Groundhog Day at the Potwell Inn

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There’s a really interesting feature about urban farming in Bristol in today’s Observer that described one urban farmer (not known to us btw)  as “a veteran of the grow-your-own, self-sufficiency movement of the 1960s and 70s”.  That rattled our cages a bit – “veterans” indeed  – we weren’t even pioneers, just ordinary everyday descendants of the Diggers and other subversives who didn’t much care for “the way they did things round here” – which is as good a working definition of culture as you’ll ever need. A single glimpse of the photos was enough to say that even if we didn’t actually know this younger generation of urban farmers, we certainly knew their spiritual forbears and possibly even their parents.

One of the few shafts of light in these gloomy times is the re-surfacing of values that we feared we’d lost forever. The bailiffs and developers had moved in on our inner mindscapes and trashed them as they trashed the environment, and I never tire of arguing the point with our oldest son, who was born in the year that Thatcher came to power, that it wasn’t the whole of our generation who stitched up the young; and large numbers of his generation have been only too pleased to be bought off by the machine. Yes were were allotmenteers back in the day, and we kept a goat, recycled as much as we could, did anything we could to keep financially afloat, we lived in a couple of communes and set up workers’ cooperatives not small businesses. The principal ideal in those idealistic days was to put something back, not extract value from other human beings and pocket it.

Today we sat together and read the article with a sense of real excitement that these (often) young people still share the same values.  It’s nice when they listen to us, but this is a time when we, who will not be around to see the Great Harm bearing its evil fruit, should listen to them.   The allotment movement was rejuvenated after the First World War because the enforced clearance of the commons through the Enclosure Acts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had left the vast majority of the population landless – just as we are today. That was what opened up the intensification of farming for profit and ignored the question of the public good which is just now resurfacing. Bristol City Council should be applauded for making land available to the community in this way and not – as Bath City Council tried recently to do – to build a park and ride scheme on ancient and species rich flood meadows. We shouldn’t have to shame our representatives into doing the right thing.

Anyway, the article – do read it –  was a great scamper around some of the opportunities and the issues, and brought up another previously neglected thread when discussing development. We’ve got very used to scientists – ecologists, botanists and medical researchers for instance, hogging the microphone when it comes to debating the natural world. Yes of course they have a right to put their point, but not to drown out those who fight for the emotional impact of the natural world. Wildflower meadows are good for us because they heal us – not just by boiling roots and steeping flowers in alcohol but by simply being there. There’s a hotlink below to more detailed information:

One of the staff later mentions the influence of Miles Richardson, a professor of human factors and nature connectedness at the University of Derby. Richardson has recently shown that people who feel an emotional and physical connection to nature are 30 times more likely to do something to help the natural environment than those who have just read, or been taught, about it.

If and when the merde hits the Dyson, we won’t just be digging for victory, we’ll be digging (or perhaps no-digging) for sanity and for the future of the earth.

Just to finish, I wrote last week about a riverside development here in Bath, and particularly about the impact on the environment.  Last night we were having a meal with several couples who live over there. The willow trees planted next to the river have, amazingly, grown rather well over the last three years and so they’re being pollarded this winter to keep them in check.  They also said that a promising young oak tree that had been planted in Ryegrass Park has been sawn off at ground level for no discernable reason. I expect the developers will fix that when they fix the missing dampcourses, the absence of wall insulation and structural features supporting tons of glass which, mysteriously were never installed either. There is a platoon of scissor cranes in permanent residence over there, doing work which the residents fear will take at least a year. It’s austerity, you see.  There were hardly any buildings inspectors left so the developers were unimpeded by the nanny state. I suppose it’s just possible that by the time it’s finished the evicted invertibrates will have moved back in and it will have become a derelict industrial site once again.

“Not Bath any more?”

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Most posts begin with an idea, even a title, or a photograph. I took this photo through the kitchen window three days ago, but I could have, just as easily taken it today because the scene outside is not much different.  We’re in a spell of fairly typical south -westerly weather with alternating hours, of heavy showers and (if we’re lucky) days of sunshine. Photographs work hard for us, capturing in a fraction of a second an image that bears a huge amount of information.  Here, the empty green, the trees in full leaf, the Georgian terrace and the moody sky combine to suggest a time and place. As everyone says when they see the flat – “you’re so lucky to have the view”, and we are very fortunate – the photo shows it.

There are things the photo doesn’t show, like for instance the fact that we’re here, and and not somewhere else far less attractive, because when I retired we became technically homeless. The flat is owned by the Church of England and we got it for no better reason than the fact that it became vacant just as we were looking desperately for somewhere to live. If I called it ‘social housing’ it would slot us into a far less desirable milieu, placing us with all the other displaced, ephemeral, faintly dodgy and occasionally deranged people of a dozen or more nationalities who also live here. But we, and all the others happily populate this area which mostly comprises social housing.  There are students, singles, nurses, retired university professors, artists, refugees, rugby players, teachers, designers  and retired clergy – the list goes on. It’s a splendidly diverse culture that demonstrates Plato’s notion that the city is a work of art.

And there in a nutshell is an awkward and difficult problem with nature, described using human actors and environments. Is an environment best described by its appearance and history? – ‘the view’?  Much of Bath is a World Heritage Site, for instance,  and Royal Crescent illuminated by the setting sun is astoundingly beautiful.  Or is it better described scientifically, with the heavy lifting done by sociologists, anthropologists and economists? Bath makes millions from tourism, notwithstanding the difficulty of crossing the city at the height of the tourist season and especially the Christmas Market. Or is the essence of Bath embedded in its human ecology, its sheer diversity, the mixture from ostentatious wealth to grinding poverty, the novelists and the drug dealers. How do you weigh neighbourliness and human community?  If it’s a work of art, in essence, how much of Bath would you have to destroy for it to become another place – “notbathanymore”?

I’ve written about this challenge a lot in the past few days.  Yesterday we walked across the river to the Gulag to see the new park.  It was officially opened the week before last and I felt I owed it a chance, having slagged it off.  You’ll remember this very large and ‘prestigious’ (aren’t they all?) development was built on what’s known as a ‘brownfield site’ which was really very green indeed and housed a regionally important population of invertebrates – bugs in English. My initial impression was of surprise – our entrance coincided with a large border of weeds that ran the northern edge of the riverside park and was maybe fifteen feet wide. I was even happier that it had been seeded with a well thought out mixture of largely native grassland plants.  Full marks to the person who passed up on pan-european seed mixes and paid a few quid extra to get the real deal. How long the border will last in the face of opposition from the owners of the £1million+ flats who think they’re messy is another matter, but in trade-off terms, this patch is a sop. a salve to the conscience, a token.  Fifty well-meaning Knapweeds is not enough when the area of Gillette shaved ryegrass is twenty times greater and dully limited by notices that forbid almost anything human beings like to do. The original environmental survey was done by reputable ecologists – I’ve heard one of them speak, loyally and regretfully on the subject.  The seed mixture was obviously chosen by someone well-trained enough to do the right thing.  Here’s Murray Bookchin, quoted in “Deep Ecology” – and well worth reading –

…. The choice must be made now before the ecology movement becomes institutionalized into a mere appendage of the very system whose structure and methods it professes to oppose. (p4)

How long until we get to “Not bath any more”?  How long until we get to “Not nature any more.”

The one approach that’s not much spoken of because it has a very high ‘cringe factor’ for our materialistic culture, might be called the spirituality of nature. I know instantly that this will be dismissed as hippy dippy tree-hugging, but those sorts of responses speak more loudly of fear than they do of confident atheism; fear that the baby has gone down the plughole with the bathwater.  Here’s the Potwell Inn kitchen early this morning –

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Messy ain’t it! First thing we have tea in bed (made by me).  Then I knead the sourdough (top left bowl) and go back to bed for another hour’s reading, we try to limit “busywork” at the Potwell Inn. Then, when the mood takes me I get up again and strain the kefir ready for breakfast. We didn’t grow the tea but we’re profoundly grateful to those who did. The sourdough starter is nothing whatever to do with me.  I can claim no credit for what is a gift of the earth, and neither can I claim any virtue for the kefir grains on the same grounds. I didn’t buy either of them, they were given to me by my son and the air we breathe.

On the allotment yesterday we harvested the first batch of potatoes along with all the usual seasonal suspects. Supper last night came entirely out of our own bit of earth, aside from some cheese.  It is quite impossible to harvest from the allotment without a deep sense of thanksgiving directed at who knows what? Harvesting has a profoundly non-sectarian and non-theistic spirituality. Feast and famine alike are the gifts among which we live, and so too is the natural world.

We have a Blackbird outside the flat – he’s gone quiet at the moment, but on spring days he sings in a way that weaves my entire past and present into a single song.  Even in the depths of our miserable basement among the rubbish bins, we hear his song.  How should I respond to it?  Should I photograph him? make a written record for the Natural History Society? Count the syllables of each phrase? Fight to create a site of special scientific interest? write to UNESCO and ask if they knew we’ve got blackbirds as well as Roman baths? Or should I rather fall into the arms of it and allow myself to be held by him and healed of all my melancholy? The first time I really looked at a Forget me not, I thought that I was seeing through the portal of the blue petals into some kind of unreachable heaven beyond.

Nature needs recording and counting of course, and it needs scientific understanding.  We need what nature offers by way of sustenance and medicines. We’re part of the same ungraspable unity – “the Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao”  Blackbirds and Forget me nots are not rare, and neither are potatoes and courgetttes or the micro-organisms that feed the soil and ferment wine and beer, sourdough and kefir. They’re not rare, that is, until we take them for granted and they disappear. And who will heal us then?

 

Despair is the last weapon they have left

 

I think something shifted yesterday afternoon when we all shipped up to Uncle Jo’s pizza place for an impromptu Sunday lunch. It was fairly quiet and so Jo was able to come out from beside the oven and chat. In the love and peace department families are never all they’re cracked up to be – that’s a figment of the official ideology – and so it’s a blessing beyond value when they work, even occasionally, and  I wonder if the grandchildren will remember lunch at Uncle Jo’s when they’re my age. Next to the family album is a basket of vegetables we picked on the allotment yesterday – courgettes, broccoli, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers and gherkins. Later Jo came back with hs Polish girlfriend and one of our fermented half-sours was presented to her to taste.  She gave them her seal of approval although I thought the home-grown garlic was a bit too fierce in the quantity I used. Interestingly our oldest son was complaining the other day that his biometric passport never works properly and he always gets called in for interrogation.  He asked a passport official why, last time he came back from Europe, and was told that it was probably the ‘Pole’ surname. You have to wonder what kind of software can’t tell the difference between a surname and a nationality.

So with the day punctuated by benevolent thoughts for all our family I got back to reading in the evening. This latest binge is seeing me get through a new book every couple of days and at the moment it’s Mark Cocker’s book ‘Our Place’ which I thought might be a bit of light relief after Fred Pearce’s book ‘The New Wild’ . When I put it down for about the fifth time I realized I am only able to absorb a certain amount of bad news at a time. You’d think a book with quite as many references to Committees and Governmental enquiries would be a bit arid but this book makes it dreadfully clear that the ecological distance between where we were a century ago, and where we now are is not paved with misunderstanding and innocent lack of knowledge but by greed, selfishness and a determination by the powerful to enrich themselves at the expense of the environment, and all paid for by taxpayers’ money. When I see the Forestry Commission exposed as a government assisted tax avoidance scheme for the further enrichment of the aready rich, I need to walk around the room for a while before I can calm down and read more. The subsidy system is an elaborate and utterly destructive con trick, with the biggest beneficiaries being the wealthy.

And it was precisely that thought that lifted me out of a gathering sense of gloom. In a moment of mad insight I realized that the sense of powerlessness and despair which, according to some recent figures 60% of us share, is a last ditch attempt by the powerful to hold on to their privileges. Of course they want us to think there’s nothing we can do about it because ……. wait for it …… they’re scared, absolutely terrified that the rest of us will wake up and demand change. Their one last throw of the dice is to persuade us that we’re sunk and then put up a “strong” leader  (chosen by them of course) who will bring everything back to the way things used to be – that’s to say their way.

That’s why we see so much divisive comment in the press. We’re told all the time that the way things are is the responsibility of the ‘selfish baby boomers’. Really? Or is the worry that we who were forged in the community politics of the sixtes and seventies have too much in common with the young? That we might form a formidable grouping? They want to divide us by race, by gender, even by diet or occupation or interest because that way we’re easier to marginalise, because they know all too well that a house divided cannot stand.

I’m laughing out loud at the thought of their secret late night committee meetings and ‘influencer’ friends on the internet all turning their gimlet eyed attention to the next secret weapon.  Here’s a heads-up chaps (for they are mostly chaps) we don’t read the Daily Mail or the Times and we know how to block effluent from our laptops and phones.

We are the new powerful! and we take our inspiration from the earth, its tides, its inbreathings and outbreathings and its capacity to mend our shrivelled souls and bring food and shelter and joy even while it repairs the damage we have inflicted on it. The Earth is not for sale however many petrochemicals and insecticides the Prophets of Baal pour on the altar – and it would be better for the human race if they realized that the game is well and truly up.

 

 

I guess I’m an alien too!

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Sometimes the gentlest put-down is a tiny work of art.  My son, for instance, was at a party once and recounted an overheard conversation that went something like this:

She: Where do you work then

He: Oh I’m a physicist, I work in Cerne

She: On the Hadron Collider?

He: Yes

She: You mean that big one that goes for miles underground?

He: No I work on the small one.

She: How sweet!

 

One of my many come-uppances came when I was a curate at St Mary Redcliffe.  I was introduced to a very well dressed woman wearing the kind of understated clothing that announces itself silently and tells you exactly where you belong in the great scheme of things. I was wearing an extremely expensive silk cassock that was bought for me as a gift and which lifted me out of my mongrelry into another category of humanity. It was a useful disguise.  When she discovered my name she demanded (no really, she demanded in a voice like melting pack ice) “are you one of the Somerset Poles?” “no”, I replied airily “I’m one of the Kingswood Poles”.  Part of my dad’s family did in fact come from Somerset but they most certainly weren’t part of the Somerset Poles and I didn’t feel obliged to enlarge on my reply.

However my quarry today is a different branch of the put-down family that relates to the way we perceive and value the natural world.  If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that we had a break in St Davids a few weeks ago and I got going on a list of plants I found while we were there – there were well over a hundred in the end. Several, though, turned out to be a bit of a rarity and so I emailed a local botanist with  their names just so he could check them out (referee them) and add them to the records. Yesterday, after a long silence, I had a charming reply to my email thanking me and mentioning in passing that this was the second record for Sedum forsterium he’d received and that the other, found a couple of streets away, was – the finder believed – the garden form, ssp. elegantissimum.  I was instantly deflated, notwithstanding the fact that I’d identified it properly, but a garden plant? 

So how is it in the great scheme of things that a large hadron collider is more important than a small one, a Somerset Pole is more worthy of conversation than a mongrel Pole from Kingswood, and a rare wild plant more important than a hybrid of the same family that manages to escape from a garden and eke out a miraculous living on a streetside wall.  Who is it that determines these things? and does it even matter?

Well yes, it matters a great deal when our environment is becoming more and more degraded, because sympathy, money and research tends to flow to the places determined as ‘more important’ and away from those determined to be less so. I was disappointed with myself that I had fallen into a lazy way of thinking about priorities that had been handed to me as a ‘faite accompli’ and lurked unchallenged at the back of my mind for goodness knows how long.

Opposite where we live there used to be an old industrial site complete with gasometer and suchlike. In Bath there is a desperate need for more housing, and the local council have no money and so like so many other councils they had to allow the desperately needed houses to be built by a developer. But first there was a legal requirement to conduct an environmental impact survey – which I’ve read, along with the promises of low-cost housing, a doctor’s surgery and a new primary school. Here’s a retrospective environmental assessment of what actually happened –

The trend is for steady loss of this habitat type. When Bath Western Riverside was cleared for redevelopment, invertebrate communities of Regional importance that were associated with this habitat were lost.

The school and the surgery were quietly dropped because they impacted on the profits, and the first-time housing that had been so loudly trumpeted as a sweetener started off at £500,000 a flat. The ‘regionally important’ habitat was bulldozed away and replaced by a miserable “park” of municipal ryegrass. Little notice was taken of a wildlife corridor connecting the centre of the city to the countryside to the west and crucially all this was assisted in its passage because the development was taking place on a ‘brownfield site’. Who goes out to demonstrate over a derelict gasworks when there are homeless people living on the streets? Our use of language and imagery really does matter because it colours our priorities, and wrong priorities take us further away from our desired objectives.  Clearly we all agree that the environment is increasingly important because all the evidence stacks up behind that proposition. But expressions like ‘brownfield site’, ‘alien’, and ‘invasive’ subtly embody a hierarchy of  significance that can subvert our behaviour. What if the ecologically diverse environments are now the brownfield sites and the ‘green belt’ land we’re so desperate to protect is so doused in chemicals and so overcropped that the soil is all but dead? In a ‘battle of the priorities’ homes, surgeries and schools will always win over spiders and bryophytes.  It all changes, though, if the schools and surgeries are never built, the houses are utterly beyond the reach of first time buyers and the ecologically diverse environment is destroyed in any case, in the pursuit of profits for developers.

 

It matters that this isn’t an argument about aesthetics, although the riverside development is known among the locals as “The Gulag” and it certainly looks like a Soviet era bonded warehouse. I thought the gasworks site with its abundance of Ragwort and Buddleia looked better and the wildlife certainly thought so! But we’re not facing a crisis of beauty, we’re facing a crisis that entails the death of thousands of species, the destruction of the soil that feeds us and the air that we’re forced to breathe. “We have seen the enemy – it is us”, and we can’t solve the crisis unless we accept that more of the same can only make things worse.

 

Let’s imagine I own the wall with the Sedum forsterianum in St Davids and I want to knock the wall down, dig up the garden and build a car port for a holiday rental. The local council are minded to grant the permission because it knows the city relies absolutely on the tourist trade. A local and enthusiastic amateur botanist comes along and says “you can’t do that it’s a three star rarity”. I appoint an independent enviromental consultant who says – yes you can it’s ssp. elegantissimum which is just a garden escape.  The County Recorder joins the fray and says “not only is it a garden escape it’s an invasive garden escape that’s driving out all the real (i.e pure) Sedum forsterianum from the inaccessible cliffs hereabouts. The local Friends of the Earth get involved and start a petition to prevent any more car ports while the Gardening Club are incensed at the marginalisation of a favourite rockery plant. Plaid Cymru demand an end to holiday lets because the local people can’t affotd to buy houses any more. A local independent councillor says “something must be done!” without specifying what exactly that might be. Meanwhile a tidy minded council worker spots the offending weed in the wall and sprays it with Roundup while he’s doing the cracks in the pavement. 

 

It’s a rare plant, it’s an invasive menace, it’s a garden escape, it’s a hybrid, it’s a weed, its a meal ticket for a host of experts and it’s a vote winner too. It’s the gift that goes on giving for me, the lucky developer because every specialist interest group in town is so engaged in this turf war about a plant that they can’t agree what to do, and I get my application through without any effective opposition. The environmentalists all get to keep their virtue intact and the environment takes another small step in the wrong direction.

 

No amount of home baking, kefir production, artisan gin and allotmenteering is going to save the environment unless we learn to collaborate and that means watching our language and engaging seriously with a flood of data that may feel difficult and counter-intuitive at times. Sometimes I feel like withdrawing to the allotment or propping up the Potwell Inn bar until it’s all over but in my heart I know that the only chance we have is to engage.  The Sirens with their dark money will say we can have it all – but it’s not true and it never was. The sun’s shining and the insects will be out and about this morning so our neighbour Trigger will be up at the allotments with his little hand spray.  He doesn’t tell his wife he’s spraying and she will sometimes say “d’you know these beans were covered with blackfly last week and now they’re all gone.”  He doesn’t tell her about his little secret spray because he knows she’s trying to garden organically and because he loves her, he wants her to succeed. Damaging the evironment doesn’t require evil or malice, just lack of thought will achieve the same end.

 

I’m not quiet I’m thinking!

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Actually that’s not totally true because like many grandparents find, school holidays offer lots more opportunities to be with grandchildren and this last couple of weeks we’ve also got together with all our grown up children. However that’s not where most of my energy has been going, because I’m in the process of changing my mind. This isn’t a small matter of believing X rather than Y, but a fundamental problem with the way X and Y have been understood. LIke the vast majority of people who are interested in natural history I’ve gone along with the prevailing view that the preservation of threatened species of all kinds hinges on re-creating the precise ecological communities – if necessary behind high fences –  that once allowed them to flourish. The vocabulary of conservation is spattered with words like ‘virgin’ and ‘pristine’ that imply that nature was OK until we messed it up and so we need to rewind the programme to the point where it went wrong and then press the freeze button for the rest of time. It implies that there is some kind of evolutionary plan that resulted in everything being the way it used to be before we spoiled it, and, even worse, that these ecological relationships were somehow ‘right’ and any deviation from them – for instance when so-called ‘alien’ species (the very word gives the game away), move in, they need to be removed, or perhaps ‘cleansed’ in order to return to the pre-lapsarian state of grace. Forgive the religious language but it’s actually a religious thought wearing a white lab coat, but it’s all wrong, and that’s where I’ve been stranded, reading furiously (in every sense of the word) and trying to catch up with a field I know very little about.

At the very moment I was finally getting settled into my botanical studies, I started to get interested in weeds because there are a lot more of them nearby to study; one thing led to another and now I’m in limbo trying to figure out what it’s all for.  What’s the direction we need to travel in in order to repair the ecological damage we’ve done, without  reducing the natural world to a desert with a few gated reserves dotted around to remind us what we’ve lost? What does a healthy and productive earth look like? – feel like? How can we live our lives fruitfully without making things worse? How did we get to the point where we defined the best interests of a tiny part of the human race with the interests of the whole earth? … and I don’t have any answers at all yet. Doubtless they’ll come along eventually but in the meanwhile I’m prowling around the Potwell Inn in a mist of self doubt needing to examine a large part of my experience and memory, paying special attention to the presuppositions that have been pit props and retaining walls to my inner world for decades.

Of course there’s a wider context for all this.  The political chaos that hangs over us like a black cloud is an inescapable source of anxiety, but personally too, things have happened that threw me off kilter.  A farmer I’d known well in one of my parishes fell down the stairs at the weekend, broke his neck and died the next day. It’s a heartbreaking event for his own family, but it leaves us all feeling that life is fragile, fugitive. What with the morons in charge and accidents and illness threatening, what’s the context in which we can  understand the earth, its tides and weather in the broadest sense.

It feels like grief.  Cooking and gardening feel like going through the motions, displacement activities. Yesterday I went to the local stationers and to my great surprise I was able to buy a card index – the beginnings of the Flora of Muckyannydinny Lane.  It’s a card index because you can’t design a database until you are able to define it detailed purposes and I’ve no idea yet what that purpose might be so it’s back to the technology of the quill pen.

But now I’m off to try to mend the fridge on the campervan before we take a break driving as far North and West as we can in England. Yet again we were drawn to the West, and we’re going further North too – right to the Scottish borders, completing the last link from Cornwall in the South and catching up with friends on the way.  There’s nothing systematic in this, just happenstance and curiosity and a big pile of books of which the latest is Fred Pearce’s “The New Wild”. Read it – it’ll explode your mind!

 

Unravelling a bit

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There I am, nose firmly stuck in Richard Mabey’s book “Nature Cure” to which I turned the moment I finished his “Weeds – the story of outlaw plants”, when Madame says to me – “I wish I could find more books like that for you” – the subtext reading something like -‘then you’d sit quietly occasionally’.

The books that have been most important in my life have all shared a number of characteristics in that they set me off on a binge reading spree of the author’s other books; I always read them twice or more; I also read the footnotes; I read the bibliographies and finally I then continue the reading binge by reading the sources.  In this instance many of Richard Mabey’s other books were already on the bookshelf, bought years ago and for reasons only peripherally connected to my present interests.  “Flora Britannica” was bought to supplement the books on botanical art, for instance. First time round the books were interesting and, if you like, out there in the sense that they didn’t get under my skin like they are now; all of which is a rather long introduction to the fact that I woke up this morning feeling cross and after reading in bed for half an hour I felt even crosser – mostly with myself. The phrase, a quotation, really crystallised a sense of unease I’d been failing to unravel or confront for weeks. I realized that I was feeling slightly miffed by the fact that Richard Mabey had perfectly articulated in 2005 a difficulty that I had steered around using a very sophisticated evasion.

But first I need to introduce a new term that I’ve not used before because I’ve tried to avoid using challenging language on this blog.  However this term (which I’ll explain once and then use the less provoking acronym PFTP) was a piece of advice regularly given to his students by Canon David Isitt who was Canon Theologian at Bristol Cathedral and one of my best ever teachers.  PFTP stands for “pissing from the pulpit”and it’s what you do when you explain how harrowing and difficult your sermon has been to prepare and preach. ‘Nobody wants or needs to know about your suffering!’ He would rage when some hapless student had broken his rule.

I have the gretest affection for everything David Isitt taught me, but in the particular instance I’m writing about now, I think a dash of PFTP is allowed. The process by which you unravel a difficulty is of interest if it might be of any help to someone else confronting the same problem. So was Richard Mabey indulging in PFTP when he quoted this phrase from Jonathan Bate, concerning the Romantic movement? :-

The price of this intoxication with with the spirit of things is a definite break with the human community. Pantheism displaces philanthropy, communion with nature stands in for social awareness.

He (Mabey) goes on to write – (see chapter 3 – Commonplaces) – to write brilliantly about the dangerous defects of almost all natural history television and books, their cutie cutie anthropomorphism and fabricated narratives. The question I couldn’t avoid asking myself, crystallised as a challenge.  “Isn’t your blog in danger of adding to that selfsame false consciousness that creates an entirely bogus world in which runner beans cavort in an organic paradise, and rare wildflowers (accompanied by lofty thoughts) spring up in your path as they did for the great saints.  Or to put it another way, is it ever OK to write when you’re angry or will that put off the readers, the people you’ve gulled along with your lovely word pictures and photos?

I can almost guarantee before I press the ‘publish’ button that this will receive less views and less likes than a piece of the same length about sourdough bread or interplanting Nasturtiums, and it concerns me that I’m so worried I self-censor, but it concerns me more that I could end up publishing stuff that implies “I’m quite the cleverest and happiest person in the entire world – just look at how beautiful my world is!”

So when I’ve written about the drug dealers, the machete attacks, the homelessness and the problems associated with living even in a small city –  problems like air pollution, unenforced planning regulations and such like, it’s not because I want to hint what an edgy existence we lead here at the Potwell Inn so readers can admire our tenacity, it’s because that’s the way life is around here, and the orchids have to set up shop in the midst of all this, just as we do. If I’m drawn to talk about the weeds it’s because the urban environment is – in its own way – just as fascinating as the pristine meadow. Can I escape from anything by creating the perfect allotment and going off to explore the western coasts in the campervan ? – of course not, and neither can anyone else.

This is a sceptic’s guide to being human and, to quote Jonathan Swift in his 1732 poem “the Lady’s Dressing Room” – “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”. (Sorry that extra vulgarity slipped in, but it expresses in a line what I’d struggle to write in a paragraph). Being fully human is – to quote Francis Schaffer, to be “a glorious ruin”, and more than anything else I think the greatness of human life lies in being able to live fully in the midst of the bigotry and stupidity of moronic politicians and their poisonous effluvia.  I don’t want to use (Wordsworth’s) daffodils as a distaction from my moral and ethical obligations to my neighbours and I’d be heartbroken if anything I ever write became a substitute for real action.

Life is a work in progress – until it isn’t any more – and there’s a lot more I’m trying to get my head around (sorry, more PFTP), but what’s shouting at me is that I can’t be an objective and detached observer of the natural world, however rhapsodic that might make me sound, because the best I can manage is to notice it from the inside. There’s no part of me, not a single cell or thought that’s not embedded, hefted in this mess – and, to quote Dylan Thomas – ” – I am dumb to tell the crooked rose / My youth is bent by the same wintry fever”.

Near where we used to live there’s a difficult place to find, called Damery Lake.  It’s hardly a lake any more but a small trout stream runs through it and it’s crossed by a narrow lane that winds for four or five miles between a farm shop I knew well, and a canoe showroom – so naturally I often found an excuse to take the long way home and go from one to the other. I stopped once on the small pack-bridge crossing the stream and I was struck by the most painful waking dream, that one day a century ago, a young officer, fighting in the midst of one of the terrible First World War battles came back to the lake in his imagination and escaped the horror for just a moment as he remembered his childhood nearby, and that some part of his consciousness had become attached to the place like a ghostly presence, filling my mind too, and so the scene ever since has been engraved in my imagination.  Two very small, very expendable human lives separated by a century and united by a place of great natural beauty.  I wonder if he ever found his way back to the lake, or even fished there? Writing the natural world has to embrace all these dimensions of life if it’s not to become escapist and dangerous, and I salute Richard Mabey for encouraging me to take the risk.

 

 

 

 

Antics in the long grass

The City Council have gone green – well that’s one explanation, and another might well be that they’ve seen a way of saving money that they can dress up as a green policy. Either way round it’s still a good idea except  we’ll have to see what kind of reception it gets from the local residents in the longer term.

Essentially the policy is to stop mowing a strip of grass around the southern edge of the green and also under the trees outside our flat, . The idea was circulated and the response was very positive and so it’s being implemented. The text of the announcement uses the words “leave a strip uncut” but doesn’t specify how wide the strip should be, which has led to a variety of interpretations by the tractor drivers – some of whom have left a couple of metres and others who’ve mowed right back to the edge as usual. You can’t blame them, they’re grounds workers whose job has always been to keep things looking tidy and suddenly they’re being asked to go against all their instincts and leave a whacking great area of weeds.  It must feel completely wrong, and this has resulted in a piece of wide stubble instead of allowing any plants to grow up and set seed.

But there’s another problem looming. The responses made great play of the reappearance of ‘wildflowers’ on the green, and I fear that when residents don’t see the poppies and scabious they’re expecting but the thriving nettles deter them from retrieving lost footballs there may be a reaction. Butterflies, moths and pollinating insects – the kind we’re trying to preserve – feed on, and lay their eggs on all manner of wild plants including (but by no means exclusively) the pretty ones, and a proper mini-reserve wouldn’t necessarily look pretty at all, quite apart from removing some favourite shady areas.

Yesterday we were having a picnic with the grandchildren on the green, and my oldest grandson brought back a burdock leaf to ask me what it was. Later on I had a scout around the tree and found a whole collection of Lesser Burdocks of various ages, some obviously in their first year when they’re just a rosette on the ground.  There were also a couple of magnificent Welted Thistles, lots of Broad Leaved Plantain, some Chickweed, lots of Wall Barley and – mysteriously – a tomato in flower. The tomato must have come from a picnic like ours, but it begs the question (given our locality) how long it will be before we see the first seedlings of Cannabis. The area under the tree has long been a favourite place for a quiet smoke while waiting for the dealer to show up.  Now these are (nearly) all nice and useful plants, but apart from the tomato they can barely boast a ‘decent’ flower between them. I was most pleased about the Burdock because it’s a useful medicinal plant, but I’ll harvest the seeds rather than the plant because there are far too many dogs on the green to make consuming them a pleasant thought, and I can try growing some in drainpipes on the allotment. That’s OK they think we’re bonkers already.

If this kind of ‘wilding’ is going to work we’ll need to communicate much more effectively what the outcome will be. Most people can’t tell a wasp from a hoverfly and are afraid of almost every insect except ladybirds.  Some signage would help, as would an opportunity to meet a naturalist who could explain things and answer questions, otherwise thre’s a danger that local residents will react against the scheme and demand their tidy lawn back again. Primary schools are already doing great things with the under-elevens who are far more ecologicaly sophisticated than most parents.  Our oldest grandson is only six but he’s fierce about the natural world.

So it’s a great idea, but if the City Council see it as a money saver then it’s sunk before it starts.

Meet the new parishioners

 

Two new neighbours, thanks to Richard Mabey’s book on weeds which has reminded me how we don’t know these plants because, through some cultural trick of the mind, calling a plant a ‘weed’ means we often don’t even see it. These two plants are growing on the pavement outside the flat and one of them at least is rather pretty. I don’t think the one on the right – Conyza canadensis, or Canadian Fleabane is ever going to win a prize for its looks, but the other, Erigeron karvinskianus – Mexican Fleabane is very pretty.  We’ve been here almost 4 years now an in that time it’s extended its precarious life in pavement cracks almost the whole length of the street.

There’s a direct parallel with the human population in our ward.  On a short walk into the centre of town it wouldn’t be unusual to pass people of half a dozen nationalities from right around the world. Among our visitors here, Chinese and Japanese are almost as common as the French and Spanish speakers.  Some residents have been here for generations, some stay for years and there’s a whole other mixed age group of students and others who are far more ephemeral. Mexican Fleabane and Canadian Fleabane are just two more visitors who came and stayed.

IMG_3768There are others too – this one is Saxifraga tridactylites – the Three Fingered or Rue Leaved Saxifrage that turned up on our fire escape steps in 2018 and promptly disappeared.  It was replaced by a fine crop of slime mould the following winter. I had no idea that slime moulds were mobile but this one slowly worked its way down the steps and on to the yard where it too promptly disappeared.

I love it – the constantly changing plants seem to fit the constantly changing population. There are beautiful plants of course, but there are loads of imposters, spivs and generally indestructable plants like Hedge Mustard and Wall Barley.  I’m not calling them weeds any more because if we’re going to bring the earth back from the brink we’ve got to start calling these plants by a different name.  I’m calling them parishioners because because like it or loathe it we’re sharing both our space and our fate with them. They’ve all got names,  parents and a history, just like the drunks and spiceheads who also spend their days immobile outside on the grass.

I hope I shall be Parson Woodforde to all my new parishioners of whatever life-form; speaking of which, the dog belonging to our neighbour Nutter is barking furiously (fruitlessly) at a hot air balloon passing overhead. His owner is sitting in the sun drinking beers – he hasn’t even gone out busking today – which is a great mercy to all our visitors.

 

More weeds

 

The family land holding just increased by 135 square metres, although when I say “holding” I mean rental because our middle son has just taken on a somewhat neglected allotment about 8 miles away from us. We spent Sunday morning there together with a 100 metre tape and some wooden pegs marking out where the beds would go and sampling the soil, the aspect and generally establishing some kind of route from where he is to where he wants to be. I’m immensely proud, but mindful of the huge effort of balancing his working hours as a chef with his family life with his partner and their three children, as well as growing an allotment. But ironically I was also a bit envious because the work of breaking an allotment and bringing its soil up to scratch is so rewarding. The pioneer days have their charms. His main challenge is the covering of rampant Blackberries across the whole plot.  Even no-dig demands at least one season of the usual hard work to clear the soil of the worst of the noxious weeds.

But following on from Sunday’s posting, I’ve been thinking a lot about weeds and I went back to the bookshelf to re-read Richard Mabey’s book – “Weeds- the story of outlaw plants”  It’s an absolutely lovely book from a writer who’s hardly written a dud word in his life and it’s definitely one for the Potwell Inn library. You’ll look at weeds differently once you’ve read it, and I realized, as I turned the pages, how much of his book had soaked into my memory and formed my own attitude.  The history of weeds often includes periods when they were immmensely valuable as medicinal herbs, and if you read the labels of many beauty products you’ll see that they’re still in use today. My favourite discovery is that a well-known brand of natural fibre sold as a laxative, uses the seeds gathered from a member of the Plantago family.  The plantains still have their uses, and instead of composting them I’m now inclined to let them fatten up and then harvest them as I might harvest  any other useful food plant. Quite apart from their use to us, weeds are of the utmost importance to many of our moths, butterflies and other insects, and a large part of the ecological crisis that’s unfolding is the result of the chemical war on weeds. We should love them for all their irrepressible vulgarity and powers of survival.

Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen, the incoming vegetables – particularly the unstoppable flow of courgettes and gherkins is testing our ingenuity.  I confess I’ve never been a fan of ratatouille – it’s a reaction to being force fed the stuff many years ago while camping. I can still see the cook crouching behind a windbreak muttering incantations and boiling it down into a dreadful slush that tasted mostly of methylated spirits. But in the interests of harmony I’m suspending all my food prejudices in order to find a way of enjoying all the stuff we grow.  Madame and I have between us tried just about every recipe for ‘rat’ that’s ever been written down.  Today it was the turn of Simon Hopkinson whose recipe Madame found in one of the cookbooks (we’ve probably got over a hundred). The advantage was that the vegetables were fried to the point where they still had some bite, and then they were anointed with some of last year’s tomato sauce, a couple of black olives and a handful of fresh basil from the windowsill. It was without doubt the best ratatouille I’ve ever tasted.

I’ll write one day about the dynasties of chefs – it’s a subject I’m very interested in because we have two in our immediate family and they are both very much the product of the mentoring and training they received.  More on that one another day, but now we’re getting to the start of jamming, pickling and freezing. Some of the brine pickles we experimented with last year have been quietly dropped, and we’re hoping that this year we’ll pull off some really decent pickled gherkins.

But on top of all this there are grandchildren to be looked after from time to time, and our campervan which has a fridge that won’t work as it should on LPG. Mechanics are expensive and I’ve come to question their skills over the years so I’ll have a go at anything I’m legally allowed to do. Yesterday I spent a couple of hours measuring voltages and resistances and pondering over the service manuals.  Most problems are stricly logical ones – X doesn’t work because Y – and so forth. The difference between mending it myself and paying someone else to do it can amount to hundreds of pounds so I’m eagerly awaiting a package with what (I hope) will solve the problem inside. It’s important because in a few weeks we’re celebrating Madame’s birthday with a week in the Yorkshire Dales and then onwards into the Borders and Scotland. With a bit of wildcamping in view we need the gas fridge.

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Muckyannydinny Lane

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Muckyannydinny Lane was the name we used, as children, for a narrow, wet, rubbish filled and overgrown short cut from “The Lane” to halfway down Seymour Road. It was such an uninspiring dump that, so far as I know, no-one ever actually used it except couples who in those far off days needed somewhere out of sight to consummate their relationships. Consequently it became imbued with an almost erotic overtone for me as a child – which may or may not explain a great deal!

Moving rapidly on, I think it’s time to remind everyone that the Potwell Inn is not a real place but a fictional creation of H G Wells whose leading character Alfred Polly had more influence on me growing up than a whole garrison of teachers freshly returned from the 2nd World War, many of them suffering from the same sorts of depressions and mental disturbances that afflicted my Dad. Mr Polly, in the course of the novel, burns down half the town in which he lives unhappily, by setting fire to his stairs while attempting to commit suicide. He becomes an inadvertent hero by rescuing a trapped elderly lady and in the ensuing chaos slips away to search for something better – which turns out to be the Potwell Inn where he only has to get rid of the psychopathic Uncle Jim in order to find his paradise.  Uncle Jim, being vanquished in an act of bungled heroism quite as daft as the suicide bid, washes up dead some time later wearing Polly’s jacket, therefore allowing the hero to be declared dead and consequently free to pursue an idyllic life with the plump landlady of the establishment.  So not quite the story of my life but tremendously resonant for a teenager living in a house haunted by PTSD, falling for Madame who, though she was as slender as a whippet had plenty of  crap to leave behind as well.

So after those two oxbows and the confluence of  several small streams in the great journey of life, I want to say that yesterday was something of a disappointment. “What you want and what you’ll get is two different things” my Granny (who could start a fight in an empty room) would often say.  I was missing the campervan, missing the coastal path walks, missing the botanising and feeling mightily grumpy about it.  Madame, noticing the dark cloud moored over my head, suggested a walk up to Prior Park to look at the plants. Absolute bomber direct hit! that was exactly what I needed to do.  And so all fired up I downloaded a new plant recording app for the phone, packed pocket magnifier, notebook, copy of Rose and even a six inch steel ruler and we set out.

Setting out involved passing the astroturfed bankside, but I did notice one or two dodgy looking plants that might have stepped right over from Muckyannydinny Lane.  Prior Park has become a bit of a building site because they’re repairing one of the dams that’s been tunnelled into by marauding Signal Crayfish. The new app refused to work and after my third attempt to log in I had a huffy message to say I’d been barred and needed to email the management. The Cafe was shut, and there were nothing but weeds and Cabbage Whites to look at and so we turned back and walked home again.

As we walked back with my dudgeon level set to nine, I began to think a bit more rationally about what was going on. Not all of the plants along the bankside were Bohemian interlopers.  There were some that looked like – well, proper weeds which had emerged from the builders rubble and the subsoil, briefly resurrected from their tarmac tombs. There’s a certain muscularity about these plants.  Nature abhors a vacuum almost as much as it abhors architects’ fancy wildflower mix, and the bankside has become a grudge match between the flowers introduced for their attractive colours, and the native weeds. Milwall versus the local croquet club. Guess which was winning?

IMG_5883And so a new project began to form in my mind.  Obviously I’d really love to spend my life in places of outstanding wildness and beauty, recording stunningly lovely and rare orchids.  However I actually live right next to the Bath to Bristol Cyclepath which is much loved by commuters on foot, runners, lycra louts on their handbuilt racing bikes, drunks, homeless people and drug dealers who rather appreciate the opportunity of a swift exit if the police arrive. That’s why all our local dealers ride bikes, because they’re over the river and away before the police can do a thirteen point turn and chase them. The litter bins have proved particularly useful for hiding stashes of drugs by taping them up under the lid, like a kind of unofficial click and collect service.

The path is a unique environment all of its own.  There’s the river bank on one side, parks, houses and factory buildings on the other.  It’s much altered and constantly dug up for building work and it enjoys heavy traffic most of the day. If dogs’ turds and discarded cans and bottles contribute any nourishment it must be highly fertile.  Graffiti add a certain edginess to the flat surfaces, but in real life, notwithstanding the fact that the Council like to boast about it as a great achievment for the environmentalists, it’s a frog and no amount of kissing is going to make it into a prince.

But it’s my frog and I like it. This morning I was up at the crack of ten o’clock to take some photos.  I’ve already ID’d three native plants I’ve never seen before and I can feel a big list coming on. Prickly Lettuce and Weld are hardly going to draw in the twitchers, but as I’ve said so often – if you don’t know that it’s there you won’t know when it’s gone. One day, I hope, the Natural History of Muckyannydinny Lane will stand with Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. Meanwhile a few photos to whet the appetite.