Back home we were left counting sheep

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I don’t think we’ve ever had a nicer drive back from Lleyn than yesterday.  The full sun gave the mountains an extra degree of grandeur, and some we’d only guessed the names of previously made themselves known at last by their crystal clear outlines. A couple of days ago I wrote about the way local people sometimes refer to the land beyond Porthmadog as ‘the mainland’ and yesterday it was easy to see why.  The whole horizon to the east, the north and the south was taken up by mountains, and the only way into mid Wales was either over them or around the coastal edges, and that made it clear why there are so many tiny abandoned coves and ports around the coast – the sea was the only viable way of moving goods in and out of the area. Out went the spoils of quarrying and mining and in came anything that coudn’t be grown or produced locally.

I also had am interesting conversation with the man who delivered bottled gas to the cottage as we left. I had totally forgotten that like most people on Lleyn his first language was Welsh, and so as we were chatting I asked him how the farmers were doing and what the crops had been like this year.  I could sense a pause in the conversation and I assumed it must have been because he didn’t have an ear for my speech, but fully a minute later he answered my question completely – it had been a good year all round for grain, straw and hay.  The awkwardness had come as we talked about nothing in particular while he translated my English question into Welsh and his answer back into English. Later in the day I read in the newspaper that Welsh speaking patients in hospitals are greatly inconvenienced and even endangered when the doctors only communicate in English.

I also noticed the Welsh slogan Cofiwch Dryweryn (remember Tryweryn – a village flooded to build a dam) painted on walls in a couple of places  – one at the end of the lane leading down to the cottage. RS Thomas would have approved, but I was surprised to see the old slogan being wheeled out again in support of the justifiable feeling of being left behind. The language is making slow progress, but the whole culture is under economic attack as never before.

Back home in six hours including a couple of breaks (it’s 240 miles across three mountain ranges)  we unpacked, filled the washing machine and went straight up to the allotment where we discovered that our two toughened glass cloches had been dismantled and stolen while we were away. No-one seemed to know anything, but whoever stole them must have been there for at least 3 or 4 hours because it took me twice that time to assemble them.  They cost us £250 and they were an integral part of our plant raising in the spring, but we can’t afford to replace them. Needless to say we were upset at this invasion of our quiet lives and neither of us slept well, but entertaining thoughts of bloody revenge is a great waste of energy and desperately bad for the soul. I can’t think of a single religious philosophy that doesn’t see thieving as as destructive of the thief as it is distressing for the victim. We’ve had stuff stolen before  – it’s a fact of life on allotments – and it would be nice to think that fellow allotmenteers would refuse to buy our cloches as a knockdown price unless their provenance could be proved, but it always takes two to tango and without honest upstanding customers prepared to look the other way, thieves would be out of business in a week.

At the end of a sleepless night, by which time it was almost dawn, we decided that the empty foundations could be extended upwards to make a new and much larger hotbed – another job for the early winter. It’s a fabulous source of re-energised soil for the rest of the plot, and it grows crops even earlier than coldframes with the bonus that stealing two tons of hot horse crap is much harder than unscrewing aluminium bolts.

We have two other categories of allotment nuisance in addition to outright thieves. There are the browsers who wander around indiscriminately plucking a strawberry here or an apple there.  Then there are the grazers who will take a vine load of grapes, or a tree load of figs – we know who you are Mr Jaguar driver! One of our jobs this winter is to remove the vulnerable vine which is massively productive of inferior grapes, and replace it with something else a bit more useful to us.

But notwithstanding the upset, we carried home another twenty pounds of ripened tomatoes for preserving, with at least as many again left.  The wisdom of growing the more expensive but blight resistant F1 hybrids has been demonstrated for a third successive season.

Dealing constructively with loss is a fact of life for gardeners and allotmenteers, but I first learned the lesson when I was making pots.  If I say I like watercolour painting, rapid drawing, and making raku and saltglaze, you’ll see that I’m completely energised by the risk and uncertainty of these media.  There’s no second chance and no going back. The first time I realized I was going to have to learn a new life-skill was one day at art school when I opened a saltglaze kiln containing two months work which I had overfired so much that the entire contents were fused together and had to be removed with a sledgehammer. It took a couple of days to get my head around it but I got there. It’s a skill I’ve had to use a lot.

 

Muckyannydinny Lane

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Muckyannydinny Lane was the name we used, as children, for a narrow, wet, rubbish filled and overgrown short cut from “The Lane” to halfway down Seymour Road. It was such an uninspiring dump that, so far as I know, no-one ever actually used it except couples who in those far off days needed somewhere out of sight to consummate their relationships. Consequently it became imbued with an almost erotic overtone for me as a child – which may or may not explain a great deal!

Moving rapidly on, I think it’s time to remind everyone that the Potwell Inn is not a real place but a fictional creation of H G Wells whose leading character Alfred Polly had more influence on me growing up than a whole garrison of teachers freshly returned from the 2nd World War, many of them suffering from the same sorts of depressions and mental disturbances that afflicted my Dad. Mr Polly, in the course of the novel, burns down half the town in which he lives unhappily, by setting fire to his stairs while attempting to commit suicide. He becomes an inadvertent hero by rescuing a trapped elderly lady and in the ensuing chaos slips away to search for something better – which turns out to be the Potwell Inn where he only has to get rid of the psychopathic Uncle Jim in order to find his paradise.  Uncle Jim, being vanquished in an act of bungled heroism quite as daft as the suicide bid, washes up dead some time later wearing Polly’s jacket, therefore allowing the hero to be declared dead and consequently free to pursue an idyllic life with the plump landlady of the establishment.  So not quite the story of my life but tremendously resonant for a teenager living in a house haunted by PTSD, falling for Madame who, though she was as slender as a whippet had plenty of  crap to leave behind as well.

So after those two oxbows and the confluence of  several small streams in the great journey of life, I want to say that yesterday was something of a disappointment. “What you want and what you’ll get is two different things” my Granny (who could start a fight in an empty room) would often say.  I was missing the campervan, missing the coastal path walks, missing the botanising and feeling mightily grumpy about it.  Madame, noticing the dark cloud moored over my head, suggested a walk up to Prior Park to look at the plants. Absolute bomber direct hit! that was exactly what I needed to do.  And so all fired up I downloaded a new plant recording app for the phone, packed pocket magnifier, notebook, copy of Rose and even a six inch steel ruler and we set out.

Setting out involved passing the astroturfed bankside, but I did notice one or two dodgy looking plants that might have stepped right over from Muckyannydinny Lane.  Prior Park has become a bit of a building site because they’re repairing one of the dams that’s been tunnelled into by marauding Signal Crayfish. The new app refused to work and after my third attempt to log in I had a huffy message to say I’d been barred and needed to email the management. The Cafe was shut, and there were nothing but weeds and Cabbage Whites to look at and so we turned back and walked home again.

As we walked back with my dudgeon level set to nine, I began to think a bit more rationally about what was going on. Not all of the plants along the bankside were Bohemian interlopers.  There were some that looked like – well, proper weeds which had emerged from the builders rubble and the subsoil, briefly resurrected from their tarmac tombs. There’s a certain muscularity about these plants.  Nature abhors a vacuum almost as much as it abhors architects’ fancy wildflower mix, and the bankside has become a grudge match between the flowers introduced for their attractive colours, and the native weeds. Milwall versus the local croquet club. Guess which was winning?

IMG_5883And so a new project began to form in my mind.  Obviously I’d really love to spend my life in places of outstanding wildness and beauty, recording stunningly lovely and rare orchids.  However I actually live right next to the Bath to Bristol Cyclepath which is much loved by commuters on foot, runners, lycra louts on their handbuilt racing bikes, drunks, homeless people and drug dealers who rather appreciate the opportunity of a swift exit if the police arrive. That’s why all our local dealers ride bikes, because they’re over the river and away before the police can do a thirteen point turn and chase them. The litter bins have proved particularly useful for hiding stashes of drugs by taping them up under the lid, like a kind of unofficial click and collect service.

The path is a unique environment all of its own.  There’s the river bank on one side, parks, houses and factory buildings on the other.  It’s much altered and constantly dug up for building work and it enjoys heavy traffic most of the day. If dogs’ turds and discarded cans and bottles contribute any nourishment it must be highly fertile.  Graffiti add a certain edginess to the flat surfaces, but in real life, notwithstanding the fact that the Council like to boast about it as a great achievment for the environmentalists, it’s a frog and no amount of kissing is going to make it into a prince.

But it’s my frog and I like it. This morning I was up at the crack of ten o’clock to take some photos.  I’ve already ID’d three native plants I’ve never seen before and I can feel a big list coming on. Prickly Lettuce and Weld are hardly going to draw in the twitchers, but as I’ve said so often – if you don’t know that it’s there you won’t know when it’s gone. One day, I hope, the Natural History of Muckyannydinny Lane will stand with Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. Meanwhile a few photos to whet the appetite.

Friend or foe on the broad beans?

P1080750Absolutely no certainty about this 2mm critter on our broad beans, but we discovered there were quite a large number of them when Madame added another tier of twine to support the beans during Storm Hannah which is forecast to pass by tonight. I decided to take it home to photograph and while I was setting up the macro lens and focusing, a flea beetle jumped on to my hand. We’d already seen their work elsewhere on the allotment, cutting neat scallops in the leaves; so neat, in fact, that you might imagine scalloped leaves were part of the design.  So bug-hunting is beginning in earnest and this one is a puzzle since I have a great deal to be modest about in the entymology department.  Is it a cluster of eggs? we wondered. Now I really need that dissecting microscope! If you look closely at the east, northeast side of the photo you’ll see a stumpy brown protuberence and so the next guess was that it’s the hatching of the pupal stage of …… something. We’ve scoured the horticultural pest books and searched the internet too,  but nothing quite fitted.  We hazarded a guess at a big hatch of ladybird eggs, encouraged by the recent warm weather. There were also a number of ants on the plants, and ants have a remarkable relationship with blackfly (bean aphids) so best case scenario is that when the population of aphids explodes fairly soon there will be hordes of ravenous ladybird larvae waiting to take advantage of them. However when I attempted to dissect it with a scalpel and my 15X magnifier I could just about make out a number of apparently empty, hollow chambers.  I finished up not being convinced that it wasn’t some sort of multi-celled seed head.  So  I’ll just wait to see if there are any proper naturalists out there who’ll put me right – just for interest’s sake – we won’t be drenching the plants with neonicotinoids. Ever.

But whilst on the subject of insects I caught the trailer for the BBC Radio 4 programme “More or Less’  and so I dutifully tuned in only to listen to Tim Harford presenting a very poor counter-argument to the recent metastudy that identified a dramatic fall in insect populations and diversity. In essence he was arguing that bcause the metastudy only drew on research from a limited number of largely industrialised western countries, it was somehow rendered unreliable. How they must have cheered at Monsanto and Bayer! It sounded very like the arguments used by the tobacco companies when they were found out – “more research needed”, bigger studies etc etc – anything to delay.

I wondered whether to protest to the BBC but they’re so far gone in their bizarre interpretation of “balance’ it’s a waste of time even trying.  So here are some ideas Mr Harford might like to mull over. Firstly you can’t do proper surveys of the decline in insect populations in – say – the Amazon rain forest because we haven’t even identified most of them and therefore we can make no valid statements about their decline. BUT going back to the toacco argument, if research in the UK or America showed the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer in those countries, it would be a perfectly reasonable asumption that it would also affect smokers in Africa, India and China when (as they are now encouraged to do) they took up smoking on an heroic scale.

Further (I’m only just warming up) the countries where research has been properly conducted are precisely the ones where the suspected cause of the decline, that’s to say industrial intensive farming, is most heavily practised. It would be suicidally unethical to promote industrial farming in pristine areas “just to see” if the current research is correct. How much blessed evidence do we need? Mercifully, in the light of my piece yesterday, the desperation of the agrichemical industry is becoming ever more obvious. The roots of the industry are deeply implicated in the manufacture of chemical weapons during the cold war and when that ended they needed to find something equally unethical to do.

I was only thinking yesterday of a conversation I had in 1971 with a cleaner who worked at the Art School. When I initially wrote that sentence I said “elderly cleaner” but I realized he was probably the same age as I am now. He’d begun life as a farmhand and it must have been early summer because our converation centred on hay. He had recently been watching the haymaking on a nearby farm where he had worked as a boy and he said ” when I was young we took twice as much hay off that field and it was better quality too”.  It made a deep impression on me.  I was then in my twenties and he was in his early seventies.  His boyhood would have coincided with the First World War and the very beginning of intensive farming, as a generation of young farmhands went to war – many never returning. So much for progress. Our agricultural policy has been distorted by a century of inappropriate subsidies and indusrial lobbying, and I can’t remember the last time I heard a cuckoo. The two halves of that sentence are causally linked Mr Harford!

Some housekeeping

IMG_5073I’m always on the lookout for simple ways of making this blog a bit more interactive without compromising its security, and so for the past 24 hours I’ve been beating my head against a wall of techie talk and failing to get a contact form to work. If, by any chance you used the form to contact me during any of its iterations since yesterday evening, then I’m sorry but your message is out there in limbo.

I’m aware that some readers have made comments or asked questions that aren’t specifically connected to a posting – which means they go directly to the spam filter. Given that (if I catch them in time) many of these comments have been very nice it’s a shame that I’m not able to respond, and it probably feels a bit churlish if you’ve taken the trouble to write. I can’t see any way of getting back except through public comments on the blog – which may not always be appropriate. If I just put my private email address up I’ll drown in spam – see the dilemma?

So I’ll keep trying to set up something that’s both interactive and secure for all of us, and the only way I can do that is to master a language that’s so obscure it makes the Athenasian Creed look simple. It seems that the blogosphere is a bit like the wild west – there are a lot of hucksters and snake oil sales reps out there. In answer to one of the anonymous questions, no I can’t give much help on technical issues because my usual way of dealing with them is to keep going round in circles uttering threats and curses until I finally (and accidentally) press the right button – at which point I slam down the lid and get on with the writing. Meanwhile I’ve removed the offending form so I can get on with what I really enjoy.

How about raw rhubarb in a salad?

IMG_5267There aren’t many occasions when we eat out when I don’t come home with an idea to try out. I must confess I’d never even thought of eating rhubarb raw before we were offered it in a mixed salad at the Lost Gardens of Heligan.  To be fair it was just one ingredient but it tasted pretty good – I just had no idea whether it had been prepared in some way. My first thought was that it could have been fridge pickled, but it’s already pretty sour and so I experimented this morning by chopping the rhubarb into chunks and pouring over it a boiling mixture of water, raspberry vinegar (home made) and a little salt – and then allowing it to cool completely. I tasted it and it still seemed to need a little sweetness, so I stirred in a tablespoon of undiluted rasperry vinegar. It tasted very good and would add a tart component to any mixed salad.  My guess is that it would be even better using early season forced rhubarb but this year we relocated all our plants on the allotment and so forcing was out of the question.

IMG_5268Back in the flat, the chillies, peppers and aubergines have all left the propagators and are sitting in the south facing windows waiting for the temperature outside to allow them into the cold greenhouse. They’ve been replaced by the whole second wave of tender seedlings and so this begins the period when we can’t close any of the shutters and every available inch of floor space is in use.

Up at the allotment it was mostly routine stuff – not least mending a puncture on the wheelbarrow caused by a gooseberry pruning on the path. But I love it just pottering around and doing a bit of hand weeding or hoeing.

One of our big discoveries this year has been the variety of basil varieties available  as seed.  So far we’ve tried two, and now we’ve ordered two more and maybe we’ll try another later in the season.  Allotmenteering isn’t free or even cheap and I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and say that we save money against supermarket prices. I was in Lidl today buying the cheapest possible beer for our slug traps, and I was amazed at how cheap their vegetables were. They were certainly flying off the shelves but I wondered what the human and environmental cost of production would be. On the allotment we may spend more on our veg, but we know exactly what’s gone into their production, they taste better than anything you could buy, they’re fresher than anything you could buy and we get to choose exactly the varieties we prefer. We’ll  have five mints – all quite different, and now four basils, three thymes and so it goes on. We can grow for flavour and the final bonus is the exercise and sheer joyfulness of growing things.

Tonight we ate what will probably be the last picking of our purple sprouting broccoli, but we’re still picking chard and true spinach.  This is the real beginning of the hungry gap for us, but the allotment is full of growing crops and the hotbed is giving us an abundance of salad leaves, spring onions and radishes. It won’t be very long before our container potatoes give us a small crop and the broad beans are at the point of setting pods.  We shan’t actually go hungry of course, and we’ve got loads of preserved and frozen tomato sauces so pasta dishes will probably be featuring largely, along with the frozen borlotti beans.

The Potwell Inn oven door broke a few weeks ago and we steeled ourselves for a big bill, but a local tradesman who glued our broken dishwasher back together – saving us a replacement – also mended the oven yesterday and so I can bake again.  Tonight I’ll mix the first batch of sourdough sponge. Outside the world is going to hell in a handcart.  At the weekend I watched in horror as a couple of players from the local rugby club beat a homeless man unconscious, accusing him of stealing a wallet. I called the police but the police bike was in use in Midsomer Norton so nobody was able to attend. I’m five foot seven and seventy two years old and the two players were around six foot four and in their twenties, so I thought twice about heroism. The man recovered and wandered off and they walked home without a care in the world. Another neighbour turned up and the victim  tried to blag his bus fare off her, so he probably survived.  But if I were the Bath Rugby Club manager I’d probably advise them not to wear their club training tops in future – it doesn’t quite tell the story the corporate sponsors want to convey!

Lunch at the Potwell Inn

IMG_5176And very nice it was too.  Madame and me had gone for one of those most dangerous of things – a wander around town, passing by the lovely veg stall outside M & S where prices all seem to be negotiable. “Come on” shouts the barker with a voice so loud you can hear it across town.  “Weeee-ve got rainy day reductions on fruit”……. “Weeee’ve got purple sprouting – which is what we call broccoli when it’s purple!” – You get the picture, he’s a comic with a dry sense of humour but for £10 you can fill two carrier bags with fresh veg. Six people working flat out on the stall. Our perambulation took us through several favourite shops and we arrived back at the Potwell Inn HQ with a bag of mussels, a bottle of Pecorino and a loaf of sourdough bread because I was feeling too lazy to start a loaf yesterday and anyway the oven door is falling off and creaks dreadfully when you open and close it. More expensive repairs I fear.

As for mussels, as always keep it simple.  Today I fried some finely chopped bacon before adding chopped shallots but often I leave the bacon out.  When everything is softened I chuck in a glass or perhaps two of white wine and a handful of chopped parsley with the mussels, slam the lid on and cook it hard for a couple of minutes until the mussels are all open. Voila – job done. Eat the mussels with your fingers then drink the rich stock with a slice of decent bread and finish the bottle of wine while you set the world to rights.

Today we were talking about how to join up the local with the global. It’s a constant challenge to many of us to see how our tiny efforts at the local level will ever make the kind of difference we need to head off the twin disasters of ecological degradation and climate change. Does our tiny effort at composting our kitchen waste ever amount to anything more than virtue signalling?  Does our individual refusal to use chemicals on the allotment ever make more than a nanopercentage of the thousands of tons being poured on the earth by agribusiness? And at a time when the government has its eyes firmly fixed on retaining the patronage of the few, who’ll look after the rest of us? Or – to put it another way – have all these years of campaigning and lobbying for ‘green issues’ been wasted?

Oddly enough, I think, this time of political turmoil has had some unintended consequences which could lead to real change. It’s rapidly dawning on a generation of the kind of people who might never previously have counted themselves as ‘politically active’ that they’ve been cheated, and they’re getting cross about it – I suppose I’m one of them. Let me give an example. This year you’ll know, if you’re been on board for a while,  I built a manure-fired hot bed.  It works, it’s been an education. Then the other day I discovered that some manure is contaminated with an insecticide .  Environmentalists have once again been thwarted by the use of exemptions following lobbying by the powerful agrochemical industry. The chemical is called Dimilin and it’s used to control insect infestation in intensive rearing units – themselves a morally dubious operation. And here’s the bit that got me spitting fire – it’s been listed as a food additive, even though it’s clearly a systemic insecticide. So conceivably, the manure that we allotmenteers have been applying to our precious soil, has been contaminated with a systemic insecticide which is persistent enough to pollute soil and run-off water and, worse still, my be contributing to the disastrous decline in insects. Whose brilliant idea was that? We thought that neonicotinoids had been totally banned, but it turned out that they’re  still in use for some crops. It’s also emerged that many thousands of protected wild birds have been slaughtered through the liberal use of exemptions provided by Natural England to landowners, and these weren’t all pigeons and seagulls – the linked article quotes “at least 40 species, including the skylark, blackbird, great tit, bullfinch, robin, wren, red kite, moorhen, mute swan, kestrel, peregrine falcon and golden plover.”

My question is – how many other pieces of hard fought-for environmental legislation are being quietly undermined and made mockery of by powerful interests who know how to use their financial muscle and connections?

“Think global and act local” is a good slogan, but I’m much preoccupied with the interaction between the two. Yesterday this chain of thought was provoked by a new green initiative  called Natural Climate Solutions and fronted up by George Monbiot among others. Most of the initiatives proposed there are on a large scale, not the kind of thing you can do in a single garden or allotment.  So there’s the conundrum in a nutshell – think globally because some solutions to the unfolding crisis can only be addressed at the larger political level.  But acting locally needs to be linked to it in a way that we know will make more difference than helping us to feel we’ve just done something. If we think of what kind of campaign we need to conduct, as a kind of lever that can magnify the effects of the local in order to lift a heavy load in the larger sphere, what will the fulcrum be? What could be the single cause around which sufficient people at the long end of a lever, could coalesce around an idea, a dream that would move the mountain of vested interest?

You’re not having our apple harvest – Jack Frost!

Madame was always better at interpreting weather charts than me.  I think she learned to do it at the research station, and she would bandy around phrases like “cold front” when reading the papers, which I always took as being fearfully clever, and I would have loved to discover that she was making it all up, except she wasn’t.  So now she is the official meteorologist at the Potwell Inn which means that she gets first dibs at the weather app on my phone. Anyway the salient point is that we were occupied from early in the morning with a hospital appointment which left me sedated and unable to think straight until the evening.  My insides have now been investigated from top to bottom and nothing very threatening has been found – which is an enormous relief after several months of worry.  It’s not all silver spoons and turtle soup at the Potwell Inn.

So, to return to the weather, it wasn’t until about 7.00 pm that it dawned on my last two functioning brain cells, that a severe frost was mentioned by the ghostly voice of the Potwell Inn weather forecaster in the early morning. Jumping to attention like a teenager on holiday, I said I thought we ought to go and fleece the apple trees.  And so we walked up to the allotments – I wasn’t allowed to drive for 24 hours – and wrapped every vulnerable plant and tree we could find with heavy duty fleece.  The plot looked rather like a Christo scupture, but we’ve invested so much money, not to mention time and energy, that the thought of losing the blossom to a frost was intolerable. When the consultant had said – “I’ll just pop this in and let you float off into the clouds”, he hadn’t mentioned anything about landing, and so the process of wrapping all those plants warped into a kind of slow motion movie in which I could see myself at a distance but not – in a sense – actually join in. At Madame’s request I took some rather underexposed photos that needed editing today, but that was because they were taken well after sunset. What a joy! – seriously – to be able to work in the evening at last.

And so we wandered home feeling quite sure that the plants could survive the frost, and I slept the Sleep of the Just (note capitals) dreaming about the summer and making plans.  When we woke, the park outside was white with frost and I was almost pleased to see it.  Madame is infallible. And today I bought a new satnav because the maps in our present one are so out of date we spend most of our time apparently driving across fields, then we booked some time back at the Lost Gardens of Heligan and bought a ready meal because we could.

Later we tested a batch of frozen pesto.  It was another of our experiments to spread the summer glut across the hungry gap.  It was delicous, and we’d just finished our 50 Gram pot when our youngest dropped in.  We asked him if he’d ever frozen pesto and he said -“Of course, but we make it 5 kilos at a time”. Humph!

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Who’ll march for these?

If you’ve been following every posting for months you’ll know that on 21st December 2018 I told a story I’m about to revisit because it bears on another news story today.  To be honest my original piece had very few readers.  I generally try not to get preachy  but today it was reported that in the UK pollinating insects had diminished by 25%  

There’s clearly something wrong and if you thought that the main suspects – neonicotinoids – had been completely banned in the UK you’d be mistaken. Here’s the DEFRA information from just over a year ago:

Further restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides have been approved following a vote by EU member states today.

The UK voted in favour of the proposals that will see a ban on outdoor use of three neonicotinoids – Clothianidin, Imidacloprid and Thiamethoxam.

Currently, their use is banned for oilseed rape, spring cereals and sprays for winter cereals, but they can be used to treat sugar beet, various horticultural crops and as seed treatments for winter cereals.

What the press release also goes on is to say that there are exceptional variations available …. etc etc.  So it’s good news that the use of these pesticides has been reduced but it’s simply not true that they’re completely banned. Of course the reason for the decline of wildlife in general is complex, but agricultural practices have to be a part of the problem. I spend much of my time defending farmers, and the way they’ve been squeezed between a rock and a hard place is nothing short of shameful, but there’s no prospect that the sowing of wildflower meadow mix in suburban gardens and allotments is going to reverse this decline. DEFRA admits that the value of insects as pollinators exceeds half  billion pounds a year. If the UK leaves the European Community and abolishes even these limited restrictions, many of these precious pollinators may well disappear altogether. I’ve seen maize seed treated with neonictinoids it’s bright blue and it’s so toxic you have to protect your skin from contact.

Biodiversity isn’t just an economic issue, it’s a spiritual issue, an aesthetic issue and a moral issue as well. Last night we watched the news on television with increasing dismay and we talked about The Potwell Inn and our little allotment which sometimes feel like they hold the key to the future. Should we engage or withdraw? All I know is that I can remember the exact moment I photographed each one of the beasties at the top of the page and my life would have been all the poorer without them.

So maybe we should adopt a Benedictine saying. As you enter the chapel in the monastery you read the words “To pray is to work” and when you leave the chapel to carry out your daily work – possibly in the garden –  you read  “To work is to pray”. Can’t argue with that, even if I never quite know if anyone’s listening.

Potwell Inn? – not here mate!

P1080742The owners of this car are on holiday.  We know that because after the signs went up and the heavy machinery rumbled on to the street, and after a large number of men in high viz coats, traffic wardens and council officials had conferred and made telephone calls it became clear that the car would not be moving because its owners were having the time of their lives (we hope) getting away from it all. Reality, however, cannot be got away from so easily, and so when these lucky people return from whatever beautiful and unspoiled part of the world they’ve been rendering slightly less beautiful and unspoiled, they will find their car sitting in a four inch deep patch of the way things used to be round here. Not exactly Roman Bath, but decade of austerity Bath.  There’s an election, possibly two elections coming up and so let’s say the incumbent party (no politics round here please), have promised a new police station, the police have been patrolling very visibly for weeks now, the drug dealers and their customers have been moved on somewhere else and the streets in this electorally volatile part of the city have been paved with gold – or at least tarmac. All this joy and benificence will have passed our happy holidaymakers by as they contemplate how to jack their car out of its heritage hole, being close-parked at both front and rear.

The tarmac gang were almost balletic in their team work. Big- really big – lorries were reversed down the road to discharge tons of hot tarmac into the waiting arms of the laying machine which opened its wings like a butterfly to receive the load.  All this carried out at speed and centimetre accuracy.  Road rollers, white line markers, excavators and road sweepers seemed to work like some great computerised automaton and all this choreographed heavy industry was going on in the streaming rain and wind.

Meanwhile in another corner of un-ignorable reality I took a trip to hospital to have my biennial endoscope – a procedure which I hate having and most of the nurses dislike having to do.  But plentiful sedatives, more great team work and a cup of tea later I emerged into the newly minted sunlight clutching my discharge papers with some grisly looking photos of my oesophagus but otherwise good news. They’ve given me a three year MOT.

I know, I should be describing the idyllic world of the Potwell Inn not writing about tarmac and pre-cancerous conditions but there is a point, and it’s this. Most good things are forged amidst the realities of life.  Of course I could create ……

The Potwell Inn Perfect World Experience

– but it would be a fraudulent unreal place, a place to hide in (like our holidaymakers) and pretend things had never been better. Real life with all its tenderness and, if we’re lucky, love, has to be lived in the real world with all its coughs and sneezes, brutality and greed.  I woke up absurdly early this morning, freed from anxiety about the endo and my head filled with thoughts of the allotment and a new season.

Carpe diem. We melancholics need to be a bit more like Jacob and wrestle a blessing out of the fear without a face.

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On resilience

IMG_4931No prizes for guessing that this was our local Sainsbury’s the day after the snow fell. To be fair it was a combination of equipment failure and panic buying but the same thing happens every time we get a period of severe weather.  The system collapses, people get angry and we realize that there is no slack, no resilience in it at all. I had a quick look on Google and I could see that there were people complaining everywhere – broken by the fact that they’d been forced to buy brown bread instead of white! This kind of event is almost designed into the system. Some time in the 20th century the notion of public good was set aside by the food industry in favour of profit. One kilo of asparagus is flown from Peru at the cost of 8 kilos of carbon released into the atmosphere Our passion for fresh, out of season vegetables and fruits may not (like meat production) be releasing methane into the atmosphere but it’s making up for that with all the other greenhouse gases  involved in transporting it a thousand miles overland, and even if you buy local produce, when the infrastructure collapses because it’s not properly maintained, the milk, the fresh seasonal veg and everything else that needs to be brought to market stays put and sometimes even rots in the ground.

I had a hilarious conversation with someone at the Lost Gardens of Heligan harvest meal last autumn.  He was a Cornishman, and he said he’d asked at the local Tesco if they were selling locally caught fish.  “Oh yes” he was told, “It all comes from Newlyn [about five miles away] but it has to go to the distribution depot first”. This isn’t the fault of the producers, it’s the result of a ‘designed for profit’ but completely sclerotic distribution system, designed in such a way that it has no resilience at all.  There’s nothing in storage,  and we’re only saved from serious disorder by the fact that the events that cause breakdown don’t usually last very long. Yet.

The alarming fact is that we’re not facing a number of separate  problems – climate change, ecological destruction, food security, poverty, migration, social breakdown, artificial intelligence and war.  They’re one big one!

You’d  have to be pretty old to remember this, but some of us may recall the cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue back along, as we say in the West Country.  The cover was one of the first pictures taken of  Earth from space, with the slogan “We can’t put it together, it is together” .

Here we are, all looking for ways to save the earth by eating a tub of Ben and Jerry’s vegan ice cream once a week, when what we really need to be doing is thinking in a different way altogether. When the big man in the shiny suit comes around offering to take the load off us we need to consider his (or her) offer carefully. It comes with strings attached – read the small print!

Lets take a look at the Potwell Inn store cupboard:

Last night was one of the coldest I can remember. Our first floor window ledge went down to -3C. That poses a problem for us because we live in a 1970’s concrete building that grows black mould on the interior walls as soon as it gets cold. Yesterday we tried to go out but the pavements were covered with sheet ice and lethal and in any case the shelves in the shops would probably be stripped bare.  But here in the Potwell Inn – this is what resilience looks like. We have food – not exotic by any means, but plenty.  We have oats and bread flour and I suppose we could even broach the barrel of wine we made in the autum.  We could walk a quarter of a mile to the allotment and pick fresh vegetables, even winter lettuce. We’re not self-sufficient, in fact I think that whole idea is a dangerous myth.  If there’s a way forward out of this mess then it’s not going to happen if we separate from our neighbours, it’s ‘dog eat dog’ economics that has brought us to this place. The way forward will involve more trust, more dependency on neighbours and a lot more generosity of spirit. As the American cartoonist Walt Kelly said in his second Earth Day poster back in 1971 – “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Thinking globally and acting locally is the only way we can make this work. There’s nothing we can ‘pass a law’ about that will work faster or more powerfully than our local choices.

  • Would it be hard work? – yes
  • Would we have to do without some stuff we enjoy? – yes
  • Would it change the way we need to live? – yes
  • Would it be difficult to understand?  See Michael Pollan’s rule – “eat food, not too much, mostly veg”
  • Wouldn’t it be going backwards? – no –  going forwards into a sustainable future rather than one blighted by hardship and starvation.

Is this a nag? Well let’s say this kind of stuff keeps me awake at night. But I’m an optimist and there’s a crocus in flower right next to where I’m writing and I’m driven by the thought that we don’t own the earth, we just borrow it from our children and grandchildren.