Organish? – not all turtle soup and silver spoons

Found on the green yesterday – bluet?

Another trip to the farmers market yielded a chastening surprise at the weekend. We were in something of a hurry because we we expecting a family visitation to celebrate our son’s birthday and so we sold our souls and picked what looked like a healthy looking bakery stall and stocked up on padding. Not – I should add – the indispensable thin sliced industrial white (only used for summer pudding at the Potwell Inn), but sourdough loaves bearing all the imprints of banneton and human labour and with a corresponding price tag.

Being a regular home baker myself, I expect to make better bread than most bakeries simply because my time and experience come free of charge. There are no rents, rates or wages to find each month and if the loaves are a couple of hours late coming out of the oven, nobody dies or goes bust. So what can you say about bread that looks exactly like the real deal but lacks any single distinguishing feature? With bread, and almost any other artisanal food you could name; time equals flavour. Bread that’s rushed through the process in a few hours will never, can never develop the full flavour of the wheat or rye. It might look like the real thing; the crust bursting with energy, the crumb textbook, the rise prodigious but without time – and I mean lots of it – it will never taste of anything and be fit only as a platform for something that does taste delicious. Good bread, cheeses, pickles and ferments are all the same in their demands for time and human judgement.

There used to be a Chinese restaurant in Bristol whose menus were masterpieces of brevity. “Steamed fish”, for example was a whole carp, steamed on a bed of aromatic vegetables – wonderful. It was always honest as well; no item on the menu was buried under a landslide of adjectives. You either liked chickens’ feet or you didn’t with or without the anointing of such words as luscious, velvety or exotic. There’s a huge Chinese supermarket in East Bristol that will sell you a box of frozen pork cervix. Please don’t feel obliged to buy them on my account!

We’re so accustomed to supermarket photographs of fictionalised farmers surrounded by their happy animals (my chickens are soooo free range they even have a community centre and a table tennis team) that we don’t so much buy nourishment as lifestyle narratives, and of course this means that we rarely get to taste the real stuff. Of course you can bake bread that looks like the loaves in the latest edition of Country Life but I fear that a splash of sourdough starter for flavour accompanied by a good deal of conventional yeast, a short warm rise and a lot of steam is what we usually get. Worse still, our palates are so habituated to bland food, we find fully flavoured properly made food overwhelming, even unpleasant. Just as a treat I bought in some really good cheeses for the family to try on Saturday. Apart from me, nobody liked them – their loss, my gain I suppose but what a shame to live in a world of bland, grey flavours when you could experience the orchestra of a well made Cheddar. Sadly, in marketing food, all too often more creativity is expended on the promotional material than on the product.

Anyway, there’s been more than food alone on our minds this week. The campervan roof light has been leaking recently and after a few abortive emails to local repairers we made contact with the company that built our van and they immediately agreed to repair it yesterday. The snag was that we had to be there when the workshop opened and it was on the far side of Dartmoor. So it was a 4.00am alarm and then a drive down to the banks of the Severn to collect the van from its storage facility, and then driving down the motorway in what still felt like the middle of the night. There’s always something exciting about night driving and by 7.00am we could see the first intimations of sunrise as the sky took on a faintly damson flushed with peach hue to the east, with a three quarter waning moon in the sky above and the Somerset levels frosted in the first really cold night of winter. We arrived in good time and after three hours the van was restored and we drove north with Dartmoor to our left, looking ravishing in the clear blue skies.

More about rats

I was turning the compost heap last week and, one after another, three large and very sleek rats abandoned ship and scooted off up the path. One of them went in the general direction of Madame – who was weeding – and a piercing cry went up – an eeeeeeeoooooaaaaaaach – sort of noise. I don’t know about the rat but it scared the living daylights out of me. I think it’s as much the unexpectedness of their appearances that’s the most unnerving thing.  They have a tendency to sit the disturbance out until there’s no alternative but to bolt.  I’ve had one jump right over my shoulder on one occasion. We’ve got a trail cam on the plot and we’ve filmed cats, mice, foxes, squirrels and badgers, but it’s the ubiquitous rats that trigger the camera more often than any of the others. 

So are there so many more this year? Without the benefit of a proper survey, I’d say that without doubt this year has seen the largest infestation we’ve ever seen.  It’s not quite Hamelin but it’s almost impossible to drive past the entrance without disturbing two or three, and there can be very few allotmenteers who haven’t seen a few at least. They have a prodigious capacity to breed, and therein lies one possible solution to the problem. It’s entirely natural for populations to grow to the point where disease, overcrowding and food shortages drive the population down again. It’s a possibility but we shouldn’t hold our breath.

It’s said that the lockdown and the closure of the restaurants and fast food outlets led populations of rats and gulls alike to look for food beyond the city centre and, I suppose, we’re providing it. I’ve read that the gulls hardly bred at all in the first lockdown although they certainly seem to have recovered well by now. We’ve tried just about every conceivable way of discouraging them and there’s no single answer. I suppose not composting kitchen peelings and veg waste would be a start but it would be at the expense of our compost heaps.  You can always see when they’ve paid a visit because they dig distinctive tunnels in the upper surfaces and often have toilet areas where you can see their droppings.  We all know that rats can be carriers of leptospirosis so at the very least we need to be meticulous about wearing gloves and observing personal hygiene when handling compost.  They don’t like being disturbed and they won’t enter very hot heaps – which is an encouragement to turn heaps regularly and work them hard.  55C plus a yard fork will put the most determined squatter off. 

I’ve never made bokashi but it’s said that rats don’t like the strong taste and smell of fermented waste.  Kitchen waste can be converted in a wormery so that there’s little left of any interest to the rodents.  Traps, to my mind, are a waste of money because rats are clever little critters and once they’ve been activated they’ll never go near them again.  We won’t use poisons because we love the other creatures, and secondary poisoning is a real issue with rat poison and slug pellets alike.  Ask yourself why there are no hedgehogs on our allotments? 

And that leaves barriers – fine chicken wire wrapped around wooden heaps and tight fitting lids because they’re great climbers. But they’re also great tunnellers so the chicken wire needs to be brought out horizontally at the bases of heaps as you might do when fox-proofing a chicken run.  One final suggestion which we’re testing at the moment is to fill any tunnels with wire wool and ram it in firmly with a crowbar. Apparently they are greatly averse to chewing through it! – and who could blame them? 

What doesn’t work? Gardening lore is about as useful as Old Moore’s Almanac so ignore the advice that they don’t like citrus peel because they do, as do the worms as well. And there’s one more tactic which does absolutely nothing to reduce numbers but it can transform our relationship with rats. Actually they’re very clever, very resourceful and often quite handsome animals. If we’re serious about wildlife gardening then we don’t get to choose the cuddly bits and slaughter the rest. This year we managed to keep the badgers off most of the sweetcorn with a ring of steel; but the rats simply moved in and took their place. We would see them swaying at the top of a plant nibbling away happily. But we managed to harvest about half the crop and enjoy it. We don’t moan when the bees eat our pollen or the birds eat our seeds so maybe the rat too should be considered part of life’s rich tapestry and a perfect supper for a hungry fox too. 

Creative intervention in Bath draws the crowds

Out on our walk today we came across this contribution to the COP26 meeting. These interventions can sometimes be a bit preachy but this one conveys a powerful message with a touch of humour. Whatever the means we didn’t hear any negative comments from the gathered crowd. The placement, immediately between the iconic Pulteney Bridge and the weir which is regularly submerged during winter floods, is a prophetic take on what might easily happen if nothing is done to curb runaway climate change. When it’s in spate the river is truly menacing and the Council is spending millions on flood prevention on a river that’s also highly polluted by sewage discharges and run off from intensive farmland. With just a few days to go before COP26 this intervention just about sums it all up. It’s a brilliant collaboration between the architects Stride Treglown and artist Anna Gillespie. What we need now is an earthquake in Downing Street – metaphorically speaking of course!

“HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME”

A little literary tease!

So we were wandering back from the market clutching a refillable bottle of locally produced milk from a dispenser and I wasn’t getting any pleasure at all from it. The phrase grass fed cows ought to have pressed the endorphin button – wherever that might be found; but it didn’t. This feeling has been creeping up for weeks now and it’s come to a head, leaving me feel cranky and sad. Of course there are explanations. I don’t like these days of declining daylight and deteriorating weather – who would? – but by nature I’m an enthusiastic sort of person; I get excited by new ideas and grand projects.

The spiritual abscess came to a head and burst as I listened to a radio programme about COP 26 at lunchtime. The crisis we’re facing, the (carefully chosen) experts seemed to be saying, is no less soluble than any other technological challenge. A few bright scientists and engineers and a pile of state investment eagerly swallowed up by declining industries, will save the earth in the blink of an eye. Money, technology and investment opportunities will ride over the hill like the Seventh Cavalry and save the earth. The earth herself was never mentioned, so excited were the prospective saviours.

I was re-reading Ann Pettifor’s “The case for the green new deal” this morning and in her introductory section she makes the sensible but challenging observation that

At the same time , environmentalists have treated the ecosystem for too long as almost independent of the dominant economic system based on deregulated, globalized finance

But it’s worse than that, I think. Those of us who are concerned for the future of the earth all too often hitch our hopes on to one specialised aspect of the problem – change our diets, regenerative farming, end animal cruelty, save the trees and campaign furiously and largely ineffectively for our tiny corner of the problem. And if you say to me – ‘well you do pretty much the same, going on about allotments and moths and buying one or two things from the local farmers market’ – I’d have to plead guilty as charged. In my moments of enthusiasm I can half convince myself that the Potwell Inn allotment is part of a movement that’s saving the earth – as I once read – “one cabbage at a time”. Change can seem almost more attractive from the bottom up – especially when you’re governed by those wholly owned servants of finance and industry, known in this country as members of parliament. But, like the unhelpful advice that if we were going to get to zero carbon we wouldn’t want to start from here, there isn’t time to row back to a more propitious starting point. There’s so much at stake I could weep with frustration when I read that the Department of the Environment’s best advice is to fill some more sandbags and put the chairs on the table when it rains; or that Boris Johnson is pouring yet more money into nuclear power stations that take decades to design and build and aeons to make safe afterwards.

While I long for the day that the last feedlot shuts down and Bayer/Monsanto go bankrupt because no-one wants their filth any more; that’s never going to happen by tinkering around with a few regulations. The action that’s needed is both dramatic and quite frightening, and it involves a fundamental change in our culture, our politics, our food chains, our transport and above all the economic power of transnational finance. Anything less than such a fundamental change will fail.

Now I know how to grow carrots and lettuce; I can cook, bake bread, pickle and preserve along with the best of them. I can shop locally and walk whenever I can’t use public transport, and more; but I don’t think that entitles me to feel complacent or virtuous. The bare minimum level of citizenship is to live as ethically as the system allows, to invest our savings (if there are any) in areas that can change the future for the better, and to get sufficiently involved in this fragile democracy to compel governments to get green or get out! It’s an overwhelming agenda.

So that’s why I’m feeling flat – because I don’t know much about international finance except that it doesn’t care if thousands of people starve so long as the money rolls in. I would love to be able to suggest that another million allotmenteers could save the earth, and I truly believe that the more people grow their own food the better they’ll understand the fact that all life comes from the sun and the earth; and every leaf and blade of grass is a miraculously efficient solar panel.

Should I worry that perhaps some who’ve struggled through this jeremiad might think I’m over egging the problem? – that readers might drift away and look for comfort from more carroty bloggers? But that’s not me. I lament every single reader who pulls the plug on me but, at the end of the day – and we’re terrifyingly close to it – if we don’t embrace the challenge – things will get worse – so much worse!

Shelling the borlotti

It was a bit of a culture shock coming home from Snowdonia for sure. As the fortnight drew to an end and the weather continued cold wet and windy, notwithstanding the forecast of unseasonably hot weather almost everywhere except where we were. But more than that, we were missing the allotment and worrying about our winter sowings in the polytunnel and all the usual autumn jobs still needing to be done. The plus side of a rainy holiday is the amount of rest and reading we were able to do without feeling that we should be somewhere else – like on the allotment!

The first frosts of autumn are almost impossible to predict and so we prepare for them around the second week of October just in case. Knowing that the basil wouldn’t survive we took most of the outside plants to the compost heap, knowing that we’d got a reliable supply of pesto in the freezer. The best of the tomatoes were processed before we left, but today we shelled and dried the borlotti and, because we were proposing to treat them for any lurking weevils by heating them to 60 C for two or three hours I grabbed a bowlful of wrinkled tomato runts and shoved them in the oven at the same time so they can be dried to a still moist consistency and packed into olive oil. It seems a crime to waste anything; but sometimes we get properly caught out. Last year, determined not to waste a single iota of vegetable waste , we chucked all the extracted seeds from the passata machine into the compost. A year on as we spread the compost on the tunnel beds we had a magnificent flush of tomato seedlings within days.

We’d never had an infestation of bean weevil before, but last year’s saved seed was somehow completely infested and had to be thrown away. This is a bit of a conundrum which I’m quite sure the commercial seed merchants solve by fumigating the seed – but we don’t have the means or the desire to do that so it would be good to know how to kill the weevil eggs organically. This year because of the odd weather we decided to dry the whole crop, but I might hold back a handful of seeds to see if they’ll still germinate after heat treatment. I’m not holding my breath.

Autumn has a whole set of compulsions of its own. Even as I’m writing this there’s a big pan of leek and potato soup on the stove, next to a sourdough loaf that was started yesterday, plus the aromatic perfume of the drying tomatoes. Yesterday I was desperate to make a pie, and we feasted on our own French beans, broccoli and carrots along with (vegetarians please look away now!) using my mother’s recipe for a shortcrust pie (25% butter and 25% lard and 50% plain flour), that uses no flavourings at all apart from stock, salt and pepper. It’s the very essence of my autumn memories. My sister still makes exactly the same pie to the same recipe.

Allotmenteering or any other kind of gardening never quite feels like the glossy magazines describe it. Casually describing it as therapeutic hardly covers the gamut of emotions that it induces – it’s hero to zero and back again every season, even every week in our case. Nobody who’s ever been in therapy, made a pot and fired it, painted a watercolour or written at length would ever call any of them therapeutic except for the way they teach you how to ride the punches, celebrate the fleeting triumphs and do the essential work whether or not you feel like it. As for me I’d never do anything except by the grace of deadlines; and so we’ll sow more rouge d’hiver lettuces this week because if we don’t there may be no lettuce, or spinach or whatever next year. No food for you Mr Smarty Pants! We’ll also sow some Christmas potatoes to grow on in the polytunnel.

Part of the autumn compulsion will be, I know, the urge to sow broad beans – aquadulce claudia overwinter very well – usually; and this year the young plants, instead of tillering obediently and bringing in an early harvest of delicious beans, suffered from a month of cold east winds and passed away before flowering. This year we’ll give the early sowing a miss and start again in March which will, of course, ensure a balmy spring with record crops of early broad beans.

What certainly will be going in is some garlic. A good deal of the holiday reading was taken up with getting my head around epigenetics. The basic DNA – the genetic material of a plant which determines its general form; doesn’t change aside from mutations. However, apparently different genes can be switched on and off by all sorts of environmental factors – and this is one possible reason for the fact that seed saving of successful crops can lead to better results (on your unique patch of earth) – than expensive commercial varieties because the starting variety gradually adapts from year to year. Anyway, the upshot of this is that this year we’ve selected the best of this year’s garlic crop which we’ll replant tomorrow. We had them netted all last season so there was no trace of fly damage but some of the plants suffered from basal plate rot where the selected seed cloves didn’t. We’ll label these athletes carefully and grow them alongside what we South Gloucestershire peasants like to call boughten seed. Six years of being told off at school for using that dialect term showed it was a surefire way of annoying teachers who thought educating us involved severing all our roots. We shall do a properly scientific comparison next year and onwards to see if any of these epigenetic changes occur: so long as the plants don’t get sicklier and sicklier.

Finally, here’s a photo of a stranger who dropped in for a rest and a warm up on one of our fence posts today. It’s a common plume moth that’s apparently mainly a night flyer. When I first saw it a thought it must be a lacewing but it wasn’t. One of its endearing habits is to roll its wings up like a brolly when it’s resting. But it’s most endearing habit of all is that it lays its eggs on the bindweed which its caterpillars like to eat. We have an abundance of the foodplant lurking on the edges of the allotment silently waiting for the moment to tunnel in under the fence. I had a word with the little moth and she promised to come back mob handed with her mates next week.

Port Diddly Eye – according to Mrs Malaprop.

We first came to Porth Dinllaen because we’d seen the place on a TV programme and we thought it looked beautiful – particularly the pub on the beach – Ty Coch Inn (the Cock Inn) once rated the best beach pub in the UK, seemed almost too good to be true; set at the end of a sweeping bay from which on a clear day you can see Holyhead on Anglesey from one end, and the peak of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) from the lifeboat station at the other end.

So today we took a walk from the car park in Morfa Nefyn down and along the beach, past the pub and the lifeboat station back to the car park. I haven’t been wearing my field botany hat very much this time, because the weather’s been so awful and we’ve only been able to grab quick walks in the teeth of the gales and rain. However yesterday’s cold and wet northwesterly has disappeared and a ridge of high pressure gave us a couple of hours of sunshine during the morning. And as we walked around the path from the pub to the lifeboat station a little blue flower caught Madame’s eye and she pointed it out to me. It was a bit of a puzzle because it had a borage like flower but the same kind of leaves as a bristly oxtongue. So I stopped and took some photos and brought them back to the cottage to identify. Here’s a photo.

It’s not the least bit rare, but that didn’t diminish the pleasure of finding it at all. It’s an annual bugloss – Anchusa arvensis – the name suggests it’s a field dweller, which it often is. The last one I saw was way down the coast in a field near St Davids; so it also has a taste for seaside and sandy soils. Interestingly I discovered that the French call it oxtongue, langue de boeuf, and the name bugloss comes from a couple of Greek words that mean exactly the same. We’ve already got a bristly ox tongue in the UK so the case for Latin names was never better made!

Anyway I couldn’t have been more pleased if I’d found a ghost orchid. Botanising isn’t just about rarity; for me it’s about getting to know my neighbours by name. Then later I picked up Fred Provenza’s book “Nourishment” which (in chapter 2) talks about the biochemical intelligence of plants and their role in nutrition. Awesome stuff. I began to feel pieces of a puzzle dropping into place in my mind. Field botany, herbal medicine, agriculture, human diet, deficiencies and so much more all in the same mind map for the first time in my experience. Happy daze!

Digging the dirt – could do better

No doubt this derelict shack will be appearing on AirBnb sometime soon but all that glitters is not gold.

There’s a huge difference between running cattle and sheep on 5000 hectares (12,300 acres) and growing vegetables on an allotment; but the starting point is exactly the same – earth.

Having allowed my imagination to run free in the last couple of posts, it’s time to get back down to some allotment basics – after all, one of my principal aims for this holiday was to get stuck into some serious reading about regenerative farming. I certainly got stuck at first but switched course and now I’m beginning to think that I ought to make a proper list of the books I’ve been reading so readers can join me in the journey. I’ve now just about finished reading Gabe Brown’s “Dirt into soil” and although it’s hardly aimed at our 200 square metres of allotment and is really slanted towards mixed farming with grazing animals, it cleared up a few mysteries for me and turned my thoughts about soil improvement completely upside down. It’s also given me a much clearer perspective on what is, and what isn’t regenerative farming and since our UK government is talking the talk about changing agricultural practices it’s up to us to make sure they’re also walking the walk. After all for a government that announces it’s going to move towards carbon zero and then announces it’s considering opening a new coal mine – followed by the assertion that we’ll need more nuclear power stations – this isn’t an encouraging start.

Until now I’ve always thought of soil improvement as largely a matter of adding lots and lots of compost. We started off committed to organic gardening and then, a couple of years ago we went no-dig as well. This last season we grew a variety of insect pollinators and companion plants alongside the vegetables in all our beds, and it’s gone well – and with the pond we’ve had vastly more visiting insects. Of course we’ve changed so many variables and the weather has been so random, we’ve only got anecdotal evidence that our changes have worked but we’re pretty sure that the following strategies worked:

  • Netting all the alliums from sowing to harvest with fine insect net
  • Using nasturtium to draw blackfly away from food crops
  • Sowing Calendula and Tagetes on most beds
  • Butterfly and bird netting all the brassicas

Sadly the expensive treatment with nematodes had little impact on the slugs, and the beer traps sheltered more slugs underneath than drowned in the beer.

The asparagus was spared the heavy beetle attacks that we’ve had in the past, and given that our near neighbour had his plants devastated it looks as if the border of calendula and the increased parasitic insect population may have helped. I’ve written a lot about our liability to waterlog in the winter – partly due to underground streams. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort digging woodchip filled paths between the beds to drain the water away and the two worst affected beds came through the winter very well. We’ve also added grit and sand in the worst places along with masses of compost and leaf mould. The upshot has been that our need to water in dry spells has greatly decreased. We escaped the blight with resistant varieties and early cropping of the container potatoes so, looking back it’s been a pretty successful season most of which was spent battling against a headwind of adverse weather.

If you’re still with me, you’ll have noticed that every single effort to improve our earth has been via applications to the top surface. What the Gabe Brown book – and all the others I’ve been reading – brought to the top of my thoughts was to see what’s going on under the surface, and the usefulness of ground cover crops during the winter, so that the plants go on feeding the soil through their roots all year round. And there’s the revolution, because most of us instinctively think of plants as a kind of one way street for water and nutrients when in fact they’re completely biologically interlocked with billions of soil organisms which, in return for carbon in the form of photosynthesised sugars, provide the plants with many of the micronutrients they need to grow and thrive. All this mutual aid is conducted through the truly huge mycorrhizal networks that wrap the roots and occasionally even grow inside them. Plants send signals seeking specific nutrients and the fungal networks ship them in. The astonishing discoveries of science now tell us that the creation of soil can be much faster than we originally thought and that in contrast to the received wisdom that everything goes on from above, soil creation is as much concerned with the recovery of nutrients from the subsoil. Soil can actually grow from below. This is a vast simplification but it has big implications for the way we grow plants, because these networks – having evolved over millions of years – mean that we can no longer think of what goes on underground as separate from the plant we harvest. Soil microbes have the astonishing ability to break down subsoil and rock and dissolve the essential nutrients in a way that’s barely understood. We need to start seeing our crops as giant solar energy farms, converting carbon dioxide into food through the process of photosynthesis.

So when we add artificial fertilisers to a crop the plants just grab up the 25% of the fertiliser they can use and the rest goes into the soil and gets washed into our polluted rivers. Worse still, the plants get lazy and just go for the industrialised fast food and the sugar/carbon trading mechanisms get broken. When we drench the soil with insecticides and herbicides exactly the same thing happens. Industrial farmers and gardeners then start to try to make up the deficiencies with more additives and chemicals. The other way we break those mycorrhizal connections is by digging and turning the soil, and these relationships are precisely the mechanism by which carbon gets stored in the earth.

So farmers, gardeners and allotmenteers, not to mention every other human being on earth have a common cause in not ploughing, tilling and digging; not using artificial fertilisers and not using chemicals. What ought to be the good news for farmers in particular is that chemicals and diesel oil are increasingly expensive and eat into profit margins – plus, the premium value of the produce from regenerative farms means better profits. What’s not to like?

Here’s the downside. It looks as if the agrochemical business and their captive bureaucrats in the Ministry of Agriculture are greenwashing as usual in pushing no-till, direct drilling supplemented by – you’ve guessed it – herbicides to kill weeds, plus the usual pesticides and fungicides which will do nothing to solve our problems. There is another way, for instance, to suppress weeds and reduce rainwater runoff, and that’s carefully calibrated cover crops.

But it’s not all good news for vegetarians and especially vegans because the very best and most efficient way of improving the soil is by doing (or not doing) all of the above plus carefully controlled grazing – sometimes known as mob grazing. This kind of approach can capture carbon in the soil far more efficiently and more quickly than by planting trees alone. Further – and I know what question will be next – controlled grazing on healthy soil means that dung, a potent source of methane when stored in lagoons and sprayed on the soil later – is quickly broken down by prodigious numbers of insects and soil organisms and feeding the soil. Not only that, by feeding cattle on their evolved diet of grass and forbs rather than industrial grain, their digestive systems function far better and the need for constant worming and antibiotics almost disappears. Meat will, of course, become much more expensive, (perhaps more realistically priced) which should please everyone with a concern for animal welfare.

Of course this won’t make catastrophic climate change go away – we’ll still have to break our addiction to oil in every other department of life – but farmers, allotmenteers and gardeners can at least do something to help, and everyone can help by supporting change, buying better rather than blaming farmers and growers and calling out politicians when they try to pull the wool over our eyes.

In a nutshell? I can’t fit myself into a nutshell (and neither should you!)

We were sitting in the pub one night with a bunch of friends, and somehow or another the subject got around to Martin Heidegger – once commemorated in a satirical poem as “..that pellucid Teuton.” You get the picture I’m sure. Some continental philosophers are a bit impenetrable and always irritated the hell out of the English school who preferred Dr Johnson’s stone kicking method. Anyway, the point is, one of my friends called Andy – who shall remain nameless asked me “In a nutshell …. what’s this Heidegger man on about?” I’m still looking for the big nutshell.

So today we were walking along the beach at Aberdaron beneath St Hywyn’s church where R S Thomas was once vicar and which was the setting for one of his most famous poems “The Moon in Lleyn” which I wrote about a couple of days ago. As we walked along the sand, I was wondering whether the poem, as well as including a reference to W B Yeats, also included a glancing reference to Matthew Arnold’s poem “On Dover Beach” – which uses the metaphor of the retreating tide to reference the “melancholy soft withdrawing roar” of faith. Three poems, all obliquely referring to the terrible loss of enchantment we’ve suffered in the past hundred and fifty years. Materialism is a poor deal, really, because it exchanges dreams meanings and visions for money – usually peanuts to be honest.

Taking a bit of a leap of faith myself, I have often wondered whether we are drawn to the sound of the sea’s roaring and the rhythmic pulse of the steam engine for the same reason. Perhaps at some deep level they remind us of the sounds of our time in the ocean of our mother’s’ womb. The sea sounds, from gentle lapping to menacing roar never make us laugh or fill us with happy thoughts but associate more readily with loss; of times missed.

Now that’s a lot of pondering in fifty yards whilst simultaneously holding a conversation – but that’s the way of it. Conscious human life can’t be put in a nutshell because it’s just too big; and my attention soon switched to a couple of large rocks half buried in the sand just as Madame began picking pebbles off the beach.

It isn’t a particularly beautiful beach because the cliffs comprise deep banks of eroding mud which are being sculpted by wind, tide and rain into shapes that might be more familiar in the desert. The pebbles, as you can see, are wonderfully colourful – but why so colourful? Putting on (yet) another hat I could see that of the two large half buried rocks, one greenish and the other markedly purple – must contain copper (green) and manganese (purple). We know that minerals and semi precious stones were mined all over the peninsula and particularly we know that among them was serpentine. Serpentine, being colourful and soft enough to turn in a metal lathe was enormously popular in the first half of last century and as late as the 1970’s there were half a dozen wooden shacks on the Lizard in Cornwall where you could buy a little lighthouse complete with a battery powered bulb at the top.

Only a couple of days ago I showed a photo of the remnant of one of the manganese mines at Rhiw. To a potter, manganese iron and copper are familiar glaze pigments. Copper is particularly versatile because depending on the glaze ingredients, temperature and atmosphere inside the kiln it can yield colours from the intense turquoise of Egyption paste through the more common greens all the way to the fabulously beautiful but very difficult to achieve red colour known as sang de boeuf to collectors of Chinese ceramics. Manganese and iron too can yield a whole palette of colours. So the thought came to mind on the beach – where do the red pebbles fit in? Serpentine is almost always thought of as green, but I’ve seen exactly the kind of red pebbles we were finding, described as red serpentine. Who knows? the processes that formed these pebbles were geologic and volcanic, involving prodigious pressures and temperatures and what emerges is something that combines usefulness with beauty. We have usefulness and contemplation in the same object. Are the red pebbles nature’s original expression of sang de boeuf?

These are big thoughts – of an earth where fungi and algae had yet to join forces and bacteria were all alone in the world. And here on the beach today we could see the world in a grain of sand as Blake promised in Auguries of innocence. The earth is not an object, it’s a story – or perhaps better, a song in which we are all sung into existence. History, geology, chemistry, poetry and storytelling, poetry and gardening and all the rest are not separate disciplines but lines in a gigantic performance of something like Tallis’ Spem in alium but with so many more parts that we can truly call it the Song of the Earth.

So I can’t fit myself into a nutshell and neither should you. Allowing ourselves to be categorised and slotted into CV’s drains the imaginative life out of us. If I want to read, or write poems, draw and paint, make ceramics and grow plants; cook food and rage against the dying of the light, and dare to challenge the way we do things round here – then I will. And if I want to sing and dance around and get over excited about a wildflower or act with Madame as if we were 18 all over again and in the first flush of love, then I will not tolerate being ordered to act my age. And if my passions for books and theories and ideas and spiritualities look as if I’m spreading myself too thinly just take a look at how thinly the scholars spread themselves.

Because – there is no nutshell. We flow into one another and into the earth. Being human is the most lovely gift; so long as we cherish it.

Meanwhile, back in the real world

A marvellous piece of lettering by Welsh artist Jonah Jones, seen at an exhibition of his work at Oriel Plas Glyn y Weddw, Llanbedrog in March 2019

The good thing about coming away to this beautiful place to walk, read and try to put together all my thoughts in words is space; sheer space to expand into, free from distractions and chores. The bad thing about it could almost be the same sentence. There’s a point at which the way forward becomes so problematic a kind of paralysis sets in. The remedy, in this instance is to accept that the Jacques Ellul book I’ve been struggling with is not going to help, because its source materials and analysis are now sixty years out of date . Magnetic North moves about by a good bit and trying to find your way to the pole (no pun intended) without the right correction isn’t likely to end happily.

What exactly is the real world anyway? I sometimes wonder, since it seems to be a contested area of knowledge at the moment; but anyway I’ve forsworn any philosophy in this brief post and I’ll talk about the weather in the most descriptive and non blaming way I can manage.

The fierce south westerly gales haven’t given over for days and in the cottage the chimney roars, the vents flap and the occasional sheets of rain hammer at the windows. It’s all very cosy until, as we did this morning, you get a power cut. Yesterday’s photos of the beach at Porth Neigwl missed a couple of shots that would have needed a telephoto lens which in our case we have not got because it’s at the bottom of a bog on Mendip. Apparently there are exceptionally rare mason bees in the dunes there, except I’m not sufficiently experienced as an entomologist to recognise them. But on our way back down the narrow road we spotted around 30 curlew feeding on the marsh – enough to gladden anyone’s heart. When I say this place is a birders’ paradise I’m not exaggerating. Something else worth noting is the light. The good citizens of St Ives in Cornwall like to claim that their light is brighter and more clear than anywhere else on earth. Obviously they would say that because it keeps the artists rolling in; but the light here is equally if not more pure and luminous and it’s so much quieter. The south westerlies rattle the cold fronts across, and each time the rain is followed by glorious movements of intense light that bless the landscape, caressing and intensifying the autumn colours and leaving the artist in us joyfully mystified as to how it could ever be expressed.

Tomorrow morning at the crack of eight o’clock we’re off to Porthmadog to catch the wonderful Welsh Highland Railway up through the Snowdon range to Caernarfon and back. Last time we made the trip in brilliant weather but tomorrow’s forecast is makes grim reading with 20mm rain expected and 50 mph gusts of wind. In normal times you can wander about and get a very good Welsh rarebit from the buffet car but because of covid we’ll be locked into our perspex divided carriages and probably see almost nothing except rain and mist for the whole journey. It’s the last trip if the year so expect it will be crowded with steam train enthusiasts who may not have noticed that we’ll be taken across the hills by a diesel locomotive tomorrow. In the absence of any food from the buffet I’ve ordered a couple of hampers – which each contain a small bottle of prosecco, and so we’ll celebrate the autumn like a couple of budget class swells.

I’m sorry there are so many Welsh sounding names in these posts but Wales is a country with its own precious language. Luckily, Welsh is a completely phonetic language and so once you’ve learned the basics it’s pretty straightforward. The stress usually comes in the penultimate syllable. The only one I haven’t used is the proper name for Snowdon which is Yr Wyddfa which looks unapproachable but sounds like uhr-with-va. Welsh is the queen of languages and I’ve always wanted to learn to speak it properly but haven’t had the chance or anyone to practice with. Anyway it’s a courtesy to the people who cherish their language to be able to ask for directions, sounding as if at least you care.

* “But a voice sounds in my ear. Why so fast, mortal?”

The moon rising over the apple trees behind our borrowed cottage in Lleyn

Full marks if you already know the title and author of the quotation at the top of this post. RS Thomas of course; poet and once parish priest of Aberdaron, just down the road from here. Sometimes when I feel completely dry and empty from too much reading and too many hopes squandered by politicians, RS is the one I turn to because he was one of the few poets who dared to stay in that mindspace and wrestle a blessing from it.

Coming back yesterday from our apple scrumping expedition we drank cider and sat peacefully in the sunshine, looking westwards towards Ireland. I’d struggled through the first 100 pages of Jacques Ellul’s “The Technological Society” and I was finding it difficult to see a way forward beyond his gloomy picture of a technological future that seemed to grow like a tumour; vascularizing and metastasizing until the life systems of the earth collapse. Are all the greener, more regenerative alternatives I’ve been happy to read about really just distractions from the only show in town?

We may quote here Jacques Soustelle’s well-known remark of May, 1960, in reference to the atomic bomb. It expresses the deep feeling of us all: “Since it was possible, it was necessary.” Really a master phrase for all technical evolution

Quoted in “The Technological Society”

So that Syngenta factory in Huddersfield that we drove past three years ago, and which produces Paraquat to sell in only in the developing world because it’s banned here – is it there by virtue of some iron law of technological development? How do I know what they make there? Because of a case in the High court in which they were fined £200,000 for a leak amounting to three and a half tons of the deadly stuff. How do I know what it does? Because a friend from art school committed suicide with it, and also I was once called to the bedside of a woman in hospital who was lucid and just about conscious and waiting for her organs to fatally break down. She was sedated but the nurses were in pieces.

Ellul seemed to think it was a logical error to suppose that any individual could alter the course of technological development but history has challenged his pessimistic view. In fact paraquat was responsible for so many deaths, both deliberate and accidental that it was banned across the developed world. That it’s still being made in Huddersfield is due to the continued sale of the weed killer in the developing world where, lacking regulation and safety precautions, the company wilfully allows the sale of a mortally dangerous compound. That’s no kind of iron law of technological development but a sign of corporate greed and moral failure at the same level as arms manufacturers who absolve themself from any responsibility for the use of their products to kill and maim. Printing a warning not to ingest a product on the side of a large container that will almost certainly be broken down into unmarked bottles is of no help to a semi-literate subsistence farmer.

Sixty years on from the publication of Ellul’s book we’ve experienced decades of economic growth, and nuclear weapons are way down the list of most peoples’ preoccupations. What bothers us since the Berlin wall came down is that the iron laws of history turned out to be no such thing, and the iron laws of economics have left most of us wondering what all that economic growth has actually brought us in terms of human happiness; and why is there always an enemy worth fighting a war against. And of course, now the earth’s vital systems are closing down; fatally poisoned. But only technology remains untouchable; the shape-shifting beast of the apocalypse like the one with the body of a lion and the head of a man that *Yeats saw in his vision and *RS Thomas mentions: ” …. [whose] hour come round at last,  slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Well, not so fast! RS says to himself, and weighs the power of the religious past against the power of the “spiritus mundi” – the consciousness, the culture, the spirit of the age. Are we that much in the thrall and power of a technology that watches our every move, predicts and shapes the choices we make to steer us away from dangerously insurrectionary thoughts. Do we really love that technology which impoverishes our lives and takes away jobs without the least scruple and sends the victims to the food banks. Do we really love the technology that feeds us with industrialised food that makes us sick and obese and then blames us. Do we really love the technology that disseminates lies at the speed of light and corrupts democracy. And when we talk about freedom isn’t it usually the trivial kind of freedom to choose between a dozen identical small objects of desire in a supermarket? If it looks like a turd and smells like a turd it probably is a turd and sprinkling a few sparkles on it won’t change its nature.

Of course technology’s principal beneficiaries would like us to believe that there is no alternative, but we’ve seen organic farming and gardening grow and grow. We’ve seen rewilding schemes demonstrating that life without chemicals is possible. We’ve seen regenerative farming gain serious support at government level. We’ve seen the power of vegetarians and vegans to force change in the offer of the food industry. We’ve seen the extraordinary growth of awareness of the coming linked crises of economic collapse, global climatic disaster and the mass extinction of pollinating insects. More particularly we’ve seen how nervous the industrial food complex and the agrochemical industry have become; spending millions on disputing with and then and trashing scientists who challenge their autonomy; funding fake experiments with fake results and spending more millions on lobbyists to bypass the science altogether and knobble the politicians directly.

Why shouldn’t it be true that the writing is on the wall and they know it. All epochal changes or paradigm shifts are like one economist described going bankrupt – it’s very very slow and then it’s very fast.

So now’s the time to hold fast.

And if you’ve stayed with me all these thousand or so words here’s a picture taken today at Porth Neigwl in the teeth of a south westerly gale and sheeting rain at times. Known in English as Hell’s Mouth the wide bay is the scene of innumerable shipwrecks; and reading the information board today I discovered an ironic reference to the fact that a small schooner named The Twelve Apostles was beached and completely wrecked by a fierce storm. Luckily the crew all survived. The problem is that there’s no escape from a southwesterly gale and so the ships – and there were many of them – were inexorably blown in to their doom. Can’t think of a better image of a paradigm shift!

* The WB Yeats poem that I refer to is “The Second Coming”; and RS Thomas wrote the equally marvellous poem “The Moon in Lleyn”.

Seek no further, pig’s snout but sadly no goose arse

We haven’t had such a rewarding hour of apple scrumping in years – I mean, catalogues are one thing but an actual orchard full of native Welsh apple varieties, ripe on their trees – well, what would any apple lover do? After photographing and sampling as many as we dared we wandered off – all innocence – with our pockets bulging and our minds singing with the intense flavours. At one point I found Madame sitting on a bench crunching on a variety with no label and joyfully transported to the times she used to work in a research station orchard.

If you’ve grown tired of supermarket apples; bland and oversweet for the most part, these native Welsh apples might be worth considering – but you’d have to grow them yourself or perhaps better still start a community orchard where you could grow loads of apples; eaters, cookers, dual purpose and cider apples with delightful and eccentric names. The thing about apples is that they’re promiscuous inter breeders and only very rarely come true from seed because pollinating insects travel from tree to tree carrying pollen from many different varieties. The downside is that they’re quite likely to produce inferior stock, but when a really lovely variety comes along they develop a strong local reputation and they’re very easy to grow by grafting a cutting on to a rootstock, and then every grafted tree is a clone of the mother stock. So if you’re not confident enough to do it yourself, there are specialist nurseries that will do the work for you. I just Googled “Welsh apple variety breeders uk” and loads came up. The next task is to choose a suitable rootstock which will determine the final size of the tree, and this is where you’d need to take some professional advice. For allotmenteers like us, cordons on dwarfing rootstock allow us to grow 10 varieties on our 200 square metre plot. All the rootstocks come with the letter M followed by a number. The M stands for East Malling – the research station in Kent that developed them and the number refers to the final size and habit.

The thing about apples is that they are often at their very best eaten straight from the tree, and there are so many seasonal varieties you could eat them in prime condition through early summer until autumn. Some will keep if stored carefully, and supermarkets have them stored in controlled atmospheric conditions – they’re the ones you buy in February, March and April – but they’re a shadow of the real thing.

The only thing I would add is that you shouldn’t be seduced by the romantic names and the rare designation. Most of these local varieties are habituated to extremely local conditions and what may grow well on Bardsey Island may not enjoy the milder conditions in Kent. The best thing to do would be to investigate the local varieties where you live. Our friends Kate and Nick whose smallholding is fairly high in the Brecon Beacons are growing a selection of Welsh apples at what must be near their altitude limit. The Potwell Inn in North Somerset can boast the “Beauty of Bath” and a little further north in Gloucestershire there are many local varieties straddling orchards along the River Severn. Here are a few more we sampled today:

But why are these varieties becoming so rare? Sadly many of them would be regarded as misshapen in this age of uniformity. They don’t give themselves to having all the flavour bred out of them in favour of the high yield and bombproof portability that commercial growers and supermarkets demand. Some of them are effectively biennials, and all of them can lose an entire crop if frost strikes the blossom. But when they come right they’re truly, memorably delicious and if you can only have them for a couple of weeks – does that stop you growing asparagus?

There’s something about industrial agriculture and horticulture that’s profoundly unnatural. Tell me something I don’t know – you might be thinking. Our unreconstructed 21st century view instinctively leads us to think that all our efforts in scientific breeding and selection move us in the direction of the perfect – whatever; apple, cabbage, pig even. But in a nature’s way – which is a profoundly counterintuitive way – the response to the multitude of soils and climates we have is to breed for diversity. Diversity is nature’s way of overcoming difficulties and exploiting new opportunities.

That’s precisely why we should keep a wary eye on the monopolistic instincts of the big seed companies like Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta who are buying up huge numbers of seed varieties and taking them off the market to conduct moneymaking breeding experiments on their resistance to chemical sprays and artificial fertilisers. The next stage will be to hold us to ransom and force us to buy their patented seeds. Following up, my query about Amish farming methods yesterday I did a bit more research and quickly discovered that the publisher of the paper that claimed that Amish farmers were enthusiastic users of chemicals was a pseudo research front organisation funded at the time of publication by Monsanto. I went a bit further and discovered that the agrochemical industries spend millions of pounds supporting compromised research, dodgy publications and lobbyists. Here’s a link with further information.

The terrible truth is, in the face of the coming climate catastrophe, farmers, growers and gardeners will need to be drawing on the wisdom of the earth in providing us with so many adapted local varieties. Winds, cold and drought and changing seasons will demand new adapted varieties, many of which are being covertly put beyond our reach. I was astounded that big business employs 30,000 yes – thirty thousand – lobbyists in Brussels alone; using their money and power to influence parliaments. If you read the evidence you’ll be more than angry. Saving locally adapted seeds may be one step in the direction of saving the planet.

Just look at the size of the foundation stones in this wall!
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