bin that had autumn leaves in it has now rotted down into a fine mulch of about 1/3 the volume, and that’s the problem with our compost – it rots down so much that it’s reduced by as much as 2/3 during the process. However it’s so rich and full of nutrients that it doesn’t need to be piled on thickly. Earlier in the season I turned over the first full bin and it’s now more than perfect – it’s positively beautiful. But however carefully we sort and compost our paper, cardboard and green kitchen waste with the prunings and tops from the allotment there’s always a residue that needs to be more thoroughly dealt with.
We’ve thought long and hard about incineration and the numbers are quite complex. If we just put all the weeds and infected material on the compost heap it would not get hot enough to neutralize the pathogens or kill the seeds. If the compost starts getting anaerobic it will produce methane, but even if it’s well managed and aerobic it will still produce CO2. If it goes to a landfill site it will certainly be anaerobically rotted and so will produce methane and, in addition, the carbon cost of transporting it needs to be added in. So the carefully managed incinerator can’t be rejected out of hand, and the residual ash is a good source of potassium, nitrogen and phosphorous. The biggest problem with burning is the nuisance, inconvenience and smoke to nearby allotmenteers. If a well managed incinerator is allowed to get really hot to start the process, and then green material is added continuously to keep the process going, and then it should function for days with no more than a whisp of smoke and a little steam when wet material is added. In short there’s no completely green way of disposing of noxious and infected plants. We’re not allowed to use the incinerator until 1st October in any case , but we’ve bagged up all the infected tomato vines and they’ll be disposed of on Tuesday.
We’ve also started thinking already about next season’s sowings, and the catalogues have just started to appear in the post box. With such a strange season we’ve seen several unexpected results, not least the way that the Mediterranean vegetables – the courgettes, peppers, aubergines and chillies have all done much better outside than in the (recently stolen) coldframes and the greenhouse. This may well be to do with their ability to root deeply and find water, and also the positive impact of freely circulating air, but it’s hard not to hold climate change partially responsible as well. So our choice of what to grow is going to be affected by three factors next season, firstly the possibility of food shortages if brexit goes ahead, secondly trying to second guess the weather and finally the contribution of our 250 square metres to alleviating climate heating and insect extinctions.
Finally I took this photograph of a clutch of slug eggs today. They’re a pest, there’s no doubt, and yet they also perform a useful function on the allotment by eating dead plant material so we try to control them with beer traps, bait plants like Tagetes and picking them off when we see them. Their only total success this year was a row of carrots that were scythed off before they even got going. But that’s gardening for you! As you see the eggs are laid on compost whereas white butterflies lay their eggs on leaves – I think there’s a bit of a clue there as to the slug’s favourite food. So if we don’t leave dead and decaying vegetable matter lying around near vulnerable plants the slugs will be less likely to visit.
I’ve a lot of time for George Monbiot and I often find myself agreeing with almost every word he’s just written while contrarily wishing that he’d found a different way of writing it. It concerns me that I feel this way, because it forces me to examine that part of my history that makes me averse to harsh words. My friends will breathe a sigh of relief that there is at least someone in the brake-van, and the people I’ve sparred with over the years will continue to think what they do. There is a place for indignation and anger about our present conjoined crises of mass extinction and global heating and to hold back on that anger might feel like tacit support for the guilty. Do we really have time for the niceties of civilised debate and a coming together of minds towards agreed collective action. Well we’ve had over fifty years of debating time since Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was published, and my entire adult life has been punctuated by warnings about our abuse of the environment. From the terrible post-war smogs in London and other industrial cities during my childhood onwards, the power of legislation and enforcement has been thwarted and emasculated by powerful vested interests. Surely they’ve had their chance.
And I think that sense of urgency is a powerful defence of the language that’s sometimes used in the debate. George Monbiot is just one among the many powerful voices who’ve spoken out and challenged the culture, and if by shouting loudly about the dangers they’ve brought it to the top of the political agenda then we’ve a lot to thank them for. If our political system (and this is – ultimately – a political and economic issue) is so tin-eared, or wilfully deaf to the mounting scientific evidence, then our leaders can hardly complain when the debate is taken into the streets, because it us who have to breathe the polluted air and our children whose lungs are invaded by diesel particulates and will never hear a nightingale or a curlew.
The problem is that if it comes to a slanging match, the powerful vested interests have by far the loudest voice, and they have not been above using dirty tricks and deliberate lies to prolongue their hegemony. Stupidly, though, they don’t seem to be able to understand that we all breathe this air, we all drink the water (when there is any) we all eat the chemically compromised food. The rise in sea-level will drive millions of people away from their vulnerable homes, including those who can afford to own tropical islands. The problem is that there isn’t a column for the environment on a profit and loss statement, and so the polluters don’t pay. They’d soon stop if it hit their profits.
So yes there’s a bit of me that would like to make them suffer for the damage they’ve done, but if they were all locked up for eternity it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to the crisis. George’s article above particularly takes aim at farmers and the big environmental NGO’s, and reserves special hatred for grouse moors – there’s a picture of one the I took a few weeks ago at the top of this post.
We know the whole environmental culture has to change, and so let’s take the example of tree planting. Should we plant a million trees, say? Well yes, but where should we plant them? – and what trees should we plant? whose land shall we plant them on? who will pay for them, maintain them and keep them healthy? Can we tackle the climate crisis and the extinction crisis at the same time with the same plan – or will the two sides of the larger crisis require a plan modulated to meet both? This is where I part company with some of Monbiot’s comments because one obvious solution is to use the presently indefensible agricultural subsidy system to change the farming culture. To say to farmers “you can do what you like (within the law) with your own land, but we won’t pay you to do it if it doesn’t bring about any public good.” I’m pretty sure that most farmers would be only too pleased to stop damaging their land so long as it didn’t bankrupt them in the process. Most hill-farms get 80% of their income from subsidies. Monbiot is quite right to say that the hill-country landscape has been turned into a wildlife desert by overgrazing sheep, but whose fault is that when, until recent years, farmers were paid according to the size of their flocks so, of course, they overstocked the sheep. Millions, if not hundreds of millions of trees could be planted on some of that unproductive land but the best possible workforce and custodians of the new forests would be the farmers who presently farm sheep. They’re in place already and they know their land as only farmers do. Calling for an end to sheep farming only makes a dangerous situation worse. Do we even know what numbers of sheep might constitute a sustainable national flock? Aren’t there economic and ecological benefits to maintainin a much smaller national flock thereby retaining the best of the hill farming culture and reducing overproduction to the point where the market for sheep and wool improves. Would a revival in woollen cloth be a sustainable alternative to more plastics? I don’t see the point in alienating and threatening farmers with the expropriation of their livelihoods when we know we’re going to need them onside. The grouse moors are much harder to defend, especially when the cost of shooting is so great that only the wealthy can participate, and amid the costs to wildlife by heather burning are the sinister statistics around the shooting and poisoning of birds of prey by gamekeepers who know when to keep their mouths shut.
But this too is where we’ve seen that not all big landowners are capitalizing on their land by running shoots. Neither do they all allow hunting and stalking. Inevitably some will argue that any change will amount to an attack on their whole “way of life”. Well yes, so was the abolition of slavery and the end of public executions – we can’t go on excusing the destruction of our ecosystem because someone might get upset about not being able to wear their plus fours. I think the majority of landowners, if they are faced with the prospect of losing millions of pounds of revenue unless they change their ways, will grumble a lot and comply, because deep down they do understand. The biggest obstacle to change will be those industries that can’t adapt. The ones that will really go bust if farmers stop using chemicals! The manufacturers of the behemoths that straddle the fields and crush the life out of the soil will find ways of serving a less extractive agriculture, and no-one’s attacking the principle of using farmland productively and efficiently. It might be that instead of half-million pound machines, human beings could do more. Some of my happiest winter mornings were spent laying hedges on a playing field that didn’t possess or want to flail the hell out of them.
I’m arguing two things simultaneously – firstly that the crisis is so severe that we must take immediate action and secondly that the best strategy for achieving that end is to use both carrot and stick to change farming culture. Aggression, rudeness and threats of expropriation will just make it harder. I spent 25 years working in farming parishes and I always felt able to question why things were done in the way they were. Apart from one instance where I was shouted at by a (non farming) local councillor who’d got completely the wrong end of the stick, I found the farmers overwhelmingly open to new ideas. They loved their land and they neither wanted to poison it or lose it altogether by going out of business.
George Monbiot’s next targets in the article are the large NGO’s like the National Trust, the RSPB and the other powerful charities. Again, it’s always better to change what you’ve got than abolish it all and start again. With the National Trust, Monbiot’s main target is the policy of allowing even drag hunting on its land. If this crisis is ever going to be resolved, then dog whistle tactics will have to be set aside. The very word hunting carries a whole complex of polarizing imagery that makes resolution almost impossible, and lines the opposing views up with an angry chasm between them. Better let the whole practice die of disgust, like bear baiting and cockfighting did in their day. Where the National Trust can help is in the management of its huge land holdings, and there it’s not heped by it’s foundational ethos of preservation and conservation. It’s not good enough to use huge sums of public subscription to preserve some notional bucolic landscape for sightseers.
The same problem on a larger scale happens within the National Park authorities who can be a positive nuisance when it comes to changing farming practices. Many of these charities and NGO’s encourage a narrow (especially in terms of diversity) view of passive participation in the scenery. Charities supporting single issues like birds, butterflies or whatever else are not known for their collaboration, and can be positively hostile when other groups with different interests impinge on their “territory”.
So my plea to George Monbiot is to deal with his understanable anger and pursue the goal we all share by reaching out rather than acting out. It really does work better. To use a useful cliché once again, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ but it’s not invincible. We can’t save the earth by making vote-winning policy announcements, but it can be saved by implacable determination, never losing sight of the goal and never accepting second best delaying tactics from vested interests. The farmers aren’t the enemy, it’s us with our insatiable appetites.
We planted more tomatoes this season and we knew that judgement day would come sooner or later and they would need to be processed into winter stores. Today was that day and I spent most of it on the stove when I wasn’t cranking our small but perfectly formed passata machine. The good news and the bad news this year was that the cherry tomato crop failed completely with the blight so I was excused the drying. It’s a shame really because dried tomatoes keep well (as long as they’re completely dried) and they’re a great thing to have in the store to give a touch of acidity and sweetness in other dishes. As for the rest, I processed another 25 lbs of ripe tomatoes today and turned it into 3 litres of passata and four and a half litres of pasta sauce. The passata is indispensible as a base for all sorts of other sauces. Back on the allotment there are at least as many still to go, plus a big batch for chutney as well. Much as we love tomatoes, they can be a struggle to keep up with at this time of year.
While I was cooking the tomatoes Madame was sowing our first batch of indoor basil – we’ve still got quite a bit growing on the allotment but the first sign of frost will see it off. The other herbal revelation this year has been French tarragon which seems to thrive on our plot and is wonderful (the French always knew this) with chicken.
The rain hardly let up all day so we spent most of our time indoors but I’ve got a couple of new books to read and spent a lot of time pondering on Spinoza at the stove. I was very touched by Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN, and we even sat down to listen to Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the Labour Party conference during the afternoon. I liked a lot of what we heard but I find the constant emphasis on new technology to solve the related problems of extinction and global heating far wide of the mark. We’ve relied far too much on keeping on doing the wrong thing by hoping some new technology turns up to help clean up the mess. There was no mention of farm subsidies either. We need to stop making the mess now.
After a long break mostly away, we’ve got the Potwell Inn kefir and sourdough production line running sweetly and so here’s a photo of breakfast – the smoothies are a great way of using our frozen spinach cubes.
I love these colours, they’re the colours of autumn for me. Every year the window boxes outside the flat seem to anticipate the change in the season by subtly changing colours. One by one the different species grow paler and drop out, leaving the geraniums as the last intense colour. The effect of this is to make it look as if we’ve done something incredibly clever, by designing the displays to anticipate the onset of autumn. Nothing could be less true because it just seems to happen. When the last flowers drop off the geraniums the window boxes come down and are replaced with the spring bulbs which soon fill the windows with the sense of anticipation. We’ve always wanted to rotate three displays but planting out and maintaining six window boxes is more than we can afford so we make do with bare windows in the dead of winter. One day, perhaps, we’ll find six recyclable window boxes and achieve our year long plan.
Seasons are important and we’re so lucky to have them because they structure the year but more importantly they structure the imagination. Sure, by the end of each season we’re liable to be thinking “I’ve had enough of this” but we know that each period brings its own grace. For me the long dark nights soon become a chore, but in just three months the days begin to lengthen again. Round and round goes the clock and we are renewed.
Today we grabbed the forecast dry start to go up to the allotment and weed. It may be perverse but weeding is one of my very favourite jobs and since we broke all the ground up into beds it’s an absolute doddle because we can work from a dry woodchip path even in the rain. I remember a woman called Eileen who lived in one of my parishes. She really needed a carer herself, but with a little support she was looking after her elderly mother and kept a beautiful garden which she would dig from end to end every year. I’d often walk past and she would be out, even in the rain, with an old waterproof macintosh tied around her waist with baler twine, digging away until the job was done. I also took the funeral for a 104 year old who had moved in with his son at the age of 90 and dug the son’s garden saying it was a mess. I should write more about these characters because they represented a hardy generation who never thought of themselves as exceptional, never used a latin name for a plant and could grow paving slab cuttings if you asked them.
The rain came soon enough but not before we’d harvested more vegetables for ourselves and released a pigeon that was captive in a neighbour’s net – it probably went straight back to eating everyone else’s cabbages. Pigeons seem especially to like Cavalo Nero which they can convert into an inverted umbrella frame in minutes.
It’s good to be back in the flat after our long travels around the country. I’ve got a pile of reading to catch up with, most of it concerned with global heating and the ecological crisis, but the reading is going to be illuminated by what we discovered on the ground, talking to people – especially farmers – and observing fields, plants and insects in their different habitats. One thing is abundantly clear already,
– we simply can’t go on as we have been.
It’s been another year on the allotment during which we finished nearly all the infrastructure, and which leaves us with huge gratitude for the productivity of the earth. I’ve seen it suggested that allotments, (presumable well-run ones), can be ten times as productive as farmland. I’m always a bit suspicious of these attention grabbing figures, but it’s pretty obvious that when two of us focus our whole attention on to 250 square metres of land, the response is positive, and it’s worth reminding ourselves before we get too smug, that the depopulation of the countryside has been one driver of the growth in intensive farming, and another driver has been our insatiable desire for cheap food without regard to standards.
Perhaps we’re a bit quick to point the finger at all farmers when there are many who are concerned about the environment, and who do practice organic farming and are up to speed with no-till systems, sustainable mixed farming on a rotational basis and higher than basic welfare standards. Climbing on to the moral bandwagon and advocating universal vegetarianism or veganism could lead to more industrial food processing rather than less, and the destruction of more forest in order to grow more soya and grain. Allowing cattle to graze freely – especially in wooded pastures – puts the muck where it’s needed, and where it can be broken down quickly before it produces ammonia pollutants. If you’ve never tried raw milk straight from the cow, you’ve missed one of the great food treats. I believe it is possible to run mixed dairy farms sustainably and without cruelty. Whether or not to eat meat is an important moral decision and we must respect those who make a different choice from ourselves.
We don’t use any chemicals, but we use our own human urine all the time on the allotment – it’s perfectly safe diluted ten to one with water, it’s packed with bio-available nitrogen and it has no smell at all. It’s storing it in huge silos and spraying the resultant slurry on the fields that creates much of the problem. So as far as the Potwell Inn is concerned …..
Are we prepared to radically reduce our consumption of meat?- YES
Are we prepared to put up with a smaller range of fresher locally grown vegetables? – YES
Would we be prepared to pay more for better outcomes in farming? – YES
The answer will likely need some complex unravelling of an entrenched farming culture, and some hand-to-hand combat with powerful vested interests who will use their considerable political and media power to convince us that it’s all hopeless idealism and only new and more powerful ‘green’ technology and targeted chemicals will bring the promised land closer. The most powerful tool at our disposal would be the subsidy system which needs to be re-focused towards payment solely for ‘public goods’. Subsidising farmers to cover good pasture land with crop trees isn’t the way forward, but creating wooded pasture or planting the right kind of trees on marginal land that can only produce a crop with heavy inputs of chemicals might well be. We’re bound to see alarmist headlines claiming that we’re all going to starve, but local authorities could be empowered or even instructed to provide much more land for allotments rather than allowing developers to build a few unaffordable homes while they bank good greenbelt land in order to keep houseprices prices up. I’m not going to get into some of my wilder ideas – I write this merely to show that there may be better ways of achieving what we universally claim we want – healthy food, a healthy environment and an end to pollution and extinctions.
Autumn is the time for new beginnings and new plans – I love it, let’s do it!
First off, why do I use the difficult Welsh names for places? Because that’s what they’re called and everybody speaks Welsh up here. Secondly, Welsh is a completely phonetic language as I learned many years ago trying to catch buses up and down the South Wales valleys running writers groups. Learning the basics of pronunciation made catching buses easier and me seem less of an amusing floor show! So how do you pronounce Mynydd Rhiw? Try Munith (with the u as in pun rather than mule) and then rheeoo – like the sound of a buzzard but lower. so –
Couldn’t resist a last stroll up Mynydd Rhiw for this year. It’s been such a beautiful spell of warm weather and the flowering gorse and heather had brought out a few late butterflies not to mention all the other insects. As we left the road we watched a kestrel hovering over the fields below us. For many years I’d only ever seen kestrel from a distance or from below, sillhouetted aganst the sky. The key identifying feature came to be its unique fluttering style of hovering – head down, maybe thirty feet above its prey. Then in Cornwall last year we saw one very close up on a cliff path and saw for the first time its stunning chestnut colour – so surprising that I had to go and double check that it was, in fact, a kestrel and not some other bird of prey. Today we were able to watch for some minutes from above and again, in the bright sunshine, the chestnut colour glowed once more. The kestrel never looked more beautiful than it did today. As for buzzards, they’ve become so common these days that seeing three flying together on the other side of the hill seemed unexceptional.
With the hills taking on their autumn colours, we looked across and could see Snowdon more clearly than we’ve ever seen it before. The last time we were here in April it was still capped with snow but today the great rills below the summit ridge stood out in the hard light. My camera, missing a UV filter hardly managed to capture the scene, but I suspect this would have been one of the rare days when, from the summit, you could see both Cardigan Bay and the Irish Sea.
As befits this day of protest about climate change, we could see an oil platform out at sea and as we arrived at the trig point we found one of those enormous pickup trucks at the top with its occupants and their dog eating a picnic and taking in the view, having presumably driven up the access track to the radar and communications mast. It’s full of paradox, this place, with the peace regularly shattered by military jets flying low overhead. RS Thomas, who fought so hard with the Keating sisters, against nuclear power stations and the industrial development of campsites on the coast, lived just below here and I can just imagine that he – as an inveterate walker and birdwatcher – must have shaken his fist at more than a few of them.
I imagine too that local beekeepers must take advantage of the heather to produce its distinctive honey – so thick and gel-like that it’s almost impossible to extract in a spinner, but makes superb comb honey: however we saw no hives today on our walk.
Several of the local farms have bought into government schemes that subsidise environmental outcomes rather than being paid by acreage or subsidised crops. This scheme is scheduled in Wales to replace all farm subsidies in a couple of years but in these uncertain times it’s not clear what’s going to happen. Instinctively I’ve always felt most sympathy for the small farmers, and there’s no doubt that many of them will go out of business without subsidies. But the real subsidy junkies are on the other side of the country. The system is so rigged that the biggest and wealthiest landowners collect the vast majority of the cash, but if you’ve read Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm” you’ll know that intensive extractive agriculture can hardly survive with subsidy let alone without it. Dieter Helm’s book “Green and prosperous Land” explores the unintended consequences of subsidy for the environment and is well worth a read.
But too much reflection can turn a walk into a lament and today, ‘though it may well be the last but one day before the tail end of an expired hurricane rattles through, is all the more beautiful for its fugitive nature. Autumn has its own rewards and I can’t wait to get back to the allotment to carry on with some winter projects.
On our way down the track I stopped to photograph this Soft Puffball – Lycoperdon umbrinium. There were three or four lying on the ground having been uprooted or kicked aside by some mycophobic walker – I had to type that last word twice, Freudian slip!
That doesn’t mean that technique isn’t important – it’s everything!
Every summer, as soon as the solstice passes and the nights begin to lengthen I know that I’ll resolve once again to capture the intensity of these colours in a painting. I did it today as I wandered around the garden of our borrowed cottage and photographed some of the wild fruits growing here. The trickiest subject by far was the hawthorn tree which resisted every attempt to capture its brilliance against the blue sky. Painting is a very tactile experience, from the texture of the paper, the sensation of freedom in a running line and the intense concentration of mixing and applying colour. The smell of the paint, even the resistance, heft and suppleness of a good brush can be exciting, as can the accidental granularity of the paint as it spreads on the rough surface of good paper.
But talk is cheap and whereas I can write easily, painting doesn’t come naturally at all. I have an uncompleted painting of a hyacinth that’s three years old, alongside a folder full of drawings, tracings and macro-photos but still it defeats me. The intoxicating complexity of the petals, lit as they are from every angle around the stem; their intense waxy blue; the stiff lanceolate leaves with their almost invisible longitudinal grooves make the process of painting into a profound and humbling experience. Far from envisaging the artistic process as flowing from an exceptionally gifted mind to the paper, I’ve come to see it as a challenge from the subject – the plant, flower or whatever – to the artist; an act of discovery through enchantment. Any kind of ego is an absolute barrier to understanding, and the greatest moments in my creative life have been more like meditations in which I am able to step aside and allow the work to happen. It doesn’t happen often, but then I have no deadlines or quotas to meet. That doesn’t mean that technique isn’t important – it’s everything! – and then you can forget about it.
I was painting in a group a couple of years ago and using a bit of a technical wrinkle to create the highlights in a painting of a decaying leaf. One of my class asked me what I was doing and so I explained what I’d been taught by our teacher who is always worth paying attention to. “So it’s just a trick” she said disparagingly. “No it’s a trick but not just a trick, it’s a technique”. I think she was under the impression that learning technique somehow interferes with the artistic process. You can’t blame her, art schools are full of lecturers who believe the same thing. It’s not a matter of being – not everybody who wears a beret and smokes Gauloises is going to become Jean Paul Sartre! It’s a matter of sheer bloody minded doing.
So here I am at the moment full of aspirations that must be defended at all costs from the siren temptations of cooking, gardening and loving our family. About once a year I pull off something worth looking at, but the process is as slow as a sloth’s bowel movements and we need to eat. Today we went for a walk but mistimed the high tide due to my inability to read a 24 hour timetable. So we went to a gap in the clifftop bushes and leaned on the fence gazing at the view. We agreed that you can do too much walking and so we thought we’d just lean on the fence and take in the smell and sound of the sea. Then we went to the shop and bought some cake. A perfect day.