Nothing stays the same

I’ve shown this photo before – it was taken in the garden of the farm cottage we rented when we were at art school in Wiltshire almost 50 years ago. Just a few weeks later someone left the gate unlatched and it was completely trashed by pigs. We never really managed to get it up and running again – the disappointment was too much. Gardening can be like that; you have to ride out the failures and accept that you have to combine stoicism and gratitude in almost equal measure. Now we only have the internet to tell us how the farm has fared over the years, but a small mixed dairy farm will have been sailing against a headwind and it may have gone the way of so many others. All we know for sure is that the farmhouse is used as an upmarket B & B.

But we did soon get other gardens going, several in tiny backyards, two of them in allotments and the last in a much more challenging garden of around 1/3 acre; all the while learning more – so the allotment represents the latest expression of what we’ve discovered and, now we’re retired and can give all our time to it, is probably the best we’ve ever managed.

Right now, in the teeth of the Covid 19 pandemic, the internet is alive with allotmenteering and I couldn’t be more pleased, so long as the long delays with seed merchants and the difficulty of getting garden sundries don’t put newcomers off before they’ve started.  My inbox has seen a lot of seed offers from companies I’ve never heard of, and there are going to be sharks out there who’ve bought up stocks of seed that may be near the end of their storage life, or not good quality. My advice is to stay with the reputable merchants even if it means waiting a bit longer. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to coax life out of dud plants.

That said, you only have to take a walk up to our allotment site to see a huge influx of newcomers wielding spades – possibly for the first time. The thirty-somethings are getting it and I hope that local councils are including new allotment sites in their local plans to meet the demand. It would be sensible on every level to make many more plots available; well managed allotments are incredibly productive environmentally helpful and healthy. Now’s the time for a big push, and that should include strategies for teaching basic skills.  There are some things that are best taught one-to-one or in a small group – common weed recognition is one of them. I’m always banging on about mentoring because this generation often can’t fall back on childhood experience with parents and grandparents.  There are great teachers out there in books and on websites, but growing is a very local activity and slavishly following dates suggested by someone who lives 200 miles north or south of you, or even in a different country, can be tricky.

However – what I want to think about this morning is not the techniques, not bigger or better or any of those things, but the bigger picture – the gestalt of growing, because growing, cooking, eating, to take the three most obvious topics, don’t exist in a vacuum but they belong with one another.  Separating them out into distinct disciplines misses the point and diminishes everything. Even global terms like self sufficiency reduce our activities to the selfish pursuit of stuff. If, for example, you read Patience Gray’s wonderful book “Honey from a Weed” you can begin to understand how growing, cooking, eating and sharing are deeply embedded in a whole culture. Buying a ready made tomato pasta sauce from the supermarket doesn’t make you an Italian, however hard the advertisers try to kid you it will. I remember reading Bernard Leach’s “A Potters Book” leaning against a library stack one summer afternoon that changed the direction of my life.  It wasn’t the recipes for glazes that attracted me, it was the integration of so many things I was interested in within a lived life.

Some cookery writers – like Elizabeth David, Anna del Conte, Jane Grigson and Dorothy Hartley and Marcella Hazan situate their recipes within their whole complex cultures – the gestalt – to go back to that useful word. Somewhere along the line we missed the connection between cultures, lived experiences that include growing and distributing food, as well as cooking and eating it.  To reduce the experience of food to a brief set of neurological responses in the palate is just bizarre. Restaurant and supermarket food are the souvenir shops of any sort of real food culture which, to make any sense at all, has – like any great adventure – to begin where you are.

But at this moment I’m wondering whether to describe a food moment  – like the one at the Potwell Inn last night – isn’t just another piece of internet grandstanding – “look at me, so handsome, young, and clever (????) doing what only I can do and boasting about it.”  Yesterday we spent the day on the allotment and, because of the lockdown and the bleak food outlook this year, I cleared and dug the last available patch of land on the plot. It was always a difficult and weed infested patch, right on top of what we think is an underground stream, and so it’s been covered with a pile of palettes on which we grew potatoes in bags and pots of mint. But it’s very sheltered and sunny – and we need somewhere to grow peppers, hardier chillies, aubergines and bush tomatoes this year. It took most of the day but it’s finished and ready to use – dug, composted, fed and broken into a fine tilth.  Two years under weed control mat had done most of the work for me.

So back home, too tired to be bothered to cook much and mindful of eking out the food supply for as long as possible we turned to the store cupboard in which there are about six litres of bottled sauce labeled “Hazan number one”. The recipe comes from Marcella Hazan’s “The essentials of Italian Cooking” and its one of seven recipes for tomato sauce. There were two half used packs of linguini in the cupboard – pasta has become impossible to find, but mercifully I discovered a 1 kg bag of pasta flour in the cupboard yesterday, and there were four pots of basil growing in the kitchen window. There was parmesan in the fridge, so we were away.  The tomatoes were our own from last year, and we have bottles of sauces and passata stored, so it was very much a meal made out of what was there – “clanger pudding” in Potwell Inn speak.

And it was so good we wanted to sing. It wasn’t the recipe, or the ingredients or any one marketable thing that made it beautiful – it was everything. The allotment, the earth, the sunshine and the neighbours, the kitchen and its equipment collected over the decades, the scent of basil growing, the plates chosen by us and even the table we ate at.  It was each other and our shared history and our adventures in Europe that we can’t afford any more – it was the gestalt.  Did it matter that Italians would have eaten it with different pasta? was it a bad case of cultural misappropriation? – oh do get a life! It was what humans do best when we get it right – being human. 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

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There can’t ever have been a more appropriate day than today to publish a book on UK food security –  not since 1939 – and that, I promise, is the last mention of the war in this posting because however terrible the present pandemic is, it isn’t a war and you can’t ‘win’ it with threats, flag waving and bombs. What this microscopic particle of viral life has achieved is to shine a light on the 21st century; on all our political, economic, employment, transport, social, medical, manufacturing, food and farming systems. Every one of them is being stress tested at the moment and the vast majority of them are creaking, even where the rivets aren’t yet popping; and that’s before the brexit negotiations even start in earnest.

This new study by Tim Lang, probably the leading light in the study of food security, and published today, couldn’t come at a better time. Here at the Potwell Inn we have some experience on the subject because Madame once worked at a university research station and has watched their crucial work on fruit growing privatised and the plantations sold off for building land.  Our son once earned some pocket money helping a local fruit farmer grub up his cider apple trees only to be paid to plant them again ten years later. I can remember standing at a field gate looking at a sea of blue flowers with the farmer.  “It’s a marvellous crop”, he said, ” – and I don’t even have to harvest it.  If the crop’s too wet and gets ruined.  I just have to drive a tractor on to the field and I can still claim the subsidy”.  I’ve stood in the queue at the local Methodist church to collect my free portion of the EU butter mountain – oh yes – we’ve been living dangerously in the UK for a very long time and this week we’ve all experienced what food insecurity feels like; endless queues, empty shelves, unobtainable food staples, profiteering and sharp-elbowed shoppers pushing the elderly and vulnerable to one side, and it’s not a pretty sight. We’ve seen ambulance personnel attacked, food delivery vans burnt out and the supermarkets overwhelmed and underprepared. Farmers and producers are banging their heads against a brick wall because they are unable to recruit their usual seasonal employees due to closed borders, and the very existence of many small artisan food businesses and producers which are the best hope for a sustainable future is threatened because they lack the cash reserves of the food industry.

And then there are all the other issues that demand the attention of our politicians.”Could do better” hardly begins to describe  them. Suddenly our niche attempts to grow at least some of our food begin to look important.  One of our allotmenteers has a dig for victory up on their shed. In the sunshine today our site was busy with newly unemployed people trying to extract at least something positive out of the pandemic and because the garden centres and the allotment trading hut have all closed down there will be a lively free market in swops and shares. all conducted recognising the two metre exclusion zones which are being rigidly observed by everyone. Ironically there have been many more shouted conversations than have ever happened before; the sun’s shining, things are growing and just doing something feels a lot better than moping around and feeling cross.

It’s a bit soon to be thinking about what we do after this is all over, and yet there will never be a better time to reflect on just how insecure our food supply has become. I’ve only read the preface this afternoon, but here are a few words to give a taste of the argument Tim Lang is pursuing

The UK has a benign but very varied climate.  It has some rich soils and extensive uplands and grasslands.  No critic says the UK should be growing its own bananas or mangoes, but that it imports huge quantities of what it could perfectly well grow here suggests a failure of political economy.  Vast  amounts of land are used to produce feed for cattle, when almost all scientific advice is to reduce cattle and to shift production from red to white meat (but that too has problems).

This is not a misty eyed yearning for the past, but the honest recognition by a respected scientist (and one-time farmer) that we’re on a collision course with reality here. Some problems can be too big to solve unless they’re addressed at a national and international level. There are voices already that the initial cause and then the main vector of transmission of the coronavirus is the product of a dangerously out of control addiction to productivity and profitability, low prices and the industrialisation of agriculture.

What started in a wet market in China wasn’t an act of God but, as it were, the terrible but predictable consequence of intensive agriculture driving what was once a sustainable peasant economy into the ground and creating a semi legal and shadowy trade in live meat beyond any health and safety controls.  What would be an absolute tragedy would be to conclude that only industrialised agriculture is safe enough to feed the world.  Like weapons manufacturers across the world, the industry will claim that it has no moral responsibility for the impact of its products on the lives of the poor. We’ve known since the SARS epidemic in 2003 that these zoonotic crossovers were an ever present threat and this is the seventh transmissible viral infection to be identified.  The subsequent breakdown in health provision and food supplies are all the evidence we should need to provoke deep reflection.  I very much hope that this book will provide some calmly argued evidence for a complete rethink around our food.

Staying positive

I promised I’d say something about Thomas Berry’s book “The dream of the earth” which I’ve been reading for a couple of days. It’s a bit dense but the idea that runs through it is very simple. We like to think of ourselves as rational and scientific creatures who have collectively transcended millennia of superstition and religion and emerged at last confident in our capacity to organise the earth far better than nature ever managed on her own. Industry and science have delivered (we believe) all the things that previous belief systems had bundled up into a kind of visionary future that will deliver peace, prosperity, food for all and universal happiness because we can all access the very things our unfortunate ancestors could only think of in religious terms.  The sick will be healed, the dead raised (cryogenics) and we shall all share in a great banquet of goods and services exactly tailored to our innermost and secret desires. It’s hard to fault it, and as Gandhi was reputed to have replied when asked about European civilisation – “it would be a good idea”.

But the thing about religious ideologies  – and Berry is suggesting that’s what we have got here – is that you can’t question them. The evidence that our present way of life is destructive and dangerous is everywhere to be seen and yet remains invisible to millions of people. Who knows why? All we do know is that presenting the evidence doesn’t seem to shake belief in the status quo at all. What we seem to need is not better evidence or better presentation of the old evidence but something which more closely resembles a religious conversion. The continuation of life on earth, he argues, depends on a universal and thoroughgoing change of perspective. We need to rediscover the sacred earth.  We need to embrace our creatureliness in order to rediscover our true creativity.

I hope you’ll read the book, but meanwhile here’s some scary background reading on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, written by Brendan Montague who is editor of the Ecologist magazine. And here’s a very good example of the aquarian fallacy that believes there is always an industrial solution to every problem. Here a commercial forestry expert advises the planting of more conifers to save the world because they grow more quickly.  Sadly he doesn’t seem to notice that even if they capture carbon for 25 years as they grow, immediately they’re felled they begin to release that stored carbon back into the atmosphere. There’s only one way, and that’s to end the way we consume the earth. That consumption is enabled and fuelled by the false ideology of never ending progress, the fantasy that there is no limit to growth

Which links nicely to today on the allotment because the absence of cars on the streets has made our plot more beautiful than ever – less polluted by the busy road, less noisy and quiet enough to hear a blackbird sing across the road. Call me an old romantic but I really like it.

After a few hours out in the sunshine while we sowed, planted and prepared the bed for the runner beans that will climb up their supports when they’re planted out in mid May, we took some photos and wandered home again. On a day like today this doesn’t feel too much like hardship. The hazel bean poles came from friends in Wales (thanks Nick and Kate) and always bring back memories of old gardens and older mentors from the past. We were able to talk to friends on the telephone and all our children keep in daily touch.  The food we eat has simplified because there’s no opportunity for impulse buys which has a knock-on effect on our waste.  Inside the flat the window tables are full and growing steadily.  We’ve tried to work to the point where – if the lockdown intensifies – the allotment can look after itself for a week or two.

Anger is a corrosive emotion, and I’ve lapsed into real anger more then once over the past few weeks, but today was too good to waste on recriminations. The time of reckoning will come soon enough, but meanwhile our biggest hope is that our economics and politics could escape from the hubristic prison of its false claims, the false choices that are presented as the only possible ways forward; the wolf of extractive capitalism disguised as a disturbingly green lamb, the kind that glows in the dark.  Several times today I’ve thought about the lines from Asinaria, written in 195 BC, by Titus Maccius Plautus –

One man to another is a wolf, not a man,

It’s not the full quotation which is rarely used, but the reason it’s almost always cropped is because it does seem to express something of a universal truth about our capacity for mutual harm.

Rediscovering the sacred earth isn’t about wandering through the bosky woods with your mind full of fluffy feelings. Creatureliness is vulnerable, fragile, ephemeral, capable of great love and great cruelty. Being a part of nature completely resets our relationship with the earth and with one another.  No spirituality that follows, (and any change of perspective as profound as this will involve a spiritual dimension), can be co opted and repackaged as just another product of Western materialism.

Our allotment isn’t a panacea, a free pass to a world suddenly put right again; it’s a shoulder to the wheel, that’s all. An invitation both to celebrate and to fear the seasons, but at least to be a part of the great cycle. A way of understanding our creatureliness through growing, tending, sharing and eating; through poetry, music and song, even building, and above all a way of understanding our dependence on the earth and on nature as the foundation of real wisdom.

Gove says it’s OK to go to the allotment – should we believe him?

For those who watch TV news (I don’t if I can help it because I can’t bear it), Michael Gove’s clarification won’t be news at all, although it may have slipped past them anyway. Allotments aren’t at the top of many peoples’ agenda at the moment, and there’s no particular reason why they should be. More to the point, his clarification bore all the signs of being made on the hoof and could easily be reversed twice before supper, but clutching at the lifebelt, most of us went up to the site today and worked in the sunshine while studiously avoiding any contact with one another.  We’ve yet to invent a social protocol for this kind of thing. Slightly unnervingly, the police helicopter appeared to be flying overhead but there was zero chance of any impromptu gathering; everyone down here is worried sick.

For the Potwell Inn, where we’re also having a bit of a lock-in, so long as we’ve got enough to eat, the absence of shopping malls, night clubs, cinemas and foreign holidays is never going to be a problem. Bookshops and garden centres are another matter altogether – but after a stroke of intuition we stocked up with potting compost and organic fertilizer on our way back from laying up the campervan and before the lockdown was intensified.

The only organisations that seem to be taken completely by surprise were the supermarkets whose websites all crashed yesterday. Either no-one from government gave them a heads-up or they failed to anticipate that telling the entire population they were going to be locked in for three weeks might cause something a bit worse than the Christmas Eve rush. We’re sad, angry, panicked and volatile here. We’ve been told we’re vulnerable and shouldn’t go out unless it’s absolutely necessary – for shopping for instance – and yet after hours on the computer I was unable to book anything.  There’s talk of having food delivered by volunteers but first you have to have food in the shops and then you have to find volunteers, either of which could take ages – during which those without the money or the ability to stockpile will have to do without while the wealthy post photos of their wine cellars and larders on the internet.  I knelt beside the asparagus this afternoon, willing it to grow faster! On television last night Jamie Oliver demonstrated how to make pasta with only two ingredients – flour and eggs.  This revelation was greeted breathlessly by a Guardian reviewer who appeared not to be aware that its normally made that way anyway unless it’s in Northern Italy where they leave out the eggs. The really bad news is that it’s almost impossible to get any flour because millions of people have decided to make their own bread.  That’s great news – or it would be except we’ve almost run out and I don’t think pasta made from eggs and water has got much of a future.

This ought to bring the question of food security to the top of the agenda but I’m not holding my breath. We have a cultural problem. We’ve become so focused on profit and ever more elaborate trading and delivery systems, that we forgot the producers and now we’re paying the inevitable price.

But enough of that.  I want to write about Thomas Berry, the American philosopher and what’s gone so terribly wrong with our culture – but I’m not quite ready yet.  I woke up this morning to an anxiety dream and that mood failed properly to shift all day.  When I’m feeling gloomy I often cook and because the National Trust has shut down even its parklands, I decided to make my favourite National Trust cheese scones.  I was going to make some yeast bread, something I don’t often do these days, but when I went through the larder I discovered that some of the odd packets of flour I wanted to use up are very (like 5 years) out of date – surely I’m not the only hoarder who’s making that discovery this week!  The scones were delicious although they could have been a bit cheesier but in my preoccupied mood I measured the milk incorrectly and one thing led to another ….. never mind, they  freeze well.

At home we’re potting on all the seedlings and so we have no propagator space and not a square inch in front of the windows. We shall eat well later I hope, but I’m fearful that allotment raiding will come into fashion as the national food supply dries up.  What a horrible mess we’re all in!

Some silver linings

Well we’d better make a start with these early risers – just a dozen of the wildflowers – don’t say weeds – flowering this morning on the riverbank footpath.  We took ourselves out for an hour in the fresh air today, fairly certain that we were maintaining our social distances in the required fashion.  The only downside seems to be an increasing tendency for young people to look rather suspiciously at us as if we were causing the problem rather than being the principle victims.  You can’t blame them I suppose, they’ve been repeatedly told that we stole their pensions – a bit of larceny I don’t remember at all – someone else must have taken my share! On the other hand the sight of a man crouching amongst the weeds may have led them to conclude I was about to expire and reminded them of the admirable advice in the parable of the good Samaritan, that’s to say – to pass by on the other side.

So this year I fear my botanising will be largely confined to these local wild and weedy thugs – aside from a trip to Whitefield meadow at Dyrham Park where with a bit of luck we’ll find the elusive orchid whose name I’m not even going to mention. The riverbank was reseeded with wildflower mix a couple of seasons ago, following flood prevention works, and although it looked quite pretty for a while is just didn’t look right.  It was a jumble of wildflowers from quite different habitats including a few poppies. As I’ve mentioned several times I’m reading George Peterken’s marvellous book “Meadows”, (£35.00 and worth every penny), anyway he mentions in passing something that demonstrates exactly why the wildflower mix looked so wrong – there were poppies in it and poppies are arable weeds.  In fact he says that there are no red flowers in flower meadows at all. I’m in no position to verify that nugget, but it sounds exactly right and completely underlined why the riverbank attempt at flower meadow flora was a bit – well, out of tune.

What’s more to the point, though, is that these expensive usurpers didn’t, probably couldn’t, last the course.  They arrived in an alien environment; out came whatever passes for banjos and shotguns in the plant world, and the locals simply shouldered them out of the way as if they were old people in the queue for toilet rolls. The burdock that I was so sad to lose to the bulldozers and excavators has reasserted itself in its old home and the whole stretch of the river bank is restored to pretty much the way it used to be. Weeds!  How long, I wonder, before public pressure is brought to bear on the council to get the strimmers out?

More silver linings for the family.  The almost complete disappearance of tourists has led to a crisis in the holiday rental market and so suddenly, overnight, there are flats available for short term rent and our youngest son has found somewhere to live. Our middle son has just heard that the government is subsidising wages up to 80% – which will be a lifesaver in the catering industry where thousands have been laid off already.

But yesterday I spoke to our oldest, who is a teacher, and he was able to tell me about the traumas that students and teachers are experiencing when relationships that have taken years to nurture are suddenly ruptured. Young people have no idea how they will cope with the postponement of public examinations and they are quite properly distraught at being cut adrift at this crucial time in their lives, not knowing what lies before them.  So he’s going to be working harder than ever to make sure they’re safe, properly fed and cared for. When you read about the schools being closed, remember that teachers aren’t going to be enjoying ‘garden leave’ but struggling to keep the show on the road. My advice is not to crack jokes about the ‘long holiday’ if you want to continue to enjoy your own!

There were crowds up at the allotment today. We were too emotionally exhausted to do much but the weather looks fine for tomorrow so we’ll have a day with as little stress as possible. To adapt a quote from Churchill, who seems to be on everyone’s’ lips at the moment –

The government can always be relied upon to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else!

Two swallows don’t make a summer

– but they certainly show that summer’s on the way. Sorry, by the way, for the lamentable joke but I’m cheering myself up because I’ve just discovered that we’re about to be subjected to house arrest for no greater crime than being over 60.  Even worse, we’re being told that we’ll probably be ‘let go’ by the NHS in favour of the more economically active. They say it’s for our own good that we’re being sequestered, but I’m suspicious.  Being made to feel lonely, marginalized and unwanted isn’t that great, but I think I’ll be alright because I’m so angry I’ll survive anything just for the pleasure of being there when the day of reckoning comes for this government, and meanwhile I’ll spend the time studying plants in the concentrated sabbatical I’ve always longed for.

The biggest worry is that we’ll be unable to maintain the allotment unless someone among the brain dead realizes that growing our own food is like going on a very lengthy shopping trip. Otherwise I’ll buy some night-sight goggles, put on my darkest clothes and garden secretly, in the dark – there are only a handful of police left on duty now in the whole city (post austerity) so it’ll probably be alright and I’ll be able to defend the allotment against the people who see a bit of illegal grazing as perfectly reasonable under the circumstances. Our neighbour once had all his pumpkins stolen a few days before hallowe’en.

The good news is in the photo – the asparagus is coming up. Actually, there’s been something to eat every day – not enough to keep us alive, but enough to keep us cheerful. There are still broccoli, leeks and chard and the hotbed is charging along so we’ll soon have some salad veg. I don’t think I’ve seen mention of this, but the complex reaction that keeps a hotbed going does need keeping moist, and we find that occasional watering invariably sends the temperature up by a few degrees 24 hours later.

Having time to calibrate the greenhouse drippers will pay off I’m sure, and by the time the warm spring weather comes and the plants are moved out of the flat, the whole system should work without too much intervention from us.  We’ve got food deliveries booked three weeks ahead and our youngest lives near enough to pick up fresh food and keep an eye on things; our middle son is an allotmenteer (on another site), our neighbours are a great bunch and our oldest son has got the whole family connected for video calls, so we’re very fortunate.

George Peterken’s nook “Meadows” is a delight as well. I have to read it with the laptop, a couple of floras and a notebook to hand because it’s that rich, but every chapter feels like a long rewarding walk and brings back happy memories of botanical expeditions we’ve enjoyed and intend to enjoy again when we get parole.

I had a colleague who was once involved in a deadful car crash.  He was driving on a dual carriageway when he suddenly saw a BMW upside down and in the air, flying towards him. He said it was so completely unexpected he simply couldn’t process the information and try to take evasive action. That’s what this coronavirus outbreak is beginning to feel like here in the UK.  The absence of any compassion, intellectual heft or even basic organisation by the government is terrifying.

I know my place!

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Looking west from Dyrham Park on the Cotswold escarpment towards Wales

OK so – if you examine that statement from every angle it  might look smarter than I  intend. I do know my place, after all I’ve lived in it for most of 73 years, my speech is inflected with its dialect and there’s not much of it I haven’t walked, cycled, driven  or tried to grow things in at some time or another. I recognise a respectable amount of its wildlife in a thoroughly non-professional way, and I know most of its history. So I know my place; I’m hefted to the area around two rivers, the Avon and the Severn, and to the land west of the Cotswolds and north of the Mendips.

And so by extension I know a lot less about many other areas that I love just as passionately, especially the far western parts of England and Wales, but they’ve been holiday romances rather than family. I make lists of plants, watch birds and animals and always come back refreshed and inspired. I’m an amateur, a bit of a peasant, an autodidact, living an inch from the edge of a howler, an intruder into the VIP lounge of proper (whatever that’s supposed to mean!) experts. And so reading George Monbiot’s book “Feral” has been a big struggle because I know, even with my street wisdom, that there’s something wrong with his argument – I just don’t quite know what it is. There’s porridge in the radiator, gear oil in the sump and quite a bit of well disguised filler in the bodywork and notwithstanding the good looks on the forecourt I know it’s a wrong ‘un.

I’ve been reading it restlessly, on and off. I shout at it, slam it shut, double check the data. I managed to struggle through the first couple of chapters, although I found some of the tales of superhuman derring do  – paddling six miles out to sea in a kayak – running twenty miles before breakfast with a young Masai man, dodging bullets in a Brazilian mining settlement – well, a bit desperate. The beatific visions and revelations of true nature were a touch too Ignatian for me, and I was just waiting for the wrestling with bears bit so I could just accept it as a fictional ‘coming of middle age’ narrative . The picture of Vladimir Putin on a horse kept floating into my mind.

But when he kicked off on the so-called Cambrian desert I had to race to the laptop.  Where is this scene of dereliction and abandonment overrun by malignant sheep and even more malignant Welsh hill farmers? A quick check on the BSBI website turned out  to be difficult because reorganised boundaries have rendered the vice county list a bit impenetrable. Powys, for instance, includes bits of Montgomeryshire *(VC47), Radnorshire (VC43), Brecknockshire – Breconshire if you’re English – (VC42) and a bit of Denbighshire (VC50) and the Cambrian Mountains also embrace some of Ceredigion(VC46) and Carmarthenshire(VC44). That’s a lot of lists, but checking them all I couldn’t see even one of them with a significantly lower number of plant species; but I could see that there were quite a few rarities in amongst them.  Even from my own scant knowledge I know  that there are irreplaceable habitats there, bogs, mires and wetland areas.  The road between Tregaron and Abergwesyn seemed to me, when I first drove it, a paradise. And what on earth is he suggesting when he writes in the same chapter that there were no birds? He seems to have set out with a self imposed vision of a despoiled land, and exercised iron discipline on himself to exclude any evidence to the contrary. The red kite, thank goodness, is now as common as medieval hill towns in Provence – who’d have thought it? I stopped reading when the book started to make me feel fearful.

But I know my place, and I can’t offer anything approaching a sensible review of the book from a more experienced perspective.  I know it’s a contested area of thought and I’m slowly trying to catch up after decades of the more (dare I say) piles and varicose veins side of spirituality that is the life of an almost extinct species of country parson. So I searched through the original reviews, found some hiding behind paywalls, but  some more that shared at least a few of my misgivings and then I stumbled on this blog by Miles King which has a review written with far more authority and expertise than I’ll ever have, and which I’ve found invaluable. I realize I’ve been rather harsh, but we’re in a crisis and what we need, more than anything else, is to follow the facts on the ground even if they contradict (especially if they contradict) our presuppositions and prejudices. Making up ‘facts’ to advance an opinion is morally wrong and – at the moment – dangerous because it hands ammunition to the enemy who will use exactly the sort of logical contradictions that abound in “Feral” to attack the whole project.

So I’m going to put the book back on the shelf now because I’ve just got hold of “Meadows” by George Peterken whose lecture we went to a while ago at Bath Nats. In the midst of a crisis there’s no time for a canonical literature to emerge, no place yet for the final word or the revealed truth, but there are enough half-baked ideas out there to furnish a lifetime of village flower and produce shows. “Meadows” looks to me to be a better bet if I want to find out what’s really going on and what we might have to do about it. There are plenty of elephants in the room already without parachuting them into Powys.

  • these are all vice-county lists of plants found in the designated areas and maintained by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland

 

Hotting up in the flat, sleet and rain on the allotment!

Outside on the green, the buds on the trees are swelling, lending a faint green haze to the view, although the hawthorn is well ahead of the pack. Not the least reason for celebrating the leaves is that they obscure the riverside housing developments which are not only thoroughly ugly but also poorly built – so much so that after only four years many of these ludicrously expensive buildings are having missing fire protection and non existent waterproof membrane installed at vast expense (I hope) to the developers and even vaster inconvenience to the residents. Of course many of the  Georgian buildings we so admire these days were thrown up in much the same kind of speculative fever, but at least they look good from the outside.

Enough of that, though, because as we approach the equinox, seeds sown during late winter and raised in the propagators are now demanding better lodgings, and like teenage children they have to be accommodated within our rather small flat. Each year at this time we get the camping tables out, one in front of each south facing window, and they rapidly fill with small plants.  Every few weeks they need potting on into even bigger pots, and long before mid-May when we can put plants like tomatoes, chillies, courgette and peppers straight into the ground, we’re struggling to find space for them all. When removal day finally arrives the flat seems uncannily empty, but at least then we can change the early window boxes for their summer equivalents.

The kitchen doubles up nicely as a potting shed but the competition for space is fierce and so this year I’m fixing up the greenhouse to house a dozen trays of the plants as they slip off the end of the production line. It probably doesn’t sound much, but the allotment rules only allow a six by four structure; a rule that’s generally honoured in the breach by our neighbours but it’s a more manageable size for two of us. Incredibly, few of the bigger greenhouses are ever used to their capacity and almost every autumn we see a few over ripe tomatoes clinging to tinder dry brown foliage, roasting in the sun. It’s amazing how the enthusiasm of Easter fades as the season progresses.

Some kind of pattern finally establishes itself for us. It takes a season or two to adjust to the land and to our own needs, for instance we know we need to grow fifteen outdoor (blight resistant) cordon tomatoes to keep us in sauces through the year. In addition we need a handful of salad tomatoes, and a surprisingly large number of roots – ready for winter. We’ve cut down on potatoes, and this year we’re focusing on our favourite earlies. A couple of courgettes are more than enough, and we need more borlotti beans.

Last year we discovered, much to our surprise, that the aubergines and peppers and the less fierce chillies actually preferred it outside. We made far too many pickles, more than even our hungry extended family could help us consume, and so a single gherkin plant would probably do. Which brings us to the big economic question – is it cheaper to buy plants or sow seeds? Well, packets of F1 hybrids often only contain 10 seeds, but if you only want a couple of plants, it might be cheaper to buy them at the garden centre because they don’t last forever and they may not be viable after five years.  The advantage of growing from seeds is access to a far wider range of varieties,  but plants are professionally reared and get you going quicker.  I don’t think there’s an answer  except to put in a word for open pollinated and saved seed.  With a little care, and once you’ve discovered what goes really well on your own patch, this is free source, and sometimes seed will even adapt to your precise environment and soil – just as potatoes and maize have done in South America.

Weatherwise, it’s been continuing in much the same pattern; a day of sunshine and a week of rain, even sleet today. The south west of the UK is fairly mild and they’ve had it much worse further north, but we’ve seen freak frosts and even flurries of snow as late as May.

I’ve been reading George Monbiot’s book “Feral”. I’ve had it on the shelf for ages and made a start several times but put it aside because I found it – dare I say – a bit intense. This time I soldiered through the first couple of chapters and I think, at last, I can see where he’s going with it and so I’ve sealed my intent to finish it with a bookmark. More to follow, then.

New wheelbarrow makes heavy work!

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The old wheelbarrow was all of ten years old and the wheel had been replaced three times. Last week I finally accepted that the persistent flat tyre was trying to tell me that it was time to retire rather than retyre it – not least because I’d also put a spade through the base whilst mixing potting compost. And so it’s gone and I replaced it early this morning with an all singing, all dancing model with a super non-puncture solid tyre. I should have guessed after I’d struggled to get it into the car that it was a bit bigger than the old one but it was on sale at 20% off and I couldn’t resist.

Back at the allotment as I loaded it up with wood chip I realised that as well as being 20% cheaper it was also 30% bigger. My usual 30 spadefuls of wood chip increased to 40 – increasing the weight in the process.  Nonetheless it needed proportionately less journeys up and down from the plot and so, dazzled by the mathematics I finished the job quickly with my lovely new green non-squeaky and non leaky wheelbarrow. Over the years I’ve learned that getting the right tools for a job makes it sooooo much easier, but having the right tools has also increased the weight of my toolbox to the point where it needs its own transport.

IMG_20200311_153034With paths all completed for another season, Madame planted out potatoes (risky but worth the gamble when it pays off), planted seeds and harvested veg for supper while I installed the cleaned-up drippers for the greenhouse and connected them to the new water storage. Last year was a bit hit and miss, with the water running dry because the barrels were set too low.  This year they’re on a 3′ frame and should be able to deliver 250 litres of rainwater without interruption. This year we’re going to water from the bottom of the pots by using capillary mat, so effectively we’re watering the mats rather than the pots.  In the propagators this certainly encourages the roots to go downwards in search of water and strengthens the root balls ready for growing on and planting out. To make it easier I’ve made a support for the individual drippers to stop them from falling over – just holes in a batten really, nothing complicated, but it looks a lot tidier (obsessive behaviour again!). The yellow strip is a non poisonous glue trap to try to reduce the whitefly which are already rife this year. Over the next week I’ll be calibrating the drippers so that the mats don’t get flooded and then, as the threat of a longer cold spell recedes, we can start to move the frost tender plants into the greenhouse on their way to the ground outside. 

All this while the sun shone  – it was heaven! This week the river has been running high, and it’s kept the issue of climate change at the top of our attention. We used to live 15 miles further downstream, at the point where the tidal river enters the Bristol Docks, and I described some time ago how we once came very close to being flooded ourselves. Then, it was a combination of snow melt, a high spring tide and a westerly wind lumping up the tide as it ran beneath the suspension bridge and up the gorge.  This year it’s much the same combination and a friend posted this photo of what would have been the view from our window.  It’s a scary thought that these ‘once in a lifetime’ events are becoming more and more regular. I recommended Adam Nicholson’s marvellous book “The Seabird’s Cry” a couple of weeks ago.  When I finally put it down it was me that felt like crying at the damage that we’ve inflicted by fuelling climate change. Why should we get so upset at the fate of seabirds which have no real economic bearing on our lives? The answer, of course, is in the word ‘economic’. Like the caged canary in a mine, the fate of the seabirds is a telltale, a warning that something is terribly wrong. Banning canaries wouldn’t have saved any miners’ lives and ignoring the disappearance of many treasured species won’t save us from the consequences of our inaction. The great ocean going birds bring spiritual and aesthetic gifts beyond any bean counting exercise, and all the while we grow more and more impoverished; diminished from within and without.

My thanks to Sarah and Ben for the photo

Addendum

I just noticed that Sarah posted this because Bristol City Council have proposed building 2000 houses in this immediate area. Darwin Award for them!

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The meadow that’s around us

 

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A fox strolling across our site in broad daylight

I’d just finished writing a piece for the allotment society about taking on an overgrown allotment when I turned to writing this post. I’ve been really impressed with Simon Fairlie’s book “Meat – a benign extravagance” which was published in 2010 and today when I was flicking through a digest of the day’s news I came across a story about leaked emails written by a government advisor which had revealed that he thought neither fishing nor agriculture were really worth preserving in the UK.  The chain of idiocy that this attitude reveals is examined forensically in the Fairlie book, but as for the emails, I have no doubt that the author is a fully paid up advocate of and probably a shareholder in industrialized intensive farming.  My guess is that neither the environment nor unemployment, and certainly not public health figure in his analysis. Coincidentally another article – this time in the Farmers Weekly – suggested that there’s a rosy future for British agriculture freed from the petty rules and regulations of the EU.

This constellation of  dangerous thinking made me wonder whether Simon Fairlie had changed his mind in the last 10 years.  Maybe he’s recanted, I thought, and bought shares in Bayer – and so I looked him up and no, he’s now making a living (probably not a generous one) selling Austrian forged (as in hammers and anvils not fake) scythes and editing a magazine called The Land and even a quick glance will reveal that he’s lost none of his incisive way of dealing with unsupported claims by either friends or enemies.

So there was the chain of thought that led to the image of a scythe.  The fox on our site that has killed more allotment chickens than you’d believe and yet still brings a thrill when he strolls insouciantly across the site; the kind of neoliberal economist who would empty your bank account and sell your granny without a hint of compassion; the trials of taking on an overgrown allotment and the memory of a traditional farm implement, all dancing around in my head at the same time. I should probably increase my medication.

If there is a crisis in agriculture it’s probably being cynically manipulated by the people who would rather throw agriculture, fishing and wildlife under a bus than give up driving their big cars and burning fossil fuels. The agrochemical industry simply loves the idea of sequestering carbon by planting trees because it will mean intensive chemically supported farming will be the only show in town once all that land is taken out of production, and as Simon Fairlie remarked ten years ago, there’s a real danger that the more extreme fringes of the vegan movement will forge an unholy alliance with them.  There’s a crisis in agriculture, and fishing too, because for decades the subsidy system has been used to encourage people to do exactly the wrong things, and there’s a cultural crisis in the West resulting from our disconnection from nature. When we lost the dirt under our fingernails we began to lose the sense of connectedness with the earth and her rhythms. As a matter of fact I think that watching cosy natural history programmes on the television (though I do it myself) is positively dangerous. It’s a voyeuristic substitute for the real food of connectedness – a kind of synthesised vitamin pill rather than the feast that’s everywhere around us.

The fox is an awesome predator but its capacity to do real harm is limited. Even apex wild predators are incapable of completely eliminating their prey species, they’re just not organised enough – but we are; homo non-sapiens, the creatures who’ve lost their wisdom. The economist probably doesn’t even know how to grow mustard and cress on a piece of tissue paper, but with a little help from industrial lobbyists still has the capacity to destroy the environment in an unprecedented fashion.

So there I was, yesterday evening, sitting at my laptop with this depressing sentence nagging me, when an alarm went off on my phone.  How could I have forgotten? We’d done two very long days on the allotment building the new rainwater storage and sowing some early seeds so we’d warmed up some clanger pudding (a Potwell Inn stalwart, comprising whatever’s left in the fridge), and were looking forward to an evening doing not much.  Twenty minutes later we were around at BRLSI – (Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution) for George Peterken’s talk on the cultural ecology of meadows. The place was packed with some awesomely qualified people – County Recorders, ex presidents of this and that national bodies, wardens, botanists, ecologists and mycologists – you really should join Bath Natural History Society if you live anywhere near here, these aren’t just clever people they’re really friendly too, and they can turn a field trip into a seminar.

And blow me if he didn’t talk about scythes!  Now there’s an example of synchronicity worth savouring. I used to have a scythe, but I never really mastered it. In the early 70’s we were drinking at the Cross Keys in Corsham when we met an very elderly man who’d been a gardener at Corsham court and who told us that they had cut the lawns there with scythes. He offered to give me a lesson – which I gladly accepted – and so later that week we met outside the pub on the verge, and he demonstrated how to do it.  My inelegant slashings were completely wrong, it seems.  When he used the scythe it looked more like a slow, deliberate dance.  Even for an old man with arthritis, he made it look beautiful – a kind of circular motion, step and sweep, step and sweep.  Even the short grass of the verge fell tidily beneath his razor sharp scythe. He showed me how to sharpen my scythe too and I wish I’d paid more attention but when you’re twenty something there’s always infinite time for learning stretching out before you. As a child I’d been roped in to rake the hay on my grandfather’s smallholding and I’d seen stooks and ricks being built; it was a grand day out and I could feel the heat of the sun on my back..

So last night’s talk on meadows was so much more than a technical exercise. In his opening remarks, George Petersen said he’s been surprised at how emotionally connected people are to these relics of an ancient agricultural system. I can vouch for that.  As he showed slides of fields, gloriously filled with wildflowers and orchids, plants I’d never seen and many that I know well, I was experiencing the kind of feelings you might reasonably expect in a concert hall. My guess is that there were more than a few tears lurking in the corners of our eyes as we contemplated the beauty and the loss of what we’ve collectively allowed to die in the delusional pursuit of ‘progress’. He spoke of the way that the ‘catastrophe’ of haymaking each year had led birds, butterflies and insects to make a living in the field margins.  He advanced an idea of ‘meadow’ that embraced a much more eclectic definition – field margins, woodland rides, roadsides and clifftops.  But he also spoke of the culture that created these environments and which sounded so much more appealing than the industrialised concrete canyons we now inhabit; fed on industrialised junk-food and entertained with industrialised natural history television.

We walked home knackered and excited in equal measure – in the words that once featured on the front of the Whole Earth Catalogue –

“We can’t put it together – it is together”.