I know it’s a mess but it’s my mess

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My son will feel faint when he sees this mess, but I find it comforting. The little tin of Leonardt pen nibs just to the left of the laptop, the Rite in the Rain notebook with so many botanising adventures written inside, the red cabbage leaf patiently waiting to be painted.  He’ll laugh out loud at the early morning espresso that will shortly make me feel faint and – knowing him – he’ll be looking at the book to see what I’m reading. He’s a philosopher so his life and mine are both made from books which we eat up eagerly and then after an interval of indigestion, wait for our minds to turn into food.

Digesting a book is a slow process. The good ones are often very expensive and so they need to be prepared for. Fifty quid for the new, fourth, edition of Stace will need a long period of deliberation followed by a reckless moment of ordering (it’s not the sort of book you can get from the local Waterstones), anxious days of waiting for the post to arrive from Summerfields and then ….. first anxious look …… plants have mysteriously uprooted themselves from their familiar page and re-homed themselves with another family. Looking up the simplest thing is agonisingly slow and so back to the old familiar.  This can take months! Finally (I haven’t even dared to order it yet) we shall become friends.

Most books need a period of resting before I can read them – let’s call it shelf life for the sake of an easy joke. I need to get over the extravagance and remember what the exact impulse was for buying them in the first place. Sometimes, no – often – the original impulse was associated with a particular vein of thought which has become a worked out lode.  The roof collapsed, or got too low to follow. Sometimes I consume them hungrily but either the book’s not ready for me or I’m not ready for the book, and it goes on to the shelf again until I’ve caught up – maybe years later.  The best books are the ones I read when I was nineteen and understood perfectly – until I read them again at thirty, or fifty or even seventy and each time discovered I’d never understood them at all. I have the clearest memory of a boring summer afternoon in a library where I pulled down a copy of Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” and read it standing up as only a hungry teenager can. I didn’t understand a fraction of it; I only discovered that Leach was a Sufi many years later – hence the profound spirituality of a book about pots  – and even today my first impulse on handling a pot is to turn it upside down to see the base, touch the bare, unglazed rim to my lips and ping it.  Everyone I know except my son’s partner, who was born in Stoke on Trent, thinks this is a bit weird. The best books are long affaires, kept secret from any chance of mockery.

Sometimes me and the book need a period away from each other while we both catch up.  I read them once, put them back on the shelf and then come back years later with an older mind. The book on my desk took 25 years, or rather it took me 25 years to catch up. I probably bought “This Sacred Earth” – Roger Gottlieb’s compendium of writing from around the earth in 1996, the year it was published. At that time I would have been deeply involved in parish life, and I’ve no recollection of reading it the first time.  It’s still in print in a second edition, along with a number of other books on green and deep ecology and radical political thought. It came off the shelf yesterday and I was transfixed by the relevance of the essays and extracts.

Yesterday I was talking about the Extinction Rebellion movement with my son. He told me he’d been shocked to see an old edition of “Spitting Image” (TV show) in which may of the ER issues were aired, more than a decade before many of its members were born. Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published before most of their parents were born! Species extinctions and climate catastrophe aren’t new ideas, they’ve been around for more than half a century and, by and large, we did nothing about them. If the young have a charge against the old it’s our inaction in the face of the incontrovertible facts that were staring us in the face.  We turned away – and that was a sin against the earth.

Now, wherever I look, I see the voices of the unheard shouting across the years. Did it only become a ‘proper’ problem when the dominating culture of the west appropriated it? Did we only take it seriously when it became an ‘ology’? – to borrow a phrase from an elderly friend who would say (disparagingly) “Oh he’s very clever, he’s got an ‘ology!'”.

Gosh I can’t remember the last sentence I wrote with four consecutive punctuation marks.

So there it is.  My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of slowly composting ideas that will, in the fullness of time, be returned to the earth. To borrow an idea from another book I needed to put aside, because I didn’t know if anyone was listening any more, may we be granted time for repentance and the amendment of our lives – not just for ourselves but for our children and their children down the years.

 

More garlic

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Carcassone Wight hardneck garlic. Next year’s crop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Where’s the evidence – David”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got anything for cold feet?

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Plantago major

IMG_20191126_141144All this rain! On the other hand, my incarceration in the flat has given me time to catch up with some reading, and I’ve immersed myself in David Hoffmann’s “Herbal Medicine”.  Slowly, slowly the pieces of the jigsaw are falling into place and the inter-relatedness of all things is showing itself wherever I look. In some ways I’m a million miles behind, especially when it comes to the complex decisions that phytotherapists need to make. But in other ways I feel pretty confident – the field botany, the Latin names and even the knowledge of where to look for plants have all been easy to adapt. In fact the extension into a related field of study has served to make plants even more interesting. The knowledge that a plant can function as so much more than a tick in a flora, but be a visual delight, a sign of the underlying soil conditions, a signal of ecological health or sickness, of ancient human habitation or recent of soil disturbance, not to mention its history, the literary references to it, its use as a food, flavouring and medicine.  It’s lovely that we can grow some of these herbs on the allotment, and it’s especially lovely that some of the plants with the most potent applications to human health are the least showy; often regarded as weeds. The capacity of plants to synthesise complex molecules from very simple ones is a miracle, and I’ve discovered the oral and worldwide cultural history that sustains herbal medicine goes back thousands of years, and which must make it one of the longest ever citizen science experiments.

I’ve also decided that rather than try to engulf the whole subject like a basking shark, it makes more sense to investigate plants as I find them, and possible uses as I need them myself. That way I don’t have to develop a fizzing brain and the certainty of my inadequacies through limited experience.

I’ve done a few of my own experiments, by gathering, drying and storing a few very easy ones and I’m pleased that the specimens I dried have kept their colour and survived for just under five months in a dark cupboard without any apparent loss of quality.  I’ve even tried a few completely safe things on myself – all this is beginning to look like a CV but really it’s not  – I’m just sharing how exhilarating it is to be so immersed. One highlight yesterday was to order up three herbs from a supplier to test on myself.

The Potwell Inn allotment is turning out to be a laboratory in which the plants do all the work and, at best, we’re the cleaners and porters who help out. Not only are we not the experts in all this, but it transpires that the plants don’t much need an expert.  As allotmenteers we provide room service for the plants, a bit of weeding and feeding here and there and perhaps a bit of pillow plumping while they get on with doing remarkable things.

It hasn’t all been a trip down the primrose path, though. While I was confined to the flat I got on with a few more computer moving jobs and while I was setting up a redirect on one of my old email accounts, I inadvertently created a logical argument that repeatedly copied copies of copies of emails back to their original senders, and one poor friend received 135 of his own emails before I noticed something wrong and pulled the plug. So If you happen to be one of the afflicted ones, please accept my apologies. As one of the victims said – ‘what is it about old people and technology?’ – I hope we’re still friends!

IMG_6262Then yesterday evening we went off to the AGM of the allotment society. The business part of the meeting was chaired with great efficiency so it was over in 3/4 hour and then after the inevitable tea and cake we had a talk given by Rob Solari from the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm. Talks can be anything from lethally sleep inducing to full-on loin girders.  Rob’s talk fell into the second category and in about an hour we realized how much we still have to learn about growing garlic. So much so that we were planning to change our whole approach by the time we got back home and by this morning we’d got a much clearer idea of what we would try to do this coming season.

What was also fascinating was some of the biochemistry of the health benefits of garlic.  Raw is better than cooked, for instance, although that’s intuitively true.  But I hadn’t known how much better it is to crush rather than chop the garlic.  I didn’t know that an infusion of elephant garlic leaves can deter slugs, or how to grow truly giant bulbs over two seasons, or that garlic shouldn’t be grown with peas, beans, asparagus, sage or parsley – hmmm – a bit of plant moving called for there; or that  hardneck scapes taste lovely. Isn’t it terrific to listen to someone who really knows their subject.  I was so inspired  I googled up a scientific monograph on garlic and bought it online. Luckily Rob has a stall at the Christmas Market here and we can buy the bulbs we now know we need to plant.

All this leaves me with a bridge to cross, because I have a visceral dislike of raw garlic – and I’m not the only one; one of our allotmenteering neighbours spent the whole talk with a giant handkerchief pressed to her nose. But the health benefits are so well established it would be marvellous if I could develop a taste for it.  RS Thomas used to eat bulbs of the stuff, but then not many people wanted to talk to him, with or without garlic breath. I used to work with twin brothers, welders, who would eat raw onions with a penknife as if they were apples, but I’m not sure I could stop myself from gagging.  However, the experiment must be done! I’ll say the missionary’s prayer ‘ “Lord, if I get it down will you keep it down?” and my new life will begin – or not as the case may be. But I had a quick look at one scientific paper earlier on, and I read a section from James Wong’s book “How to eat better” and all is not lost because there are workarounds that I can experiment with.

And just to finish, we were given some black garlic to try and it’s beyond delicious.  It’s ‘fermented’ at 60C for a month at high relative humidity and it emerges as a sweet black mildly garlic flavoured paste.  You could eat it with a teaspoon it’s so good.

 

 

 

 

Pot bellied stoves, eyebright and portraits

MVIMG_20191107_115056There’s a shed with a chimney down on the allotments next to Bath Deep Lock on the Kennet and Avon Canal, and on cold days like this an inviting whisp of smoke goes up, suggesting a pot bellied stove and a comfortable carver chair. This, in my view, ought to be a part of every allotment so that on days unsuitable for gardening, some contemplative tea drinking could take place.  However, the rules are strict and this is not permitted on our site.  Our community hut is well on the way to collapsing and so we can’t have those days of idle chatter and shared plans – which is a shame, because from October until March we pretty much retreat from being a community and become singleton allotmenteers, wrapped in double layers of outer clothes and scarves and sharing nodding acknowledgements across the open spaces.

Which said, the winter opens up a number of other ways of idling a cold day away, aside from turning bue in a fierce north easterly. Shopping is one of the less favoured distractions but on our way through town yesterday we caught sight of an apothacary shop selling all sorts of herbal remedies. Buying some kind of eyebright preparation has been on my to-do list for ages.  I’ve had streaming eyes for as long as I can remember, I’m sure people passing me in the street think I’ve just had some terrible news – and I’ve had my eyes examined, put all manner of drops in and taken antihistamine tablets to the point where I was seriously bothered about the effect they might be having on me.  Nothing works.

I’m quite a shy person (don’t laugh) and so shops can be a bit of a challenge, but I went in and was skewered by an assistant with piercing blue eyes and an evagelical faith in the products.  “Got anything with eyebright in it?” I asked. A tiny and hideously expensive phial was produced and as she slipped into her sales pitch I knew I wasn’t going to get away without a whole new theology. “It’s got eyebright and hyaluronic acid in it”,  she said, – “I wear contact lenses and it’s brilliant”. I tried not to look alarmed at the prospect of dropping any kind of acid into my eyes and recalled the name being mentioned alongside a number of trending facial care products, so I acquieced and handed over the loot. I’ve been using them for 24 hours and they certainly ease the redness and irritation so it’s either another example of the placebo effect or they really work.  Either way round I’m happy – but the piercing eyes, oh my, I felt wholly unworthy!  Give me the earthy philoshophy of the tudor herbalists any day.

Then, later to a book signing at Toppings where we heard Celia Paul talking about, and reading from her new book “Self Portrait”. Another set of memorable blue eyes to cope with I’m afraid, but hers were altogether mistier and greyer. I’m hardly breaking any confidences to say that she had a ten year affair with Lucian Freud which began when she was an eighteen year old student at the Slade, and he was a visiting lecturer in his fifties. All this happened many years ago and she is now recognised as a painter in her own right.  The book is, I think, her way of putting her side of a complex story which has recently been told in another biography of Freud where what must have been quite a profound relationship is kind-of airbrushed away.

It was’t a huge crowd, and she was both present and not present in the room as a kind of wraith; her sentences tailed off, she spoke very quietly responding to questions without once looking at the audience.  By the end I was almost sure she’d finish the talk with a “but”.  Actually she writes very well and read her work beautifully but it was painfully obvious that she’s a solitary, a contemplative anchoress in her upper storey studio overlooking the British Museum.

This morning I woke very early with my mind full of her ghostly presence. Back in the 70’s, relationships between older lecturers and young female art students were almost two a penny, but now they’re be properly regarded as completely no-go. The ‘me too’ movement has swept through the acting and modelling sectors, but not – so far – the art schools.  If the lid ever comes off that one there will be some truly shocking abuses of power brought to light.

Enough of these gloomy thoughts. Celia, herself, most certainly doesn’t regard herself as any kind of victim, but her life, and the difficult choices she’s made in order to continue her painting are hard to ignore. We were glad to escape into the cold night.

This year we’ve given up the idea of a Christmas tree and spent the money on a set of LED’s outside the windows that we can share with all our neighbours, and as we walked back we could spot them from 100 yards away, rather blowsy and definitely lowering the tone of the green.  We await a visit from the planners.

 

Ordinary – must clean the hob!

IMG_20191119_092759My mother was very good at the forensic gaze. This morning’s kitchen would have troubled her, I’m certain, but I didn’t even notice that it’s pretty filthy until I put it on the screen. That’s the way of things, I suppose – most of our interiors (mental as well as domestic) would look pretty grubby and a bit random if we were to examine them with the cold eye of a picture editor. But we don’t, and I took the photo to remind myself of the great joys of the ordinary over and against the set-piece strutting that we’d prefer to have you believe about us.

The kettle rarely comes off the hob.  The Potwell Inn, surprisingly perhaps, runs on tea.  Recently we’ve increased our repertore of tea – black tea in the mornings, green tea most of the day and chamomile tea at night.  Since we took a break from the booze we feel better, sleep better and – well – drink tea. The way I make porridge would annoy all purists, GP’s and food faddists – made, as it is, with full cream milk, salt, and eaten with a bit of sugar.  However it lasts all day and reduces fridge-raiding which tends to involve lumps of cheese, so I suppose – on balance – it’s largely neutral. Today the kefir was left sulking in the fridge because it was the coldest night of the season so far and we both fancied something hot.

The loaf of bread is my cover for the grubby hob.  It wasn’t taken out of the oven until late yesterday evening. It was one of those doughs that wasn’t quite right – a bit soft but not at all sticky; not sticky that is, until I came to tip it out of the banneton when it growled at me and refused to budge. After a little stand-off I finally dragged it out, but it left a substantial dollop of dough behind and the loaf itself was far too soft to slash in the usual way, so it had a homeopathic tickle with the knife and went into the oven.  I’ve discovered over the years that making bread needs a similar mindset to making raku pottery.  Letting things be seems to work best. However the whole process involved a good deal of escaping rice flour – which is usually the best for releasing the dough from the banneton – mess which I couldn’t be bothered to clear up apart from a cursory wipe with a cloth before bed.

The ordinary, the homely is the warp of the enterprise of being human and the experiences of the day are the weft.  Together they make cloth – in my case probably some sort of rough old drill and in yours, possibly, evanescent silk. I hacked a crust off the loaf this morning and it was lovely – it was individual; itself. Like Ryokan’s poetry.

Wood chip leaves null point

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In this new unpredictable climate it’s a dubious pleasure to write that this was a typical November day. Not just weatherwise – it was grey, cold and energy sapping – but it was one of those days when you drift listlessly around the allotment sensing a vague smell of decay everywhere and not getting on with anything.  There are jobs that really do need doing, the fruit cage is a mess and the blackcurrents and gooseberries need moving to give them more space but …..

It’s my own fault.  I couldn’t have picked a worse moment to go off on a Gillyflower adventure.  There’s another five weeks of declining day length before we can start to look forward to spring, and so I’ve had my head in the books and fought my way through a vast thicket of botanical misunderstandings (mostly mine) until finally I had a workable understanding of the elusive Gillyflower and the fact that it has more real cousins than is strictly proper, and a few cousins that are not related at all except they smell nice.  Then there were three cousins that I thought were different but turned out to be almost brothers and sisters.

When I used to take funerals, I would always try to find out (in as subtle a way as possible) where the landmines were buried. This lot would give a saint a headache and as far as putting your foot in it goes, they are enough to get you hauled up before the bishop for getting the deceased person’s name wrong. So here goes;

any of a number of fragrant flowers, such as the wallflower or white stock

ARCHAIC a clove scented pink or carnation.

noun: clove gillyflower …..

According to Culpeper there are three sorts – the clove gilliflower (notice his different spelling), the stock gilliflower and the winter gilliflower or wallflower – but the single reference to ‘stock gilliflowers’ seems to suggest he was just using the name as an adjective for scented.

Gerard cites ‘clove gillyflowers’, ‘pinks or wilde gillyflowers’, and ‘sweet williams’ but rates them all as scented herbs without medicinal virues.

But what we are really talking about here are two different families of plants united by their usefulness as perfumes.

Some of them are pinks, sweet williams and carnations which are Dianthus and the others are wallflowers and stocks which are Brassicas.

As far as Shakespeare was concerned the gillyflower was a carnation. None of them appear to have any proven medicinal qualities except cheering you up from the safe distance of a vase, so chasing around the countryside with your copy of Culpeper in hand looking for a cure for your bewildered mind is likely to leave you as confused as you were when you started. The answer is to take an aspirin or, if you prefer, a nice glass of wine, pull the curtains and order seeds for some scented flowers for cutting next year and – if you can’t remember what they’re all called you can wave a languid arm in their general direction and call them gillyflowers. Your friends will admire your scholarship.

 

 

My stiff toe and other spelling mistakes

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Years ago I went to see our doctor with a painfully arthritic big toe.  He was a lovely man and probably didn’t much care for those situations where there was absolutely nothing he could do, and he said “It’s hallux rigidus”. I was a bit disappointed – not so much to be suffering from a ‘real’ disease with a name  – but because hallux rigidus is latin for “stiff toe”. And so I said – ” well I know that –  it’s why I came to see you” and it was clear that we were both trapped in our respective discomfort zones but speaking in different languages.

Latin is an incredibly useful language that the overwhelming majority of us don’t get to learn at school.  Unless you go to a public (US Private) school in the UK you’re very unlikely to know any. I didn’t get any Latin at all until I was almost forty and at theolological college, so although I’m familiar with Latin and Greek I’m a million miles away from any expertise, and that’s why I get cross when I feel Latin is being used to lock me out of the conversation. Latin binomial names can be incredibly useful for distinguishing between similar related plants – especially when getting them right really matters like, for instance in foraging when confusing sweet cicily with hemlock or hemlock water dropwort roots with wlld parsnips. But let’s be clear, it isn’t the latin that’s going to save your life, it’s the skill of patient attention to detail that comes from knowing the family tree down to the remotest second cousin – and that’s always in Latin. English local names for plants can be incredibly poetic and can point you in the direction of possible uses but – sadly –  they’re also very local, so in Derbyshire cow parsley was once known locally as cicily, and an incautious Gloucestershire cook who tried to sweeten their rhubarb with cow parsley would be in for a disappintment.

I have to warn you that this is where I go into full-on obsessive mode – in fact I didn’t post yesterday because the very small amount of time I wasn’t wheelbarrowing leaves and wood chip on the allotment and cooking was spent getting overexcited about plant names. This all started, if you remember, with catching out a modern version of Culpeper’s Herbal in repeating a spelling error in the original book.  I speculated that this was just bad proof reading on Culpeper’s part coupled with a printer’s error.

Then I managed to find the incredibly useful “The Old English Herbals” by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde on the Project Gutenberg site. I found there a quotation from W Coles’ 1656 book “The Art Of Simpling” in which he passes this judgement on Culpeper:

 “Culpeper,” he says, “(a man now dead and therefore I shall speak of him as modestly as I can, for were he alive I should be more straight with him), was a man very ignorant in the forme of Simples. Many Books indeed he hath tumbled over, and transcribed as much out of them as he thought would serve his turne (though many times he were therein mistaken) but added very little of his own.” He even comments on the fact that either Culpeper or his Printer cannot spell aright—“sure he or the Printer had not learned to spell.”

Thank you very much!  – I’ll take that as a vindication, but it makes me wonder whether Culpeper’s herbal was an early example of the coffee table book; owned and displayed, read for its wonderful picture of the times and his descriptions of much loved plants but rarely actually used as a medicinal herbal. It’s certainly the case that it’s still constantly being reprinted and cited in modern books.

I know I’m being a bit of an old curmudgeon , but words really do matter – and getting them wrong leads everyone astray. In the midst of my daydreaming I went off on a brief excursus on the gillyflower.  Where does the name come from? It usually refers to the clove pink – one of the Diathus family, but several other flowers are also known as gillyflowers – so what was going on? Someone suggested it relates to the French month ‘Juillet’ – but another of the so-caled gillyflowers, the wallflower, has finished flowering by July and indeed Culpeper refers to the wallflower as the ‘winter gillyflower’.  Geofffrey Grigson suggests it comes from the French (and Spanish) word for clove – ‘girofle’, which led me to a delightful shuddering stop because not only do I love the perfume of the wallflower but I also associate it with a particular teenage memory which I’ve no intention of sharing except to say that the smell of wallflowers reminds me of one special evening. I don’t think I’ve ever associated that perfume with cloves but my goodness I’m eager to do the research in the spring.

Then on television, the night before last, we were watching Rick Stein’s new programme on French cooking and he remarked in passing that coq au vin was sometimes flavoured with blueberries – which are known in France as Myrtle. I didn’t need a 17th century book to help on that blooper, because we once ate a delicious coq au vin in an auberge in Puy de Dome (which, incidentally was the source of the first printed recipe for the dish in the early 1900’s) and it was flavoured with myrtle – which is ‘myrte’ in French.  Blueberry is known as ‘myrtille’ .  I don’t doubt that myrtille is used in French cooking where it grows in the high country, but myrte is very different, quite austere and memorable.

Anyway being addicted to lists as you may recall, I’ve started a new one with the aim of running as many of Culpeper’s plants down to their current Latin names as I can, and then finding them. But today we’re bashing the galleries again with friends. We went to a student show on Tuesday and it was pretty terrible. My instincts are that there’s nowhere near enough challenge in undergraduate teaching these days and I talked to our teacher son about it.  But he said that the kind of heavyweight challenge that I was talking about would be regarded as abusive in today’s teaching setting. I suppose he’s right, but raising the self-critical faculties would save an awful lot of bad art. It takes courage and resilience to be an artist.

First proper frost of the season

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I love to wake up like we did today and see white frost on the green outside, but this morning it was especially good to see the excited loop drawn on the grass by a dog released from its lead. Who says a line can’t express joy! It’s no less pleasurable to be prepared for frost, and I say so having not been up to the allotment to look for myself. “Possibly” says my inner pessimist – ” all your seedlings are dead”. “Oh do go away”, I think, “and bother someone else”.

We’ve fleeced and cloched all the vulnerable plants, and garlic especially is supposed to positively relish a few days of hard frost – so bring it on, I think.  On the other hand it’s worth wondering what the balance of good practice might be in relation to sheeting, IMG_20191109_151823fleecing and mulching. Creating a warm dry environment under black plastic sheets is a great help to slugs as well as more friendly pests – (just peel the sheet back and look for yourself), so maybe we should be encouraging foxes (on our plot they don’t need much encouragement), badgers who love a fat slug, and hedgehogs as well as toads who equally don’t mind if they do. Oh and don’t forget the birds. I know that those who sell garden supplies would have us think that only an architect designed and artisan produced bee hotel will be suitable, but insects prefer to choose their own overwintering spots.  Every year at this time we have an invasion of ladybirds who creep into the flat and take up their winter quarters in the corners of our ceilings.  I took this photograph in the hall, ten minutes ago.  I suppose we could  spray them with insecticide, but in the spring we’ll be hoping for them to arrive as the aphids get going.  I prefer to see our guests as free biological control breeding colonies.  I’m not so keen on the frass, but that comes off with a wipe anyway.

A bit of botanical history

In a quick update on my Tutsan research, I checked back on the transcribed edition of Culpeper’s Herbal and found that in the 1649 edition the plant was indeed described as ‘Tustan’, but Culpeper wrote that it was no longer much used. It doesn’t seem to appear at all in Gerard a century earlier.  There’s a clue in the indispensible “Englishman’s Flora” when Grigson states that Tutsan had been mistaken in a medieval herbal for another herb altogether, mentioned by Pliny. He goes on to say that by Gerard’s time the misidentification had been corrected and this must have led to its decline, although Culpeper still lists a number of uses. But the 1649 edition is also full of typos – there are dozens if not hundreds listed at the end of the Project Gutenberg edition so perhaps it was a Friday afternoon in November when a short sighted printer with no botanical knowledge at all dropped two pieces of moveable type into the wrong place in a frame and no-one noticed. Why am I so interested in this? Well I spent half my life grappling with understanding and interpreting ancient texts, and old habits die hard.

Some tougher stuff on herbal medicine

And while I’m on the subject of honest errors, I notice in the newspapers another routine round of attacks by conventional medicine on the dangers of herbal medicines.  Let’s be clear, I’m not a gimlet eyed anti vaxxer and I have more reasons than most to be grateful for modern drugs – I take four different drugs every day and without them there’s a signficant chance I’d be in much poorer health than I am.  I have my annual flu jab and so it goes on.  So thank you to the NHS, I’m a fan.  But in his day, Culpeper battled with the Royal College of Surgeons – he wrote this in 1649 as he translated the (Latin) Pharmacoepia Londinensis into the English common tongue, facing the same challenged as did Myles Coverdale and many others in translating the Bible (in 1535) so that any ploughboy might read it.

” The liberty of our Common Wealth   …… is most infringed by three sorts of men, Priests, Physitians, Lawyers”.

Well he would say that wouldn’t he? – he fought with Cromwell in the English Civil War and was a thoroughgoing Puritan radical. He got a serious chest wound which may have been a subsidiary cause of his death from TB at the age of only 39. He could see that many poor people simply couldn’t afford to pay for credentialed physicians and so he gave them what they needed – reliable access to self care. He was always careful to note where a misidentification could be dangerous, and there’s no sense of anything but close observation and attention to detail in his book – but it was a book written in the 17th century translating another put together in the 16th from manuscripts that went back to the first century and using experience gathered from Egyptian, Roman and Greek sources. It can’t be understood without serious study: which is a long way of saying that attacks on herbal medicine that come from a simple 21st century superficial reading of ancient texts suffer from exactly the same flaws as do the attacks by anti-vaxxers on modern scientific medicine – they’re often fuelled and inflamed by a complete failure to understand what the other is really doing.

Undoubtedly herbal medicine can be dangerous and can cause unexpected interactions with conventional medicines. Undoubtedly we could do with better training and more regulation of expensive raw materials, bearing in mind that fake Viagra and illegal steroids are hardly ‘better’ than fake Ginseng or any other herb. Conventional medicine too has its downside.  I found some research by the Universities of Sheffield, York and Manchester published on 23rd February 2018 on the subject of prescription errors: it found that in the UK there were:

  • 237 million medication errors each year
  • An estimated 712 deaths
  • Were a contributory factor to between 17,000 and 22,000 deaths
  • Cost £98.5 million per year to remedy

I tried to find equivalent data for herbal and oriental medicines but it seems that there is very little detailed research and a lot of untested anecdotal evidence floating around. Could this be a clash of ideologies just like the battles of the 16th and 17th centuries? The only way to find out is to do the comparative research on a level playing field. How many times have I heard it said that “there’s no evidence” that a certain treatment works when the reason there is no evidence is because no-one had ever done any research to find any. That’s a politicians trick!

Meanwhile I’ll continue to pick my sceptical way between the opposing sides and use the best informed opinions when it comes to choosing the right therapy. A few weeks ago we had a meal with a GP and a cancer specialist consultant.  I asked in all innocence (ho ho) whether their patients ever asked them about complementary therapies. “All the time” was the response and the conversation was immediately doused with a bucketful of cold silence.

Birmingham but not as you might expect it

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We’ve been going back and forth to Birmingham for twenty years since our son moved there. We’ve grow to love it for all sorts of reasons –  it truly deserves the title of Second City and given the avaricious spread of what Cobbet called the Great Wen, it should probably push London into fourth place for being a pain and hardly fit for a human being to live in.

Anyway this weekend he decided to give us a taste of the unexpected by taking us to Winterbourne House – which used to house the University Department of Botany, and to show us the biggest wildlife corridor I’ve ever seen.  If you wanted to study botany at degree level these days, you’d have to come at it sideways via plant sciences or ecology – not that there’s anything wrong with those disciplines but the days when every science student had to study some field botany are well and truly over, and the discipline has been divided into the fiercely scientific world of DNA, plant breeding and drug development, professional horticulture, and environmental studies that often seem to serve mammon. Finally old-school field botany limps in, populated by relatively mature amateurs who (trust me) really know their brambles and dandelions – I stand in their shadow.  But the buildings and grounds now house all manner of short diplomas and courses organised by the university, so all is not lost.

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Winterbourne House is worth a visit in itself, and the gardens – the old botanical gardens – are an absolute treat as well, a real wildlife haven near the centre of the city. Birmingham is awash with botanical gardens by comparison with most universities. The house itself is rather lovely too – in an ‘upstairs downsairs’ kind of way. I can never quite fit myself into these great houses because I’m painfully aware that in all likelihood I’d have been one of the servants and never the one to disport myself on a chaise longue.

But once you’ve escaped the relative formality of the botanical gardens, you can slip through a gate and get into the Edgbaston Nature reserve which includes a large lake and therefore attracts ducks and swans, plus – to our great delight – a heronry. I can’t remember the last time I saw five, if not six herons at once. All this, remember, in the centre of a great city. Adjoining the reserve there’s a golf course, and we saw a great swathe of green as far as the university halls. Birmingham can be proud of the fact that it’s got more green spaces than any other European city, and they’re big enough to be quiet.  We could clearly hear the university clock chiming the quarters.

Next, then to the main campus nearby and the Barber Institute where, as usual I was bowled over by the very early 13th, 14th and 15th century devotional paintings. But they’ve got a great collection of modern works – Madame was very taken by a Matisse landscape of Corsica which he must have painted on his honeymoon.

IMG_6328Then on Sunday we shipped off to the Wyre forest and shared our walk with innumerable cyclists, dog walkers, families, horseriders and half-marathon runners.  The runners were pretty inspirational – clearly many of them were on personal crusades, some being supported by friends or personal trainers, and all of them up to their ears in mud. The forest is so big and so lovely that it would have been easy to escape the crowds, but it seemed nicer to share the day with all those other people. One of the race stewards said to me  – “Have you seen a bloke in a long cloak and a witches’ hat – he’s bringing up the rear.”  Sadly we didn’t see him but I could have hugged some of the runners who were so far out of their comfort zone. The final stretch was a long slow and muddy climb, and after only about 4 miles we were already tired, but the runners all seemed determined to finish – even at the cost of walking for short periods.

As expected it was a bit late for a great number of fungi, but I managed to photograph a fly agaric, a bolitus which I didn’t want to pick so I couldn’t identify it fully, and candlesnuff fungus.  I’m sure with a guide who knew the forest better than me we could have seen masses of fungi. So home to find two new (second hand) books waiting. Somehow I managed to follow a random trail in search of Elizabeth Blackwell, illustrator of “A Curious Herbal” which was published in parts between 1736 and 1739.  It was a ground breaking book which offered far better illustrations than previous herbals written in English. Her book made enough money to get her dodgy husband out of debtors prison and has subsequently become famous, but when I checked for references in Blunt and Stearn “The Art of Botanical Illustration” I found her summarily dismissed by Blunt as –

“Not worthy of their reputation; the work of an industrious amateur ; and show no touch of genius”.

This loftily dismissive pronouncement by Wilfred Blunt just about sums up in a sentence everything I despise about the art establishment and has left me fuming with indignation.

But enough, I’m ploughing through a rather poor edition of Culpeper whose American editor mis-spells Tutsan (Hypericum androsaemium) as ‘Tustan’ – neatly removing its relationship with Norman French “tout sain” and consistently ‘translates’ ‘divers’ as ‘diverse’. Am I being pedantic to care about it? When it comes to plant names, it’s hard to find better than Geoffrey Grigson’s “The Englishman’s Flora” – I got mine for about 30p and I’m ever fearful it will fall apart.