Let’s start a slow walking movement!

Bladder Campion – for obvious reasons

Walking down to the sea today with the sun on our necks I experienced what John Betjeman once said of walking the River Kennet – “the glory was in me”. I find that phrase greatly moving in the way it situates the glory within rather than outside and apart from us like something that might be measured and described but never gulped down in great draughts. We come here, (I come here at least), for the plants. In the spring and early summer these western coastal fringes are a feast of botanical delights. In past walks I’ve listed well over 70 plants in flower, barely leaving the ten miles of local coastal path. When we arrived, until Saturday evening, we were enveloped in mist and cloud with the temperature sulking at around 13C. Then the sky finally cleared and the sun came out and the restrained hedgerows burst into flame.

Let’s be clear, I’m still – relatively speaking – a botanical novice on a mission to name the plants and animals I encounter. I hesitate to resort to biblical stories for fear of turning people off, and I’m not very religious myself, but I always loved the one of the two alternative creation stories in the Old Testament in which Adam is given the task of naming the creatures. Homo Sapiens – the thinking animal is only a (relatively unimportant) part of the story. Being human is, or should be, as much about naming and befriending the manifestations of creation as it is about categorising, weighing and measuring them. There’s something fundamental in the business of knowing names because it reaches out and creates a bond, a state of interdependence between the participants. We are mutually beholden – because we have put the work in, or in that unlovely management phrase – we’ve got skin in the game. Once we were strangers, but now after a time of intense regard and thoughtfulness we are on first name terms because we are all scions of the same root (and I’ll come back to that point in a moment).

Of course, that degree of plant scrutiny while you’re walking to the Co-op to buy a pint of milk would be inappropriate, which means that when – at last – we’re allowed out to do some serious plant hunting, a change of gear is called for. We’re a bit rusty, and walking with attention needs practice – that’s all getting your eye in means. Five years ago, when I made the utterly hubristic resolution not to walk past anything I couldn’t name, I quickly realized that in spite of a lifelong interest in wildlife, I hardly knew a thing – I was still really at the buttercups and daisies stage.

I suppose it will seem a bit strange to a thoroughgoing materialist but the plants have always been as much a spiritual quest as they are about ticking of boxes, and so, to pick up that earlier thread, I want to throw a brick into the water. “In the beginning” says St John, “was the Word” – the Logos.

Marvellous I always thought, until John spoiled everything by attempting to restart the whole creation from metaphysical ground zero. Gary Snyder, in the final essay in “The Practice of the Wild” – “Survival and Sacrament”, refers to the Easter Liturgy – the great sequence of songs and readings rehearsing the history of humanity. For me it was always the greatest of all the liturgies; to sing in plainsong a melody and words that were always almost unbearably powerful – so powerful I had to rehearse for an hour on my own to get beyond the tears.

But there was one flaw, and that was the attempt to restart the story at the beginning of the Christian era and erase the millennia, even geological ages that went before. Whether it should be the first verses of Genesis or the first verses of John’s Gospel that comes before all the other readings and psalms I’ll leave to the theologians. I am sure, however, that they both belong at the beginning of the liturgy. I have preached a thousand times that when God speaks, things happen. From the Big Bang to the construction of the large Hadron Collider and from the first slime mould to the emergence of distinctively human life we are all spoken. The horror of the separation – the true original sin, if you like, came on the day we decided that the story was all about us and that the rest of creation was there to service our greed.

So to get back to the plants, it seems to me that the whole of nature amounts to the speech of God, of the Dao or the Great Spirit – it doesn’t matter about the name; maybe Judaism is right, it can and never should be uttered. But the earth and all living things and all inanimate things like water and mountains are spoken out of that primordial moment, and because all of the ten thousand things are ‘spoken’ it makes perfect sense to me that the plants, being some form of ineffable language; speak – as do the mountains and the seas and all the living creatures of which we are just one. The mountains speak ‘mountainish’ and the seas speak ‘sea-ish’ and the plants, obviously, speak plantish, and I’m just struggling to learn plantish – it’s very beautiful.

And so the walking becomes a meditation punctuated by greetings – “Hi sheepsbit!” I say in my head, or perhaps in my heart, and the sheepsbit somehow acknowledges me. “Hello bladder campion” “Hello silverweed” and, on a good day – “hello dodder – haven’t seen you in a while”. The English stonecrop positively glows at me in pale pink and, just as I’m pausing to speak, a ring ouzel slips away flying low. I’ve only seen them twice and first time I was so surprised I emailed the County Recorder to ask if I was seeing things. Today I was completely confident.

Often I make lists but when I do I write the english names in first, because the names in themselves make a kind of poem or song about the past – ploughmans’ spikenard, dyers’ greenweed, woundwort, restharrow. To lose any one of these common and relatively insignificant friends would be a tragedy. What if, one day we came here and walked as we always do down towards the bus stop and the marshy ground at Pwll Trefeiddan and there were no southern marsh orchids, no ragged robin, no flag irises and none of the broad bodied chasers and damselflies who live there, glinting azure blues and reds. That’s the thing about naming and befriending; about beholding even the most common and inconspicuous fellow beings. They matter, not just as ticks on a list but as memories, precious moments, explosive little revelations.

And it goes further than names because so many of the plants have been useful to humans in some way. We eat them, grow them and forage for them. Historically they’ve been the cure for many of the simple disorders and afflictions we suffer from – yesterday, for instance, growing in the wall of St Non’s Well was a clump of pellitory of the wall – traditionally used to treat urinary complaints. Knowing the properties of plants adds a whole new depth of meaning and relationship, and it’s the erosion of our relationship with plants. with the whole natural world that has allowed us to become careless of the environment. I don’t in my heart believe that anger and demonstrations will achieve what can only be done by reconnection. The earth will be safe only when enough of us get our eye in.

A fishy story – thinking about the commons

People often look at the allotment and say – “surely you must be self-sufficient, now?” Well no we’re not, and I’m not a bit sure I even agree with the concept which always strikes me as being isolating and rather egocentric. We learn to become more human by living in interdependent communities. Although the allotment site often feels like and even functions as a sort of village, aside from our 200 square meter plot there’s nowhere we can graze an animal or run a few chickens; nowhere close we can easily forage for the things we can’t grow, and nowhere to gather most of the medicinal herbs that take up more space than we can afford. Of course there are plenty of opportunities to forage far and wide for them – way beyond where we live but the whole point of the Commons is to bring to hand all of the above, plus firewood to a small community. Without commons the community has less reason to live, work, celebrate and lament together; as many people who move into the countryside discover when they soon start to feel lonely. The 21st century default position is to live like strangers, and whilst we worship the wild, we have very little idea of how to learn from it and celebrate with it.

Back in 2020 I was searching the local bookshops to find a copy of Gary Snyder’s “The Practice of the Wild”. I’ll say a little more about the book later, but I’ll begin with one of the most depressing conversations I’ve had in years.  So I walked into Waterstones and searched the most likely places for anything written by him. Poetry? zilch! ….  ecology? zilch! ….. spirituality? ditto!  Eventually I resorted to the cash desk and asked a bright young bookseller – “have you got anything by Gary Snyder?” ….. “Who’s Gary Snyder?” he replied.

That I was quite so shocked caused me to wonder not so much about the illiteracy of the bookseller, suckled on the mayfly life expectancy of our current literary scene; but about the diminishing of that whole culture which existed for perhaps five millennia in which the urgent existential questions we face today were first identified and often answered. For me, Gary Snyder is one of those thinkers who raised the waters from that well and brought them into the 20th century for us. He is – at 91 years old – so much more than a short-lived Beat Poet. Our culture is locked into a groundhog day in which the hard gained wisdom of the past is clearcut and replanted with fashions that rarely survive twenty years. In the absence of a literary canon, we fret our lives away, endlessly seeking solutions to long solved problems. We live in windowless bunkers of our own making. 

So one of the chief sadnesses of growing old in our Western modern and postmodern  wordview; is that the canon – musical, literary, poetic, spiritual and liturgical which has been both lighthouse and lifeboat to us, is breaking up and sinking, and these sharp and careless reminders leave me feeling adrift. “Never mind” I say to myself “where you are is the only place to begin”  – or put it in (I think) RS Thomas’s words, echoing Odysseus in the dim past before the troubles began; ‘home is the harbour you set out from’. And I’m immediately unsure of the quotation because we’re camped on a clifftop field in Pembrokeshire overlooking Ramsey Island and away from any confirmation by books, internet and even my mobile which drifts in and out of consciousness like a dying man. Ithaca feels a long way away. 

Sadly the book was easily available on Amazon and arrived from an American publisher a few days later, priced in dollars; but at least I tried; but I flunked the opportunity of sharing its significance with the young bookseller who might – had I convinced him to read it – have sold it to many other seekers.  Gary Snyder has a lot to say about commons.

When we arrived here we found the campsite engulfed in a thick sea-mist that looks set to stay for a couple of days, so the presence of the sea and Ramsey island are extremely notional at the moment. However I struck up a conversation with a neighbouring campervanner and in the course of one of those long meandering chats, full of oxbows, he told me a story. He used to be, he told me, a professional lobster fisherman but he lost his best friend and deckhand to a rival fisherman after jointly surviving being swamped by a massive wave with the help of  a powerful engine and a lot of luck. Most people have a story to tell, but his wife – having heard it many times in the past – left us and wandered off to a more congenial conversation nearby that involved a comparison of the number of medications the participants were taking.  Non fatal illness is such fun – it seems. Anyway the coda to the fisherman’s yarn was by far the most interesting bit and here’s where Gary Snyder’s discussion of the so-called tragedy of the commons comes in:

“So what about the so-called tragedy of the commons? This theory, as now popularly understood, seems to state that when there are open access rights to a resource, say pasturage, everyone will seek to maximise his take and overgrazing will inevitably ensue. [ …….. ]  When [Hardin et al]  try to apply their model to the historic commons it doesn’t work, because they fail to note that the commons was a social institution which, historically, was never without rules and did not allow unlimited access.”

Source – Cox, Susan and Jane Buck – “No tragedy in the commons” – Environmental Ethics, Spring 1985.

Rough justice

I asked the retired fisherman – now a builder – why did his deckhand and friend leave the boat? Was it the day they were nearly engulfed by a wave?  “No”, he said, “he moved to a better paid deckhand’s job on another boat”; and went on to explain that the other boat was owned by a man who had previously fished in Cornwall, and had developed a reputation for stealing other fishermen’s gear.  In the end, tempers boiled over and he was confronted and told that unless he took his boat out of the county  it would be taken and sunk.  “Fishermen can be very rough” he explained, as if I didn’t know. 

So the ‘marked’ fisherman moved up to Pembrokeshire and was barely surviving, scratching a living from those bits of the shoreline not already fished by the locals.  Then one day someone suggested he ran out a line of pots along “the 27” (no idea what this means – possibly a latitude line on the charts).  So he took himself off into these waters which were left alone by the local fishermen because they were known to be dangerous. He immediately struck gold, making – it was said – £10,000 a week. The deckhand left his sustainably fishing friend and went for the money. 

So there you have it – the tragedy of the commons and its historical solution encapsulated in a chance conversation in the mist.  And which of the characters in the story best represents the future? Sadly, I know for sure that thievery and overfishing have played a large part in the present state of our fisheries and that the smaller fishermen have taken the hit. But whatever happens, unless the commons – in this case our inshore waters – evolve some kind of agreed local governance with achievable sanctions apart from sinking offending boats, it will be too late. The story demonstrates that the draconian local sanctions applied worked very well at first, but when the man moved to another community where he was not known and into a winner takes all culture there were no inhibitory moves that could be made, so in his new home the so-called tragedy of the commons became a reality because it wasn’t a social institution any more, it didn’t have any rules and it couldn’t limit access. This sad tale isn’t a critique of the commons but a critique of our extractive economy.

Several years ago we were with the Bath Nats on a fungus identification field trip, when one of the participants hung back and cut every single ragged parasol mushroom in a clump that I mentioned a few days ago. She rejoined us later with her cute handmade basket groaning with spoils – more than she could ever possibly eat. We stood back astonished, but said nothing. That’s the true tragedy of the commons; that we’ve become so isolated and detached from one another that we no longer even have the means to challenge the abusers of the vestigial remains.

What do we teach the children?


Sometimes reading a single book can make me sit up and think seriously about one of my own taken for granted understandings, but sometimes it takes a combination of two or three, read almost simultaneously. This past couple of weeks I’ve been reading three together:

Suzanne Simard – “Finding the Mother Tree”
Merlin Sheldrake – “Entangled Life”
Robin Wall Kimmerer – “Braiding Sweetgrass”

It’s fair to say that my grasp of what goes on under our feet on the allotment was – until recently – pretty scant. We had made up our minds to do our best to grow more pollinating insect attractors and dig the pond, but this is the first year we’ve set out to associate plants with their companions and the first time we’ve made an informed effort to try the three sisters method. I couldn’t say it’s made our life any easier as we’ve had to do a great deal of rearrangement and grow dozens of companion plants from seed. The no-dig philosophy was already baked in from the time we finally got the beds sufficiently weed free and rich in organic matter. The pond has been a triumph for the wildlife, with a crop of fat tadpoles already, and, at the weekend, three Large Red Damselflies – Pyrrhosoma nymphula two of them mating and laying eggs (Still joined together) on one of the pond plants.

Suzanne Simard and Robin Wall Kimmerer begin their stories – as it were – from opposite positions; Simard is representative of the settler traditions and Kimmerer of the First Nation/ Native American. Each writer seems to move through her life and scientific work, towards a more sympathetic understanding of the other. Merlin Sheldrake (and I’m simplifying horribly) struggles with the tension between anthropomorphism and detached observational science but concedes in the end that so long as we understand that we’re using metaphor to describe things for which we have no adequate words and that metaphors can’t be swapped for facts; then referring to the invisible networks and affinities that enable plants and trees to communicate in ways we don’t fully understand can fairly be described as like a brain. All three books are wonderful contributions to a changing mindset.

In my case I came away understanding much better not just the terrible and bitter effects that follow the destruction of a whole culture, but also the grievous loss of wisdom and experience embodied in it. To lose a language is to lose a way of thinking, and to learn one is to open the door to thoughts and understandings that can only be spoken in their native tongue. In the end, the culture, languages and philosophies of settlers and Native Americans alike were crushed and destroyed by extractive profit seeking and industrialized farming. In a much milder way we were schooled out of our local dialect and fed a completely bizarre diet of altered history to convince us that we were the most fortunate and blessed nation in the entire world. As a child, when there were no adults around we would speak in dialect using archaic terms like thee and thou and understanding perfectly without the aid of Eng Lit and William Shakespeare, that calling someone “you” was a distinctly cool form of address. The highest aim of our education was to make us middling; loyal and obedient to the status quo; so creativity and leaps of the imagination were ruthlessly stamped out. Here I am aged 74 and only now are the dreadful facts of slavery and colonialism being examined as part of our national story.

But we too have seen an ancient culture erased, enclosures and clearances driving people off their ancestral land and into cities. We’ve seen famine, poverty and disease accompanying the slums of growing cities populated by displaced people. My grandmother died of tuberculosis caused through poverty and overcrowding, and one of my great aunts died in the workhouse. You can’t say that we lacked knowledge of traditional medicines but they were useless against the diseases caused by overcrowding, poverty and poor sanitation. Thank goodness for modern medicines, but wouldn’t it be better if we could return to healthier ways of living? Slavery in the colonies was the bedrock, supplier of raw cotton, and paymaster to hundreds of thousands of jobs in the mills of Northern Britain – many of them involving children in arduous dangerous labour. Charles Dickens’ novel “Hard Times” paints a bleak picture of the consequences for the other end of the Atlantic slave trade.

We stretched the family reunion to five days with the bank holiday and it was joyful. Some of the grown-ups had breakfast together outside Widcombe Deli, on the pavement; we had a barbeque on the green; lots of walks outside and yesterday we got together with the grandchildren and their mum at Dyrham Park – our first visit there in 15 months. I could put up the family snaps, but they look just like everyone else’s family snaps. Viewed through loving eyes, of course, three children sitting on a tree branch is a Leonardo and, like Madame, they deserve their privacy so you’ll have to take my word for it – they are the cleverest, most beautiful and talented children ever to walk the earth!

So yesterday as I walked across the field at Dyrham Park with our grandchildren; the tongues and welts of my boots bright with yellow grass pollen I started showing the oldest how you could judge the fertility of the soil, and therefore the likelihood of finding some really good wildflowers, by looking at the vegetation. Too much nitrogen is the great enemy of plant diversity.

There was nothing much there except for rank grasses, ryegrass, cocksfoot and buttercups. Then I spotted a patch of darker green and I sent him over to take a look. Sure enough he shouted that he’d found a fungus and we went to take a closer look. It was a St George’s mushroom; named on account of normally fruiting around St George’s day – 23rd April; which goes to show how late the season is this year. So I cut it in half and showed him the white gills; gave it to him to smell – it’s an unmistakable smell often described as mealy which is pretty useless since you’d need to be over 100 years old, probably, to know what a sack of meal smells like. Then later I spotted another dark patch of grass and sent him off again to find some more. Finally we fetched up on a large ring that I know will produce parasol mushrooms in the autumn. As we left he brought me a leaf from one of the avenue of limes dotted with Eriophyes tillaes – gall mites. I was so delighted he’d got his eye in I said to his mum “I’m going to make an ecologist of him” (he’s only eight) and she said “good” – so I guess that’s permission to continue.

Later I was talking to our allotment neighbour – always known as Flash – about our day at Dyrham Park. His mum was born in Jamaica and he was born here in Bath and we discovered that we had both, as young teenagers, regularly climbed the walls of the park and trespassed on the estate. I wondered what we would have thought of one another if we had ever met sixty years ago, as trespassers in the shadow of the great house, built on the proceeds of slavery. Racism would always have been, and still is the elephant in the room. That today we can gossip as equals about growing beans and killing slugs is a kind of grace.

Is anyone listening?

In the 1940’s *Howard argued that the widespread application of chemicals and fertilizers would disrupt mycorrhizal associations, the means by which “the marriage of a fertile soil and the tree it nourishes …. is arranged’. The consequences of such a breakdown would be far reaching. [ …. ] Howard’s tone is dramatic, but eighty years on his questions cut deep. By some measures, modern industrial agriculture has been effective: crop production doubled over the second half of the twentieth century. But a single minded focus on yield has incurred steep costs. Agriculture causes widespread environmental destruction and is responsible for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Between twenty and forty percent of crops are lost each year to pests and diseases,despite colossal application of pesticide. Global agricultural yields have plateaued despite a 7oo-fold increase in fertilizer use over the second half of the twentieth century. Worldwide thirty football fields worth of topsoil are lost to erosion every minute. Yet a third of food is wasted , and demand for crops will double by 2050. It is difficult to overstate the urgency of this crisis.

Merlin Sheldrake “Entangled Life” – published 2021 by The Bodley Head

*Sir Albert Howard – organic farming pioneer and author of “An Agricultural Testament” published in 1940 and still in print.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the numbers above so succinctly organised and for that reason alone I recommend the book; but it’s also full of research on fungi, bacteria and plants and their often poorly understood relationships. If you read it and go out into the garden; take a good handful of soil and consider that it contains more microorganisms than the total cumulative population of the earth across the whole of human history.

I had a comment from an old friend today after my mention (24 hours early it seems) of a supermoon. He’s spent a lifetime on space research and is a seriously experienced astronomer as well. He said I might get into astronomy if I went on in this way. Well Chris, I reckon my handful of earth is a worthy counterbalance to mind-bogglingly complex thoughts of space. Either subject invites awe!

At home with the fungi

Well, not really – but I found the tiny Coprinus (bottom right) growing down in the dark in the compost heap today. I don’t know why but it surprised me because the heap, being full of green waste, was rather hot and the reason I was scratching around in there was to add a barrow load of dead leaves to bump up the brown waste proportion. I’ve learned that if I can smell the heap it’s going (or gone) anaerobic and needs turning along with more brown waste. The effect of the two actions is often surprisingly quick as the heap heats up so quickly.

It was whilst looking for a photo of fully grown member of the species (Lawyers Wig in old money) I randomly typed “fungus” into the Google Photos search line and after a brief interval, hundreds – and I mean hundreds of my photos of fungi going back over a decade suddenly appeared. I’d heard that the search engine had been improved, but this was wonderful because I usually spend ages searching manually through the thumbnails to get the picture I need. It’s a blogger’s dream because I almost always use the photos I’ve just taken because the prospect of searching is so long winded.

Anyway, this is yet another serendipitous moment (synchronistic if you’re a Jungian) because I’m halfway through reading Merlin Sheldrake’s book “Entangled Life” and it falls neatly within a current line of science that’s rewriting our whole view of ecology. For me the most impressive learning point is how well it supports the view that all life is – at its most fruitful – collaborative and cooperative. If ever an idea needed to be born today it’s that one!

After a day working on the allotment in the rain we were glad to get back home. Complete with a meal of the first tiny potatoes and a bag of broad bean tops. There’s tomorrow’s food sorted,

Tree talk – joining the dots.

Lovely mature beech – photographed in the grounds of Muncaster Castle, Cumbria in 2017

I’ve just finished reading Suzanne Simard’s newly published book “Finding the Mother Tree” and I’m a bit – well, breathless! – and I’m also slightly ashamed of myself for never having heard about her work before; except that by her own account she’s been regarded with some suspicion by both the forestry industry and the academics too, because her painstaking scientific work was overturning their received wisdom – oh and, of course she’s a woman in an overwhelmingly masculine world. You can get an 18 minute summary of her work on YouTube in her Ted Talk but the book is far fuller and more detailed.

OK so I found parts of it troublingly anthropomorphic – but that turned out to be my problem because in the light of her researches over thirty plus years she has discovered not only that trees communicate with one another (you can read that one once a month in a glossy magazine somewhere), but much more thrillingly that they cooperate; that over time they build huge supportive networks through symbiotic relationships with mycorrhiza which transport so much more than carbon; that the old forests function almost like a biological internet, and that the oldest – mother trees – recognise and nurture their own offspring selectively and strike up mutually beneficial relationships with other species of tree. The forest – she argues – is a perfectly functioning cooperative where mutuality rather than competition rules. Describing all this complexity in human metaphorical terms is entirely justified so long as we understand that it just helps us to embrace the central point she’s making: that just as we have mutually supportive and complex relationships, so too do forests and so to think of them as commodities is to become part of the problem.

Turning a reified version of Nature into a secular object of worship has its millions of followers, but the point here is that our methods of harvesting forests for profit is misguided on many more than aesthetic grounds, or for their capacity to cheer us up in stressful times. The practice of clear cutting forests at once destroys invisible and underground mycorrhizal networks which also embody untold amounts of carbon that is then released into the atmosphere. Clear cutting frequently uses vast amounts of herbicide to kill the weeds and finish off any remaining fungal networks, with the result that newly planted seedlings die because their support network has been destroyed. That’s not to mention the hydrological damage and the incredible damage to wildlife. Depriving humans of a walk in nature comes way down the list of harms.

OK so review (lecture) over I’d urge you to read the book because you really won’t ever feel the same again when you walk through an ancient woodland and feel the decaying sticks crackling underfoot or stoop to pick a fungus: – and when you read that the government wants to drive a railway line through ancient woodland you might see it as a crime against humanity rather than swallow the old economic necessity lie.

As I put the book down, a picture of my grandfather’s smallholding in the Chilterns came to mind. Beyond the house he built for himself, the land shaded into beech woodland and there was a favourite place that my mother would take my sister and me to, beneath a mature beech straddling a mossy bank, exactly like the one I photographed in Cumbria a couple of years ago where I was forced into silence by its beauty and my memories. The beech was nothing in comparison with the enormous mother trees of British Colombia; and nothing at all now, because when my sister and me thought we would scatter our mother’s ashes in the woods there, I discovered that the entire area has become an industrial estate. I also have a memory that our father had carved his and my mother’s initials in the tree. They became engaged during the war without ever having met, after a courtship by letter, and although nothing was ever said, my father’s black depressions and unpredictable moods affected all our lives.

But I need to round this off by saying that for me the takeaway points from the book weren’t just about being abstractly angry at environmental destruction. There are lessons that affect our understanding and management of the allotment that need to be embraced. Something that became clear as the book progressed through her research was that many of the pieces of this vast jigsaw existed previously in their separate compartments and she was able to draw together lab and field research from which she could formulate her own enquiries. For allotmenteers, it’s all too easy to compartmentalize the things we know into the well worn categories – no dig, organic, composting, companion plants and so-on. But as I put the book down I think I understood better than ever before the relatedness of all these ideas. The soil isn’t separate from the crop, the plant nutrition, the pests, the harvesting and eating – they’re one single complex system with us as participants. I began to think my understanding of the three sisters combination; growing beans, squashes and corn together, was hopelessly narrow. The corn isn’t just there to provide a physical support for the beans and neither is the sole function of the squash the suppression of weeds. Many generations of First Nation experience suggest that there is something far more significant going on.

The ancestral understanding was of a symbiotic relationship between the sisters. We ‘know’ (in separated mental compartments) that legumes have nitrogen fixing nodules. Is there – in their patch of earth, teeming with microorganisms, worms and insects, yeasts, and fungi – a similar collaborative and mutually beneficial relationship going on? Are almost invisible mycelia, dependent upon the organic health of the soil, transporting carbon in the form of sugars from species to species? Are they messaging one another, assisting in the repulsion of insect and fungal pests, firing up defence mechanisms? Our whole atomised and compartmentalising scientific logic encourages us to step back dispassionately and regard each phenomenon in its own right. But what if they’re communicating with one another and it’s us who are the dummies, unable to comprehend their language. Companion planting must have a biological mechanism that we could investigate; and suddenly talking to trees makes more sense.

Ten hours on the stove

Writing yesterday about turnips I recalled in the middle of the night that North Americans might know them as rutabaga and there’s also an ongoing argument between England and Scotland between swedes and turnips – so in an attempt to disambiguate this tricky topic I’ll say that as far as I’m concerned the turnips that we grow are either Milan Purple Tops (which have purple tops) or Tokyo Cross F1, which was the one I was writing about yesterday. As Winston Churchill once said, we’re distinct nations divided by a shared language. As for swedes they’re fabulous in Cornish pasties but pretty grim unless they’re mashed with carrots and more butter and pepper than is good for you. Please don’t ask about mangel wurzels.

Anyway, it was supposed to rain all day today so I’d pretty much settled on doing some batch cooking to restore our depleted stores. It’s the closest I get to restaurant cooking in sheer quantity and over the course of the day I cooked around two and a half kilos of ragu, a couple of litres of concentrated chicken stock that came as a sideline to a very large chicken that I poached and which will provide soup, stock and meat for five or six meals – oh and a quiche Lorraine to which I added a pound of spinach because we picked the last leaves off the plants in the polytunnel which are beginning to bolt. What with last night’s rhubarb, lettuce, chervil, rocket, asparagus, radishes and turnips we’ve vanquished the hungry gap, and my mind has turned again to cooking.

Growing, cooking, and eating belong together; there’s no doubt. If I speak about these three in rather sacramental – even religious – terms it’s because together they act as a profound matrix, glue if you prefer, for all that we do. I can’t wait until we’re allowed to invite friends to eat with us again when this pandemic has abated.

When Madame and me were first married we used to drink at a pub called the Greyhound which was notable for the fact that the couple who were the tenants, hated one another with a venomous passion and would exchange insults between the lounge bar and the public bar which were their respective redoubts. It was worth going just to make notes on the endlessly inventive wind-ups that they concocted for one another. The other thing it was worth going for (the beer was rubbish but the pub was close and the only one that hadn’t been taken over by the Hooray Henrys) – was the arrival at precisely nine thirty each evening of Signor Rossi. The moment service finished at his restaurant he would cross the road in his apron and drink a couple of pints. The thing is, we could never have afforded to eat in his place but if you could manage to sit next to him and bathe in the perfume of his apron it was almost as good, A packet of crisps and a pickled egg could taste as good as a three course Italian some nights when he anointed them with the smell of his kitchen. I dare to claim that when I finally finished cooking today, my apron smelt like Signor Rossi’s.

As an entirely self-taught cook, I had very little to go on except the lists of ingredients and the smell of Signor Rossi. I had to figure out the bit in between for myself. It’s been a joy! – and nowadays my two chef sons teach me the tricks I wish I’d known fifty years ago. Tonight we’ve got 27 meals worth of food about to go in the freezer to cover us for a couple of field trips in the campervan, but mostly so we can work long days on the allotment getting everything into the ground, and have something nice to eat when we get back.

But I haven’t stopped reading – as if! I’ve just started “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer and “Finding the Mother Tree” by Suzanne Simard. It’s fascinating to read them in parallel because it brings out the poignancy of the conflict between Native Americans and the settlers who displaced them. They each tell their story from a different perspective although they are both scientists separated by generations from the original offence. The third book isn’t much more than a pamphlet entitled “Start to Identify Composite Flowers” by Faith Anstey, but she’s obviously a gifted teacher and I learned things I hadn’t previously known from the top of page one, so it makes up for its brevity by being extremely useful and a good deal lighter to carry around than the Book of Stace which weighs in at two and a half pounds and twelve hundred and fifty pages – even printed on bible thickness paper, which befits its status in the botanical heavens.

The writing’s on the wall

Graphis scripta – script lichen or secret writing lichen

Or in this case the writing is on the trunk of a tree. Madame spotted it first as we were walking down Eastwater Drove (we’re back on Mendip) – and at first thought someone had fixed some waymarkers on the trunk. As soon as I saw it I knew that I knew what it was but couldn’t put a name to it without photographing it and doing a search in Google Lens. It’s a free app on my Pixel 3 camera phone and the more it’s used the better it seems to get. Even if it’s only in the right area it gives you a start on where to open the book. At first sight it looks like it’s an illustration in a Tolkien story; a runic sign saying this way to the cavern. Anyway, although the van is loaded with plant books – bird books and butterfly books the lichens were left back at the Potwell Inn. I have to say there’s a good side to getting into Lichens and Bryophytes which is that they’re always there, and there’s always something to look at, even in the bleakest of midwinters. Here around Priddy, many of the walls are so covered in mosses that the stone structures underneath are all but invisible.

These last few days I’ve been thinking a great deal about the future, and especially how we can get to a sustainable and equitable future for the whole earth without the kind of violence and instability that often accompanies profound cultural change – without waking the bear as I often used to say to our teenage sons. “What’s gone wrong?” we ask, and more often than not we land up with the notion that changing our personal behaviour is a step in an iterative process that leads to our goal of a world in which we can all be fully human and live without fear; sustainably and equitably.

The gaping hole in that argument is the word ‘iterative’ – step by step. Even if step by step progress towards our goal could work eventually, our present situation is so perilous that collective action is the only possible way to head off the coming tragedy – economic turmoil, climate crisis, ecological disaster, famine, migration and pollution to name but a few. The real problem is that our solitary actions can give us the individual space to feel extremely virtuous while doing little or nothing to solve the problem.

Here at the Potwell Inn, and on our allotment we try to do the best we can; we grow our own food as best we can and when we can’t we buy organic. We recycle, walk whenever we can and cut down on meat eating and read all the books to stay in touch with the issues. We ought to feel insufferably virtuous and yet we don’t because when the elections come around we vote carefully and thoughtfully and …….. nothing happens.

I wrote a couple of days ago about the I Ching. It’s a book I’ve read a great deal but only used infrequently over the years – probably due to my somewhat austere Christian and Protestant background. I have almost instinctive reservations about divination – Old Moore’s Almanac, astrology and all that. But that’s not the whole story because behind my very 2oth Century scientific rationalist upbringing lies a real fascination with them, and against all cultural expectation I’ve studied most of them; so among the faiths I’ve studied, Taoism is the one I come back to most often – fascinated by its immersion in nature. You should realize that four of the five paragraphs I’ve just written would have been enough to get me into big trouble with the church authorities. Taoism, Tai Chi, the I Ching relate to one another, feed from one another, and always bring to my mind the possibility of peace; of equilibrium with nature and of justice. Unlike many of the world’s religions it seems to me that Taoism places less emphasis on individual salvation while stressing that we humans can only flourish when our lives are aligned with with the Tao. Just, peaceful and equitable lives are very much this worldly and experiential, rather than distant and abstract.

The incomprehensible ‘writing’ on that lichen brought to mind the I Ching whose history began by interpreting the cracks on animal bones created by burning. So yesterday, because we’re away from home and in a very peaceful place, I cast a hexagram with the question in mind that I’ve tried to explain in the opening section of this post and I was given gua 7 Shi. Having pondered it (there were some [jargon alert] moving lines) I’m simply not experienced enough to give a reading (and by withholding the moving lines I’m not inviting anyone else to do one) BUT – in a way that’s close to a this-worldly creative insight such as you might gain during psychoanalytic psychotherapy, the suggestion came to me that one deeper issue here concerns leadership. Of course our personal behaviour and the choices we make matter; but when they are drawn together in united action they have the capacity to achieve change. Our present crisis is as much about poor leadership as much as anything else. In a parliamentary democracy we’re encouraged to believe that leaders appointed by election are somehow anointed with the qualities needed to lead well. It’s called the “grace of orders” in some systems, and I think it’s a load of old hokum. When we elect fools and liars we get foolish and dishonest leadership that puts peace and tranquility beyond reach.

So as well as doing what we can personally, we also need to pay attention to recognising and nurturing the kind of leaders whose lives and behaviour are worthy exemplars – all of a piece with their professed beliefs, humble enough to hear the cry of the poor, wise enough to seek the Tao and lead in the right manner, and decisive enough to act when the moment is ripe. If we have a collective responsibility for the crisis it’s been in delegating power to the wrong people.

We know well enough that the writing is on the wall for the present system. The hexagram I was given speaks of ‘the multitude’ in the Alfred Huang translation where he refuses the usual name which refers to an army. The Ritsema/Sabbadini translation gives the title “Legions” which is at least ambiguous. The Huang translation speaks more loudly to me. A leaderless multitude can be dangerous (a mob) or ineffectual (a rabble) turned in on itself and riven by factional disputes.

You may hope that this post is just an aside and that I’ll soon get back to the real business of the Potwell Inn which must be (according to the stats) growing borlotti beans. But allotments are part of the real world, not an escape from it. Our lives are always far richer as we discover that we’re not the two up – two down kind of useful and compliant but rather dull people our culture is so good at creating.

I once spent an evening talking to an hotelier in St Ives (Cornwall). His mother used to deliver meals on wheels to people in the town, and one of the people they delivered to was Alfred Wallace- an artist who was discovered and nurtured by many of the great names of 20th century art who lived in the town at that time. Wallace was (rather dismissively) known as a naive or primitive painter and he would make paintings on any surface that came to hand, including dinner plates. The hotelier’s mother would take them back to base and wipe off the paintings which would now be worth tens of thousands of pounds. That’s what the system does to millions of human beings and we say it’s a crying shame but there’s nothing to do about it because we’re powerless. No we’re not – we’re disorganised and leaderless.

Here’s a photo I took of Alfred Wallace’s grave – tiled by Bernard Leach the famous potter.

In Barnoon Cemetery St Ives, March 2017

My dog-eared I Ching brings some peace.

On the allotment there are signs that our attempt to draw in more wildlife is beginning to bear fruit. The pond is the most visible result of our decision and it’s already got tadpoles, snails and water boatmen and there are often hoverflies nearby – plus it’s being used by birds to take a drink. The bird feeders too have drawn in robins and blue tits, but the most remarkable visitors are jackdaws that can hover just long enough to peck a few seeds out. When we put fat balls out they disappeared overnight until we moved them into a double walled holder where the mesh is too small for them to get to the food. The bee in the photo is hard to identify but it’s probably one of the many species of miner bee – it was sunning itself on some fleece. The jackdaws, like the robins, are quite unafraid of us – rather like the female blackbird who scratches around on the edges of the wood chip paths extracting slugs and their eggs while keeping a comfortable couple of metres between us. There are also blue tits, jays, magpies, crows and pigeons which can be a thorough nuisance if you don’t protect your crops with nets.

St Francis in the corner is doing a good job with the local wildlife – except for the rats! Notice the robin on the trellis

A red letter day

Yesterday we took the plunge after checking out the weather forecasts which all said there would be no frosts for the next 14 days, which takes us beyond the latest ever frost date. So out went the potatoes in their containers, and several trays of young plants were moved to the next stage of their hardening off, this time outside, just under some insect netting and protected from the wind. Then we sorted the tomato plants into their various varieties and removed their protective hoops and fleece.

Over our heads the strawberries – Malling Centenary are showing the promise of a couple of delicious feeds at least this summer. We were supposed to be growing on a couple of dozen-year old plants but the nursery failed to deliver them and these were a consolation – on offer from another seed merchant. As soon as they’ve fruited we’ll be taking runners off them to increase numbers. The strawberry bed has already been repurposed, but they’re growing so well in the polytunnel we’ll probably just get some more hanging baskets which are very space efficient.

The big day will be next weekend when we plant up the tunnel with all its new seasonal occupants, some of which are hardening off at home under a window in the cool corridor outside. Meanwhile we conducted a bit of an experiment with large recycled milk containers to water the summer crops below the surface to minimise the risk of drying out. Small tunnels get very very hot- even with the doors open. Then we planted out a new variety of pot leek and covered all the seedling parsnips and leeks with fine insect mesh against carrot fly and allium leaf miner – we’re determined to overcome these formidable pests.

Sound advice from the first millennium BC

Overshadowing all this allotment activity was another round of disappointing election results. My usual defence is to turn off the radio and television and avoid reading any newspapers because frothing at the mouth and shouting is a waste of spiritual energy. Then for some reason I turned to my collection of books and translations of the i Ching, or Ji Ying if you prefer and in the introduction to the Ritsema and Sabbadini translation, which Jung had some connection with, on page two, I read this amazing quotation from the Shu Ying – the book of documents, written some time in the first millennium BC. I should add that the Chinese word yi refers to change, not so much as the evolutionary change we in the West are used to – moving gently towards some kind of final paradisiacal state (hmm; as if!) – but to unpredictable, disruptive change; the endless variety of unexpected change that both thwarts us and invites creativity.

When in years, months and days the season has no yi, the hundred cereals ripen, the administration is enlightened, talented men of the people are distinguished, the house is peaceful and at ease. When in days, months and years the season has yi, the hundred cereals do not ripen, the administration is dark and unenlightened, talented men of the people are in petty positions, the house is not at peace.

Bernhard Karlgren, The Book of Documents, Stockholm 1950 p33.

For reasons I can’t explain this small quotation gave me a tremendous sense of peace. Perhaps it’s because almost three thousand years ago a Chinese thinker was experiencing the same kind of dismay that we feel today, but concluded that change is at the deepest heart of the natural order and that the seeds of a new beginning are sown even under the darkest and most unenlightened administrations. There is no occasion for despair.

It finally feels safe to welcome the apple blossom

For reasons that I doubt stand up to scientific scrutiny, May 12th is a red letter day in the Potwell Inn calendar, because it’s the day we feel safe to plant out runner beans. Should you be tempted to follow this piece of jumped up wisdom, I’d warn you that May 12th is no more significant than being two days after the latest date we’ve ever lost an entire crop to frost. Logically speaking, in this age of climatic catastrophe, it’s possible that we could see a severe frost a week later but we’ve got that covered because as usual we’ll sow a second lot a fortnight later. The allotment is a test bed for delusional theories about almost anything but we do need some kind of structured timetable, however unreliable – if we’re ever to grow anything. Folk wisdom takes us a little way; February fill dyke certainly lived up to its name; March came in like a lion but carried on prowling long after the lamb was meant to take over; and where are the April showers? – a bit of drizzle tomorrow and that could be that. The water butts are already nearly empty; and don’t even mention this relentless east wind!

However the two week weather forecast is showing a clear, frost free run through to May 10th which means (or perhaps may mean) that we can look at the apple blossom with fond hopes of a crop, rather than fearing that things can only get worse. Borrowing from the sinister language of covid, the allotment has been divided into areas. We have critical care for the tender plants outside that need constant covering and uncovering at night. Then there’s the polytunnel which speaks a high dependency language we’ve yet to master; and after that there are the overwintering brassicas; the cauliflower and purple sprouting, which seem to endure whatever nature throws at them.

After a very shaky spell in the greenhouse, the tomatoes are now inside the tunnel and underneath a large hoop cloche. Every morning we roll back the fleece to let the sun to them and they’re looking well. We’re greatly indebted to Eliot Coleman’s “Winter Harvest Handbook” for this idea. However, with the end of the frosts we’re having to contemplate digging out some of the other polytunnel crops to make space for the summer vegetables. It’s been the most exciting revelation to see just how well crops like strawberries, spinach, chard, radishes, lettuces and early potatoes thrive under plastic. The container potatoes can be moved outside of course, as can the container carrots but whether we’ll be able to harvest the young turnips in the next ten days is doubtful. At home we’ve got chillies, peppers, aubergines in 5″ pots and trays of basil ready to go into the tunnel alongside the tomatoes, and while they all harden off we’ve got runner beans, borlotti and french beans going into root trainers to germinate; and melon (Minnesota Midget), winter and summer squashes, courgettes and cucumbers sitting in the heated propagators with corn to follow.

But this isn’t by any means all that’s been happening on the allotment because we’ve been setting out the rest of our list of insect friendly plants – so aside from the herbs, we’ve introduced four lavenders (Hidcote Giant), Bee balm (Monarda), Lemon Balm, Winter Jasmine, pot marigolds, Erysimum, catmint,Salvia, Hyssop, Echinops (globe thistle) and borage. They’ll join the fruit trees, soft fruit bushes and globe artichokes. The pond is planted up with iris, horsetail, water mint and other bits and bobs we’ve been given by other allotmenteers.

Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s been the kitchen herbs that have almost given us most pleasure. For more serendipitous reasons than cold logic we’ve collected six different mints and we’re growing four types of basil this season. We’ve thyme, marjoram, oregano, winter and summer savory; French sorrel, lovage, two types of parsley, rosemary, sweet cicely, coriander, chervil, French tarragon, chives and sage. There are probably more that I’ve overlooked. Ironically one of the healthiest marjoram plants we’ve ever grown is a self-seeded plant clinging to the foot of the compost bin on the edge of a path. Like so much in nature, plants are often best left to find their own favoured spot. We’ve lost so many thymes over the years but we still carry on hoping that one day they’ll find their own sweet spot.

Finally, it’s good to write that the latest cordons, (Victoria plum, damson, bramley and Conference pear) have all taken root. They’ll take three or four years to produce any fruit at all but they make me feel optimistic. And the asparagus bed is just beginning to produce useful quantities. When it was planted out we used a bulk offer to put in crowns of three different varieties but to be honest only one of the varieties ever did well. This year the bed has started throwing spears across the whole area at once. Our neighbour has has exactly the same experience and we wonder if the dominant variety hasn’t spread into the space once planted with other types. I’m no expert, so we’ll wait and see.

As I look down this posting I’m a little amazed that we’ve managed to stuff so much into 200 square metres and I wish I could claim it was all down to our expertise; but our guiding principle has more likely been greed, optimism and naivety. It hardly seems five minutes since the day when I’d never seen a green pepper, never smelt garlic and didn’t know any herbs apart from thyme, parsley and sage. Our very first herb gardens were fuelled by the need to furnish our cooking when you simply couldn’t buy herbs. The upside of a childhood lived through food rationing was that every new flavour was a genuine discovery. How could you not be blown away by the discovery that tarragon tasted even better with chicken than it sounded in the books. Even this year I discovered how good sorrel tastes – because we’ve grown it and now it’s free!

As we emerge from the lockdown more or less intact, my phone keeps reminding me of the things we were doing three four five and more years ago. Today this picture of Bardsey Island popped up and my heart sang with joy at the thought that this year – perhaps in September – we’ll be able to go back. Below Bardsey I’ve put in some other pictures taken yesterday on the allotment. Don’t ask whether the loss of the one is compensated by the gain of the other. Life doesn’t work like that.

2017. Bardsey Island from the mainland on Lleyn. It always reminds be of a leech!