Sucking eggs with granny

Since the industrial revolution the processes of growth have been speeded up to produce the food and raw materials needed by the population and the factory. Nothing effective has been done to replace the loss of fertility involved in this vast increase in crop and animal production. The consequences have been disastrous. Agriculture has become unbalanced: the land is in revolt: diseases of all kinds are on the increase: in many parts of the world Nature is removing the worn out soil by means of erosion.

Sir Albert Howard: “An Agricultural Testament”.

Great stress has been laid on a hitherto undiscovered factor in nutrition – the mycorrhizal association – the living fungal bridge between humus in the soil and the sap of plants

Op cit: both passages from the preface.

To be frank, the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962 seems an age ago, but “An Agricultural Testament” was published in January 1940 – eighty (yes eighty!) years ago and in the intervening years very little seems to changed. It’s a useful, if chastening, exercise to read these books. We so easily slip into the lazy thought that the world began at the same time as we each first became aware of it; and worse still, we can lazily assume that any science of real significance has happened within our own lifetimes.

This thought bubbled up from the bottom of the pond today as I was reading and Madame read out a couple of passages from a newspaper article on communal living. It’s all the rage once again, apparently, but I’m not expecting anyone to write and ask how it was for us when we lived in a couple of communes in the early seventies. Living in a commune seems to be a bit like having your first baby; the last thing you want is to know how your ghastly and out of touch parents managed to bring you up. The newly born baby is your tabula rasa whose unfortunate joy will be to have every one of your random habits inscribed indelibly in their minds. The fact that your random habits were almost never acquired in the study of ancient religions or the poetry of Wordsworth but in the kitchen of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam is the living proof that culture eats strategy for breakfast as the management consultants like to say. Living in communes, like bringing up children can be marvellous and it can also drain you of the will to live especially when you live in the midst of a clash of giant egos.

Anyway, that excursus off my chest, reading Sir Albert Howard today reminded me that the identification of the earth’s problems wasn’t something that happened recently, but back before I was born and it’s not just been ignored, it’s been made worse and worse as these eight decades have passed; or to put it more personally, my entire life has been spent fruitlessly protesting about it while nothing much changes.

Partly, I think, it came from a misplaced faith in the ability of science and technology to solve all our problems because, of course, the problem isn’t just scientific and technical, it’s a moral problem; our greed. But, as I hope my little vignette of family life shows, we rarely examine or question our basic attitudes – the ones we inherited when we were children. As a school governor for thirty years I saw many generations of children who were mildly radicalised by being taught about the environment. Yoghurt cartons were collected, tins saved and crushed for recycling and gardens grown and yet this early exposure to the problem of our environment rarely seemed to make it into action later on in life. Perhaps we needed to believe the story we were told that everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds without realising that the phrase itself was a parody – but the system seemed to work and unless you looked under the bonnet (risking your faith), it was easier to believe that there was no alternative, and anyway – why would my one little plane journey actually damage the earth? And so, to use another well worn phrase, “we are where we are” and all those lovely holidays and fillet steaks were being paid for by quietly selling off the family silver; and now the final demands are beginning to land on the mat.

I find the reading of books on the environment by previous generations of writers enlightening and challenging. For them the challenge to grow food rested in experience and human labour not giant machines and clever chemicals. Ninety percent and more of their wisdom and knowhow is still directly applicable even on our little plot which is, for us, a kind of laboratory for a sustainable future.

Today we worked for four or five hours clearing posts off the site of the polytunnel and preparing the new bed for five more trees. As I was digging out the posts I salvaged every useable piece of timber, every vine eye and tensioner and I even rolled the straining wires carefully because it’s really hard to get them at the moment. Just as my grandfather had done, I was storing and recycling anything at all, no matter how rusty or bent, because it might come in handy one day. The beds were weeded on hands and knees and we relocated dormant soft fruit bushes and perennial herbs. Back in the flat we’ve taken hardwood cuttings of favourite bushes. The main room is littered with piles of seed catalogues and gardening books. This isn’t hair shirt for the sake of it. The truth is that we live royally on the fruits of our labour; the things we can’t afford we do without and if we eat seasonally we can put something we grew ourselves on the table 52 weeks of the year. It’s not perfect but it’s completely absorbing as the shape and scope of the allotment evolves. At last the water storage is working properly and we can draw modest amounts of rainwater whenever we need it with enough pressure to run the auto watering drips in the greenhouse.

I’d love to be able to say that passive involvement in nature gives no benefits but the science proves otherwise. However, getting dirt under your fingernails in the fresh air; cooking and eating your own produce puts it up a couple of gears. A pound of borlotti beans in the shops is a commodity – they cost pennies. But baked beans made with your own beans and your own tomato sauce is a feast. I like to think that each time we harvest and cook we share the wisdom and experience of Sir Albert Howard, of Rachel Carson, Lawrence Hills and countless other pioneers who dared to challenge the hegemony of agribusiness. All we need now is for those thirty years plus of schoolchildren who saved yoghurt pots and crushed tins and fished for newts in the pond – most of them are now in positions of real weight and responsibility – we need them (you) to say enough of this exploitative and dangerous culture – we want to explore being really deeply human again!

A Dadaist loaf of bread?

Of which more later.

In a Micawberish way, working outside at a temperature of 1C equals happiness but working at -1C means you have to wear so many clothes you can barely move. But yesterday remained just above freezing all day and we managed to get a few hours of work in, pruning the autumn raspberries; burning some of the leeks that were affected by allium leaf miner along with the raspberry and vine prunings, and generally tidying around the plot ready for spring. I was surprised to see that the raspberry canes were already showing tiny shoots – possibly a premature response to the mild weather that preceded this cold snap.

We’re still able to eat at least some of our own produce because we’ve got savoy cabbage, red cabbage, brussels sprouts, cavolo nero, all ready and a big crop of broccoli about to start producing; so plenty of greens. We’ve also got all the food we preserved by bottling and preserving as well as the frozen, plus some stored squashes. Obviously this is nowhere near any kind of self sufficiency but there’s a real kick in putting something from the allotment into most of our meals, and it’s not just flavour but also the fact that it hasn’t helped consume fuel on its way to our table. Human energy is renewable but diesel fuel isn’t.

Coincidentally, a (another) new book arrived yesterday. John Harrison’s newly published “Dig for Victory” features facsimiles of the whole collection of wartime (and post war) “dig for victory” pamphlets, accompanied by explanatory notes for younger readers who have no idea what £4 19s 6d is – it could be a secure password I suppose, but in the pamphlets it represents old pre-decimal money. Rods, poles, perches and chains and even acres also need explaining to the fully metricated readers. There are also explanations about why some of the chemicals mentioned are no longer legal. Sometimes that’s a good thing but occasionally they represented fairly innocuous substances that would have cost a good deal of money to licence and so the agrochemical industry – which had money to burn on lobbying – had them banned in favour of much more dangerous substances made by them. The pamphlets take the reader through the gardening year and much of the advice is just as applicable today as it was in 1945. For me they were very familiar. I was born in 1946 and so we lived under food rationing until 1954 when I was eight years old, and gardening was a necessity as much as it was a hobby. These pamphlets were a constant feature of my childhood; tucked inside my grandfather’s gardening books and behind the clock on the mantelpiece. Looking back they seem hilarious at times – there’s a cartoon showing the difference between the fast moving centipede labeled friend and the slow moving garden enemy, the millipede. Guess which one’s flying the swastika! My dad kept a couple of pounds of Growmore NPK fertiliser inside an empty National Dried Milk tin in the shed, and we knew from the beginning that the ribbed bottle of brown stuff contained a deadly poison called nicotine . Vegetable growing was something everyone did and as we flicked through the pages yesterday I realized that our lives span the whole of the era of agrochemicals and intensive industrial farming from before it gained its stranglehold. We are among the few who remember what life was like before plastic and fast food and, equally important, what cuckoos and turtle doves – even house sparrows – sound like. There are generations younger than us who have no such memories and it’s going to be hard to convince them that we were probably better fed and much healthier back then. There’s both sadness and virtue in being able to remember when biodiversity was more of a fact and less of an aspiration. “Dig for Victory” is a good read and a useful introduction to gardening in the age of (relative) ecological innocence but I’d add that ferociously poisonous substances like arsenic were frequently used in Victorian gardens. Eden was a very very long time ago. My grandfather was tormented in his old age by dreams of the cruelty inflicted on animals in the late nineteenth century when he helped slaughter animals in his village in the Chilterns.

Anyway, enough of that. Yesterday’s supper was squash soup. In the supermarkets you’ll usually find butternut squashes because they keep well and the skins are so tough they’re almost indestructible. But if you can get hold of an organic Crown Prince or Uchiki Kuri or better still grow them yourself, they store for months and the flavour is in a different league. On Tuesday we went to bed and I woke at nearly midnight, remembering that I’d forgotten to make the sourdough batter. So up I got and mixed it up ready for the morning. Then at five thirty a.m I remembered that I needed to compete with all the other furloughed folks to book a food delivery and so I got up once more and logged on only to find that there were plenty of available slots. Ah well, most of the time we get a decent night’s sleep.

So winter squash (crown prince) soup with warm wholemeal bread, along with some tomato stuffed peppers flavoured with our own indoor grown basil. As we were eating we agreed that it would be hard to match the intensity of flavours with most non vegetarian meals. The loaf was on the table and as we finished our supper I looked at it and cracked a conundrum that’s been puzzling me. In France (and elsewhere for all I know) loaves are marked with a pattern of slashings that relate to particular households. It’s an entirely practical system because when villages had communal bakeries, it was easy to tell your bread apart from from all the others. I normally slash mine with a form of curved cross, for no particularly religious reason but I like the shape. However, 100% wholemeal sourdough is a good deal more sedate than its refined flour cousins, and doesn’t really need slashing at all. So there we were, listening to the news, and as I looked at the pattern left by the banneton on the top of the loaf, I realized it strongly resembled a woodcut of Ubu Roi made by his rather scandalous creator, Dadaist Alfred Jarry.

The dreadful news of the invasion of the Capitol in Washington was just beginning to filter through on the radio and that may have been the catalyst in awakening my imagination. Here’s what Jane Taylor wrote about Ubu the antihero of Jarry’s farce –

 “the central character is notorious for his infantile engagement with his world. Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification. Jarry’s metaphor for the modern man, he is an antihero – fat, ugly, vulgar, gluttonous, grandiose, dishonest, stupid, jejune, voracious, greedy, cruel, cowardly and evil

Jane Taylor – quoted in Wikipedia

When we were art students I was really interested in the Dadaists in general and Jarry in particular. I wanted to write my dissertation on Jarry, but Clifford Ellis the Principal told me I couldn’t because he already knew everything there was to know about Jarry and there was absolutely nothing I could write that would be of the least significance or interest. “Fair do’s” I thought; so I chose to write about Eugene Boudin on the grounds that I’d never seen a single painting by him and anyone whose name was so close to “black pudding” was bound to be a secret dadaist. Vexingly I got a distinction for my faked up dissertation and even more vexingly I really liked Boudin’s paintings when I finally found some in the Tate.

Anyway, in one of those coincidences beloved of Jungians everywhere, I managed, completely intuitively, to find the only possible connection between Donald Trump, Père Ubu and a loaf of wholemeal sourdough. Brilliant! – although it’s not likely to come up in a pub quiz anytime soon. But I’ll think about getting a different banneton.

Windfasting

We thought we were in for a good shriving when we went up to the allotment today. The plot is very well sheltered from the prevailing south westerly winds and so we don’t worry too much about Atlantic storms unless they get into the forties and fifties, but even then – when the sheds at the top of the site are keeling over – we can usually rely on the sheltering line of cypress trees. Today though the wind was blowing from the east, the coldest and least sheltered quarter, and it was due to veer later towards the north and the west while increasing in force. These are the winds that do most damage to us. Grape vines are particularly vulnerable to icy winds, and today there was no avoiding going up there and making the growing crops as windfast as possible. The broad beans (aquadulce claudia) are pretty bombproof and seem to relish the winter, but too much wind rocking sets them back, so we attached a windbreak to the big net cloches which we only use to keep the pigeons off. The biggest danger was to the purple sprouting broccoli which are five feet tall now and will fall over in extreme winds. They were already staked with canes but today we drove in tree stakes and tied them in with old polythene shopping bags which make surprisingly good plant ties and gives then a third use before we have to recycle them.

So within half an hour we’d warmed up banging in the stakes and clearing away all the dead leaves and since we were enjoying ourselves we looked around for another winter job to get on with. This year, because of travel restrictions, we can’t drive over to our usual source of fresh horse manure which a friend kindly heaps up for us every year about now. That goes into the bottom of the hot bed and gets covered with a soil/compost mixture to give us a quick start in February when it usually takes the soil temperature to over 20C. Twelve months later the whole lot has composted down and is full of worms so we recycle it on to a couple of lucky beds – it’s gloriously rich stuff. After an experiment with growing cucumbers and squashes in grow bags sited on top of the leaf mould bin last year, we discovered that the fabulous crop had been enabled by the roots breaking out through holes in the bags and working their way down through the leaf mould, drawing abundant moisture as they went. So today we capped the bin, newly stacked with another one and a half cubic metres of leaves, with about half the contents of the hotbed manure – getting on for a foot thick. This year we’ll plant squashes and ridge cucumbers directly into the super rich soil and then, in a year’s time we’ll recycle the mixture of leaf mould, manure and topsoil on to the beds again as a soil improving mulch.

The other half of the hotbed contents went on to the rhubarb bed where we intend to plant a third variety in the next few weeks, giving us continuity of supply over the summer. We both love eating rhubarb and it’s a remarkably tolerant and generous plant that needs very little attention aside from water and rich food. The water isn’t a problem because the bed lies above one of our underground watercourses, so we’ve incorporated a good deal of grit into the bottom of the bed so it doesn’t get waterlogged in the winter.

The third job, then, was to build an alternative hotbed using only the materials at hand on the site. The council had dumped what looked like a couple of hay bales up in the leaf bay; still green enough to give at least some heat I hope. So we started a new deep bed (just over 1 metre deep) layering up the grass with more leaves and wood chip, and with a sprinkling of dried chicken manure now and again to add more nitrogen. With a gallon or two of human activator and capped with our usual soil/compost mix we’ll see if it reaches any useful sort of temperature.

All of which shovelling, wheelbarrowing and forking had utterly vanquished the bitterly cold east wind, leaving us warm and content in the way that only a winter morning in the fresh air can do. There is no feeling in the world to match a completed job on the allotment snatched from the jaws of the sort of lousy weather that keeps most of us indoors.

But all the thoughts about wind and rainwater; underground streams and hotbeds; trees and perennial plants lead inescapably to a mea culpa on my part. We’re completely organic, we make compost, we don’t dig, we recycle almost anything including (the liquid bit of) our own waste, we’ve spent much of our working lives in community groups and even started an artists’ studio cooperative. We’ve lived in a couple of communes …. come on ……. join the dots and one obvious philosophy surely comes to mind 🙂

Permaculture

Twenty years ago we had a brief flirtation with permaculture – I even took part in an astoundingly popular TV film about it and – (utterly tongue in cheek) – displayed the dreadful 1950’s woollen carpet given to us by our neighbour – being used for weed control. In those days we kept a flock of chickens and, to be honest, the film company were desperate for someone who could talk confidently on screen and who lived close enough to Jekka McVicar to justify bring a film crew down from London. It was her fault for putting me forward! So chickens; a row of California cylinders steaming away; some nice veg and an orchard complete with a pair of pants that had blown off the washing line – what could go wrong? For goodness sake – I even showed them where the dog and various cats were buried! The garden was a total mess so I told the crew we were using permaculture principles. You simply wouldn’t believe how many complete strangers said to me “saw you on telly last night“.

But it’s taken all this time to overcome my inexplicable prejudice against permaculture. Maybe it’s to do with the way some of its advocates seemed insufferably smug, or treated it like a religion. I couldn’t seem to shake off the feeling that it was an immensely wasteful way of using land; that it was first cousin to foraging but would never be any use to anyone except rich kids who could afford to shop at Sainsbury’s and save the world by picking a few blackberries.

I was wrong on almost every count – I’ll repeat that out loud – I WAS WRONG! – this confession will possibly amaze my friends. There is a marvellous book of meditations by Anthony de Mello that I once used in group work all the time. One of my favourites was the story of a fish that decided to look for the ocean, not realizing that the ocean was the very matrix in which it lived and swam – so ubiquitous that the fish couldn’t see it.

I don’t believe in the god you don’t believe in either!

The misconception about permaculture being about a sort of foraging is very widespread. Ken Thompson, in his otherwise pretty sensible book “The Sceptical Gardener” completely dismisses it (P106) while confusing its whole overarching philosophy with forest gardening. Just for the record, I don’t think that forest gardening will feed the world either; nor do I think that permaculture is the same thing as regenerative farming, but I do think that aligning our whole way of life to the rhythms and patterns of the natural world; living sustainably and generously with our neighbours; breaking free from the prison of endless growth and using whatever we find “to hand” – whether wind or rain or sunshine or soil as creatively as we possibly can by designing systems that balance inputs and outputs.

All my sleepless nights pondering hot beds, thermal storage, hydraulic ram pumps, composting, water storage, tree planting, hot spots and frost pockets, wind power solar panels, ponds polytunnels and insect friendly planting schemes ….. blah blah blah. Like Anthony de Mello’s little fish I couldn’t see permaculture anywhere out there because we were already doing it – up to our necks in it, but just on the small 250 square metre plot we happen to have at our disposal rather than on a grander but imaginary smallholding. Which means that we won’t be able to use my design for imaginary portable chicken arks or indeed eat the imaginary eggs which, fattened by grass and grubs would be the goldenest and most delicious and sitty uppest eggs you ever saw; but we’ve done that and it was marvellous, and we hope that many others will be able to enjoy it as much as we did.

So there we are. We were looking for a philosophical home and it turned out we were there already. The Potwell Inn is like that – full of surprises.

Why is the earth moving so fast?

I couldn’t resist this photo opportunity on the canal this morning – these two cats, cute though they were, also looked rather anxious to me. There were quite a number of dogs being taken for walks on the towpath so as well as the puzzle about the earth moving, they had to cope with the constant anxiety of predators nearby.

I can completely empathise with their state of generalized anxiety. What with Covid 19 mach II rampaging around and a government that functions each day by believing six impossible things before breakfast, and then the gathering climate catastrophe I sometimes wonder if I’m one book away from a breakdown.

A novel, a book of literary criticism, a poem, an environmental warning and a lost and found manuscript.

I also wonder how it is that we, as a species, can live in so many ways against our best interests. I’ve been reading Tom Philpotts’s book “Perilous Bounty” about the crisis in both agriculture and horticulture in California and the Midwest. Is it just America? I’m not so sure that Americans have some especial mindset that leads their country into bad ways. Some of the best writing about nature has come out of America, and my bookshelves are probably full of books about the American crisis because so many writers, thinkers, and enough ordinary folk to buy their books, are way ahead of us here in the UK in recognising the danger. That’s one reason; and another reason for being very leery about blaming America for it all is that – whatever culture found its way across the Atlantic began life here in Europe, and unless we’ve embarked on a separate burst of cultural evolution then we are still walking in step with our cousins.

“Gunslinger”

These thoughts about America came this morning with a quotation from a book that popped into my mind. The book is Charles Olson’s “Call me Ishmael”, published in 1947 – the year after I was born. I have a long association with this book. I first read it in annotated photocopied typescript form in about 1971. It took a long route. Olson taught at Black Mountain College (with a galaxy of other writers, poets and painters who became household names. One of his fellow lecturers was Ed Dorn (Of “Gunslinger” fame – the poem not the film!) who subsequently moved to the UK to teach American Literature in Essex and brought with him a typescript copy of the book. His course was attended by a friend of ours who borrowed the manuscript and photocopied it himself, then lent it to me at Art School. The book is a short piece of the most marvellous literary criticism which shows Olson trying to get to grips with Herman Melville the writer, and “Moby Dick” his strange masterpiece. I never forgot the first few paragraphs, and after a long search I recently managed to buy a facsimile copy that looked as if it came from the same hand as the one I’d seen – very exciting.

The opening paragraphs, as they fell into my mind, seemed to say something terribly important about the culture that has penetrated western thought like an evil miasma. Here it is:

I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy.

It is geography at bottom, a hell of a wide land from the beginning. That made the first American story, (Parkman’s) exploration.

Something else than a stretch of earth, – seas on both sides, no barriers to contain as restless a thing as Western man was becoming in Columbus’ day. That made Melville’s story (part of it).

PLUS a harshness we still perpetuate, a sun like a tomahawk, small earthquakes but big tornadoes and hurrikans [sic], a river north and south in the middle of the land running out the blood.

The fulcrum of America is the Plains, half sea half land, a high sun as metal and obdurate as the iron horizon, and a man’s job to square the circle.

Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. I see Poe dug in and Melville mounted. They are the alternatives.

Americans still fancy themselves such democrats. But their triumphs are of the machine. It is the only master of space the average person ever knows, oxwheel to piston, muscle to jet. It gives trajectory.

To Melville it was not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and as a people. Ahab is no democrat. Moby Dick, antagonist, is only king of natural force, resource.

Charles Olson “Call me Ishmael (1947) this edition by Forgotten Books Grove Press New York and Evergreen Books Ltd. London.

Moby Dick in Ahab’s mind is nothing more than resource – a truly terrifying thought. And the restlessness of post Columban humanity that wants to subdue all that obdurate wildness first, and then – when the journey west meets the Pacific Ocean, to subdue the sea and its inhabitants too. Not the curse of the American mind, then, but the curse of western culture – our father, our mother and our language. I think Olson expresses something that comes close to our contemporary original sin, the will to subdue nature and treat it as nothing more than resource. Find the book and read it.

But (I hear the exceptionalists argue) – that’s America, not here. As I was reading Tom Philpott’s book the same thought hovered around at the back of my mind too. What has the Central Valley in California to do with Britain? Water and its management is a part of the answer. Our farmers may not wear dungarees and baseball caps, and Barbours may be more representative wear here, but arable crops still demand water, lots of it and in the arable lands of south east Britain, nearly all of it (when it’s not actually raining) comes from underground aquifers. California may be a nose ahead of us, but we’re just as guilty of reaping where we have not sown when it comes to water. Here in the South West we have plenty of water most of the time, but the constant erosion cause by bare farmland over winter causes the same level of soil loss. The rivers of Devon run red as they pass through bare fodder maize fields. So here in the west our problem is rapid runoff and flooding in the winter and spring, and in the east it will be drought in the increasingly hot summers. The conflict between agriculture, industry and homes over water, and the rising problem of pollution from nitrate runoff as it percolates (it takes decades) through the rock along with pesticides will be a profit consuming test for the privatised water companies. The landscape may be different in the US and across Britain, but the extractive, mechanised and intensive rationale is exactly the same. There’s an excellent explainer on groundwater extraction here.

So in answer to my own question, no I don’t think America is in any sense an environmental outlier. We have seen the enemy – it is us!

Some New Year’s resolutions

Madame will kill me for putting her photo on the blog but one or two unkind friends have suggested I make her sound like a brothel keeper or a dominatrix so I thought I’d put the record straight. She is, as should be immediately obvious, a stranger to the whip and handcuff.

Anyway, it was freezing cold today and yesterday we had to shorten our walk because there was so much ice around; breaking legs is most definitely not on our agenda for the New Year – so today we looked at the outside temperature, which was -1C and settled for a day indoors. As you may have noticed, I’m an almost promiscuous reader and it’s no particular hardship to spend a day with a book – today’s read was Tom Philpott’s “Perilous Bounty” which addresses the economics of intensive farming as well as the environmental problems it’s causing; the two are intimately linked, you won’t be surprised to learn. Anyway it’s a thoroughly well written and well researched book which I’d recommend (bearing in mind that by recommending a book a day I’m writing for an audience of one.

But Madame and I have been gardening for so long that we often converge in our thoughts and today as I was reading the book she was researching allotments around the world, investigating the styles and methods employed in many different countries. During the summer several of our allotment neighbours employed a Polish handyman to build them sheds, and this one looked remarkably akin to some of the buildings on Eastern European allotments. So our conversation drifted this way and that, and as we talked about some of the projects we’d like to tackle – we both experienced a rising sense of optimism looking forward to next season.

These dog days of December and January can sap your creative energy and diminish your enthusiasm for the unfinished jobs on the allotment, but today my head’s full of ideas; to finish building roofs over the line of compost bins, to drive new posts and boards along the bottom to shore up the terracing and to build the shelter between the shed and the greenhouse. The, in the last few bitterly cold days, I’ve been wondering about building a polytunnel. Obviously this would extend our growing season but there’s another reason too. Our site is plagued most years by tomato and potato blight. Potatoes aren’t so much of a problem because first earlies – the tastiest potatoes to grow – aren’t affected; they’re out of the ground before the humidity and temperature combine to create blight conditions. Tomatoes are another thing altogether because they’re always going to be vulnerable. For some years we’ve grown an F1 hybrid tomato with tremendous resistance and we’ve had marvellous crops. But this year one of our other resolutions is to start seed saving and that means eschewing the Fi hybrids and some of the commercial seeds because, whatever the name on the packet, it seems they pretty well all originate in the same old industry cartel. Tomatoes grown in a polytunnel would benefit from the extra protection from cold weather, winds and blight. The biggest challenge with a tunnel will be watering, but I’m hoping a combination of permaculture ideas and crafty storage and re-routing from the water butts will allow us a week away in the campervan now and again. At present our new resolution to walk the Mendip Way is on hold due to the new regulations.

We probably all grew up with the fixed idea that evolution is an immensely slow process and, in some cases it is. However with plants, because they produce seed every year, the annual selection of the best/strongest/best flavoured/most resistant plants can – it seems – result in useful new strains through cross pollination. The huge abundance of varieties of maize in South America is down to selective breeding for many different altitudes, soils and weather patterns; and some of these varieties – some grain varieties too – become what’s known as ‘landrace’ types. In Wales at the moment at least one food coop is trialling a traditional landrace form of wheat. So it’s all up in the air at the moment but we’ve been very successful with seed saving some of our herbs and prolific easy flowers like marigolds and nasturtium. In the summer we’ll try some saved peas and borlotti and see how we go. Of course it needs organisation and proper cataloguing, but having looked at our seed bills this year, a few brown envelopes and some time could be a great moneysaver. One of our neighbours in our previous house had grown a completely unique cherry tomato for years – nobody had the faintest idea what variety it was because he’d been saving seed all that time, but it was lovely.

Due to the lockdown we’re unable to fill the hotbed with horse manure this year, so we’re going to experiment with layered beds of woodchip, leaves, compost and top soil. They probably won’t heat up but we’ll give it a go with some additional human urine and see what happens. We’ve already prepped a new strawberry bed in the same way.

So it’s new Year’s Day. Our upstairs neighbours defied the rules and had a right old party last night and I can tell you that one young woman had no idea how to sing Auld Lang Syne – and no idea when to stop either. We wish them, you, and all our regulars at the Potwell Inn a better year than the one that’s gone. For us we can say without fear of contradiction that 2021 looks like the best year ever. So far!

We won’t get the answer on a bumper sticker!

Another day another book – blame the weather, the lockdown and the new covid strain; but sometimes a moment of boredom can bear fruit. I was sitting looking at a bit of leftover everyday sourdough in the kitchen (OK I’m a bit of a slob) when I noticed a fine mist of white mould growing on it, and so I took it to the microscope to have a closer look and the mould emerged from the blur as a delightfully sculptural mass of ovoid/spherical and translucent fungus. Then I wondered what would happen if I photographed the image with my mobile and above left is my very first attempt at a microphotograph, from which I learn that I need decent clamp to hold the phone still over the microscope eyepiece so I can focus more accurately. Nonetheless I was pleased with the idea that low budget microphotography is at least possible – if only for note taking. So aside from creative doodling and flashes of inspiration I’ve been reading a newly published book entitled “Green Meat” – subtitled “sustaining eaters, animals and the planet” Edited by Ryan M. Katz-Rosene and Sarah J. Martin and published by McGill-Queens University Press.

Some books are good because they give reliable, verifiable information on their topics. This book certainly scores on the verifiable side with each of the eleven essays fully supported by footnotes and extensive references. But I’d say its greatest strength is to frame the ethical and environmental problems facing meat production and meat eating in such a way as to articulate the difficulties with searching questions. In the words of their own formulation, to “problematize the problem”; to question the many bumper sticker simplifications that obscure a hugely complex challenge that can only be addressed in appropriately complex ways. As they say in the introduction”

For any hardline carnivores or vegans out there seeking to find material that bolsters their claims of superior dietary practices -look elsewhere!

Preface

What the book does is give space to nine writers, all specialists or practitioners experienced in meat production and farming from holistic planned grazing – (think Joe Salatin, for instance) through First Nation hunting and trapping, to intensive industrial farms and CAFOs – concentrated animal feeding operations. All of them look critically at the data that circulates widely and is often used selectively by partisans of one view or another; by agroindustry looking to ‘greenwash’ its activities and by groups promoting extreme dietary change – universal veganism, for instance – in order to save the planet. I won’t rehearse the many arguments here but if you’re interested in engaging more thoughtfully with your food purchasing I’d certainly recommend you read this book; but what I will do is focus on one or two ways which were particularly illuminating for me.

In our five years on the present allotments, we’ve always borne in mind the need to build up the soil from its original rather neglected state but I don’t think we’ve ever fully articulated the notion that we have been growing two crops all along – the crop which we eat and the crop within the soil itself, the invisible crop of carbon and other minerals, of humus, mould, micro-organisms, fungi, nematodes, worms and insects; the billions of living things that constitute the invisible, or perhaps generally overlooked crop. It’s almost impossible to design a calculus that includes a value for all that accumulated wealth but it’s at the heart of our project and “Green Meat”brought that home to me.

At first sight the essay “A feminist Multi-Species approach to Green Meat” looked a bit off-putting and yet it turned out to be one of the most thought provoking essays in the book and led me to understand that the reductionist approach to climate change – simplifying the problem down to a minimum of variables – methane, greenhouse gases, national food statistics and so forth, is in itself a symptom of industrialised framing. What about the animals and the suffering they endure by not being allowed to express themselves ‘animally’? What about the other stakeholders beyond the shareholders? – those whose lives are affected whether negatively or positively by the system. What about the societal structures that make some rich and some poor? What about the poorest consumers who, instead of being adequately fed are made sick by processed food? What about whole ecosystems and their associated wildlife?

What about localised cultures? – and this was what made me think long and hard about our fishing communities. Arguments about fish quotas obscure whole human cultures because they are framed exclusively in terms of catch. Complex ecological and social relationships are thrust to the margins of discussion. By complete coincidence we watched the multi award winning film “Bait” (poster shot above) – this evening and it flawlessly documented the destruction of the local fishing culture by tourism. The culture that sustains fishing in this country also sustains the Royal National Lifeboat Institution whose volunteers include many professional fishermen. The network of local food relationships which would be essential within a rethinking of our food sustainability is rendered invisible when an industry is reduced to considerations of efficiency. Too many discussions of sustainability want to start from scratch; reinventing the wheel. Why build it again when it was there already?

Another essay examines the catastrophic effects on First Nation sustainable hunting and fishing by mining and mineral extraction in Canada – shades of Cornish fishing once again. Apparently the fishing industry generates less than 1% of the GNP in this country, but does that justify the destruction of an ancient way of life? And then, difficult thoughts flow about, for instance, mining communities. However much we may accept the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and the extractive economy , the fact is – as the old joke says – at the bottom of every mine in the world there’s a Welshman or a Cornishman, and those communities embodied community values like solidarity and a passion for education that our individualistic culture has lost at great cost. The remedy for these difficult questions won’t be reduced to a slogan. Perhaps the real enemy is the one powerful tool that has transformed the world – the reductive industrialised way of thinking has become the new common sense thinking. Gramsci’s warning that common sense isn’t always sensible gets quoted in one of the essays.

Let me give an example from this week’s Farmers Weekly. There is in development a new way of treating cattle slurry with plasma (whatever that may be) which reduces its methane releasing properties by 90%. Bravo you might say, but “Green Meat” suggests that our industrialised mindset is always taking one micro-problem at a time and attempting to solve it technologically rather than stepping back and reflecting on the whole. By all means bombard the shit tanks with high energy death rays, but that still leaves another thousand problematic areas of intensive farming untouched. Industrial farming is constantly playing catch up with the next side effect of its intensity. In medicine they’ve got a name for it – “iatrogenic illness” – which means illness caused as a side effect of treatment, and it kills tens of thousands every year.

I should end this here, except I want to raise one other issue that will raise great difficulties. In every probability, meat consumption will continue to be a part – we hope a much smaller part – of the national diet. The conversion of vast areas of pasture to arable land would bring in its wake huge losses of biodiversity and without access to animal manure, even greater consumption of artificial fertilizers and yet more chemicals. The most likely answer is to allow the shrinkage of the existing meat industry while increasing the quality of food through holistic planned grazing or similar restorative schemes. The other aspect of the policy must be to decrease food miles by building new or restoring old local food networks. The tricky question then will be – “where do we site the new, small slaughterhouses”? – and I fear the answer will be “anywhere except here!” A second tricky question – and one which is greatly troubling the farmers in national parks is -“if we’re going to step back from industrialised machine supported farming, we will need to find and train many thousands of new agricultural and horticultural workers. Where are we going to house them?” – and here the nimbyism of the incomers will chorus once again – “anywhere except here!”.

If you’re looking for the cause of the success of right wing populist politics here and elsewhere, you have to include the anger of communities in the countryside – not least hill farmers; but also miners, steelworkers, fishing communities and the many others who correctly believe that the political structure of our country has excluded and silenced them. Could it be that we have our own dispossessed people here, and they look just like us!

St Francis of the boot rack

Our youngest son has a fine sense of irony

I’ll get back to St Francis in a moment but I know that many of you will be desperate to see the Potwell Inn Christmas Day Menu. Excluded from Europe and the physical company of everyone we love, we decided to tear up tradition and please ourselves entirely as regards what we ate in splendid isolation – and so:

  • Tea in bed
  • Breakfast: muesli (made by me)
  • lunch: Christmas pudding with crême fraiche – nothing else
  • Supper: Chicken fajita

The children were a bit shocked to see that we had wilfully abandoned the family tradition; rather more, I think, because it somewhat undermined their own efforts to keep it alive. But in these circumstances I always quote the famous last six words of every great institution – “we always do it this way” – and being old is the perfect time to become an iconoclast because no-one else seems to want to put Christmas out of its misery. It was surprisingly easy to do; to wave away the orgy of overspending and overeating; and under the circumstances we felt no compulsion to pretend that everything was back to normal. “Bah humbug” – you accuse, and affecting not to understand we reply “que?!

And so to St Francis.

I did say that I intended to write something about some kind of green spirituality, but the more I thought about it the harder it became until Joe’s Christmas present was delivered. It was a bit of a shock I must say. How would you describe something that’s hilariously funny, excruciatingly kitsch and borderline blasphemous?

I’ve always had a soft spot for heresy, whether the religious sort or the Christmas dinner menu makes no difference. A good heresy is the engine of change because good heresies are always tempting, otherwise they wouldn’t be any good. All great paradigm shifts are kicked off by a heresy. So St Francis of the boot rack (the name came to me instantly in a moment of pure grace), put me on the back foot in the most wonderful manner and rather than accepting the gift with a fake smile and gritted teeth I thought to myself – “this is marvellous”. But why???

Forgive me if you’ve read a previous post where I told this story but it fits well here. Some years ago we visited Chartres Cathedral which, on first impressions, was a kind of religious Disneyland. Queues of pilgrims clutching plaster models of the Virgin Mary waited to have them blessed. The building was heaving with visitors and I was rigid with the kind of anger that comes from fear; fear because I couldn’t understand what was going on. Nothing in my aesthetic experience had prepared me for such a festival of utterly bad taste. Until, that is, I was overwhelmed by a sense of holiness that was completely impervious to the cattle market atmosphere. I was so overwhelmed that I took off my shoes and socks and, for a hour, walked barefoot around the building as it spoke to me through my feet. It was one of the shortest pilgrimages ever conducted and I still haven’t fully digested it but, like a zen koan, it shorted out my overeducated theoretical mind and showed me another mind space altogether.

Pop. There goes another one!

So St Francis of the boot rack – what’s he saying? Well I think he’s teaching a lesson about idolatry – and I’m sorry for the big, loaded word but it’s a crucial shorthand way of describing the way we habitually try to cram an ocean of meaning into a fishbowl. This piece of fibreglass kitsch has no aesthetic merit at all and yet its strength lies somewhere else altogether – perhaps in its innocence, its naivety, its acceptance that it claims no more for itself than the grid reference can claim to be the mountain. Idolatry just means worshipping the part, thereby diminishing the whole. St Francis of the boot rack is a device for popping ego bubbles.

Next, sometimes reading a book can lead to the uncanny sense that the writer has somehow broken in to your mind and carried off your memories. I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the second clue to constructing a green spirituality came to me when he wrote about an experience that exactly parallelled my own – not that it was a special revelation at all, but simply the puzzle, for a non believer, of dealing with the sense of thanksgiving for an entirely undeserved gift that comes out of nowhere. When picking blackberries in the autumn; when coming across a field full of fresh mushrooms; when harvesting a crop on the allotment. Who to thank?

I suppose we could walk away from such an experience congratulating ourselves on our foraging expertise, mycological acumen or horticultural skill; but it never seems enough because, in truth, we make very little contribution to our good fortune .

Of course there are any number of theological readymades queueing up to claim these oddly numinous experiences for themselves, but they all come with a heavy price tag. They all require that you buy into the whole system with all its inconsistencies and occasional cruelties just in order to give you a mailing address where you can post your thank-you’s.

For the avoidance of idolatry that narrows these experiences down until they become trivial; and the avoidance of the great systematic theologies that confine these ecstatic experiences like wild animals in a zoo; any credible green spirituality would, for me, need to remain largely silent. In fact you might steal a concept from the Carthusians and other religious communities who keep a great silence after compline each day. Such a great silence would need to stop struggling to explain things while giving us a space to which to bring our thanksgivings and laments. There is so much that lies beyond our present capacity for explanation (maybe our science needs a paradigm shift as well) – that there’s no need to invent supernatural entities to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. There is the earth whose ways are still largely unknown to us. There is the sun, the moon; there are stars and there is weather and there are the great orders of living things. I’ve naughtily paraphrased St Francis great Canticle of the Sun because I still kind of identify with him in his artless extremism; his simplicity and his love of nature. I should own up to the fact that I was once a lay member of the Anglican Third Order of the Society of St Francis and like all the best teachers, Francis embedded himself in my mind even though I moved on and away from the orthodoxies.

The religious systems of the past don’t have the monopoly on concepts such as humility –humus, the condition of the earth – on forgiving or on generosity, on equality or thanksgiving or human love. They’re all there ready to be recycled and repurposed in ways that work for us, speak to us and generate new meaning. Naturally the concessionaires and leaseholders of the existing spiritualities will kick up a fuss – they would, wouldn’t they – and we shall always have to look out for a new breed of snake oil salespeople who talk the talk but don’t do the other bit, they’re human after all, just like the rest of us. But – I’m just speaking for myself now and I don’t expect you to agree – for me a Green New Deal without some kind of spirituality would be too thin to survive. A farming method or an algorithm for life without poetry, music and dance , without thanksgiving and (dare I say?) liturgy would be a poor half-starved creature; unfit for purpose.

Just forget the dogma, the hierarchy, the keyholders and all the bureaucracy. Forget all that “we always do it this way” stuff and gaze in wonder at the daft plastic statue of St Francis of the boot rack. What better reminder of our frailty do we need.

“Eating is an agricultural act” – or how to use those Christmas book tokens!

The headline quote is a characteristically sharp observation by Wendell Berry, one of my favourite writers and quoted by Michael Pollan who adds that Wendell Berry could, equally appropriately, have called eating a political act as well. This reflection begins and will probably end in books, so having promised a list a few days ago I’ve decided to publish a very provisional one today that represents my personal meander through the question of farming and food. I’ll head the list with Michael Pollan because his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was among the first to be published, and was groundbreaking in the way it embraced the whole of food culture from producer to consumer. As a critique of industrial food it’s brilliant, but as a critical friend he addresses many of the questions that sceptics might ask of the alternatives he considers – which, after industrial food production, are – industrial organic food; “beyond organic” farming – basically pasture based livestock production; and foraging. I’ll start the list with this book because I was directed back to it when I started to read Tom Philpott’s new book “Perilous Bounty”, which looks at the state of American farming two decades after Michael Pollan’s research began.

It would be easy to imagine that my reading has focused entirely on American agriculture, but the next four books are UK centred – although in agricultural terms where the US has led, the UK all too often follows to its cost. The feedlot and giant milk production units are here in the UK already and increasing in number.

My third book is Simon Fairley’s “Meat – A Benign Extravagance” – a forceful, evangelistic and highly entertaining book on the virtues of mixed farming. Fourth (and these are in no particular order), Chris Smaje “A Small Farm Future” and finally a couple of more technical books; Dieter Helm’s “Green and Prosperous Land” is an economist’s take on reordering farming and building a greener economy and Tim Lang’s “Feeding Britain – our food problems and how to fix them” is a comprehensive survey of UK food policy, what’s wrong with it and – as the title says – how it could be fixed. Finally James Rebanks new book “English Pastoral” has the advantage of being written by a proper hill farmer and it’s a highly readable book, just like his last one.

There are so many other books on the subject ranging from deep ecology through green spirituality and practical handbooks to monographs on single ecological challenges but I’ve mentioned these particularly because I spent 25 years working in farming parishes and I’d be confident to recommend any of these books to the farmers I came to know and respect even though I had many reservations about what they were doing.

Overseas readers will need to know that the Potwell Inn, virtual though it may be, is firmly situated in the South West of England whose soils are nowhere near as suitable for arable farming as they are for grass. The temperate climate, and soils all favour the production of grass and so (since humans don’t have rumens) by far the most economical use of the majority of the landscape is grazing which allows cattle to turn sunshine into concentrated food that we can eat. And so there is an inescapable focus on meat and milk production which, when it’s done intensively is undoubtedly a cause of real environmental concern.

I’m interested in food security and so the lorries, thousands of which are stacked up against the closed border in Dover today, represent the almost 60% of food that we import and the fragility of the supply line – in one news report. Therefore if we’re to increase self-sufficiency to a much safer 80% it seems inevitable that we will have to make the most effective use of all the land we have and play to our strengths. Sadly, (vegans and vegetarians may think), the future will have to include a significant amount of traditional (and rotational) mixed farming because much of the South West is unsuitable for the kind of large scale grain and pulse production that would be needed to avoid importing huge quantities of protein food. The point about the ecological catastrophe that’s bearing down on us is that it’s universal. It doesn’t respect borders.

Incidentally I noticed an article in this week’s Farmers Weekly on a similar track, discussing whether lupins could replace imported soya as a protein food for cattle. Personally I think the future lies in eating much less meat and feeding cattle on grass which they’ve evolved to digest, rather than concentrates that keep them in a perpetual state of stress and digestive disorder. The irony in the article came when I saw that the breakthrough has come through the licensing of several new weedkillers, one of which is called “Nirvana”. Is that some kind of sick joke?? I quoted Wendell Berry only a couple of days ago saying that intensive farming takes a solution and turns it into two problems. There’s only one way of ending industrial meat production and that’s to eat less meat and only buy the best and most sustainable meat as occasional treats. Those who argue that such a move would mean meat for the rich and starvation for the poor miss the point that:

  • (1) once the subsidies are removed from industrial farming, the prices will converge, although they’ll never meet.
  • (2) We will have to address inequality within any green new deal.
  • (3) The environmental benefits will be felt universally.
  • (4) The potential health benefits of ending the reign of junk food are almost incalculable.

” …. all of which is to say that a successful local food economy implies not only a new kind of food producer, but a new kind of eater as well, one who regards finding, preparing and preserving food as one of the pleasures of life rather than a chore”

Michael Pollan – “The Omnivore’s Dilemma

So without resorting to a long piece that I’m completely unqualified to write; it seems to me that we have an urgent need to develop the skills we’ll need to invent or more likely rediscover in order to achieve a sustainable and ecologically safe food future, and perhaps surprisingly much of the emphasis will have to be placed on changing our food culture on the consumer side. I’ll reserve the philosophical and spiritual aspects to this to another post, but practically speaking we’ll need to bring the teaching of growing, harvesting, cooking and preserving back into the mainstream as Michael Pollan suggests.

We’ll have to hugely increase the provision of allotments by local authorities because these are the laboratories for a greener future. Anyone who has experience of growing their own food, even in small quantities, will quickly learn to recognise quality and pay less attention to price. Informed consumers make better, greener buying choices and waste less. Allotments can be much more productive than the equivalent area of conventional farms.

We’ll also have to build a huge network of local food and farmers’ markets to reduce food miles and completely overhaul the agricultural colleges to address a wholly new ethos; turn agriculture and horticulture into a better paid and better regarded occupation and offer training at local colleges to give people the skills they need to get the most out of gardens and allotments. Finally we need to grow more fruit and veg – much much more of them. One of the tragedies of the CAP was the subsidy paid to established fruit farms to grub up their trees, only to pay them some years later to replant them.

Food security really is possible without resorting to ever more intensive and destructive chemical farming and the destruction of the environment; but as I’ve been arguing, the change in our food culture will need to be huge and it will demand leadership and vision that is nowhere apparent in our present political system. But the thought that it’s our Christmas lunch that’s rotting in the back of a lorry on a border somewhere ought to focus our minds pretty sharply.

And if I don’t get the chance to write again tomorrow have a very happy christmas if that’s your thing; and if it isn’t – do enjoy the next few days!

The Potwell Inn prepares for the winter solstice

From one of my old notebooks that I found in the garage when we moved to Bath.

According to the meteorologists winter started almost three weeks ago but here at the Potwell Inn we pay no attention to these unnatural dates. It’s always been the solstice for us because instead of simply looking backwards at the autumn and summer – always a bit depressing, especially this year, the solstice marks the shortest day. In fact it celebrates a particular moment because at 10.00am tomorrow the North Pole is tilted as far away from the sun as it will be this year. Mid morning tomorrow the earth slowly begins tilting the other way until mid march when (and I know earth coordinates are a bit meaningless in space terms) it’s ‘upright’ – and we celebrate the vernal equinox and, as the tilt continues, exposing more of the northern hemisphere to the direct rays of the sun we hit midsummer in mid June. And then the earth starts to tilt back again and the cycle begins anew. So the good news is that tomorrow marks both a beginning and an end.

In a more nature orientated culture than ours we’d be eagerly awaiting this moment. Historically, farm work slowed down during the winter because the soil was too heavy and cold for seed sowing. The farm year kicked off with the Epiphany celebrations around 6th January and often included Plough Monday celebrations where a plough would be brought into churches along with seed corn (usually wheat, rye and barley in the UK and not maize in those days). By Plough Monday it’s usually possible to see the lengthening days and the winter pursuits like hedging and ditching gave way on the farm to sowing once more.

But grass seems to grow more or less throughout the year. In fact I remember giving our vicarage lawn a light mow one Christmas Eve, and I was reminded yesterday that grass is by no means as simple as you might at first think. I was re-reading Michael Pollan’s 2006 book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. It’s an excellent read and today I noticed a 2016 piece in the Washington Times by Pollan that celebrated the fact that the US has seen a significant growth in food awareness accompanied by increasing numbers of artisanal food producers, organic and post-organic farms and farmers markets. But it wasn’t all good news because the dominance of corn had increased in the national diet.

However it was grass that caught my eye last night, because when I first read the book I knew next to nothing about it in spite of living and working in the countryside for 25 years. Then, when we moved here and joined the Bath Natural History Society we were on a field trip one day when I told one of the leading lights that I found grass identification hard. “Oh she said” pointedly, “grasses are easy” – which challenge was more than I could resist and so I’ve spent three or four years improving my grass skills. Then, earlier this year a friend lent me a microscope and a whole new world opened up and began a new romance for me.

Why is this important? Well, in his book Michael Pollan draws attention to one central criticism of intensive farming in a way that I found irresistible. Grass, he says, harnesses and stores the power of the sun and because of its properties of self regeneration and the sheer density of its coverage and capacity to photosynthesise even during autumn and winter, it represents the nearest thing to a free lunch in the natural world. When we see a meadow, especially a traditional meadow with all its wildflowers – we’re looking at a far more efficient solar energy store than any field covered in solar panels.

Intensive farming, on the other hand, replaces all that sustainable solar energy with unsustainable oil – for driving farm machinery, transporting animals and crops over huge distances, and for manufacturing the fertilizers and chemicals which then go on to promote global heating and cause pollution environmental damage and health problems. The problem is that we humans lack a rumen, the part of a grazing animal’s stomach than can digest grass. So the only way we can access all that stored solar energy for food is by feeding the grass to a ruminant animal like a cow, and then eating it. If you add in the concept of buying locally, he food and the consumer are in the same place.

Grass fed cattle do well although they fatten slower than cattle stuffed with corn and antibiotics, The grass and its herbs provide a still unknown number of micronutrients and healing properties to the cattle’s diet and so they are better able to thrive without the panoply of wormers, drenches and other chemicals that are essential in the feedlots which, incidentally, are becoming more and more common in the UK – this isn’t an American problem. Grass fed beef is lower in health damaging cholesterol and it’s said that it tastes better too. It’s very expensive because it’s slower and less intensively farmed, and the food – that’s to say the grass -doesn’t attract the same level of subsidy. The inescapable logic is that traditional mixed farms are better than intensive farms for a host of environmental reasons but we will have to eat far less meat because the low price of meat in the supermarkets reflects an unsustainable and environmentally destructive food culture.

The question of methane is always the first thing to come up and it’s true that cows produce methane. But intensive farming produces far more methane because cowpats dropped on a low intensity pasture generate far less methane than the lakes of cattle slurry that accumulate on intensive farms and, all too frequently leak into the surrounding watercourses. A second benefit of grassland is that grass is a prodigious carbon store. No dig and low tillage systems don’t release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere at anything like the same rate. So, as Wendell Berry memorably said, by abandoning mixed farming and grass pasturage, intensive farming has taken a solution (mixed farming) and turned it into two problems: soil erosion and nutrient depletion on the one hand and massive pollution on the other, The manure that cattle leave on the pasture and which improves both soil structure and fertility becomes a lethal poison when concentrated in slurry. The land taken from pasture to grow feed grain releases carbon back into the atmosphere and can only remain productive through the use of chemicals.

And so grass is perhaps as important as are trees when it comes to carbon sequestration – and that’s great because the one thing we can grow here in the southwest of the UK is grass. Anyway I woke up the morning with my botanical whiskers all of a quiver and as we did our customary walk along the river and the canal I did a very rough and ready count of the plants we could see in flower. It’s been an odd autumn and early winter and although we’ve had a couple of frosts they’ve not amounted to much. The rain has been a much bigger problem for us. I didn’t have a pen with me so I couldn’t write them all down but from memory there were Canadian and Mexican Fleabane, a single dead nettle, groundsel, yarrow,common ragwort, one dandelion, red valerian, nipplewort, perennial sowthistle, ivy and some ivy leaved toadflax, plus (and this is a long shot) on the flood prevention scheme on North Quays where there was a lot of inappropriate wildflower re-seeding and I’m pretty sure there was a single corn marigold flowering on the spot where a very out of place clump of them grew last summer. As ever, plants don’t read the textbooks and to reverse the ethical aphorism, in field botany you can’t make an is into an ought. There were also new shoots breaking through on an old man’s beard vine, and a clump of very lush green prickly lettuce leave emerging on the river bank. Fourteen plants in flower on December 20th isn’t bad, and you could smell the strange almond perfume of the winter heliotrope all up the canal. Spring is hiding behind the bushes!

Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the solstice with a roastie and I’m wondering whether I can risk embarrassing Madame with a little candle-lit ceremony at 10.00am and then we can enjoy a solitary Christmas with a mexican meal that the children would never have let us get away with: they’re far greater traditionalists than we are! Then we’ll go for a walk amidst the hordes of similarly stranded grandparents.

Happy solstice!

Is there a cunning plan?

It’s utterly depressing, but the answer is going to be no. At the present moment living in the UK feels as if we’ve strayed into an episode of Blackadder, except there are no jokes. I’d like to be writing warm, lyrical and encouraging posts about how wonderful life is at the Potwell Inn – except it’s not – and I don’t mean that I’m lying here on the floor with an axe embedded in my head, although the thought may have entered Madame’s mind. The reason it’s not wonderful is that we’ve spent eleven months in a suspended state; very largely on our own and separated in any meaningful sense from our family and friends. During the first lockdown and the first easing we enjoyed the fine weather on the allotment, where we almost lived for months; but now in the winter there’s hardly anything to do there because we used the autumn to prepare for next season. So we’re deprived of the exercise and the sense of engagement that kept us sane for the first five or six months. Hence the renewed interest in long distance walks and the renewed exploration of the Mendip Hills, of which a little more later.

Of course there are always books. Madame reads novels and biographies, and pretty much anything else she can lay her hands on but I’m firmly in the grip of the protestant work ethic and my reading tends to be highly directional and (dare I say) improving stuff with footnotes and references and centred on the green new deal, environment, natural history, food and that kind of thing. I wish I felt more improved than I do but for the most part it leaves me feeling sad, utterly depressed or screaming at the TV in anger at the incapacity of either interviewers or politicians to ask or answer the simplest (but most diligent) question – more Blackadder. I remember once talking to a depressed consultant oncologist who confessed he was so overworked his first thought on meeting a new patient was how am I going to get this person out of the room? I always felt that any culpability for his reaction was far more due to the distant political choices that put him in that terrible position, than to any deficiency in him.

I probably shouldn’t unload any of these personal anxieties except that I know that it can break through the isolation that leaves so many of us wondering if we’re the only ones who feel this way. Isn’t the first aim of gaslighting always to isolate your critics and convince them that it’s all their fault. But it’s not our fault that covid and brexit have been so badly managed. I look down the list of countries in which Potwell Inn readers live and I can see that many of us have been let down – in different ways – but still let down.

Not feeling safe; not knowing what to believe and what not to believe; not understanding what it is we’re meant to do; missing the everyday pleasures of chance encounters with neighbours and friends; missing the lectures and meetings that cement us as a cohort of like-minded individuals; missing the hugs and the smell of our grandchildren’s hair (OK that’s a bit out there, but you know what I mean). All these etch into us like frost and rain etch their way into rock, and leave us feeling empty and exhausted. I read too many articles about the benefits of nature for mental health, but the principal benefit may be to writers writing books about the benefits. I reckon I’m a pretty resilient person, and I know that Madame is too; and yet we both feel hollowed out by this experience, and sometimes the walking and even the cooking and gardening seem more like displacement activity than wholesome activity should. Staying sane seems to be an immense effort of will.

One question has been bothering me in particular because, in the light of the constellation of crises we’re facing, the issue of food security must surely come near the top. Do we really want to get back to normal if that involves the pollution, the destructive farming and the sickness that associates with bad economics, poverty and junk food. So I’ve spent quite a lot of time reading around the question of food security, trying to see if there’s an answer to the question – could the UK be more self sufficient in food without going deeper into the abyss of intensive chemical dependent farming; and the answer – I’m pleased to say – is “Yes – But”.

If there are any vegans and vegetarians out there who think we can save the world by eating processed non-animal gloop, then the answer is no. If there are intensive farmers who think the way forward is more of the same, the answer is no as well. It’s no to industrial organic farms and no if you think we can feed ourselves on mediterranean delights grown on the allotment or purchased in the supermarket. If there are any people sitting in 3 litre SUV’s prepared to embrace anything except changing the way they drive, it’s also no. And it’s no to airlines, and no to food miles and criminal waste. In fact the answer can only be yes if we’re all prepared to change – quite a bit. This isn’t just a personal view, it’s a summary of all the scientific evidence I’ve managed to get my hands on.

Number one – (two three and four as well!) – is we need to eat less meat, much less meat; preferably chicken because it has a much more efficient conversion ratio. We need to embrace a plainer more sustainable diet sourced as locally as possible – to quote Michael Pollan – ‘eat food, not too much, mostly veg‘. The over embracing plan is summarised by Tim Lang in his book “Feeding Britain – our food problems and how to fix them” * – and he describes it as “a great food transformation”. Crucially this isn’t a book about organic farming or vegetarian diet, it’s an important book about farming, diet, public health, social policy, politics and food culture. You would profit from reading it wherever you stand on the food and farming spectrum. Of course, the cynics will say that the population will never embrace such far reaching change, to which he would respond that in a crisis – let’s say the onset of war in 1939, for instance, there won’t be any alternative but to change. The storm clouds that are gathering on the horizon right now are coming our way and our political system is proving itself unfit to deal even with one challenge, let alone three or four existential crises at once.

They would say that wouldn’t they?

Mandy Rice Davies

But this is good news. We are categorically not all doomed – we can make the changes we need to make and what’s more important, we can create a far better, far less divided and infinitely safer world as we do it. We mustn’t allow the powerful to claim that nothing can be done except more of the same. They would say that wouldn’t they?

Well there we are, and just to prove it’s not all been eye strain these past couple of days, the long Mendip Way walk is being chipped off a few miles at a time. On Monday we walked from Tynings Farm down to Shipham; back through Rowberrow Warren and across Blackdown. Why would I bother with these obscure place names when many people who read this will never see them? and the answer is that place names are beautiful in and of themselves, like tiny topographical markers that set up home in your mind and remind you that the earth is made of places which, just like us, have names and histories and are often very beautiful. The walk took us down the most lovely valley, following a stream most of the way, and then back through a forestry plantation and out on to the open moorland of Blackdown. Barely five miles but offering three quite distinct landscapes. Best of all we found hazel catkins flowering in profusion in the sheltered valley. The photograph shows one such catkin, coated in melting ice formed in the overnight frost but demonstrating that spring will come – and it can’t come too soon.

  • I’ll make a proper booklist soon – most of the books have been mentioned but I’ll assemble a proper list in case anyone is interested.