Meanwhile back at the Potwell Inn

We had a wonderful maths teacher at secondary school called Bill Williams who, after a particularly arduous bit of new calculus would occasionally perch on the corner of his desk a while before the class was due to end and tell us stories about the war. Then as the bell went he would be off down the corridor, cigarette at the ready and into the staff room from which an eye-watering cloud of smoke would emerge. He had a sixth sense about when he was losing us and his brilliant strategy was either to go about explaining the teaching point in a different way – you didn’t get that one, I can see – or resort to the stories. In spite of ourselves we always came out having learned something.

So I’m really sorry if the last couple of posts were a bit intense – Madame certainly thought so – and I decided I’d steal Bill Williams’ trick and show some pictures from today on the allotment. I’ve already written about the intensity of the season and today was the second long session of sowing and transplanting on the kitchen table accompanied by some head scratching and a quick session on the microscope to determine the nature of the hordes of tiny mosquito like insects that have been emerging from the compost in the propagators. They are sciarid flies, AKA fungus flies or mushroom flies and we’re pretty sure that the grubs were responsible for an awful germination rate on one of the batches of tomatoes. So some serious cleaning was engaged in, we changed the watering regime, lowered the humidity by removing all the covers and ordered up a nematode treatment. The yellow sticky strips that had provided the evidence were covered in the little so and so’s – a pretty useful telltale if you ever notice these pests wandering around on the table.

You will also see that – joy of joys – the purple sprouting broccoli is ready for regular harvesting, the successional sowings of peas are thriving in root trainers in the polytunnel and the tomatoes are continuing their slow journey out of the flat. Other pleasures today was the first taste of French sorrel – sooo sharp and lovely, and a fresh wholemeal sourdough loaf that took over 24 hours to get to the oven because we were so busy I moved the dough into the coldest place outside the flat (on the boot rack) to hold it back.

On Tuesday Madame transplanted some ridiculously tiny coriander seedlings into modules and we took them up to the tunnel to take their chances. I swear they waved at me when I next looked 12 hours later. My improvised bird feeding station has been attracting visitors against all expectations. We also paid a visit to a local farm shop where to our great delight we found an itinerant fishmonger and bought loads of treats. This evening we started on scallops with farm cured smoked bacon and then spaghetti with a home made roasted tomato sauce. I quietly scoffed the cockles and a rollmop herring while I was cooking. Tomorrow there will be proper kippers! Oh Glory the good times are almost here! Sadly a peep under the tunnel cloche failed to show anything happening on the asparagus bed, but it’ll come in its own time.

As so often happens we’d been deliberating on whether to give up on the heritage pea varieties – Show Perfection and Alderman because being so tall they shade a large area of ground. They’re the young plants in the photo. Then as we walked around the allotment today we realized that there’s a perfect spot right on the western edge alongside a row of cordon apples. So that’s where they’re going and we’ll grow a catch crop of sugar snap in the polytunnel and sow Douce Provence (a small variety) in a bed somewhere else.

Something to celebrate

Lesser Celandines on the river bank yesterday

At the risk of losing your attention altogether I want to add one further comment to the last two posts: Religiously planting potatoes and Ghost signs in which I’ve strayed off the subject of the allotment plan to explore the seasonal rhythms and implicit spiritualities of the allotment year.

You can check back on the previous posts to see how I managed to get from figuring out when to plant overwintering crops in the polytunnel to arrive at the significant overlap between the solar (everyday) calendar and the so-called pagan, let’s say pre-Christian and Christian calendars. I gave up on trying to incorporate the lunar calendar because – although I’ve no particularly strong opinions about it – the crucial difference between the lunar year of 354 days and the solar calendar of 365 days means that they only reconcile every thirty years . While I’m perfectly prepared to believe that there’s something very significant about the lunar cycle, what small amount of science I’ve remembered suggests that for an experiment to yield any meaningful data you need to reduce the number of variables as much as possible. The simple act of sowing a seed on the Potwell Inn allotment at the optimum time involves day length – whether spring or autumn, soil temperature, weather forecast, whether under cover or outside and probably many more obscure factors. To add the phase of the moon, whether waxing or waning for instance let alone the zodiac sign at new moon, would add a level of complication that would render any possible results meaningless. This doesn’t however imply that the sight of an autumn moon or the splendour of Orion in winter isn’t both mysterious and utterly compelling. One of our deepest human compulsions is to turn such moments into stories. Myths, I often think, are the way we try to tell the truth about mysteries we can’t fathom.

Not all our stories are equally benign, though, and during phases of fundamental change in a culture, stories can become weaponized and profoundly dangerous. At this moment we’re facing three of the most destructive stories the human race has ever concocted; the story that says for every problem there’s a technological fix; the story that evolution is a secular and linear progression towards the perfect society and another one that claims all our troubles are the fault of strangers. I don’t for a moment believe that our present crisis can be resolved by withdrawing and growing carrots because I’m neither a prepper (but) nor am I prepared to abandon hope in favour of realpolitik. The key thing is to remember that paradigm changes come slowly and are very patchy to begin with, and the attention span of politicians and journalists is easily exceeded by the goldfish. We are poorly adapted to perceiving extremely slow changes.

So I’ll leave that sort of pondering for the long winter nights because right now we’re frantically busy on the allotment and back at the flat shuffling plants in and out of the propagators on to window sills; pricking out seedlings, re-potting them as roots appear to have filled their latest accommodation and (most time consuming of all) looking for permanent markers that actually work! As we approach the vernal equinox on Saturday we find ourselves taken by surprise once again at the workload. If my wonderful new mandala could speak it would say – ‘well I did warn you!’

So the final life lesson from drawing the growing year as a wheel, comes from wondering at the way in which these seasons and their festivals have survived for so many thousands of years with different names but in so many different cultures. Isn’t it most likely that they meet some kind of deep human need that won’t be extinguished by the growth and decline of whole civilisations and their ideologies. We now understand, after a year of lockdowns, that isolation is a kind of hell – and that we are, at our very deepest levels, social beings. As I listen to the news it’s heartbreaking to listen to the way in which we’ve become divided from one another by anger and suspicion. The thing about nature is that it it’s one of the few aspects of our lives whose stock has risen during the pandemic. Without any kind of theology or explanatory apparatus we overwhelmingly agree that the natural world commands both respect and love. This at least is something we can gather together and celebrate, and we even have a servicable ancient timetable.

The simple act of sowing a seed is the beginning of understanding the generosity of the earth. It’s risky, it means learning to bend to, and accept the forces of nature – many of which we can’t begin to fathom. There is loss but often there is gain in the form of a harvest that I never quite feel I deserve and most particularly I want to say thank-you for without any ready made template to turn to. The cycle of festivals is our most powerful means of channeling these instinctive responses. Over the years I’ve led many harvest festivals, wassails, plough services, Christmas carols and rogation services where we once had a go at beating the parish bounds. It was a long walk! All of these festivals pre-date their appropriation by the Christian church which, ironically – you might think – kept them going for a couple of millennia because they couldn’t be suppressed.

If I’d quizzed the participants at those events why they were there I don’t suppose one in twenty would have come up with a theological reply. Why did we, year after year, walk a forty something mile pilgrimage across the fields between Malmesbury and Littleton on Severn to celebrate what was probably a mythical story about a murdered monk? Anyone who knows me will have heard me describe these endlessly re-enacted ancient festivals as left luggage offices where you don’t even need to know exactly what it is that you’ve mislaid somewhere in a long life, because surprisingly often it will just turn up.

There are very good reasons for being respectful of nature as we are now discovering with the threefold catastrophe of global heating, species extinction and economic chaos. For centuries – millennia even – humans put our trust in negotiations with the supernatural because there was nothing else. Then science and technology swaggered on to the street and for a while it looked as if they’d cracked it. We came to believe that, given time, there was no problem or threat that couldn’t be solved by science. Time was given – lots of time – and we discovered that science and technology were as much part of the problem as they were part of the solution.

We’ve been cynically divided and set apart by the spirit of an age which has run its course and whose beneficiaries are frantically trying to secure their wealth and power by dividing us into ever smaller and less powerful monads. But it’s so lonely being in a community of one where no-one understands or cares.

So when this is all over; those of us who love the earth and can glimpse a way of living less destructively should turn off the mobiles and bring on the festivals and feasts; bring on the gatherings for mourning and marking the great life changes, bring on the bonfires and lanterns and especially the songs and dances and community plays, bring on the strangers and the dressing up, bring on the cider (although we won’t all be drinking it) and the ash wands and the well dressing. Bring on the singers and the musicians, the sun, the moon and the stars and let the astronomers talk to the astrologers and discover that they both like daffodils; let the hydrologists talk to the dowsers and see what they can learn and the herbalists talk to the medics and see if they can swap useful ideas. Let granny talk to the historians so she can put them right on all their most egregious mistakes and finally let the politicians and journalists come on strict condition that they don’t speak but just listen – carefully for once. Tear down the shutters, pull back the curtains and open the windows wide. Let’s have the greatest ever festival to bring to reflect on all the things we don’t understand and to re-enchant and celebrate the sacred earth for taking care of us in spite of us behaving like ungrateful hooligans.

Next time – back to the allotment, I promise.

Ghost signs

The first rough draft of the chart with calculations

Bath is full of ghost signs. One of my favourites is the faded trace of Hands Dairy sign, still visible on the wall above a shop adjacent to the Abbey courtyard. In the early 70’s we were students at Bath Academy of Art which, at the time had its home in Corsham, a few miles east along the A4. However we came into Bath, to Sydney Place, for some design lectures and it was only a short walk to Hands – which by that time was a cafĂ©, a bit of a greasy spoon place but it did a wonderful steak and kidney pie and chips. The cafe has long since disappeared but the ghost sign for the dairy is still there today. In fact there are several ghost signs for dairies dotted around Bath, and Jane Austin mentions walking along Cow Lane on her way to Weston. The lane is still there but the cows are long gone.

The point of this excursus is that the signs seem to do more than simply announce the name of a defunct business. To me they always trigger thoughts of the whole history and culture of the era they came from. I could never think of Hands Dairy without hearing the sound of the steel tyres of the milk cart on the cobbles, and the steady clip clop of the horse in front. Ghost signs are faded portals into another age. But you often need a particular angle of the light to spot them. Otherwise they lie there obscured until the season or the angle of the setting sun reveals them.

So it’s been with my sudden interest in pagan seasons. I loathe the word pagan because it’s so piously dismissive of a vast accumulation of human insight and practice – but I find myself using it because its intended target is so diffuse it hardly ever lands a blow. I wrote two days ago about finding Eliot Coleman’s comments about the way in which the familiar Christian seasons seem to be an echo of something more ancient. Anyone who’s ever studied the Old Testament properly (ie with an open mind) will have noticed that there are some epic borrowings from ancient literature. If God dictated the first five books of the Old Testament verbatim to Moses it merely demonstrates that God was a great reader and not afraid to throw in a few unattributed quotations. Eliot Coleman doesn’t really extend the discussion about the overlap of the seasons but I was sufficiently interested to put aside the allotment plan for a few hours, get up unspeakably early and draw up a circular plan – a great wheel – if you like for our particular spot in the northern hemisphere.

The intention was twofold. Firstly I wanted to avoid the flat earth scenario in which each allotment year is a linear sequence of events that ends by falling off a metaphorical cliff. The linear model gifts every January to us like an absolution from the errors of the past; a clean slate complete with seed catalogues ready for the New Year. Of course it’s not like that. By Christmas the buds are on the trees already and the purple sprouting broccoli and all the other biennials stubbornly refuse to vacate their places in the garden. The only way to represent it adequately is to join the ends in a circle so that December and January can speak to one another, and the equinoxes can embrace one another as kindred moments. The second, more prosaic reason was that I wanted a chart that plotted the days with less than ten hours daylight because those are the times, (the Persephone months as Eliot Coleman says), during which plant growth slows to a standstill. Developing a workable plan for sowing and harvesting throughout the year involves a good deal of counting the days forwards and backwards to arrive at the optimum time for sowing.

Actually constructing the chart turned out to be quite challenging because the ‘pagan’ and the Christian cycle of festivals are a bit out of synch; so the chart demanded some interesting calculations of chord lengths because inaccuracies with a childrens protractor get seriously magnified when the circle is 30 cms across, and I found myself blowing sixty years of dust off my trigonometric memory. A day is one three hundred and sixty fifth of three hundred and sixty degrees, and months come in several lengths including thirty, thirty one, twenty eight and twenty nine days. The solstices and equinoxes with their cross quarter days are easier to plot because they’re regular. So after drawing the solar calendar with its traditional names and the slightly displaced conventional calendar on the same circle in months, I then plotted the major Christian festivals around the same circle. Three ways of counting time around the same still point. It was about then that I realized that this was no mere diagram, it is much closer to a mandala; and when I filled in the sub ten hour days with some blue watercolour paint I was overwhelmed by the way in which the systems corresponded like ghost signs from the past. My joy was complete when December dutifully shuffled in and shook hands with January. I was so excited I momentarily considered plotting the lunar months as well but then my brain exploded at the thought of all those thirteenths galumphing around the chart and that I would need a transparent sheet and a drawing pin to construct a sort of tatty flat astrolabe. So I made some coffee and delivered it somewhat Tiggerishly to Madame, who was reading in bed.

The great circle seems to me to be offering something much greater and more powerful than a simple planning tool. It really is a mandala, a means of contemplation and meditation that calls upon us to align ourselves with the way things truly are. Our modern materialistic culture leads us into the dangerous trap of thinking that if something in nature doesn’t please us we can change it with technology. Day length? – get some LED’s; soil temperature? – burn some oil: insects? – blast ’em with chemicals!

An additional gift of the great wheel is that it marks the turn of the seasons with celebration, thanksgivings, mourning and hope. I suppose this all relates to my questioning of exactly why our immersion in the natural world seems to be good for us in a quite such a transcendent way; lifting us out of ourselves into something infinitely bigger. You just need to blow the old orthodoxies and shibboleths away and regard the pattern. It achieves the small miracle of re-enchanting the earth.

Anyway, I think I’ll work on a fair copy of the chart and maybe illustrate it but meanwhile – in case you’re wondering if I’ve become a bit of a Druid – I noticed these walls while we were out walking down by the river yesterday. I think they’re both fun, and rather beautiful.

Hello 2021

I had a bit of a comments discussion with one of the Potwell Inn regulars yesterday, concerning what she called ‘covid fatigue’, and then someone else joined in – in the way that these spontaneous conversations pop up – you know, cold wet day outside (at least for us, ‘though not in her part of the US) and we chewed over the awfulness of it all for a bit and agreed that constant bad news and bad politics is sapping our energy. We were, all three, leaning in a virtually socially distanced way, on the imaginary bar, lamenting jobs not done and feeling a bit lethargic.

And later as I wandered around the flat, picking things up and putting them down again and sharing the umpteenth cup of green tea with Madame, I noticed – or rather paid proper attention to the fact that we’ve got one heated and one unheated propagator going, with basil, coriander, winter hardy lettuce and parsley all germinated, and the overwintering broad bean seed (Aquadulce Claudia) had just arrived in the post and we’d managed to clear most of the allotment for the winter crops. As often happens, it seems, our lethargy had been rather upstaged by our seasonal autopilot. I wrote a couple of days ago about linear versus cyclical time, and there’s no doubt that for farmers, allotmenteers and gardeners it’s a no-contest. The rhythms of the annual cycle of sowing, tending, harvesting and clearing get embedded in our minds and sink, like chi energy into our fingers.

So it was off to the computer for me, and I spent most of the daylight hours watching the rain running down the windows, and renewing the growing plan for the coming season. By the magic of the software, a single click can transfer last year’s plan to 2021 and (provided you’ve put the dates in properly) clear the beds in another click and declare that the game is on once again. Of course virtual allotmenteering is a good deal less physical than the real thing, but at least you get a big red warning when your rotations go awry – which warnings you’re free to ignore because allotments on 250 square metres are not so easy to rotate as a 400 acre farm.

The next challenge was to match our physical seed store with the virtual one, and that’s always a bit of an eye opener. If I could make a helpful suggestion to new allotmenteers it would be to steer clear of garden centre seed displays. This is advice we never take ourselves, of course, so the result of this disobedience is the annual search for out of date seeds. Yes, the second most important bit of information on the seed packet is the bit we most frequently cut off and discard – the ‘sow by’ date. Seeds, like gardeners, only stay viable for a time. If you only wanted to grow poppies you could probably bulk buy as a teenager and carry on sowing them until they cart you off; but there are other more sensitive seeds that are only viable for a year, some that need a rest in the fridge before they’ll germinate and some that won’t germinate unless they’re resting in daylight.

If I could make a helpful suggestion to new allotmenteers it would be to steer clear of garden centre seed displays.

I used to work on a radio station in which, posted in huge letters over the desk, was the legend “In the event of equipment failure RTFM”. I asked someone what it meant and he answered(testily) ‘read the manual!’. Seed packets seduce with their photos but disappoint if you don’t read the small print. Every single word.

All of which failure to take our own advice leads every autumn to the clear out of un-viable seed, and we’re ruthless because you can lose a whole crop if you miss the optimum sowing time. So any packet with a missing date goes out regardless of whether it’s got seeds in it. There’s a picture (top right) of yesterday’s haul above, and if you were to examine the contents you’d discover that 80% of them were garden centre impulse buys.

Next comes the seed order; so last year’s order is reprinted as a starter, and then we go through it to remove some things we didn’t like and add some that might do better. Then we check the box(es) of seeds against what we want to grow and eventually – after a lot of argy bargy and a sheaf of notes – I get to type out the definitive seed order for – in this case – 2021, along with suppliers etc. We shall, as ever, almost certainly ignore the list as soon as we leave the virtual world and set foot on the dirt!

But it all filled a rainy day and we spent a few hours together around the table enjoying the prospect of the Promised Land in all its unrealised potential. The allotment will never look better than it does in October, inside our heads, and suddenly we realised as we sat down later that we’d crossed the Rubicon, notwithstanding covid fatigue and all the provocations. We’d strayed over the border into 20121 without intending to and it felt very good.

This morning the sun is shining as Storm Alex slowly passes, leaving floods and damage everywhere but our refurbished water stores brimming. Last season (dare I say that now?) was a huge challenge, undertaken in the most difficult circumstances. We couldn’t get new seed so we had to busk it. We couldn’t buy most of the sundries we rely on and at times we felt terribly isolated from our friends and family. Our government seemed incapable of seriously addressing the challenges and even today we have no idea how this will all turn out, but that’s all linear time. The fact is, in spite of everything we grew food, adapted, changed our whole diet to fit our circumstances and stayed better friends than ever! Nil carborundum we say, and carpe diem too, but we usually say it in some form of English as we exercise the inheritance of resilience and resourcefulness. that our parents and grandparents passed on, along with the time to plant potatoes. It’s OK to be human too.