Wildflower? Weed? Herb?

In the foreground Creeping Thistle, and in the background Ragwort

Allotments very quickly get out of hand, such is the vitality of nature, and so the photograph of this neighbouring allotment isn’t the product of idleness or long abandonment but simply because the allotmenteers were unable to tend their plot for a couple of months due to circumstances beyond their control. Most interesting to me is the fact that the shot shows two of only seven UK plants which are legally notifiable. They must be removed by law. If Ragwort is incorporated into hay and dried it’s capable of killing livestock – whereas whilst growing in the ground – livestock avoid it. Creeping thistle is a menace because its rhizomes spread aggressively – rather like bindweed – so from an allotmenteers’ point of view it’s the more pernicious of the two. I won’t bother to illustrate the bindweed because anyone who’s ever gardened will instantly recognise those white underground rhizomes. But the Creeping Thistle is tricky because most ordinary gardeners are less likely to recognise it. Here are some more photographs :

It’s all too easy to uproot one of these thistles and, finding something that looks very like a tap root, conclude it’s one of the other less pernicious ones. Unfortunately you have to dig deep – really deep – to find the thick white rhizome that spreads like wildfire. Those plants that grow from seed – and it produces a great number – grow a tap root in the first year and then develop the rhizomes in the second. Fortunately the seeds aren’t that successful, but even a tiny percentage of many thousands can soon turn into a problem. The best way of dealing with them is to uproot them before they flower – as in the left hand picture – when much of their energy has gone into making seeds. The four roots in the middle picture were loosened with a fork and pulled firmly to extract as much as possible, but even so they snapped off leaving much of the rhizome intact and ready to produce more plants. All we can do is hope to weaken it by frequently pulling them up. Madame and I were talking about this yesterday and we thought that the only domestic animal capable of eating thistles is probably a goat. We kept one back in the seventies and she would eat absolutely anything. Brilliant for clearing scrub!

Ragwort is a biennial and, once again, needs careful pulling to reduce numbers; but neither plant will ever be eradicated entirely because they have developed resistance to farm chemicals. Organic control (there’s a good leaflet on the Garden Organic website) is the only option for those of us who opt out of using chemicals.

Of course there’s a downside to controlling these plants because they are both highly attractive to pollinators and they make a lot of nectar ; so removing a weed also removes an important nectar or pollen source as well as a food plant for some of the butterflies and moths we most treasure. Our attitude towards so-called weeds exposes the mindset that places our human needs above the needs of all the other creatures. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should let these weeds take over our plots, but I am suggesting that many of the small decisions we make on the allotment have an ethical and philosophical component that make our lives that bit more complicated; more morally responsible.

I’ve spent fifty or so years working with people who’ve got themselves into terrible trouble, because they came to a tipping point through countless tiny steps. Nobody sets out to kill all the bees, but they die anyway because a lot of people making little bad decisions can add up to a crime against the earth. These days we’re all creating wildflower gardens, but we shouldn’t neglect the contribution of less popular weeds. Even couch grass offers a particular niche for the Gatekeeper butterfly, and stinging nettles are vitally important for the Comma. Ragwort too is the foodplant for caterpillar of the Cinnabar Moth. While I was taking the photos for this piece I noticed that our Buddleia was devoid of butterflies, whereas I spotted five separate fly/insect/beetle species on the Ragwort. So what I’m suggesting is probably enough to give many gardeners apoplexy, but what is the real danger to an allotment site that would result from a few neglected patches around the edges? Another of our neighbours had an allotment that was truly out of control and, when she got a rude letter from the council, she sprayed it with glyphosate. The grasses and “weeds” all dutifully turned brown and keeled over which, in the present drought, presented a distinct fire hazard. But now after a couple of thundery downpours, they’re nearly all growing again.

So here’s a thought that dropped into my mind yesterday. Many of us enjoy watching gardening programmes on TV. We also love watching celebrity chefs promoting regional foods from across the world and cooking perfectly irresistible dishes. We watch nature via the TV screen and could almost come to believe that all’s well in the world. My challenging thought is this – do television, newspapers and magazines present a falsely rosy view of our situation within global ecological and climate breakdown? And if that’s the case are they functioning as a Panglossian ideological tool which, by presenting a false picture, allows us to think that things aren’t that bad after all?

I spend much of my life in a kind of enervating despair when I look at the present crop of politicians in the UK; the overwhelming majority of them unwilling to act effectively to address the challenges that face us. News bulletins recycle the dangerously stupid ideas dreamed up by politicians so morally corrupt you wouldn’t let them look after your pet dog for an hour. They cry “peace! peace! when there is no peace”.

I even worry that the Potwell Inn, when I write about the way we try to live in the midst of a collapsing culture, might feed the impression that at least some bits of the world are working optimally. They’re really not. We’re lucky enough to live in the centre of a World Heritage City and on some days as we look out over a green space lined with trees we could almost believe that we’re in the grounds of a Georgian stately home. But more often than not we look out on a public space where addicts gather to buy drugs from dealers on bikes (easier to escape on). The air we breathe is dangerously polluted by the constant traffic and the river is polluted to the extent that great rafts of foam float down it during flood conditions. While hundreds of dwellings have been taken out as AirBnb rentals, the waiting list for decent affordable housing in the City grows longer and longer. GP appointments are almost impossible to get; the waiting list for NHS dentistry is a minimum of three years and the local hospital is frequently overwhelmed. Meanwhile the more photogenic parts of the City are regularly closed off to facilitate the filming of endless TV series that draw ever greater crowds to see the places where invented characters do imaginary things. We live in a hallucinogenic haze of Jane Austin, TV soaps and Roman centurions suffused by fast food and the aroma of chip fat.

It’s the political roots of the present crisis that need to be dug out. We’re all too ready to ignore the roots of the pernicious weeds that thread through our political culture, choking out anything that might feed and sustain us. We don’t live the good life. The most we can hope for is to live the best possible life within a broken culture. Our tomatoes are just a tiny skirmish in the battle against climate collapse.

New Year revolutions?

A rare trip to Bristol to meet our friends Tony and Glen in the summer

Rather than drowning in the sentimental guff of New Year’s Eve television, last night we chose, rather, to watch a documentary made by her nephew, on the late and wonderful Joan Didion who died very recently. While I couldn’t say I’ve read all of her work, I can say that when I read Slouching Towards Bethlehem reprinted in a collection of the same name, two thoughts filled my mind; firstly that I had finally read someone who had embraced and seen the darkness beyond the summer of love through the lens of Haight Ashbury; and secondly that she stands (writers never die, they go out of print) with Simone de Beauvoir and William Cobbett as someone who dares to see what is on the ground and then writes it.

My own love affair with that tumultuous period she was writing about, ended at a free music festival in Bath which took place in 1971 on a small and almost unknown patch of open land behind St Swithin’s Church and which drops down to the river. These days it’s probably the least visited park in the city because so many people walk their dogs there it’s dangerous to enter without boots and impossible to sit on the grass safely. On that hot summer afternoon it was rammed. There was a single standpipe on the site and I had seen dozens of people filling bottles with drinking water – but then I caught sight of a young woman with her baby, and she was scraping the shit off a nappy against the tap. That was the moment the fantasy collapsed. We were surrounded by beautiful young people who were displaying precisely the same capacity for destructive behaviour as the generation we thought we were moving beyond. Any thought that Shangri la was to be the next evolutionary step slithered on to the grass that day.

I’ve never written about it before – but Joan Didion almost certainly would have done. Nothing was too trivial or too painful for her to write. She, like my most important teachers, never flinched, never chickened out from telling it like it was and still is. My own gifts are on an altogether more modest scale of course, but the temptation to smooth over the cracks is still always there. A couple of months ago a piece I wrote about the plague of rats on the allotments failed to find its way into the newsletter – I guess because it failed the prevailing narrative tradition that everything in the garden is, and always must be lovely.

And so I write about the city as it is, which has to include the beggars and drug dealers as well as the way the evening sun catches the Georgian buildings and turns them to gold. I write about the river and its wildlife but I refuse to stop talking about flooding and sewage pollution just because it detracts from the PR engine. Bath, like any other World Heritage city is a fur coats and no knickers kind of place – perfect for free spending tourists who never stay long enough to glimpse into the shadows, but less fun if you’re number 8000 on the waiting list for somewhere to live. Cherry picking the best bits reduces the city to a cipher. In truth it’s possible to walk the streets and wonder if it’s a film set for a costume drama. It often is – we haver somewhere between a Jane Austen tribute band and a bunch of Roman Legionnaires on R & R after subduing the natives.

And that’s the glory of it – the sheer craziness of its loopy, deluded and partially sighted self-image within which we at the Potwell Inn run our oasis and refuge. Uncle Jim has been vanquished but we still have Rainbow and Nutter begging outside the Roman Baths. We still have twitchy punters hanging around on the corner of the Green waiting for the dealer to turn up, or hurrying down the towpath in that exaggerated purposefulness they seem to adopt – heads down, hoodies pulled over so as to look as if they had somewhere better than oblivion to get to.

And so this New Year’s resolution is to stay true to the city in all its contradictions and to get as close to being human as this crazy age will allow. We shall grow food without claiming any special expertise; cook and eat while harbouring no thoughts of turning it into a business. I shan’t pretend to be enlightened or spiritually adept or better read than anyone else. Most of all I want to spend time with the wild plants and animals that scratch a living here as well. I expect to spend part of the year completely dry and other parts a bit wetter because in vino veritas is a good motto for someone who’s interested in the truth.

The real agony for any writer is that the occasional moments of revelation are prone to make us absolutely silent. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent – Mr Wittgenstein wrote – and I agree. Writing, even at its best, is so much chatter in the darkness; but Joan Didion got closer to the fire than most.

Have a very happy New Year!

Strictly between ourselves

I was slightly relieved when by brief few days of incomprehensible popularity ended. I like to think of the Potwell Inn as a fairly intimate sort of place, and when literally hundreds of readers suddenly flooded in I felt paralysed – having no idea why they were there and what they were expecting of me. This situation has happened a couple of times now, when (I imagine) someone with a big following likes a piece I’ve written and then links it to their blog. It’s all well and good, but I’ve no idea who these new readers are and – (whether or not it’s down to my history) – I feel a kind of pastoral responsibility to my regular readers that I can’t press into service when the bar is packed with people I’ve never met. I don’t know much about most of you but over a long period I know from your likes, for instance, which pieces are likely to be enjoyed by certain readers, even if I only know your website names. I know who prefers the gentle and lyrical pieces to the scabrous political ones; and who likes a bit of philosophy along with the cooking. I know I can always write about the allotment without causing offence, but not about killing rats. I still write about the darker issues because the Potwell Inn is about being human not being perfect. The environmental crisis is safer territory than the economic one. In fact as I write this I’m amazed at what a strong picture I have of my readers. It reminds me very much of choosing music back in the day when I was a parish priest. “Here’s one for Barri” – I’d think as I put something on the Sunday list.

So there we are, back to normal; slogging on through the mist and fog of Covid, weary of listening to politicians who don’t know the difference between an aspiration and a policy, and (in our case) steering well clear of the kind of TV that keeps us awake at night. We watch cookery programmes mostly, and once a week we watch “saving lives at sea”- (about the Royal National Lifeboat Institution if you’re not in the dis-UK) to remind us that the devil doesn’t always have the best tunes.

Anyway, I thought you might be interested in the continuing presence of brownish white foam in the River Avon. As I mentioned a few days ago it can only get there via the sewers and the perfume of detergent is so strong at Pulteney Bridge you might be forgiven for wondering if the water company was giving the river bed a bit of a clean up – you know it can get very grubby down there and so a couple of thousand gallons of Persil non bio might be a good thing. In a parallel dystopia. Personally I think we should put a notice on all our toilets, sinks and showers to remind us that when it leaves the house it doesn’t leave the earth!

The canal, on the other hand is both clean and quiet. The heron was back on his beat near Deep Lock today; keeping an eye on a couple of workmen who were removing bits of scrap iron (including a child’s bicycle) from the canal bed with a grappling hook and a big magnet. This heron has a number of alternative ways of feeding himself, including paddling the mud at the edge of the flow to stir up potential titbits and also browsing the brambles down there as well. There are just a few ripe fruits still on display, but amusingly the heron stalks the blackberries in exactly the same stealthy way he fishes – as if they might dart off the brambles and hide if they spotted him. The peregrines at St Johns were absent, possibly due to the fact that a bunch of scaffolders were working alongside the tower where they nest . Why are scaffolders so noisy always? I mean postmen don’t go around hollering all the time.

Due to a dozen mutually contradictory message streams in the media it’s either the end of phase 2 or the beginning of phase 3 – but whatever …… it all means it’s lethal to breathe but they hope we will all go and shop until our credit cards spontaneously combust and the economy is saved. We will celebrate the end of the crisis at Christmas by kissing lots of people and not having to make love while maintaining social distancing. Meanwhile the funeral directors are planning their summer holidays in the knowledge that they, at least, will have a good year. With luck the Airbnb hen party house opposite will re-open to young idealists to celebrate love and fidelity by getting drunk, going off with strangers and getting the male strippers back – Madame gets very concerned for them when they take a break on the patio outside with nothing on, apart from a velvet neckband and a large joint – not that, sort honestly! “They’ll catch their death” she says; to which I can only reply that she’ll catch her own if she falls off the dressing table.

So life’s rich tapestry continues here in Bath. Please don’t mention the smelly river or the hen parties to anyone in case it upsets the Tourist Board and definitely not the street beggars; back on the streets now that the milk of human kindness supply has dried up. All’s well that ends well – even if it hasn’t ended by a long mile. It’s a time of magical thinking when we can all have what we want just by wanting it (terms and conditions apply). Meanwhile here’s a photo of the canal today with a hard frost and misty air, and there are more links to older entries below. I was touched to see that yesterday someone read the very first entry I ever wrote. How lovely – as my old friend and mentor Don Streatfield might have said.

asparagus autumn biodiversity chillies climate change climate emergency compost bins composting covid 19 deep ecology earth economic collapse environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis field botany foraging Fungi global climate crisis global heating green spirituality herbal medicine intensive farming locally sourcing lockdown marmalade meditation no-dig pickling and preserving polytunnels potatoes preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions sustainability technology urban ecology urban wildlife water storage weeds wildflower meadows

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