“We cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it”

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Albert Einstein – quoted by Vandana Shiva in her book “Soil not Oil”

I had a faintly disturbing conversation with a retired farm worker at the wassail on Friday evening. There were two things he said that made me prick up my ears – firstly something to the effect “we are going to lose all our subsidies and get paid to plant trees” – I’ll come back to that one – but secondly he said that the farm he still helps out on has changed the approach to foot rot in sheep (very successfully apparently) and so they no longer trim the feet – there’s sound evidence that this increases lameness – but now spray infected feet and then inject the sheep with long acting antibiotic such as oxytetracycline which is apparently very successful.  I came away with the impression that this treatment was being administered prophylactically in the flock which is probably nice for the sheep but possibly not quite so nice for us humans if it helps create more resistant strains of bacteria.

It’s just another example of the mindset that’s got us into the environmental mess we’re in. The land on which the flock is kept is very wet and is drained by a network of rhynes, (ditches) that feed larger ditches and  and pumping stations.  The prolonged wet weather these last few months has left farmers unable to sow spring cereals and even moving flocks of sheep has been problematic. The solution, as is so depressingly frequent, has been to reach for a new technology.

The question of farm subsidies is crying out to be examined, but as my friend spoke I had a premonition that even in the entirely sensible ambition to plant more trees, big business will sweep into the field with new and even more expensive technology offering a one-stop solution to farmers that’s almost inevitably going to be indiscriminately applied and propped up with even more chemicals. Which is where the moss comes in.

Ever since the mid 20th century agribusiness has been treating the earth as a simple industrial input. Land is graded from the very best through to the marginal, and farmers, hill farmers for instance, have been heavily subsidised to keep sheep on land that’s not really suitable. During the past centuries peat bogs have been exploited for fuel and horticulture to the extent that 95% of them have simply disappeared. It’s now becoming clear that peatlands are performing an indispensable service to the earth by soaking up half a trillion of tonnes of carbon – the data is here – twice as much as is stored in all the forests combined. Yet peatlands only cover 3% of the land areas of the earth. It almost makes you want to weep that only fifty years ago Scottish peatland was being ploughed and drained and planted up with imported trees. I’m quoting here from Dave Gouson’s book “The Garden Jungle” –

Over the past 10,000 years, UK peatlands have quietly sequestered 5.5 billion tones of carbon – nearly forty times the 150 million tonnes of carbon stored in our woodlands.

– and we’re still digging them up to spread peat on our daffodils!

It also happens to be the case that peatlands grow proportionally faster during periods when the global temperature is rising. So here’s just one part of the puzzle that we need to solve, and we can solve not by buying into impressive new technological fixes but by doing almost nothing. We need to ban the extraction of peat altogether and we need to halt and then reverse the draining of peatland for agricultural use.  We need to allow them to flood again which will not only increase the amount of carbon being sequestered far more efficiently then tree planting can but will also hold vast quantities of water that would otherwise run off moors, mountainsides and hills filling rivers and flooding good land and towns downstream. Peatland holds the carbon in storage for as long as the bog exists.  Trees only sequester carbon while they’re actually growing and when they die and rot they release it back into the atmosphere again.  So tree planting can only be a temporary solution while we make all the other changes, the ones we haven’t made during the fifty years we’ve known about the problem! Inevitably this will impact farmers’ livelihoods, but the subsidies can be reapplied to the maintenance of peatlands and their vital impact on wildlife and biodiversity. So my friend was right in outline, but not – I sincerely hope – in detail. Yes of course we should massively increase tree planting as well, but in the right places, not just anywhere farmers can shove a couple of thousand saplings in and book their summer holidays on the subsidy.

So if my newly found interest in bryophytes – mosses, liverworts and the rest – seems a bit perverse or leftfield, it’s because these poorly understood branches of creation just might be in a position to help solve what no amount of cash, science, technology and PR has managed. George Monbiot is right in many of his diagnoses but some of his prescriptions are terrible, especially when he seems to have bought into the fantasy that technology can solve our problems. More nuclear power stations fuelling factories that produce gigatonnes of industrial seaweed and fungus gloop really aren’t the solution.  I’m not even sure if they’re part of the solution.

There’s no reason why you should know that our word martyr derives from the Greek verb ‘martureo’ – to bear witness; it used to be my job to know stuff like that! Each age has its own witnesses and it so happens that in our own time of turmoil, the environmental scientists, the botanists, mycologists, bryologists, ecologists, meteorologists, climatologists, organic gardeners and farmers, the young activists and all the others are the witnesses to what’s going on. It’s about the earth, the soil – and it’s no accident that organic allotments are between four and eleven times more productive than intensive farms. Is anybody listening?

All that glisters

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They were very large, very beautiful Cox’s and we agreed – Madame Eve and me to eat a couple. Sadly what followed was not the wrath of God, or being driven out of the Potwell Inn and into the desert but just – disappointment.  In fact we’ve eaten, or rather not eaten any amount of lovely looking but ultimately disgusting, tasteless and pappy fruit ripened in a nitrogen filled cold store and pimped with wax and a little union jack designed to make us feel exceptionally virtuous. Advertising and presentation, supermarket snake oil, is just the way agribusiness can fool most of the people all of the time.  “Well don’t buy them!” would be a well deserved rebuke, but we still do in the hope that they might be alright after all. The fact is, almost all supermarket fruit is artificially retarded from ripening, bred with genetically enhanced  armour plated skins and designed for presentation and not flavour.  In our experience many fruits like apricots, mangoes and peaches will never ripen at this time of the year.

So what’s good at the moment? …. Pears.  Good old cheap as chips Conference pears eaten so ripe you have to eat them like a mango, with your sleeves rolled up. Forget the exotic fruit with all its glamour and airmiles and eat pears, preferably organic ones. And then there are Seville oranges of course, to make better marmalade than you could ever buy, at a fraction of the cost, and Bramley apples. Aside from them, stick to vegetables – it’s winter – and then when the new season comes around you can swoon with delight at the sheer intensity of in-season flavour. We’re still eating squashes, greens and spuds from the allotment, and of course there’s blackcurrants, raspberries. red currants and gooseberries in the freezer.  It’s really not the end of the world if we have to wait a few months before the Discovery apples come off the trees, and in any case what are jams preserves and pickles for, if not providing us with a bit of food variety during the hungry gap?

But that’s enough. What really promoted this mini tantrum was listening to the BBC Food Programme this afternoon. The subject was Spirulina – blue green algae – which, it’s manufacturers claim, is the food of the future. full of protein, vitamins, minerals and so good for you you’ll live forever. After half an hour of listening to its breathlessly excited merchandisers it slowly became obvious that it tastes filthy unless you bleach-boil it in nitric acid for two days and then separate the tasteless powder in an industrial centrifuge. Even the vitamin B12 it’s had claimed for it, turns out to be unavailable to our digestive systems. The key question, put by the presenter of the programme, was never answered and it was “do we really want to increase the amount of industrially manufactured foods we eat?” Or put more simply, if it tastes and looks filthy and can only be made palatable by industrial processing, isn’t it likely that it will then be stuffed full of artificial flavourings and texturizers before being packaged, promoted and sold back to us as as the best thing since white sliced bread?

If, like me, you’re interested in the numbers, then it looks as if you’d probably do better to eat a boiled egg: and let’s not get into the ethical arguments because it seems possible that in our anxiety about food we’re so focused on the ethics we haven’t noticed that we’ve become the new battery hens; fed dangerous untested foods, confined in dingy polluted surroundings for 15 hours a day and discarded in old age when we’re no longer productive. If you want to live a long and healthy life the best advice I’ve seen is Michael Pollan’s dictum ” …. eat food, not too much, mostly veg.”

I wrote a while ago about the fact that I hadn’t initially understood what the deep ecologists were saying when they talked about the “aquarian conspiracy”, but here’s an excellent example in the way that our go-to solution for all problems has become industrial technology. We’ll solve all the problems that confront us by inventing new technologies like carbon capture, food technology, genetic modification, fusion power – and so the list goes on. If I put myself back on the couch and articulate all these unrealised and unrealisable desires to a psychotherapist they might, if they were any good, gently probe my deeper motivations. “What are you most frightened of?” My own psychoanalytic psychotherapist once cracked the funniest joke (extremely unexpected) after I recounted a recurring dream about being shadowed by two elephants. He responded  “Oh, well I’m a Freudian so they’re sex and death!”

I’m convinced that, since the collapse of religious imagery, we’ve lost the means of articulating our deepest fears about both of my dream elephants, and so issues of sexual identity and the fear of death have found new expressions in our culture. In the past these fears were managed and exploited by the God industry and converted into secular power, political influence and some nice buildings. What’s happened is that a new bunch of hucksters have stepped in to skim the profits.  These days you don’t need a knowledge of ancient Greek or Latin to understand the theology; a qualification in business studies and the ability to trace the true ownership of the latest quasi artisan brand of gloop will do better. They still trade on fear; fear of death, fear of illness, fear of the loss of vitality, fear of old age or ugliness or poverty or whatever and they are ready, so very ready, to monetize that fear.

Industry knows very well how to bait the hook to catch a fish, and the hook here is often additionally baited with the climate catastrophe, environmental destruction and species extinctions. Wherever you look within the food trade you see entirely specious claims – often more implied than in your face (for fear of breaching advertising standards regulations), that eating or drinking industrial gloop will save the earth in some unspecified way. So by linking together our personal fears with our justified fear for the environment they prop up a weak argument with powerful emotions. As an example of the power of advertising, smoking no longer makes you look sexy; but it did once!  – and I well remember a photocopied herbalist’s catalogue from the early 1970’s among whose testimonials were accounts of satisfied customers coughing up or otherwise passing tumours in the kind of events that would have had me running screaming to A & E.  Hope and fear are powerful sales tools.

For what it’s worth, there’s more sex and death on the average allotment than you’ll see in a season of Scandi Noir, and all of it absolutely real. My own mortality and vulnerability are contextualized within the ebb and flow of nature, with the sun and rain on my back; and at the stove and the table later where food becomes sacramental rather than instrumental. There’s very little difference in tone between foodie fundamentalists and religious ones, and between them they’ve precipitated the need for saving the earth by a warped religious understanding of our place within it, and invented an impractical and ideologically distorted plan for saving it.

Saving the earth and flourishing as humans certainly needs urgent action on our part, and won’t happen without some challenging changes in the way we live, but there’s no magic bullet.

Every gift horse should have its teeth examined regularly by a qualified vet.

As we say in Bristol – “where’s that to?”

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– and the answer is in our son’s next door neighbour’s garden in the middle of Birmingham.  In fact herons are almost a pest in suburban gardens these days and almost any little pond is likely to be raided. Last time we were up in Birmingham we saw a large heronry alongside a reservoir near Winterbourne House, and a few years back our son saw a peregrine kill a pigeon and eat it on the path outside his kitchen window in the middle of Harbourne.  On our allotment in Bath we see foxes and badgers and one allotmenteer has seen deer there.  The birds are pretty prolific as well, we’ve got one established peregrine nest in the centre of town and if I were a better entomologist  I reckon we’ve a rich collection of insects on the allotments too, not to mention the smaller mammals I wrote about yesterday. In fact Ken Thompson’s work at the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, some of which comes up in his book “The Sceptical Gardener” – well worth reading –  and Dave Goulson’s books on bees suggest that suburban gardens are both a resource and a hotspot for depleted wildlife.

So while urban and suburban gardeners (and farmers) pit themselves and their gardens against environmental catastrophe, what’s happening out there in the “real” countryside?  I think we pretty much know the answer to that one – it’s a story of crisis.  I would have said it was a story of decline if I’d been writing this a few years ago, but there are signs of hope, typified by the rewilding project at Knebb but replicated on a much more modest scale in many other places. While we all wish that change could come faster but there’s a lot of inertia and a whole culture to overcome before that can happen, and I know we need action right now,  but with a climate change denying government, banks and multinational pharmaceutical companies still in control, the  responsibility for change, for the time being, has to be on us and our behaviour.

At the AGM of the Bath Natural History Society this afternoon, (Prof) David Goode – in his President’s address – said that he felt that public attitudes towards climate change had changed for the better over the past year, and gave credit to Greta  Thunberg for inspiring the Extinction Rebellion movement and catalysing the sense of urgency.  He also said that he had authored some reports in the late 1970’s in a book trying to predict what was coming during the next decades.  He told us that the editor of the publication had refused to accept the phrase “greenhouse effect” but that every one of his predictions had come to pass before the end of the decade. In my view, with Australia on fire, California in the grip of a prolonged drought and multiple species extinctions across the world it’s become ever more clear that climate change, species extinction and neoliberal politics are all part of the same problem and we can’t choose to fix just one of them.  Having worked in the countryside for 25 years I know only too well the cost to the environment of soil degradation, monoculture, eutrophication of the rhynes (ditches) and the continual application of powerful chemicals, and it’s a cost to the farmers too because as their income is squeezed by falling farm gate prices deliberately forced on them by supermarkets (ask any dairy farmer) they feel they’re being blamed for the state of the environment while the real architects of agribusiness are living high on the hog.

It’s shaming rather than ironic, that suburban and urban green spaces have become places of refuge for wildlife, harried from the countryside by the destruction of habitat and driven by an economics that has no column for the environment in the profit and loss accounts. If you add in the ludicrous farm subsidy system and the lobbying power of the agrochemical industry and it looks like a perfect storm. Ironically I won a signed hardback copy of Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” in the raffle.  I bought the paperback last summer at Heligan, so I’ll pass that copy on to a friend. IMG_20200104_154026One of the greatest advantages of  living in the centre of Bath is the proximity of the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution which is only 5 minutes walk away and accommodates  most of the Bath Nats indoor meetings. The view through the first floor window was lovely this afternoon. January is the quietest month in Bath, with far fewer visitors and space to walk around the city unhampered.

Up at the allotment this morning we planted out the last batch of overwintering broad beans. The first feed of broad beans and new potatoes is a landmark meal, marking the end of the hungry gap and the hope of good things to come, but the soil is very wet at the moment and the water table is so close to the surface that we’re a bit concerned about the effect on the overwintering plants, so it may be necessary to deepen the soakaways or to raise the beds even more, adding plenty of grit to the soil to improve drainage. Whichever we choose it’s going to be hard work, that’s for sure.

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Luckily we’ve got a second string to our bow because  we started a second batch of garlic in large pots, filled with a free-draining mix of soil, compost and horticultural grit, with a few handfuls of vermiculite thrown in. It’s a similar mix to the one we’ve evolved for growing basil indoors under the horticultural lights and that’s absolutely thrived this winter giving us a year-round supply of full flavoured basil. This variety is called Neapolitan and I like it even more than the Classico.

  • This post was amended on Sunday to restore a displaced paragraph to its proper position.

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