Economics and the Prophets of Baal

The Littleton Wassail – January 2020

Bear with me on the title of this post, but the Old Testament contains a glorious collection of stories which I’ve pressed into service many times in the course of a long and (as far as the bishops are concerned) disreputable mission to make them comprehensible in a very different context. That’s what writers do! we nick stories from all over the place and put them to service in a new way. I well remember hearing one of the team of writers who create scripts for “Eastenders” admit that they often took a storyline from the Bible, or the Greek myths, or indeed William Shakespeare. In fact; if your subject is adultery, incest and murder you need look no further than the Old Testament.

Having spent some of the week studying Basil Bunting’s often obscure poem “Briggflatts” I feel obliged to say that I’m not using the story in an attempt to look better educated than I really am. I first heard it from the lips of Primitive Methodist lay preachers who delighted in nothing better than a bit of smiting, and this story of a battle between Elijah the Prophet and 450 of the prophets of the Canaanite God, Baal, was a positive gorefest as – having won a bet on whose god could light a bonfire with a lightning bolt – he slaughtered his opponents in a merciless display of “righteousness.” The irony of the story and the reason for the fact that I’m pinning a post on it is that Baal was the God of fertility (crops mainly but probably a bit of the other thing as well), and also sun, rain and storm with a side hustle of war. The point of this meandering introduction is to explain that considering the probable fate of the earth if we don’t get off our collective bottoms and do something dramatic; you might see this as an appropriate moment to reinvent Baal. After all his CV includes dominion over crops, sun, rain and war. Exactly the portfolio of challenges facing our next Prime Minister. Job done – next question please!

However half the fun of the story is that Elijah was so sure he was on the right side, he demanded that huge quantities of water should be poured on his pile of sticks before getting down to serious prayer. The Prophets of Baal, equally certain of their own God, danced around the bonfire, making their noisy invocations for what may well have been hours, before Elijah stood up with a swift one-liner to his God who obligingly sent the thunderbolt – that was meant to be Baal’s gig! Cue smoke, flames and a lot of smiting until the 450 were all dead.

Or were they?

It seems to me that the Prophets of Baal might – in a spooky way – be the direct ancestors of our present generation of economists. It’s perfectly fair to accuse them (and many of us) of worshipping the economy. We speak of it reverentially, as if it were some kind of supernatural entity which rewards its priesthood and smites its detractors. ‘Who will ignite the economy?’ we ask, and the economists who all speak the same arcane, almost liturgical language, step forward from the shadows and begin their little dance around the way we do things round here which is clearly breathing its last stertorous breaths; the so-called death rattle of the verities. As they circle the corpse they whirl and chant like Sufi dancers and sing of profit and loss, of efficiency and margins while others chalk obscure mathematical formulae around the victim. But the victim does not rise because economics has never learned to speak of fertility, of crops and sun and rain. Its reductive ideology has excluded almost every ethical and human consideration; aside from the costs and opportunities of war in pounds sterling. In the face of their failure they fall silent; their instruments slip from their bloodless hands; the rain washes their dismal formulae away.

Painted with the brush of objective science and rationality and enveloped in the mythology that there is no alternative, mainstream economics continues, with great effect, to cleanse our ecological crisis of its profoundly political origins and resolutions.

Adrienne Buller “The Value of a Whale. On the illusions of Green Capitalism” 2022 Manchester University Press, Page 51

It happens all the time, of course. The gods of unintended consequences have brought the economists low because they mistook their theological assumptions for science. While they snorted with derision at determinist philosophies, and knuckled their heads in disbelief at Marxism; they developed their very own iron laws. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. What these new prophets of Baal couldn’t grasp was that by excluding any consideration of relationship; by refusing to include human thriving – which is itself a relational concept; and by failing to notice that the earth is not a resource but a finely balanced ecosystem – they were not worshipping Baal, but Moloch – the god of child sacrifice.

“Run the economy like a business” – are you completely batshit crazy? we need to run it like a garden!

Another night of strange dreams led to a sleepless night for Madame as I tossed and turned and made (as she described them) weird noises. I dream a lot, and years of work – hard work too – with a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, have taught me to treat them with the utmost seriousness. So here’s the deal – my dream was about cutting metre square sections of rough grass full of weeds, and setting them out in the usual unspecified way, to conduct an experiment concerned with watching weeds grow. I even dreamed of setting the trailcam to time lapse mode in order to get a continuous film of them growing. Principal among them was our old garden enemy – Bindweed.

Then this morning I was reading Robin Wall Kimmerer marvellous book – “Braiding Sweetgrass” when a connection dropped into place and I was able to see a very small part of a remedy for the crisis we’ve now created for ourselves.

The hot seat!

Allow me a small diversion to help explain the background. I was a school governor for over forty years and in that time we interviewed at least six head teachers. In spite of endless pains we still managed to appoint one complete dud but otherwise they were great human beings with a passion for making children into moral grownups. We interviewed them over two days, handed them heaps of data and gave them an hour to read and digest it then come up with a viable step by step plan. We tested their management and leadership skills by asking them to debate the difficult data with other candidates. We watched and noted those who could embrace challenges thoughtfully and without becoming defensive. It was exhausting for us and even worse for the candidates, but slowly the best candidate for our particular school – with its own unique history and challenges – would emerge.

If you compare that level of diligence with the present election for Prime Minister you will understand immediately how our political system makes such terrible decisions. As I once heard on a bus on the way home from Southmead – “That Jack B …….. he can’t tell shit from pudding!” I have a whole collection of those kinds of remarks, overheard from people who stretch the colloquial into Shakespearean beauty. We have a parliament full of people who share Jack B’s incapacity.

So back to dreams and weeds and revelations, and the connection is this. When we plan the next season on the Potwell Inn allotment we pay attention to the space we have, the nature of the local climate and its variabilities; the soil and its state and – in particular – we pay attention to our own needs. Do we need fifty purple sprouting plants? How many pounds of tomatoes do we really need?

And we also know that our land isn’t just for us – it’s for the thousands of species that – while we can’t eat them – play a vital role in the ecology of the plot. Some of the pests who predate upon the pests who damage our crops are visible – frogs, toads, parasitic wasps and so forth. Some are microorganisms. Some are mixed blessings – badgers for instance; and foxes, cats and even rats play complicated roles of fleas and smaller fleas in the terms of the old rhyme.

Weeds and pests and their many interactions play such a huge and poorly understood role in the overall health of the plot that we leave them alone. So to chase down an analogy – we either draw a binary distinction between friend and foe, and then bomb the foe out of existence in the manner of intensive chemically driven agriculture, or we nurture the richest possible mix of living creatures and edible plants and allow nature to find the kind of balance that allows us a crop, reduces pest damage and leaves the soil in good heart. And it really works!

Running the economy – and especially the ecology – of the earth as if it were a business completely focused on financial profit and loss is a form of ideological madness. Public goods are very hard to monetize, and yet we know that climate destruction brings tremendous costs. We know that farming practices which lead to wholesale species destruction will result in food shortages. We know that viruses can cross over between animals and humans and cause pandemics, and we suspect that the destruction of animal habitat through forest clearance makes this possibility greater. We also know that intensive farming of any kind causes pollution; carbon release and therefore global heating. The point of this line of argument is to emphasise that running the earth as a business so often ignores the cost of adverse consequences. If the full long-term costs of maintenance and disposal of radioactive waste are added to the business plan no investor in their right mind would take the risk. Sadly our government is able to use our money to make us compulsory investors in this dangerous industry.

Running the economy – basing our governance on its impact on the whole earth would make big business howl. Just as an example – the current price of all electricity is based on the inflated price of fossil fuels. This represents the mad economics of subsidising the oil companies by penalising renewables. In a genuine – that’s to say not rigged – market. The renewables would outcompete the fossils on price and the oil and gas producers would have to invest their ill gotten gains in renewables in order to stay in business at all. This is not fantasy economics.

Why weeds then? Why embrace pests and predators? Because any unstable ecosystem will be made more stable if a natural balance is reached. Climate catastrophe is the end point of ignoring the instability made worse by politicians who make stupid policies such as running the economy like a business – and then facilitate the predatory activities of corporate behemoths.

James Lovelock died this week. His Gaia theory gives us the best possible tool for understanding the harm we’ve done to ourselves and future people. The key is going to be diversity. The binary world of bad science and dangerous politics needs to be swept away so we can learn to tend the whole earth – in all its inspiring diversity – as a garden.

Corn Salad!

Corn Salad – Valerianella locusta

The monks’ gardens or herbularii contained beds in which were separately grown rosemary, mint, sage, lilies, iris, rue, gladiolus, roses, fenugreek, fennel, cumin etc. [ ……. ] What is significant is the survival of this ‘knowledge’ in seasonal culinary practices, among Greeks, Italians, Catalans, in a tradition unsupported by literacy. The ‘knowledge’ is handed down, chiefly from mother to child, while stooping to gather the plants. (Fallow deer behave in the same way, the mother showing the fawn which plants to eat.) The question now is – without Greek village ladies, Etruscan Dirce,and little girls like Eugenia, how are people to begin to recognize and identify plants? The answer is, I suppose, to consult good books on the subject, although this will be a slower and more uncertain method than those described above. One book to consult is Roger Phillips’ Wild Food. In it you will find a warning. The subject – edible weeds – has aroused an interest just when its pursuit is threatened by the use of pesticides and weed-killers. One has now to acquire an acute awareness in any locality of the use of chemicals. In the Salento the user of these commodities hangs up a bottle or tin from a tree at the entrance to his terrain as a warning sign.

But there is another problem: in Britain, for example, certain wild plants are ‘protected’, and one must know which they are. Ignorance of the law can lead to heavy penalties.

So, quite apart from the ability to discern the edible plants, and awareness of their seasonal apparition, exact knowledge on two counts is required – the Law and the application of pesticides.

It is unfortunate that many modern plant books, relying on colour photographs, ignore the nature of the roots of plants, often vital to the identification of edible weeds by amateurs. The entire plant is to be considered, not just its visible parts.

Nor are botanists particularly interested in edible properties of plants today, with a very lively exception in Geoffrey Grigson (The Englishman’s Flora). His considered opinion of particular edible English weeds, even when prepared by a Queen of Cooks, is not always encouraging.

Patience Gray – “Honey From a Weed

This long section from “Honey From a Weed” is taken from the chapter on edible weeds. Just by way of explanation, Patience Gray was a contemporary of Elizabeth David (I don’t think they cared for one another very much) but each followed very different lives, as did Jane Grigson whose husband Geoffrey is referenced at the end of the quoted section. Very different though they are, for me they are the Holy Trinity of mid 20th century food writers. Between them they did so much more than give me some favourite recipes, because they articulated the foundational truth that cooking is a cultural activity. It’s rooted in the everyday lives of human beings who live in vastly different settings. When I open Patience Gray I can smell the wild oregano and hear Puglian olive trees as their leaves rustle in the hot sun. Patience Gray gave me one of our favourite courgette recipes – Zucchini al forno – but also taught us about human lives, lived out of difficult unforgiving soil and embracing both fasting and feasting. Lives full of seasonal rhythms and texture which led to a book stuffed with insight. I’d urge you to get a copy and embrace it, because I know that if we carry on in the crazy way we’re going and when the climate suddenly switches into something far less temperate – then we’re going to have to live very different lives.

Anyway, this merry thought came to mind as we were watering the allotment early in the morning, trying to beat the suffocating heat. Just recently I’ve spent a lot of time looking at little white numbers, rather like the picture at the top. Many of them are known as Crucifers because they have four petals, symmetrically arranged in a cross shape. Easy peasy. However if you count the petals on the flowers in the photo at the top they all have five petals, which means they’re something else. I had a little chew – don’t try this if you’re not familiar with a plant, but it was pretty sweet and salad-like. It’s Corn Salad, also known as Lamb’s Lettuce probably self seeded from a neighbour’s allotment. But regardless of whether it came via a seed packet or a stray wild seed, it brought Patience Gray immediately to mind. She was a great one for the spring purgative of wild weeds to clear the blood.

To return to a theme that’s been occupying my mind recently, it seems completely random to divide plants into binary groups; edible/inedible, food plant/ medicinal herb. We are both fed and healed by the food we eat, if we choose wisely; and as Gray points out, that leaves the onus on us to choose wisely.

In the kingdom of the blind

So with these thoughts in mind, I set off on a Bath Nats field trip yesterday and found myself being the only person with a modicum of botanical knowledge. Normally I coast along at the back, content to leave the ID’s to a real expert; but in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king and so it fell to me to rummage around in my disorderly memory to try to assist the other members with even less experience than me. I think I blagged my way through it pretty well simply because nearly all the plants that came my way were ones I’d recently struggled with and identified; and I have to say it was terrific fun – I really enjoyed it.

The walk took us in a long four and a bit miles loop around the village of Newton St Loe, which is pretty much owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and shared between several farms, a stunningly beautiful village and one of the Bath Spa University campuses that contains a couple of fishing lakes. The wildlife was, as you might imagine, very rich and varied – lots of birds, insects, dragonflies and the kind of plants you expect to find in mixed woodland and open grassland. The species list will emerge in due course, I’m sure, but I wanted to focus on just two fields which we passed through as we climbed towards the Wilmington Ridge with spectacular views across some archetypal countryside. The first field had a mixed crop of field peas and barley that really threw me, because when I first looked at it I thought it was a complete mess. However a bit of research when I got home, suggests that we’re going to see more and more of this kind of crop as landowners turn to regenerative farming. The peas are grown to augment the protein content of the conventional grain and as a substitute for imported soybeans. Being legumes, the peas also fix nitrogen in the soil and store carbon – so it’s a win win. Obviously there’s a question to be addressed about growing these mixtures to fatten cattle but this is a relatively small mixed organic farm doing its best to adapt to climate change. I’m sure George Monobiome wouldn’t approve but I’m not clear he approves of anything these days (except forests and nuclear power stations ????)

The other field showed a long term result of increasingly intensive cereal farming. A crop of wheat was completely infested with Black Grass – Slender Foxtail, Alopecurus myosuroides. This is a weed of arable crops that has become a massive problem for farmers because it’s easily infected by ergot fungus which it passes on to the host crop – possibly even making it unsaleable. The refined extract of Ergot, Ergotamine, is used by midwives to induce labour. In historical times when it infected rye, it caused a disease known as St Anthony’s Fire which killed around a million people at the end of the first millennium and caused immense suffering through boils and hallucinations. This is not a road you want to go down! This didn’t used to be a problem when crops were mostly spring sown, but these days cereals are sown earlier and earlier in the autumn; germinating at exactly the same time as Black Grass. This challenge converged with another one – the overuse of chemical herbicides – and the Black Grass began to develop immunity to almost all the herbicides that had been used to keep it under control. A small problem suddenly became a really big one. The good news (if there’s any good news in this sorry tale of industrialisation) is that farmers are now having to cope with astronomical rises in the costs of diesel fuel, nitrogen fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, and so, suddenly the organic, regenerative and – dare I say – traditional mixed farming skills are getting a lot of attention.

So to go back to Patience Gray, we’ve fallen for the great lie that we can have feasting, feasting and more feasting if we follow the path of industrialisation. There’s nothing preventing us from moving towards a far more sustainable future so long as we can accept that every day can’t be Christmas Day without destroying the earth. There can be no more feasting unless we accept that a full and sustainable life has to embrace fasting as well.

Taking a step backwards to go forwards – and another new visitor to the allotment.

Madame hard at work

Ernest Hemingway wrote a letter to his daughter in which he said something to the effect that the only point of an education is to recognize bullshit! I very much agree with that, and over the past few years my own bullshit detector has almost worn out under the onslaught of vintage crap. I want to scream when politicians claim that they are following the evidence – when it’s evidence that they only just finished dreaming up on the back of an envelope. Science, of course, is supposed to be free of those kinds of bias – except it’s not. Too much science is bought and paid for, or suppressed by huge conglomerate industries who want you to believe that there’s nothing new or troubling about having glyphosate in your urine.

Of course it’s always been a bit like this. An old friend – a scientist with a mission to debunk dodgy claims – once showed me the catalogue of a local supplier of herbal remedies. It was full of testimonials to the fact that after only two days the correspondent had coughed, passed or otherwise voided tumours of considerable size and been returned to perfect health. Herbal medicine has always suffered from charlatans who prey on the desperate – which is a shame because in genuinely scientific trials, thousands of herbal remedies have been shown to have some merit. Drug companies have played a dirty double game making vast fortunes by identifying and synthesizing useful components of herbal medicine whilst lobbying to make sure that small scale herbalism is hamstrung by regulations preventing any claims of efficacy.

Madame and I have been reading the same book – “A Midwife’s Tale” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, which unravels the 27 years covered in the diary of Martha Ballard; an American midwife and local healer. For her, the plants she harvested in the neighbourhood and those she bought from the local doctor were the mainstay of her work, and although sometimes it takes a little research into local names, many of them find a place in Culpeper’s Herbal. What’s fascinating is the way that over the period the Harvard trained – therefore male – doctors began to dominate and push the women to one side.

Reading some of the entries you quickly realize that Martha Ballard’s herbal treatments didn’t – weren’t intended – to cure the multitude of injuries and illnesses that presented themselves, but to relieve symptoms; to bring comfort and some hope where there was none. This kindly battle against ordinary everyday suffering took place in a society without the means to heal many of the diseases modern medicine has almost vanquished. The drift into scientific medicine has immeasurably improved our life expectancy, but not without the loss of a huge resource to deal with the everyday complaints.

I was so intrigued by the diary that I began to think about the Potwell Inn allotment. Over the years we’ve planted a few things that we were aware have some healing properties. We make Calendula ointment every year, for instance because it’s tremendously useful for minor skin problems and costs a fortune to buy. The upshot was that I had a quick search through a modern translation of Culpeper edited by Steven Foster and discovered that we presently have forty two plants, mentioned and used by Culpeper, growing on the allotment – and it’s only 150 square metres. There are at least twenty more growing on the whole site, and I could find another twenty or thirty growing in the immediate vicinity – up and down the river and the canal. The canal is an especially useful resource because the narrowboat community would have sown patches of useful herbs along the length of their route to London. Essentially, these aren’t rare plants at all, but they’re potentially very useful – if not miracle cures – for the everyday ills we all know.

Fennel

I’d argue that the loss of the traditional knowledge of these remedies is a factor in the overloading and breakdown of the primary care system. The doctors won the monopoly to treat all our ills, but now that the funding has shrunk, they’re completely overwhelmed – often by precisely the kind of ordinary and non life-threatening problems the old remedies were best at dealing with.

The other point worth mentioning is that the list of useful plants on the allotment seems to sit somewhere in the middle between food and medicine. I suppose it’s blindingly obvious, but the distinction between the two categories is entirely arbitrary. Eating well keeps us well – is that so hard to understand? Let’s be clear, I’m not suggesting for a moment that we all become amateur herbalists, but that knowing that a plantain leaf is even better than a dock leaf for soothing nettle stings is one to pass on to the children, and the commercial herbal remedy we use for coughs is more effective and less dangerous than some of the heavily advertised alternatives. There are dozens of potentially effective remedies for minor ailments that would help to keep us out of the doctor’s waiting room – that’s if you can find one anyway!

So that’s a third arm to my argument in favour of gardening – it keeps us fed, it keeps us fit and healthy and it keeps us mindful. Someone should write a book about it – maybe it’s me?

Anyway the excellent news is that we now have a common frog living in the little pond. Here’s a photo – we think it’s beautiful.

Moving up from “What is it?” to “What sort of ‘what’ is it?”

Burdock – but is it Greater or Lesser? – Taken on the Panasonic Lumix + Leica macro lens

Coming back from the Two Valleys walk I wrote about on Monday, the new edition of Concise Flora of the British Isles by Clive Stace, was in the post box. I ordered it ages ago but publication day must have slipped a bit. The full edition of Stace 4 weighs in at two and a half pounds and this concise edition is both smaller and lighter at just over one pound. Neither edition has either photographs or paintings apart from some severely technical illustrations which, as you learn to use them, are incredibly helpful.

Stace 4 is a kind of botanists’ bible; the final arbiter on the current state of plant ID in the British Isles, and its austerity is something of a challenge. In a sense, you need to know quite a lot about the plant you’re looking at before you turn to Stace – as someone jokingly remarked, plant keys are only any use when you already know the answer. However, as time goes on, most amateurs like me move beyond Buttercups, Dandelions and Daisies to ask “which buttercup?” – there are around ten lookalikes; and don’t even ask about Dandelions. The gleeful pursuit of a better answer is always the ultimate aim, and once you’re bitten you can turn into the annoying child who exhausts you with an ever regressing set of “why” questions. In Stace, the answer is always couched in quite technical language for good reasons, because any ambiguity in a plant description is likely to lead to a poor ID. Consequently there’s no alternative but to learn the technical language. Luckily I’m the sort of weirdo who positively loves to know the difference between proximal and distal, and is ever willing to describe a trowel as being perfectly trullate.

Stace 4 is too back breakingly heavy to cart around in a bag, not least because I’m not completely weaned off the pictorial plant guides and so I would need to carry around two books rather than one. I still need the security of a set of stabilizer wheels on the botanical bike. “One day” I think to myself, “I’ll step out with just the “Concise Flora”. The book goes to bed with me and I study one plant at a time in the hope that something at least will stick to the empty cavity of my mind, and that one day I’ll be able to engage in learned discussions with all the other propellerheads on a field trip. I’m obviously a very needy person!

Anyway, enough of that flowery stuff. I’ve been mulling over the relative merits of my Pixel 5 phone camera against the Panasonic Lumix + Leica macro lens. This ought to be a no-brainer since obviously the Lumix with a fast, purpose built macro lens is going to be better. The downside is that you have to lug it around and make on the spot notes of the location and ID, not to mention negotiating the plethora of decisions about shutter speed, aperture and ISO. The ultimate downside is the shot that demands a tripod and even additional lighting. The only way to decide is to ask “what’s the ultimate aim here?

If the aim is a perfectly exposed image of gallery quality then the camera wins every time. But as a notebook, to record a plant for future reference or identification it’s hard to beat the phone camera. Control over the shutter speed really helps when you’re photographing a plant that’s waving in the wind, or tracking a butterfly and being able to exploit the macro lens capacity for creating a bokeh effect, blurring out the background and foregrounding the central image, makes for a great close-up. So I guess the answer to my question is both.

Further evidence that the wildflowers on the allotment are really working to attract visitors came with finding a Marbled White butterfly inside the polytunnel yesterday. We also noticed what is probably a Frog Spider setting up its stall on the flower of one of the Achilleas near the pond.

It’s hard to overstate the pleasure that these visitors give us. While I was watering early this morning I realized that probably half our energy now is going into feeding them. That said, the smell of beetroot wafting through the flat as it steams in a pressure cooker is a reminder that the peas, raspberries and beets we picked today are both fresher and far tastier than anything we could buy. Sometimes it seems a sin to cook them at all – who doesn’t pick peas or beans and eat them greedily on the spot? I know that I have some readers with a somewhat unhealthy interest in Borlotti beans, judging by the number of hits those posts attract, and so I’m putting up a photo of some Borlotti in full sensuous bloom. Please use them wisely!

Aside from that, everything’s going full throttle on the Potwell Inn Allotment. This is one of those times in the season when we’re being driven by the plants. The Bindweed (we have to contend with two Bindweed species and last week I identified a third on the walk), – so the Bindweed is ramping through everything. We tear it off as near to the ground as we can and then it dies back and its skeletal remains reproach us until next year. There are also photos of the peppers, runner (string) beans, tomatoes and melons. Here in the UK we’re preparing for a heatwave; further evidence of the approaching climate disaster. With the government in chaos the siren voices of the dirty fuel lobby are rubbing their hands at the thought of yet more easy profits with no coherent opposition.

Big Deal – Small Skipper

I hate the term nectaring, mostly because it’s an in-house term that distances the experts from (the) hoi polloi, and so I’ll say that this Small Skipper was feeding on one of the the Potwell Inn Lavender bushes and it was a delight to see it there. One of the claims of gardening in the way that we do is that by planting flowers to attract pollinators, they will just turn up in their thousands. That’s the theory and it’s always good to accrue some evidence. The photo, by the way, was just taken on my phone – a Pixel 5. The phone has become a marvellous tool for natural history, but insects and especially bees and butterflies pick up the least movement. Flies, with their big compound eyes, have almost no blind spots and are able to scarper even before your shadow falls on them. This, then, was a lucky shot.

The perfect way to observe and record very small creatures and plants without frightening them off comes down to a choice between a heavy long focus camera or a pair of binoculars that can focus at close range. I first saw such a pair being used to scout for liverworts on a wall on a Bath Nats walk. Later I saw them being used to scan the ground for interesting lichens. On Wednesday, maybe three years after first seeing them, we went on another event searching for medicinal herbs in Friary Woods near Bath and I spent much of my time talking to a lovely bloke who was an expert on all things insect. We had a County Botanical Recorder leading the walk and a keen birdwatcher with us as well, and so it was an opportunity for some serious learning to happen. By the end of the walk I’d resolved to get a pair of these binoculars for Madame.

It’s not difficult to feel completely intimidated by experts. I never leave home for one of these field trips without being filled with trepidation, and yet as time’s gone on I’ve realized that very few of them are professionally qualified – we’re all mostly self-taught – and I’ve yet to meet an expert (a real one that is), that isn’t willing and usually eager to share their knowledge. If you’ve ever felt too shy to join a group and go on a natural history walk, I’d urge you to give it a try. It’s dangerously addictive! So much so that that Professor Insects and me had a great laugh over one of his friends asking his wife – “has he always been like this?”

Another conversation ranged around the odd name of the Nipplewort. To me at least the flower looks nothing like a human nipple, but rather resembles the grease nipple on an old machine like a steam engine. One of the women on the walk asked me if I was also a steam enthusiast. I’m not really, but I do get very emotional around steam trains so perhaps I’ve yet to engage with that one. Anyway she told me that she’d been dragged around every engine shed in Scotland by her dad who was obsessed with steam and so she knew immediately what I was talking about. Nipple isn’t a word that gets used much in natural history.

So the photo of the Small Skipper at the top of this piece isn’t really where the rubber hits the road when it comes to field botany. The really exciting photos for me were these:

I found this plant while I was scouting around in a patch of rough woodland field edge and I thought I recognised it. I didn’t even manage to get the little clip-on macro lens straight on my phone on the left hand picture. “It’s Rough Chervil” I thought, even though I knew in the back of my mind that wasn’t right. So I trotted up to the Recorder with my trophy and asked her. “It’s Upright Hedge Parsley” she said – without a second glance. “But why?” my mind silently grumbled even as I was thrilled by actually finding one of them after looking – in a more or less blind way – for several years. “Torilis japonica” – what more poetic name could there be? So there’s the learning point; not getting it right but getting it wrong in the company of someone who knew what she was talking about.

Rough Chervil

I went back to the picture library on my phone where I had a photo of Rough Chervil that had been verified by the East Cornwall Recorder in May. It’s a tiny difference but you’ll notice that the stem joint is slightly swollen in the Chervil whereas in the Hedge Parsley it isn’t. I should say that I was only able to do this because I stuck to my guns and I’ve been laboriously working through all my photos and tagging them properly. Have your eyes glazed over yet? Anyway, joy of joys, not an hour later I found some Rough Chervil and successfully identified it properly. With field botany making a mistake in the right company can get you a two-for-one offer. The plants of the Carrot family – the Apiaceae, or Umbellifers can be very confusing because they can occasionally only be identified by examining a ripe seed with a magnifying glass; but by the end of the walk we’d found Wild Angelica and Fools Parsley too.

So far as finding remnants of a 13th century friary medicinal herb garden goes, we didn’t find anything that couldn’t be found in a dozen other places with no religious associations, but that simply demonstrates how widespread herbal medicine was, even up until the early 20th century. Coincidentally, Madame has been reading “A Midwife’s Tale” the diaries of Martha Ballard, an 18th century American midwife and healer; reading me great chunks of it to whet my appetite. I’ve got half a dozen herbals and what strikes me as I read Gerard or Culpeper is not so much the complexity of herbal medicine as the limited range of complaints it was able to address. 18th century suffering is familiar to all of us; toothaches, boils, broken bones and rheumatic complaints, “womens courses” gets mentioned a lot as do many of the complaints now controlled by antibiotics. The biggest worry is that would-be practitioners and foragers too, really need a solid background in botany unless they want to risk muddling two superficially similar plants with potentially fatal consequences; and I can vouch for the fact that it’s a steep hill to climb.

Where’s Wally?

No – this is a wildflower meadow! (with apologies to Crocodile Dundee)

Below this, at the bottom there are three photos of orchids we found today at Whitefield and one of them is in the wider view above. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, as we approach the summer solstice we’re often awake really early, and so we do as much as we can on the allotment before breakfast and the we have the rest of the day to walk and look for wildflowers. We had spotted the Pyramidal Orchids and another one that I misidentified as Early Purple – they were Common Spotted – for which correction I’m indebted to an impulse buy on Monday when I saw the Wild Guide to orchids and decided I couldn’t live without it. It’s a brilliant guide and it’s already slapped me on the wrist a couple of times. So with those two species under our belts we went back today to see if we could find a third Orchid that we knew was there but which we’d never found. Thanks to the book I now know that they don’t flower every year which may help to explain why we haven’t found it until today. So as Madame scanned the field with binoculars and I looked at the path edges she gave a whoop and pointed to a group of Bee Orchids. Three Orchid species in a field within 100 metres of one another makes for a good morning’s plant hunting; and that’s apart from the multitude of other goodies. So without further ado .. from left to right the Pyramidal Orchid, the Bee Orchid, and the common Spotted Orchid. But which one is it in the picture at the top? Go find!

If the Potwell Inn had a field it would look like this.

Sadly our backyard is shared with twenty cars. For many decades it was a builders yard and then when the block was built it was levelled and covered in tarmac but – never maintained – it now sustains a small community of absolute diehard plants who make a scant living on the thin accumulated dirt. They change from time to time, and even move around – one patch of slime mould has retreated down the concrete steps and taken up residence next to a clump of Herb Robert which can live on fresh air it seems. You might curl your lip at a blob of gelatinous olive green goo; but I’ve seen reports that it’s capable of being extremely purposeful and has some efficiency at negotiating mazes.

I did once make a list of species and it was in the high twenties; but it seems to change every year. This year we’ve got a splendid collection of Great Lettuce along with its cousin Wall Lettuce. They won’t win any beauty prizes but they’re brilliant for practicing your botanical skills because getting a proper ID demands a good deal of close attention to detail.

The smaller cousin, Wall Lettuce, is doing exactly what it says on the tin and is growing in a narrow crack between the ground and the wall.

However, none of this is going to stimulate much more than a forensic interest in an urban specialist. The fact is – even to my friendly eye – they look a lot like weeds. The only wonder is in the fact that these ugly sisters are related to the lettuces we grow on the allotment. In fact the Latin name of the Great Lettuce –Lactuca Virosa – suggests some kind of toxic properties – maybe they’re soporific? who knows. That’s an experiment I’ll leave to someone else.

Anyway, the real excitement this week came from a visit to Dyrham Park’s White Field – in the photograph at the top. Untouched by modern agrichemicals or ploughing it’s the kind of wildflower meadow that once existed almost everywhere. It was our first visit for three years after Covid rampaged across the country. The field is cut for hay at the end of the month – I bet it smells heavenly – and if I use the word awesome I mean it precisely in a way that trespasses into the territory of the spiritual. Our main target was the Bee Orchid, but sadly we didn’t find any. However within fifty yards of walking into the field we found Early Purple and Pyramidal Orchids – they were everywhere. I’ll put some photos below this – I’ve been avoiding using Latin names because Madame reproached me for rehearsing them as we walked through the dense flowers. I love the English plant names for their poetry and history but I’m afraid Latin is the way to go if you’re trying to ID something. I’ve got a book on English plant names by Geoffrey Grigson and when you look at the number of plants that share the same English name you soon realize that wildflower lovers from two adjoining counties might use the same name for totally different plants.

So among the plants we soon noticed was one known in English as Jack go to bed at noon, or Goatbeard. Huge downy heads resembling Dandelions but filmier and even more lovely. Down in the hands and knees zone were Yellow Rattle and Common Broomrape; Purple and White Clovers, Birdsfoot and all the usual suspects. Towering above were drifts of Smooth Hawksbeard and Oxeye Daisies with the seedheads of Ribwort Plantain, Sheep’s Sorrel and Cocksfoot grass. It was a joy to see them bending in waves against the strong wind which was limiting the activities of butterflies. You can often find Marbled Whites there. It’s a shame that despite the nearby car park being almost full, we were completely alone except for a solitary dog walker. It seems that most nature lovers prefer their wildlife mindfulness moments on the telly. Anyway; the photographs convey – to me at least – far more than any words could do.

Mint Moth joins the list of allotment visitors

Mint Moth

Having posted about a proper regional rarity yesterday I should say the Potwell Inn is positively promiscuous in welcoming allcomers to feed on our allotment. Immediately next to this moth, the Iris Sawfly caterpillars were getting on with eating our pond iris leaves. I’m pretty sure there are predators that can grab a meal from them. Even slugs and snails are allowed on unless they make too much of a nuisance of themselves when Madame snips them in half with the gardening scissors – returning them to the pathways and beds for the birds. I’m wholly unqualified to identify all the many species that come to us but I can feel a list coming on with the help of the Bath Naturewatch group who usually get an insect ID back in minutes. It’s amazing what you can spot during a bit of close-up hand weeding. We’re not the Chelsea Flower Show here – it’s free admission to anyone apart from the two legged grazers who shamelessly nick our produce without noticing the trailcam. Our biggest visitors are the badgers and foxes and the smallest ….. well, we’ve never seen them.

The Blackbirds are almost on the permanent staff because they keep all the path edges clear of molluscs and their eggs, and who would begrudge the Robins a worm or three? Our philosophy is to discourage pests with nets of anything from 1mm mesh against carrot fly, up to larger netting to keep the pigeons and the white butterflies off the brassicas. It’s a live and let live philosophy that sees pests, diseases and weeds as an important part of the big picture because they often signal a problem that needs attending to.

Gardening this way is like a long seasonal conversation between equals. We greet one another, say thanks when thanks are required and please when we’re harvesting or we’re not sure we’re on the right track; and so the fruits of our labours aren’t just fruit and vegetables, but insights into the way the earth works – and if that sounds like hippy dippy nonsense – well don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it!

The colour comes from a dark form of Elder

This is the beginning of the season of plenty but it’s also very hard work. We overheard another allotmenteer a couple of days ago, lamenting the fact that her crops had all but disappeared under the weeds, and from predation. They’d obviously received a notice from the Council and she complained bitterly “It was fine when we left it” . That would be at the end of last year’s school holidays in September. But with fresh Basil on demand, strawberries and Asparagus almost over and potatoes just weeks away it feels good to be alive – even though our backs ache. A year’s supply of ruby coloured elderflower cordial is standing on the kitchen table, labeled and sealed.

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