Muck, but no mystery!

….. and suddenly, at last, the sun shone, the rain stopped and were able to get out on to the allotment.  In spite of the cold wind we took a chance on filling the hotbed, and so we drove over to one of my old parishes to sack up and bring back the first of two car loads of fresh, hot, horse manure. Most gardeners want the well rotted kind but for this purpose we need about twenty bags of strawy stable manure as fresh as possible.  Last year being the first time we’d tried this technique we asked my friend Annie to keep out as much straw as possible, but that proved a bit of a mistake because the bacteria that heat the heap don’t just need nitrogen they need carbon too – and that’s what the straw provides.  The theory is that this mixture will heat the bed quicker and hotter – but we shall see.  Our car is quite small and even with the seats down it’s difficult to get more than 10 full bags in at a time.

So as each bag was tipped into the deep frame – it’s a spade depth below ground level – we trod it firm and watered it.  We continue that process of topping, firming and watering until the heap is around 3 feet deep, and once it’s started to heat up we cover the manure with a home made mixture of topsoil, well rotted compost and horticultural sand.  This not only gives a good well drained bed for sowing, at the end of the season the whole lot of soil, compost, sand and manure go back on to the beds – about a cubic metre of it.  It’s most useful where we’ve terraced the beds, and every year we’re able to raise them a little more. Since our cold frames were stolen the hotbed will take over the work of germinating and bringing on early tender plants.

It’s amazing what a pleasurable experience a few hours of hard physical work can be after months of moping about indoors.  Annie was saying that they’ve been unable to let the horses out even for a taste of grass because the land is so wet.  As we drove across Lansdown on Friday we saw a herd of cows grazing on the few shreds of grass that have survived the wettest winter in memory.  When I mentioned it to Annie she said “he probably ran out of silage – he must have been desperate”. Desperate or not they were back indoors again today but that’s a measure of how hard this winter has hit farmers.

I read a lot about the impact of farming on climate change and so much of it is almost sectarian in its hatred of any opposing opinions. As we were filling the bags today, I was thinking about the way in which these small farms of a few hundred acres are maligned when they’re lumped together with enormous feedlots which really do create problems. Our half ton of manure is produced by horses which aren’t ruminants and don’t make the same methane contribution as cattle do. It’s a rich source of soil nutrients and helps to build up soil structure while it captures carbon in the process.  We use the soil to grow healthy organic food in a completely sustainable way.  After we’re gone the soil will be in a much better state than when we took it on. There’s a kind of virtuous circle going on here.  All our veg trimmings are recycled back into the same ground, and we even use our own urine as a liquid fertilizer.  Good, small scale farming operates the same virtuous circle. Crops are grown, the soil is enriched and the animals are fed.  Our southwest UK climate favours grass above all else, and so dairy and beef farming are the obvious way of using the ground. Grass fed beef – that’s to say beef that’s not been fattened on a high protein diet of expensive soya and grain – is far superior to feedlot beef. Animals that are free to roam in natural herds outside in the fresh air and with the sun on their backs are not, on the face of it, being cruelly treated. Any old-school farmer will tell you that  stressed animals get sick more often and don’t make either good milk or fine tasting beef. The snag, and there’s always a snag, is that we can’t have it both ways. High welfare, grass fed organic beef is bound to cost much more money and for most of us that means eating a good deal less of it.  The same goes for almost any meat, whether chicken, pork or lamb, we simply can’t go on eating it in the quantities and at the price we’ve become used to, if we want to tackle global climate change. As for species extinction the same kind of argument applies.  The price of cheap food is always going to be pollution, widespread use of chemicals, soil erosion animal cruelty and agribusiness. But to blame all forms of farming without discriminating between more and less harmful practices is counterproductive. Just to give one example from coastal restoration, the choughs that are slowly reappearing on the western coasts are doing so because they feed on grubs that feed on cattle dung.  Free ranging cattle on the clifftops have enabled the reappearance of this charming and acrobatic member of the crow family. The dung is dropped by ruminants in small and manageable quantities and is quickly broken down. That’s a far cry from spreading vast volumes of evil smelling anaerobic liquid manure on the land where it quickly runs off and pollutes streams and rivers.

A less meat based diet would be better for us.  Farmers could experiment with tree planting their expanses of grass, a technique that looks very promising. The trend for ever larger fields monocropping feed maize could be phased out, as could the relentless removal of hedges to make space for bigger and heavier machinery.  Less could really be more; better for us, better for the wildlife and better for the planet. At the moment it’s the poorest people on the planet who are paying the true cost of cheap food. That could end, but not until we – farmers, growers and consumers alike – are prepared to make some sacrifices ourselves.

 

This is my happy place

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I’ve been feeling just a bit curmudgeonly this last few weeks – a combination of living in political chaos, fag end of winter blues, problems with the campervan, rising damp, reading too many books about climate change and wondering how on earth we’re going to sort this mess out.

I do have an antidote for it all  – and it’s getting back to the stove – making stock, baking bread, baking cakes, that sort of thing. I also notice that when I’m feeling a bit glum I also eat really badly, and suddenly, cakes, biscuits, toast made from white bread,  convenience food and general junk look endlessly fascinating, so getting back to the stove sorts that particular temptation out, well –  all except for the cakes. The other antidote, the one Madame favours, is sowing seeds, and so once again I’m sharing the kitchen with a busy propagator.

The last remedy is going through my photos and looking at all the lovely things I spotted last year – and that’s what I was doing when I found this photo, taken by Madame, of me skulking the cliff path at St Davids and making a list. That’s my waterproof notebook in my hand, my stick and my new hat and my old space pen, Swiss  army knife, X10 pocket magnifier in my pocket.  In the bag too is a copy of Rose, “Wildflower Key” and a couple of fold out keys for grasses and lichens. If you want to know what paradise looks like this is it – although possibly a less knobbly pair of legs would improve it a bit. I couldn’t be more happy than I am when I’m out in the sunshine amongst the plants and insects and birds.  Just a little way further down the path last autumn we picked enough wild mushrooms to make the best omelette I’ve ever tasted.

Oh and we’ve got miniature tulips flowering in the window boxes – along with the irises and daffodils – I think that’s quite mad but it’s true. The remnants of storm Ciara are still howling through, and looking out of the window just now, the sky had that yellowish hue that looks like sleet or snow on the way.  Our son just rang from Birmingham to say that it’s snowing hard there. These certainly are confusing times, but I try not to let it get to me too much. This week  we’ll go and collect a load of hot horse manure for the hotbed and in a couple of weeks we’ll be flat out again on the allotment.

 

No hiding place

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Well not for this group of overwintering snails in Cornwall. The ivy, behind which they had been dry and cosy, was stripped off by estate workers and they were oblivious to the danger they were in from the local birds – just a matter of time before they became a lucky break for a hungry predator. Our camping pitch was home for abundant numbers of very tame rooks and it was amazing to hear what a wide range of vocalisations they had – perched, as they were, only feet away from the campervan. I guess it’s just a matter of standing still for as long as it takes to fully engage with the natural world. I always feel a bit sorry for the runners and cyclists who treat the bridle paths as speedway tracks – they don’t know what they’re missing.

But not knowing what you’re missing has a darker side because when we depopulate our minds of the the ordinary everyday wildlife; or when we’ve never experienced the sheer fun of naming the plants and trees, we’re less likely to miss them when they’re not there any more, and in an age like our own, getting to know what’s there becomes a moral issue.

These days I seem to be reading more and more angry words, and I’m constantly being exhorted to give something or other up for the sake of the planet – and almost  always it’s couched in emotional terms. If I eat meat at all I must be in favour of animal suffering – but if I talk about veganism I’m a lentil headed moron.  Plastic ? no plastic? dig? no-dig? What to wear, where to take my holidays and how to get there, shop local  …… and so it goes on. And all this effort is towards saving the planet about which most of us know next to nothing. Is it any surprise that talk of a climate emergency or an ecological disaster has almost no impact on our behaviour. We don’t feel scared because we don’t quite know what it is we’re about to lose and in our (ideologically trained) hearts we still believe that we can all get richer and more productive because we’re the cleverest species who’ve ever lived on the earth and we always come out on top – don’t we?

So here’s a suggestion. Take a walk – it’s almost spring now so there are lots of plants about to burst into life – and name as many as you can.  This isn’t about spotting ghost orchids, it’s about the most ordinary things you’ve probably walked past thousands of times without paying attention. If you can’t walk far, check out a few pavement cracks and stone walls.  The most important part of this exercise is not to show off but to understand just how little we know about ordinary plants, living heroic lives against the onslaught of strimmers, chemicals, dogs pee, drought and storm. Spend a season discovering that coltsfoot, cats ear, hawkweed, hawkbit and all their relatives are not dandelions after all. Do some bird watching but don’t buy a fancy pair of binoculars, a bird book and drive to a reserve somewhere; stand and listen very quietly – what’s that bird outside the flat? – does it care about the noise of the traffic? Find a moth that looks exactly like a twig.  Let’s be even more contentious – what breed are those sheep? those cattle?

I promise that once you’ve made the resolution not to pass up on things you don’t recognise and can’t name, your life will change completely. You’ll never be lonely again because the plants you pass will be friends; you laboured to get to know their names and so they really matter.  You know pretty much where they live and when you’ll be able to catch up again next season – this is all about ordinary everyday things, not national rarities. The thing is, species disappear when we don’t know they’re there. Our grandchildren may never hear a cuckoo, and they’ll almost certainly never hear a nightingale – ordinary everyday birds that disappeared because of what we’re doing to the environment. Last summer we were driving along an absurdly exposed and narrow road in the Yorkshire Dales, almost on the border with Cumbria. We were accompanied for best part of half a mile by half a dozen lapwing flying directly in front of us like a red arrows display team. You don’t forget moments like that, and you’re far more likely to get involved when their very existence is threatened.

So don’t get despondent or confused about what we’re supposed to do in this unrecognised crisis – there’s plenty of advice out there and some of it is even sensible! Be cautious of evangelically inclined interest groups, lobbyists, commercial interests and all the rest but also give then a fair hearing, especially if you don’t agree with them.  The best way to conduct a campaign is to know your enemy better than they know themselves. Shouting drives people into their comfort zones but quiet persistence and empathy really can change peoples minds.  But above all, know what it is we’re trying to save – name it, treasure it – because it’s not an abstract concept we’re trying to defend, it’s family and household to us  – the only family and the only household we have. Love and hold the ordinary and everyday close to your heart, and the survival of the earth can be achievable.

How to survive the storm

00000portrait_00000_burst202002061251069241773228647307606034.jpgI get all sorts of odd news stories chosen for me by the Google algorithm, alongside invitations to join dating sites. I always pass on the ‘looking for love’ ones because I made it a rule of life never to inflame an appetite I’m not in a position to gratify.  It probably sounds glum but it’s kept me out of all sorts of trouble. 

The news selections that most often catch my eye are the ones that involve farming. I suppose the all-seeing-eye has noticed my occasional forays into the trade press – as I try to find out what farmers think.  Having spent 25 years working in rural parishes I think I know that they’re feeling very put-upon, depressed and aggrieved at they way they’re being treated. Yesterday there was a report on a farming conference in Tipperary where a speaker (a professor of public health) claimed that Irish farmers were not being given due credit for the amount of carbon being stored in hedges.  Hedges, he claimed, are more effective carbon sinks than trees. 

The farmers, unsurprisingly fell on this tasty morsel of good news with glee.  “Look”, they said, “you can hardly move for hedges on our farms, we’re saving the earth already – go and blame someone else”.  It didn’t take long before another speaker popped the bubble and pointed out that farmers are in any case still grubbing out hedges by the mile, and that there is no evidence – scientific evidence that is – that has established whether hedges do or don’t store more carbon. The audience promptly turned a bit sour on him and told him they’d had enough of experts and so they’d continue to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds.  

Hedges are a brilliant idea for all sorts of reasons – not least for wildlife – so I’m all in favour of them, but there’s really no way out of this crisis that will allow farming to carry on exactly as it has done since the last war. 

So I was reading this story and – for no obvious reason – Elizabeth Kubler Ross popped into my mind. I was once a devoted fan of Kubler Ross – to be honest, anything that offers any real help in dealing with the awful pain of bereavement feels worth a try when you’re working with grieving people.  My problem with it was that real people didn’t seem to progress through the stages in quite the orderly way the original training suggested. All my experience (I wasn’t alone by the way) suggested that the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance certainly all certainly happened during the process but had to be treated more as modes of grieving that could occur singly or simultaneously, and which could be returned to in any order, sometimes many times. There was rarely a lasting moment of acceptance first time around; for most people grief came in waves and flashbacks, and healing was slow and painful.

What’s this got to do with a farming conference in Tipperary? Well, I think that farmers are suffering from real grief. Yes I know that environmental protestors are suffering from grief as well, but grieving isn’t helped by favouring one groups’ suffering over another. Farmers across the UK have been feted for decades for producing cheaper and more plentiful food and now they find themselves treated as villains.  They’ve done exactly what was asked of them, sometimes against their better instincts. There’s only been one show in town, and that was intensive, chemically driven, labour reduced farming. Many thousands have gone to the wall but some have become wealthy on subsidies. Then suddenly it’s all over. The climate crisis is everywhere in the news, the farmers are being blamed although they’re only one part of the problem and with the changes in the subsidy system many marginal farms may collapse. A whole way of life is dying in front of us and all too often we environmentalists harden our hearts and instead of offering a hand of friendship we shout that the means are justified by the end, and imply that they deserve nothing better. 

Which takes me on to the protesters who are also grieving for a dying world and in consequence are also displaying symptoms of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance- and again, although not in that tidy order. 

I always found that Kubler Ross was most useful when I was able to say to people that all five stages were normal. What most people expect when they’re grieving is that they will be depressed – maybe for a long time – but that gradually things will get better. What they don’t expect is that one minute they’ll swear they misheard and actually the doctor said there was nothing to worry about, and in the next minute be angry and then paralysed with depression for days, or promise faithfully that they’ll give up smoking or whatever – this is all normal grieving behaviour.

img_20200206_130312272523812806147141.jpgSo appealing to the science, to the evidence, is logical but not necessarily sufficient to change things for the better. Presenting farmers with the evidence that their methods are damaging and expecting them to say “very well, I take your point and I’ll stop today” is way short of a viable solution. We must realize that many farmers are facing more than just the loss of income but also the complete loss of culture, the reversal of a lifetime’s history and memories not to mention hopes for the future. We were in Mevagissey yesterday and exactly the same crisis faces the fishermen in Cornwall – not simply the loss of their jobs but the death of their culture – it’s real grief, not stick-in-the-mud nimbyism. 

Which brings me to another two factors.  Firstly, for decades we’ve allowed the market to decide.  We’ve worshipped the market, made it the sole arbiter of worth and now we’re paying the price of our idolatry – because by definition the market has no morals; the market doesn’t care what happens to farmers and fishermen, and it doesn’t care about the environmental crisis or environmentalists either – unless they eat into corporate profits. Secondly farmers and fishermen sell food just like oil companies sell oil, so consumers have to accept some of the blame for continuing to spend dangerously in spite of all the evidence. 

And so playing the blame game when there’s so much grief about is heartless, selfish and pointless. Farmers and fishermen can only change the way they work if we consumers – not just a few token ones – all change the way we live, the way we eat and the way we get about. We all have a vested interest in working together towards that end. Shoving the blame on to one group is just another symptom of arrested grieving.  We can do so much better than this, but only if we realize that there is only one habitat for all life on earth.  Farmers, fishermen, environmental campaigners and  consumers alike.  Everybody gets their say but no everybody gets their way. 

But I’ve left out what should be the most important participant in the whole process, and that’s the earth itself.  The earth doesn’t speak human, and as Wittgenstein once said – “if a lion could speak we wouldn’t be able to understand it”  but that doesn’t mean the earth can’t have a voice because although the earth may not speak in our rather simple way of understanding language, the earth is expressive to a degree that leaves our puny languages far behind. The understanding of what the earth is saying doesn’t just concern scientists, although it is scientific research that uncovered the problem and was also the cause of the problem. What the earth expresses is the concern of artists, writers and poets and ancient cultures that have mastered some of the earth’s languages, and some aspects of the most ancient spiritualities that have evolved in conversation with it (her?). But the earth does have one very direct way of speaking to us, and that is in the consequences of our actions. Perhaps it’s time for humans to take a back seat for a while and listen while the earth shows us what must be done. And of course it will be radical.

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Dawn over Mevagissey bay

 

Behold – the thunderbox

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Otherwise known at the Potwell Inn as the Seat of Mercy

I’m not a complete stranger to this form of cludger – that’s three euphemisms so far in a single piece – because a friend built what’s become known as a composting toilet (3) for a party on his smallholding near Brecon; and very comfortable, efficient and non smelly it was –  considering it was serving best part of fifty people.  The next time  we went there no trace existed – the epitome of low impact – and so convenient (4), that I even thought about digging one on the allotment, which is probably against the rules. Both my grandfathers had similar facilities (5), and my mother, when she was a child,  was so used to the earth closet (6) that the first time she encountered a water closet (6) she was unable to go because it was so clean and shiny. We enjoyed an outdoor toilet (7) for three years when we were at art school and we had a fabulous seated view of the Wiltshire countryside. My paternal grandfather had an impressive double seat one, but I can’t imagine myself ever being able to share my private moments with another human being. They must have been built of stronger stuff in those days.

The one in the photo, needless to say, is the one used by the gardeners at Heligan and was known as the Thunderbox. One of the reasons I so dislike costume dramas is that, being a peasant,  I know perfectly well that it would never be me strutting around upstairs – I’d be the poor devil who had to dig out the cludger once a month. However I’m delighted it’s still here, if not in use, because it reminds me of my family and their history.

But today brought the inevitable trip to an industrial estate outside Truro, to buy some new batteries for the van and then, after installing them, some more tooth gnashing when I realized that the previous set had probably taken the charger unit with them when they expired in a feverish sort of way and plunged us into darkness on Monday night. Last night was a bit of a trial too because we had no electrics of any sort and the temperature inside the van dropped to 5C. We slept on and off between bouts of.  synchronised shivering. Anyway today, with a bit of a lash up, we restored some heat and light and set off for a wander around the gardens again.

Madame pointed out as we walked around that we always make for the vegetable garden first.  It’s true, we have learned so much from Heligan simply by noting what they do there but also by talking to the super friendly gardeners who all seem to take their teaching roles very seriously. Today they were planting out garlic and some of the biggest onion sets we’ve seen.  Tomorrow we’ll try to find out if they’re growing from seed and try to get a few tips – we didn’t like to interrupt today because these three days of sunshine have given them the chance to get some sowing and planting done. Otherwise, naturally, there wasn’t a lot going on at this time of year but I spotted this little hummock in a bed that hasn’t yet been cleaned up – I so hope they leave it because it’s absolutely beautiful.  I can’t say what the species are but they were a tiny little system of bryophytes and lichens like a Wardian case of specimens.

I’ll have fun with identifying them when I get home.

Elsewhere the arched pathway lined with apples has never looked more sculptural, and I couldn’t resist a taking a photo of the stacked crocks in the potting shed which had the air of an ancient ossuary, all of a piece with the memory of the lost gardeners. In the bright winter light, even an old brick wall looked especially beautiful. We sat in the sun on one of the seats in the walled garden and felt intensely peaceful. That’s the thing about visiting gardens – no matter how often you go they look different every time and you’re never more than a whisker away from a state of meditation.  As we walked back we discussed our thoughts on all sorts of mundanities about the allotment – where to put the beans, how to improve the onions, and whether it’s worth trying leeks again after three seasons of failure. Allotmenteering always seems to start in the imagination and unfurl from there. We never get all our own way because the earth, the climate, the soil and the pests have their say too and at the end of each season there’s always something to celebrate and something to be learned.

 

The Lost Gardeners of Heligan (ctd:)

I should probably have called this posting further travails or further adventures – or something of that nature because we were woken in the middle of the night by the sound of the heater powering down and an acrid smell. Generally speaking this is a bad sign, but when we woke up freezing cold and discovered there was just one warm place – under the bed where the batteries are situated – it became a different kind of bad news.  Exploding lead acid batteries under the bed are best avoided, and half of today was spent with me trying to fit into extremely confined spaces with a multimeter and Googling to see who or what might be able to help. After a endless amount of deliberation we decided that the knackered batteries had deteriorated to the point where they had partially shorted and kept calling for more current from the charger, thereby heating them up until I pressed the off button on the charger – which turned the camper van into a tin tent – which, in turn,  is why I am typing this in the dark, wearing a head torch and three jumpers. We’ll replace the batteries first thing tomorrow. More money – aaaagh

Meanwhile we managed a walk around Heligan and there are some photos above. The reason I called this post the “Lost Gardeners of Heligan” is that there are little memorials to the mostly young gardeners who died in the First World War all over the place, each accompanied by a flower display or arrangement. It’s very affecting, and of course the reason the gardens were abandoned was that so many were killed, there were no longer enough workers to keep the gardens going.  The then owner was too affected by grief and memories to live here any longer, and moved away.

Strangely there’s no sense of melancholy around, especially on such a sunny day when even the icy northwesterly wind couldn’t dampen our spirits. Plants are never more perfect than when they’re first emerging.  They spring from the earth untouched by insects and diseases and full of vigour. It can be tricky identifying them from their new leaves, but we get better at it. Todays crop of fungi and bryophytes was a good reason for getting a bit more knowledgeable about them. They just carry on continuously all year round so there’s always something to look for. But the primroses, dandelions, snowdrops and daffodils somehow seemed just a bit more beautiful than the camellias in the formal gardens. Spring is coming – you can smell it!

 

 

 

 

Down from up-country

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We’ve gambled on a brief spell of sunshine and after a frantic planting out session on the allotment we’ve driven the campervan down to Cornwall to spend a little time at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, soaking up some inspiration.  Whenever we come here, and we try to come three or four times a year to catch the changing seasons, we take away loads of ideas, a few plants and usually some books as well. The campsite is right next door to the garden which, of course, is not lost at all but very well signposted. When it was properly lost I bet the locals knew it was there all the time. I once heard a lovely story about a Ugandan Bishop who reproached a tour guide at the Victoria Falls for saying that they were discovered by David Livingstone in 1855. “I think you’ll find”, he said, “That we knew about them long before that”  The lost gardens sounds a bit more impressive than the completely neglected gardens and all power to Tim Smit who’s brought some proper jobs to the area and created a beautifully restored garden and farm not just as a history lesson, but as a model of sustainability too. 

Naturally, being Cornwall where it rains every day, it rained all the way here and I’m sitting typing this with the rain drumming on the roof of the van; but the forecast looks pretty good for tomorrow. It’s only 130 miles south of Bath but that can amount to several weeks earlier for the wildflowers to show themselves, and with this ridiculously mild and wet weather I’d be surprised if I don’t find some spring favourites.

Of course the van, being a bit long in the tooth, needs a bit of love and care.  Things wear out and need replacing, and this last couple of weeks I replaced the heating controller, which cost a fortune, only to discover that the leisure batteries are knackered and need replacing too. The upshot is that although the heater is working perfectly, the batteries are unable to keep it going if we’re not hooked up or running the engine. This means that the controller has reverted to its native German language.  Luckily I know enough German to turn it on and off, and I decided to keep it going in German as a sign of European solidarity. I’ll replace the batteries as soon as funds permit.  The other snag to beset us is that the WiFi isn’t working on the campsite due to some building work; so the laptop is piggybacking my phone and making inroads into my data allowance – but it works, that’s the main thing.  

I’ve been reading Thomas Berry’s “The Dream of the Earth” and he manages to express very beautifully some kind of answer to the question “how did we get to where we are?”  I’m paraphrasing a bit because I haven’t got the book here with me, but it spoke to me because I’ve lived through most of the period during which our whole mindset began to change. I can really identify with the profound capacity of natural history to grip us. There’s probably never been an epoch that knew more about the way that nature works, how lifeforms came to be the things they are and why they grow as they do. But with that growing knowledge came the need to use it carefully, much more carefully than we have done. If we add to that huge development in understanding, the pervasive idea that we are not only separate from nature but free to do as we please with our knowledge, we slide from a basic assumption of a stewardship relationship to one of domination and extraction; and I’m struggling even to write this paragraph without using words like ‘thing’ and ‘it’ in relation to non human beings – it’s so embedded within our language, hidden as a bacteria might hide within a cell. The industrial revolution was premised on the idea that the earth was an infinite resource given to us by a beneficent God and whose exploitation was a kind of moral duty. The discovery and the exploitation, through scientific advance, of the material wealth of the earth was seen as a sign of God’s favour.  Until Darwin, nature was eternal and unchangeable and, in a sense safe from harm; it was just there

Our bad attitude to the earth is rooted as deeply as once was slavery and still is rooted in racism, misogyny and religious hatred and the same intensity of reflection, self examination and pushing back will be required before anything will change. Again and again I come back to the certainty that spraying facts and data, and shouting at people is not going to be enough. The change in our relationship with the earth and with all its living things, times, tides and seasons, is more akin to a conversion experience than to the acquisition of new knowledge. Of course it begins in reason, but travels far beyond it. 

Maybe that’s why we find gardens like Heligan so powerful.  It is, in its own way, a memorial to the lost, the lost gardeners who never returned from the First World War; a lost way of life in recreating the self-sufficient household, and a lost innocence because we know better than ever before how selfish, greedy and depraved we humans can be. It was always this way but now we know and we can’t unknow it. The fact that the location of the gardens was mislaid for a decade or so is probably the least interesting thing about it.

When push comes to shove it’s all about parsnips (and other unglamorous stuff).

IMG_20191207_164441I know I can get very intense about all the politics and philosophy that swirl around us at the moment. I can even get cross with myself, and worry that I’m alienating the readers who’d rather be reading about cooking or the allotment; but I’ve also set my face against turning this journal – because that’s what it is – into a one dimensional thread focused on one particular aspect of our life at the (imaginary) Potwell Inn. There’s a Chinese saying, or is it a curse? -about living in interesting times and, like it or not – these are interesting times and I don’t much care for them.

And when we live in such interesting times, even the growing of parsnips can become a political statement or an act of defiance, and so the politics and the philosophy and joining some kind of counter culture are all entwined. Which means that although I could probably give some sensible advice about growing parsnips – like being patient while they germinate; only using new seed; making sure the soil is deep enough and so-on, the fact is, they get affected by carrot fly and other pests and the question of what to do about it is only simple if you’re happy with indiscriminately poisoning anything that might pose a remote threat. Allotmenteering is only simple if you go with the flow. If you don’t, you land up playing chess with a thousand pieces and  rules that can change overnight. I’m not trying to be off putting here, just noticing that without the comfort of what therapists call “splitting off”, the bowl of soup on your table can become a microcosm of the crisis.

I made parsnip soup today, for a friend who was dropping by to see us.  I made it a few weeks ago for another friend because I like parsnip soup – we grow them so  it’s ridiculously cheap and  easy to make and  (I think) people enjoy it. In the course of our conversation we got to talking about what our children were up to and it turns out that one of her children is doing very well working for one of the agrichemical giants, helping to sell insecticide delivery systems in the developing world. Curiously – or – as the Jungians would say ‘synchronously’ the last friend I made the soup for has spent so much time demonstrating outside one of their sites that she was invited in for a “conversation” with the managers. “Oh for goodness sake!” – I thought …… “this soup is getting too contentious”.

The fact is – there is no escape from the cultural, the philosophical and the ethical issues that beset us and so I’ve taken up the challenge of studying them and, because I’m a bit lost myself, I write about it and share my thoughts with you because (I assume) you must be interested in the same difficult questions. At the moment I’ve got loads of ideas swarming around in my mind. I don’t want (or need) to preach to the converted but I am very seriously committed to finding ways of communicating the positive things that would accompany a new green deal, to those who (have been encouraged to) bury their heads in the sand and who believe that nothing can be done.

What I’d like to do is sleep soundly without worrying, grow vegetables, search for plants and live in a culture rooted in the sense of community  with one another and with the whole of creation. In order to achieve that we need to make a huge cultural change. I was watching  a TV interview with Naomi Klein today and she put the central issue very concisely. We can’t choose between radical change and a quiet life.  If we do nothing there will be a catastrophe – and that surely is radical change; or – we can take charge of a radical agenda that will rescue the earth while preserving us from the menace of resurgent fascism. 

Better a dish of herbs where there is love, than a fattened ox where there is hatred.

Not quite Hay on Wye – Potwell Inn on tour

IMG_20200128_111057I really fancied going to Hay on Wye today, for no better reason than it always makes me feel good. The downside is that it’s a two hour drive each way, and these days that seems like an extravagance of fuel for not much more than a stroll down to the river, a couple of coffees and more bookshops than you could afford to visit, and so we settled on Frome which is about 3/4 hour on the bus.  There’s a bookshop – a good one  – any number of cafes and a charming jumble of tiny hillside streets populated by the kind of boutique shops where you can’t afford anything more than a quick ogle at the windows.

But there was another reason for going there and that was that Madame had a childhood connection with the town as she was sent there during school holidays to keep her wealthy cousin company. I stayed there once later on and spent my entire time reading Mrs Beeton while Madame languished in bed with the flu. It was an ideal place to languish in – much nicer than our seedy flat, rather the kind of household that could afford a cook and housekeeper out of what seemed like an infinite inherited fortune that turned out to be quickly evaporating in the background.  We felt like two mongrels at Crufts but we wolfed down the experience.

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So today we wandered off to the remembered quiet riverside road and discovered that it’s a bit of a rat run these days, the gardens have been sold off and developed, the old coach house is now  a bungalow and it’s a bit seedy to be honest, but there wasn’t time for too much schadenfreude because it was freezing cold with a west wind driving in from Canada and we wanted to get into the warm somewhere.

 

Frome has spread far from the medieval centre but we found an excellent stationers shop  full of wildly expensive notebooks for tourists like us to write that long promised first novel. You know the drill – new book, new pen, silence …….  We found a quiet coffee shop and ordered green tea and flapjacks.  There’s just no interest in being consistent with our food.  Rather than immerse ourselves in our mobiles – which a couple opposite were doing, we eavesdropped a marvellous conversation between two young men whose wives had just had babies by C section. they exchanged their newly acquired wisdom and experiences while one of the recent mothers sat treasuring and wondering at the baby.  Then, at her partner’s insistence he attached the baby to a sling that took more rigging than a racing yacht and he walked – and she hobbled – off into a future that however much longed for, didn’t feel like this.

The bookshop yielded a comic book for our grandson who doesn’t like proper books – good for him but bad for his mum and dad who are deeply envious that all his 7 year old  friends are reading Tolstoy – ah but none of them have raised £600 for the Australian firefighters! And I came back with Adam Nicholson’s book “The Seabird’s Cry” which had me in spasms of joy even while reading the introduction because he managed to work in two epic Saxon poems, Seamus Heaney, a bit of Plato, Robert Browning Hugh McDiarmid and Thomas Berry into two pages talking about seabirds.

When finally we got home after a faintly unnerving bus ride in the rain, the hail was now driving in from the west and it had dropped to freezing – as had we.  It was snowing in Hay on Wye. Like proper pensioners we usually leave the coal effect flames going on the electric fire because it’s cheap to run, but today we pushed the boat out and switched on the fan for ten minutes. Last night we went to the AGM of the local Labour Party.  We could see what was happening but what was going on was harder to get to. Thirty new members have joined since the election, many of them young people full of fire and enthusiasm. Some of the old guard seem to have given up and the younger ones are taking charge. My party card has had a postage stamp on it for ages, but we walked home feeling encouraged. Perhaps, like a deep wound, the healing of our politics will happen slowly and from the inside.

 

 

 

 

The thick history merry go round

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Roman, medieval, Georgian and modern in one picture

Since Willsbridge Mill (Saturday 25th, ‘Joining the dots’)  – I can’t get settled. I’ve been living on online searches, in books, photographs and maps of the hundred or so square miles in which I’ve lived the greater part of my life and it’s a truly immersive experience. The great thing about a blog is that no-one expects it to be great literature unless it’s a Joycean kind of stroll through the weather of life. Aside from taking out the odd word, turning it in my hand and either discarding it or giving it a bit of a polish and setting it back in the wall, I don’t anguish too much.  It’s obsessive, for sure but only in the sense that it sharpens my collector’s instinct, and so I carry a notebook and a phone camera to record the things that strike me. If there’s any sort of metaphysic behind the Potwell Inn it’s the fact that I believe there’s nothing more extraordinary than the ordinary, the old William Blake poem that urges us:

To see a world in a grain of sand. And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour.

That’s just about it.  I call it Muckyannydinny Lane, the place where everything and nothing happens.  Where the ordinary is suddenly but never more than momentarily revealed and sets up its home in the imagination. Not great thoughts but the pocket lint and bus tickets that accumulate on our journey. 

But sometimes, the ordinary of  “today, here, in this place”  is inflected by an intuition of the history.  The thin, linear description of the way things are around here suddenly thickens – as it did when I wrote about the South Gloucestershire Coalfield and mentioned Handel Cossham’s name.  As I typed it I remembered Brandy Bottom, the pit he owned, and which was joined underground to Parkfield, the pithead where I played and sometimes peered down the shaft to see hart’s tongue fern sprouting from the walls into the gathering darkness. Cossham built a hospital and endowed a community hall, but he employed children – small children – to drag the coal trucks to the bottom of the shaft in the confined spaces of the mine. I went looking for Brandy Bottom a few years ago and found the abandoned buildings almost covered with ivy.  It’s being restored now – “The most perfect remains of a Victorian mine in the UK” – they say, but I was haunted by the ghosts of those children. As I stood there, transfixed by the thickening of the air, I knew that in some dimension the old mine was still functioning, the children were still there, pale skinned and blackened with coal dust. Children were even cheaper than ponies in those days. The practice of using them wasn’t ended because it was wicked in itself, but because the Victorian moralists thought they might get up to things, wicked sexual things down there in the darkness. Seems like Victorian thick history was different from mine. 

And so the landscape here has suddenly deepened to include what’s beneath;  the coal measures and the wealth and cruelty they created, the surface farmland which has become the scene of another, later, despoliation under intensive farming, and during which – since my childhood – whole species have disappeared, and then above the fields the atmosphere which has become so polluted by the burning of hydrocarbons that in summer, during prolonged sunny periods, a yellowish photochromic haze forms. 

Here in my imagination today I might easily see a steam train running in to Green Park Station across the river.  I might encounter Mr King, the retired miner, walking back from Parkfield before it closed in the 1930’s, and making for his allotment above the railway tunnel at the end of our garden. I might see lapwing in the fields, or pass a horse and cart taking milk or cream down to the station incline.  And does this inflected, ‘thick’ sense of being human intuit the future as well? What’s going on there beneath the bright surface of the present? It’s like fishing. You have no idea what’s going on beyond the reflections on the water aside from experience of how it was before. You might see the float bob, or sense a tug on the line but it might be caught on a shopping trolley for all you know. 

Last time I fished here, in thick history, I think to myself –  humans were selfish, greedy, unfeeling creatures who found it hard to accept responsibility for their actions.  Is that the future? We were all raised on the idea that the industrial revolution had brought us into a new age of prosperity but it never occurred to us that we would suffocate in the fumes of its success. Handel Cossham lives on, but his mines were sold in 1900 and his money is probably invested in India or some other place where the state doesn’t take much interest in poverty or child labour; and the supreme gold-standard irony is that we came to believe that the industrialisation of the Southern hemisphere was a kind of human right.  That the poor people of India deserved the right to be evicted from their farmland so that more factories could be built, more wealth extracted from the earth – because it was better for them to live in megacities scratching a living on rubbish tips.  

We have seen the enemy – it is us