Another day, another journey.

The kitchen sink is just out of shot.

The Potwell Inn, remember, is a moveable experience. When we go away in the campervan we normally prepare and pack it the day before we go, so we can drive to where it’s stored and then set off straight away. Leaving the flat to drive down to a rented cottage on the Lizard means we have to take everything down in the lift and load the car, and given that it’s a 20 mile round trip to the nearest supermarket in Cornwall we take as much as we can with us. Because we’re a pub at heart we took with us a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and a bottle of Mount Difficulty pinot noir which were meant to be a treat for our combined 55th wedding anniversary and my 76th birthday. However it was not to be because the hotel in Hay was so awful we couldn’t bring ourselves to open them in a cramped room that smelt so strongly of sewage we had to leave the window open and allow the -3C air to clear the air. I’m ashamed to say that we could have had three weeks in the campervan for the cost of three nights in a cramped room and eating terrible food cooked – at best – by a kitchen porter with a hangover whose partner had just left him.

So today, back on the Lizard, we dined on boeuf bourguignon which I cooked last week and froze, and drank the champagne while we toasted our out of date anniversaries. Yesterday we drank the Mount Difficulty after an hilariously easy drive down with me, well fortified with CBD oil. It’s a new attempt at taming my chronic anxiety and it seems to have some effect. My routine GP tests on Friday appeared to show I have become diabetic, but the nurse failed to explain that severe stress can cause blood glucose to rise and I had just spent three days attempting to upgrade my phone, connect the wonderful portable router through which I am now able to write this at all (no signal normally) and upgrade Madame’s phone at the same time – (pending the remembrance of a critical password) . The nurse didn’t tell me about the life threatening properties of customer helplines, but anyway I had the blood glucose test kit (I’ve been here before) and over three days my glucose has been perfectly normal -so in celebration we bought a packet of biscuits. As a bank manager once said to me – people like you make my life impossible – well hooray! – because I have no intention of going gentle into that good night.

I will write tomorrow about our first stroll around the village and the flowers we saw – a bit unexpectedly, because nature doesn’t read textbooks; but I leave you with the evidence that the fishing industry still lingers on here on the Lizard – three or four cod, obviously filleted on the boat with the carcasses left on the beach for the gulls to pick clean. And a final thought. The last time I wrote I was thinking about the power of nature to regenerate when left to her own devices. Given that it’s all but impossible to imagine how we could return to the imaginary good old days; the pilchard are gone and a global climate catastrophe is stalking us. So what shape could the future hold for the places I love most other than a hopeless longing for the past? Answers on a postcard??

Neoliberal politics
fillets everything in its path!

Pristine? Virgin? – is it time to give these concepts a break?

Mine rake on the Mendip Hills

Reading Fred Pearce’s book “The New Wild” again this week I felt uncomfortable. As he listed some of the less glorious attempts of some conservationists to turn back the clock in the hope of recovering the pristine environment, a voice in my head was shouting – what about Whitefield in Dyrham Park? what about those glorious wildflower meadows in North Yorkshire or – closer to home the hills surrounding Bath? The main thrust of his book is to say – look here, nature is fast, adaptive and highly dynamic. Trying to hold back change by micromanaging nature reserves and SSSI’s is an expensive path to nowhere, so we should maybe step back and give evolution a chance.

But then, as I pondered my instinctively hostile reaction, I thought of Eddie Cox – my first and best childhood friend – and our adventures and exploits out in the wild as children. Wild, for us, was post industrial; brownfield and, on reflection, very dangerous; but if our inner landscape is furnished by early memories then my young imagination was furnished by crumbling nineteenth century buildings, an abandoned dram road running back from the river to abandoned coal mines; paths hard packed with waste from the nearby fireclay pipeworks; mineshafts we could drop stones down, the old Cattybrook brick kilns whose flues we could wriggle up and watch the sky above the chimney and surrounded by spare and half starved soil. There were rows of miners’ cottages whose original occupants were long since dead.

Our environment – although we were far too young to understand it – was a palimpsest; one historical layer superimposed on another. At the surface were us baby boomers navigating the fragile demilitarized zone between our parents’ wartime experiences and our own unknown futures among the remains of an industrial revolution that had run its course. Below us and also around us were the remains also of a wealthy woollen industry; the unrestored magnificent houses of slave owners and place names which went back to the Domesday Book. Amidst the burgeoning post-war housing estates where we lived, were sacred wells and ancient footpaths. The older local people knew the plant names but often worked in the last of the factories; Douglas motorcycles, Vespa motor scooters and the ubiquitous small workshops supporting the local shoe industry – all now gone.

Rodway Hill

So what was my pristine? Well as sure as hell it wasn’t rare orchids and wildflower meadows. My grandparents left their smallholding in rural Oxfordshire and came to Bristol before I was old enough to name a plant. My first ecstatic memories of plants were all from Rodway Hill; a gruffy outcrop of sandstone where I would lie amongst the tussocky grass and inspect the Harebells. The memory has its own inscrutable hot links and my idea of the pristine was forged from these unpromising elements. Orchids and wildflower meadows came much, much later.

So what I dredged up from the sediment of my mind as I pondered Fred Pearce’s book was the reason for my attachment to these post industrial landscapes and their flora. When we walk down Velvet Bottom or almost anywhere else at Charterhouse I feel at home because in that complicated subconscious way I am at home. When I look through the albums of photographs of plants I’ve taken, less than half are what you might call proper wildflowers; the rest are the waifs, strays, stragglers and thugs of the plant world who’ve learned how to live with little light, food or soil, or being constantly trampled by walkers, peed on by dogs and strimmed off by zealous council workers. Some of these plants have developed the capacity to live on mine waste polluted by heavy metals. They’re often tiny little things with tiny un-showy flowers but you can’t help but admire them for their tenacity.

When I run over the list of our favourite places like mid Wales, Lizard in Cornwall and so the list goes on; they’re all post apocalyptic post industrial landscapes. Yes of course, walking through a meadow and totting up twenty plants in flower is a wonderful experience, worth a day of anyone’s time – but according to Fred Pearce and many others including Richard Mabey, the old post industrial brownfield sites have become haven and home to multitudes of flora and fauna which can no longer survive the inundation of their native habitats by the plough and with chemicals. The point is – nature is showing the way to adaptation. We humans, who created the anthropocene and can’t survive a day without our mobile phones, need to accept that there are no good old days because the peregrines nesting on the spire of St John’s church here in Bath have made the transition already.

Gerard Manley Hopkins was right – nature is not a steady state phenomenon constantly needing repair – it’s a Heracletian fire”.

What do we need most urgently, a green philosophy? a green spirituality? or a green ethic?

The great ship of state is sinking fast!

OK so this quotation looks a bit chewy but don’t panic, in fact skip it altogether rather than give up because it’s profoundly important that we understand what’s at stake. There are essentially three points here. I’ve shortened the quotation from its original length by cutting out the proposition that music, poetry, art, spirituality and drama are all ways of thinking, and I’d argue more broadly that the whole of human culture – (including doing botany and allotmenteering), embodies tools for doing so. The second point follows – that shutting down philosophy is a pretty moronic thing to do when we need to practice thinking clearly in order to stay alive. The third point is that waiting for technology to come over the hill like the Seventh Cavalry and save us from all our problems is plain wrong.

In the 1980s, as one philosophy department after another was closed under a Conservative government led by former Somervillian Margaret Thatcher, Mary [Midgley] led a campaign to rescue hers. Though unsuccessful, she never gave up in her mission to defend philosophy. Philosophy is not a luxury, Mary insisted. Philosophy is something we humans need in order for our lives to go well. She argued trenchantly against the mythical idea that we can entrust our future to technology and artificial intelligence. This is a comforting sedative, but when it comes to figuring out what to do next about climate, war, environment or education – it is ultimately suicidal. She ends her final book, What is Philosophy For?, with a warning and an imperative:

“[W]hat actually happens to us will surely still be determined by human choices. Not even the most admirable machines can make better choices than the people who are supposed to be programming them. So we had surely better rely here on using our own Minds rather than wait for Matter to do the job.

And, if this is right, I suspect that… philosophical reasoning-will now become rather important. We shall need to think about how best to think about these new and difficult topics – how to imagine them, how to visualize them, how to fit them into a convincing world-picture. And if we don’t do that for ourselves, it’s hard to see who will be able to do it for us.”

Metaphysical Animals – How four women brought philosophy back to life. Chatto & Windus 2022. Page 298

The River Avon, 50 metres from our flat, is running at its highest level for 20 years and may well go higher as the last two days of heavy rain run off into it. I’ve run out of metaphors for its sheer power. The speed and intensity of the flow defies description. Ideas such as malignant are way off because rivers don’t bear us any grudge, they just do rivering. Rivers have moods of course but these are not human sulks or bursts of sudden rage; these moods are morally neutral. On a balmy day in Spring it’s possible to kid yourself that nature has been “put on” just for us; a kind of revelation or – as Mother Julian might have written – a shewing; a manifestation of something divine. But if that’s true; is the river today a sign of divine anger? Is it smiting us in some sense? Is there an intelligence behind it all that we’ve insulted?

I don’t think that inventing supernatural beings, especially humanoid ones, settles any arguments at all. We’re still always left with a ‘WTF are we supposed to do?? ‘ which usually ends by throwing some poor individual or group under a bus. But if this awe-inspiring flood is humbly accepted as an instance of natural forces, it loses none of its power to contextualise us within nature. Nobody’s showing off here. We’re not here to learn lessons, we’re here to think with all judicious haste how to respond to the song of the river, and it does have a song if you stand and listen. The bare earth and yellow grass had a song last summer, a dry and rustling song. The East wind has another song as it shrives the plants for day after day until their cells have burst and they collapse. The unseasonable weather has a song; a lament if you prefer, that that we are adrift. The seasons, by which we once navigated as if they were a kind of compass, have become anomalous and untrustworthy; our seeds fail to germinate and our crops fail.

Much of our predicament is marked – not by presence but by absence. The Cuckoo, the House Sparrow, the insects and bees and butterflies. Slowly, bit by bit, the complex dialect of our sense of place – the voices, the histories and memories, the regularities, the fragmentary graffiti of everyday life – are all gone. The environmental catastrophe, understood just as bad science and failed technology is missing great continents of meaning. The same catastrophe taken a simple legal battle with the guilty in the dock and the innocent as complainants edits all the complexities out.

We are in the midst of a growing catastrophe of being. Culture – the way we do things round here – has been so eroded, let’s be clear, by the theocratic madness of neoliberal economics, that we have had the joy; the spirituality; the heftedness; the manual labour; the cooking; the teaching; the nurturing; the everyday poetry and song, the sense of belonging to something so big that it could never be traversed in a lifetime; the ebb and flow of the seasons and their celebrations; the capacity to love and be loved back without reserve or fear …….. all bled out, reprocessed and sold back to us as simulacra.

So to return to the title of this post, my answer would be that we need them all – green philosophy; green spirituality and green ethics – the trinity of disciplines that will enable us once again to find our true place in nature, and to hear the Song of the Earth once more.

A lovely meal and then a lurch into the unknown

Bath Natural Theatre Company strutting their stuff in the early 70’s

We were there – well not there in the photograph, but around at the time and living near Bath – which made lunch last week with one of the original provocateurs and his partner a total joy. Most young people probably think we’re a bunch of old farts who never did anything interesting – after all the world was only invented when they came along – but here’s the evidence – complete with incriminating photos and only mildly bowdlerized accounts of the fun and games that went on. There was a serious side to the counterculture because it helped mobilize public opinion against the Buchanan Plan which was contemplating the destruction of one of Bath’s most historic neighbourhoods in order to build a huge road. As it was, a great chunk of old Bath was demolished in favour of ugly flats – now a local crime hotspot – a habit which has continued with the recent Crest Nicholson Western Riverside development which would make a Russian bonded warehouse look good. There’s a well known polemic called The Sack of Bath written in 1973 by Adam Fergusson which also threw a spanner into the planners’ designs and undoubtedly helped save Bath from wholesale destruction. Interestingly we bumped into his daughter in a bar in Hay on Wye in December. She was very proud of her Dad who’s still alive. We need him back here!

A lot of last week was taken up haggling with recalcitrant software. As ever the obvious problem with my mobile router never occurred to me until I’d tried everything else out and wasted vast amounts of energy shouting fruitlessly at a lump of space junk whose only fault was an expired SIM card. Of course, somewhere at the back of my disorderly mind I’d known it all along, but – hey ho. The router will soon be needed as we get the campervan back on the road. After a couple of years of Covid when we often couldn’t use the van, we’d seriously considered selling it. It costs a lot of money just to leave it standing in a compound doing nothing and we thought it might be better to spend the money on trips. For one whole evening we even thought we’d buy an interrail pass and spend six months back in Europe. The downside to these utopian plans was always that we have a family, an allotment, the Bath Nats and a pile of friends we like to keep in touch with. In the cold light of morning and whilst putting the empties out, Plan A sounded a bit naff because what we really really enjoy is to park the campervan up on a site somewhere quiet and remote in the midst of a wildlife hotspot – like Mendip or mid Wales for instance – and go walking, birdwatching and plant hunting. So the plan was shelved with the two of us in complete agreement that we needed to keep the van.

The campervan’s been standing idle since we got back from St Davids in September and whilst we agonised over it we also neglected it a bit, so as well as software wars we also took ourselves down to the edge of the Severn to get the batteries recharged and to empty out the cupboards and generally get it ready for spring. We soon found that the upholstery had got very damp, the sink needed repairing (again!) and the mice had raided for nest building materials although a thorough search failed to find any nests; cue much more irritable spluttering and rummaging through tiny spaces at the expense of bashed elbows and a sore head. Ah – life’s rich tapestry – we thought as we lumped an 80lb generator and our dehumidifier into the car along with a spare battery and a heap of tools.

However, amidst all these distractions I also managed to spend time getting my head in gear for plant hunting in a few weeks time; checking out useful databases and maps and scouring lists. I do love a good list – this may be some kind of symptom. The upshot of all this botanical fantasising was that at the AGM on Saturday I volunteered to join the Council of the Bath Nats, thereby turning my retirement resolution never to join another committee – on its head. Naturally (it’s a voluntary organisation) my offer was warmly accepted and after a brief moment of undeserved pride I fell into a pit of self-doubt, bordering on imposter syndrome. The members of the Council are just so much more experienced and knowledgeable than me, they’ll find me out in a moment. Another sleepless night.

The van’s called Polly – it’s a he!

And so today has two tasks; to go back to the van and figure out how to carry out the necessary repairs and to run the dehumidifier for a few hours now we’ve remembered to put some petrol into the generator. Then I need to get a new data SIM and get the router working and sit down with Madame and plan the seed order for the allotment. We’ve already agreed to simplify and to concentrate on low maintenance plants to give ourselves more time for the other things we like to do. Then there’s marmalade to make as well. Who knew retirement could be so exhausting?

2022 Review part 1 – my descent into terminal nerdery.

The highlight of my year may seem a bit weird

I know exactly how I got here. The seeds of this addiction were sown on the day I realized that not all Dandelions were in fact Dandelions because there were plants like Hawkweeds and Hawkbits and such great multitudes of other lookalikes that I despaired of living long enough to name a tenth of them. Then, when I was working as a groundsman – (all graduating art students have to find some kind of job to pay the rent) – it was in the playing fields of Clifton College that I got lost in the Speedwell zone and gave up. Then 24/7 work took over for 45 years because, believe me, the gig economy was alive and well in the 1970’s (I only got my first proper full-time job when I was 40) and at times Madame and me were each doing three part-time jobs. Then with three boys to feed and clothe, any plant hunting was confined to holidays in Pembrokeshire. I loved my work but I also longed for some space to devote to the natural world and especially plants and fungi.

So when we retired we brought my big collection of underused field guides and a head filled with the extraordinarily evocative names of plants I’d never actually seen. I can still remember coming across Vipers Bugloss for the first time on a clifftop in Tenby and being completely bowled over by its beauty.

As soon as we moved here we joined the Bath Natural History Society – which was the best move we could have made because by going on field trips and attending lectures by real nationally recognised experts our understanding began to increase exponentially; not least because we found that the experts we got to know were eager to teach anyone who showed an interest. Added to that, a course in botanical illustration reconnected me to my artistic background and reawakened my interest in intense observation, plus my longstanding interest in herbal medicine which I’d never been able to explore in depth. These three factors combined: drawing and painting, really good mentors and a passion for wildflowers and their uses, set me on the road which four years ago finally resulted in a head on collision with a plant that’s universally known as a bit of a heart sinker. It was on the allotment site just a single plot up from us on an abandoned plot.

This is not a tale of derring-do on a precipitous cliff face or hacking my way through a jungle. This pretty plant practically threw itself at me about five feet from our path. It was tall – a couple of feet tall anyway, rambling, fragile and faintly resembled a sweet pea flower but the leaves were wrong. I got the genus name right off – it was a Fumitory, a Fumaria ‘something or other‘. but to get the species was a world of woe away. Once I’d spun my head a few times in the field guides I knew that getting the species right was way above my level of competence. The differences between the ten British and Irish species are very small and demand experience, accurate measurements and even a low powered microscope. So I turned to a friend – Rob – who’s way better than me and – bless him he wandered up to the allotment and his ID was pretty provisional, plus I didn’t think he was keen on volunteering to carry a burden that was rightly mine. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had cause to be grateful to someone who has given me the confidence that I’ll eventually be able to solve a problem.

Happily we had a lovely holiday in Cornwall this year and the coast path yielded two slightly different Fumaria species which, by that time, I’d learned to key out for myself. I photographed, inspected and measured them before submitting them to the County Recorder who to my great surprise accepted both ID’s. By this time I knew which parts of the plant demanded that intense attention to detail I wrote about earlier, so I sent off for the BSBI monograph on Fumitories and suddenly the light began to dawn. However there was one further obstacle to overcome. Confirmation bias afflicts keen amateur botanists as much as it wrecks the judgement of players in any other discipline. There’s no point in picking the rarest of a bunch of species and then only looking for evidence proving the hypothesis. But refusing on principle to believe that your specimen is that rare plant is equally daft because – well, it might be. My Fumaria by this time had migrated into the garlic bed and was wreaking havoc in the leeks. The word “ramping” attached to some of the species is more than appropriate.

Eventually, after much head scratching it occurred to me that it might (just) be Fumaria bastardii – a thought that I squashed immediately because even a cursory glance at the map showed that it just didn’t grow here. So I sent the photos and measurements to the North Somerset County Recorder suggesting it might be Fumaria Capreolata. She emailed back and said she thought it was more likely Fumaria Muralis but also suggested I send the details to the National Referee for Fumarias and very quickly he replied that it was Fumaria bastardii var. hibernica – the very one that doesn’t grow here. So – going back to the photo at the top, there’s now a list for this area on the national database which includes my solitary record which I’ve highlighted. There’s also a single red square on the map that gives the approximate location – this is done to protect vulnerable plants like orchids from predation by collectors. And finally I had an email saying my find had got on to the Somerset Rare Plants list as well as on the annual Bath Nats report.

The key point in all this is that if I can make a small difference, then trust me – anyone can. My little find is only rare here in Bath – in Ireland for instance – it’s everywhere; and I couldn’t have got near it without the knowledge and skills of three volunteers who gave me the time to finally get the ID. My biggest contribution is in noticing the plant and then banging on about it. I’m stubborn and I don’t like being beaten!

So my main – possibly entire – indelible contribution to field botany might well turn out to be a single dot on a map, and I’ll settle for that. Nerdery has its own rewards and my sense of pride in getting that dot on the map more than vindicates the hours I spent achieving it.

All’s well on the canal

Winter Heliotrope – Petasites fragrans

Exactly as I predicted there was a really good showing of Winter Heliotrope on the Kennet and Avon canal today. As we walked to the first deep lock the river was in full spate and at its most dangerous as we went along, and in places the banks were flooded. At Pulteney Weir the steps had disappeared and water was shooting upwards like a fountain as it curled back at the river bed. Heaven help anyone falling into that maelstrom – they’d have no chance at all. The eddies and deep currents seem to illustrate constantly changing anatomical illustrations of the musculature of unknown beasts. Fallen logs lifted helpless arms into the air, like Excalibur, and all the while there was a dangerous sound – far from the comfort of waves and waterfalls but the fretting water feeling for any weakness along the bank. The boats moored alongside the footpath were lifted high on their moorings. Any higher and they’d start to list into oblivion as the water flooded in. The canal, of course, is at one remove from all the mayhem and there’s a more peaceful regime altogether.

Once again we revisited the walk that kept us sane during the lockdowns, and in Henrietta Park an ever reliable tree stump was growing Oyster Mushrooms and what I think was almost certainly Silverleaf Fungus as well as the usual Turkey Tails. Further back in the park the magnificent trunk of an old pine looked especially beautiful. Hundreds of walkers were out and about celebrating New Year. We were passed by one crocodile comprising upwards of 20 walkers – no doubt a rambling club. It’s crazy how easy it is in England to assign social class to whole groups. I remember once taking a midweek communion service which usually had about four or five communicants but on this particular Wednesday the Lady Chapel was full to the brim with identically dressed, late middle aged men in tweed jackets and flannel trousers. It could have been a Monty Python sketch. Afterwards I asked them who they all were and they told me they were all High Court judges on a course in the hotel next door. Today’s walkers were equally monocultural. Several of them wished us a happy new year in clipped received pronunciation and I relapsed into full churl, willing my cheek muscles into a rigid smile as I responded with imperceptible grace.

It was a joy to find plants and fungi to identify at this time of the year. Even the vivid green of new foliage brought a foretaste of plants just waiting in the earth for the kairos – the appropriate time. Alongside the river a large group of Long Tailed Tits kept themselves busy in the branches of trees overlooking the cricket ground. On the other side at St John’s Church we not only saw a pair of Peregrine falcons on the tower but also heard their unmistakable voices. Before we’d even taken that unusual sight in, a pair of herons fled downstream in their prehistoric way, and later a couple of cormorants flew downstream as well. All this in the very centre of the city.

Back home again I cooked the last of the Christmas leftovers and we had an early supper. Below are some of the things we saw.

Spring in my step at last

Sea Campion, Silene uniflora -photographed near Gunwalloe church 18th January 2022

It really shouldn’t be a surprise because it happens every year, but suddenly the thought of another year’s joyful plant hunting is filling my mind. The photograph – taken in Cornwall – is proof that spring is just around the corner and I am so looking forward to it; sorting out the books and maps and planning our visits to try and maximise our chances of finding one or two rarities amongst the old friends. When we go out plant hunting in the company of the vastly experienced Bath Natural History Society leaders I can only marvel at their sharp eyes and encyclopaedic knowledge, but they are so willing to share their expertise I’ve realized that half the battle is learning to access the databases that are available to anyone with an interest in plants, so now we go out equipped with maps and lists which save endless wasted time looking for plants that just aren’t there.

Is this sudden shift in mood just down to day length? Is there – somewhere in my brain – a sensor that, just eleven days after the winter solstice, sends a signal to somewhere else in my brain, telling it (telling me) to clear the decks? Is there a causal relationship between day length and the fact that I just opened Google Photos and searched for images taken in January? Is there an underlying hormonal link between this rain soaked day which lasts just a few minutes longer than it did a fortnight ago? – because I’m quite certain that it wasn’t opening the application that led to the shiver of anticipation but the reverse. Opening the photo album merely confirmed what I already knew – somewhere deep inside – that Coltsfoot, Celandines and Sea Campions will be there waiting in a couple of weeks when we return to Cornwall. I remember, one December, visiting my Spiritual Director, a truly radical Roman Catholic Sister. I was full of woe and feeling thoroughly sorry for myself and she told me that I probably just needed some sunshine.

Now we’ve moved into a (very small) city there won’t be any Plough Monday celebrations and I’ve no idea whether the Littleton Cider Club will organise a Wassail in the orchard behind the White Hart that Madame once helped to plant; although I have heard that the cider apples were very small this year, and so full of sugar the resulting cider is fearfully strong. I’m sad that I’m no longer involved in all those ceremonial markers of the farming year but it seems that my mind is still ahead of the game without any need for dressing up or handmade prayers.

It’s New Year’s Eve. We shan’t be up late – but tomorrow morning the old year will be vanquished in all its economic and political stupidity. Half our Christmas cards this year have contained critical remarks about the state we’re in, and that’s something I don’t think I can ever recall happening before. Is the serpent awakening? Tomorrow looks grey, with more seasonably cold weather returning, but Monday will be sunny, briskly cold and we’ll be out like plant hounds – sampling the air with cold noses and thick sweaters and greeting each tiny promise of new growth with hoots of pleasure.

I’m tempted at this point to quote Mother Julian’s “All will be well and all manner of things will be well”, but there’s got to be a caveat because of course unless we change course, things will not be well at all. The government will tell us that there’s no alternative but only a fool would believe them. Madame and I have the tremendous advantage of being old enough to have lived some of the alternatives to the way we do things around here (one of my favourite definitions of culture). There’s no state sponsored cure for the challenges we face because turkeys don’t vote for Christmas (or Thanksgiving)! The answer may feel as if it’s occluded by anxiety and sorrow but it’s there, waiting to be rediscovered and it looks a lot like a successful human community rescued from the debilitating clutches of the Gradgrinds, the curators and gallerists and all the other gatekeepers defending the system against artists and poets. We’ll banish the ambitious and the greedy and those who have never even discovered their own shadows, let alone learned to live with them. We shall only escape the tyranny of spreadsheets, efficiency curves and economic growth when we refuse to play that game and return to joyfully experiencing of the riches of nature without giving anything an economic value. We’ll get back to singing, dancing and feasting together in ways that defeat all the categories of sponsored division and to a community where Jacob Rees Mogg and his pals will have to make a thin living as pantomime dames, being laughed at in village halls and impromptu community centres all over the country: what a wonderfully cheerful thought.

Here are some more January 2022 photos – Happy New Year.

A ray of light

Hazel catkins beside the River Wye at Hay on Wye

I haven’t written for more than two weeks, which is an unusually long silence. There’s no particular reason apart from seasonal ennui and the slow collapse of our culture into angry senescence – OK so that’s a rather big reason, and the most dangerous of all. Whilst in Hay on Wye this weekend we scoured the bookshops and I came across a marvellous volume of essays titled “The Welsh Way – Essays on Neoliberalism and Devolution” – which I devoured mostly sitting in bed in our hotel room because the drains in the building were blocked and the trenchant smell of sewage forced us us keep the window open, in spite of the outside temperature being -3C. It all somehow reflected my mood. Even on the drive home the sun struggled to shine and just hovered us like a black and white pastel drawing of a poached egg. Our dirty weekend had turned out dirtier in a different way than either of us ever imagined.

The book, on the other hand, is brilliant and gave me much food for thought hinging, as it does, on the continued fantasy of Welsh radicalism examined against its actual deployment over the past 50 years. “Could do better” hardly describes it. But the book also brought home how the individual and separate crises of our time are nothing more than related symptoms of the single malignant disease known as Neoliberalism. The book also gave me an unexpected metaphor expressing two ways of living with the crisis drawing on a structure I know well from the inside. Huw Williams writes of the contrast between the old independent and baptist churches that they were:

…… reformed beyond recognition by the Methodists. To [Iorwerth Peate] the Methodists performed a corruption of tradition, in particular in their aspiration to engage with the world, reform it and transform it. The true spirit of the original nonconformity was to distance oneself from the world, seek salvation in the next life, and carry the burden of this life with dignity and patience.”

Huw Williams; The New Dissent: Page 105. Neoliberal Politics and the Welsh Way

I was almost born into Primitive Methodism and later moved into the Wesleyans and from there to low church and then Anglo Catholic Anglicanism. A long path through the traditions that taught me a great deal about the ancient rift between the activists and the withdrawers. I learned well that withdrawal from the world, whilst it might feed the religious ego, just allowed the devil free range. Where’s the virtue in finding some new cruelty or horror to turn away from and ignore every day?

So the photograph at the top was taken – as the caption says – on the banks of the River Wye; now polluted almost to extinction by intensive chicken farms which have proliferated along her banks and which pour many tons of phosphorus and nitrogen from poultry manure into her water every day. The ray of light is that the tree was growing just a few yards upstream from the bridge under which I finally and suddenly realized that I had lost my faith somewhere along that long journey.

It’s December 14th and in just a week we’ll celebrate the winter solstice which signals the return of the earth from the darkness of the declining days and I remember the words of Mother Julian of Norwich ; ” … all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

One last fungus hunt – perhaps?

The gardens and lake at Stourhead

As autumn advances towards winter the fungal glory days gradually begin to dwindle and those ground dwellers that are left are often difficult to find amongst a thick carpet of leaves. The Bath Nats field meeting at Stourhead was billed as a general walk around with the prospect of seeing tree sparrows thrown in as a teaser. I like my quarry to sit still so I’m not much of a birder – feeling totally demoralized when someone names a brown blob flying away fast at 150 yards without even lifting up their £2000 Swarkovski binoculars. No mention of jizz encourages me that I’ll ever get there, although I did have a magic moment yesterday when I spotted a Marmalade Hoverfly and just knew what it was.

Tree Sparrows are something of a rarity around here I’ve been told, and a quick look at a local guide to Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire birding doesn’t even mention them. So off we went with our binoculars to Stourhead along with a group of Bath Nats members with a reassuringly wide range of interests.

And so, after presenting our National Trust membership cards we set off in pursuit of the group, directed by the staff on the entrance to turn off onto an anonymous looking footpath before we got to the places that most visitors go to look at. After a 50 yard yomp uphill through the mud we found our group in a characteristic fungal hunt position – backs bent and eyes firmly on the ground.

Now here’s the surprising bit of our day out. From the outset, Madame with her keen eye was spotting the fungi – amongst the fallen leaves, on bits of fallen dead wood and later on the stacks of cordwood left behind by foresters. For the most part they were tiny. The biggest things we saw were a couple of Dryad’s Saddles – Polyporus squamosus that had fallen off their dead host and lay rotting on the ground. One of our companions said that they stink like rotten fish and unable to resist the challenge I picked one up and gave it a sniff. It wasn’t exactly fishy but it did smell rotten and felt like soft flenched whale blubber in my hands. Later we saw a ring of Shaggy Parasols – Chlorophyllum rhacodes, but beyond that pretty well everything we found was in the 1-2 cm range. Of course these are precisely the road less travelled in fungus hunting, and it was immensely rewarding to find such lovely but tiny species. Here they are, and there’s a photocall at the end of this post.

Helvella lacunosa, Elfin Saddle,
Helvella crispa, White Saddle,
Ramariopsis kunzei, Ivory Coral,
Mycena rosea, Rosy Bonnet
Crepidotus epibyrus,
Xylaria hypoxylon, Candlesnuff Fungus,
Trametes versicolour, Turkey Tail,
Schizophyllum commune, Splitgill,
Stereum hirsutum, Hairy Curtain Crust,
Bulgaria inquinans, Black Bulgar,
Flammulina velutipes, Velvet Shank,
Chlorophyllum rhacodes, Shaggy Parasol,

So all in all it was an unexpectedly joyful and accidental fungus foray.

Since our leader was a volunteer with local knowledge, the Tree Sparrows turned out to be something of a done deal; tucked away at a feeding station and nest boxes that you’d never find if you weren’t taken there, but there we are; I can barely tell a House Sparrow from a Dunnock except for the wonderful tuneless chirp of the House Sparrow that fills me with memories of my childhood home.

This morning Madame and I sat in bed with my laptop and the books heaped in the middle and identified the fungi as best we could. Who says that romance is dead? – but please don’t take these photos as definitive. Some of them could be very wrong, but we did our best.

Later we walked around the lake, and by the time we reached the iron bridge it was dusk and Madame spotted something that looked like a Swallow skimming across the water. It was a Daubenton’s bat – an almost triumphal ending to a lovely day. By the time we reached the entrance it was almost dark.

Oh what a whopper!!

Yesterday’s apple was one of the ugliest – this one is one of the biggest I’ve seen – look how big it is in my hand.

I suppose it was inevitable that I’d come away from our weekend in the Brecon Beacons with the thought of cooperatives on my mind – after all we came across three such ventures in a village with less than 100 inhabitants. There was a community woodland, a community allotment, a community council – oh and the orchards preserving and promoting local apple varieties.

Yes, of course, they’re sometimes a complete pain in the backside to participate in. It’s almost impossible to recruit active members, there are always members who think that cooperatives exist to implement their particular vision without regard to anyone else’s wishes, there are those who memorise the articles of association down to the last comma and then use them to prevent any decisions ever being made. You have to cope with both perfectionists and, at the other end of the scale, members who never actually complete a task. But you’d have to deal with these minor irritations in any workplace and none of them are a valid argument against cooperatives per se. We’ve helped set up three over the years, and lived in a couple of communes. My mum was a dedicated Coop member, so I think I’m pretty well qualified to write about them.

Think of it this way. Imagine three or four farmers, each isolated on their own farms but personally dedicated to reintroducing once ubiquitous local grains that have been rendered virtually extinct by agribusiness and chemical dependent hybrids. If they never meet or talk to one another there’s a danger that vital work is triplicated and vital insights are never passed on. But if they cooperate, the work takes off much faster, and if they incorporate as a legal entity they can raise money, enlist supporters and invite other farmers to join them in their quest to revive these vital “Landrace” varieties – that’s to say varieties uniquely suited to the specifics of climate and soil that characterise one localized environment; and voila meet Welsh Black Oats!

The same goes for the apple varieties we saw at the weekend. The apple is a promiscuous hybridiser and probably 99% of hybrids are pretty rubbish, but the 1% may well make it possible to grow apples at 900 feet – I’ve seen them – or in salt laden air, and I’ve seen them too. Many cider apple varieties – aside from having marvellous names like “slack ma girdle” and “Chesil Jersey” each add irreplaceable flavour notes like leather (marvellous) , creosote (don’t ask) or petrol (ditto). Of course you can grow Golden Delicious – apples for people that don’t like apples – or Cox’s Orange Pippin which are so disease prone they need spraying twenty something times to keep them looking good for the supermarket. This cornucopia of varieties and flavours as well as uses would have remained a secret known only to a few farmers and died out altogether as the orchards were grubbed out under EC regulations decades ago, but they began to cooperate and share their centuries of expertise and bring (for instance) craft cider back from the grave.

Ask yourself – who does it suit to kill off all these traditional varieties? You already know the answer. As ever it’s the agribusiness suits who want to sell their overpriced and chemically addicted saplings and seeds. Fighting for changes in the regulations is a losing battle. Allotmenteers will remember when some Ministry clown wanted to ban many traditional varieties of potato like the King Edward. The only way is to organise and cooperate and never accept the high price of collaboration with the giants who, even now, are buying up landrace seeds in the developing world in order to create hybrids that will force farmers into penurious contracts with the seed merchants, artificial fertiliser producers and chemical giants, who are often part of the same conglomerate, behaving like mafia thugs, exacting protection money from the poorest producers.

Think of cooperation as a kind of underground guerilla movement that’s almost impossible to silence or to shut down. Not only are they effective ways of keeping traditional varieties alive – and this will become a matter of life and death as the climate catastrophe stalks up on us – but they are also powerful ways of building up local communities and teaching the skills that will become ever more important as the money runs out. Even a few days in Mid Wales will teach you that what keeps these threatened farms alive on their marginal land, is a rich complex of history, experience and the obligations that flow from generations of mutual help and trust. And yes – before anyone reminds me – these are precisely the communities that are being crushed between government neglect and housing shortages caused by second homers. But even these challenges could be addressed by self-build housing cooperatives run by local people with the stamina to fight the nimbys, working hand in hand with local landowners and local councils, and – though it won’t be popular to say it – many of the most significant full-time incomers only predominate on community councils and cooperative projects because the locals can’t or won’t join in.

The biggest enemy of change is apathy and defeatism, especially when they’re combined with the six words that always foretell collapse – we always do it this way. Let’s do it different!

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