Come on George Monbiot – you can do better than this!

Cattle doing what comes naturally – eating grass.
“‘Let them eat lentils’ won’t save us from animal farming – we must embrace meat substitute”.

From the very first sentence – “Our insatiable appetite for meat is laying waste to the planet. But the alternative is looking (and tasting) better by the day” – I can hear the voice of my one time sociology lecturer Sid Harris demanding “It all sounds very nice David, but where’s the evidence?” and this piece by George Monbiot is all too characteristic of some of his recent writing. It’s peppered with hot links most of which are references to scientific papers, some of them hidden behind paywalls so we get the headline but none of the supporting evidence. In fact they create the illusion of hard facts without letting us judge for ourselves. The hotlinks and the somewhat breathless style suggest an overuse of green ink and handwritten capitals. The most tendentious statements – like the one above – “Our insatiable appetite for meat is laying waste to the planet ……” is plain silly. I’m pretty hard up but I’d still bet a tenner that Monbiot couldn’t stand that one up without being allowed to empty the shelves of available prejudices and heavily redacted papers. I’ve linked to the whole article, not because I want to promote his fundamentalist views but because they’re an example of the evacuation of analytical thinking from too many mainstream media opinion columns.

Clearly we have an environmental crisis bearing down upon us, and clearly there is some evidence that some farming practices – like intensive feedlots and so-forth make a substantial contribution to that, but to pretend that there is any equivalence between small mixed farms, peasant and subsistence farms and intensive farms with thousands of cattle being fed intensively farmed soya is a deliberate distortion of the statistics. To suggest that meat farming is the principal engine of global climate change is pure vegan wishful thinking. In fact the continuing burning of fossil fuels in every part of the so-called developed world – some of which is used to drive farm machinery and make chemicals and fertilizers – but much of which is used by aviation, private car use, and the transport of foodstuffs over hundreds if not thousands of miles; this is what’s driving the crisis.

Do we eat too much meat? – undoubtedly the answer is yes. We eat too much of it and especially we eat too much of the wrong kind of it; the kind that’s fattened in conditions of appalling cruelty and fattened on food that makes cows sick. They’re ruminants, they evolved to eat grass not grain and soya meal. Should we ignore ethical questions surrounding farming and troll people who elect not to eat meat? Of course not, and I wish they’d stop the trolling in the opposite direction. Does referring to milk as an “animal secretion” encourage sensible debate? Do I really need to answer that? Is there any doubt among scientists that the way in which Co2 equivalent is calculated is at least questionable? – here’s a link to a paper in Nature that you can actually read!

As long as we allow this critical debate to be dominated by cherry picked evidence and hyperbolic statements on all sides, the battle to save the earth will be stalled. We don’t have the leisure of all the time we need to sort this out – successive COP meetings have seen time and energy wasted by bad faith and bad data.

The wildlife and plants that are so important to me and to millions of us have value in their own right, although they have no seat at the table to make their case. They are the canaries in the mine and they are disappearing by their hundreds and thousands while this sterile debate goes on.

If only it was true that we could save the earth by doing just one thing – ban farming; ban big cars, blah blah blah – but we can’t because it’s a hugely complex problem with more tentacles than the Hydra in Greek mythology. The simplest explanation – but it’s not that much help – is that the age of extraction, burning, waste and neoliberal economics has run its course. We need to find an alternative, but much as I admire some of George Monbiot’s work, columns like this one are not going to be part of the solution because they’re part of the problem.

Suck ‘ee for a wallsie – as we used to say – before the dialect died

Roughly translated that lovely piece of Bristolian rudeness means spin on that one Jack – or in received pronunciation – I think I was right after all, old chap!

So before we came down to Cornwall I had high hopes of finding a few interesting plants because there’s nothing quite as rewarding as getting a tiny square on a species map attributed to you by name (not that anyone except Q or some equivalently highly placed person would be able to access it). I wrote yesterday about the trainspotter infection and today the fix I needed arrived by email confirming my records for two plants that are pretty rare because they only grow here. They are Muehlenbeckia complexa AKA Wireplant, top left going clockwise; which is – in botanical terms – a recent alien from New Zealand but which hasn’t been recorded for 12 years; and then Allium ampeloprasum var. babingtonii – Babington’s Leek which is also known at the site but I found two new previously unrecorded nearby sites for it.

It may be a bit counterintuitive but in the botanical/ecological world, a plant doesn’t exist if it’s not recorded – which can be crucial when designating protected sites. But in January there aren’t many flowers to go by so we have Poland and Clement’s “The Vegetative Key to the British Flora which is basically a book of leaves”, and very good it is.

Records, however can’t be entered before they’ve been verified by a proper botanist and so we humbly present our finds with photos, measurements and all the rest; submit them and wait for the confirmatory email. Luckily the County Recorders are a brilliant bunch and very friendly , especially to beginners, and so being corrected becomes a positive learning experience rather than a crushing humiliation.

And so it came to pass today that I got the confirmations and two little red squares appeared on the national map. A matter of stupefying unimportance to the mentally sound population but in Chris Packham’s terms worth a good thigh rub! Sadly, Babington’s Leek is sold in packets by many seed merchants but for me that doesn’t diminish the pleasure of finding really wild ones.

So a short but jolly post tonight and tomorrow looks sunny so we’ll be out and about seeing what we can find. Madame has a wonderful eye for plants – we make a perfect team.

Take a bow, Simon Fairlie

Photographs taken in the Lost Gardens of Heligan farm in October 2018

Walking, reading, thinking and writing just about sums up my idea of a good holiday. Mercifully Madame feels much the same and so on our trips away anyone keeping a close eye on us might conclude that we’ve nothing to say to each other; but they don’t see the subsequent conversations in which we read aloud extracts from the books we’re reading and share ideas. It’s just that when we’re out and about we don’t always need to talk because that’s when my eyes are on the hedgerows looking for plants and hers are focused in the trees looking for birds, butterflies and all the rest.

Anyway, this week amongst all the other things we’ve done I’ve been reading Simon Fairlie’s autobiographical book “Going to Seed”. I may as well get the unsolicited plug out of the way by recommending it wholeheartedly for many reasons – not least if you’re around the same age as me it will evoke warm memories of what turned out to be a brief and largely unsuccessful rebellion against the status quo, but also if you’re the same age as our children and grandchildren it will fill in the embarrassing details of how we lived our lives to the full in the 70’s and 80’s. Far from impoverishing their inheritance we (some of us) were actually trying to create a sustainable and more fulfilled future for them, but we were no match for the suits who were better practiced at creating the narratives of pure hokum which were the real cause of the current crisis. Those times were good and bad in equal measure, but we set up cooperatives, lived in a couple of communes and earned peanuts from insecure part time jobs. The book is a thoroughly good read and Fairlie never lets his self critical gifts slip. We got things wrong and underestimated the sheer inertia of the status quo. On the other hand, if ever there was a time to revisit some of those visionary ideas it’s now in the face of the global systemic failure of economics, species extinctions and environmental catastrophe.

Simon Fairlie has also written “Meat, a Benign Extravagance” – a carefully argued case for small scale sustainable mixed farming that takes on some of the shriller and sillier notions of fundamentalist veganism as well as demolishing the arguments of the agrochemical giants. It’s a joy to see the supporting evidence for all of his arguments – “go check for yourself” he invites us, rather than following the probably apocryphal story of the preacher whose sermon was annotated with the words “argument weak here – shout loudly!”

There’s a third book “Low Impact Development” that I haven’t managed to read yet but is available secondhand. But there’s another reason why I find an instinctive kindred spirit in him. Starting from opposite ends of the social spectrum we were both difficult, argumentative and occasionally reckless teenagers; both ultimately thrown out of school and both on a journey – me towards a proper education and he in pursuit of the practical skills of a social class from which he’d been excluded by birth and culture. Neither of us – and I’ve never met him – were apparently prepared to swallow the predigested bird food that passed for an education – the question “why?” was so burned into our souls.

You may have gathered that I’m a binge reader and so a modest amount of research threw up two excellent magazines, the first of which – The Land Magazine – he is co-editor, and another – Resilience – to which he is a regular contributor. One article that caught my eye can be found on this link to Resilience which lists all of his contributions. If you search for the article “A convenient Unruth” you will find a forensic takedown of the current debate about the methane emissions of ruminants. He makes a convincing argument that the widespread obsession with cattle emissions is based on bad reporting which is not the fault of the scientists who came up with an initial estimate of the global warming effects of methane which has been falsely used to imply that methane emissions are, in simple terms, 32 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide. This false claim is possible only by ignoring the fact that methane degrades relatively quickly (a half-life of ten years) whereas carbon dioxide never degrades. I’m simplifying greatly here, but given that the size of the national UK herd has declined over the past 30 years whereas car ownership and Co2 emissions have grown enormously, the arguments pursued by George Monbiot – whilst they may have real ethical weight – are scientific nonsense. Fairlie is as firmly against intensive agrochemical farming as is Monbiot; but again the reason is the prodigious cost in Co2 emissions of fertilizers, agrochemicals, gigantic farm machinery and grotesque transport footprint. No amount of cherry picked evidence is forgivable if the net result is to send agriculture to oblivion and force feed the rest of us with junk food gloop produced by the multinational food corporations using huge quantities of green energy that would be better applied to new mass transport systems or ending the scandal of old people freezing in their homes.

So yes – hats off to Simon Fairlie, and if I ever buy a scythe it will be from him. Prophets are rarely appreciated in their own country.

The biblical “Last Trump” probably sounds (and looks) a bit like this.

The Lizard lighthouse foghorns
Is Cornish culture on its last legs?

I can’t find a single photograph I’ve ever taken of the Lizard Village. We’ve visited it many times and, in the past camped there; in fact yesterday we saw a decommissioned helicopter parked incongruously in the paddock of a farm where we once washed ourselves in with nothing more than a cold tap and an outside privy. The post office where we waited for an emergency bailout from my sister has closed; the pub where I tried to sample every whisky and ended up knocking myself half senseless (the other half had already gone), on a low beam – closed. The little restaurant where we spent the last of our money and I tasted guinea fowl for the first time, closed. The only supermarket has gone and the last of the serpentine turners appears to have turned his last lighthouse ornament and then turned up his toes. The trippers still arrive like locusts in the summer and strip any green shoots of the old culture bare, so everything is distorted and could ultimately be destroyed by tourism. There’s barely a pig shed in Cornwall that’s not been converted into a holiday let or an airBnb, and hardly a spoil heap that’s not been turned into an “experience” by a small time entrepreneur.

Years ago John Betjeman described the Lizard as depressingly full of buildings like army married quarters, and it hasn’t improved over the past 50 years. The only remnant of our first ever visit is the Regent Cafe on the green where, a few summers ago we saw a poster advertising the ancient Cornish sport of whippet racing.

All that said, we still love the knackered old place and come back year after year because a short walk beyond the village takes us to the coast path and the lighthouse whose fog horn is a thing of wonder. I’m sure I permanently damaged my hearing, sitting as close as I dared when it was working and listening to the fan starting up and build steadily until an almighty blast straight from hell poured into the air and echoed all around the surrounding bays. It hit you in the belly and rattled your teeth; the tinnitus lasted for hours afterwards then there was silence. For a while.

Why so, then? As politicians often say “I’m glad you asked me that” and then go on to talk about the new cycle lanes they’ve personally fought for in their constituencies. Cornwall’s a mess but nobody could argue it’s all the fault of the English or the tourists. The road improvements to the A30 and the A38, and many other important infrastructure and cultural projects were paid for by the EU which the Cornish voted in force to leave. The fishermen who were especially keen to regain our sovereignty soon found that they could no longer afford to sell their fish in a Europe from which we’d separated ourselves. Some skippers known locally as slipper skippers sold their boats to the scrapyard and their quotas to the Spanish who repaid their naivety by dredging the sea empty. The NHS failed to receive the promised £350 million a week and the GP surgery in Lizard is now in a single tiny prefab building, and in spite of the enormous success of the lost gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project which have brought money and good jobs to the poorest part of Cornwall, when Tim Smit tried to open an education centre in Lostwithiel the objections from the locals poured in and the project looks like being scrapped. It seems that finding a future for Cornwall other than hospitality and seasonal homelessness is rather like the kind of hopeless task presented by what Michael Balint the psychoanalyst called “heart sinkers”.

All of which mournful thoughts floated around in my mind during what I thought was a terrible night but which my Withings watch scored at 100%. Re -reading Fred Pearce’s “The New Wild” recently I began to wonder whether our negative attitudes towards invasive plant, insect and animal species didn’t find an exact parallel in some of our instinctive responses to tourism. These attitudes in humans draw from deep wells. Apparently just as the English tell jokes about the Welsh and the Irish and never fail to wonder at the meanness of the Scots – none of which stereotypes have any foundation in fact; the Russians make fun of the Ukrainians, and we all know where that leads to; so the Cornish refer to out of county visitors as “grockles” who, given a moment’s reflection, are the one reliable source of income in a county which has lost virtually all of its traditional employment. The tin and the copper mines are gone. Fibre optics will probably mean that the copper market will never really gain strength. Fishing is largely gone due to overfishing which wasn’t all down to Spanish supertrawlers. The quota system is the bastard child of overfishing in the face of all the evidence.

Looking around there are no obvious replacements apart from tourism – I’ll probably get hate mail for this – so right now, any attempt to go back to some imagined past by legislating against the one reliable source of income is doomed to fail. The lithium mine being proposed is about the last thing Cornwall needs at the moment. The specialist workers may well be brought in from beyond the Tamar and in any case if you add in the principle that the polluter pays the environmental damage and the excessive use of water ought to scupper the project on the drawing board. The world needs what Cornwall needs – better mass transport systems and less cars on the road and a new vision of fulfilled life.

Living in Bath can feel a bit like living in a theme park at times but without the tourists (and the students) the local economy would collapse. We have become inured to the shock of crossing Royal Crescent in front of a battalion of portly Roman re-enactors, or weaving a course down Milsom Street between 100 variations of a Jane Austin character. I don’t suppose the Cornish are any more pleased at seeing people queuing on a beach to take Poldark selfies.

The Lizard is a real botanical hotspot as well as a half legendary miasma of once upon a time gallimaufry. In two days I’ve found a couple of real rarities and one local newspaper recently latched on to the possibilities of enticing visitors here with a different quarry than ice cream, pasties and fish and chips. Writers like Fred Pearce are arguing that alien species often bring new and vital energy to an ageing or damaged ecosystem and simply eradicating them is an expensive way of doing even more damage.

Changing the profile of visitors would be slow work and the massive problem of housing shortages would need a great deal of new affordable building alongside restrictions or (as in Wales) financial disincentives to second homes. Schemes like Tim Smits proposed Lostwithiel education centre need to be encouraged whilst perhaps steering them away from the NIMBY strongholds. There will need to be a huge emphasis on secondary and tertiary education because farming and fishing will remain profoundly important to the local economy, but embracing ecologically sustainable methods would pay a premium. Of course this would cost money, but the UK government seems to have £billions at their disposal for lining their rich mates’ pockets.

And let it never be said that the village communities are now broken beyond repair. We were chatting to a woman in a local Farm shop who told us that a local fishing boat had sunk just before Christmas. Luckily the crew of two were members of the lifeboat crew and did all the right things but spent 20 minutes in freezing water before they were rescued by their mates in the lifeboat. Within days the community had rallied round and raised thousands of pounds to support the two men who now had no means of earning a living. A few years ago the same village crowd funded the purchase of a vital building on the seafront that had been used by the fishermen for generations. What these threatened communities need more than anything else is a long term plan and the long term funding to bring it off.

Old Watermill in Poltesco.

It’s tuppence for the plant and a tenner for knowing where to find it.

Cadgwith in winter

Back again in a very special place but with little expectation of finding many of the wildflowers that make the Lizard peninsula one of Britain’s botanical hotspots. We come here in the winter because it’s much cheaper and not crowded – it’s as simple as that – but in a month or two the great explosion of wildflowers will begin; some of them quite unique to this area. For now we were hoping to spot the earliest Celandines and perhaps one or two other bits and bobs that sometimes defy the season. John Wright; writer and forager doesn’t really rate this time of the year. We saw young shoots of Sea Beet and there are Jelly Ear fungi on some of the Elders but for foragers (I’m not one of them) he says January is a poor month and February is “much the same only worse” . For a while the Facebook site of the British Mycological Society has specialized in readers’ photographs of mouldy rice puddings and cakes. Most of the time it’s an amazingly useful resource for learning fungi. Yesterday we spotted lots of emerging young leaves – Cow Parsley was one, and one or two plants were even in flower; Gorse flowers in every month as does the Red Campion, if it can find a sheltered spot. Alexanders are in early leaf, seven or eight inches high and we spotted some lovely Narcissi, escaped from a garden. Not much need for the flower guide at this time of the year but if you like that kind of thing Poland and Clements have produced a very useful “Vegetative Key to the British Flora.” which – if you like quizzes will keep you amused for hours in the winter. We were just happy to be out in the cold wind and the sunshine.

As we walked down to Kynance Cove where the cafe was unexpectedly open I shared a lump of fruit cake with a Rock Pipit that was very nearly hand tame – so tame in fact that I wondered what bird it could be that looked so much like a Rock Pipit but which behaved more like a Robin.

Walking down I also caught sight of an unfamiliar plant that looked like Heather but just wasn’t right. I ignored it and we carried on down to the Cove’ but on the way back I paused and looked again and realized that perhaps I knew what it was – in one of those ways that you sometimes just know something without knowing how.

I think this is probably Cornish Heath, Erica vagans

I’m taking a risk but I’ll say it’s probably Cornish Heath, Erica vagans; but I’ll readily concede to a better botanist. What’s exciting – if I’m right – is that it only really thrives here on the Serpentine rock of the Lizard. Checking on another website I see it can be found occasionally further up-country but it’s plentiful here on the Lizard and it’s one of Stace’s two star rarities. So (again, if I’m right,) we did manage to spot at least one local hero.

Which prompts a thought. We’re constantly reading about what a good thing it is to be out in nature. Now I know nature lights me up but I’m all too aware that a lot of people pass through it in search of an ice cream without noticing a thing. I don’t blame them because our whole culture teaches us from childhood that nature is lovely to look at, but not that we are a part of it. Naming other beings is far more important than cataloguing them. Each old plant friend we meet provokes a moment of recognition and reflection. Each greeting is a moment of meditation on the sheer diversity and beauty of the plant world. Could it be that the much written about benefits of nature are somehow related to the release of endorphins that comes with a meeting – “Hi I’m Dave, and I think you must be Erica vagans”. Cue warm surge! There must be a PhD that’s looked at this surely? Here are some more photos. The Alexanders on the top left has a kind of gall I don’t think I’ve ever seen before but I think it might be some kind of Phyllocoptes.

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.

Uncle Jim drops by

The shed – damaged by vandals two years ago

Our hearts sank when a post on the allotment group Facebook page alerted us to the fact that once again we’d had intruders on the site who had broken into about 15 sheds. Luckily, this time we had escaped their attention. It’s impossible to overstate how insecure this made us feel. Theft and vandalism are almost universal on allotment sites and the emotional damage is enormous. There’s a huge difference between a garden and an allotment plot because your garden is usually attached to, and part of your home – whereas an allotment is often several miles away and also open to all comers. It’s almost impossible to insure your tools for that reason, and of course vandalism and theft of crops puts your plans back by a whole season.

A couple of nights ago I couldn’t sleep. My mind was churning over some big issues when I had a flash of inspiration about one aspect of the Potwell Inn that I’d never really articulated. The reasoning behind the name of this fictitious place comes from the HG Wells novel “A History of Mr Polly” and the campervan is called Polly for that reason. I first read the novel as an English set book when I was at school. I’d reached that awkward stage in life – my early teens – when nothing seemed to work. Nothing fitted or suited me and I felt bolshy and shy in equal measure. Most of my teachers had fought in the war and their various traumas were all too apparent – often rude, domineering and gimlet eyed when it came to any deviation from the straight and narrow of a lesson plan that could never ever accommodate my restless mind. There were exceptions of course. Bill Williams could make maths into an intellectual adventure; Chris Levinson introduced me to modern American poetry and literature. Whacker Allan, notwithstanding his considerable and violent canings never dimmed my determination to get to France; but Punch Neesham thought that a headlock was the best way to facilitate the removal of a sweet from a fourteen year old’s mouth. So reading “Polly” was a bit of a revelation to me – offering an escape route from all that. I didn’t identify with Polly, because for a while I became him. I wanted to fall in love – anyone would do. I wanted to clown around and, if need be, burn down the crippling suburban prison in which I felt trapped.

When eventually aged 17 I was escorted out of school by the scruff of the neck by a Headmaster who had a great deal to be modest about, it felt like a kind of liberation. Whatever crap I found myself wading through, I knew that it was my crap; my choice and I could endure it because the alternative was to fall into a pit of mediocrity in which you were promoted for not threatening the system.

The thought of finding or creating my own version of the Potwell Inn never left me. Sometimes it came to me as a kind of vision – like the memory of drinking a pint of Exmoor Gold leaning on the sea wall outside the Griffin at Dale. If ever anyone saw my eyes drifting away during times of particular hardship it was because I’d have taken a temporary absence in my mind. Back to the pub and the sea. Once I’d got together with Madame – I was 18 and she was only 15 – we were able to break away and create the first of many iterations of the Potwell Inn together.

But there was always Uncle Jim to contend with. In the novel he’s the landlady of the Potwell Inn (AKA the plump woman’s) nephew. He’s a violent drunk who believes he has been cheated of his inheritance – the pub – and occasionally turns up in the midst of their little paradise threatening terrible things. In our own lives there were lots of Uncle Jims and you never knew when, or in what disguise, they were going to turn up; often in the form of someone claiming to want to help, and especially as people who thought my whole purpose as a parish priest was to do exactly what they required of me and act as some kind of chaplain to their mysterious status quo.

My restless night suddenly reminded me that that Potwell Inn – that’s to say this particular version of it – is a very precious and visionary place that somehow overlaps our real lives and sometimes for a few hours or even days actually becomes our real lives. Most of the time, living in the centre of the city where in winter the sun really does set over the needle exchange we need the Potwell Inn to help us recover. In our souls we take it everywhere, especially in Polly the campervan.

Today, across the Green, the river is running higher than we’ve ever seen over the past seven years. The riverside paths are covered by up to a couple of feet of muddy water travelling faster than I could run, and Pulteney Weir has all but disappeared. We’ve had drought and record summer temperatures, a vicious cold spell, unduly warm winter weather and now days and days of heavy rain. We’re at a bit of a loss to decide what to grow next year because this global climate catastrophe is galloping up on us. A less than divine visitation by an all too humanly created Uncle Jim. And suddenly the Potwell Inn takes on a whole new dimension and becomes a kind of Ark.

December 2020 – this year the water is two rails higher.

How to be a foreigner – and why MFK Fisher is such an inspirational food writer

The scorpion, by the way, was in our rented apartment in Uzès in Provence. Fortunately it was dead when we found it. But that’s another story.

I discovered MFK (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher by chance when I was reading about Julia Child, the famous American food writer and author of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking . This enormous 2 volume opus became hugely influential in the US after the first volume was published in 1961 but when it was later published in the UK, Elizabeth David had already pretty much seized the narrative. I’d never even heard of MFK Fisher until very recently, and if you share my abject ignorance on her work then I’d recommend the book “Provence 1970” written by her great nephew Luke Barr, who also directed an excellent biographical film which is available on YouTube. In his book he writes about one summer when Fisher, Julia Child, and James Beard were all in Provence at the same time and talked cooked and ate together regularly. Richard Olney and Elizabeth David were also in and out of France at the time but it seems that they thought that as a cookery writer, Fisher was a bit of an imposter – they were absolutely wrong in the sense that Fisher could write them both into a cocked hat. David, of course, introduced the whole mediterranean food culture to the UK and for that she claims the laurels, but she was by no means the only one. Before David, Patience Gray was the better selling food writer, and remains one of my favourites. Each one of them brought something important to the table, as it were, and between them they changed the course of culinary history of both America and the UK.

So how can these writers, publishing so long ago, ( Fisher was born in 1908) still seem so critically important? In my view that’s a daft thought because Fisher is every bit as alive and relevant today as RL Stevenson, whose “Travels with a Donkey in the Cevenne” is as fresh and modern today as it was when first published. They all have something to say about being human, and Fisher across 25 books and countless magazine and newspaper articles, not to mention television appearances seems set to become closer to my heart than any of the others. She writes like a 21st century woman; she’s a forensic analyst of human cultures and as always Richard Olney and Elizabeth David – in their rather bitchy way – had something of the truth. She wasn’t such a great cook but she was a brilliantly perceptive eater. When you read her accounts of living in Aix, Arles and Marseilles – especially if you’ve spent time there; and when you read about her youthful life in Dijon with her first husband you feel that even as a foreigner she managed to see behind the triumphs, evasions and stubborn conservatism of the French culinary scene of her day.

Her life wasn’t all wine and roses, and yes, she had money which enabled her extensive travels in Europe, but her first marriage ended when she met the love of her life who was suffering from a terrible illness that took him away after only very few years. A third long term relationship was distant and dwindled away after the birth of her two daughters; and so she brought them up as a single mother. There were other relationships about which she remained discreetly silent. As I said earlier a surprisingly modern life for a woman born in 1908.

And she wrote like an angel. Madame would tell you, if you met her, that my enthusiasm for a book can be measured in the amount of time I spend reading passages aloud to her. Reading together in bed at the Potwell Inn can be a surprisingly noisy and competitive business. “Two Towns in Provence” in the chapter “The Foreigner” would serve more than adequately as a set text for a graduate course in anthropology – it’s just laugh out loud funny as she deals with an arrogant French lunchtime host who wastes no opportunity to compare unfavourably American food with French cuisine. MFK’s response – sending a coffin shaped basket of flowers, ending the acquaintance forever with a funeral gift – is one I’ll treasure and perhaps even borrow if the need ever arises. Here’s another taster:

There are myriad facets to invisibility, and not all of them reflect comfort or security. Often I have been in pain, in my chosen role of The Stranger. Just as often I have counted on being so, and was not. Learning to be invisible has, of course, some moments worse than others. Perhaps I felt them most fiercely during the first months of my stay in Aix in 1954. I was alone in Europe for the first time in my life really; always before I had been the companion of some- one well loved, who knew more than I did about everything, even things like tickets and monies. I had been younger, too, and full of confidence. Now I was single, with two small daughters, and a world war and some private battles had come between the two women of myself, so that I felt fumbling and occasionally even frightened.

Perhaps it was a little like learning to walk again: I must try hard to trust my weakened muscles, my halting tongue, and most of all the dulled wits in my graying head, so that my children would not suspect me and lose confidence.

MFK Fisher “Two Towns in Provence”

Of the writers I’ve mentioned only Patience Gray comes close in her understanding of the whole culture through its food. Where Olney and David were always difficult and insecure in spite of their fame, Fisher was obviously a writer who didn’t need to be liked. “This is what I found” – I can imagine her saying – “and if you don’t like it you can shove it!”. Her editors must have despaired at her unashamed openness. She had an erotic connection to food and life and it perfuses all her writing. I beg you to explore this body of work. The only book I haven’t enjoyed is a bit of a potboiler called “How to feed a wolf” which was commissioned to meet a market for a severely rationed wartime food supply. I sensed her heart wasn’t in it but her celebrity never paid the bills and she was a proper writer!

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.

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