This is positively the last tiny runnel of the Cold Comfort Farm oxbow, so it’s going to be a short post. Firstly, Hardy did write one cheerful, and funny novel – “Under the Greenwood Tree” – which is required reading for anyone wanting to change anything at all in a church – especially the music.
Secondly, although Hardy isn’t well known as a poet he wrote some wonderful and very technical stuff in rhyme schemes that have proper Latin names. Generally speaking, technically dazzling poetry is a bit disappointing in the ideas department but his isn’t – although he shares the dubious honour (with RS Thomas) of writing his most powerful love poems to the dead partners whom they’d neglected to the point of abuse during their lives.
Thirdly (I’m stopping counting now) there’s one really interesting moment in CCF when a darker note creeps in. Flora’s eventual soulmate, Charles, is described as being unable fully to enjoy a party because he cannot shake off the sense of guilt he has at having survived his time as a wartime soldier in Afghanistan when so many of his friends had died. It’s only one tiny sentence – barely even that – but the book was published in 1932, almost exactly midway between two catastrophic wars, and it’s clear that amid all the merriment of the novel, history is biting at Stella Gibbons’ heels.
And finally – I think I want to go into the sukebind business. We could all do with a bit of cheering up, and what with everyone having children later and later and worrying constantly about identity and other imponderables, not to mention the government and the environment, I thought it might be diverting to sow lots of sukebind among the wildflower meadows of Putney and Nempnet Thrubwell in order to encourage more frolicking. I’m reading Dave Goulson’s excellent new book on *wildflower gardening and I can’t find any reference to sukebind – I expect big pharma is working on synthesizing it even as I write this – and probably Dominic Cummings has slapped a D notice on even mentioning it, but I was thinking of making a tincture to sell to Potwell Inn customers at £50 for 10 ml. I’m ready for the knock on the door.
*Dave Goulson – The Garden Jungle – Jonathan Cape £16.99
After quoting from Cold Comfort Farm a couple of days ago, I couldn’t resist reading it again for the umpteenth time and once again it made me laugh out loud on almost every page. I mean it’s not as if it’s a piece of great literature, but it’s absolutely joyful and it feels as if it was written in much the same way that Jack Kerouac is supposed to have written “On the road” – in one long binge. I’ve read it so many times, now, that I’ve worn it out over and over and my latest copy – bought from an Oxfam shop – started life at 2/6 – that’s half a crown or twelve and a half pence in new money. While I was reading today the spine began to break once more so that’s something else I need to look out for.
But there’s more to it than just the comedy. The book was written as a riposte to the Thomas Hardy school of literature. I’m a great fan of Hardy but you have to say the unremitting grimness of, say, Jude or Tess does make it something of an ordeal to read them – the grey wraiths of fate hang over them rather like an appointment for a colonoscopy….
But then I suddenly remembered my first ever sermon while I was training when one of the assessors said it was like being immersed in Thomas Hardy – which I didn’t take as a compliment. A rather kinder mentor said gently that it would be best if I didn’t try to say everything that was on my mind at once. Being a Hardy fan is not unlike being an old fashioned Marxist – you know something terrible is going to happen but you just don’t know when: which is precisely why my mind travelled to Amos Starkadder’s sermon after seeing the photographs in Cardiff last week. I needed something to laugh at amid the suffocating thought that something pretty awful is happening to us all.
Reading the whole novel again brought other rewards as well. Madame, for instance, reminded me that it was one of my father’s favourite books – a fact which I’d completely forgotten, and which prompted me to remember that I had seen him laughing until the tears ran down his face and he fell to coughing furiously. It was a great memory for displacing some of the more gloomy ones as he grew old.
Last night the south westerly wind was in one of those strange moods where it simply blew hard and steadily, without variation, finding the tiniest cracks in the window frames and causing a continuous soughing noise. We woke up this morning to rain, again the uncommon sound of a heavy and continuous shower, blitzing through the early sunlight as the sun rose over the roofs of the buildings opposite with a fine mist rising up in the intense brightness. All very Hardy-esque I thought. They call it synchronicity when events and thoughts seem to coincide. It happens a lot at the Potwell Inn. The other memory to bubble up from the silt was the phrase spoken by (I think) Mrs Beetle – “This won’t buy the baby a new coat” – one of my mother’s frequent expressions.
Yesterday I glimpsed a newspaper headline suggesting that the government had decided to treat Extinction Rebellion activists as potential terrorists. I’m not much of an activist but it amuses me to think that at my ripe old age I’m finally being taken seriously as a threat to the way we do things so badly round here. Good thing too, we need to shake things up a bit if we’re going to survive – this woebegotten bobbery pack of a government can stick their fingers in their ears and shout “lah lah lah” as much as they like but it hasn’t worked in Australia and it can’t work here.
– and the answer is in our son’s next door neighbour’s garden in the middle of Birmingham. In fact herons are almost a pest in suburban gardens these days and almost any little pond is likely to be raided. Last time we were up in Birmingham we saw a large heronry alongside a reservoir near Winterbourne House, and a few years back our son saw a peregrine kill a pigeon and eat it on the path outside his kitchen window in the middle of Harbourne. On our allotment in Bath we see foxes and badgers and one allotmenteer has seen deer there. The birds are pretty prolific as well, we’ve got one established peregrine nest in the centre of town and if I were a better entomologist I reckon we’ve a rich collection of insects on the allotments too, not to mention the smaller mammals I wrote about yesterday. In fact Ken Thompson’s work at the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, some of which comes up in his book “The Sceptical Gardener” – well worth reading – and Dave Goulson’s books on bees suggest that suburban gardens are both a resource and a hotspot for depleted wildlife.
So while urban and suburban gardeners (and farmers) pit themselves and their gardens against environmental catastrophe, what’s happening out there in the “real” countryside? I think we pretty much know the answer to that one – it’s a story of crisis. I would have said it was a story of decline if I’d been writing this a few years ago, but there are signs of hope, typified by the rewilding project at Knebb but replicated on a much more modest scale in many other places. While we all wish that change could come faster but there’s a lot of inertia and a whole culture to overcome before that can happen, and I know we need action right now, but with a climate change denying government, banks and multinational pharmaceutical companies still in control, the responsibility for change, for the time being, has to be on us and our behaviour.
At the AGM of the Bath Natural History Society this afternoon, (Prof) David Goode – in his President’s address – said that he felt that public attitudes towards climate change had changed for the better over the past year, and gave credit to Greta Thunberg for inspiring the Extinction Rebellion movement and catalysing the sense of urgency. He also said that he had authored some reports in the late 1970’s in a book trying to predict what was coming during the next decades. He told us that the editor of the publication had refused to accept the phrase “greenhouse effect” but that every one of his predictions had come to pass before the end of the decade. In my view, with Australia on fire, California in the grip of a prolonged drought and multiple species extinctions across the world it’s become ever more clear that climate change, species extinction and neoliberal politics are all part of the same problem and we can’t choose to fix just one of them. Having worked in the countryside for 25 years I know only too well the cost to the environment of soil degradation, monoculture, eutrophication of the rhynes (ditches) and the continual application of powerful chemicals, and it’s a cost to the farmers too because as their income is squeezed by falling farm gate prices deliberately forced on them by supermarkets (ask any dairy farmer) they feel they’re being blamed for the state of the environment while the real architects of agribusiness are living high on the hog.
It’s shaming rather than ironic, that suburban and urban green spaces have become places of refuge for wildlife, harried from the countryside by the destruction of habitat and driven by an economics that has no column for the environment in the profit and loss accounts. If you add in the ludicrous farm subsidy system and the lobbying power of the agrochemical industry and it looks like a perfect storm. Ironically I won a signed hardback copy of Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” in the raffle. I bought the paperback last summer at Heligan, so I’ll pass that copy on to a friend. One of the greatest advantages of living in the centre of Bath is the proximity of the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution which is only 5 minutes walk away and accommodates most of the Bath Nats indoor meetings. The view through the first floor window was lovely this afternoon. January is the quietest month in Bath, with far fewer visitors and space to walk around the city unhampered.
Up at the allotment this morning we planted out the last batch of overwintering broad beans. The first feed of broad beans and new potatoes is a landmark meal, marking the end of the hungry gap and the hope of good things to come, but the soil is very wet at the moment and the water table is so close to the surface that we’re a bit concerned about the effect on the overwintering plants, so it may be necessary to deepen the soakaways or to raise the beds even more, adding plenty of grit to the soil to improve drainage. Whichever we choose it’s going to be hard work, that’s for sure.
Luckily we’ve got a second string to our bow because we started a second batch of garlic in large pots, filled with a free-draining mix of soil, compost and horticultural grit, with a few handfuls of vermiculite thrown in. It’s a similar mix to the one we’ve evolved for growing basil indoors under the horticultural lights and that’s absolutely thrived this winter giving us a year-round supply of full flavoured basil. This variety is called Neapolitan and I like it even more than the Classico.
This post was amended on Sunday to restore a displaced paragraph to its proper position.
When we lived in South Gloucestershire, occasionally – during the autumn – we would get flocks of Redwing gorging themselves on the fallen apples in our small orchard. One year we even photographed half a dozen roe deer which must have walked brazenly up the drive past the churchyard unless they jumped over the wall. Our chickens too, before they became foxy takeaways, absolutely loved them; and apart from larger birds and mammals the windfalls fed countless insects for weeks. But apples don’t persist, unless – that is – they’re crab apples like these I photographed on the river bank this morning. In recent days I’ve focused on winter looking forward to spring, but this tree – still bearing a significant amount of fruit – is some kind of Malus sylvestris – probably an ornamental cultivar and takes me back to the warm days of autumn. Stripped of all its leaves this tree is two seasons in one and makes a decent food-bank for the local wildlife.
While thinking of food-banks, yesterday I mentioned the sorry state of some of the boats being pressed into service on the canal. This one is actually on the river just downstream of the weir and terribly vulnerable to flooding. The sheeting is all that seems to be sheltering a human being in this cold weather. The combination of public holidays and sales reductions in the shops has brought an unprecedented number of apparently homeless people into the city centre where they beg for money from crowds of visitors. The police claim they they do very well out of it but it doesn’t take a genius to recognise that many of them have intractable mental health problems. The Julian Trust – a local homeless charity – have weighed in against another charity which has distributed temporary shelters, claiming that there is plenty of emergency shelter already available and if people can be persuaded to attend they can receive all sorts of support and healthcare including help with addiction problems. Homeless people can be very difficult to help.
Years ago I opened the vicarage door, late one winter evening, to see a young woman – clearly a rough sleeper – who announced “my waters have broken”. I have to admit it crossed my mind that this was a spoof but she was very pregnant so I yelled for Madame and we took her in, shoved her in a warm bath and called the maternity hospital. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to persuade them even to send out a midwife to check her over but eventually, at about 2.00am a midwife turned up and confirmed that she was about to have the baby but not that night. The girl’s partner was very hostile and refused to come into the house and she too refused a bed but insisted on sleeping in the bus shelter on the A38. It turned out that they had met while they were residents in a psychiatric unit. We gave them some blankets and some food, and I managed to wring a promise out of her that she would come back in the morning, but it became clear that the reason for her fear of the authorities was that she had already had one child taken away and so she had decided to have this one “in a hedge somewhere”.
I spent half the next day trying to find emergency accommodation and when eventually I found somewhere in Bath I even offered to drive them over to see it, but they refused all offers of help, and the last time I saw them that afternoon they were walking off in the direction of the Severn Bridge. I never heard of them again, and there aren’t many months when I don’t think about them. The line of my pastoral failures is longer than I care to think! The earth in all its fullness can be a cruel place, and any transect of my little geographical area of concern has to include the culture, the people, the dependencies and cruelties as well as pretty pictures of apple trees and my endless lists of wildlife. The same malign economic and political forces that are killing the environment and heating the climate are also destroying human lives, and not just in faraway places.
So where do we snatch joy from in the midst of all this?
Well, I think we need to take and celebrate joy wherever we find it. I had a real moment of joy in the bookshop today. I was waiting to collect my new edition of Stace and I had a browse in the poetry section and picked up a copy of Louis MacNeice Collected Poems. Although I was only killing time (what a dreadful expression) I got so excited about the beginning of Autumn Journal – written in 1939 (there’s ominous!) – that I started to whisper the words aloud so I could feel them in my mouth. I was getting some funny looks from other customers and so my only real recourse was to add the book to my already extravagant copy of “New Flora of the British Isles” Ed 4. When a book makes me hungry I have to have it, and this one started to blow me away in the shop! So there it is; on the last day of the year I mange to bind up every contradiction in my life into a mare’s nest of conflicting demands, and conclude 2019 with a flourish of extravagance.
Stuff it anyway – that’s what being human seems to be all about. Love, art, laughter and tears too – we can’t make it up, we have to live it. Happy New Year!
Yesterday I got excited about a patch of winter heliotrope on the canal side, but I didn’t mention the little guerilla garden that popped up just below Cleveland House a couple of seasons ago. I’m no expert when it comes to guerilla gardening, but I know of three sites in Bath that have been planted up and (more or less) maintained for a few years now. If you walked past looking at your mobile or with your head full of music, or ran past checking your heart rate and distance, or shouting at your children to mind the water -you’d never notice it – there’s only half a dozen square metres of it after all. But it just happens that it’s next door to a favourite patch of Pulmonaria (lungwort) which was not showing much more than leaves yesterday and it contained some winter savory in flower.
So how do we feel about these introduced and occasionally naturalized interlopers popping up here and there with a bit of human help. My “Atlas Flora of Somerset” has the plant established for a very long time on the walls of the manor at Mells. Stace has it naturalised in North Somerset – which may well refer to the same plants, so it seems to me to be completely pointless trying to establish its status as if it were applying for a visa. The brute facts are that this plant was almost certainly put there by the guerilla gardener(s) who thought the patch was looking very neglected and needed cheering up. Maybe in a hundred years it will have naturalised and maybe it will just give up the ghost because it’s not in the right place – who knows? But yesterday it was in flower and looking very pretty in the shy sort of way that plants do when they’re surrounded by the usual badly behaved groundlings in disturbed soil.
It’s possible to get disquietingly touchy on the subject of alien plants, as if only ram-stamped British – no, English – subjects should be allowed. Is there a whiff of nativism in it? Neither plants, birds or insects respect our artificial borders – we’ve got a lovelorn parakeet hanging around on the allotment at the moment; should we shoot it in the pursuit of ecological purity or smile at its preposterous brightness against the winter trees?
There are a couple of serious points that should be made about planting up apparently neglected patches of ground. The first is that wildflowers often only show themselves for a brief period and then disappear again until next season. Most of us don’t notice that wildflowers adapt to their surroundings by timing their flowering period to coincide with any number of factors – space, daylight, pollinators – and probably many more. The wonder of the weedy verge is succession and so although the patch of apparently boring ground may not be looking at its most showy today, in a month it might be a riot or a contemplative joy. As I discovered very early on in my botanical apprenticeship, not all dandelions are really dandelions, and not all of those green plants on verges are cow parsley. Wild plants have their own times and seasons and it’s not their job to provide us with year-round entertainment. I’ve come to see the random distribution of “wildflower seed mix” as just another form of vandalism alongside strimmers.
Another parallel point comes in a particularly poignant way here in Bath. The local council, bless them, always mindful of the strillions of visitors, like to make sure that the the grass and borders are a constant visual feast. But to be honest, 50,000 tulips is a bit of an insult to any idea of biodiversity. God has an answer to bare earth, and it’s called weeds. Weeds are beautiful, healing, occasionally poisonous, and home to billions of insects that feed birds and other insects. My mother, born in 1916, knew her wildflowers inside out; could predict the weather for the next few hours by looking at “Granny Perrin’s nest” which, to my infant eyes, looked like a tall tree, and didn’t think of herbal remedies as the least bit ‘alternative’. She didn’t – to my knowledge – ever fly on a broomstick.
Teaching children to understand and recognise even a few local wildflowers and their properties (perhaps ‘gifts’ would be a better word), would do more to advance the battle against the coming ecological disaster than any number of wildlife documentaries. At Christmas our oldest grandson (7) showed me his new bird record book. Three pages of neatly ruled entries detailed all his sightings, and every one of them was a blackbird. I asked him if he’d seen anything else and he replied that he was only recording black ones at the moment. It’s a start, that’s the thing. If we’re going to survive on this planet, the earth needs to be the object of our love and not just our understanding. So I hear what you’re saying, guerilla gardeners, but don’t be too quick to condemn the weedy patch or you might fall into the sin of municipal consciousness.
I’m not sure whether what we do here amounts to serious research of any kind, but when noticing plants or wildlife takes a step up and becomes systematic, the data that’s recorded takes on a life of its own, especially in unregarded areas where developers may try to push plans through without leaving time to do proper longitudinal surveys. These kind of surveys are the lifeblood of natural history, and over time the gathered data becomes more and more significant, because what’s never been recorded can’t be counted as lost. For once it’s a great help to be old, because we know what we’ve lost – but it’s not a great experience.
We have a favourite walk into town which – if we walked the quickest route would take us right to the centre in ten minutes. But if we follow the river to the point where the canal enters it, and then follow the canal as far as Sidney Gardens, doubling back through the gardens and up Pulteney Street it’s about five times as far but a hundred times more interesting.
Spotting plants can sometimes be a race against the strimmers, for instance the Tansy I photographed only a few days ago had been strimmed off when I went back two days later. On the towpath, tidiness reigns – it’s an unnecessary pain, but the council seem unable to resist it. The riverbank is a different matter, though, and all sorts of anarchy breaks out there, offering a feast of weeds both rare and common as muck, growing through the supermarket trolleys. Who cares? they’re all lovely. Then there’s the park, where there’s always something unplanned happening in the borders and the long grass – (steady on, I’m talking about plants here) – and finally the streets which have a good deal more botanical interest than you’d ever imagine. What the long route takes in time it repays in interest and, over the years, you get to know where to look for old friends with the ever present possibility of spotting something new.
I wrote yesterday that I was just longing for some sunshine and a few flowers, and today I half hoped I might spot an early flowering Coltsfoot so I had my eyes firmly on the canal bankside when I spotted a plant in flower. I’d seen the leaves in a dense patch for a couple of years, and I’d guessed it might be Coltsfoot or Butterbur but I couldn’t be certain. It was one of those plants that you know you need to identify properly but never get round to doing because you half know the answer. The fact that my mystery plant was in flower today – at the end of the year – meant it could only be Winter Heliotrope, a close relative of butterbur and, for that matter, Coltsfoot too.
I can’t tell you how happy I was to have named the plant. It may be as common as could be, but suddenly a stranger became a friend, along with all the others I’ve identified along that length of the canal. The last time I spotted a large clump of Coltsfoot I was on my bike cycling around the Severnside villages after a snowstorm. They glowed at me from the verge and I could almost warm my hands on them. I knew those villages and their plants really well after 25 years, and after 4 years in Bath I’m just beginning to experience the same feelings. Finding a new plant can almost make you break out in a jig.
So today was a day in which at least one wish was granted, but there was another. I mentioned the other day that I was lusting after the 4th edition of Clive Stace’s “New Flora of the British Isles”. I was taking a secretive peep on the computer this morning and Madame said “why don’t you just buy it?” . “Because it’s £59”, I said, in an outbreak of inexplicable candour – I usually lie about these things and round them down a bit, well a lot. “You’ve got a book token and some loyalty card tokens – use them too” . I needed no persuasion and so at the end of our walk we wandered into Waterstones and I ordered it. The shop assistant looked it up and said – I guess trying to warn me – “It’s £59“. I raised myself to my full 5’8”, put on my most condescending smile and assured him that I did know – it was such a delight! I love books. I even sniff them when I think no-one’s looking, because no Kindle ever came close to the smell of fresh printing ink and good paper.
So that’s two lovely things about today, and the third was the roastie tonight when I cooked our own potatoes, celeriac and parsnips. I boiled them for as long as I dared and then dumped them in olive oil in a horrendously hot oven, giving them a little crush about halfway through. They were the crispiest, fluffiest roasties I’ve ever done. Life is good.
My son will feel faint when he sees this mess, but I find it comforting. The little tin of Leonardt pen nibs just to the left of the laptop, the Rite in the Rain notebook with so many botanising adventures written inside, the red cabbage leaf patiently waiting to be painted. He’ll laugh out loud at the early morning espresso that will shortly make me feel faint and – knowing him – he’ll be looking at the book to see what I’m reading. He’s a philosopher so his life and mine are both made from books which we eat up eagerly and then after an interval of indigestion, wait for our minds to turn into food.
Digesting a book is a slow process. The good ones are often very expensive and so they need to be prepared for. Fifty quid for the new, fourth, edition of Stace will need a long period of deliberation followed by a reckless moment of ordering (it’s not the sort of book you can get from the local Waterstones), anxious days of waiting for the post to arrive from Summerfields and then ….. first anxious look …… plants have mysteriously uprooted themselves from their familiar page and re-homed themselves with another family. Looking up the simplest thing is agonisingly slow and so back to the old familiar. This can take months! Finally (I haven’t even dared to order it yet) we shall become friends.
Most books need a period of resting before I can read them – let’s call it shelf life for the sake of an easy joke. I need to get over the extravagance and remember what the exact impulse was for buying them in the first place. Sometimes, no – often – the original impulse was associated with a particular vein of thought which has become a worked out lode. The roof collapsed, or got too low to follow. Sometimes I consume them hungrily but either the book’s not ready for me or I’m not ready for the book, and it goes on to the shelf again until I’ve caught up – maybe years later. The best books are the ones I read when I was nineteen and understood perfectly – until I read them again at thirty, or fifty or even seventy and each time discovered I’d never understood them at all. I have the clearest memory of a boring summer afternoon in a library where I pulled down a copy of Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” and read it standing up as only a hungry teenager can. I didn’t understand a fraction of it; I only discovered that Leach was a Sufi many years later – hence the profound spirituality of a book about pots – and even today my first impulse on handling a pot is to turn it upside down to see the base, touch the bare, unglazed rim to my lips and ping it. Everyone I know except my son’s partner, who was born in Stoke on Trent, thinks this is a bit weird. The best books are long affaires, kept secret from any chance of mockery.
Sometimes me and the book need a period away from each other while we both catch up. I read them once, put them back on the shelf and then come back years later with an older mind. The book on my desk took 25 years, or rather it took me 25 years to catch up. I probably bought “This Sacred Earth” – Roger Gottlieb’s compendium of writing from around the earth in 1996, the year it was published. At that time I would have been deeply involved in parish life, and I’ve no recollection of reading it the first time. It’s still in print in a second edition, along with a number of other books on green and deep ecology and radical political thought. It came off the shelf yesterday and I was transfixed by the relevance of the essays and extracts.
Yesterday I was talking about the Extinction Rebellion movement with my son. He told me he’d been shocked to see an old edition of “Spitting Image” (TV show) in which may of the ER issues were aired, more than a decade before many of its members were born. Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published before most of their parents were born! Species extinctions and climate catastrophe aren’t new ideas, they’ve been around for more than half a century and, by and large, we did nothing about them. If the young have a charge against the old it’s our inaction in the face of the incontrovertible facts that were staring us in the face. We turned away – and that was a sin against the earth.
Now, wherever I look, I see the voices of the unheard shouting across the years. Did it only become a ‘proper’ problem when the dominating culture of the west appropriated it? Did we only take it seriously when it became an ‘ology’? – to borrow a phrase from an elderly friend who would say (disparagingly) “Oh he’s very clever, he’s got an ‘ology!'”.
Gosh I can’t remember the last sentence I wrote with four consecutive punctuation marks.
So there it is. My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of slowly composting ideas that will, in the fullness of time, be returned to the earth. To borrow an idea from another book I needed to put aside, because I didn’t know if anyone was listening any more, may we be granted time for repentance and the amendment of our lives – not just for ourselves but for our children and their children down the years.
Well I did say that garlic growing had reached a whole new level of personal interest after the Allotment Association talk last Monday, and I wasn’t wrong. The book I ordered – all 450 pages of it – was definitely a good buy, and coupled with some information from the talk I’ve been doing a bit of online research to see what the state of play is for organic gardeners..
The first thing to say is that the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm is not an organic operation and makes no claim to being one. I certainly don’t want to mount any high horse about that; it sounds like a commercial decision based on the challenges of achieving a consistent crop, and we’re free to buy or not to buy their products. Two things that were said induced me to get online. In the QA session after the talk it was said that the farm uses Dithane to control fungal diseases like white rot. They also operate a seven year field rotation, so they’re obviously taking no chances. When he was asked what to do if you get white rot, the speaker said “buy another farm!” – I’ve got more on that later.
In fact they can’t use Dithane because it’s been banned in the EU, and they probably went over to Systhane until that was banned as well, and current regulations seem to say that there are no chemical fungicides available to gardeners for use on food plants. That’s not a worry for us because we wouldn’t have used them anyway, but we have to accept that our losses to disease will be much harder to reduce and will need a holistic approach to plant health coupled with some hard observation of soil, weather conditions and rotation.
The second thought provoking suggestion in the talk was to give the garlic a dose of sulphate of ammonia in February. Sulphate of ammonia is a chemical fertilizer, produced by reacting ammonia with sulphuric acid. It adds, I discovered, both nitrate and sulphur to the ground but there are all the usual downsides of producing sappy, insect friendly growth and so-on. It also uses 1% of the world’s total energy production in its manufacture. But alliums – onions, garlic etc – all need sulphur which is one of the molecular components of the garlic byproduct, allicin, which is so good for us. Normally there’s sufficient sulphur in the soil, but apparently – and here you must remember my knowledge of plant biology is limited – apparently waterlogging does severe damage to plant roots and restricts the uptake of essential minerals. The take home point for us is that when we inherited our allotment the soil was continually waterlogged in the winter, and despite adding tons of compost; digging drains and raising beds, it’s still on the wet side.
The sequence of plant problems is that weakened plants get diseases more quickly and more severely than healthy ones. For the third consecutive year our leeks have been a miserable failure while others on higher allotments have not been affected. So putting aside sulphate of ammonia what else could be available to us as organic gardeners? One suggestion is to spray with a solution of Epsom salts – magnesium sulphate. It’s apparently allowable, but I’m assuming it’s a manufactured chemical and I know it hasn’t been made from natural Epsom spring water in living memory so it feels pretty non-organic to me. Then I came across some research on seaweed fertilizer which pretty much fits the bill. We often use it as a foliar spray, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to use it in February. Research suggests that it’s a very effective source of minerals including sulphur. Anecdotally I can say that a car load of bagged and wet seaweed certainly smells as if it’s got some sulphur about it! – and it it makes a brilliant soil conditioner too. So in February we’ll spray the young alliums with liquid seaweed extract and I’ll report back. Other than that, I think we need to carry on raising the beds further above the water table and digging in organic material and horticultural grit.
Back to the book, and it’s been a revelation. I need to get a bit of organic chemistry into my head, but garlic’s claim to be a superfood seems to be well supported by independent research. The last 100 pages of the book are a summary of research into the use of garlic in folk and complementary medicine and the use of alliums and their derived substances as attractants, antibiotics, herbicides, pesticides and repellents in the environment. There’s all sorts of peer reviewed research in there including some work on companion planting which I’ve yet to read properly because I get excited and start skim-reading – a very bad habit and the reason why I’m not referencing any of the ideas.
But allotmenteering is all about taking the abstract and making it concrete, and so this all boils down to creating the best conditions for our own garlic by growing it in large pots filled with a home made mixture of soil, compost, horticultural sand, a sprinkle of fish blood and bone (not vegan then), and some vermiculite and perlite. This year we’re comparing 2 rows of Early Purple Wight softneck, grown direct in the allotment soil, and 25 plants of Carcassonne Wight hardneck in pots. They’ll all get the same seaweed treatment and hopefully we’ll be able to figure out how much the waterlogging is contributing to our difficulties. In practice this means carrying many kilos of ingredients down the steep paths and mixing them up in the wheelbarrow, which is extremely hard work but massively cheaper than buying bags of potting mix – which sometimes rely on peat in any case. This way we’ve only ourselves to blame if we get the mixture wrong.
So, after a hard day, we consoled ourselves with roasted root vegetables (mostly off the allotment) and couscous; another vegan tryout that was well worth the effort, but notwithstanding the affection of American readers for all things pumpkin – especially on Thanksgiving Weekend – even after being anointed with miso and all manner of herbs it didn’t really taste of very much.
The garlic book is – “Garlic and other Alliums – the Lore and the Science” by Eric Block, Royal Society of Chemistry Press. 454 pages and I can’t put the price here because Madame occasionally reads this blog!
I should dedicate this posting to Sid Harris, my sociology tutor at tech college, a thousand years ago, who would challenge my sociological flights of fancy with the words – “- that’s all very exciting David, but where’s the evidence?” If there is any way of sending a profound thank-you to the past it would be to Sid for providing me with the alethiometer (great TV adaptation isn’t it?) that all thoroughgoing sceptics need to get through the mire of speculation, quackery and sheer roguery that infests our culture.
But the question has its price – particularly that going after the evidence demands a lot of commitment, blind alleys and reading which, added up, mean you have to live until you’re at least 110 to understand a simple question like ‘why does peeling onions make your eyes water?’ My latest read – yes I get through 3 or 4 books a week – is “Garlic and other Alliums” by Eric Block, and which is a magnificent book that makes me want to cheer and applaud every other paragraph. But understanding the central chapters depends on a familiarity with organic chemistry which I don’t have. Every opening door leads to another whole corridor.
But today I’ll start with a Guardian article that perfectly demonstrates the thought I’m working on. If you haven’t clicked on the link, the article concerns biochar – a form of charcoal made by burning wood in an atmosphere starved of oxygen – so far so ordinary charcoal – but by doing it in a retort that captures all, or most of the nasties that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. The hypothesis is that by making huge quantities of this compound and digging it into the earth we would be sequestering carbon in a way similar to, let’s suppose peat bogs or coal reserves. The article goes on to suggest that the biochar might also improve soil fertility and even the health of grazing animals at the same time. It’s a no-brainer, we should all go out and buy it right now save the world in a day. Except for a paragraph towards the end-
While academics and researchers are optimistic about the benefits of biochar, they are not blind to the risks either. “If we’re wrong, and we spread hundreds of thousands of tonnes of charcoal over the UK, we can’t get it back out of the ground. We’ve got to be right. The stakes are really high,” says Udall.
The evidence isn’t there yet. It might be there in a year or two, if we do the research, but like most breathlessly announced breakthroughs, we need to slow down a bit. I imagine that the article itself will be mentioned many times, used as a sales pitch and generally enter the consciousness of allotmenteers and gardeners all over the world without the small-print warning following it.
When I started to read about the deep ecology movement I was puzzled by the phrase ‘aquarian conspiracy’ which often cropped up. For me the ‘age of aquarius’ was a song in a musical where some people got their kit off on stage, I couldn’t associate it with the idea of a conspiracy. But what the phrase seems to allude to is the concept of a ‘new age’ in which all of the great challenges facing us are ‘solved’ by the application of new technology. Apparently this became something of a Silicon Valley mantra. While you might think that making charcoal in a fancy retort is hardly ‘technology” it’s clear that the ideological use that it might be put to could be a dangerous diversion from the pressing issue of our anthropocentric environmental greed. Soaking up excess carbon is a must, but you need to stop producing it at the same time. The pressing danger of the ‘aquarian conspiracy’ is that it allows us to carry on polluting in the false belief that there’s always a technology around the corner. And there’s no evidence for that either!
Evidence based science often clashes with the sales pitch – it’s hardly surprising – and the danger is that we rely so much on the carefully crafted ‘evidence’ produced for us like pre-digested seagull food, because we lack the skills to find out for ourselves. Here’s an interesting quotation from David Hoffmann’s book “Medical Herbalism”
I was asked to present a paper on the topic of “Herbal Alternatives to Prozac”. This quest to identify a herbal alternative to Prozac is a perfect example of how the real gifts of herbalism can be deflected by underlying assumptions. It would, in fact, be more appropriate to consider the holistic alternatives to the current vogue for psychopharmaceutical solutions.
When judging outcomes in phytotherapy, the quality of an outcome depends on your values. If an RHS judge with a passion for formal gardens was asked to comment on our allotment they might say it’s a mess because it doesn’t meet their criteria (tidiness, straight lines, complete absence of pests and diseases), for “a good allotment”. A good outcome in holistic therapy (or gardening) might be an enhanced sense of wellbeing whereas a medical assessment might depend on a series of abstract measurements. Neither method is more correct than the other, they both try to be rigorous and they each have strengths that we depend upon – and in any case I have to say that being loved cared for and listened to is the best healer and that defies almost all science.
I remember well a ward sister at the General Hospital in Bristol where I was a part time chaplain. When she died in a riding accident, they put a plaque on the wall to commemorate her. It’s gone now and they’ve turned the hospital into expensive flats – and I’ll make no further comment on that subject! However Sister Valerie Helps – this is my little personal commemoration – had a gift beyond any scientific exploration. Post operative patients in severe pain would feel better when she came on to the ward. She would say -“could you hold on for just another half hour?” when they were calling for morphine, and they discovered that they could. She would challenge the doctors when they were attempting to do something stupid and inspire complete confidence in patients and relatives alike.
Lets do the science – masses of it – and be prepared to learn from it, even if it means changing some of our assumptions. But for science and healing to work together they each need to broaden their underlying assumptions. For science there’s the need to try to describe and quantify a broader range of outcomes which will have to include wellbeing and other ‘subjective’ states. For herbalism, gardening and the whackier reaches of human culture we need to accept that not every hand-me-down remedy is necessarily, a priori, better. I remember my mother talking about the lives saved when sulfonamides were first used during the 2nd world war. They’ve been superseded now, for the most part, but in their day they were lifesavers. To go back to biochar, it may be a part of the answer to the climate catastrophe but in ethics they always say “you can’t make an ought into an is” and that’s not just a lesson for ethicists but for all of us.
All this rain! On the other hand, my incarceration in the flat has given me time to catch up with some reading, and I’ve immersed myself in David Hoffmann’s “Herbal Medicine”. Slowly, slowly the pieces of the jigsaw are falling into place and the inter-relatedness of all things is showing itself wherever I look. In some ways I’m a million miles behind, especially when it comes to the complex decisions that phytotherapists need to make. But in other ways I feel pretty confident – the field botany, the Latin names and even the knowledge of where to look for plants have all been easy to adapt. In fact the extension into a related field of study has served to make plants even more interesting. The knowledge that a plant can function as so much more than a tick in a flora, but be a visual delight, a sign of the underlying soil conditions, a signal of ecological health or sickness, of ancient human habitation or recent of soil disturbance, not to mention its history, the literary references to it, its use as a food, flavouring and medicine. It’s lovely that we can grow some of these herbs on the allotment, and it’s especially lovely that some of the plants with the most potent applications to human health are the least showy; often regarded as weeds. The capacity of plants to synthesise complex molecules from very simple ones is a miracle, and I’ve discovered the oral and worldwide cultural history that sustains herbal medicine goes back thousands of years, and which must make it one of the longest ever citizen science experiments.
I’ve also decided that rather than try to engulf the whole subject like a basking shark, it makes more sense to investigate plants as I find them, and possible uses as I need them myself. That way I don’t have to develop a fizzing brain and the certainty of my inadequacies through limited experience.
I’ve done a few of my own experiments, by gathering, drying and storing a few very easy ones and I’m pleased that the specimens I dried have kept their colour and survived for just under five months in a dark cupboard without any apparent loss of quality. I’ve even tried a few completely safe things on myself – all this is beginning to look like a CV but really it’s not – I’m just sharing how exhilarating it is to be so immersed. One highlight yesterday was to order up three herbs from a supplier to test on myself.
The Potwell Inn allotment is turning out to be a laboratory in which the plants do all the work and, at best, we’re the cleaners and porters who help out. Not only are we not the experts in all this, but it transpires that the plants don’t much need an expert. As allotmenteers we provide room service for the plants, a bit of weeding and feeding here and there and perhaps a bit of pillow plumping while they get on with doing remarkable things.
It hasn’t all been a trip down the primrose path, though. While I was confined to the flat I got on with a few more computer moving jobs and while I was setting up a redirect on one of my old email accounts, I inadvertently created a logical argument that repeatedly copied copies of copies of emails back to their original senders, and one poor friend received 135 of his own emails before I noticed something wrong and pulled the plug. So If you happen to be one of the afflicted ones, please accept my apologies. As one of the victims said – ‘what is it about old people and technology?’ – I hope we’re still friends!
Then yesterday evening we went off to the AGM of the allotment society. The business part of the meeting was chaired with great efficiency so it was over in 3/4 hour and then after the inevitable tea and cake we had a talk given by Rob Solari from the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm. Talks can be anything from lethally sleep inducing to full-on loin girders. Rob’s talk fell into the second category and in about an hour we realized how much we still have to learn about growing garlic. So much so that we were planning to change our whole approach by the time we got back home and by this morning we’d got a much clearer idea of what we would try to do this coming season.
What was also fascinating was some of the biochemistry of the health benefits of garlic. Raw is better than cooked, for instance, although that’s intuitively true. But I hadn’t known how much better it is to crush rather than chop the garlic. I didn’t know that an infusion of elephant garlic leaves can deter slugs, or how to grow truly giant bulbs over two seasons, or that garlic shouldn’t be grown with peas, beans, asparagus, sage or parsley – hmmm – a bit of plant moving called for there; or that hardneck scapes taste lovely. Isn’t it terrific to listen to someone who really knows their subject. I was so inspired I googled up a scientific monograph on garlic and bought it online. Luckily Rob has a stall at the Christmas Market here and we can buy the bulbs we now know we need to plant.
All this leaves me with a bridge to cross, because I have a visceral dislike of raw garlic – and I’m not the only one; one of our allotmenteering neighbours spent the whole talk with a giant handkerchief pressed to her nose. But the health benefits are so well established it would be marvellous if I could develop a taste for it. RS Thomas used to eat bulbs of the stuff, but then not many people wanted to talk to him, with or without garlic breath. I used to work with twin brothers, welders, who would eat raw onions with a penknife as if they were apples, but I’m not sure I could stop myself from gagging. However, the experiment must be done! I’ll say the missionary’s prayer ‘ “Lord, if I get it down will you keep it down?” and my new life will begin – or not as the case may be. But I had a quick look at one scientific paper earlier on, and I read a section from James Wong’s book “How to eat better” and all is not lost because there are workarounds that I can experiment with.
And just to finish, we were given some black garlic to try and it’s beyond delicious. It’s ‘fermented’ at 60C for a month at high relative humidity and it emerges as a sweet black mildly garlic flavoured paste. You could eat it with a teaspoon it’s so good.