Meanwhile back at the ranch

 

A rare day of sunshine on the allotment today and so we made the most of it because there’s the tail end of hurricane Lorenzo about to do one final lap of honor around the UK before finally (we hope) petering out. This is a challenging time of year for allotments because although there are a multitude of jobs to be getting on with, the weather often gets in the way.  We used to call these unsettled patterns “equinoctal storms” but the Met Office get a bit sniffy about the term, saying there’s absolutely no connection between the frequent storms and the day length. They just happen at the same time. Often!

But the last of the tender crops need to be gathered in and new ones sown almost immediately to allow germination before the cold weather really kicks in. That  means the ground needs to be weeded and prepared with compost even if you don’t dig.  Any ground that’s not going to be planted up immediately needs feeding and sheeting, or sowing with a green manure crop.  That’s not something we’ve ever done – I’m not sure what you do with the crop if you don’t dig it in – maybe if it’s tares you can cut it off leaving the roots with their nitrogen nodules intact in the ground, and compost all the green tops – it still gets fed back into the earth but a little later.

It’s this time of the year when we get a sudden mass of green material for composting. We’ve already dealt with the bean vines, but today it was the turn of the peppers, aubergines and those of the tomatoes not affected by blight – oh and the giant sunflowers which need sawing into pieces which are then either bashed with the back of an axe or split down the middle to expose the soft core to the composting bacteria. I often chop the vines a bit with a sharp spade – but you need some air circulation, so turning it all into a soggy mess will lead to slimy anaerobic conditions. The trouble with having a mass of fresh green material at this time of year is that at lower temperatures it can sit there sulking rather than composting. This is a great time to use some human urine to get things going.  We dilute it 10:1 for growing crops, but I’ve put it on the compost heap neat with no obvious ill effects. It’s rich with bio-available nitrogen and it really doesn’t smell.  We tell everyone we’re doing it to discourage the fastidious from browsing our crops! And keep the heap covered with old compost bags because it won’t thrive if it’s inundated with cold rain.

One of our success stories this year has been the outdoor chillies, peppers, tomatoes and aubergines.  The peppers were intended to be grown in the greenhouse but as ever we’d sown far too many,  so early in the season we planted some very poor and bedraggled specimens in a patch of sheltered open ground that happened to be empty. They absolutely loved it, and we’ve had our best ever crops from the open ground, leaving the pampered indoor plants standing still.  The only exception were the hot chillies, but they made the most of the greenhouse and they’ve been fantastic.  It’s touch and go whether the Habenero’s ripen fully, but I ate a tiny slice of an underripe one today and it was fierecly hot already. The mildest chillies – the Hungarian Hot Wax are still flowering and fruiting outside even now.

But all good things come to an end and so we came home with a big basket of green peppers, red cabbage and broccoli which is still cropping well plus a large quantity of green tomatoes. I’m looking for a recipe for a green pepper relish now. We ripened a few peppers on the windowsill earlier and roasted them to use as an ingredient in cooking.

The Sweet Cicily I sowed has resulted in a couple of very vigorous bushes so one of them is going to have to live in a container.  The other is on a patch of unuseable land near the greehouse and it’s very pretty and very useful – sweet and fragrant – so it can stay where it is for the time being. One major winter job is to reorganise the fruit cage and move the strawberries to a new spot.  It’s far too crowded, and a faff to get in and out of which has led to it becoming a bit neglected. Access is so important when planning beds and plots.

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Home then, thoroughly knackered with a day of gallery visits tomorrow for a change. It’s amazing, though how after a cup of tea and something to eat we felt energized again, which was just as well because the harvested  vegetables needed preparation and washing before they could be stored. It’s amazing how many slugs can live in a red cabbage, for instance.  But a soak in salted water and a couple of rinses soon gets rid of them and it’ll keep in the fridge until tomorrow evening when I’m baking anyway so I’ll make some spiced red cabbage at the same time.  Anyone for green tomato chutney?

A bit of re-mythologizing

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From Christmas with the demythologisers – Rev. E. L. Mascall, – to the tune of Good King Wenceslas

“Sir, my thoughts begin to stray

And my faith grows bleaker.

Since I threw my myths away

My kerygma’s weaker.”

“Think on Heidegger, my lad,

That pellucid Teuton;

Then you won’t feel half so bad

When they talk of Newton.”

Sorry, that’s a terrible theological in-joke, but writing earlier about the way the (my) mind works, prompts me to share this pretty awful character with you.  I invented him during a period of intense reflection about nine or ten years ago to try to think or write about the power of words to uncover/expose the inner workings of ideas. I’ve never had a problem with myths – understood properly they’re just about the best way to tell the truth about the most profound mysteries. Furbelow is, of course, one of many alter-egos such as we all adopt from time to time. They’re custom built and rooted in the confusing reality of our individual lives. Taking Furbelow and mythologising him deliberately gave me the chance to regard a fragment of my own inner life, as it were, from the outside. I’m hesitant to release him into a harsh world, but he hates being caged up in my head so here goes –

Captain Furbelow

At the edge of the River Severn in the month of December you might stand in the freezing cold one night, with the moon sitting low in the sky and the wind rattling down over your shoulder from the Northeast and driving the clouds across like fat schooners. And if you stood until your fingers turned white and brittle and waited and waited as the tide flowed and foxes went about their business you might wonder at the sheer size of the sky above your head. And you might, as you scanned the sky and thought to yourself – “this is the point in the film where the geese fly over, honking, and my blood freezes” – you might also begin to see the millions of stars above your head and among them you might notice the constellation of Orion with his sword and his belt. And you might think to yourself also that this dark sky reminds you a bit of your Dad’s huge black railway overcoat then you wouldn’t be far out. And imagine if you could search in his deep black pockets for sweets, and breathe in the familiar sharp smell of his armpits, and the smell of the bus, and the smell of the rain and the pub and you would feel very strange indeed perhaps and you would know that asking whether such a being as Captain Furbelow actually exists is a silly question, rather like asking whether the Potwell Inn exists. And when you have seen the stars that line his greatcoat stretched over your head in the dead of night, then you just know it, and the teachers, pharisees, inquisitors and pedants as usual, know nothing.

As to the facts, there’s not a lot to be said. He’s a weaver of meanings, creating a unique form of greatcoat cloth.  Some people have argued that there may be a whole hierarchy of Furbelows and such a thing may be as true as any other thing. What we know for a fact is that he lives on a hill near a seaside town – hence the name and rank – and he drives a yellow Morris 1000 van with stars and a crescent moon hand painted on the side, and he has a more or less scandalous and very intermittent liaison with “Oestral” who is an “International Clairvoyante” and whose visions regularly transcend the parish boundary.

The cloth which he weaves descends on the town at night which is why you can’t see it. It’s said he spends the day time at a huge loom in a wooden shack, and where he weaves the cloth from fragments he has harvested during his journeys. Anything from a ship’s manifest to a small advertisement could be woven. A tiny piece of conversation blown in the wind is not too small to escape his attention. He might be arrested by the arching of an eyebrow or the faint flush of the skin in a chance meeting between two people who do not yet know that they are lovers. A dog’s bark, a small joke or even a road sign might inflame him. A particular favorite of his are lists and catalogues which can easily be unravelled and used again. Memories, sounds and smells are the warp and weft of the cloth and if he can lay his hands on the glint of the sea he can weave it in judiciously so as to bring the whole fabric to perfection. The promiscuity of his means is a source of continual irritation to the town, and especially to the deacons of the local Baptist church who, being both strict and particular as well as Baptist, have only the one story which, is completely threadbare.

This may be the origin of the assertion that “Captain Furbelow is a creature of the night” – which phrase has a peculiar resonance for parish councillors and deacons. However it may be that the simple fact that he is, in reality, out and about more obviously during the night, is enough to remove the inverted commas and turn the criticism into an observation. Some qualification may therefore assist us. Captain Furbelow is especially a creature of the warm summer night. On such a night, when the sea-town is held in the air by the force of dreams. Faded seawashed driftwood spars, frames, orange-peel. Delabole slate, terracotta tiles, paynes grey, windworn rocks, seaworn pebbles, scrubbed sand, lichens, quoits and dracaenas like silks in a cabinet or an artists’ colour chart gather on the shore.   Then, on such a night, as the sun sets and the fast food shops are cleaned down, the soft warmth of evening insinuates its seductive aromas around the harbour. When the scent of hot tarmac, wallflowers, fish and chips, cigarette smoke and stale beer hang in the salt air like pheromones to the girls gathered like moths beneath coloured lights . When pasties, suntan oil and peeling shutters, (shriven by the summer heat), gift their perfumes to the sky as it turns from pale blue to indigo. When the people refuse the cadence of night and day.   When they try to stretch the day as if they could hold the tide at the rim of the horizon by sheer effort of will. Then Captain Furbelow will leave home and drive down the winding road through the town.

He is also a creature of the winter night, of the harvest night, of the wassail, of the night of mourning. He is both Captain of the Feast and solitary figure at the graveside. “Amen to that!” he cries, and the deacons and the parish councillors murmur damp threats and plan revenge so horrible that you would dream bad dreams for a month.

Truth to tell, I think Captain Furbelow is a bit frightening. The smell of his armpits and the acrid greatcoat speak of other adventures and happenings that aren’t so good. In fact they’re everything the deacons say. Sometimes he puts his hands deep down into his greatcoat pockets and you can hear things scurrying around in there. Terrible things. Some say that the Captain is exceedingly old, even as old as Adam himself and others maintain that he drifted into town in the nineteen sixties and never left.

Nothing goes with a greatcoat like a beard, and a cigarette. But this beard is different. So dense you could not hack your way through it with the sharpest billhook. A beard to occlude the sky and the clouds. A beard full of thorns and small nesting birds and fugitives hiding from justice. A beard full of things you tried to say and couldn’t. A grey beard with a golden stain that might come from poems spoken out loud or from constant furtive roll-ups.

Go well, Captain Furbelow out there in the world with your beard and your greatcoat. I’ll see you again at the Wassail in January.

 

 

“Blood on Paper”

IMG_6174Is the title of an exhibition at the V & A that we stumbled on in London sometime between April and June of 2008. That same day I found a ceremonial Chinese garment from the permanent colllection which was the single most beautiful piece of clothing I’ve ever seen.  Needless to say it disappeared back into the vaults by the next time we visited and we’ve never seen it since. What also went missing for ever was a poem, illustrated by Claes Oldenburg that formed part of the exhibition subtitled “The Art of the “Book”. It was the illustration that caught my eye first, a typical Oldenburg drawing of a slice of cake with two cherries on top. Beneath it was a section (I now know) of a poem by an artist I’d never heard of, a Chinese American artist called Walasse Ting, and the poem was called “All kinds of love”.

It wasn’t a great poem by any stretch.  There was nothing about it that made you think ‘how clever’.  It was simple, repetitive, inflected with a strong Chinese accent – if that makes any sense at all of a written work? But it was beautiful, life affirming, challenging, transgressive – I’m running out of adjectives. It was so beautiful I started to copy it into my notebook, but it’s agonisingly slow to copy a poem, the room was crowded and so after the first few lines I gave up and assumed I’d be able to find it again.

Interestingly, one of the other exhibits was a book that had a hole blown in it by an explosive charge, but it wasn’t that exhibit which blew my mind – it was the rapidy disappearing Ting Poem.  Back home I blithely googled it and drew a complete blank. I was so desperate to find it again that I bought a hugely expensive catalogue of the exhibition, but when it arrived in the form of a cardboard box full of separate sheets, it wasn’t there. That was eleven years ago, and ever since then I’ve searched regularly and never found the poem again except in the form of a PDF extract from a book about Oldenburg where I can see the poem but I can’t read the words.  “All Kinds of Love”  came into my mind unannounced today, as these things often do.

I frequently read two books simultaneously, particularly when one of them is very disturbing and I need another to balance my mind. I started reading “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells last week and it fell right into the ultra disturbing category – we’re all going to die a horrible slow suffocating death just about sums up the message in the early part. I don’t know about the rest of the book yet because it  sucked so much oxygen out of my mind that I had to pick up Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” to give me a bit of hope and make me feel human again.

My mind functions more like a loom than a linear calculator, weaving thoughts out of sights and smells, fragments of conversations overheard, old bus tickets and their journeys, the sounds of lorries and curlews, and so there are more threads to be added before the cloth appears. Why “All Kinds of Love” – after eleven years?

  • A book with the right message and the wrong impact?
  • The anniversary of a leaving?
  • A poem about loving?
  • Autumn and the shortening days

As for the Wallace-Wells book, it’s a straghtforward matter of strategy. There’s no ‘if’ about the coming crises – unless we change our ways, and that means changing our whole culture, things will go badly for future generations. My problem with shocking people is that one possible impact is not to energise but to paralyse.  We might, having been convinced of the enormity of the threat, behave like rabbits in the headlights. Denial is the constant companion of grief and shock, the shadow side of bad news.  “It can’t be true! we say, even while we half-know that it is.

In fact Elisabeth Kübler Ross’s five stages of grief, although much challenged nowadays, certainly contain elements of our response to the bad news of climate change and mass extinction. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance all feature in our (wealthy western) response. Our problem is that grief takes a long time to work its way through, and we don’t have that much time. So how do we take the initiative here?

That’s where, I think, the poem comes from. “All Kinds of Love” is a celebration of the sheer diversity of expression that love finds in spite of all the religious and cultural efforts to canalize it within concrete walls. Fear changes nothing, but love can break up the fatberg of our inner lives.  Love can make us better people – if it couldn’t why would bad people spend so much time trying to shut it down.  And what I recall from that one reading of a poem in the V & A is thinking that there isn’t one kind of acceptable love, there aren’t categories of love, each one different from all the others, there isn’t “Christian love” or Buddhist love” or “Comradely love”, just love in all its bewildering complexity, all its splendid, heartbreaking, erotic and life enhancing beauty; all its dangerous and destructive potential, – just the one kind, just love, and it’s only through love that we can head off the coming crisis.

How, possibly, could the earth be saved if we are afraid, if we deny the problem, get angry or depressed or, worst of all accept that it’s all over? It’s only by loving the earth and one another that we and our home stand a chance of survival, and that’s why books like “The Uninhabitable Earth” are far less likely to change us than “The Sand County Almanac”.

Finally, it’s autumn – the end of a season and the declining of the light. this is the fourth anniversary of leaving my parishes and moving to Bath.  I simply hadn’t calculated how difficult that was going to be. Bearing in mind all that I’ve just written about love, leaving – the act of handing over the keys – was, looking back on it – one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I still dream about the parishes, the people, the bloody battles.  Don’t misunderstand, I’m not sitting around with tears running down my face, but my biggest articulated fear when I left was that I’d become hefted, emotionally and practically attached to those square miles. I was right.

But the Potwell Inn, with it’s ragged-assed crew hangs on in the teeth of the storms, loving the sheer weather of life, the cabbages and the caterpillars, the seedlings and the slugs.  Strap me to the mast Gaffer, we’re going to run the rapids.

Barn raising in Brislington

So today, as planned, the Potwell Inn crew turned out to build the recycled greenhouse on our second son’s allotment in Bristol.  I had thought we’d only get as far as levelling the foundation, but the threatened rain didn’t come, and we managed to assemble the whole frame before we left. Madame and our daughter in law brought the grandchildren down with hot pasties at lunchtime, and the day was a delight from start to finish.

Second hand greenhouses can be a bit of a liability; the glass is very fragile and doesn’t travel at all well, the process of assembly can be a nightmare if you don’t know how the bits go together. The assembly instructions – which can often be downloaded if you know the make and model of the greenhouse – are sometimes a bit impenetrable.  In this case we had dismantled the greenhouse ourselves a couple of months ago, and I’d already built a similar but smaller model on our own plot, so I had a pretty good idea how it all went.  My best advice if you’re taking on an old greenhouse is to try and dismantle it yourself as we did – so you know all the bits are there.  I don’t know of any way to buy individual missing parts.  My other recommendation is to buy all new nuts and bolts, spring clips and rubber strip and get a special greenhouse spanner -they’re worth their weight in gold.

But the greatest pleasure was simply being together and working together without any tensions. Everyone talks about the challenges of parenting babies and teenagers, but our experience has been that the transition from being parents of children to parents of adults has been the trickiest of all. We had to take a step back and let the boys lead and there were many moments when we felt a bit marginal to their lives. But a decade on, we’ve weathered a few storms and come out closer than we’ve ever been. I used the jokey heading about barn raising because when we work together as a family on a shared project it becomes (without getting religious about it) sacramental.  Outwardly hammering pegs, fixing boards and raising beams while inwardly celebrating each other’s gifts.

All three of our children are good cooks, good gardeners and thoroughly committed religious sceptics – the last part comes from years of seeing the church from the inside! Allotmenteering seems to be on the increase again, possibly the prospect of unaffordable organic food post brexit, and the likelihood of global climate breakdown has focused our minds on providing for ourselves. But a day on someone else’s allotment is as rewarding as a day on our own  – maybe we should offer training opportunities so new allotmenteers could increase their skills.  Gardening is better as a community activity.

Wet Sunday – much satisfaction.

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The title came to me as an imaginary reading from the i ching.  The photo is of a pretty ordinary patch of common weeds on the towpath.

It’s eight o’clock on Sunday evening.  I spent most of the  evening making bread and pastry while Madame prepped the filling for some Cornish pasties for tomorrow’s lunch with the boys (all in their thirties and forties now!) .  We’re working together on our middle son’s allotment tomorrow to start building the greenhouse we dismantled a few weeks ago in Bath.  It was going free and it was in pretty good condition and so he took it on.  Apart from that we went up to the allotment early to beat the rain – that didn’t work – and so we plodded on through increasingly sharp showers to clear more beds, cover them with compost and sheet them up for the winter.  By the time we got home we were very damp and very tired. I’d turned the three active compost bins, a very gratifying job because the resulting compost was some of the best we’ve ever made.  It’s hard to overestimate the impact of soil fertility on allotments – it’s not just bigger crops, it’s healthier and more resilient soil which makes for healthier and more resilient plants.  Our clay/loam soil which is prone to poaching and waterlogging is capable of withstanding flood and drought after three years of very heavy applications of organic material.  “What’s the secret?” people ask, and the answer is “there’s no secret – just compost”.  We stopped digging this year and the beds are firm enough to stand on now even when they’re wet. Goodness knows where it all goes, the asparagus bed swallowed up six inches of seaweed last winter and where we spread leaves as a mulch last autumn, there’s no trace of them now.  What we do have is worms – everywhere.  Did you know there are a number of British worm species? –  and they all live at different levels, so the fact that we don’t see some on the surface doesn’t mean they’re not there.

I didn’t feel much like writing today, we were both so tired after the session on the allotment we fell asleep in the armchairs. But there’s something rather special about working in the rain.  My broadbrimmed hat keeps the rain from running down my neck, and at this time of the year the rain and wind aren’t that cold.

I’m aware that writing about the allotment, the whole Potwell Inn way of life, travelling around in the campervan all adds up to a faintly mythologised life.  But it’s not mythic at all, it’s all  utterly ordinary.  Things go well, things go extraordinarily badly; I read books all the time, some inspire me and some fill me with fear for the future. I know a few wildflowers so I’m never alone, there’s always something or someone to talk to.  We work, cook, eat, garden – often in companionable silence. For every idea that bears fruit there are a dozen that don’t. The motivation for sharing by writing about it is that if we could teach more people to live within the ordinary – or perhaps I should capitalize it and call it the Ordinary, there would be a lot less sadness in the world.  In a day or a week when not much happens except for leaning on a fence and watching the plants grow, I never feel the need for anything more exciting. IMG_6167A slice of bread from a well made sourdough loaf spread with home made marmalade in the morning is a celebration of some terribly underrated domestic skills. Good stock in the fridge and tonight the smell of pasties cooking in the oven, fresh veg from the allotment – what more could anyone want?  – there is real authority in the Ordinary, the kind that makes many politicians look like two year old children in a tantrum.

The Potwell Inn isn’t some kind of metaphysical philosopy, in fact it’s the least metaphysical idea you could entertain. Stuff, dirt, earth, nature. Marvellous!

 

Happiness is garden shaped

 

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Jonah Jones again. Beautiful!

People often say things like – ‘you’re so lucky to be able to paint/draw, it must be very therapeutic’  – and I smile and think to myself lucky me? it sometimes drives me completely round the bend!  The same idea of therapeutic activity is now being attributed to gardening and it surely can’t be long before the RHS is offering modules, if not courses, in garden therapy. Last night we watched a BBC programme called Gardeners’ World that was entirely devoted to the therapeutic benefits of gardening and of being in amongst nature.

We’re gardeners too and it’s impossible to disagree.  There’s nothing quite like a morning or a whole day on the allotment, out in the fresh air with some hard work and, with a bit of luck, some good company. Today we decided to defy the rain and we spent a couple of hours with Madame weeding and clearing beds and me moving  about 3/4 ton of leaf mould and compost next to the beds they’ll be feeding this coming week. I hasten to say that much of the compost was bought in advance of our getting our own heaps flowing. I now have a backache but we came away feeling – as ever –  that the allotment has been instrumental in our thriving over the last four years of adjustment. Of course we feel sad when we lose plants, and cross when our stuff gets stolen but I suspect that a significant part of the therapeutic effect of gardening is learning to cope with loss. Gardening is a perspective changing activity and it rewards our commitment in a manner quite out of proportion to our input. Putting food on the table has the power to transform a meal into a feast – every day. Anything that makes you thankful every day has just got to be good for you. It’s risky of course because an allotment can never be a fortress and you have to accept that all sorts of strangers have access to it for good or ill.  But if one person sees an opportunity to enrich themself at our expense, I’ll guarantee that there are a hundred who look across from the footpath and think it’s beautiful, and a handful might even decide to try an allotment for themselves.

So today was a good day.  My experiment to try reducing the cooking time of the sourdough bread by 15 minutes worked out really well, and the crust was crisp but not too thick. The oven is one of our extravagances, and it’s so highly efficient that we’ve had to recalibrate almost all our cooking times.

I woke early and for no particular reason felt completely energised. Although, as I wrote yesterday, I try to avoid writing too much about politics here, I do think that what I write is highly political.  I’m an inveterate fact checker, I listen and read and then I check. Today I was searching around the issue of carbon costs and I found that much of the received wisdom around which politicians and some journalists set out their green credentials are open to serious challenge. We’re so used (well, some of us are -) to challenging racism and sexism when we encounter it but we get very shy about challenging the way that data is used. What does nuclear energy really cost? What’s the most efficient form of renewable energy? Is bio-fuel a good or a bad idea, is it true that generating electricity from biomass is better than generating it from coal?  The truth is that many of the assumptions from which we work are the fruits of lobbyists with a vested interest in their particular industry.  At the very least we could demand to know ‘who said this’ , who paid for the research? and what does the independent research say?.

As it happens I think I know the answers to most of the questions I posed but I’m not stating them because it’s much more important that we each find out for ourselves. It’s a very radicalizing moment to discover that you been completely hoodwinked.  Just as it was very radicalizing to discover huge beds of samphire when we were on the seashore next to the western fells, but not dare to forage any of it because it was just a few miles downstream of the Windscale nuclear reprocessing plant which has a history of unacknowledged disharges. We test everything on the allotment.  So called biodegradable bin bags seem to be far more resistant to composting than the label suggests; ultra green coir modules  appear to be wrapped in plastic mesh. We have to cut the mesh off before composting the spent coir. Do we even know whether the big seed companies treat their seeds with insecticides?

I think the answer to negotiating our way around the challenges of the 21st century has got to be to take a much greater interest in the data that’s used to persuade us and to become proper nuisances when it comes to asking questions.  Let’s be confident about handling the data and get the environmental costs on to the bottom line of every big company. They’ll soon change when it hits them in the pocket.

Much study wearies the flesh

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I think I’ve been reading too much – and it’s all the fault of the southwesterly winds. We did at least manage 3 hours on the allotment yesterday, but today, after setting out on a fruitless (yes) mission to pick damsons, it hammered down so much we turned around and came home again whereupon I spent the rest of the day watching 2 films about Arne Naess and reading his book “Ecology of Wisdom”.  I had to check him out because his name, and the concept of ‘deep ecology’ have come up quite a lot in my reading recently and I always find it better to go back to the source and make my own mind up..

The introduction was a bit repetitive, whereas the initial chapter on place was really intriguing.  But I came away from the first three essays thinking that, after looking at his CV, I felt more disabled than enabled by his mountaintop vision. There was something a shade too muscular, too charismatic, for me. I’ll never build a primitive hut on the side of a mountain, or read Spinoza in Latin, or learn Ghandian boxing.  So does that mean that the Potwell Inn is forever condemned to the sidelines?  Does it mean that my proposed ecology of Muckyannydinny Lane, the rubbish filled alley connecting two estates, will never see the light of day because it’s too ordinary?

I liked the man and some at least of his writing, but it seems to me as if his disciples (where have I heard this story before?) have added whole chunks of metaphysics and rather extreme conclusions to his initial words.  Isn’t it always the same? The moment we canonize someone, the followers feel free to claim pretty much anything they like and then stamp it with the saint’s imprimatur to put it beyond debate.

So here I am with a seed catalogue in one hand and the disabling thought in my mind that I really don’t know what we should be doing for the best.  Is the bib and brace overall and the Tilly hat more of a deferential tug of the forelock to the past? (see postbox). Is there some complete system for the ethically perfect life that I haven’t stumbled across yet or am I condemned to stumble around in the dark?  I know there are people who’ve found the answer because you can sense by their absolute certainty and their gimlet eyes that they have the truth – I’m not being smart and ironical here, I’m both envious of and repelled by their purity.

Loving the earth and the natural world is easy, and counting ourselves among the creatures surely involves loving one another as well as the birds, bees and wolves, and yet the most forceful expositions of rewilding seem almost Malthusian – discarding human lives as if they (we) are a form of infection.  The most common exposition of the technological dream, of carbon capture and fusion power et al  seem to me to be putting your trust into the power of the unicorn, and somewhere in the middle you land up being despised by almost everyone.  All I can think of is to try to live ethically as best I can, reduce my impact on the earth and keep the Potwell Inn going so we, the bewildered, can spent our twilight years with shaking hands and rheumy eyes discussing the price of onions over a pint of Ushers cider.

Today I baked another sourdough and took 15 minutes off the baking time to try to create a less daunting crust.  Madame cooked ratatouille – possibly the last of the season from our own produce.

My son asked me at the weekend why I don’t blog about politics.  It’s for the same reason I don’t go around bludgeoning people who steal our coldframes, it’s all got a bit too poisonous and I think it’s bad for me.  One of my ex parishioners facebooked to say I was being very stoic.  OK Chris – you’ve  found me out!

Getting ready for Halloween

It’s not all gloom and doom on the allotment, in fact I’m not a very gloom and doom person – I’m melancholic, which is altogether different and a lot more creative. But lifting these big pumpkins had me as happy as could be and groaning loud enough to attract a small group of spectators on the footpath, and some ooohs and aaas as I staggered over to the wheelbarrow. We don’t have any means of weighing the big one, but compared with a 25K bag of sand, I’d say it was more like 30Kg – around 66lbs – far from the record breakers that need a fork-lift to move them, but very gratifying for us. We could have let them go on growing, but we need to get the soil prepped ready for the autumn, and the outbreak of larceny on the site has made us cautious about leaving them in full view. Pumpkins are as cheap as chips in the supermarkets, but big ones like this seem to attract thieves.

So we were clearing the decks today and heaping the bean vines on to the compost heap which is now groaning under the weight. At the beginning of the year I calculated that we’d have to fill the first bin four times to generate enough compost to cover the whole plot.  We haven’t managed four, but it’s been full to the top three times, and I’ll turn it all into the second bay next week and start again. The end bin that had autumn leaves in it has now rotted down into a fine mulch of about 1/3 the volume, and that’s the problem with our compost – it rots down so much that it’s reduced by as much as 2/3 during the process.  However it’s so rich and full of nutrients that it doesn’t need to be piled on thickly.  Earlier in the season I turned over the first full bin and it’s now more than perfect – it’s positively beautiful. But however carefully we sort and compost our paper, cardboard and green kitchen waste with the prunings and tops from the allotment there’s always a residue that needs to be more thoroughly dealt with.

We’ve thought long and hard about incineration and the numbers are quite complex. If we just put all the weeds and infected material on the compost heap it would not get hot enough to neutralize the pathogens or kill the seeds.  If the compost starts getting anaerobic it will produce methane, but even if it’s well managed and aerobic it will still produce CO2.  If it goes to a landfill site it will certainly be anaerobically rotted and so will produce methane and, in addition, the carbon cost of transporting it needs to be added in. So the carefully managed incinerator can’t be rejected out of hand, and the residual ash is a good source of potassium, nitrogen and phosphorous. The biggest problem with burning is the nuisance, inconvenience and smoke to nearby allotmenteers. If a well managed incinerator is allowed to get really hot to start the process, and then green material is added continuously to keep the process going, and then it should function for days with no more than a whisp of smoke and a little steam when wet material is added. In short there’s no completely green way of disposing of noxious and infected plants.  We’re not allowed to use the incinerator until 1st October in any case , but we’ve bagged up all the infected tomato vines and they’ll be disposed of on Tuesday.

We’ve also started thinking already about next season’s sowings, and the catalogues have just started to appear in the post box. With such a strange season we’ve seen several unexpected results, not least the way that the Mediterranean vegetables – the courgettes, peppers, aubergines and chillies have all done much better outside than in the (recently stolen) coldframes and the greenhouse. This may well be to do with their ability to root deeply and find water, and also the positive impact of freely circulating air, but it’s hard not to hold climate change partially responsible as well.  So our choice of what to grow is going to be affected by three factors next season, firstly the possibility of food shortages if brexit goes ahead, secondly trying to second guess the weather and finally the contribution of our 250 square metres to alleviating climate heating and insect extinctions.

Finally I took this photograph of a clutch of slug eggs today. They’re a pest, there’s no doubt, and yet they also perform a useful function on the allotment by eating dead plant material so we try to control them with beer traps, bait plants like Tagetes and picking them off when we see them. Their only total success this year was a row of carrots that were scythed off before they even got going. But that’s gardening for you!  As you see the eggs are laid on compost whereas white butterflies lay their eggs on leaves – I think there’s a bit of a clue there as to the slug’s favourite food. So if we don’t leave dead and decaying vegetable matter lying around near vulnerable plants the slugs will be less likely to visit.

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Aren’t these so beautiful?

“Not now George?”

With thanks to Joyce Grenfell.

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I’ve a lot of time for George Monbiot and I often find myself agreeing with almost every word he’s just written while contrarily wishing that he’d found a different way of writing it. It concerns me that I feel this way, because it forces me to examine that part of my history that makes me averse to harsh words.  My friends will breathe a sigh of relief that there is at least someone in the brake-van, and the people I’ve sparred with over the years will continue to think what they do.  There is a place for indignation and anger about our present conjoined crises of mass extinction and global heating and to hold back on that anger might feel like tacit support for the guilty.  Do we really have time for the niceties of civilised debate and a coming together of minds towards agreed collective action. Well we’ve had over fifty years of debating time since Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was published, and my entire adult life has been punctuated by warnings about our abuse of the environment. From the terrible post-war smogs in London and other industrial cities during my childhood onwards, the power of legislation and enforcement has been thwarted and emasculated by powerful vested interests. Surely they’ve had their chance.

And I think that sense of urgency is a powerful defence of the language that’s sometimes used in the debate. George Monbiot is just one among the many powerful voices who’ve spoken out and challenged the culture, and if by shouting loudly about the dangers they’ve brought it to the top of the political agenda then we’ve a lot to thank them for.  If our political system (and this is – ultimately – a political and economic issue) is so tin-eared, or wilfully deaf to the mounting scientific evidence, then our leaders can hardly complain when the debate is taken into the streets, because it us who have to breathe the polluted air and our children whose lungs are invaded by diesel particulates and will never hear a nightingale or a curlew.

The problem is that if it comes to a slanging match, the powerful vested interests have by far the loudest voice, and they have not been above using dirty tricks and deliberate lies to prolongue their hegemony. Stupidly, though, they don’t seem to be able to understand that we all breathe this air, we all drink the water (when there is any) we all eat the chemically compromised food. The rise in sea-level will drive millions of people away from their vulnerable homes, including those who can afford to own tropical islands. The problem is that there isn’t a column for the environment on a profit and loss statement, and so the polluters don’t pay. They’d soon stop if it hit their profits.

So yes there’s a bit of me that would like to make them suffer for the damage they’ve done, but if they were all locked up for eternity it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to the crisis. George’s article above particularly takes aim at farmers and the big environmental NGO’s, and reserves special hatred for grouse moors – there’s a picture of one the I took a few weeks ago at the top of this post.

IMG_5321We know the whole environmental culture has to change, and so let’s take the example of tree planting. Should we plant a million trees, say? Well yes, but where should we plant them? – and what trees should we plant? whose land shall we plant them on? who will pay for them, maintain them and keep them healthy? Can we tackle the climate crisis and the extinction crisis at the same time with the same plan – or will the two sides of the larger crisis require a plan modulated to meet both? This is where I part company with some of Monbiot’s comments because one obvious solution is to use the presently indefensible agricultural subsidy system to change the farming culture. To say to farmers “you can do what you like (within the law) with your own land, but we won’t pay you to do it if it doesn’t bring about any public good.”  I’m pretty sure that most farmers would be only too pleased to stop damaging their land so long as it didn’t bankrupt them in the process. Most hill-farms get 80% of their income from subsidies. Monbiot is quite right to say that the hill-country landscape has been turned into a wildlife desert by overgrazing sheep, but whose fault is that when, until recent years, farmers were paid according to the size of their flocks so, of course, they overstocked the sheep. Millions, if not hundreds of millions of trees could be planted on some of that unproductive land but the best possible workforce and custodians of the new forests would be the farmers who presently farm sheep. They’re in place already and they know their land as only farmers do. Calling for an end to sheep farming only makes a dangerous situation worse.  Do we even know what numbers of sheep might constitute a sustainable national flock? Aren’t there economic and ecological benefits to maintainin a much smaller national flock thereby retaining the best of the hill farming culture and reducing overproduction to the point where the market for sheep and wool improves. Would a revival in woollen cloth be a sustainable alternative to more plastics?   I don’t see the point in alienating and threatening farmers with the expropriation of their livelihoods when we know we’re going to need them onside. The grouse moors are much harder to defend, especially when the cost of shooting is so great that only the wealthy can participate, and amid the costs to wildlife by heather burning are the sinister statistics around the shooting and poisoning of birds of prey by gamekeepers who know when to keep their mouths shut.

But this too is where we’ve seen that not all big landowners are capitalizing on their land by running shoots. Neither do they all allow hunting and stalking.   Inevitably some will argue that any change will amount to an attack on their whole “way of life”. Well yes, so was the abolition of slavery and the end of public executions – we can’t go on excusing the destruction of our ecosystem because someone might get upset about not being able to wear their plus fours. I think the majority of landowners, if they are faced with the prospect of losing millions of pounds of revenue unless they change their ways, will grumble a lot and comply, because deep down they do understand. The biggest obstacle to change will be those industries that can’t adapt. The ones that will really go bust if farmers stop using chemicals! The manufacturers of the behemoths that straddle the fields and crush the life out of the soil will find ways of serving a less extractive agriculture, and no-one’s attacking the principle of using farmland productively and efficiently. It might be that instead of half-million pound machines, human beings could do more.  Some of my happiest winter mornings were spent laying hedges on a playing field that didn’t possess or want to flail the hell out of them.

I’m arguing two things simultaneously – firstly that the crisis is so severe that we must take immediate action and secondly that the best strategy for achieving that end is to use both carrot and stick to change farming culture. Aggression, rudeness and threats of expropriation will just make it harder.  I spent 25 years working in farming parishes and I always felt able to question why things were done in the way they were. Apart from one instance where I was shouted at by a (non farming) local councillor who’d got completely the wrong end of the stick, I found the farmers overwhelmingly open to new ideas. They loved their land and they neither wanted to poison it or lose it altogether by going out of business.

George Monbiot’s next targets in the article are the large NGO’s like the National Trust, the RSPB and the other powerful charities.  Again, it’s always better to change what you’ve got than abolish it all and start again. With the National Trust, Monbiot’s main target is the policy of allowing even drag hunting on its land. If this crisis is ever going to be resolved, then dog whistle tactics will have to be set aside.  The very word hunting carries a whole complex of polarizing imagery that makes resolution almost impossible, and lines the opposing views up with an angry chasm between them.  Better let the whole practice die of disgust, like bear baiting and cockfighting did in their day. Where the National Trust can help is in the management of its huge land holdings, and there it’s not heped by it’s foundational ethos of preservation and conservation. It’s not good enough to use huge sums of public subscription to preserve some notional bucolic landscape for sightseers.

The same problem on a larger scale happens within the National Park authorities who can be a positive nuisance when it comes to changing farming practices. Many of these charities and NGO’s encourage a narrow (especially in terms of diversity) view of passive participation in the scenery. Charities supporting single issues like birds, butterflies or  whatever else are not known for their collaboration, and can be positively hostile when other groups with different interests impinge on their “territory”.

So my plea to George Monbiot is to deal with his understanable anger and pursue the goal we all share by reaching out rather than acting out. It really does work better. To use a useful cliché once again, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’  but it’s not invincible. We can’t save the earth by making vote-winning policy announcements, but it can be saved by implacable determination, never losing sight of the goal and never accepting second best delaying tactics from vested interests. The farmers aren’t the enemy, it’s us with our insatiable appetites.

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Aaaargh – more tomatoes!

IMG_6158We planted more tomatoes this season and we knew that judgement day would come sooner or later and they would need to be processed into winter stores.  Today was that day and I spent most of it on the stove when I wasn’t cranking our small but perfectly formed passata machine. The good news and the bad news this year was that the cherry tomato crop failed completely with the blight so I was excused the drying. It’s a shame really because dried tomatoes keep well (as long as they’re completely dried) and they’re a great thing to have in the store to give a touch of acidity and sweetness in other dishes. As for the rest, I processed another 25 lbs of ripe tomatoes today and turned it into 3 litres of passata and four and a half litres of pasta sauce. The passata is indispensible as a base for all sorts of other sauces. Back on the allotment there are at least as many still to go, plus a big batch for chutney as well. Much as we love tomatoes, they can be a struggle to keep up with at this time of year.

While I was cooking the tomatoes Madame was sowing our first batch of indoor basil – we’ve still got quite a bit growing on the allotment but the first sign of frost will see it  off. The other herbal revelation this year has been French tarragon which seems to thrive on our plot and is wonderful (the French always knew this) with chicken.

The rain hardly let up all day so we spent most of our time indoors but I’ve got a couple of new books to read and spent a lot of time pondering on Spinoza at the stove.  I was very touched by Greta Thunberg’s  speech at the UN, and we even sat down to listen to Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the Labour Party conference during the afternoon.  I liked a lot of what we heard but I find the constant emphasis on new technology to solve the related problems of extinction and global heating far wide of the mark.  We’ve relied far too much on keeping on doing the wrong thing by hoping some new technology turns up to help clean up the mess. There was no mention of farm subsidies either. We need to stop making the mess now.

After a long break mostly away, we’ve got the Potwell Inn kefir and sourdough production line running sweetly and so here’s a photo of breakfast – the smoothies are a great way of using our frozen spinach cubes.

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