Soil, sunshine, rain.

It’s difficult to overstate how beautiful this cauliflower is. I wondered for a moment whether I should add “beautiful to me” to that statement, but I think not. The beauty of grown things is not a whimsical fancy but one of the facets of nature that presents itself to us as a fait accompli. This exquisite formation of leaves and curds doesn’t demand my admiration – in fact, being a vegetable, it has no view on me or my opinions but comes as a gift.

I took the photograph yesterday when Madame unfurled the leaves which had mantled the head because she wanted to see whether this longstanding occupant of the allotment had finally come through. A full year after being sown, this cauliflower – one of four – was showing signs of its age; chewed by slugs with the outer leaves pecked by pigeons until we netted it, and the stalk turned to wood. These long standing biennials occupy a lot of ground for a very long time but, like the purple sprouting broccoli, they ripen at times of peak need – the hungry gap. The old growing year produces its Rembrandts just as the bright young things are putting on their first shows.

Most amazing of all is the fact that the food we grow and eat is made by turning sunshine, water and earth into vegetables. It’s a difficult balance because just a little too much or too little of any of the three can lead to disaster. For instance we’ve just emerged from one of the wettest winters since records began, followed by the driest spring and the coldest sequence of frosty April nights for sixty years. The plants are all at sixes and sevens and we allotmenteers are juggling seedlings, watering cans, propagators, south facing (UK) windows and fleece whilst obsessively consulting the weather apps on our phones. Sunshine, water and earth – the elemental gifts of nature – are outwith our area of dominion.

The watering can, the heated propagator, the polytunnel, fleece and greenhouse are our puny attempts to skew the odds in our favour. However, skewing the odds presupposes we’ve cracked the secret and what’s actually happened is that growers and farmers believed the bookies and started shovelling cash into the agrochemical fruit machine in the misplaced certainty that they were bound to win the jackpot eventually.

But slowly we’ve come to realize that rain, sunshine and earth are not strangers but the deeply related holy trinity of all growing things – ourselves included. Seawater and sun make clouds and clouds make rain. But when the clouds obscure the sun then the sun and the earth are estranged. When the earth is eroded no amount of sun can restore it. When it heats up, the weather becomes confused and extreme. The dark side of forcing the last drop of profit from the earth is drought, storm, flood, pestilence and famine – and if that sounds a bit Old Testament it’s maybe because this temptation to game the system isn’t something that got invented in the modern world.

But to get back to my cauliflower; when I look at it – rather perhaps when I behold it, I understand that all the while I thought I was the agent through whose efforts it could grow – I was, in fact its servant. Fussing over the seedlings, pricking them out and then in time planting them in a bed we’d already prepared; netting them last summer to keep the cabbage white butterflies out; hand picking slugs and snails out of the crown; spraying the white fly with soap and water and wrapping them against pigeons. We were in it together the whole while; with me in the expectation of the food it would provide and the cauliflower presumably committed to continuing its genetic inheritance to a future generation – all of which makes seed saving a kind of moral imperative!

We haven’t done a great deal of seed saving on the allotment except for the Calendulas and sunflowers (harvested one drunken night in Provence, with a full moon and fireflies!) – which seem to grow better from saved seed. This year we’re leaving a single parsnip in the ground to flower and we’ll save seed from that too; but the main motivation was to take advantage of its power as an attractor for insects. Is this some kind of religious attitude creeping in? It would hardly be surprising if there weren’t some traces of harvest festival, rogation days, Plough Monday and Wassailing at the White Hart jiggling around with the Old Testament stories in the back of the old lorry that constitutes my memory. But it’s not organised religion in any sense – not the kind that gives licence to so much mayhem and destruction.

What I love about allotmenteering is the chance to engage with nature much more practically. Going on a walk through the woods is like sitting there alone on the edge at the school prom. It’s much more engaging to grow a wallflower than to be one. When I approach a plant I often ask it (silently) what would be the right thing to do for you right now? Sometimes plants say ‘give me some space‘, or ‘give me some water‘. Sometimes they say – “I don’t like it here – can you put me over there in a bit more shade or sunshine?” The end result of the dialogue is a better plant. My cauliflower is the product of a long conversation between the seed, the earth, the sun and the rain and me. That’s the point of it. When we finally pick and harvest our produce we often say thank you out loud as we shall when I cut the first cauliflower at the weekend.

Of course there’s all the stuff about road miles, industrial food production and intensive farming with all its chemicals and heavy machinery; but ultimately we grow food at the Potwell Inn, because the only way to become fully human is to join the dance; to embrace feast and failure as a joyful participant rather than a passive consumer fuming at the absence of your favourite brand of tomato in the supermarket.

There is something splendid about a vegetable – even a cauliflower -wrought in this elemental process of earth, water and sun. The fact that generations of seed savers and plant breeders have selected for what we like to describe as desirable qualities might equally be seen as the resilient plant’s embrace of mutuality as the best way of getting along well. As Michael Pollan points out, corn and potatoes have done pretty well out of the deal.

So let’s not get too despondent about the way things are. Environmental degradation really is reversible. My phone – an ever reliable cause of pondering – came up with this photo of the Potwell Inn allotment exactly five years ago to the day. I rest my case.

Whatever it takes, please – please read this book!

I don’t normally do straight book reviews and neither do I promote anything; I’ve no desire at all to be an ‘influencer’ whatever that might mean, but I will mention books when they’re good, or important; and so over the last couple of years I’ve worried and written a lot about the ecological crisis we’re in, and some of the books that have guided my thoughts. One day I’ll make a bibliography and put it up as a purely personal and probably idiosyncratic list that might help someone to make a start. Back at the Potwell Inn there are shelves full of them but it wouldn’t be difficult to rank them. Some are academic and hard to grasp – that doesn’t make them bad but I’d hesitate to recommend a book that might put anyone off the trail. Some are so partisan and angry that I could only read them a few pages at a time for fear of being overwhelmed. We’re not farmers or a horticulturalists here, and so people like us sometimes figure in the shadowy world of the consumer in these books, the apparently dimwitted customers who, by demanding ever cheaper food, helped to create the crisis we’re now in.

I don’t like being hectored or finger-wagged at. I don’t like being treated as an idiot or being held personally responsible for the way things are – and neither do farmers or ‘newt counting’ ecologists. We really are – (after carefully wiping the politicians’ snake oil off the phrase) – ‘in this together’ and the only workable solution will come from working together. The system is broke.

So who better than someone right inside the mess to show us what it feels like from the inside. I ordered James Rebank’s latest book “English Pastoral’ on a whim. Madame had read his previous book ‘A Shepherd’s Life’ previously and been quite lyrical about it but being an old stick in the mud I resisted. So when I ordered the new book I made sure I’d read the earlier book first. It’s good – patchy but good. There was a touch too much of the caricature blunt Yorkshireman I thought, and I also thought the tales of youthful rebellion, ‘drinking and shagging’ as he puts it, and the ferocious arguments with his father were a bit over-egged until, that is, the little voice in my head reminded me that we always dislike in others what we most dislike about ourselves and my own school career ended when I was escorted from the school (by the collar) by the headmaster for being a disruptive and disobedient pain; beginning three years of sombre reflection in dead end labouring jobs. It was Madame who got me into college and back on course. There were more parallels than you’d find in a school geometry set.

So ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ was always a better book than my grudging soul would admit and I’m glad I read it. ‘English Pastoral’ is even better. I really couldn’t put it down. He’s apparently friends with Wendell Berry, and has read Henry Williamson and somehow manages to weave together the lyrical voice with downright practical wisdom, occasionally shocking earthiness and a better grasp of the big picture than anyone else I’ve read. But the big sell, for me, was that I felt I was being embraced as part of the grand plan. The occasional snarky remarks in the first book about tourists’ collective ignorance of what fell farming is really like, have disappeared. The narrowness and suspicion of outsiders and experts, ecologists and economists and interfering incomers in the younger farmer, have all gone and what’s left is a conversation being led by a farmer who commands and deserves respect; a mea culpa in places for going with the flow against his better instincts and a luminous vision of the way forward. Any fierceness is reserved for the agrochemical industry and their accomplices and lobbyists; the manufacturers of ever more destructive machinery; the greedy banks, and the economic orthodoxy that turned land and crops into commodities.

It’s a desperately needed working paper in a world of conflicting demands; offering a model that takes seriously the need for farmers to make a living, that addresses some of the key faults of the extreme end of the rewilding movement, and which dismisses any idea of a one size fits all policy. It addresses the need for food security and completely smashes any idea that what we need is another technological fix so we can carry on the way we are.

Read it, please, if you’re a farmer or a naturalist, or an ecologist or walker, and especially if you live, like me, in a city – and ponder what and where to buy sustainable food. Read it if you’re an allotmenteer because there’s a lot about soil there. Read it if you’re a banker or an economist because this movement is not going away.

When I was a child we used to catch the train up to Reading to see our grandparents who lived a country bus ride away in the Chilterns. The journey involved a change at Didcot, and what was most thrilling (and terrifying) about it was that the train didn’t actually stop at Didcot at all, but just slowed down so that the ‘slip coach’ could glide, engineless, into the station controlled by the guard who presumably operated the brakes.

This morning as I finished the book I remembered that childish adventure and pondered whether, when the great neoliberal train finally crashes the buffers at Oxford, they might discover that the rest of us got off at Didcot and that the banks and the hedge funds and the agrochemical complex have finally reached the catastrophic end of their triumphant journey. Alone.