A friend once told us how isolated his parents were becoming when he noticed that they began to have conversations like – (looking out of the window) – “that green car isn’t there again!”
Well it isn’t there again today and we’re fully occupied finding strategies for staying sane that fall short of car spotting. There’s dogs and drug dealers of course but they don’t change much. British summer time has also thrown a bit of a spanner in the works and we stay up much later than usual but then my inner clock seems not to know that I don’t need to get up at 6.00am. Today I got up early, made tea, read for a bit, made coffee, went to sleep, woke up and read for a bit more – got up at 10.00am. It’s no life, honestly – if it weren’t for the allotment we’d probably be playing ‘I spy something beginning with W’, and the answer would always be ‘window’; – ‘wall’ being disallowed as unpatriotic.
Our other favourite diversion is trying to figure out how to observe the government advice to stay indoors and get shopping delivered when there are no delivery slots to be had at all and every website we go to is shut down due to overload. Ah well … However just to prove that life goes on outside the bubble, a tractor showed up this morning to give the Green its first cut of the year. Last year, if you remember, it was agreed to leave an unmown strip around the edge to let wild vegetation grow up – I think ‘wildflowers’ is a bit overheated in our instance, but I like weeds, and more to the point, so do loads of insects. My word, these are powerful machines they use these days. Last year by the second cut the rewilding project lay in shreds because the message about the wild strip failed to get through to the tractor drivers. Today, though, the tractor drove underneath our window and stopped and then the driver consulted some kind of plan in a ring binder and then slowly and deliberately left a wide border all around the green. Early days yet, I know, but there’s elder, burdock and wall barley in them there borders, and a new generation of children might just learn about ‘itchy coos’ and darts.
Then, among the excitements, a brilliant idea occurred to me this morning regarding the pigs’ cheek surplus. Madame had turned her nose up when I presented them in their unadorned form – too much information I suspect – and so I minced them up, added herbs, sweet pimenton, some softened onions, a little egg and breadcrumbs; rolled them in flour, fried them and then baked them in our own stored tomato sauce et Voila! – as you might say if you were French – they were transformed into meatballs and became today’s meal. Every little triumph adorns the day.
But the pandemic is never far away, and yesterday we were texted by one of Madame’s nieces to say that their father, our brother-in-law, is in intensive care with confirmed coronavirus. Is this it? Is this the spirit of the blitz that people who’ve never even experienced food rationing, let alone bombing – like to evoke. We plough on in spite of the dangers, we dare to make small plans for ‘when it’s over’, we say silent prayers for our loved ones because we don’t like a fuss. There’s nothing inspiring or admirable in any of this and true compassion isn’t ever a public act.
And then just I was about to press the send button on this post I heard the sound of a machine outside, and when I looked, there was a smaller mower removing the violets and celandines outside the house. Morons!!! – we’re lions led by donkeys.
This is the new view from my desk – OK it’s not brilliant but it’s outside; I can see the sky and the clouds and I can watch the comings and goings of our neighbours in the car park. The view from the front of the flat is far nicer, but this is sufficiently mundane not to distract me too much. It’s only possible because my piano has gone to Birmingham. I don’t mind because I wasn’t able to play it in this building – but as if by magic, Madame has put on one of our Mose Allison albums just as the piano has joined the long list of ‘might have beens’ in my life.
If you dislike my seriously political deliberations you should probably skip the next two paragraphs – it gets slightly more rhapsodic after that!
Meanwhile the lock-in continues. The equinox passed by the Potwell Inn without being noticed – we were all too preoccupied with the weather, the weather of events, that is. Huffing and puffing about the failures of others, or our lamentably deficient government takes away the pain for a bit but the black dog comes back, sniffing around the bins of our lives and lifting his leg against our certainties. We’ve tunneled so far into the mountain of greed that the entrance has collapsed and there’s no way out any more.
The media have decided that what we need more than ventilators and nurses is – a metaphor. ‘The blitz’ is winning hands down at the moment; it’s cheap and cheerful but there are no supply problems and it focuses all our attention away from the real problem and on to our personal response. In fact, they hint without spelling it out, that this is an opportunity – an opportunity to show what we Brits are made of and so the miracle of diversion is accomplished so effectively that public opprobrium falls more heavily on those who refuse to celebrate this opportunity for self-transcendence than it does on those who disregard the distancing measures – not least cabinet ministers.
Today marks the beginning of British Summer Time. I’ve no idea why I find that as exciting as I do, but I guess I like sunshine a lot more than I like fog and rain and the odds are on the summer providing more of my favourite days. I will contradict this statement later in the year when I declare the autumn to be the finest season by far, just before I settle ‘finally’ on the joy of frosty mornings. The only safe approach to anything I write is to say accept that change is inevitable and variety is a jolly good thing. However (and you knew that was coming) there are some unexpectedly lovely things, even in the midst of a pandemic, that can wake you up with a smile. So today we lay in bed and heard a church clock chime seven. It wasn’t even a very nice church clock, in fact the bell was a bit of an old boiler, but it filled me with joy and reminded me of my childhood when I would listen to the clock in Page Park (similarly washboiler tuned) chiming out the hours at night when I couldn’t sleep.
The rationalist in me points out immediately that it’s Sunday morning (i.e. less traffic) and there’s a north easterly wind carrying the sound across from Julian Road or wherever the church is. But there’s more to it. We’ve had Sundays and north easterly winds before and only once heard the clock in over four years. But this crisis has resulted in a dramatic fall in traffic through Bath. The constant ambulances which, in order to negotiate the jams, always used their sirens now cruise silently and unhindered to the hospital a mile away. We can hear birds singing again and the moaning of the wind in our leaky windows, and our neighbours in their flats. The cloud of polluted air over the city has lifted and the streets are empty. The tourists have all gone, and the holiday rentals are empty – it’s a disaster by all the conventional measures, and yet I wonder whether anyone is anxious to return to the status quo ante bellum at the end of all this.
It only takes a few empty shelves to demonstrate what we’ve all known in our hearts for a very long time, that our present way of life offers a huge diversity of things to buy, but at the expense of almost everything else we say we value. What’s the value of a line of identical tasting breakfast cereals to ‘choose’ from when the wildlife on the earth they were grown in has been poisoned out of existence?
So back to believing impossible things because I’ve always been deeply interested in the mechanisms through which we are able to ignore the evidence that contradicts our presuppositions. We once lived on a farm in Wiltshire and our walk to art school every day took us down Middlewick Lane, in which there was a cottage with the most beautiful garden you’ve ever seen. In three years we’d watched it through the seasons; we knew that the owner was an elderly man called Mr Monks who lived alone. We even knew that he liked a pinch or three of snuff from the handkerchiefs drying on the washing line, stained yellow from his useage. I can’t, after all this time, say exactly what the garden contained but it remains in my memory a pure Gertrude Jekyll cottage garden with the addition of the most wonderful vegetable plot to one side. After an age of scurrying past and trying not to stare, we graduated through nod to friendly nod and eventually we spoke. He even gave me a pinch of snuff once but it blew the back of my head off and made my eyes water. Just before he died we finally plucked up the courage to ask the question that had been hovering in our minds for several years – how did he grow such a magnificent garden, so free of pests? He answered without hesitation or any embarrassment “DDT” he said. Suddenly the garden crumbled in our minds like the picture of Dorian Gray in the Dickens novel. There were still many years to pass before we saw our first raptors in the sky again.
We seem to persist in our belief that our culture – the way we do things round here – is all for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and nothing seems to shake us from that belief – except when we are overtaken by a major breakdown, and we see the promises of everlasting growth, plenty for all, more choice, more power, more leisure, more everything, as the false prospectus it has become. Leibnitz’s kindly God whose benign hand was thought to be behind all that was good in the world was put out to grass, and a smart new manager called “the economy” was drafted in to conduct the affairs of the earth with more efficiency ‘going forward’. Statisticians say that football clubs who change their managers in the hope of better results are misguided. When you actually look at the statistics a change of manager is no more successful than leaving the old ones in post. The point is, we want it to be true, and we’re quite prepared to add it to the list of impossible things before breakfast in the hope that it might become true.
There is an exception to the football manager statistics, though. When the season ticket holders are sitting on their wallets, the fans on the terrace have stopped cheering, the team are all looking for other jobs and the grandstand collapses for lack of maintenance it might be a good time to take a look around.
The earth managed herself successfully for millions of years – let’s get her back in charge!
Well we’d better make a start with these early risers – just a dozen of the wildflowers – don’t say weeds – flowering this morning on the riverbank footpath. We took ourselves out for an hour in the fresh air today, fairly certain that we were maintaining our social distances in the required fashion. The only downside seems to be an increasing tendency for young people to look rather suspiciously at us as if we were causing the problem rather than being the principle victims. You can’t blame them I suppose, they’ve been repeatedly told that we stole their pensions – a bit of larceny I don’t remember at all – someone else must have taken my share! On the other hand the sight of a man crouching amongst the weeds may have led them to conclude I was about to expire and reminded them of the admirable advice in the parable of the good Samaritan, that’s to say – to pass by on the other side.
So this year I fear my botanising will be largely confined to these local wild and weedy thugs – aside from a trip to Whitefield meadow at Dyrham Park where with a bit of luck we’ll find the elusive orchid whose name I’m not even going to mention. The riverbank was reseeded with wildflower mix a couple of seasons ago, following flood prevention works, and although it looked quite pretty for a while is just didn’t look right. It was a jumble of wildflowers from quite different habitats including a few poppies. As I’ve mentioned several times I’m reading George Peterken’s marvellous book “Meadows”, (£35.00 and worth every penny), anyway he mentions in passing something that demonstrates exactly why the wildflower mix looked so wrong – there were poppies in it and poppies are arable weeds. In fact he says that there are no red flowers in flower meadows at all. I’m in no position to verify that nugget, but it sounds exactly right and completely underlined why the riverbank attempt at flower meadow flora was a bit – well, out of tune.
What’s more to the point, though, is that these expensive usurpers didn’t, probably couldn’t, last the course. They arrived in an alien environment; out came whatever passes for banjos and shotguns in the plant world, and the locals simply shouldered them out of the way as if they were old people in the queue for toilet rolls. The burdock that I was so sad to lose to the bulldozers and excavators has reasserted itself in its old home and the whole stretch of the river bank is restored to pretty much the way it used to be. Weeds! How long, I wonder, before public pressure is brought to bear on the council to get the strimmers out?
More silver linings for the family. The almost complete disappearance of tourists has led to a crisis in the holiday rental market and so suddenly, overnight, there are flats available for short term rent and our youngest son has found somewhere to live. Our middle son has just heard that the government is subsidising wages up to 80% – which will be a lifesaver in the catering industry where thousands have been laid off already.
But yesterday I spoke to our oldest, who is a teacher, and he was able to tell me about the traumas that students and teachers are experiencing when relationships that have taken years to nurture are suddenly ruptured. Young people have no idea how they will cope with the postponement of public examinations and they are quite properly distraught at being cut adrift at this crucial time in their lives, not knowing what lies before them. So he’s going to be working harder than ever to make sure they’re safe, properly fed and cared for. When you read about the schools being closed, remember that teachers aren’t going to be enjoying ‘garden leave’ but struggling to keep the show on the road. My advice is not to crack jokes about the ‘long holiday’ if you want to continue to enjoy your own!
There were crowds up at the allotment today. We were too emotionally exhausted to do much but the weather looks fine for tomorrow so we’ll have a day with as little stress as possible. To adapt a quote from Churchill, who seems to be on everyone’s’ lips at the moment –
The government can always be relied upon to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else!
OK so – if you examine that statement from every angle it might look smarter than I intend. I do know my place, after all I’ve lived in it for most of 73 years, my speech is inflected with its dialect and there’s not much of it I haven’t walked, cycled, driven or tried to grow things in at some time or another. I recognise a respectable amount of its wildlife in a thoroughly non-professional way, and I know most of its history. So I know my place; I’m hefted to the area around two rivers, the Avon and the Severn, and to the land west of the Cotswolds and north of the Mendips.
And so by extension I know a lot less about many other areas that I love just as passionately, especially the far western parts of England and Wales, but they’ve been holiday romances rather than family. I make lists of plants, watch birds and animals and always come back refreshed and inspired. I’m an amateur, a bit of a peasant, an autodidact, living an inch from the edge of a howler, an intruder into the VIP lounge of proper (whatever that’s supposed to mean!) experts. And so reading George Monbiot’s book “Feral” has been a big struggle because I know, even with my street wisdom, that there’s something wrong with his argument – I just don’t quite know what it is. There’s porridge in the radiator, gear oil in the sump and quite a bit of well disguised filler in the bodywork and notwithstanding the good looks on the forecourt I know it’s a wrong ‘un.
I’ve been reading it restlessly, on and off. I shout at it, slam it shut, double check the data. I managed to struggle through the first couple of chapters, although I found some of the tales of superhuman derring do – paddling six miles out to sea in a kayak – running twenty miles before breakfast with a young Masai man, dodging bullets in a Brazilian mining settlement – well, a bit desperate. The beatific visions and revelations of true nature were a touch too Ignatian for me, and I was just waiting for the wrestling with bears bit so I could just accept it as a fictional ‘coming of middle age’ narrative . The picture of Vladimir Putin on a horse kept floating into my mind.
But when he kicked off on the so-called Cambrian desert I had to race to the laptop. Where is this scene of dereliction and abandonment overrun by malignant sheep and even more malignant Welsh hill farmers? A quick check on the BSBI website turned out to be difficult because reorganised boundaries have rendered the vice county list a bit impenetrable. Powys, for instance, includes bits of Montgomeryshire *(VC47), Radnorshire (VC43), Brecknockshire – Breconshire if you’re English – (VC42) and a bit of Denbighshire (VC50) and the Cambrian Mountains also embrace some of Ceredigion(VC46) and Carmarthenshire(VC44). That’s a lot of lists, but checking them all I couldn’t see even one of them with a significantly lower number of plant species; but I could see that there were quite a few rarities in amongst them. Even from my own scant knowledge I know that there are irreplaceable habitats there, bogs, mires and wetland areas. The road between Tregaron and Abergwesyn seemed to me, when I first drove it, a paradise. And what on earth is he suggesting when he writes in the same chapter that there were no birds? He seems to have set out with a self imposed vision of a despoiled land, and exercised iron discipline on himself to exclude any evidence to the contrary. The red kite, thank goodness, is now as common as medieval hill towns in Provence – who’d have thought it? I stopped reading when the book started to make me feel fearful.
But I know my place, and I can’t offer anything approaching a sensible review of the book from a more experienced perspective. I know it’s a contested area of thought and I’m slowly trying to catch up after decades of the more (dare I say) piles and varicose veins side of spirituality that is the life of an almost extinct species of country parson. So I searched through the original reviews, found some hiding behind paywalls, but some more that shared at least a few of my misgivings and then I stumbled on this blog by Miles King which has a review written with far more authority and expertise than I’ll ever have, and which I’ve found invaluable. I realize I’ve been rather harsh, but we’re in a crisis and what we need, more than anything else, is to follow the facts on the ground even if they contradict (especially if they contradict) our presuppositions and prejudices. Making up ‘facts’ to advance an opinion is morally wrong and – at the moment – dangerous because it hands ammunition to the enemy who will use exactly the sort of logical contradictions that abound in “Feral” to attack the whole project.
So I’m going to put the book back on the shelf now because I’ve just got hold of “Meadows” by George Peterken whose lecture we went to a while ago at Bath Nats. In the midst of a crisis there’s no time for a canonical literature to emerge, no place yet for the final word or the revealed truth, but there are enough half-baked ideas out there to furnish a lifetime of village flower and produce shows. “Meadows” looks to me to be a better bet if I want to find out what’s really going on and what we might have to do about it. There are plenty of elephants in the room already without parachuting them into Powys.
these are all vice-county lists of plants found in the designated areas and maintained by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland
These were pointed out to me today by our neighbour – a professional botanist. This patch of sweet violets and celandines are growing almost outside our front door. We were discussing a proposal to ‘rewild’ a part of the green, which is a great idea, and it’s good to see that it seems nature had the idea first. The big battle, as we realized, is to convince the council workers not to strim them all off before they’ve had chance to flower. I’ll keep you posted. The violets could be garden escapes, I suppose, but who’s counting? Sweet violets are increasingly rare in the wild and they’re easy to identify. If they’re perfumed and the sepals are rounded they’re pretty certain to be Viola odorata. The shame is that in the battle for space, the celandines appear to be winning.
Before we went back on the allotment today I did a bit more research on hydraulic ram pumps and it seems my enthusiasm for their use on the plot was a bit misplaced. Their efficiency is such that they only work where they’re situated in an abundance of replenishable water – like a stream – because they’re terribly inefficient, managing to pump between just 2% and 20% of the input water. That could mean that of of 500l of stored water as little as 10l would make it to the top and the rest would spill out of the pump. What we could do, of course, would be to isolate the three underground streams running through the site and pipe them into a giant sump, and then pump all the water back to the top of the site into a 50,000 litre tank – a bit of a major civil engineering project and unlikely to attract funding from the council whose whole budget for allotments in the city is about £70,000! I don’t think we’d get away with a hose draped across the main road and joining us to the river.
And so to the allotment where we were delighted to see that last night’s rain had flowed obligingly into the first tank. This will be the one we direct to feed the greenhouse drip system. It will provide easily enough water to last a fortnight. The previous system, which was supplied by the far right hand barrel in the photo was too low and so stopped working after about the top third was gone.
While we were at it I moved the hurdle screen in by a couple of feet to create a new bed for Nepeta, Lavender and other bee plants. The soil there was very soggy so I dug in half a bag of gravel and a whole bag of horticultural sand to improve the drainage and set the first batch of plants in alongside the early flowering Clematis which, we hope, will climb up and over the hurdle. That created a lovely little sheltered space between the greenhouse and the shed, where we put our donated seat and moved the horrible plastic picnic table. One day I’ll build a proper wooden one but it’ll do for now. Ironically, losing a couple of square metres to the new bed has released more than twice as much space on the paved section so we can create a bigger area with moveable pots filled with whatever’s in flower at the time. It’s probably the sunniest patch on the plot and with the reflected heat from the paving stones it should do well with some chillies. Elsewhere Madame planted out some onions that we’d brought on from sets in pots in the greenhouse. We’ve put them into what we’ll have to call Allium Alley for the rest of the season. Our leeks – the ones that were so sad in the autumn – have recovered so well that we’ve bought two new varieties to try. No fool like an old one!
I’d just finished writing a piece for the allotment society about taking on an overgrown allotment when I turned to writing this post. I’ve been really impressed with Simon Fairlie’s book “Meat – a benign extravagance” which was published in 2010 and today when I was flicking through a digest of the day’s news I came across a story about leaked emails written by a government advisor which had revealed that he thought neither fishing nor agriculture were really worth preserving in the UK. The chain of idiocy that this attitude reveals is examined forensically in the Fairlie book, but as for the emails, I have no doubt that the author is a fully paid up advocate of and probably a shareholder in industrialized intensive farming. My guess is that neither the environment nor unemployment, and certainly not public health figure in his analysis. Coincidentally another article – this time in the Farmers Weekly – suggested that there’s a rosy future for British agriculture freed from the petty rules and regulations of the EU.
This constellation of dangerous thinking made me wonder whether Simon Fairlie had changed his mind in the last 10 years. Maybe he’s recanted, I thought, and bought shares in Bayer – and so I looked him up and no, he’s now making a living (probably not a generous one) selling Austrian forged (as in hammers and anvils not fake) scythes and editing a magazine called The Land and even a quick glance will reveal that he’s lost none of his incisive way of dealing with unsupported claims by either friends or enemies.
So there was the chain of thought that led to the image of a scythe. The fox on our site that has killed more allotment chickens than you’d believe and yet still brings a thrill when he strolls insouciantly across the site; the kind of neoliberal economist who would empty your bank account and sell your granny without a hint of compassion; the trials of taking on an overgrown allotment and the memory of a traditional farm implement, all dancing around in my head at the same time. I should probably increase my medication.
If there is a crisis in agriculture it’s probably being cynically manipulated by the people who would rather throw agriculture, fishing and wildlife under a bus than give up driving their big cars and burning fossil fuels. The agrochemical industry simply loves the idea of sequestering carbon by planting trees because it will mean intensive chemically supported farming will be the only show in town once all that land is taken out of production, and as Simon Fairlie remarked ten years ago, there’s a real danger that the more extreme fringes of the vegan movement will forge an unholy alliance with them. There’s a crisis in agriculture, and fishing too, because for decades the subsidy system has been used to encourage people to do exactly the wrong things, and there’s a cultural crisis in the West resulting from our disconnection from nature. When we lost the dirt under our fingernails we began to lose the sense of connectedness with the earth and her rhythms. As a matter of fact I think that watching cosy natural history programmes on the television (though I do it myself) is positively dangerous. It’s a voyeuristic substitute for the real food of connectedness – a kind of synthesised vitamin pill rather than the feast that’s everywhere around us.
The fox is an awesome predator but its capacity to do real harm is limited. Even apex wild predators are incapable of completely eliminating their prey species, they’re just not organised enough – but we are; homo non-sapiens, the creatures who’ve lost their wisdom. The economist probably doesn’t even know how to grow mustard and cress on a piece of tissue paper, but with a little help from industrial lobbyists still has the capacity to destroy the environment in an unprecedented fashion.
So there I was, yesterday evening, sitting at my laptop with this depressing sentence nagging me, when an alarm went off on my phone. How could I have forgotten? We’d done two very long days on the allotment building the new rainwater storage and sowing some early seeds so we’d warmed up some clanger pudding (a Potwell Inn stalwart, comprising whatever’s left in the fridge), and were looking forward to an evening doing not much. Twenty minutes later we were around at BRLSI – (Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution) for George Peterken’s talk on the cultural ecology of meadows. The place was packed with some awesomely qualified people – County Recorders, ex presidents of this and that national bodies, wardens, botanists, ecologists and mycologists – you really should join Bath Natural History Society if you live anywhere near here, these aren’t just clever people they’re really friendly too, and they can turn a field trip into a seminar.
And blow me if he didn’t talk about scythes! Now there’s an example of synchronicity worth savouring. I used to have a scythe, but I never really mastered it. In the early 70’s we were drinking at the Cross Keys in Corsham when we met an very elderly man who’d been a gardener at Corsham court and who told us that they had cut the lawns there with scythes. He offered to give me a lesson – which I gladly accepted – and so later that week we met outside the pub on the verge, and he demonstrated how to do it. My inelegant slashings were completely wrong, it seems. When he used the scythe it looked more like a slow, deliberate dance. Even for an old man with arthritis, he made it look beautiful – a kind of circular motion, step and sweep, step and sweep. Even the short grass of the verge fell tidily beneath his razor sharp scythe. He showed me how to sharpen my scythe too and I wish I’d paid more attention but when you’re twenty something there’s always infinite time for learning stretching out before you. As a child I’d been roped in to rake the hay on my grandfather’s smallholding and I’d seen stooks and ricks being built; it was a grand day out and I could feel the heat of the sun on my back..
So last night’s talk on meadows was so much more than a technical exercise. In his opening remarks, George Petersen said he’s been surprised at how emotionally connected people are to these relics of an ancient agricultural system. I can vouch for that. As he showed slides of fields, gloriously filled with wildflowers and orchids, plants I’d never seen and many that I know well, I was experiencing the kind of feelings you might reasonably expect in a concert hall. My guess is that there were more than a few tears lurking in the corners of our eyes as we contemplated the beauty and the loss of what we’ve collectively allowed to die in the delusional pursuit of ‘progress’. He spoke of the way that the ‘catastrophe’ of haymaking each year had led birds, butterflies and insects to make a living in the field margins. He advanced an idea of ‘meadow’ that embraced a much more eclectic definition – field margins, woodland rides, roadsides and clifftops. But he also spoke of the culture that created these environments and which sounded so much more appealing than the industrialised concrete canyons we now inhabit; fed on industrialised junk-food and entertained with industrialised natural history television.
We walked home knackered and excited in equal measure – in the words that once featured on the front of the Whole Earth Catalogue –
I know many people find the fact that their Google searches are converted into saleable data is both sinister and oppressive. However it’s not that clever, and occasionally I’m alerted to scientific papers and farming news that’s ten times as incriminating of the sources as it might be of interest to the the readers. Here’s me – a declared opponent of intensive agribusiness – suddenly shown a paper by Bayer, presumably on the strength of my previous searches, that expresses far better than I ever could the perilous course that the industry has set itself upon. What follows is a direct quotation; the entire article is available on this link
“As a cover crop, the phacelia is doing its job – preventing leaching of nitrogen and soil erosion, but allowing the black-grass to flush through,” says farms manager Andy Blant.
“As a way of attracting wildlife, particularly bees, the phacelia is exceeding all our expectations,” says Mr Blant. “Planted at the end of April, by July it was in full flower.”
Phacelia requires little management. “We don’t let it flower for too long as it self-seeds,” explains Mr Blant. “We apply glyphosate whilst it is flowering so as not to kill the beneficial insects and bees then mow it down once it has senesced ready for early ploughing for the autumn. It can also be used as a green mulch throughout autumn, before ploughing in winter in preparation for early spring drilling.”
(My emphasis) The problem, Mr Blant, is that it’s becoming clear that while glyphosate doesn’t actually kill bees on contact, its much publicised harmlessness to animals rests on the fact that it kills plants by disrupting an enzyme that is crucial to the development of essential proteins, and which isn’t found in anything other than plants…… they say. But recent (2018) research cited in this Guardian article claims that the enzyme is destructive of bacteria found in bee gut biome and that although glyphosate doesn’t kill the bees directly they die as a result of infections caused by the gut disruption.
So this panglossian puff piece for Bayer actually says that they are deliberately growing a crop known to be attractive to bees – not for the bees of course because they don’t actually want their phacelia plants to set seed – but as a green manure and cover crop – and then spraying it with a substance now known to be toxic to bees while promoting their product which is already under scrutiny for its persistence in the soil and its carcinogenic properties. If this isn’t an example of greenwashing I’d like to know what is!
I could go on in this vein with a dozen articles, but really I don’t need to. I think we’re increasingly ‘getting it’ when it comes to the global crises of runaway climate change and species extinction – or perhaps I should call it global species senescence to make it sound nicer. The opposing sides battle it out in a heavyweight punch up, freely making up statistics without providing any corroborating sources. Farmers v vegans makes fun copy. I remember James Belsey, a great Bristol journalist who made ‘local’ a real and honourable territory, saying to me once – “you’ve got to remember that most journalists are bone idle. If you want to get your project into the paper you need to write the copy yourself and hand it to them – they’ll print it!” I was involved in setting up a charity at the time and so I did – and they did.
And now we’ve reached a genuine crisis on a number of fronts; obviously climate and ecology but also population, migration, famine and economics too. On television a few nights ago I saw a hydroponics project in Singapore – fabulous and much needed in a country that imports the vast majority of its food. The person running this operation said – probably correctly – that the output was 15 times greater than the same area given over to conventional cultivation. That’s terrific but, me being a promiscuous reader, I recalled some figures quoted by Ken Thompson in “The Sceptical Gardener” which were almost exactly the same for the humble allotment. What this means of course is that there’s always more than one way to skin a cat – or peel a carrot if you prefer.
All too often the media portray the crisis we’re facing as a choice between two alternatives – universal veganism versus universal factory farming; technological carbon capture or the end of private cars and general misery. Intensive agriculture or starvation. But the crisis can’t be reduced to a binary either-or choice. Any informed debate about our future path as a viable species needs good data, honesty about outcomes and a forensic approach to any ideas being promoted – not least by huge vested interests.
If it’s even possible that a part of the answer to the challenge of food production could be to provide many more allotmenteering opportunities around our towns and cities, the payback could well be far wider than just organic lettuces. Exercise and improved mental health are all a part of the overall allotment picture, not to mention less car-borne shopping trips and a vastly improved national diet. So yes to (not too many) industrial hydroponic farms, vertical farms with all their efficiencies locally situated to cut down on the carbon. Yes even to processed industrial gloop – although I probably won’t be an early adopter. We need to become ideological tarts – it’s a crisis – and there’s no time for anyone to pursue their narrow dream of purity. I’ve been reading Simon Fairlie’s brilliant book “Meat – a benign extravagance” and if you’ve got some time and a tenner you couldn’t do better than to read it as well. It’s densely argued, full of statistics and examines a large number of alternative strategies for feeding ourselves without dogmatic attachment to any of them. The other book I’d recommend, not least because many of its ideas seem to be finding their way into post brexit subsidy legislation is Dieter Helm’s “Green and prosperous land”.
The root of the word ‘crisis’ comes from the Greek – to choose. A crisis can be a healthy moment if it forces us to make fundamental choices about the way forward. But the way forward needs to include everyone. Solutions that throw small scale mixed farms under the technological train can only make things worse. In a crisis, no idea is unworthy of consideration – as I used to preach everyone gets their say but not everyone gets their way. In a crisis the unthinkable needs to be thought, but the destination can’t ever be simple – more profit, more growth or more technology, although some better technology would be a help. A government that can’t feed its people is unworthy to be called a government. Food banks and homelessness are two sorts of famine and both are cause not by the lack of food or the lack of housing but by deliberately allowing them to become unaffordable to poor people. We need clear data and open handed discussion about the alternatives and involving us – the real stakeholders – in the future not just the powerful vested interests.
Naturally – and I mean that literally – naturally none of this is actually available on the allotment right now. I could almost certainly walk across to Sainsbury’s and buy them all, relatively cheaply but today we don’t need them because today we picked the first of our purple sprouting broccoli. That’s a red letter day in our calendar. We still have potatoes – although they’re starting to sprout now, and we have leeks plus all the stored tomato sauces and passata, a few herbs, rhubarb and loads of frozen pesto. We shan’t starve, but the point is we spent the day on the allotment clearing the last of the beds. I was building the frames for a new arrangement of water butts which should give us easier access to stored water at slightly higher pressure, with the aim of using it in soaker hoses.
Is it hard work – on the allotment? Well yes, I suppose it is. For sure, hammering large posts 2 feet into the ground is hard work, but they’re going to have to support 750Kg of water. In fact most of the infrastructure work is quite hard – building paths and beds; wiring supports and wheelbarrowing compost around; turning compost is really hard going and yet although I’m pretty ancient by most standards, however hard a day on the allotment turns out to be I invariably feel better at the end of it. I didn’t take a photo today because to be honest there wasn’t much to look at. About 2/3 of the beds are empty – they’re prepped and ready for planting out – but not yet.
And that’s the point of the photo from early last season. Apart from the potatoes which were grown in sacks, everything came out of the hotbed and they’re all in there again doing what plants do; sending down roots, making friends with the soil and all its inhabitants , soaking up whatever sun is available and gathering strength every day. I suppose Madame and me were doing exactly the same thing today. pottering around and dreaming of the first taste of all the plants we’ve sown, soaking up the brief moments of sun, listening to the birds and enjoying that strange semi-meditative state that can make mundane jobs, like weeding, into a pleasure. Gardeners don’t see the earth in the same way – we see the potential for wonderful food where anyone else might see bare earth. There’s a marvellously companionable side to allotmenteering and gardening, because the plot quickly becomes a kind of friend; a friend with funny ways and particular preferences like a dog that loves being scratched behind one particular ear. The wheelbarrowing and weeding aren’t work as much as caring as you might care for a friend. In return the earth gives us back our efforts with compound interest – food with peace of mind thrown in, plus bird watching, insect spotting, butterflies and moths, field mice, badgers, deer, hedgehogs, rats, wasps and bees, shared produce and neighbourly chats – all for £40 a year. The allotment teaches us patience, resilience when the inevitable failures come along, attention towards small things. It sets the day and its troubles into a longer perspective, gives us time to think and often to be grateful and brings home the old Benedictine couplet – “to work is to pray, and to pray is to work.” – and I don’t mean all that religious stuff, I mean real prayer that takes you out of yourself (ec-stasis) – and gives you some sense of belonging to the earth rather than just standing on it.
It seems odd to me, writing in this way because all too often blogging becomes a list of things we’ve done rather than trying to explain what they mean to us. Growing food carries meaning far beyond the nutritional value of the product. What we do can’t really be measured in productive units, calories, added value or any of the usual metrics so beloved of economists. Growing food is a way of life but not a lifestyle. It’s the hub of a wheel of interest and concern whose spokes extend to every part of our lived experience. We become naturalists, ecologists, economists, community activists and politicians because that’s where growing food leads us.
OK so blogging can be so much rhubarb if you’re not careful, but this is the real deal – a gift from our neighbour who, unlike us, didn’t move his huge plant last autumn. We’ll return the compliment next year because he was busy splitting his today as it’s got so big. It’s had a good life, sitting next to a leaky water tank and has grown so much it could feed a small army. I think it’s probably Timperly Early – such a rich colour. If you squint hard enough at the photo through our kitchen window you’ll see it’s raining, so no surprise there, but we managed to get a few dry hours in on the allotment – enough to check the grease-bands on the apples and sow the hotbed with carrots, lettuce, radish, beetroot, spring onions and spinach. We were also going to install some carefully prepared traps for the flea beetles that have been busy on the broad beans. This was an idea off the internet – of putting tree grease on white backgrounds and pinning the little strips to the ground. The designer was insistent that the sheets needed to be white to attract the beetles, but sadly the grease we had in the shed was black, which rather defeated the whole idea. The storm winds have played havoc with one of the patches of broad beans but – as always – they’ve just tillered anyway and so there are four stems where there was just one before. Clever things happen in nature and it’s often worth waiting for a week or two before uprooting plants that seem to have gone wrong. The leeks that looked almost dead a month ago are now looking perfectly healthy again. Luckily the almost continuous rain had prevented us from digging them up.
Back in my study all the chillies are busy germinating, and the kitchen propagator is on its second load. All systems go then – we just need these endless Atlantic storms to ease off. I finished off the afternoon trucking six or seven loads of wood chip down to build up the paths while Madame cleared the last but one bed. The soil is wet but with all the organic matter we’ve added it’s perfectly manageable. The paths which separate the beds are dug 18″ deep to act as drains to the beds, and they simply eat the woodchip. Goodness knows where it all goes, but I seem to be constantly topping them up. They’re exactly the width of my wellies, so if the level between the boards drops my feet get stuck in the ruts. I suppose I could have made them wider but that would have cost us growing space.
On the reading front, I’ve been busy juggling a number of books, finishing off Adam Nicholson’s “The Seabird’s cry” – quite brilliant. I’ve also been dipping into Richard Mabey’s “A brush with nature” which is scarily prescient when it comes to the present crisis; re-reading Gary Sneider’s “The practice of the wild” and finally Simon Fairlie’s “Meat – a benign extravagance” recommended by George Monbiot when it was first published and which is a forensic takedown of some of the ‘written in stone’ arguments advanced both by the vegan and the food industry lobbies. You couldn’t call it an easy read – it’s very densely argued, but it makes the case for greatly reducing our overall meat production while still farming in the traditional and small scale way. If you’re opposed to any consumption of animals on ethical grounds you probably won’t change your mind after reading this book, but if you’re like me – struggling to make sense of the propaganda war of opposing numbers – then it’s well worth the effort.
On an entirely different chain of thought, our recent walk in the Malverns provoked me to read a number of reports on the management of the habitats there, and I was intrigued by repeated references to NVC (National Vegetation Classification) communities. This has become the standard way of describing botanical communities and I found it fascinating because – and this is just a thought – I could use the data to look for specific plants that I’m trying to find. If you know what you’re looking for and you’ve got a good idea what sort of habitat and area you’re most likely to find it in, the process of looking for especially interesting plants becomes much less of a lottery – more of a pilgrimage. This is one of the great perils of being self-taught in any field and especially with botany. The pronunciation of plant names becomes a fear filled exercise of avoiding humiliation. Best to own up and ask I usually find. But also knowledge comes to you serendipitously rather than in a structured way, and so I often say to myself – I wish I’d known that years ago. On the other hand I do think it’s a great privilege never to have lost my excitement at the commonest of things. I remember once saying to someone on a field trip that I struggled with identifying grasses – “Oh” she said rather dismissively – “Grasses are easy!” – not for me they weren’t, but I was so incensed I spent the next months laboriously learning as many as I could. Suddenly, knowing my lemmas from my awns became an occasion for genuine joy. Whoopie – I thought – more friends!
As you see from the inset, Greta Thunberg is coming to Bristol on Friday to support the school climate emergency strikes. It’s actually half term week so no lives will be ruined by taking an hour off revision!
So this is a very brief video of Pulteney Weir, here in Bath, taken this afternoon. Looking at it now it doesn’t look all that exceptional, or at least it doesn’t if you’ve never seen it under normal conditions, when there are four steps and seagulls paddle safely on the top of the first. The river is exceptionally high, and that reflects the saturated soil conditions upstream, and that’s giving farmers (and allotmenteers too) massive problems. Even where the ground is not actually flooded it’s impossible to get machinery on to it – a pair of size 10 wellies is too much. I’ve mentioned the three underground springs that run beneath our allotment site, and they keep the water table worryingly high. Some vegetables will tolerate wet conditions, but many won’t. We’ve got garlic, onions and shallots (we’ve given up altogether on the leeks), and we should be cutting asparagus in about six or eight weeks. Rain is best in small regular amounts because the roots actually need air as much as they do water. Sadly we don’t get to choose, and so the best thing we can do at every level – from the whole sweep of Welsh hill country, for instance, down to the smallest veg patch is to improve water retention by tree planting, by changing agricultural practices and by reinstating marshes and bogs. Good soil can store much more water without becoming waterlogged – that’s a fact. Our instincts are to increase downstream dredging and build bigger rhynes and ditches to try to speed up the run-off but that’s a daft way to go. What we know we need to do is to hold the rain for longer and release it more slowly; and we know how to do this. Building up thick topsoils rich in organic matter, nice winding streams and beaver dams, local flood plains (without houses!) can all help.
We need to try to reduce overall rainfall – and that means addressing the climate crisis because as the Atlantic heats up, more and more moisture laden air is going to head our way. This is a political , economic and cultural challenge – just about the biggest we’ve faced in generations. We need to develop crops and seeds better suited to our new climate, because this can’t happen overnight. We need to turn away from the fantasy that technology can solve all our problems because it can’t. We need to eat less meat, drive much less, give up flying whenever it suits us, and that means we need to structure our economy in an entirely different way. It would be a tragedy if most of the world had to accept vastly worse lives in order to keep a few wealthy people living in extravagance.
Does this sound like a revolution? Well, of course it does but the alternatives are much worse. However we can’t expect to be congratulated for our far-sighted views because it’s such a massive change. I’ve always taught my children to avoid revolution at all cost, because violent revolutions rarely bring anything but unhappiness and worse conditions than ever. We do have a choice and a vision and we can do our best to realize it however much we’re impeded. We need to have the more powerful vision of hope for the future and not focus exclusively on calling out the villains because that just gives them the chance to demonize us as ‘extremists’ – as if wanting to be able to breathe clean air and eat healthy food, free from chemicals, to drink safe tap water and to walk and cycle safely on uncongested roads and in a living biodiverse countryside was somehow threatening to life. We need to be able to say to people “taste and see” by opening our gardens and allotments for anyone to come along and experience for themselves what’s possible. We need to work with, and not against farmers, especially small farmers, because being a critical friend is so much more positive than being an implacable enemy, and finally we need to be better consumers. Mindfulness can be a lot more than just a meditational discipline – especially when we’re buying food and clothes.
Why am I writing all this today? Well, because I can get a bad dose of the ‘black dog’ when things seem to go as badly as they are at the moment and so, forgive me, I’m reminding myself that we’re not entirely powerless in the face of government incompetence and indifference. But secondly a new follower signed up today – a new allotmenteer as it happens – and I wanted to write something that sets our shared interest within a broader and much more significant context. The personal really is political.
On the allotment (“at last” you may well be saying), a veggie traffic jam is beginning to happen. Keeping to our usual dates we’ve trays of germinated and germinating seeds that move through the warm propagator to the cooler one, to tables under the windows and then to the unheated greenhouse. But the soil is cold and wet and we just need a secure break in this weather to plant things out ready for spring. You need to be a bit of an optimist in this game. Tomorrow we’ll be sowing into the hotbed which is working really well. We could still be pulling some really early carrots with a bit of luck.