At home with the fungi

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

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

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

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

“This is my favourite season” – I say, almost every month.

Although I’m bound to say that we’ll be pleased when this endless, wet renegade October spring finishes – hopefully some time mid week. A couple of weeks ago one of our sons was remarking how short the cow parsley was – half its usual height at this time of year, but now it’s properly caught up and looking lovely. This old horse chestnut tree has an unusually large foot, I think, because it’s perched on the raised bank of the towpath next to the river on one side and the Green on the other. We don’t have that many hedges in the centre of Bath, but what we do have is an abundance of paths and their verges alongside the river, and they never look better than they do right now.

But there’s a conundrum here. Hedgerows have their own built-in supporters clubs but verges? Ironically, the local council have designated the edge of the Green as part of a wildlife corridor, so on the other side of the tree in the photo is (at last) a wide unmown verge. It’s taken several years to convince the tractor drivers that these weeds are allowed to stand, especially when the same department sends out the spray gang every spring to ensure that their less fortunate kin are given a good dose of glyphosate. The pavement outside our block was just beginning to fill with plants when they were felled by the sprayer. We’d actually thought of taking up the challenge of naming them all with chalk, on the pavement after very successful trials of the idea in Oxford and London; but the neighbours would probably get up a petition to get us banged up for criminal damage.

The contrast between the wild areas and the ones the council maintains is painful to behold. One of our very favourite walks takes us along the river between the bus station, the railway station and the entrance to the Kennet and Avon canal. It’s not the most salubrious path in the city. The railings under the railway bridge are encrusted with a thick layer of pigeon guano and there’s a good deal of broken glass, abandoned bottles and cans. Alongside are some of the shabbiest boats in the fleet; the leaking superstructures covered with improvised tarpaulins. On the far side of the river are the backs – the bits of the city that we don’t advertise; the bus station doesn’t have the same glass panelled appeal at the back – (there’s not that much at the front either!). Brunel’s architectural ambition didn’t stretch to the back entrance to Bath Spa station either, and the sounds and smells that drift across from the far side are inclined towards diesel and burgers, accompanied by extractor fans that never seem to go quiet . It’s a path used more by commuting cyclists and locals. Further along the river approaching Pulteney bridge it gets better once you’ve got past the Royal Mail sorting office.

For me the great redeeming feature of that section of the path is the weeds. Many of the photos I’ve posted on this website were taken there. It was there I learned to sort out the ragworts; there I fell upon a group of greater celandines with real pleasure; there the usual suspects like willowherb which is a more diverse family than I ever knew. There’s nothing of any interest to a box ticking collector; but at this time of the year the gloomy path is normally illuminated by splashes of bright colour and a seminar’s worth of leaf shapes if you’re into the naming of plants. However, by the curious logic of the council, these plants are weeds, and have therefore been sprayed. For goodness’ sake, they’re mostly perennials and early seeders so they’ll be back up again next year probably inducing another spasm of indignation and chemical abuse; some of which treatment will drain immediately into the river – or water supply as it’s known in other places!

I’m interested in this human capacity to reduce so much of the natural world to the status of pest and weed, while simultaneously revering nature, except manifestations where it interferes with our pleasures, appetites or profits. If you’re a cinnabar moth you don’t spend all day flitting from ghost orchid to ghost orchid – what gets you going is ragwort. Moths like weeds and bats eat moths, so killing weeds disrupts a whole food chain. Red admiral, small tortoiseshell, painted lady and comma butterflies all prefer to feed on nettles rather than red list rarities. In fact many of our most threatened species of butterfly and moth like feeding on what we choose to call weeds, growing in environments that we like to think are ideal sites for building people-warehouses – and irony of all ironies, this patch of neglected and chemically blasted tarmac could be a tributary of a much advertised “wildlife corridor” running from East to West through the city. There are otters swimming less than half a mile downstream and herons are two a penny. Why has nature got to be tidy? The worst these weeds could do is brush against your legs and for large parts of the year they virtually disappear. Are we going to erect a large illuminated sign advertising that wildlife should cross the river at the sorting office and fly across the shopping centre in the direction of Royal Crescent and Victoria Park in order to rejoin the corridor just after the Territorial Army centre?

This is one of the terrible effects of a culture that separates us entirely from anything except the human – and precious few of them too! Growing our own food, or even a small part of it, teaches us very quickly that we’re a part of nature. Recent discoveries have deepened our understanding of how intensely related we are to the natural world, and how, by failing to acknowledge our dependence on nature as part of us – and ourselves as a part of nature; we are rapidly destroying trillions of tiny threads that – like invisible circuitry – keep the show on the road.

The language of science and the culture of materialism have enabled us to do with the earth pretty much anything we please. Except that by thinking that knowledge always trumps wisdom, we’ve spent a couple of centuries behaving like a teenager given a powerful motorcycle. It won’t end well. Our imaginary teenager will protest that they’ve never yet had an accident; that they’re having the best fun ever and motorcycling is a human right. But the metaphor breaks down at the funeral because there may not be any mourners left to say what a great person they were and how they lit up the room with their personality.

Here are some bits of the Bath earth that were neglected this spring. Thank goodness – left to right the towpath, the Potwell Inn kitchen and the allotment.

Tree talk – joining the dots.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On our knees – literally!

We knew that this part of the growing season would be tough – it always is – but it’s been more demanding than ever for a number of reasons. There was the weather which has set us back by around three weeks for the tender plants; then there was the polytunnel which has been both a joy and a challenge to use; but then, finally, there’s the fact that we’ve made a dramatic change in the emphasis of the allotment this year; building the pond and changing the planting scheme to include a large number of insect and bee attractors; making companion plantings in the vegetable beds, introducing more fruit trees and reorganising the fruit garden. We’re not rich (that’s an understatement) so most of the plants we’re introducing were grown from seeds which has been an experience in itself. Some of the seeds were saved from our own crops last year too, in fact the Calendulas (pot marigolds) from which we harvest the flowers to make creams were more successful than the packet of seed we paid for.

When we got back from our mini break on the Mendip Hills we knew that as soon as the weather cheered up a bit we would have three or four days of pretty relentless planting out. Passing the last frost date was the starting gun for moving tomatoes, peppers, a small variety of melon (Minnesota Midget) and aubergines into the tunnel. We’ve companion planted them with Calendula, Tagetes and four types of basil. We’d scanned YouTube for hints on how to support the tomatoes in particular and by the third plant I’d refined it to a number of bold steps approach; digging and preparing the planting holes and fixing the supporting polypropylene strings – which we shall re-use year on year – and dropping the plants into their places. We’ve managed to clear sufficient space for the newcomers without sacrificing too many of the existing plants. The Japanese turnips will be harvested in a couple of days, the radishes had raced past their best, as had the spinach and the carrots were just about big enough to eat – more on that later. Some of our lettuce surplus we gave away to our allotment neighbours. That’s one of the nicest things about allotments, they’re highly cooperative, collaborative little micro communities.

Planting up the tunnel has taken three days, what with moving all the plants out of the flat, and the working environment hovered around 30C ( 86F in America) and nurturing them through those crucial 24 hours while they get accustomed to the radical temperature swings. There’s nowhere in the flat to replicate even a moderate degree of temperature swing to harden them off, and all we can do is clog up the communal hallway with them for a few days. Happily they all seem to like their new surroundings. The strawberries certainly do – they’re ripening already and as soon as they’ve finished they’ll go into a spare corner outside (if we can find one) and we’ll propagate some more by runners so we can double up next year for free!

Outside, the rather regular plantings have been broken up by inserting dozens of marigolds and other plants between them. Our neighbour was digging out a problem patch of borage and so I’ve put two clumps of them under the water butts where they’ve got full sun and nowhere much to invade. Right now the beds still look quite regimented but in a month or so they’ll probably look quite messy. Excellent! Today I also found time to empty the spring window boxes and remove all the bulbs for next year. We had filled them with a mix of compost and about 50% grit to allow them to drain freely, and all the spent medium went straight on to bottom of the plot where we’re slowly creating a long, narrow bed of freely draining and poor soil which houses the Mediterranean herbs. Nothing ever gets thrown away at the Potwell Inn – we even save the ashes when we sacrifice the bindweed to the garden gods in November. They’re full of free potash.

The war on slugs has been a losing battle, and so today the heavy artillery arrived in the post, and the worst of the beds will be watered with nematodes tomorrow before we plant any more beans outside.

The last job today was to prep a bed for the three sisters planting experiment, mixing Crown Prince winter squash, Painted Mountain corn and borlotti beans. It’s the only patch of the allotment that we’ve never cropped because it lies above one of the underground watercourses. I’ve spent a year adding compost and sand to open up the heavy clay loam and improve drainage and I think (hope) it’s the ideal place to grow water greedy plants. We used the same technique to drain the beds below it on the slope with pretty reasonable results, although nothing would have coped with the amount of rain we had after Christmas.

But to go back to the thinnings. On Monday we were both exhausted when we got back and we knocked together a mixture of the thinnings we’d gleaned during the day. Together – although they looked like nothing you’d ever think of buying in a supermarket – they made a delicious and rather thought-provoking meal. Something has happened over the past 12 months of lockdown. Previously, eating our own produce has induced a degree of pride; the – look what we grew – pleasure and an almost aesthetic experience. But on Monday, remembering how disrupted the food chain had become, feeding ourselves narrowly crossed the line into an altogether different sense of the daunting challenge of providing food for ourselves. I remember reading a short story by Seán O’Faoláin many years ago, which described beautifully and rather desolately the struggles of an Irish peasant farmer. You couldn’t and never should try to romanticise how difficult subsistence farming is. We call it self-sufficiency and imagine it allows us to claim the high moral ground. It doesn’t, of course, it just makes us look like over indulged rich people.

I’m posting this without spellchecking because there’s a programme on Psilocybin treatment for depression I want to see on television – draw your own conclusions on that! Corrections to any egregious errors will be made tomorrow.

But that was last year!

Now we’re three weeks behind

With the prospect of a loosening of the lockdown tomorrow – which, to be honest, is a lousy idea – it would be lovely to pretend that we could get back to normal on the allotment. However, these photos taken in May last year prove beyond all reasonable doubt that this year we’re at least three weeks behind. Looking out across the green just now there’s not a sign of our elderflowers blossoming although the purple variety shown, from which we made the bottles also featured above, is at least in full leaf. The window boxes are waiting for the petunias to go in so they can be moved down to the flat, but even in the hotbed and the polytunnel the beetroots are nowhere near as well developed. Today we found the first tiny broad (fava) bean pods and we’re still at the carrot thinning stage. The asparagus bed is just grumbling into life like a teenager on a school morning, and we’ve had a couple of tasters but hardly a feed.

In other respects we’ve done well inside the tunnel, with salad greens, radishes, turnips, container potatoes looking well in their new position outside, and the ever patient tomatoes hardening off in pots; taller and healthier than they were last May. The slugs have been busy during this week of rain, and managed to fell all our dill seedlings and half of our sunflowers. What’s particularly infuriating is the way they climb up the plants and saw off the growing tip. The runner beans, planted out two days ago, were spared by leaving a sacrificial tray of failures to attract them away but we’ve been fighting a losing battle and today I ordered some nematode treatment which is expensive but marginally less so than losing crops. Even the aubergines, chillies and peppers have been locked down with us, clogging up the propagators and windows. Our first ever attempt at melons suffered a mere 25% germination rate and of the survivors there’s only one healthy looking plant but that could just as easily be lack of experience on our part.

A couple of weeks ago we were given an old freezer which has relieved our storage problems enormously, and so for the first time aside from eating inordinate amounts of freshly cooked rhubarb, we’ve been able to freeze enough to make jam later on when things calm down. There’s enough rhubarb on the whole allotment site to start a jam factory – it’s one of the few plants that it’s almost impossible to kill – along with horseradish of course! But some of the less experienced allotmenteers don’t seem to know that they should cut off the flowering spikes as soon as they appear, and keep pulling sticks regularly to preserve a supply of fresh and tender stalks. The old ones – the thickness of your arm are tough and full of oxalic acid.

The bird feeders have been a tremendous success, attracting great tits, blue tits and today a couple of coal tits that were quite unafraid of me standing quietly no more than three feet away. We’ve also had robins and magpies with blackbirds helping out on the path edges digging out slugs and snails. It’s difficult not to associate their arrival with the pond as well and our tadpoles are growing slowly although they must be being predated by something because the numbers have dropped significantly. So it’s not all bad news, and scanning the blogs today Madame said that everyone seems to be suffering from the cold and wet weather so the problem isn’t local.

To go to a theme I return to often, it’s not the bird rarities or the heaviest, tallest or fattest vegetables in the world, but the ordinary that animates us. Of course I wouldn’t shoo a willow tit or a goldcrest away, but I’m not the least bit disappointed if our allotment highlights are no better or worse than thousands of other equally ordinary people have, and a dandelion is a cheerful flower to have around when nothing much else is happening. In fact weeds are what most urban botanical apprentices like me cut our teeth on and the closer you look the more wonderful they seem to be. Dandelion seeds – when looked at through a low magnification microscope – are an absolute wonder!

Going back to the picture on the top left of the group; that’s the green I write about. It’s an incredibly popular spot for trysts, catch ups, picnics, getting drunk, kicking a ball around, dealing drugs, exercising dogs, once (memorably) dogging, (and behind every curtain in the square was a shameless pair of eyes!) tai chi, gymnastics and all the rich tapestry of city life. Recently we discovered that after installing the bases for a couple of seats on the green, the council were dissuaded from installing them after receiving a petition – signed (it is claimed) by 70 local residents. In a long life of community based work I’ve grown suspicious of being told the everyone is against an idea. Usually it amounts to a small but articulate and organised subset of the community. The alleged grounds for the objection were that seats might encourage antisocial behaviour – really? How on earth have we managed until now?

However, nature spared us a battle when a large tree was blown down during one of the many storms in early spring. Within a couple of weeks the brash was all sawn off and taken away as firewood by a rough sleeper who’s been living on the river bank for over a year. People soon congregated around the dead tree and used it as a seat but it was really in the wrong place. So one day someone dragged the trunk laboriously across the green to a new spot under the canopy of our largest tree. He spent two evenings attempting to use it as a springboard to climb the big tree and eventually succeeded in getting way up into the canopy, whereupon he lost interest and went away – probably to write a book about climbing trees. Now the fallen tree was in shadow under the big one so another group hauled it out into the sunshine where it’s been ever since. Children painted it with bright and cheerful graffiti and played on it and it’s hardly ever empty. This morning a couple of young women sat on it in the rain on a plastic bag and with an umbrella while they drank their coffee. Frank Lake – now hardly remembered but a pioneer of what he called “clinical theology” used a memorable phrase that perfectly describes the bureaucratic mind . He said “you can die from hardening of the oughteries!” My philosophy and ethics lecturer put it another way in his first lecture: “you can’t make an ought into an is”. Indeed you can’t but it doesn’t stop people in power from trying.

That tree ought to be a message of hope and a warning to anyone who thinks they have the right to dictate how communities use their spaces. The empty plinths are now used to protect the grass from barbeques and it’s a constant pleasure to see, and hear people playing games, getting together and enjoying life – even if it’s a little anarchic and occasionally gets out of hand.

– in the end what’s more antisocial?

Street life and street theatre is free; doesn’t need a policy statement or any funding; committee meetings and minutes, or risk assessments – and in the end what’s more antisocial? Is it a bit of noise and fun on the green? or is it warehousing all your fragile and vulnerable people in one place? (on the edge of the green), driving up rents and house prices through speculation? polluting the air we breathe with privately owned 3 litre diesel engined vanity vehicles? and putting a route for 45 tonne lorries through the middle of a densely populated but unfashionable part of town? oh and building nothing but old peoples’ homes and student flats because that’s where the money is? Answers on a postage stamp please!

Ten hours on the stove

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turnips get lonely too – why not befriend one today?

Five perfect turnips!

It’s probably a lingering memory of the distant past – (Turnip Townsend etc) that too many of us associate turnips with cattle food, and – to be fair – your average supermarket turnip, weighing in at about 8 oz would probably be better inside a sheep than a human being, especially after being driven across the country for three days after it was dug. I’ve written about this before so I’ll try not to repeat myself, but today we pulled the first turnips from the polytunnel; a Japanese variety that we’ve never grown before. They must have heard me talking about pulling them out in favour of the tomatoes and while we were away for a couple of days they put in a supreme effort. Thanks guys – and now we’re going to eat you.

So here’s how to enjoy turnips at their best. Firstly don’t let them get bigger than a golf ball or they’ll get tough and smell like dogs’ breath. Secondly try them raw – they’re delicious at this size – and you can eat them whole like a radish which they remind me of except they’re meatier and sweeter. You can ferment them but I can’t say much about that because I’ve never tried but I can imagine the sweet/sour effect would be lovely even after a very quick fermentation. Thirdly you can steam them for two or three minutes. I steamed some today and the transformation in flavour was unbelievable – they tasted like a different vegetable and still not overwhelmingly stringy and cabbage like as their middle aged cousins do. You can roast them and /or glaze them as well – they’re a lovely catch crop that grows in no time and needs very little care, at least in the polytunnel. Outside they grow so fast they’d probably escape the caterpillars but you need to remember they’re brassicas and so if you’ve got club root in the ground you should grow them in fresh soil in a container. In fact containers are the ideal way of growing all of these fast growing crops. While I think if it, you could also eat the greens as salad greens or as cime di rapa (or turnip tops) with pasta and a bit of oil and parmesan. As we never said in Bristol – “gert lush!”

We had to curtail our trip to the Mendip Hills because the van roof sprang a leak and woke Madame at 3.00am with rain dripping on her nose. I think I know the cause and the solution, so we’ll resume the field trips as soon as we get some dry weather during which I can mend it. Meanwhile we’ve got to roll a stone up a mountain and get all the tender plants out of pots and root trainers and into the earth. Today we planted out the first batches of runner beans, french beans and ……. quick drum roll please …… borlotti beans. They looked a bit sad when we left them but we’re due (yet) more rain tomorrow and they’ll soon perk up.

The writing’s on the wall

Graphis scripta – script lichen or secret writing lichen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Barnoon Cemetery St Ives, March 2017

My dog-eared I Ching brings some peace.

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

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

A red letter day

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

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

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

Sound advice from the first millennium BC

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

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

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

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

Not entirely on the level!

These are the last two beds on the allotment to be prepped ready for planting up and I took the photo from this angle to show how – when people ask if we use raised beds – we have to say – “It depends which end you’re at”. The allotment is on a moderate slope and so over the years we’ve built up the soil at the southern end of each bed to terrace it. I’ve never done a calculation but at a guess we’ve used perhaps 10 cubic metres of cast off potting compost, home made compost and manure, mixed with bought-in topsoil. I hate to think how much it’s cost, but soil is precious and we never throw anything away.

The plan is to move the container potatoes on to the end plot, covered with a hoop cloche, and then tip them out to harvest them in a few weeks, leaving the soil behind and finally raising the soil level at the end. The weight of added earth had been distorting the retaining planks, and so we’ve also had to replace the short wooden pegs with sturdy posts to keep the earth in place. I was watering some new plants the other day and I was shocked to see how much topsoil was being washed away down a small gap in the planks. I think we’ll just about manage to move the potatoes in the green sacks, but although they’ve held up for five seasons, the stitching is getting rotten and so we’ve moved over to some chunky purpose built 35L buckets with handles. The limitations of space which I wrote about recently when I was thinking about rotations, means that one alternative is to grow potatoes, tomatoes etc; and carrots too in containers of fresh soil every year – keeping them under nets and therefore disease and pest free.

It was a hard day’s work, removing all the purple sprouting broccoli and reducing the stalks to shreds with a hand axe. The resulting foot of composting material we mixed with some straw and a couple of handfuls of fish, blood and bone fertilizer and gave it a good wet. Relying on the rain to keep the heap at the right level of moisture is hopeless, so we keep it covered and water it when necessary.

All this work is about getting ready to move the tender veg into the plots after the last frost, to make room for planting the tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, chillies, a melon and some and basil inside the polytunnel. The tunnel has been a blast, and we’ve feasted on early salad crops but sadly some will have to be removed before they’re quite ready. Next year we’ll have a lot more experience and we’ll get things in at more appropriate times.

In the back of our minds today was a palace coup by a divided local Lib Dem council who were elected on a radical plan to cut traffic and emissions but who have just been forced to withdraw planning permission for some ‘executive’ houses on a nature reserve in a unique habitat, and who have voted the leader out because they feared her radical commitment to the manifesto might endanger their chances of re-election. She made a brilliant speech yesterday when this all came out but for many of us this reverse has compromised their chances of keeping power altogether. The thought of having to ask the voters to leave their Range Rovers in the garage was too much for them to contemplate – not least because they seem to be planning to allow 48 tonne lorries through the centre of Bath in order to get government funds to mend the Cleveland Bridge. Our political system is completely broken, and once radical parties are squabbling over some mythical ‘centre ground’ in the forlorn hope that something will turn up to save us from ourselves. That’s called magical thinking. The Darwinian solution to this challenge is for the human race to drown in our own effluent and let the earth and its surviving life forms start all over again. The other solutions all involve doing without some stuff we don’t really need. I could go on but I won’t. Two things not on the level at once is enough!