Watch out! Noah’s built another ark

And it looks as if he’s heading out … We spotted this one on the canal today; it was busy for the first time in months with holiday hire boats colliding and grinding with everything in reach and the family of swans we’ve been watching for months, effectively blocking the entrance into Deep Lock by refusing to move with their cygnets. The permanent human residents and their boats have been shuffled around up and down the pounds as the canal is being dredged and they’ve all been temporarily displaced as work moved towards Dundas. There’s a sizeable community of permanent residents at this end of the canal, living in boats ranging from luxurious to waiting for the last weld to give way, and it’s not uncommon to see a pile of bedding on the side of the canal and a half sunken home dangling on the end of its string. But house prices and rents in Bath have become ludicrously inflated as empty properties have been bought up by ‘buy to let’ landlords and Airbnb speculators and the social housing schemes are starved of funds, so buying a narrowboat in poor condition becomes one of a number of options being taken up by young people. Another, less pleasant option, has been to move into one of the tents or benders hidden along the canalside. During the early stages of the Covid 19 pandemic most of the homeless were moved into temporary housing, but it’s anyone’s guess whether they will be back on the streets now the lockdown is being eased.

But Noah’s ark seemed to be alive and well today. It was a bittersweet moment to reflect on the government’s evident intention to ignore the looming environmental tragedy, tear up the regulations and spend billions of pound building dodgy houses while pouring more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Anyone who’s ever gardened or farmed would understand that the weather we’ve experienced over the past decade is all the evidence we need to understand the gravity of our situation. Today we saw a plea to reduce the use of chemicals by 50% if we are to save major extinctions of insects and pollinators.

We’ve always grown our allotment on the assumption that whatever we can grow organically ourselves means less burden on the earth. But in one of those long conversations that old friends have, we’ve come to the decision to replace about a third of our crop growing space with plants for the other part of our family, the insects, pollinators, aquatic beasties, birds and mammals who have their rights as well. So today we paced around the allotment in the rain, mulling over the best places for a pond, more wildflowers, more seed bearing plants, more early and later flowering plants for the bookends of the seasons, more bird feeders and a place to sit and contemplate. This autumn we’ll clear some beds, move a few bushes to better places, plant some more fruit trees and lots of beautiful plants. I long for a trailing species rose, clematis, Malus floribunda John Downey, perhaps a quince, maybe foxglove – who knows, it’s a major change of direction for us but in the face of the crisis we’ve collectively brought on ourselves, it’s a step in the right direction. Our 250 square meters is evolving to meet the new needs.

Today, while we were walking I was thinking how lovely the weeds were, just as the strimming brigade were out in force levelling them to the ground. So here’s my weed for today. It’s an absolute pain but it’s really beautiful too. Hedge bindweed is almost indestructible and grows in choking coils all over our plants if we let it. But it’s good to remember how beautiful it is as well. If you look closely you’ll see a railway arch behind – I think it gives the picture an edgy look! Immediately opposite on the same footpath were a group of greater celandines. A few weeks ago they were in full flower, but now the verges are beginning to look a bit tired as many of the plants set seed and die back. Tempus fugit – it’s a phrase that belongs with its companion carpe diem – time flies away, so grab the moment and make the most of it. I might redeem the shining hour by doing a “weed of the day” spot on the Potwell Inn blog – a sort of page three photo for botanists with strange tastes.

Yesterday’s rather industrial white split tin loaf was, as expected a bit of a non event. Exactly as I thought, the sheer speed of fermentation and proving limited the development of the wheat flavour. With a thick layer of home made marmalade it was OK and its texture would mean it could do for a summer pudding, being perfectly close textured and stodgy to prevent the escape any of the lovely juices – but really? ….no, not really. Give me our everyday sourdough any time.

Oh and I notice that two readers clicked on the Dr M grass i/d video – does that mean I’m not entirely alone in the universe? Another new unexplored grass today, I’m on a roll!

Yes we can!

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I know many people find the fact that their Google searches are converted into saleable data is both sinister and oppressive. However it’s not that clever, and occasionally I’m alerted to scientific papers and farming news that’s ten times as incriminating of the sources as it might be of interest to the the readers. Here’s me – a declared opponent of intensive agribusiness – suddenly shown a paper by Bayer, presumably on the strength of my previous searches, that expresses far better than I ever could the perilous course that the industry has set itself upon.  What follows is a direct quotation; the entire article is available on this link

“As a cover crop, the phacelia is doing its job – preventing leaching of nitrogen and soil erosion, but allowing the black-grass to flush through,” says farms manager Andy Blant.

“As a way of attracting wildlife, particularly bees, the phacelia is exceeding all our expectations,” says Mr Blant. “Planted at the end of April, by July it was in full flower.”

Phacelia requires little management. “We don’t let it flower for too long as it self-seeds,” explains Mr Blant. “We apply glyphosate whilst it is flowering so as not to kill the beneficial insects and bees then mow it down once it has senesced ready for early ploughing for the autumn. It can also be used as a green mulch throughout autumn, before ploughing in winter in preparation for early spring drilling.”

(My emphasis) The problem, Mr Blant, is that it’s becoming clear that while glyphosate doesn’t actually kill bees on contact, its much publicised harmlessness to animals rests on the fact that it kills plants by disrupting an enzyme that is crucial to the development of essential proteins, and which isn’t found in anything other than plants…… they say. But recent (2018) research cited in this Guardian article claims that the enzyme is destructive of bacteria found in bee gut biome and that although glyphosate doesn’t kill the bees directly they die as a result of infections caused by the gut disruption.

So this panglossian puff piece for Bayer actually says that they are deliberately growing a crop known to be attractive to bees  – not for the bees of course because they don’t actually want their phacelia plants to set seed – but as a green manure and cover crop – and then spraying it with a substance now known to be toxic to bees while promoting their product which is already under scrutiny for its persistence in the soil and its carcinogenic properties. If this isn’t an example of greenwashing I’d like to know what is!

I could go on in this vein with a dozen articles, but really I don’t need to. I think we’re increasingly ‘getting it’ when it comes to the global crises of runaway climate change and species extinction – or perhaps I should call it global species senescence to make it sound nicer. The opposing sides battle it out in a heavyweight punch up, freely making up statistics without providing any corroborating sources. Farmers v vegans makes fun copy.  I remember James Belsey, a great Bristol journalist who made ‘local’ a real and honourable territory, saying to me once – “you’ve got to remember that most journalists are bone idle.  If you want to get your project into the paper you need to write the copy yourself and hand it to them – they’ll print it!”  I was involved in setting up a charity at the time and so I did – and they did.

And now we’ve reached a genuine crisis on a number of fronts; obviously climate and ecology but also population, migration, famine and economics too. On television a few nights ago I saw a hydroponics project in Singapore – fabulous and much needed in a country that imports the vast majority of its food.  The person running this operation said – probably correctly – that the output was 15 times greater than the same area given over to conventional cultivation. That’s terrific but, me being a promiscuous reader,  I recalled some figures quoted by Ken Thompson in “The Sceptical Gardener” which were almost exactly the same for the humble allotment. What this means of course is that there’s always more than one way to skin a cat – or  peel a carrot if you prefer.

All too often the media portray the crisis we’re facing as a choice between two alternatives – universal veganism versus  universal factory farming; technological carbon capture or the end of private cars and general misery. Intensive agriculture or starvation. But the crisis can’t be reduced to a binary either-or choice. Any informed debate about our future path as a viable species needs good data, honesty about outcomes and a forensic approach to any ideas being promoted – not least by huge vested interests.

If it’s even possible that a part of the answer to the challenge of food production could be to provide many more allotmenteering opportunities around our towns and cities, the payback could well be far wider than just organic lettuces. Exercise and improved mental health are all a part of the overall allotment picture, not to mention less car-borne shopping trips and a vastly improved national diet. So yes to (not too many) industrial hydroponic farms, vertical farms with all their efficiencies locally situated to cut down on the carbon.  Yes even to processed industrial gloop – although I probably won’t be an early adopter.  We need to become ideological tarts – it’s a crisis – and there’s no time for anyone to pursue their narrow dream of purity. I’ve been reading Simon Fairlie’s brilliant book “Meat – a benign extravagance” and if you’ve got some time and a tenner you couldn’t do better than to read it as well.  It’s densely argued, full of statistics and examines a large number of alternative strategies for feeding ourselves without dogmatic attachment to any of them. The other book I’d recommend, not least because many of its ideas seem to be finding their way into post brexit subsidy legislation is Dieter Helm’s “Green and prosperous land”.

The root of the word ‘crisis’ comes from the Greek – to choose.  A crisis can be a healthy moment if it forces us to make fundamental choices about the way forward. But the way forward needs to include everyone. Solutions that throw small scale mixed farms under the technological train can only make things worse. In a crisis, no idea is unworthy of consideration – as I used to preach everyone gets their say but not everyone gets their way. In a crisis the unthinkable needs to be thought, but the destination can’t ever be simple – more profit, more growth or more technology, although some better technology would be a help. A government that can’t feed its people is unworthy to be called a government. Food banks and homelessness are two sorts of famine and both are cause not by the lack of food or the lack of housing but by deliberately allowing them to become unaffordable to poor people. We need clear data and open handed discussion about the alternatives and involving us – the real stakeholders – in the future not just the powerful vested interests.

Blow me – I feel quite excited about it!

 

How to survive the storm

00000portrait_00000_burst202002061251069241773228647307606034.jpgI get all sorts of odd news stories chosen for me by the Google algorithm, alongside invitations to join dating sites. I always pass on the ‘looking for love’ ones because I made it a rule of life never to inflame an appetite I’m not in a position to gratify.  It probably sounds glum but it’s kept me out of all sorts of trouble. 

The news selections that most often catch my eye are the ones that involve farming. I suppose the all-seeing-eye has noticed my occasional forays into the trade press – as I try to find out what farmers think.  Having spent 25 years working in rural parishes I think I know that they’re feeling very put-upon, depressed and aggrieved at they way they’re being treated. Yesterday there was a report on a farming conference in Tipperary where a speaker (a professor of public health) claimed that Irish farmers were not being given due credit for the amount of carbon being stored in hedges.  Hedges, he claimed, are more effective carbon sinks than trees. 

The farmers, unsurprisingly fell on this tasty morsel of good news with glee.  “Look”, they said, “you can hardly move for hedges on our farms, we’re saving the earth already – go and blame someone else”.  It didn’t take long before another speaker popped the bubble and pointed out that farmers are in any case still grubbing out hedges by the mile, and that there is no evidence – scientific evidence that is – that has established whether hedges do or don’t store more carbon. The audience promptly turned a bit sour on him and told him they’d had enough of experts and so they’d continue to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds.  

Hedges are a brilliant idea for all sorts of reasons – not least for wildlife – so I’m all in favour of them, but there’s really no way out of this crisis that will allow farming to carry on exactly as it has done since the last war. 

So I was reading this story and – for no obvious reason – Elizabeth Kubler Ross popped into my mind. I was once a devoted fan of Kubler Ross – to be honest, anything that offers any real help in dealing with the awful pain of bereavement feels worth a try when you’re working with grieving people.  My problem with it was that real people didn’t seem to progress through the stages in quite the orderly way the original training suggested. All my experience (I wasn’t alone by the way) suggested that the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance certainly all certainly happened during the process but had to be treated more as modes of grieving that could occur singly or simultaneously, and which could be returned to in any order, sometimes many times. There was rarely a lasting moment of acceptance first time around; for most people grief came in waves and flashbacks, and healing was slow and painful.

What’s this got to do with a farming conference in Tipperary? Well, I think that farmers are suffering from real grief. Yes I know that environmental protestors are suffering from grief as well, but grieving isn’t helped by favouring one groups’ suffering over another. Farmers across the UK have been feted for decades for producing cheaper and more plentiful food and now they find themselves treated as villains.  They’ve done exactly what was asked of them, sometimes against their better instincts. There’s only been one show in town, and that was intensive, chemically driven, labour reduced farming. Many thousands have gone to the wall but some have become wealthy on subsidies. Then suddenly it’s all over. The climate crisis is everywhere in the news, the farmers are being blamed although they’re only one part of the problem and with the changes in the subsidy system many marginal farms may collapse. A whole way of life is dying in front of us and all too often we environmentalists harden our hearts and instead of offering a hand of friendship we shout that the means are justified by the end, and imply that they deserve nothing better. 

Which takes me on to the protesters who are also grieving for a dying world and in consequence are also displaying symptoms of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance- and again, although not in that tidy order. 

I always found that Kubler Ross was most useful when I was able to say to people that all five stages were normal. What most people expect when they’re grieving is that they will be depressed – maybe for a long time – but that gradually things will get better. What they don’t expect is that one minute they’ll swear they misheard and actually the doctor said there was nothing to worry about, and in the next minute be angry and then paralysed with depression for days, or promise faithfully that they’ll give up smoking or whatever – this is all normal grieving behaviour.

img_20200206_130312272523812806147141.jpgSo appealing to the science, to the evidence, is logical but not necessarily sufficient to change things for the better. Presenting farmers with the evidence that their methods are damaging and expecting them to say “very well, I take your point and I’ll stop today” is way short of a viable solution. We must realize that many farmers are facing more than just the loss of income but also the complete loss of culture, the reversal of a lifetime’s history and memories not to mention hopes for the future. We were in Mevagissey yesterday and exactly the same crisis faces the fishermen in Cornwall – not simply the loss of their jobs but the death of their culture – it’s real grief, not stick-in-the-mud nimbyism. 

Which brings me to another two factors.  Firstly, for decades we’ve allowed the market to decide.  We’ve worshipped the market, made it the sole arbiter of worth and now we’re paying the price of our idolatry – because by definition the market has no morals; the market doesn’t care what happens to farmers and fishermen, and it doesn’t care about the environmental crisis or environmentalists either – unless they eat into corporate profits. Secondly farmers and fishermen sell food just like oil companies sell oil, so consumers have to accept some of the blame for continuing to spend dangerously in spite of all the evidence. 

And so playing the blame game when there’s so much grief about is heartless, selfish and pointless. Farmers and fishermen can only change the way they work if we consumers – not just a few token ones – all change the way we live, the way we eat and the way we get about. We all have a vested interest in working together towards that end. Shoving the blame on to one group is just another symptom of arrested grieving.  We can do so much better than this, but only if we realize that there is only one habitat for all life on earth.  Farmers, fishermen, environmental campaigners and  consumers alike.  Everybody gets their say but no everybody gets their way. 

But I’ve left out what should be the most important participant in the whole process, and that’s the earth itself.  The earth doesn’t speak human, and as Wittgenstein once said – “if a lion could speak we wouldn’t be able to understand it”  but that doesn’t mean the earth can’t have a voice because although the earth may not speak in our rather simple way of understanding language, the earth is expressive to a degree that leaves our puny languages far behind. The understanding of what the earth is saying doesn’t just concern scientists, although it is scientific research that uncovered the problem and was also the cause of the problem. What the earth expresses is the concern of artists, writers and poets and ancient cultures that have mastered some of the earth’s languages, and some aspects of the most ancient spiritualities that have evolved in conversation with it (her?). But the earth does have one very direct way of speaking to us, and that is in the consequences of our actions. Perhaps it’s time for humans to take a back seat for a while and listen while the earth shows us what must be done. And of course it will be radical.

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Dawn over Mevagissey bay

 

When push comes to shove it’s all about parsnips (and other unglamorous stuff).

IMG_20191207_164441I know I can get very intense about all the politics and philosophy that swirl around us at the moment. I can even get cross with myself, and worry that I’m alienating the readers who’d rather be reading about cooking or the allotment; but I’ve also set my face against turning this journal – because that’s what it is – into a one dimensional thread focused on one particular aspect of our life at the (imaginary) Potwell Inn. There’s a Chinese saying, or is it a curse? -about living in interesting times and, like it or not – these are interesting times and I don’t much care for them.

And when we live in such interesting times, even the growing of parsnips can become a political statement or an act of defiance, and so the politics and the philosophy and joining some kind of counter culture are all entwined. Which means that although I could probably give some sensible advice about growing parsnips – like being patient while they germinate; only using new seed; making sure the soil is deep enough and so-on, the fact is, they get affected by carrot fly and other pests and the question of what to do about it is only simple if you’re happy with indiscriminately poisoning anything that might pose a remote threat. Allotmenteering is only simple if you go with the flow. If you don’t, you land up playing chess with a thousand pieces and  rules that can change overnight. I’m not trying to be off putting here, just noticing that without the comfort of what therapists call “splitting off”, the bowl of soup on your table can become a microcosm of the crisis.

I made parsnip soup today, for a friend who was dropping by to see us.  I made it a few weeks ago for another friend because I like parsnip soup – we grow them so  it’s ridiculously cheap and  easy to make and  (I think) people enjoy it. In the course of our conversation we got to talking about what our children were up to and it turns out that one of her children is doing very well working for one of the agrichemical giants, helping to sell insecticide delivery systems in the developing world. Curiously – or – as the Jungians would say ‘synchronously’ the last friend I made the soup for has spent so much time demonstrating outside one of their sites that she was invited in for a “conversation” with the managers. “Oh for goodness sake!” – I thought …… “this soup is getting too contentious”.

The fact is – there is no escape from the cultural, the philosophical and the ethical issues that beset us and so I’ve taken up the challenge of studying them and, because I’m a bit lost myself, I write about it and share my thoughts with you because (I assume) you must be interested in the same difficult questions. At the moment I’ve got loads of ideas swarming around in my mind. I don’t want (or need) to preach to the converted but I am very seriously committed to finding ways of communicating the positive things that would accompany a new green deal, to those who (have been encouraged to) bury their heads in the sand and who believe that nothing can be done.

What I’d like to do is sleep soundly without worrying, grow vegetables, search for plants and live in a culture rooted in the sense of community  with one another and with the whole of creation. In order to achieve that we need to make a huge cultural change. I was watching  a TV interview with Naomi Klein today and she put the central issue very concisely. We can’t choose between radical change and a quiet life.  If we do nothing there will be a catastrophe – and that surely is radical change; or – we can take charge of a radical agenda that will rescue the earth while preserving us from the menace of resurgent fascism. 

Better a dish of herbs where there is love, than a fattened ox where there is hatred.

Amateur botanist fails to notice breakfast

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I can hardly believe that while I was getting down and dirty with this Sheeps bit – Jasione montana and a macro lens, there was a field mushroom, about twenty times bigger, right behind me, and which I failed to notice until I looked at Madame’s photo. She thinks my tendency to lie down on public footpaths draws unnecessary attention and strikes fear into the heart of innocent ramblers who think they’ve found a corpse.  No-one has actually poked me with a stick yet but I’m sure it’ll happen one day. With warmer weather kicking off again we’re seeing more and more edible mushrooms and they really do taste better than the ones you can buy.  When we lived in South Gloucestershire there was a field next to the church where mushrooms always grew prolifically. There was an undeclared race between me and the village milkman to get to them first.  We never spoke about it as a competition except to brag quietly when we’d had a good haul and I think in the end we came out pretty equal.00100lPORTRAIT_00100_BURST20190914114544753_COVER

Here on Lleyn we’ve found an equally reliable spot near the cottage but our main rival is the sheep. There are plenty of other edibles around like the Shaggy Parasol Mushroom Macrolepiota rhacodes which, I confess, I’ve never eaten, and various puffballs -which I have.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we think about couplets like ‘wild’ and ‘cultivated’, and yesterday we were in one of those puzzling places which on one measure was about as wild as it gets, and yet on another had signs of human occupation back to the bronze age, field boundaries almost as ancient, an ancient holy well, the remains of what looked very like a medieval rabbit warren, and a hard concrete road lingering from the second world war and ascending to a derelict observation post, scanning the Irish Sea.

For me, the knowledge that the Uwchmynydd headland, overlooking the pilgrim island of Bardsey feels all the richer for its millennia of human occupation. Neither pristine wilderness (whatever that means) nor intensively cultivated, but populated mainly by sheep and walkers, this is a landscape that puts us in our place, reminds us of just how fleeting our fourscore years are. As we were coming back along the coast we passed the rusting remains of a large pulley lying in the corner of a field and just beyond it the ruins of a winding house, probably used to move whatever was being mined there down to the sea. P1080824At the start of our walk, looking down at the spring that constitutes St Anne’s well, you could see the ancient remains of a settlement that would have given access to fertile south facing soil, security and a good view of the sea and its potential harvest. The landscape has become a palimpsest whose history can be both sensed and actively read through its overlapping scars, whilst still being a rich ecosystem for wildlife, plants and birds.

The temptation to try to press the replay button on a landscape and return it to some notional wild state seems completely misguided to me, particularly if the motivation is to set up some kind of ghastly nature reserve/visitor attraction. The gathering climate catastrophe and the terrible impact of chemical/intensive farming can be addressed better not by doing nothing at all but by doing less of some things and much more of others.  At its simplest, we need to be caring for what we’ve got; caring with every ounce of commitment we can summon up. There’s no technological ‘fix’ around the corner that’s going to allow us to continue in our selfish ways as if the earth existed purely at our disposal.

History and its traces are good for us because they recount both triumphs and failures, the cruelties of child labour, the poisoning of the streams by mining waste, the wealth and poverty side by side, the shame of the enclosures and the theft of common land – all these are written in the landscape and it’s as important to preserve them just as it’s important to protect the wildlife that lives in the remains. This is a landscape for artists and poets as well as farmers, walkers, and birdwatchers.

This poem by RS Thomas must be one of the most commonly quoted on blogs with any interest in spirituality (of any denomination or none), and it’s a personal favourite especially today since we’re staying within a few miles of his parish in Aberdaron.

The Moon in Lleyn
The last quarter of the moon
of Jesus gives way
to the dark; the serpent
digests the egg. Here
on my knees in this stone
church, that is full only
of the silent congregation
of shadows and the sea’s
sound, it is easy to believe
Yeats was right. Just as though
choirs had not sung, shells
have swallowed them; the tide laps
at the Bible; the bell fetches
no people to the brittle miracle
of bread. The sand is waiting
for the running back of the grains
in the wall into its blond
glass. Religion is over, and
what will emerge from the body
of the new moon, no one
can say.
But a voice sounds
in my ear. Why so fast,
mortal? These very seas
are baptized. The parish
has a saint’s name time cannot
unfrock. In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits. You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth’s
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too,
has its phases.
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