Last night we watched the moon rise and set behind the hedge on the campsite. Today is a brief period of calm between two blown-out hurricanes, and tonight Nigel barrels in. Does anyone else think Nigel is a bit of let down for the name of a hurricane? Anyway, at the end of last week’s storm Lee gave us 85K gusts without causing us any problems, and Nigel is forecast as a bit of a damp squib down here in the extreme southwest.
I’m a traditionalist when it comes to marking the seasons. I don’t buy the tidiness of the meteorological seasons and much prefer the solstice and equinox schema. These seasons relate to the inbreathing and outbreathing, the sleep and the oestrus of the earth. What’s the problem with that? So we sat on the beach today and soaked up the sun from which we’re slowly withdrawing for a while – because the earth needs rest as much as we do. It seems to me that part of the problem with our rolling ecological disaster is that our culture wants to press the override button on the seasons -in fact on all of the natural constraints that keep us and the environment sane and healthy.
Back on Monday with a pile of autumn work to do on the allotment – mulching, composting and prepping beds for the Spring.
This Celtic cross in Gerrans churchyard, (in Cornwall where we are at the moment) spent at least a part of its life on its side as a coping stone on the wall; which is a fairly ignominious fate for what must be the oldest Christian relic in the village. I have to remind myself that although we like to think that artistic, spiritual or historical value is intrinsic to the objects we treasure, it’s clear that what it’s worth is what we think it’s worth. So there were obviously times when this cross was valued more highly than it is today – and what’s more, by the 19th century it was no more than a handy lump of stone.
But hold on; what goes around comes around. What if objects, like words, accumulate meaning, and like words, also shed them. For instance while we were walking the Camino we found several enormous stone frames standing outside old farm buildings. One of them had an immensely strong looking set of straps, but I had to read some history to discover that these frames were used to restrain oxen while they were being shod by the local blacksmith. I’m perfectly content for the frames to be both redundant for practical use – because there’s not much call for oxen with shoes these days (perhaps there should be but that’s another argument); but now they are charged with meaning and resonate as object metaphors for a lost age.
Looked at in this way, the Celtic cross still resonates meanings from the past and still, if we choose to allow it, carries a kind of accumulated spiritual meaning for us. But it’s important to stress that whatever that meaning is, it will take the form of a dialogue. We take questions to these powerful objects; questions such as “what is your name?” “what was in the mind of your maker?” “what kind of world did they live in? and what were their beliefs? “What is your purpose?” Happily we know the answers to some of those questions; this stone began its life as a wayside cross, perhaps in the so-called Dark Ages after the Romans had left, taking their form of Christianity with them – whilst the Celtic church of an earlier – perhaps 3rd century – period which had been most powerful in the westernmost fringes, continued as before. The two spiritualities were very different and so too were the forms of organisation. The reason I think the wayside cross is significant is because the Celtic church was monastic and its monks were great travellers; setting up cells and monasteries wherever they could. In an age where people travelled on foot or by horse on more or less unmarked tracks and footpaths, waymarkers were vital, and continue to be so on pilgrimage routes.
So much then for their accumulated meanings, but could it be possible that the questioning I just mentioned is, in fact, a two way conversation? Would, or could the stone and other treasured artifacts speak back to us? I don’t think that’s a step too far towards some kind of wooly, ill defined spirituality. It would depend on the quality of the question of course, and the intensity of any meditation on the reply. This can sound a bit religious, but for me, the answers to good questions are almost never concrete but – let’s say – Delphic. The symbolism of the crossroads is crucial, because it involves choosing – the ultimate derivation of the word crisis is the Greek crino – to choose. So instead of answering the question where now? the function of the Celtic waymarking cross is to ask it – where now? All I know is that once I’d seen the 7′ high stone I felt compelled to go close to it and see. The stone called me.
Inside Gerrans church there are other speaking objects. A 14th century font carved from granite – Cornish stone; 15th century pew ends bearing the pineapple crest of Katherine of Aragon; the remains of candleholders from the early 20th century, Victorian floor tiles – and so it goes on. But the church is on its knees. The systematic withdrawal of support from these little parishes towards the centre exactly mirrors the social depredations of successive governments. Oblivious to the cultural and social significance of village churches they are being allowed to close.
As we went into the church I read the notices and after we left, I googled up their web page and it was enough to break your heart. These parishes with their 1500+ years of history are being abandoned. Here there are three voluntary churchwardens, but no licensed lay minister and no priest helping to keep them alive. You might think it seems as if the Romans are leaving all over again – which could, just could, lead to a rediscovery of Celtic spirituality. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our tired and bankrupt churches gave up trailing thirty years behind secular fashions and arguing about challenges long-since settled by the rest of us; gay marriage stops being a “problem” when marriage stops being a property relation; women as priests and bishops stop being a “problem” when women stop being a problem.
So there’s a huge opportunity to rediscover the hospitality, the creativity and the profound love of nature exemplified by a Celtic spirituality that’s open to all and most importantly refuses to define itself in a series of attempts to imprison God into a linguistic cage. There is no theology beyond poetry, song and music.
So where does this all lead me?
This is going to be a hard one to explain ..
I had to give up my futile search for some kind of overarching meaning on 18th March 2017. I know it was that moment because I’d taken this photograph and I just knew it was over. We turned our backs to the river and then I turned back for a moment and said goodbye to God. Then I waited for some kind of catastrophic reaction – the full Kübler Ross experience; anger, denial, bargaining and depression followed at a decent interval by acceptance. No such thing happened because I went straight to acceptance, feeling nothing but a sense of relief that at last I could stop trying to hold the tectonic plates together. What I didn’t realize until this week was that the flooding river wasn’t moving away from me; it was offering me an object metaphor which I could return to six years later with a second piece of the jigsaw – the Celtic wayside cross – with which I could continue the journey in the right direction. The river flows, which is the state of everything in nature. I could go on for ever embellishing and working up the idea but that won’t do because it’s the dreary job of theology to explain, when what the river demands is wonder, that’s all. I filled the ensuing years with the allotment and with learning the plants, and intellectually as well as physically it was absorbing and rewarding – but there was no music in my life; I wasn’t singing any more. My sense of wonder couldn’t tolerate being spread so thinly.
Which was certainly why, on walking into Gerrans church I felt the most extraordinary sense of peace. How strange and how unexpected?
The wayinclines but never compels. (To steal a phrase from the astrologers)
Writing up my notes on the Camino we walked in 2010 has led to some provisional insights among which is the understanding that the full Damascus Road experience isn’t really what it’s about, and also that that once you’ve signed up and set foot on the path, you’ll always be on it whatever happens on the way and however far you ranged in search of an easier route.
For a long while I’ve had a set of photographs taken in Estaing that I couldn’t place anywhere in the walk, and so finally I’ve gone back to the map and figured out that it’s a fairly short walk beyond Espalion, and so we didn’t hang around apart from a coffee, I think, somewhere down near the bridge and the river. Then we pushed on. So having finally got this piece into the jigsaw I could see that – far from leaving the hill country behind we were still in the thick of it. Unlike the Aubrac Mountains, this landscape was heavily wooded and the footpath – marked all the way, I’ve never mentioned before, by white and red posts- balises was mostly easy to follow.
And there we are – I’ve probably tried to say everything and actually said nothing.
27th May 2010 ctd:
Bed at 9.00pm. It rained at night and it was raining when we set off so M was pissed of with the extra weight [the tent weighs half as much again when it’s wet]. Turned out to be a monster day again. Following the River Lot but crossing 3 tributary valleys so climbing maybe 1000 metres. 27K in all. M a bit hypo and cross. Found campsite in Golinhac (650m) very good. Pitched tent and had a couple of coffees before walking down to the shop to buy picnic tea. Sadly I’m too tired to eat so we’ll have to make up in Conques tomorrow. Easier day I very much hope.
Slept late and wandered off to the post office only to discover that today is a bank holiday in France so we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to post stuff off. Dined on cold tinned cassoulet but by then I’d got the raging shits from too much rich food so I’m glad we’re not walking today. PO at 9.00 tomorrow meanwhile we did some washing and lazed about charging phones and cameras. Supper at same restaurant tonight but cheaper menu I think.
“Supper at same restaurant”! Les Sentiers d’Aubrac – remember never to eat there. Andrew found 3 hairs in his salad. The manager was running the service without a waitress so everything was appallingly slow. The pièce de résistance was a bluebottle roasted and sauced on top of my stuffed chicken thigh (along with some tiny mushrooms). I suddenly understood why I had been ill all day. We left refusing to pay for anything except for a bottle of Pellegrino which we gave him 5€ for. Our journey across France is turning us into Bonny and Clyde. We half expected him to get stroppy but he didn’t even apologise. [Later, I] – had a wonderfully surreal conversation with a very old Frenchman who was obviously lonely. I was washing out my water bag and it became clear, when he smiled and tapped his thigh, that he had mistaken it for a catheter and storage bag. So we shared this precious moment of fellow feeling and he went on his way presumably encouraged that there was someone else on the site who shared his problem
There are several missing pieces from this part of the journal. My memory has muddled up several bits in places, but since I mentioned sending off any redundant equipment we had discovered we didn’t need or couldn’t carry any further, I’m clear that this is the place where we saw a market stall dedicated entirely to foraged wild mushrooms. In a better ordered narrative we would have brought a selection of them back to the campsite and cooked the kind of dish you see fêted in the Sunday supplements. However with no cooker and feeling a bit disillusioned we passed by in search of the closed post office and wandered back to the tent. Clearly, by finally crossing the Aubrac Mountains, we were about to reach something of a turning point on our walk and from this point onwards the villages – with their temptations – were closer together but the opportunities for wild camping greatly reduced. I celebrated my grasp of French by successfully buying some Imodium and I managed rather better than I did in Nîmes when I had attracted a small crowd of helpful locals whilst attempting to buy some hemorrhoid treatment for another member of our group. Madame’s helpful suggestion of “little balls” had to be courteously rejected. This was also the place where we came across a bizarre shop that sold stuffed wild animals set in eccentric poses; an extremely creepy shopfront that never made it into the journal.
25th May 2010
Up early. I’d been listening to a nightjar I the trees near the tent. The wildlife here is exquisite – flowers orchids and the happiest and healthiest cattle I’ve ever seen. Post was very helpful (we were sitting on the doorstep when it opened). The surplus gear was packed into 2 boxes and dispatched to Harry’s daughter in Le Houga.
Then we set out to cross the last and the highest part of the Aubrac Plateau at 1300 metres. Dropped down through wooded landscape to St Chély at about 3.00pm. Best day’s walking yet ‘though only 17K.
I think all of my happiest memories of the camino were contained in the walk from Le Puy en Velay to St Chély; around 88 miles in all. It was admittedly gruelling going at times with our heavy loads – but that was more than compensated for by the variety of mountain landscapes, wildflowers and the kind of connection with the traditional ways that you could taste. Where else would you find the towable milking sheds which could be taken to huge flocks of goats and sheep? where else is the huge variety of local unpasteurized cheeses made and sold on the farms we were passing through? I don’t think I ever felt more like a stranger passing through and yet never so happy to be so because here were people whose roots went back many generations and whose stoicism, cynicism towards authority and lack of pretension made our own studiously cultivated freedoms look pathetic. Here is where less was more and the past was written everywhere in the landscape and where the present generation thought there was nothing odd about living amongst the relics of the past – a million miles from the Banlieues of the big cities. I don’t romanticise this kind of life because it’s written in sweat, failure and loss in a way we could never fully embrace; but I celebrate it because it’s a way of being completely human that concedes nothing to the money changers at the temple of neoliberalism.
To get the distance between Le Puy en Velay and St Chély I googled up one of the companies who offer fully organised Caminos with pre-booked lodgings, food and transport. The full route to St Jean Pied de Port would have cost us – this year – £8,400 minimum but you could pay more for more comfort. The question then is this. Is then the modern Camino the 21st century equivalent of buying an indulgence, or building a chantry chapel and funding a priest to say masses for you? and if there is, perhaps, a chance for a lucky few to leapfrog hoi polloi into advanced spirituality level five – what could you do with it? and how could you redeem it?
Next time – with a bit of luck – a reflection on creeks, tidal rivers and their mill pools and for my friend Rose a bit of lyrical thinking about how the nightjar, the nightingale and the curlew can undo us so completely.
Each one of these photographs has a share in today’s post. The first two on the top line are celebrating the fact that we finally finished harvesting our summer seasonal crops on the allotment. So Borlotti and the last of the tomatoes are in the photograph, but outside the flat we’ve got old and new potatoes, and squashes while still on the allotment are peppers, cucumber, beetroot and chard, runner beans and seven varieties of apple; so all in all not a bad year and the stores are full for the winter and hungry gap. It was hard work getting everything ready to come away, especially in the midst of a heatwave but we got it all finished and ready so we could come down here and do some end of season botanizing.
Sadly the campervan had other ideas and so I’ve spent hours crawling around in impossibly small spaces attempting to diagnose three distinct problems – ghost drain on the leisure batteries, bad contacts on the fridge supply and an apparently non functioning battery charger. Apart from the lethal possibilities of poking around in the circuitry hidden behind the wardrobe, I tend to get cramps and my arms are covered in bruises. I found that the grey plastic distribution board had a big boys section (live mains) and a child’s play area for the 12 v circuits. Luckily there was no temptation to do anything other than housekeeping because the fine weather broke this morning with such vengeful and remorseless storms that we spent the rest of the day trying to get two sets of wet clothes dry again. On the plus side I’ve found fuses where I didn’t even know there were places and I’ve thanked Harold Wilson for inventing the Technical School which gave me the confidence to approach these problems rationally and without fainting. Classical education is all very well but it doesn’t understand circuits. I feel uniquely fortunate that in addition to the technical stuff I learned Chaucer, 2 modern languages, 20th century American poets and discovered singing before I discovered hormones.
There’s another day’s Camino lined up and I may try and finish it tomorrow but there’s one place I need to go back to again. It’s our absolute favourite walk down the bridleway from Gerrans to Percuil harbour. On Thursday we sat on the bank of the creek and listened to the Curlew and all the other seabirds and it felt as if I was floating halfway between earth and heaven. These liminal places, on the edges of sea, sky and land belong to no-one and are in constant motion. It’s possible, here, to imagine an earth without me and not feel sad about it.
Transhumance is about as ancient activity as human culture itself, and being so ancient means that it’s encoded with a wealth of cultural meaning. The cattle or sheep and indeed goats are moved up to mountainous grasslands where there are rich wildflower pastures that cattle understand and select from. These cows were the happiest and healthiest I’d ever seen.
Typically unprepared we hadn’t grasped that the late night drinking and music were connected to an event – transhumance – which may be associated in these parts of France with Pentecost, bearing in mind that Pentecost, being linked to Easter, and consequently linked to the first full moon after the equinox has a bit of a six week wander around the calendar from year to year. Pasture, on the other hand, pays no attention to such cultural frills and will burst into life when the weather and daylight conditions are right; so as we are discovering on the allotment year by year – spring is driven by weather and pays no heed to gardeners’ and farmers’ careful plans.
So let’s imagine that there is a solemn congregation of pastoralists in Aumont Aubrac that – after a long meal and a good deal of roughish wine – each year decide when the animals will be moved to the hill pastures whereupon plans are made, cellars stocked and musicians booked for the parties in the local villages. The huge circular stone watering ponds that speak of bigger flocks and better days are checked and the best animals are selected for a bit of dressing up.
Because, of course the transhumance isn’t just about good husbandry; it encodes meaning, history, poetry and relationships . In the way of these things, it’s important because it encodes a whole bunch of stuff that the governments of the day – or indeed the landowners – may not be so keen on. Oliver Cromwell was at least right in the reason he gave for banning music, carol singing, Christmas and dancing which were dangerous to the powerful because they embodied that thread of life-giving energy that gives the marginalised people of the earth hope for better things. And so these ancient festivals are greeted with suspicion by the powerful because they simply don’t get it. On the downside there’s a lot of potential for these ancient festivals to become overwhelmed by extreme right populists who feed on the anger of the marginalized whilst stoking up anger for their own reasons which are rarely to improve the lives of the poor. I remember well the St Paul’s riots in Bristol when the extreme right laid on a coach to take the local Southmead lads – who had a well deserved reputation for flaring up and rioting – down to St Pauls. I was working in Southmead as a community artist and I knew them all well. But they refused point blank to get on the bus because they saw immediately that this was not about St Pauls and neither would it help Southmead but an obvious attempt to use them to stir up trouble. I’m pretty sure that, had they got on the bus, there would have been photographers from the right wing press waiting at the other end to photograph them as they got off it. On another occasion our local community policeman came to see me with an inspector in tow after a flare up on the estate. The inspector – not a sympathetic man – said that it was the worst riot he’d ever seen in Southmead. Henry, the community policeman reprimanded him and said “that wasn’t a riot it was a carnival!” It reminds me of the time a bunch of Hell’s Angels turned up at a local village and behaved themselves impeccably. Then reporters from the News of the Screws turned up and offered them £1000 to kill one of Lord Methuen’s peacocks – an offer which they politely declined. Well perhaps not politely!
Anyway, to return to Aumont Aubrac; aside from the noisy parties and the menacing drunks passing our little tents we had no idea what was going on and so the photographs I took of the herding of the cattle were taken from half a mile away. They’re at the top of this piece and you can – if you inspect the photo carefully -see that some of the cattle are decorated with a French Tricolour (see above) and some with less potent symbols. We only noticed them at all because of the clanging of their bells, and the sound of some kind of band coming up behind, and I’m pleased to say that no government officials were harmed in the course of the transhumance – any sore heads were most likely self-inflicted.
But there was another transhumance going on at the same time; the relentless passage of pilgrims in search of some other kind of rich pasture but nonetheless inspired by the ancient culture of pilgrimage. Some, very few, were doing it the old way but others, and I suspect that this group of walkers is one of them, were making use of the huge infrastructure that’s grown up around the pilgrimage. Transit vans, cheap (not that cheap) beds for a night and basic food every day.
Since I didn’t have any idea why I was there it would have been churlish to take a position on their efforts. One person in particular has stuck in my mind. He was German and with our Serbian translator’s help, we discovered that he was walking from Rome to Santiago and picking up a stone at every place he slept. His wife, in Berlin, was dying from cancer and this was his desperate supplication to save her life. Sometimes crazy and beautiful flow together in the same stream and I hope, against hope, that he was choosing small enough stones to get there and big enough stones to impress God.
Left Aumont Aubrac early. We set the alarms for 4.45 and it was dark when we woke. I had an extremely restless night – hardly slept. We were right next to a main road and the transhumance festival parties didn’t begin until 11.30pm so all night there were drunks outside the campsite shouting and banging the railings. I was praying they wouldn’t see our 2 little tents. We didn’t want to wake Alain and his wife so we breakfasted at the camp gate on dried apricots and yesterday’s apricot pasties + water. When we left – way before sunrise – there was a thick mist over the valley bottom. We climbed and climbed for several hours knowing that this was the last day we would have the heavy (35lb) loads because we had agreed (long haggling session) to shed lots of stuff the previous night.
Big dream during my restless night. I dreamed I was at Severn Bridge railway station* except it looked exactly like an SNCF station like the ones you see in French films (and in France of course). Suddenly this strange and sinister man dressed like the Sandeman sherry label logo comes towards me. He’s all grey, very large with no face. I start to tear at his clothes and in a kind of fast-forward sequence I tear all these clothes, disguises and appearances off one after another – he’s everyone, everything, and all these flash past in front of me until at last I’m left holding a plucked chicken!
After a stiff climb we reached Les Quatre Chemins which was just a bare road junction such as you might find on High Mendip. Gloriously there was a café (Chez Regine) perched on the corner. It was a proper French bar/café with Regine – if it was her – looking as if she had been hot smoked with tobacco.
Previously in Lasbros we’d fond an immaculately clean toilet complete with paper, which made up for the lack of overnight facilities.
Due to the early start we crossed the Aubrac Plateau before the sun got too hot. Unbelievably beautiful wildflowers – including [this is a misidentification I now realize] gentians which I’d never seen before. Untouched pasture and some of the healthiest and happiest cattle I’ve ever seen. In Lasbros we saw a foal that could only have been born an hour before – just standing up all knock-kneed. It was a hard and hilly day and very very hot. Even I drank 3 litres of water but fortunately there were many taps. Finally staggered into Nasbinals mid-afternoon. Andrew had pulled a muscle and was getting grumpy. Found campsite at other end of town, as always, so probably walked 27K. Put up tent, slept , had a shower and walked back into town at 6.00pm passing a restaurant on the way in. So we booked a table or 7.00 and had a couple of panachés in the local bar. Meal was excellent and shared with 2 Germans and 2 French. Young Frenchman reminded us it was Pentecost.
*Incidentally, although the Severn Tunnel (not the bridge) does have a railway station, on the Welsh side, I’ve never set foot on it – so its role in my dream is just one of life’s imponderables.
This afternoon I realized that I’d already mentioned, out of sequence, an evening shared with a nightjar as well as the worst meal ever. Having laboriously checked the previous seven posts on the Camino I thankfully discovered that neither incident was claimed as a component of the walk we’d already done and so I’ll continue gracefully along the Way but very aware of the fact that even with the aid of exif data from photos, a handwritten journal and a pretty reasonable memory it’s incredibly easy to slip up and transpose experiences from one day to another. Why it should be so important to me to get it exactly right is a question I can’t answer except for the fact that as I write this I’m constantly trying to answer a crop of my own questions. I hesitate to describe this exercise as therapeutic but I would love to think that when I press the last publish button on this group of posts, I might be just a touch wiser. Of course, 30 years as a parish priest taught me that life is irredeemably complicated and is very rarely understood by the people having to put up with it, and even less so by the people trying to explain it. That’s why psychoanalysis is so expensive. Not many caring professionals can resist explanations and keep quiet for as long as it takes for the client to hack their own way through the undergrowth.
The day was, as I’ve described it previously, full of wonders. Watching a transhumance take place is like watching a thousand years of history roll back. On a more mundane level, my mention of the newly born foal took me back to the day and the place so vividly I was able to revisit Lasbros in my mind as if it were yesterday.
No energy today. Every step (all uphill) a struggle. Jacqueline caught up with us and gossiped us over the first huge pass. Stopped at a farm and had café au lait + fresh bread and a small cheese made on the farm. Wonderful!
Ctd next day:- No room at Les Sauvages so we decided to press on to St Alban sur Limagnoles – 35K and nearly killed us. Arrived at the church at St Roch and unexpectedly burst into tears. On and on – it seemed even walking downhill was hard. Arrived at campsite exhausted and on the verge of quarreling. Mercifully the campsite manager cooked us a toasted sandwich and some chips. Slept 10 hours and breakfasted on two bowls each of hot strong and sweet black coffee. Left at 11.00am thinking we had an easy (17K) walk but it was 25°C and uphill (2 big hills and their corresponding valleys. [M] had to help carry my stuff as I was about to collapse. Arrived at Aumont Aubrac to find the campsite closed. Broke in and picnicked on sardines and apricot tart + UHT milk. Still tasted heavenly. We were both feeling demoralized as all the campsites we hoped to stay in were closed for the next three days. Discussed sending some stuff home to save weight. Bed at 7.30pm as we want to leave between 5.00 and 6.00am to miss some of the heat. 25K tomorrow. Can’t get fuel for our cooker anywhere in France. Sharing our vagrant experience with Alain and his wife – he’s made a cooker from the end of a beer can! Crazy as a coot!
Well we didn’t exactly break in but we did clamber over a locked gate. It was a weird experience because the facilities were all locked up with the entrances full of leaves – a sight we were beginning to be all too used to. We’d met Alain and his wife a little while earlier. They were sitting at a table outside a cafe and being mercilessly teased by some of the locals. The village was heaving with visitors partly there for the Pentecost holiday – which we’d failed to factor in; and also because the annual transhumance was beginning and locally it’s a big deal as the cattle, decorated with flags and garlands, are driven up to the plateau to graze the wildflower rich meadows. The French are among the most secular of people, but they don’t appear to have given up on the holy days, and there’s a deep sense of tradition surrounding the transhumance. I found it very moving to watch the cattle being driven up the drove roads, but the downside was a good deal of drinking which left us feeling a bit unsafe at times. That was the evening when Alain – a retired tax inspector – showed us the tiny spirit stove he’d made from the bottom of a lager can. Later on in the walk by which time we’d all got blisters, we found him walking in pink plastic sandals with plastic bags on his feet.
The church of St Roche was almost the only church I actually entered on the walk. Inside was the obligatory elderly woman in black and with rheumatic chesterfield legs hobbling around and completely ignoring me. My mother had died two months previously, but as she’d died with Alzheimer’s and hadn’t recognized either me or my sister for several years, any acute sense of mourning had been dissipated over a long period of what we called pre-mourning– or so I thought. So in a rather blokeish way I went into the church, saw the old lady, came out and completely fell apart; howling all the tears I’d had locked away for a very long time. M looked at me and said – “that was a bit unexpected” and the subject was never mentioned again. I didn’t need a therapist to help me see what was going on there, but a long time later exactly the same thing happened in a psychoanalytic psychotherapy therapy session. I was trying to describe how moved I was by the way that Odysseus’ nurse had recognized him by the scar on his thigh and once again I exploded with what felt like a volcano of grief. Grief seems always to be a work in progress.
The way down to St Alban was steep, narrow and rocky, and with our heavy rucksacks much more of a struggle than grinding uphill. It would have made our journey easier if we’d realized how wonderful it would be crossing the Aubrac plateau the next day, but that’s the way of pilgrimage – everyday is a surprise.
Fascinating though it may be to revisit the Camino journal after 13 years – (in fact I’m finding it pretty painful going) – life goes on at the Potwell Inn with the last of the tomatoes to be processed into two sorts of passata; one roasted and the other simply simmered with onion and indecent amounts of butter. It’s been an odd year, but we’ve now pretty well replenished our stores with a big crop of tomatoes from the polytunnel and our biggest ever crop of aubergines. Our only real failure was the broad beans early on and we’ve resolved to sow next year’s crop in November rather than wait until the spring reveals its hand. The asparagus bed failed yet again to rise to the occasion and so I’m afraid it’s going to come out in the autumn. It’s in the coldest part of the allotment and that may have something to do with it; but for the last three years we’ve spent out more on saving the crop than the value of the harvest and we can’t afford the indulgence. The surprise crop of the year was the Tayberry vine which gave a lovely crop of berries; and the apple trees which all fruited for the first time since they were planted.
The trip to our friends’ smallholding on the Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons) was partly to celebrate Madame’s birthday and partly because it’s a joy to spend a few days there with our friends. There’s always work to do on a smallholding – fencing, feeding animals and suchlike – but this time we helped to butcher a couple of two year old sheep (AKA mutton) which had just come back from the slaughterhouse. Vegetarians may prefer to look away now but as a meat eater on a modest scale, I have no moral difficulty with eating organic, free range sheep whose lives are entirely natural and whose lifetime travel takes them just ten miles to a local slaughterhouse.
Butchers – I mean real butchers – are highly skilled at what they do. As for me, confronted by a quartered carcass, it was a matter of trying to remember where all the joints come from and what they are supposed to look like. Three of us worked as a team in the kitchen and reduced the carcasses to joints, cuts and mince and enjoyed playing silly games whilst avoiding chopping our fingers off. Then we made a vast pot of stock and boiled all the bones down while Nick and me made trays of faggots – that may need translating for some readers – basically meat patties made from all sorts of offal; we only used the liver and hearts. By the time we’d finished we had four leg joints, four shoulder joints, 15Kg mince, 4Kg diced, 4 hocks, fillets for stir fries, leg steaks, racks, whole loins, 32 faggots in gravy, a gallon of stock and 36 blocks of dog food using every left-over scrap of meat from the bones.
I always feel, when I’m writing like this, that I should explain or defend hill farming and the killing and eating of animals. There’s no denying that intensive farming is the source of terrible cruelty and much avoidable pollution; but to equate what goes on in a 20 acre hill farm with what happens when two million chickens are crammed into sheds is a bit of a debater’s cheap shot. I go back to Michael Pollan’s wise motto – eat food, not too much, mostly vegetables. The consumption of ultra processed foods has been shown to be the cause all manner of illnesses and, if we all took to eating ultra processed vegetarian and vegan food we’d soon be totally enslaved by the gathering disaster of the food industry’s war on healthy eating, quite apart from swelling the profits of the industrial grain giants and the growers of palm oil and soya beans. Of course the killing and eating of animals raises all manner of ethical issues but we’re far too prone to exporting the hard questions as far away as possible. Buying your meat shrink wrapped and trimmed doesn’t detract from the big moral question of killing it in the first place. The taking of life is a big deal and so we should try never to eat more than we need, and endeavour not to waste any part of it.
We came home to the Potwell Inn with meat for the winter; we had dined on the freshest eggs you’ll ever see and we also brought a fleece back. Kate has used them for weed control, composting and also for lining hanging baskets. Nothing ever goes to waste on the smallholding. We’ve known them for over thirty years and from day one we treasured our fellow inner peasants. It takes a certain kind of personality to get so much pleasure from shaking plums out of a tree. I also fell in love with their Welsh terrier Dilys and proposed to her secretly but she rejected me, saying she was already suited.
Anyway, that was a long day and the following day we gathered plums, identified moths from the overnight trap and baked bara brith. Moths are attracted to a strong light and then they drop down into the depths of the box where they find egg boxes to spend the night before being identified and released in a manner that minimises the risk of them being eaten by birds. The wall outside the kitchen is used for feeding birds throughout the year and it’s fascinating to see the variety – most of the tits, nuthatches, robins, yellowhammers (increasingly rare) and finches too. At night we listen to the tawny owls and in the early spring there are cuckoos – it’s the last place I heard one, four or five years ago; pure joy. A family of field mice live in the crevices of the wall and pop out nervously from time to time to grab some grains.
Then finally, before driving home, we had a dip in the pool; filled with rainwater and warm from the combination of sun and solar panels. Paradise indeed!
You may disagree, but for me this gall, growing on an old enemy to any farmer or gardener – Creeping thistle – is exceptionally beautiful. It suggests a tiny Baobab tree. If you were interested to Google up the fly itself – named on the caption – you’d see that flies too can be very pretty; these are called Picture Wing flies and I’ve never seen one, so there’s still plenty of wildlife for me to look out for.
I wrote a few weeks ago about the sowing of wildflowers along the edges of several paths in the grounds of Dyrham Park. I have to question my reasons for disliking out-of-place wildflowers because I’m quite sure that a kind of covert “wild-ism” can establish itself and become a brake on wildlife conservation. With global and disastrous heating of the climate; we’re certain to see many of our native species disappear and be replaced by migrating plants moving north to escape from the heat. We’re going to have to learn to welcome all sorts of human and non human strangers here and we’re going to have to learn to say sad farewells to old friends if we’re going to regain the earth as a friend. We’re also going to have to accept that when every news bulletin features the latest out of control fires across the world it’s we who are responsible. There’s no future (really!) in treating climate disaster as an abstract concept – we have seen the enemy – it is us!
I said at the time I wrote about this, that I thought many of the artificially seeded wildflowers would look lovely for a season and then fail to thrive and for once I’m sorry that I’m right, because it’s happening already and the thugs are reasserting themselves in a big way, and chief among them is the Creeping thistle. Yesterday in Dyrham Park the National Trust was deploying volunteers to cut them down. Truth to tell, the only way to control them properly is to pull the young plants out by hand, roots and all. The game volunteers were working with strimmers and sickles in a snowstorm of thistledown and undoubtedly this pernicious weed spreads viable seeds; but it gains control of large tracts of ground by spreading by rapidly growing roots which, like Bindweed, can regenerate from small fragments. Alongside the newly laid paths which, a couple of months ago were covered with wildflowers, the Creeping thistles already reign supreme in the overly rich and recently overturned soil. Re-establishing wildflower meadows is the work of decades. Meanwhile the Hogweed is showing the door to the Wild Carrot and a few poppies struggle to flower. Our son’s partner muttered that “they’re all weeds as far as I can see” and she’s right.
But aside from grumbling about missed opportunities; something else has been on my mind. A couple of days ago I mentioned Geoffrey Hill, the poet and writer of a poem sequence entitled “Mercian Hymns”. I was musing on what a strong sense of rootedness in a landscape means whilst reading “On the Black Hill” by Bruce Chatwin. I first read Geoffrey Hill maybe fifty years ago and although I loved Mercian Hymns I didn’t really understand the poem. This brought back to my mind one of those turning point memories from decades back. I was having real problems with the choir in one of my churches. There’s no getting away from it, they hated me with the kind of hatred that thrives like the creeping thistle in the virtuous people of the church when they’re not getting all their own way. So in a last ditch attempt to get them to cooperate, I enlisted a friend – a great musician and conductor who was struggling to teach me to play the piano – to come and run a rehearsal for me. The choirmaster had, by this time, walked out. Imagine this choir as a group of surly sixteen year olds in detention on a hot Friday afternoon. They were not going to cooperate even if the roof fell in. So we struggled on for a while and my friend suddenly marched across the chancel; tore the hymn book from the hands of one of the ringleaders of the rebellion; threw it violently on the floor and shouted in her face – “For goodness sake forget the notes and look for the music!” That was pretty much the end of the choir, but soon I recruited musicians and singers; learned to conduct and passed my music theory exams so I could engage with them on more like equal terms.
It was a thrilling intervention that, this week, suddenly helped me to understand what I was doing wrong with Mercian Hymns. I had been struggling to understand the words but failing to find the music. So I immediately searched and found a second hand copy of the poems for £8.00. It arrived on Wednesday and I found that it was speaking to me in a language I could inexplicably understand. When the book arrived I tore open the package and at once saw the cover. It was Paul Gauguin’s painting “The Vision after the Sermon”.
I have to pause here and take a deep breath because this Old Testament story about Jacob crossing the Jabbok brook is immensely important. You can read it in Genesis chapter 32 if you wish, but you don’t need any faith at all to learn from it. Jacob is making a life-changing journey into a new life; leaving his family and everything familiar behind. He crosses the river and spends the night wrestling with an angel, demanding a blessing from this mysterious being. The angel gives him the blessing, but injures his hip at the same time. Psychoanalytically, this is about as important a story as they get. Carl Jung spoke often of our wounds as being integral to our creativity. We work from them; we grow from them. But the story goes further because it tells us that creativity and generativity are a relentless struggle with forces we barely understand. If you’re a writer or an artist; if you’re a farmer or an allotmenteer or a parent or if you wish to live a virtuous life seeking justice or compassion, you are going to have to wrestle with the angel, sometimes all night, and even at the cost of getting hurt – demand that blessing and live with the consequences.
So where does that leave us with the Creeping thistle with its very own gall? Where does it leave us with weeds and disappointments and failed crops? Where does it leave us when we confront injustice and inhuman behaviour? Where does it leave us with loss and gain?
Well, it leaves us exactly where we are already but suggests that the only way forward will – almost always – come at a cost. We need the kind of honesty that tells us – this is going to hurt – but it’ll be worth it in the end.
A lovely day at Dyrham Park with the Grandchildren and their mum. We’ve pretty much got used to the absence of the deer since it was culled due to so many animals being infected with TB. But the knock on effect of their absence is obvious when you compare the photo in the header with the one below. Firstly, of course we notice the much more ragged look of the avenue of Lime trees today. The header shows how closely cropped the lower branches used to be, and the avenue had a formal, clipped quality that led the eye forward. Elsewhere, the change in grazing has allowed the coarser grasses to take over because, sadly, mowing cannot replicate grazing as a means of improving grassland diversity. Let’s be fair, if you know where to look the variety of grass species is (so far) about the same but it’s consigned to smaller areas.
Today the two figures are the mothers of the figures in the header – Madame on the left and our lovely daughter in law on the right. But there’s good news too. It’s been hard to get any official information about the return of the deer herd; but today we discovered – by talking to a couple of friendly volunteers – that there are plans to restore the herd some time next year. We’d noticed that there’s been a continuing programme of installing high fences around the park. In our helpful conversation we discovered that the fencing is not so much about keeping the Dyrham Park deer in but keeping the wild (possibly infected) deer out. The badgers in the park have all been trapped vaccinated and released, and soon – we know not when – a new herd will be brought in. Hooray!
For today our grandkids hunted grasshoppers, spotted buzzards and we were able to talk to them about wildlife.
Back home we’re up to our necks in produce; processing tomatoes for the winter, for instance. I’m completely knackered!