Everyday sacred

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Writing about baking bread the other day I was casting around for a way of expressing just how important ordinary actions and objects can be. I’ve written in the past about the ‘ordinary’ and I’ve no doubt I’ll keep coming back to it. Ordinary is a word inflected by its use by the church to describe the authority of regularity, of obedience, of order, but in  institutional hands it came to mean repetitiveness, blind obedience and hierarchy. Sometimes it’s possible to blow the dust off an old word and restore it to its full meaning, but maybe ‘ordinary’ has been taken to the charity shop once too often and so it just means ‘a bit meh’.

So my loaf of bread, ordinary though it is to me, because it embodies a whole network of responsibilities and regularities – and great beauty too, aside from its utility as a shared food – ‘ordinary’ doesn’t quite stretch to it.  So I tried another word. ‘everyday’.   Everyday bread perhaps, for some people, conjures up a faint memory of ‘daily bread’. The word stuck in my mind and although I’ve tried writing on a number of other subjects I keep coming back to the idea of ‘everyday sacred’.

I’m really worried about using these kind of words because they’ve been so hijacked and starved by by their association with organised religion with which I’ve had a long relationship in the past.  But that leaves me with a problem because if ‘spirituality’, ‘sacred’, and all their associated concepts are put beyond reach by the institutions that hold the concession at the moment, we have to start from scratch in describing what for many of us is a deeply felt connection with the earth, and with one another, that transcends the ‘selfish gene’ nonsense peddled by Old Testament atheists like Richard Dawkins.

I no longer have a belief in the supernatural.  I dreamed about losing it and then it just happened one day as I stood watching the River Severn in flood, and I saw it float away in the fierce water.  It wasn’t at all dramatic; I wasn’t as much ‘losing my faith’ as being set free to find it again in another place, free of the rigidity and dogma. I’ve never spoken about this before and it may come as a bit of a shock to some of my friends so I’ll have to pace up and down  a bit before I press the ‘publish’ button, but there we are – it’s a relief to have written it.

So now I can write about everyday sacred without any ambiguity about my intentions. This blog isn’t about selling anything it’s about being human – delightfully, stupidly and increasingly decrepitly human.  When I’m in the kitchen making bread I feel connected.  When I’m on the allotment I feel it too.  On my way through the park today I stood face to face with a pair of long tailed tits in the hedge who seemed as curious about me as I was about them, and the urge to thank somebody, something, surged inside me.

Everyday sacred is that sense of gratitude because the earth provides so much that we need. The photo is of a sketch I made of a garlic bulb – this was a more successful one, I did dozens of others that turned out like schoolboy phallic graffiti – it’s hard to get it right. Knowing that it’s so good for us to eat and knowing something about the quite amazing molecular transformations that go on within garlic, within so many plants whose secondary metabolites can cure our diseases and put us back together again – that induces the same sense of the everyday sacred.  The hawthorn – we called it ‘bread and cheese’ as children and ate the leaves when they were new and not full of tannin – hawthorn has an outrageous array of natural gifts to offer.

So the Potwell Inn is for: dancing, singing, making music, eating together, telling jokes, falling in love, breaking the rules, growing our food and listening to each others troubles; healing, challenging and forgiving – these are the everyday sacred, and I say to the churches – “thank you for looking after the ball for so long,  but please can we have it back now.”

This is where it all gets silly – a post mortem on a teabag!

I’ve been ‘doing’ garlic for a few days now, and I’ll get back to it in a moment, but before I do I’d like to tell a cautionary tale about Chamomile and the trouble it can cause. I was sitting at my desk reading Eric Block’s book on garlic – the one I mentioned yesterday – and I was drinking a cup of chamomile tea, and because my mind tends to hop about a bit I started to read the label on the tea packet and saw that it simply said “Chamomile Flowers”. Given that I was already in full-on sceptical mode because I was trying to get my head around some truly challenging material (a.k.a my own scientific shortcomings) the thought floated into my mind that there was no latin name and therefore no way of knowing what I was drinking. I know this is a departure from my love for English plant names, but in this instance Chamomile could be Matricaria recutita – German chamomile, or Chamaemelum nobile – Roman chamomile; related and similar but with slightly different properties.  Nearly all the authorities treat the two plants as being virtually identical but one (Andrew Chevalier) says the Roman Chamomile is more bitter, and the tea is more often made from German chamomile. That squares with our experience in the summer when we made tea from our own (Roman) plants and the resulting brew was unpalatably bitter.

So there is a difference between the two plants, but whether it could be discovered from a used teabag was another matter altogether. But fortunately I discovered that the flowers differ in that the centre of the Roman chamomile flower is solid whereas the German chamomile has a hollow centre to the flower. Time for scalpel and magnifier and – hey presto – as the photo shows, the tea bags contain German chamomile.

Back then to garlic – and some attempt to figure out whether it works or not. Block’s monograph cites a pile of papers and it would be fair to say that the scientific verdict came back as a definite maybe but can’t be sure. I guess some of the wilder reaches of the advertising hype will not stand proper scrutiny, but some more research I came across suggests that at least one problem may be the lack of standardisation of garlic products used for research. The link leads to the whole paper and it’s worth a read even if you’re not (like me) used to the  language.

Tonight we’re off to a Bath Natural History Society meeting on the Purple Emperor butterfly given by Matthew Oates who will probably talk about the rewilding of the Knebb estate.  Should be good.

 

More garlic

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Carcassone Wight hardneck garlic. Next year’s crop

Well I did say that garlic growing had reached a whole new level of personal interest after the Allotment Association talk last Monday, and I wasn’t wrong.  The book I ordered – all 450 pages of it – was definitely a good buy, and coupled with some information from the talk I’ve been doing a bit of online research to see what the state of play is for organic gardeners..

The first thing to say is that the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm is not an organic operation and makes no claim to being one. I certainly don’t want to mount any high horse about that; it sounds like a commercial decision based on the challenges of achieving a consistent crop, and we’re free to buy or not to buy their products. Two things that were said induced me to get online.  In the QA session after the talk it was said that the farm uses Dithane to control fungal diseases like white rot.  They also operate a seven year field rotation, so they’re obviously taking no chances.  When he was asked what to do if you get white rot, the speaker said “buy another farm!” – I’ve got more on that later.

In fact they can’t use Dithane because it’s been banned in the EU, and they probably went over to Systhane until that was banned as well, and current regulations seem to say that there are no chemical fungicides available to gardeners for use on food plants. That’s not a worry for us because we wouldn’t have used them anyway, but we have to accept that our losses to disease will be much harder to reduce and will need a holistic approach to plant health coupled with some hard observation of soil, weather conditions and rotation.

The second thought provoking suggestion in the talk was to give the garlic a dose of sulphate of ammonia in February.  Sulphate of ammonia is a chemical fertilizer, produced by reacting ammonia with sulphuric acid. It adds, I discovered, both nitrate and sulphur to the ground but there are all the usual downsides of producing sappy, insect friendly growth and so-on. It also uses 1% of the world’s total energy production in its manufacture.  But alliums – onions, garlic etc – all need sulphur which is one of the molecular components of the garlic byproduct, allicin, which is so good for us. Normally there’s sufficient sulphur in the soil, but apparently – and here you must remember my knowledge of plant biology is limited – apparently waterlogging does severe damage to plant roots and restricts the uptake of essential minerals.  The take home point for us is that when we inherited our allotment the soil was continually waterlogged in the winter, and despite adding tons of compost; digging drains and raising beds, it’s still on the wet side.

The sequence of plant problems is that weakened plants get diseases more quickly and more severely than healthy ones. For the third consecutive year our leeks have been a miserable failure while others on higher allotments have not been affected. So putting aside sulphate of ammonia what else could be available to us as organic gardeners? One suggestion is to spray with a solution of Epsom salts – magnesium sulphate. It’s apparently allowable, but I’m assuming it’s a manufactured chemical and I know it hasn’t been made from natural Epsom spring water in living memory so it feels pretty non-organic to me. Then I came across some research on seaweed fertilizer which pretty much fits the bill.  We often use it as a foliar spray, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to use it in February.  Research suggests that it’s a very effective source of minerals including sulphur. Anecdotally I can say that a car load of bagged and wet seaweed certainly smells as if it’s got some sulphur about it! – and it it makes a brilliant soil conditioner too. So in February we’ll spray the young alliums with liquid seaweed extract and I’ll report back. Other than that, I think we need to carry on raising the beds further above the water table and digging in organic material and horticultural grit.

Back to the book, and it’s been a revelation. I need to get a bit of organic chemistry into my head, but garlic’s claim to be a superfood seems to be well supported by independent research. The last 100 pages of the book are a summary of research into the use of garlic in folk and complementary medicine and  the use of alliums  and their derived substances as attractants, antibiotics, herbicides, pesticides and repellents in the environment. There’s all sorts of peer reviewed research in there including some work on companion planting which I’ve yet to read properly because I get excited and start skim-reading – a very bad habit and the reason why I’m not referencing any of the ideas.

But allotmenteering is all about taking the abstract and making it concrete, and so this all boils down to creating the best conditions for our own garlic by growing it in large pots filled with a home made mixture of soil, compost, horticultural sand, a sprinkle of fish blood and bone (not vegan then), and some vermiculite and perlite. This year we’re comparing 2 rows of Early Purple Wight softneck, grown direct in the allotment soil, and 25 plants of Carcassonne Wight hardneck in pots. They’ll all get the same seaweed treatment and hopefully we’ll be able to figure out how much the waterlogging is contributing to our difficulties. In practice this means carrying many kilos of ingredients down the steep paths and mixing them up in the wheelbarrow, which is extremely hard work but massively cheaper than buying bags of potting mix – which sometimes rely on peat in any case. This way we’ve only ourselves to blame if we get the mixture wrong.

So, after a hard day, we consoled ourselves with roasted root vegetables (mostly off the allotment) and couscous; another vegan tryout that was well worth the effort, but notwithstanding the affection of American readers for all things pumpkin – especially on Thanksgiving Weekend – even after being anointed with miso and all manner of herbs it didn’t really taste of very much.

The garlic book is –  “Garlic and other Alliums – the Lore and the Science” by Eric Block, Royal Society of Chemistry Press. 454 pages and I can’t put the price here because Madame occasionally reads this blog!

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“Where’s the evidence – David”

IMG_20191129_105716I should dedicate this posting to Sid Harris, my sociology tutor at tech college, a thousand years ago, who would challenge my sociological flights of fancy with the words – “- that’s all very exciting David, but where’s the evidence?” If there is any way of sending a profound thank-you to the past it would be to Sid for providing me with the alethiometer (great TV adaptation isn’t it?) that all thoroughgoing sceptics need to get through the mire of speculation, quackery and sheer roguery that infests our culture.

But the question has its price – particularly that going after the evidence demands a lot of commitment, blind alleys and reading which, added up, mean you have to live until you’re at least 110 to understand a simple question like ‘why does peeling onions make your eyes water?’ My latest read – yes I get through 3 or 4 books a week – is “Garlic and other Alliums” by Eric Block, and which is a magnificent book that makes me want to cheer and applaud every other paragraph. But understanding the central chapters depends on a familiarity with organic chemistry which I don’t have.  Every opening door leads to another whole corridor.

But today I’ll start with a Guardian article that perfectly demonstrates the thought I’m working on. If you haven’t clicked on the link, the article concerns biochar – a form of charcoal made by burning wood in an atmosphere starved of oxygen – so far so ordinary charcoal – but by doing it in a retort that captures all, or most of the nasties that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. The hypothesis is that by making huge quantities of this compound and digging it into the earth we would be sequestering carbon in a way similar to, let’s suppose peat bogs or coal reserves. The article goes on to suggest that the biochar might also improve soil fertility and even the health of grazing animals at the same time. It’s a no-brainer, we should all go out and buy it right now save the world in a day. Except for a paragraph towards the end-

While academics and researchers are optimistic about the benefits of biochar, they are not blind to the risks either. “If we’re wrong, and we spread hundreds of thousands of tonnes of charcoal over the UK, we can’t get it back out of the ground. We’ve got to be right. The stakes are really high,” says Udall.

The evidence isn’t there yet.  It might be there in a year or two, if we do the research, but like most breathlessly announced breakthroughs, we need to slow down a bit. I imagine that the article itself will be mentioned many times, used as a sales pitch and generally enter the consciousness of allotmenteers and gardeners all over the world without the small-print warning following it.

When I started to read about the deep ecology movement I was puzzled by the phrase ‘aquarian conspiracy’ which often cropped up.  For me the ‘age of aquarius’ was a song in a musical where some people got their kit off on stage, I couldn’t associate it with the idea of a conspiracy. But what the phrase seems to allude to is the concept of a ‘new age’ in which all of the great challenges facing us are ‘solved’ by the application of new technology.  Apparently this became something of a Silicon Valley mantra. While you might think that making charcoal in a fancy retort is hardly ‘technology” it’s clear that the ideological use that it might be put to  could be a dangerous diversion from the pressing issue of our anthropocentric environmental greed. Soaking up excess carbon is a must, but you need to stop producing it at the same time.  The pressing danger of the ‘aquarian conspiracy’ is that it allows us to carry on polluting in the false belief that there’s always a technology around the corner.  And there’s no evidence for that either!

Evidence based science often clashes with the sales pitch – it’s hardly surprising – and the danger is that we rely so much on the carefully crafted ‘evidence’ produced for us like pre-digested seagull food, because we lack the skills to find out for ourselves. Here’s an interesting quotation from David Hoffmann’s book “Medical Herbalism”

I was asked to present a paper on the topic of “Herbal Alternatives to Prozac”.  This quest to identify a herbal alternative to Prozac is a perfect example of how the real gifts of herbalism can be deflected by underlying assumptions. It would, in fact, be more appropriate to consider the holistic alternatives to the current vogue for psychopharmaceutical solutions.

When judging outcomes in phytotherapy, the quality of an outcome depends on your values. If an RHS judge with a passion for formal gardens was asked to comment on our allotment they might say it’s a mess because it doesn’t meet their criteria (tidiness, straight lines, complete absence of pests and diseases), for “a good allotment”. A good outcome in holistic therapy (or gardening) might be an enhanced sense of wellbeing whereas a medical assessment might depend on a series of abstract measurements. Neither method is more correct than the other, they both try to be rigorous and they each have strengths that we depend upon – and in any case I have to say that being loved cared for and listened to is the best healer and that defies almost all science.

I remember well a ward sister at the General Hospital in Bristol where I was a part time chaplain. When she died in a riding accident, they put a plaque on the wall to commemorate her.  It’s gone now and they’ve turned the hospital into expensive flats – and I’ll  make no further comment on that subject! However Sister Valerie Helps – this is my little personal commemoration – had a gift beyond any scientific exploration.  Post operative patients in severe pain would feel better when she came on to the ward.  She would say -“could you hold on for just another half hour?” when they were calling for morphine, and they discovered that they could. She would challenge the doctors when they were attempting to do something stupid and inspire complete confidence in patients and relatives alike.

Lets do the science – masses of it – and be prepared to learn from it, even if it means changing some of our assumptions.  But for science and healing to work together they each need to broaden their underlying assumptions.  For science there’s the need to try to describe and quantify a broader range of outcomes which will have to include wellbeing and other ‘subjective’ states.  For herbalism, gardening and the whackier reaches of human culture we need to accept that not every hand-me-down remedy is necessarily, a priori, better.  I remember my mother talking about the lives saved when sulfonamides were first used during the 2nd world war.  They’ve been superseded now, for the most part, but in their day they were lifesavers. To go back to biochar, it may be a part of the answer to the climate catastrophe but in ethics they always say “you can’t make an ought into an is” and that’s not just a lesson for ethicists but for all of us.

If only it were true!

Another walk along the canal today, and I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the sign and a homeless person’s tent on the opposite side.  More often than not these temporary shelters are situated in places that are difficult for random thugs to reach because they are frequently targeted for abuse. This one tent is the tip of the iceberg and the canal is a favourite place.  There are probably dozens of rough sleepers along its edges – many of them with mental health and substance abuse issues, but it’s hard to tell.  Sleeping rough and living in fear of being beaten up or constantly moved on has its own corrosive effect. Then there are a large number of just-about floating narrow boats housing those who can afford the mooring fees but not much else.

Today the last half mile of the canal was rammed with boats unable to enter the river and head off towards Bristol.  The exit to the river through Bath Deep Lock is almost impossible in high water states because the long narrow boats have to enter the river broadside on, and the water was running like a train today.  Its deadliest state is always surprisingly quiet but always menacing.  Even Pulteney bridge gets quieter as the river rises and almost obliterates the weir in what looks more like a breaking wave. At this time of year when the Christmas parties get under way, the river has taken so many young lives it’s unusual to take a walk and not see a bunch of flowers tied to a fence.  Today was no exception. It’s cold at night, and the wet weather must have made life impossible for many homeless people.

Are we a humane society? We shall see in a couple of weeks, but I’m feeling despondent as our democracy is reduced to rubble by lies and deliberate lawbreaking.

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My favourite little patch of weeds is coming along nicely at the moment, and there was a hint of sunny weather to come as the birds practised a few bars of their spring songs. As we wandered back into the town centre we discovered that the Christmas Market had started hours earlier than we expected, and so we hunted down the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm stall and bought some more seed garlic and a few other bits and bobs from Rob Solari who gave the talk at the Allotment Society AGM. When we arrived home the monograph on garlic that I’d ordered had already arrived so we’re well set up now.  In honour of the occasion we baked some large mushrooms with a wholly improper amount of our own crop and shop butter and thoroughly enjoyed them.

Up at the allotment the Early Purple garlic has finally emerged in sympathy with our new-found commitment and so the world looks like a better place just now. The kitchen waste had piled up in the kitchen and so we took it all up to the site.  The compost heap is going well, but a winter heap is an entirely different proposition to a summer one.  It’s dense with peelings and vegetable leftovers and therefore more attractive to rats and prone to going anaerobic, so it needs a lot more brown waste like cardboard and it needs turning regularly to let some air in. But it’s nice and warm – around 25C – and the worms are still reducing it at a tremendous rate. However much we put on the heap it seems to shrink day by day.

Everything else is quiet on the plots, but the broad beans and overwintering peas are germinated and ready to go into the ground over the weekend when the weather looks much better. But it’s just as well the pace has fallen a bit because the constant shortening of the day length and the grey wet weather seem to lower our energy levels. The table is piled high with books to read but it was better to be out walking for much of the day. We shift into official winter on Sunday which is promising brilliant sunshine and cold conditions – proper winter then, and the garlic loves a cold spell. The photo was taken in Sydney Gardens where we walked past a large Ginkgo biloba – this one without stinking fruit surrounding it.  Someone must have swept it all up.

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More consolations of endings

1080863I love the sculptural qualities and the sheer complexity of this seed head.  It’s a wild carrot – Daucus carota – and this one was photographed earlier in the autumn on the Llyn Peninsula. The incurved stalks (peduncles I suppose) always seem protecting and enclosing of the dead flowers and long-gone seeds, and the whole shape resembles an old style willow lobster pot.

The procession of the seasons never really gives us the excuse to feel sorry for ourselves.  Like the procession of the stars, the seasons  (and all plants have their individual seasons), begin and end at the same time and place.  I remember what a revelation it was, when I was very young,  to discover that where the leaves fell from the conker trees, the new bud – perfectly formed – was all ready to go. In general the plants in autumn and winter are more sculptural and in spring and summer, the more painterly hues and impressionist sweeps of colour take precedence, but there’s never a time when nothing is happening. Just now much of the action is at ground level where the rosettes of next years plants are in plain view. Go take a look – it’s all there!

A smelly discovery at the botanical gardens

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Maidenhair Tree – Ginkgo biloba

But first, writing this is pure heaven because – thanks to a surprise gift from our son – I’ve finally migrated out of the Apple empire into the equally dubious but far more joined-up empire of Android. It was a tremendous gift because I was expecting a small tablet and when I opened the box it turned out to be a full-on laptop, all of which meant that with a bit of jiggery pokery, a few face to face tutorials from him, and a whole lot of automatic stuff the whole system works brilliantly. Just to recap I’d already inherited his previous Google Pixel phone a couple of weeks ago and this weekend, with the new laptop, I moved the last few files across and I no longer had to wait 25 minutes for my ancient MacBook to boot up and wheeze its way to some kind of functionality. I’m overjoyed at the knowledge that I can just get on with writing and not have to spend hours cleaning the system because the 4Gb RAM filled up with junk. I can even look at all the photos in the library without having to stop for a coffee in the middle of  a session. My ancient dread at changing operating systems turned out to be a folk tale put about by Apple. A couple of days offline was all it took. The Potwell Inn carrier pigeons and the old smoke signal machine have been retired to the outdoor privvy.

But back to today and, system up and running, we all went for  a walk up to the Botanical Gardens. The gardens have lots of good stuff in them but with constant budget cutbacks it’s a largely voluntary effort these days, and bits of the gardens are a bit rough round the edges.  However we had great fun using the Google Lens features on our phones to identify some of the plants and bushes in flower – it’s surprisingly accurate, quite as fast as some of the paid-for apps I’ve used in the past and well worth trying out, if only to narrow down the choices before making a formal ID using a key. We didn’t need to look for the Ginkgo because there was a nice big label on the tree.

There was no problem, then, in identifying the tree but the most interesting thing was the smell of the fruits rotting on the ground. I really didn’t know that they smelt so bad until we walked through the gate and T said “ugh – what’s that smell?” What indeed? A  quick check and we were offered rancid butter and vomit as possible descriptions.  I’d say dog poo and dead sheep came into it as well. For a plant with such powerful healing qualities it certainly does its bit to repel visitors. Fortunately the leaves were well beyond being worth saving and we’ve no means of extracting oil from the single seed inside the fruits, and so we escaped with a little more knowledge but no further need for dealing with the stink. The tree was right next to the entrance and it wasn’t hard to see other visitors taking surreptitious looks at the rest of us to see who’d stepped in something.

Late autumn and winter’s a funny time.  Everything feels as if it’s shutting down, but if you have a hunt around there are lovely things to be found.  The purple berries of the Callicarpa bodinieri were lovely, and the Verbena brasiliensis too was showing off just a bit. But I’m a sucker even for drifts of dead plants, and the birds in the area must be able to take advantage of the seed heads as a food source. 

As the solstice gets closer I get just an occasional insight into the significance of this season. As a sunshine loving activist I’m inclined to get fretful if I can’t get out on to the ground, and yet dealing with dearth and plenty, feast and famine, is fundamental to our human-ness. The earth is a complex, dynamic and interrelated system that has its own idea of what constitutes good practice. An annual season of reflection and contemplation is essential for our welfare. Screaming at an empty supermarket shelf because something we want isn’t there, is a sign that we need to get out more – not find a way of squeezing another crop out of the exhausted earth. So bring it on – the solstice will soon be here.

Mexican fleabane bids for world domination

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I am absolutely full of admiration for this little plant. Three years ago someone further up the street planted some in a container and ever since then it’s made a slow march towards us, colonising every spare crack in the pavement. It’s tough, that’s for sure – forget anything the books say – it’s enjoyed relentless heat during the summer on the south facing terrace outside, and after the first hard frost I popped downstairs to see how it was and, as you can see, it’s still going strong. Every summer our caretaker, in her relentless pursuit of a sterile landscape, douses it in Roundup despite our protestations.  The man from the council – if he’s got a minute – hoes it off too and the dear old fleabane shrugs its shoulders in a planty sort of way and gets on with its long march to the western seas. Interestingly, its cousin the Canadian fleabane keeled over after the frost – which seemed counterintuitive, but then, plants don’t read textbooks.

Meanwhile the allotment is in winter mode.  Apart from the turnips, celery, celeriac,  beetroot, spinach  – actually I’ll take back what I just wrote – what I should have said was that much of the allotment is in winter mode. In truth the early purple sprouting is just beginning to push out little buds where the crop will soon appear. Every year we say it’s a waste of space because they take so long to grow, and every year we change our minds when we eat the spears.

We’re well into the winter truce, and while the allotment takes a deep breath and digests all the compost we’ve put on, Madame and me negotiate next year’s ideas. We’ve agreed (without rancour) that we’ll grow more cut flowers and increase the number and quantity of culinary herbs because they’re so expensive to buy. Whether I’ll get away with any more medicinal herbs remains to be seen but Calendula, lavender, thyme and hyssop will be there with many others in any case and most of the ‘wilder’ ones are great pollinators  – plus they’re beautiful.

Many of the typical ‘medicine chest’ herbs grow wild locally and could be foraged carefully without any adverse impact. I’m not entirely sure why I’m doing this – it’s not as if I’m a great consumer of herbal remedies, in fact I’m a bit scared of some of them, but they’re a part of the ‘gift’ of nature; deeply entrenched in our culture – especially our literary culture – and to know some of the properties of plants helps to foster a non-dualistic, non religious worldview.  That sound much grander than it’s meant to – when  looking at a plant becomes a kind of beholding, something happens at a level much deeper than the rational.  I suppose I could resort to that overused term spiritual, but I’d rather think of it as a deeper level of being human – no supernatural concepts are needed.

Anyway, the advantage of a bit more time is that it means a bit more time in the kitchen and the beginning of the annual war on black mould.  Living in a concrete building means learning some new skills and avoiding using the filthy smelling chemicals used for combating mould has been a priority.  But we’ve been experimenting with white vinegar which must work by changing the pH of the plaster.  Initial results look good and diluted vinegar is brilliant for cleaning the windows as well. Meanwhile it’s been bread, cakes, and pancake experiments for me.  The winter is a real change of gear, with abundant lectures, talks and exhibitions here in Bath.  Tonight we’re off to a book signing by Celia Paul, who has an exhibition on at the same time as her book is published and was  Lucian Freud’s muse.  I’m wondering how she’ll handle it because she’s reputed to be rather shy and not given to small talk. Her sister, Jane Williams, was my tutor for a while.

 

Still crazy after all these years

IMG_20191118_162125I’m a little younger than Richard Mabey – I checked – and the courses of our respective lives have been very different, but there are bits that coincided too. I was reading the first of the short pieces in his book – “A Brush with Nature” last night.  Yesterday we were feeling a bit stir crazy after a morning in the flat so we went around to Toppings to check out their natural history section and then, because there was nothing that caught my eye, we wandered down to Waterstones where I found the book amongst an entire case of ‘nature writing’. I bought it because he’s never written a dud book.

The first of his concerns – about the (then) dearth of nature writing has, I think, been more than abundantly  addressed. There are shelves full of the stuff, some of them proper old potboilers of course, but some real and distinctive voices who have changed the way I see things.  I’m sure that if Richard Mabey and me could lay our lifetime bibliographies side by side we’d find they overlapped in many cases.  Yes I read Henry Williamson voraciously when I was young.  In fact I ploughed my way through all 15 volumes of  “A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight” and many of his other novels and books before an increasing sense of creepiness led me to the disturbing discovery of his right wing politics – and that was that, the affair was over. Yes, I’ll bet, to Richard Jefferies, Gilbert White, JA Baker, DH Lawrence, and all the others. I bought J W White’s “Bristol Flora”  although I couldn’t afford it, and I’m glad I did because I’ve spent many hours poring over it and remembering places, let alone plants, that no longer exist. Too many books to list – I’m a magpie – and could never say no to a second hand book that just might be useful one day

After we left art school we both found ‘temporary’ jobs in horticulture, Madame at Long Ashton Research Station where she assisted the Trials Officer, and me as a groundsman and bus driver at Clifton College. Working outdoors gave me the chance to look for plants, and even then I kept notebooks – I found one of them when we were moving house.  It was badly affected by wet, and the ink had run but there were sketches and even a couple of spore prints as well as yards of notes. It seemed, at the time, as if the natural world was static – what didn’t get done today could wait until tomorrow. I was loose in a library of botanical temptations that I could return to later, and so I could peep into a room, make a note of the location and vow to come back later when there was more time, many plants I didn’t have time to identify went on to the  back burner and now they’ve gone.

Because something’s changed and there is no more time – and of course we all know what it is. Environmental degradation, extinctions and the rapid onset of climate change have eaten through my to-do list, and because of it my whole mindset has changed. What might once have been presumed as the permanent features of nature have become fugitive pleasures. Each cuckoo might be the last I’ll ever hear, and the flash of iridescent blue flying low ahead of us on the canal might be the last kingfisher. The major key of reliable joys has modulated into the minor key of loss.  There are days when a walk feels like a day in a wartime clearing station, a sad search for survivors. Yes of course I can go and find some of them marooned in a reserve, complete with paths and fences and informative displays, a kind of zoo for threatened species, but I don’t care for zoos and where’s the fun if you already know it’s there?

Walking one day in Cornwall fifty years ago a heron took off from a pond just close to where we were.  My heart froze as this ancient looking creature cranked itself into the air and wheeled away. I’m not a twitcher.  I can’t imagine the mindset of one bridegroom whose wedding I took, and who I had to order not to bring his pager to church – “just one day off – please”  He once drove overnight to Scotland to join a throng of fellow twitchers watching some rare migrant.  Not my scene. My haunt is the ordinary, the everyday and my sadness is that it’s thinning out. I probably wouldn’t drive to Cornwall just to see a heron, but life without herons altogether would be immeasurably poorer.

We are less confident and  more strident because we’re losing the lyrical sense and it’s eating away at some immaterial part of our being. And yet there is room to hope because  those shelves of books in Waterstones are, in their own way, deeply subversive; for an attentive reader they’re just a step towards the resistance. The holy grail of nature writing today is not to bathe the reader in a glow of purposeless sentiment – not to provide stunning but ultimately sterile pictures of lovely things, but to challenge – to take the reader to the casualty clearing station and invite them to join the battle.

Like Jacob, wresting a blessing from the moment

 


The two pictures don’t belong together geographically. The eyebright – Euphrasia officinalis agg was photographed in St Davids and the sea-wall was in Mousehole, Cornwall. Linked together (just about) by the Atlantic ocean which they shared, but opposites in almost every other respect; the one transitory and vulnerable and the other adamantine and massive. There’s one other thing that they share: they both made me stop and pay rapt attention to them.

Identifying flowers can be quite challenging when they’re very variable. The little “agg” after the Latin name means that there are in this case something like 30 recognised variants and/or 71 wild hybrids – they all look a bit like this apparently but how would I know? Even the magisterial Clive Stace makes it sound hard – it’s an eyebright and it’s very small and very beautiful and I’m resisting any temptation to enlarge on its healing properties except to say it seems that it’s still in use for its medicinal properties.

The harbour wall, equally could have been built in an almost infinite variety of configurations from the stone at hand.  That monster five-sided stone must have taken the combined strength of three, maybe four masons to lift into place, and it could have been laid with any of its sides at the base. Was it a collective decision?  Did the foreman say “it goes like this”, or was the culture of building so strong that they all just knew where it should go? The form, the pattern of both flower and wall are characteristic of a basic structure but capable of many variations, any of which seem, as I discover them, to be absolutely perfect. To use an analogy from jazz, there’s a pulse, a starting key, a sequence, an idea, and thereafter an emerging and embodied performance.

I’ve never thought of a plant or a wall as a performance before, but it’s an exciting and provocative thought.  And what about a moth or a cat or a daffodil?  Or to use a much simpler (because speeded up) example – what about a sudden parting of the clouds over the horizon as the sun sets?  Why is it that my response, so often, to the unexpected discovery of something lovely – is to cry out, to clap my hands as if I’d just heard the most brilliant improvisation.

That’s exactly the underlying idea from the title of John Parkinson’s 1640 book “Theatrum Botanicum – The Theatre of Plants”, reworked again by Richard Mabey’s 2015 book “Cabaret of Plants”. Plants, flowers and all of nature wrest from us an emotional response that goes way beyond our recognition of their usefulness. We give them names and use their names because in their performance they force us to go beyond any instrumental, reductive thoughts and into relationship with them. And the idea of treating our relationship with plants (or sea walls) as a kind of performance reminds us that performances are not complete without readers, listeners or viewers – and the better we are at those tasks, the greater, the more illuminating and powerful the performance can be.  I owe to A F Woodman, my much loved music teacher at secondary school, this phrase – “I know you can hear it Pole – but are you listening?!”

On a plain, grey day in November with nothing much going on, I’m flicking through my photos looking for inspiration. Nine times out of ten, my postings are initiated by a photograph – something that caught my eye, made me stop what I what I was doing at some point during the day.  But some days are unrelieved by those moments of illumination. Some days when everything seems flat and spare I have to wrest a blessing from the moment, hang in there. And today my consolation is in the eyebright I found at St Davids in the summer, and in contemplating that great granite sea-wall, shouldering off the waves tide after tide, storm after storm and still there as the first celandines peep through the snow – upcountry.