Seals, field mice and borlotti beans

Ripe borlotti on the allotment

The Chinese five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water) have their equivalents in the seasons which are listed in the same sequence – spring, summer, long (otherwise known as late) summer, autumn and winter. We have the idea of an “Indian summer” which refers to exceptionally warm weather in late autumn, much later than this present month of September; but there is always, I think, a perceptible change around this time of the year between the harvesting of almost all the crops at the end of August, and the beginning of September, but before the onset of true autumn usually counted at the equinox. These are blessed and luminous days when the earth seems to be resting and soaking up the last of the sun’s warmth before the declining days with the onset of autumn and winter. These are the days when the blackberry and sloe and if we’re lucky – the field mushroom teach us that all food is a gift.

Today it’s been raining, but last week, away in the campervan in Pembrokeshire we were enjoying historically fine weather. Whether we call it long or late summer wthere is this turning point where we gather food; preserving and storing it to take us through the winter months. We harvest and process the last of the tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and melons and clear the polytunnel ready for the winter; and it takes on the mantle of a spiritual observance. 

The inflow and outflow of the earth’s energy that sustains us; the sun’s energy that – through the miracle of photosynthesis – we harvest as food; and the moon’s energy that drives the tides and the more subtle seasons. The Taoist concept of yin and yang; strength and weakness; forcefulness and yielding – is a far better way of understanding our place in nature. There’s a great deal to be learned about the spirituality of gardening as seen in this fundamental cycle of birth and death; growth, ripening and senescence. We’ve grown so addicted to our illusory power; our great polluting machines and our chemicals, that we almost believe that there is no problem that cannot be solved by technology. As Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) once wrote. “If we declare war on nature we declare war on ourselves.” Perhaps it’s expressed even more powerfully in Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao te Ching:

When man interferes with the Tao

the sky becomes filthy,

the earth becomes depleted,

the equilibrium crumbles,

creatures become extinct.

Lao-Tzu, Tao te Ching – part of chapter 39, translated by Stephen Mitchell.

This is a season of ingathering and inbreathing and  it feels appropriate that the Chinese season of late summer is associated with the earth – one of the Chinese five elements. On the allotment trail cam we found a short video of a field mouse swaying precariously at the top of one of our Calendulas in the middle of the night, greedily eating the seeds. There was something beautiful about its enormous eyes and ears; its lightness, clinging to the stalks, its vigilance and vulnerability to predators. I wouldn’t begrudge it a single seed.

Ramsey Island at sunset

Back in Pembrokeshire last week, times we could hear the tide in Ramsey Sound almost roaring through The Bitches, but as it approached the null points of ebb or flow there was a late summer moment where it flowed neither here nor there but just rested, waiting until the balance changed and began the whole cycle again. The seal cows were gathering to birth their pups on their secluded hauls at the bottom of the cliffs – out of the reach of humans.

Some years ago we were camping near Skomer Island during the puffin season, when a huge cruise liner drew close to the island and discharged a dozen high speed ribs from the side, like invading marines.  The birdwatchers swept in towards the island laden with binoculars and cameras, and within an hour had gone again. What do you call that kind of ecotourism if not dangerous and exploitative? What sort of good could ever come from this phony immersion in nature?

On Tuesday, as we walked the coast path, we spotted a grey seal cow, heavily pregnant, lolling in the sea, eying us curiously from a hundred feet below . She looked old – something about her grizzled muzzle was weatherbeaten and aged. We were sufficiently close, with the help of my binoculars, for her face to fill the lenses. She had huge black eyes and nostrils and was so profoundly different a lifeform that, putting away any anthropomorphic nonsense, we had little else in common except for being alive and being there in the same place watching one another. There was no part of her being that I could appropriate to my own experience – we were both equally deserving of our part of the web of nature and yet her aloof thusness was complete. Around her were several other seal cows and their pups.

Sadly the seals have become a tourist attraction and from where we were camping on the clifftop we could see one powerful boat after another, all loaded with visitors, pause their engines momentarily at the regulated distance for photographs to be taken, and then accelerate away leaving a double wake that agitated the calm water of the sound for minutes, before the next boatload arrived. 

However, aside from all the philosophical maunderings it will please the borlotti worshippers to know that we are about to harvest this year’s crop, which has gone well. Not so well in the three sisters experiment where rust and moth didn’t bother us as much as thieves breaking in to steal. Between the rats and the badger the sisters were nibbled, sat upon and starved of light – which goes to show that some horticultural ideas are very regionally specific. Luckily we hedged our bets and the individual sisters have all yielded a crop for the winter.

The allotment is looking uncharacteristically weedy and tatty now, but we don’t take it personally – it’s always like this at this time. The good news is that during last week’s hot spell the aubergines finally started to yield a late second flush. The real challenge is to remove the old and replant the new so that not so much as a square inch is left exposed to the winter wind and rain.

Without the farmers there is no solution to the environmental crisis

I think this is a Katahdin sheep – photographed in St Davids this week

I ought to agree with George Monbiot more than I do. To all intents we’re on the same side of the argument when it comes to the climate catastrophe that’s bearing down on us; and yet there’s one theme that keeps on coming up in his columns, films and writing that’s typified in his column in today’s Guardian.

He reiterates his argument that governments are acting far too slowly to the crisis but then, in a throwaway line without any attempt to stand it up he writes this:

But net zero commitments by other sectors work only if farmland goes sharply net negative. That means an end to livestock farming and the restoration of forests, peat bogs and other natural carbon sinks.

George Monbiot in his Guardian column.

I’ve just finished reading Nicolette Kahn Hyman’s “In defence of beef” and I’m now reading Charles Massy’s book “Call of the warbler” which is a brilliant and passionate book about the Australian farmers who are trying to rectify the terrible damage done to their soils by decades of intensive farming and heavy chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, justified by the mindset he terms “the mechanical mind”.

Amongst a pile of challenging and hopeful ideas, one in particular comes to the fore – it’s to do with rewilding and reforesting. Thinking just about water runoff, one of the ideas that keeps getting pushed is tree planting. I don’t know enough about soil hydrology to put numbers to this but it seems possible that the amount of water capture achieved by tree planting would be very much smaller than the capture that could be achieved by the combination of tree planting and soil improvement. What emerges from Alan Savory’s methodology is that undergrazing is as dangerous as overgrazing in promoting desertification. Bringing back beavers to slow runoff is obviously a good idea, but it’s a stage too late by the time runoff reaches the streams and rivers. Here’s where there’s a possibility of working with farmers to improve upland areas which are often overgrazed, by subsidising tree planting (right kind of long-lived mixed woodland that could be possible in lower regions) and holistic grazing management that would rebuild soil structure and increase water holding capacity. What is clear is that if we just put a fence around upland areas and do nothing, the results would be unpredictable and possibly adverse; quite aside from driving out an established culture of small farms that manage the landscape on our behalf. Farmers – hill farmers particularly – are a conservative bunch and would need persuading that a different way of managing flocks and landscape could still provide a (likely subsidised) income and guaranteed future. To quote from “In defence of beef” – it’s not the cow but the how!

The takeaway point from these and many other studies – I think immediately of Simon Fairlie’s “Meat, a benign extravagance” – but I could as easily cite Sir Albert Howard’s “An Agricultural Testament” or a dozen other writers – the contribution that livestock can make to soil recovery if, (this is the important bit) – if – grazing is part of a holistic rotation, mob grazing is one type.

So after a fifty year obsession with intensive farming and the inexorable rise in consumption of junk food we’re starving and dying prematurely in a sea of waste, while species extinctions rise and pollution threatens our rivers. My point is that our problems aren’t caused by livestock farming per se but by intensive industrial farming. Of course we need to change the how of livestock farming, and of course we will necessarily have to eat much less, but far higher quality meat. The evidence is mounting that it’s not meat eating that’s causing the epidemic of ill health, but refined sugar and junk food. If only George Monbiot would read the evidence he would be able to take a much more balanced view of the potential for farming to mitigate some of the most pressing climate issues. It’s a fact that well managed grazing can capture carbon and increase water retention while providing high quality food at the same time. Until human beings learn how to digest grass and twigs – OK cellulose – we will probably need to access some high quality protein, vitamins and trace elements by consuming meat. It’s not coherent to argue that we should all be vegans. We in the UK are stuck/blessed with a vast amount of grassland that’s unsuitable for any other agricultural use than grazing, and all the oughts in the world will not grow a single soybean on a Welsh hill farm. Oughts and is’s are not – as any first year ethics student will know – interchangeable.

To return to an earlier point, undergrazing is as bad for the soil as overgrazing and so any sort of walking away strategy for so-called rewilding is a recipe for ecological disaster – just a different sort of disaster from the one being caused by intensive industrial farming. So while I agree with 90% of what George Monbiot writes, simply ending livestock farming would just throw the baby out with the bathwater. Charles Massy’s book shows several instances where farmers have reduced fertilizer and pesticide use to zero, improved biodiversity, reduced fossil fuel use and increased profitability all at the same time. Here in the UK, the much talked about Knepp wilding project uses grazing livestock as an integral part of their strategy.

In our compartmentalized way of thinking it’s easy to divide the climate catastrophe into ring fenced enclosures. We think that it would be a good thing to increase pollinating insects, but don’t think much about the role that insect predators, sawflies, hoverflies could play in reducing pesticide use. The whole chain of nature is one, vastly complex web of interactions. The only way to address the problem is to treat it holistically, not to imagine that we can change nature by cutting out the bits we don’t like. Ending, or attempting to end livestock farming would lead to the degradation of landscapes, the loss of habitat and biodiversity, and the destruction of human skills and communities that persisted for generations until the industrial mechanical model took over. Without enlisting the farmers to replace industrial farming with smaller and local mixed farms with strong ties to their communities and short supply lines; without reducing fossil fuel use on farms and putting aside our addiction powerful earth destroying machinery and chemicals; without transforming our entire food system, we shall see ever more destructive exploitation of the best croplands accompanied by the profound loss of the grassland biodiversity. Let’s say it – no more lapwing, skylark or any of the ground nesting birds.

I go back over and again to Michael Pollan’s dictum – “Eat food, not too much, mostly veg.”

Maybe get the right tools first??

If you’ve ever spent agonising hours trying to push tomato pulp through a chinois or sieve, then you’ll know it’s very slow and very very inefficient. There’s a strong correlation between percentage extraction and the number of times you’ve seen the sun set through the kitchen window. So I’m mentioning this gadget because it will save you a load of time; not because I’m trying to be an influencer – whatever that may be – anyway I’m too old and ugly for that malarkey.

A passata machine seems as if it might be one of those hopelessly pointless gadgets that you persuade yourself you need against all sensible odds: but it isn’t. You might only use it for a couple of weeks a year but you will thank the Gods of the kitchen that you lashed out the £40 for it every time you process a big batch of home grown tomatoes. Ours is made by an Italian company called Rigamonti and you can get it easily in the UK from Seeds of Italy– or at least you could before the idiocy that is brexit was brought to us by the knuckle draggers of Westminster. You can still find it on their website, I just checked.

Our little machine looks like a plastic imitation of the real thing but in fact it’s very strong and we can process 25lbs of tomatoes from trug to pan in about an hour; leaving little behind except dry skins and seeds – mind you I put the pulp through four times because I’m a skinflint. This will make 5 litres of straight passata or rather less when the tomatoes are roasted down first with onions and herbs; but the more it’s reduced the more intense the flavour. If you’re an allotmenteer or a gardener you’ll know that there’s no better standby in the cupboard than a variety of differently flavoured tomato sauces from straight passata as a base to roasted tomato purees of one sort or another for pasta or whatever else takes your fancy in the dead of winter. We process about 80 lbs of tomatoes back at the Potwell Inn ; enough to last the whole year. Plus we have the fresh tomatoes for a couple of months during the season. Anyway that’s a helpful suggestion rather than a shameless plug, I hope. Of course you could go for an all singing and dancing electric and stainless steel model but they’re in the hundreds of pounds and probably take an hour to clean, plus they don’t work at all when the electricity fails!

Here at the Potwell Inn we’ve always had a policy of buying the best equipment we can afford. Our large pudding bowl, for instance, is fifty five years old. It was a wedding present (cue gasps of amazement).

Handing out fiddles – especially to friends – while Rome burns

So while I’m on the job I’m recommending Dave Goulson’s new book “Silent Earth. I’ve read all his books and without exception they’re entertaining, informative and full of ideas. I won’t do a précis here but I will bullet point some of the striking findings about the effectiveness of allotments:

Six reasons for being pleased but not smug.

  • According to a Bristol University study, allotments have the highest insect diversity of any urban environment – gardens, parks, cemeteries etc.
  • According to a study of allotments near Brighton, Beth Nicholls found that most allotmenteers use few or no chemicals.
  • According to the same researcher many allotmenteers produce around 20 tons of food per hectare, against the 8 and 3.5 produced on farms growing wheat and oilseed rape respectively.
  • Allotmenteers are responsible for almost no food miles, zero packaging and almost no chemicals.
  • Research shows that allotment soils are healthier than farm soils, with more worms and higher organic carbon content, thereby combating climate change.
  • A study in the Netherlands found that allotmenteers tend to be healthier than neighbours without allotments, particularly in old age.

All the above data came from chapter 19 (the future of farming) in Dave Goulson’s new book.

I have to say, that if you want to brief yourself fully on the decline of insects, the causes of extinctions, the cost of chemical intensive agriculture and some ideas for the future this is a good place to start. What’s painfully clear is that apart from the Green Party, the main UK political parties have no sensible plans for saving the earth. Too in hock to powerful interests and too frightened to appear the least bit radical, their policy amounts to handing out fiddles (especially to friends) while Rome burns.

On the other hand when we went up to open the greenhouse and the polytunnel this morning I was thinking about the image of gardeners and allotmenteers as being elderly and inherently conservative muddlers. When I looked around at ours and our neighbours’ allotments today I could see that although we’re probably the oldest by far, we’ve grown old on environmental protests and self sufficient allotmenteering. It’s easy to judge books by their covers but in the case of the new wave of allotmenteers; governments and politicians would do well to remember that we are powerful, creative, skilled and extremely well informed on environmental issues. Some of us, being old, have campaigning time on our hands. Of course the government will be trying to drive a wedge between the young and the old by characterising us as greedy pensioners. Just for the record we live on our state pensions and I have a small church pension. Madame was not allowed to join a pension scheme because part timers (overwhelmingly women) were locked out – in her case for 25 years! We’re not rich – period!

So this morning, and with the book in my mind, I looked around the allotment, thinking what a challenge it presents to the intensive agrochemical model and filled with the knowledge that this 200 square yards is just one piece in an emerging campaign with justice at its core and with no less an aim than saving the earth from the economic strip miners. I’m a bit old to be an eco warrior, but I’ll sure as hell give it a go.

Love, oh love, careless love

“Love, oh love, careless love”

– Everyone looks beautiful at the funfair,

even the man who runs the waltzer

Thanks to Bessie Smith for the song & Carter’s Steam Fair for the flashback moment.

But it wasn’t Bessie Smith I was thinking of when we walked up to the funfair with the grandchildren today. I’ve spent a rainy week cooking preserves and reading the kind of Chinese poetry that weaves impermanence and loss into a robe. If I had to choose an avatar right now it would be this heron; a bit solitary; cranky; often alone; watching and listening.

Something powerful and irreversible lit up in my mind the first time I heard the Everly Brothers sing Cathy’s Clown, above the roar of the generators spilling across Rodway Hill in the dark from Rogers’ travelling fair. It was an old school fairground, rich with diesel fumes and pheromones; a daze of intense movement and light surrounded by summer nightfall and scary as hell. I don’t think I’d ever felt so alone or so alive before. ‘If this is what growing up is like‘, I thought, ‘bring it on‘.

It was my first lesson in loss; going back the next day to find nothing but tyre tracks and patches of yellow grass. RIP Don Everly it was your best ever performance..

Black Gold

Well, after a two long sessions at the compost bin we finally achieved somewhere around 350 litres (ten largish tree containers) full of pure, screened compost and, with the bay empty, I could then turn the newest heap into the vacant space and start a fresh batch. Composting can be pretty slow – especially in the winter months – but (like narrow boats) as long as you can keep the loads moving through the system, they can emerge ready for use in surprisingly large quantities. If there’s a trick to it it’s no more complicated than watching the mixture of green and brown elements, turning regularly, keeping an eye on the temperature and paying attention to the moisture levels. Dry heaps stand still; wet heaps stink and the best compost just smells earthy – as if you’d scooped up a handful of woodland soil.

Of course it’s not necessarily a good idea to use the best compost neat. At the end of the row of four bins is one that’s just filled with leaves each autumn (fall). During the following summer we cap the leaves with a bit of fertile soil and grow cucumbers and squashes on the top of the leaves, and they do very well indeed. When the plants come out in September we have a bin full of leaf mould that can be partnered with the compost – plus some sand, grit and/or vermiculite to make a perfect seed compost (hardly any compost) potting on medium (a bit more fertility from the black gold) or use the home grown compost as a top dressing for the beds – possibly mixed with some leaf mould which, even on its own, is a marvellous soil treatment.

What we’ve discovered (everyone gets there in the end!) is that too much nitrogen can make the plants somewhat sappy, leafy and vulnerable to aphids. A little bit of hardship does most plants no harm and, according to James Wong is positively good for chillies.

The addition of the polytunnel this year has meant that we are doing work now that we would normally do in September and October. The tomatoes, for instance, are loving the warm environment and are several weeks ahead. We need to get all the plants in the tunnel harvested in the next few weeks to re-sow and plant up for the protected winter crops. That’s why the compost is being stored inside the tunnel where a good deal of it will be used to top dress the beds.

Turning compost is hard work, but today’s work revealed at least half a bin – possibly another ten containers of compost that will be ready to screen in a few weeks time. Good news all round, then.

Today we ate the first of the sweetcorn – rescued from the resident badgers with a double fence of netting. One of our neighbours is protecting her cobs with sleeves cut from bottled water bottles – but since we don’t buy bottled water (I think I read that it’s about 1300(!) times more polluting than tap water) – the double fence will have to do. Anyway the corn was absolutely delicious – far better than anything you could ever buy in a store. I’m tired of hearing myself say that it’s been a strange season but the proof of the pudding is in the eating and planning for next year feels more like a lottery than ever before. Madame provided us with a meal largely comprising our own home grown food tonight and it was lovely. But tonight we’re going to sit down and veg out – pun intentional! A bunch of books just arrived with translations of Basho’s haiku. The plum chutney can wait. The beetroot relish is bottled up, along with the piccalilli all of them placed under wraps until Christmas. It’s nice to have stores of preserves but January can’t come quick enough in the marmalade department as we’re down to our last half a dozen jars. Life is good – but then even in a cold and wet August we’d expect nothing less.

Dig for Victory – seriously!

Granny aged around 19 – working on the farm in Winterbourne during the war

Madame has sorted through her vast collection of family photos and found a picture we both remembered. Somewhere – in our memory at least – there was a picture of her mother in full Land Army gear, holding a bull (she would undoubtedly have cracked a joke or two about his considerable gifts). And here she is, and judging by her polished shoes it’s a special occasion; perhaps a show.

What brought this to mind – as always – was the merging of several tributaries of thought during the day. It’s hardly surprising that one of them was the publication of the latest IPCC report on climate change which, judging by the summaries, is every bit as scary as we anticipated. A second thread related to fashion which, if our daughter in law is anything to go by, is going full retro in headscarf and dungarees. The final tributary was steamy windows, and I’ll get to that in a bit.

Here in the UK it’s National Allotments Week – we almost made it on to the telly but our chance of fame was scuppered when the producer found an allotmenteer closer to the studios. But the demand for allotments is huge, and many of the new allotmenteers are young; relatively inexperienced and full of ideas. It’s brilliant and I couldn’t be more pleased. The biggest problem is that twenty years ago it looked as if the movement was on its last legs. Local authorities – always strapped for cash – started to sell them off. At the time it looked like a good idea – we always need new houses. But now we not only need them all back – not a chance! – we need many more. The IPCC report really sharpens the need to move rapidly towards local and sustainable food chains and allotments could form a part of this while offering cheaper, healthier and vastly more vitamin rich food plus building closer relationships with the natural world. I’ve written before that this seems like an ideal time for local authorities to explore the possibility of leasing land from local farmers and landowners so that we can move towards the food system that sustained major cities in the past. Just to read about the productivity of 19th century Parisian market gardens makes your eyes water. It was all based on the ready availability of horse manure at the time; but now in the 21st century we have a chance to explore some of the new (mostly rediscovered) techniques like mob grazing to drive up productivity on allotments and smallholdings without resorting to chemicals.

The huge interest in allotments and the straws in the wind hinted at by changing fashions suggests that this is a cultural change that’s already under way. Well run allotments are six to eight times more productive than farms – that’s a fact; and the savings in food miles plus the gains in engagement with nature and healthy (hard) exercise make this a no brainer.

The Land Army connection came through thinking how the “Dig for Victory” wartime campaign captured the hearts of millions of new gardeners and helped us to survive the depredations of wartime rationing. If you asked my Mother in Law whether she enjoyed herself in the Land Army she would have answered with an unequivocal yes and then told a few risque stories about the goings on when work was finished.

As for steamy windows, well today the forecast was for rain early, clearing mid morning. We waited until just before midday and went up to harvest tomatoes from the polytunnel and do some urgent weeding. Madame had the inside job and I was sorting the noxious weeds from the goodies; the weeds to go in the direction of wailing and gnashing of teeth (autumn bonfire) and the beneficent to the warmth and comfort of the compost bins as the virtuous end to a virtuous life.

It rained – as they say – biblically and I felt it penetrate the Barbour, the woollen shirt and finally the T shirt until I was wet to the skin. In fact the only part of me that was dry was my socks. My bib and brace overall was so wet, the legs reflected the iron grey skies above, and my oilskin hat dripped water down my face as I worked. Ironically it was rather lovely out there in the elements; refusing to be daunted by a bit of weather.

Several hours later we were home and surrounded by drying waterproofs and clothes – such that the windows steamed up in a way that was deeply reminiscent of my childhood. The floor and table were heaped with tomatoes and other vegetables awaiting the preserving pan. The flat was full of cooking smells; aubergine, tomato, onion and garlic and today there were middle eastern spices – cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg and pimenton. It was one of those afternoons when the past and the future seemed to fill the present with memories and plans. A flow moment gathered and I thought – “We can do it!” We can repay the generosity of the earth and begin to repair the damage without the sacrifice of any of the things that really matter.

The IPCC report is bound to make millions of us ask ourselves – “what can we do?” The powerful corporations and their politicians may well try to keep us fearful so they can steer us in the direction of more and more profitable technological fixes; but if this really is a paradigm shift, and I think it is, then however bumpy the ride gets the change will happen. I was reading a speech by Gary Snyder a couple of days ago and he was talking about the wisdom passed on by grandparents. But he extended the thought by saying that these days and for many young people, the libraries are our grandparents.

Did I mention the other day – that the ancient Greek view was that we can’t possibly see into the future – but we can walk confidently into it because we can see what worked in the past – before the damage began – with 20:20 vision. Researched and field tested across the whole earth and passed on by grandparents, and in libraries.

Waiting for Storm Evert

It’s probably not the best time to come to Cornwall for a family birthday party under canvas but there we are – storm Evert is bearing down on us offering gusts of sixty miles and hour, and those campers who haven’t left and gone home, have been busy all day banging in pegs and fixing storm lashings. The next door tent looks like a giant cat’s cradle. We’re strangely excited at the thought of the storm and spent much of the day emptying and filling tanks and preparing for a lock-in while the family – mostly the grandchildren – went paddling in the water. So much of the remainder of my day has been spent reading, and re-reading Gary Snyder, who I’m coming to believe, nailed the coming crisis many decades ago. With very limited phone signal, there isn’t enough bandwidth to show the photo of three red legged partridge who joined us today as they foraged along the hedgeline. And so I’ve picked out a few lines from the essay “Tawny Grammar” which is so beautiful I’ve read it three times in as many weeks. Reading his latest collection of poems – “The Present Moment” is completely liberating, and reading it alongside the opening chapters of his book “A Place in Space” – especially “Notes on the Beat Generation” and “The New Wind” – is an exhilarating challenge to the creative deadness our times. Assuming we get through the night unscathed I’ll write again tomorrow.

American society (like any other) has its own set of unquestioned assumptions. It still maintains a largely uncritical faith in the notion of continually unfolding progress. It cleaves to the idea that there can be unblemished scientific objectivity. And most fundamentally it operates under the delusion that we are each a kind of “solitary knower” – that we exist as rootless intelligences – without layers of localized contexts. Just a “self” and the “world.” In this there is no recognition that grandparents, place, grammar, pets, friends, lovers, children, tools, the poems and songs we remember, are what we think with. Such a solitary mind – if it could exist – would be a boring prisoner of abstractions. With no surroundings there can be no path, and with no path one cannot be free.

Gary Snyder from the essay “Tawny Grammar” in “The Practice of the Wild” – new edition published in 1990

Roasted tomato passata

This is a recipe from Pam Corbin’s most useful River Cottage Handbook “Preserves”. Last year we made a trial batch with a couple of pounds of tomatoes and loved it; so with the new crop ripening fast on the vines we picked around 10 pounds this morning; roasted them for an hour at 180C with sweet onions, garlic, herbs and olive oil; then they went straight through the passata machine and into pots so they could be sterilized for 10 mins in the pressure cooker. Lacking acidity, we usually pick tomatoes before they get too ripe and then give them a while in the pressure cooker to avoid any problems during storage. In fact we’ve never had a jar blow; but we use good quality Italian jars and always fit new lids each time they’re used. We make this sauce which is very rich, and then scaling down the intensity we make a lot of Marcella Hazan’s no 2 tomato recipe and then loads of unflavoured passata as a sauce base to use through the year. It’s unbelievably useful to have a ready supply of sauce that we can stir into some pasta after a busy day on the allotment. The total yield from 10 lbs tomatoes was 5 lbs of finished sauce; but a tablespoon of this sauce goes a long way. Rather like good stock it can lift an otherwise bland dish into another league.

Since I was committed to the kitchen all afternoon I also made a quiche for supper while the oven was hot. I absolutely love making pastry because – like making sauces – there’s an element of alchemy in it. But most of all I love understanding how to work the pastry boldly. We’re harvesting new potatoes and runner (pole) beans now, so with some just picked raspberries and the remains of the cream, that’s supper settled.

On the allotment whatsApp group our video of visiting rats has provoked a debate about what to do about them. After 5 years of battling we’ve decided that there is no effective way of eliminating them. They shun traps and bait and if they’re poisoned their remains are likely to impact foxes or badgers who may eat them. I was reading today how the New York city authorities spent millions of dollars in a fruitless attempt to get rid of them. Sadly, I think they’ve become habituated to our environment and our best bet is to tolerate them – but on our terms. We know that visiting foxes and cats will kill rats; and possibly owls would take them as well. We often hear tawny owls calling at night here in the middle of the city. So perhaps we should see the rats as potential food for predators further up the chain. This isn’t Lundy Island and we don’t have nesting puffins or other vulnerable populations of ground nesting birds like Manx shearwaters, and I completely agree that rats need to be eliminated where they present a hazard. I believe that the danger to humans of leptospirosis is much greater where rats congregate on river and canal banks. It does make me wonder why, if junk food is so bad for us the rats seems to thrive on the abandoned leftovers.

One mammal we’d dearly love to see on the allotments is the hedgehog; but I imagine that the entire site has been dosed with metaldehyde slug baits for many years, and that must have impacted them. It’ll be interesting to see whether numbers recover now we’re using the supposedly less toxic ferrous phosphate; but the best way of all to catch slugs is to catch them by torchlight, at night. Hedgehogs would be an invaluable ally in the battle against slugs and snails which have done enormous damage to our plots this year in spite of drenching with nematodes.

a tiny wasp nest

One of the children on the site showed us this little wasp nest a couple of days ago. It’s difficult to know (I’m not an entomologist) what species actually created it ; but inside there was a small section of around a dozen hexagonal cells sitting loosely; and the building material looks very wasp-like paper pulp. We also spotted what I think was a ruddy darter dragonfly on the pond; and this evening we found a herald moth resting on the netting of the fruit cage. It’s all there but we so rarely actually notice just how many living beings we share the allotment with.

So yippee! the allotment is producing lots of food and we’re meeting the whole family this week for an outdoor birthday party, after everyone passed a lateral flow test today. We live in strange times.

Herald moth – terrible photo!

There follows a short unedited video …….

Bath – the World Heritage destination.

Despair at my incapacity to crop and join together three short video clips is eating away at me. You’d think that in a community of millions of potential users, someone would come up with a simple and useable app, but it seems that feature rich is the way to go. I can insert clouds of dancing cherubs around my tomato plants, I can turn beetroot to the colour of a cholera patient’s cheeks and I can have the alleluia chorus playing over/under/through my commentary which – if I’m feeling in the flow I can even have read for me in expressionless gibberish by a robot voice. It’s all too much – and the only thing I can think of is to record the whole thing on my phone in one faultless take without once screwing my face terrifyingly at the lens to see if it’s working. The chances of not losing my thread and not tripping over anything – oh and not experiencing a painful cramp in my phone hand are a zillion to one. The thing is I’m constitutionally clumsy and I find geeky computer language even more incomprehensible than the doctrine of double predestination. Unlike my oldest son who is always discovering new tricks in his laptop, I’m a writer; that’s the bit I enjoy. I don’t enjoy ferreting around in the fox’s entrails of my little Chromebook looking for a way of unzipping videos that I never thought I’d zipped in the first place. The bit I enjoy is turning thoughts into words – it’s like herding cats – or rather it’s like herding cats with an overexcited spaniel. Neither the words or the thoughts lend themselves to a linear approach and so writing 1000 words for a post is mostly hand to hand combat in the labyrinthine corridors of my mind.

I also love taking photographs because they can often communicate whole fields of meaning at once. Putting the two together is powerful enough, and I guess adding videos would be even better but I don’t need the doric columns and all the other blather. I’m definitely an A+B+C person in the video department. Any helpful suggestions other than telling me to go and boil my head would be gratefully received.

So at the end of this piece there will be exactly one third of a trip around the Potwell Inn allotment complete with camera shake and a contribution from the endless flow of cars, lorries and emergency vehicles. The piece will be a quick trip around the polytunnel where, at last, the aubergines have started to produce fruits, along with the exuberant tomatoes and Minnesota Midget melons. To be honest, the tomatoes this year have been very sweet and lacking the acidity that I think is really important – so we have a huge crop of beta plus fruits – probably due to the extreme weather conditions. They’ll make plenty of the passata and sauces that we need the year round, but fresh and on the table, they’re a bit of a disappointment. As the temperature has reached 30+C every day, we’ve had a lot of watering to do.

As I was mentioning the traffic noise in the last paragraph a little think bubble popped into my mind and reminded me of a remark made by someone (probably a producer) who said that that I could write a passage of real lyrical depth, but that I would often deliberately destroy the mood in the next paragraph. Now if I was doing that unconsciously that would be troubling but I’m afraid I’ve always had my balloon firmly tethered to the ground and so for me the lushness of the allotment and the sound of the ambulances racing past belong in the same frame. I’m not peddling a version of the way we do things round here (the best definition of culture I ever read). The awful truth is, the torrent of visitors who visit Bath’s wonderful architecture and historical depth also offer a considerable source of income to the beggars and blaggers. Behind many of the Georgian facades are tiny flats and bedsits and a great deal of social housing that supports some very vulnerable people who self medicate and occasionally overdose on cheap alcohol and street drugs.

Yes this is a blog about allotments, and cooking and being human; and like it or loathe it, being human means being human in a place and a culture that will, indeed must, include the transcendently beautiful as well as the ugly. “Bath’s best bits” won’t do at all. The Assembly Rooms and the (soon to be demolished) Avon Street car park are equal parts of the story. As George Steiner once wrote of the work of a critic – “What measure of [sic] man does this propose?” What did John Wood the Younger think was the measure of humanity? What too did the designer of Avon Street car park think of us? Did John Wood include within his view of humanity the millions of enslaved people who generated the wealth that paid for his buildings?

I often think of William Cobbett – truth to tell, an appallingly opinionated old Tory – but who recorded for us an angry portrait of greed and rural poverty in the rural economy of the 1820’s. He peeled back the facade of a corrupt culture and recorded the suffering that lay out of sight beneath it. Out of sight in the Vale of Pewsey – quite near here – and definitely a highly desirable place to live today.

So if I sometimes mention the sight of a wretched shadow of a human being smoking crack on the green; or if I mention a stripper surrounded by screaming and drunken party goers in the same paragraph as I might record a musk mallow or an unexpected orchid, it’s because that’s what being human is. We’re all a bit morally dog eared and if we manage to snatch a few glimpses of the divine in the midst of all the untruths of our culture, then we’ve done well.

We sat and watched the last four episodes of the first series of “Baptiste” last night in the suffocating heat. Three throats cut, one decapitation with a chainsaw and innumerable smaller acts of cruelty were the lowlights of a script so threadbare and full of improbabilities that it was almost funny. But the eponymous hero Baptiste had at least one sensible line at the very end. Speaking about one of the victims who had been a collector of seashells, he said that perhaps one motivation of such obsessive collectors was to try to make sense of an otherwise chaotic world. Perhaps we urban allotmenteers and street botanists too, try to make sense of the chaos by growing plants and naming them.

If I have one wish in writing this, aside from offering the odd bit of dodgy advice, it would be to make an honest record of what it feels like to be human in this particular place and at at this moment of crisis – perhaps for my grandchildren to read – who knows?

Inside the polytunnel yesterday

Gotcha!

Some of this season’s garlic harvest hanging inside the shed to dry

At last we’ve captured a video of the badger on our plot. It’s a very poor but unmistakable image, just from the shuffling gait alone, but it was almost touching the camera so it was rather out of focus – I’ve put it at the end of this post. The existence of the badgers is well known because there’s a sett at the top of the site. They have a reputation for sniffing out the ripe sweetcorn on the very day we plan to cut it and so over the years we’ve had to devise ways of keeping them out.

I once used to watch badgers at night when I was working as a groundsman and they were plaguing the boss’s kitchen garden. One day we put a strong chicken wire fence around the plot and to our amazement the same evening a big boar badger threw himself at it until it collapsed and then sauntered into his domain. There’s no doubt that badgers love sweetcorn, and the constant growing of fodder maize on dairy farms has led to an increase in the badger population just at the time the farmers are trying to blame them for the rise in bovine TB. It’s not that I doubt TB is a constant problem for dairy farmers; but I’d love to see some research done on whether there’s a connection between the occurrence of the disease and the intensity of the farming method being used. I’d be interested in discovering if low intensity grass fed herds are less susceptible to the disease. In human populations TB is associated with poverty and stress and although it may seem strange we’re becoming more and more familiar with the idea that among humans, poverty and stress diseases are greatly increased by cramped and substandard living conditions coupled with a calorie rich junk food diet. Intensive farming is based on the premise that we know better than the cattle what’s good for them.

Anyway, we also know that badgers love our sweetcorn and we were amused that the one we filmed last night is out researching the local corn already. Ours is in full flower and just touching the flowers releases clouds of pollen. There are three principal poachers – not counting the two legged ones – it’s not just the badgers. Rats are great climbers – and so are the squirrels – and they generally attack the cobs by gnawing through the sheaths without breaking the main stalks. Badgers blunder over the whole plant and smash it down to eat the cobs and all we can do to stop them is to protect the beds. It’s said that they don’t like soft netting because they get their claws caught in it and generally we use both hard and soft barriers to deter them. There is another ghostly thief but I’m not sure whether the rumour is true. Apparently deer have occasionally been spotted on the site and maybe one day they’ll show up on the trail cam. We also know that rats and squirrels also love the broad (fava) beans but again it’s fairly easy to sort out the offenders. Rats seem to gnaw at the lower, easy to reach pods; eating a small part of both the seed and the pod; but squirrels really go for them and we have often found little piles of empty pods next to the beds, left very tidy and bereft of their beans which may well have gone off for storage. We’ve got video of both a rat and a squirrel jumping up on to a bed of broad beans that had been cleared the previous day – they must have been disappointed.

So that’s foxes, badgers, domestic cats, squirrels, field mice and rats we’ve now videoed with deer as kind of ghostly reserves. Sadly there are no hedgehogs but that may be down to the badgers which are their big-time predators. The closer we look, the more we see the sheer complexity of the natural history of our urban allotment. At best we’re just (hopefully) considerate participants in the great cycle.

We’re not allowed to connect hoses to the mains supply on our allotments, but today we rigged up our 240V generator with an electric pump and gave the whole plot a good soaking from our own stored water – we’ve got 1500 litres, around 300 gallons of water stored around the place and with a promise of heavy storms on Sunday we thought we’d give the plants a good soak in anticipation of refilling the butts over the weekend. It’s still oppressively hot here but the plots are bursting with life.

The polytunnel tomatoes are ripening thick and fast now so today I’m making the first panzanella of the summer. I got the recipe from Anna Del Conte’s wonderful “Gastronomy of Italy” and it was love at first taste. She writes that recipes for panzanella are as numerous as the people the Nonnas – who pass them on down through the family – I guess that’s exactly what a food culture is all about. Patience Gray’s “Honey from a Weed”; Marcella Hazan’s “The Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking” and Anna Del Conte’s “Gastronomy of Italy” are some of my favourite and most indispensable cookery books because they turn the cooking and eating of vegetables into an adventure. In high summer we luxuriate in the sheer variety of food on the allotment. The best of Italian cooking completely sidesteps the endless debates between carnivores, vegetarians and vegans because absolutely everybody deserves the best of vegetables, cooked or prepared in such lovely ways that meat becomes a minor side issue in the midst of a feast. Sustainable living is so much easier to promote when it’s couched in terms of taking up rather than giving up. Our cultural obsession with rarity and expense has blinded us to the beauty of simple and slow; and if you want to know when to eat your sweetcorn at its absolute peak of perfection, just follow a badger – he’ll know!

Whadda you mean – what am I doing!