Sucking eggs with granny

Since the industrial revolution the processes of growth have been speeded up to produce the food and raw materials needed by the population and the factory. Nothing effective has been done to replace the loss of fertility involved in this vast increase in crop and animal production. The consequences have been disastrous. Agriculture has become unbalanced: the land is in revolt: diseases of all kinds are on the increase: in many parts of the world Nature is removing the worn out soil by means of erosion.

Sir Albert Howard: “An Agricultural Testament”.

Great stress has been laid on a hitherto undiscovered factor in nutrition – the mycorrhizal association – the living fungal bridge between humus in the soil and the sap of plants

Op cit: both passages from the preface.

To be frank, the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962 seems an age ago, but “An Agricultural Testament” was published in January 1940 – eighty (yes eighty!) years ago and in the intervening years very little seems to changed. It’s a useful, if chastening, exercise to read these books. We so easily slip into the lazy thought that the world began at the same time as we each first became aware of it; and worse still, we can lazily assume that any science of real significance has happened within our own lifetimes.

This thought bubbled up from the bottom of the pond today as I was reading and Madame read out a couple of passages from a newspaper article on communal living. It’s all the rage once again, apparently, but I’m not expecting anyone to write and ask how it was for us when we lived in a couple of communes in the early seventies. Living in a commune seems to be a bit like having your first baby; the last thing you want is to know how your ghastly and out of touch parents managed to bring you up. The newly born baby is your tabula rasa whose unfortunate joy will be to have every one of your random habits inscribed indelibly in their minds. The fact that your random habits were almost never acquired in the study of ancient religions or the poetry of Wordsworth but in the kitchen of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam is the living proof that culture eats strategy for breakfast as the management consultants like to say. Living in communes, like bringing up children can be marvellous and it can also drain you of the will to live especially when you live in the midst of a clash of giant egos.

Anyway, that excursus off my chest, reading Sir Albert Howard today reminded me that the identification of the earth’s problems wasn’t something that happened recently, but back before I was born and it’s not just been ignored, it’s been made worse and worse as these eight decades have passed; or to put it more personally, my entire life has been spent fruitlessly protesting about it while nothing much changes.

Partly, I think, it came from a misplaced faith in the ability of science and technology to solve all our problems because, of course, the problem isn’t just scientific and technical, it’s a moral problem; our greed. But, as I hope my little vignette of family life shows, we rarely examine or question our basic attitudes – the ones we inherited when we were children. As a school governor for thirty years I saw many generations of children who were mildly radicalised by being taught about the environment. Yoghurt cartons were collected, tins saved and crushed for recycling and gardens grown and yet this early exposure to the problem of our environment rarely seemed to make it into action later on in life. Perhaps we needed to believe the story we were told that everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds without realising that the phrase itself was a parody – but the system seemed to work and unless you looked under the bonnet (risking your faith), it was easier to believe that there was no alternative, and anyway – why would my one little plane journey actually damage the earth? And so, to use another well worn phrase, “we are where we are” and all those lovely holidays and fillet steaks were being paid for by quietly selling off the family silver; and now the final demands are beginning to land on the mat.

I find the reading of books on the environment by previous generations of writers enlightening and challenging. For them the challenge to grow food rested in experience and human labour not giant machines and clever chemicals. Ninety percent and more of their wisdom and knowhow is still directly applicable even on our little plot which is, for us, a kind of laboratory for a sustainable future.

Today we worked for four or five hours clearing posts off the site of the polytunnel and preparing the new bed for five more trees. As I was digging out the posts I salvaged every useable piece of timber, every vine eye and tensioner and I even rolled the straining wires carefully because it’s really hard to get them at the moment. Just as my grandfather had done, I was storing and recycling anything at all, no matter how rusty or bent, because it might come in handy one day. The beds were weeded on hands and knees and we relocated dormant soft fruit bushes and perennial herbs. Back in the flat we’ve taken hardwood cuttings of favourite bushes. The main room is littered with piles of seed catalogues and gardening books. This isn’t hair shirt for the sake of it. The truth is that we live royally on the fruits of our labour; the things we can’t afford we do without and if we eat seasonally we can put something we grew ourselves on the table 52 weeks of the year. It’s not perfect but it’s completely absorbing as the shape and scope of the allotment evolves. At last the water storage is working properly and we can draw modest amounts of rainwater whenever we need it with enough pressure to run the auto watering drips in the greenhouse.

I’d love to be able to say that passive involvement in nature gives no benefits but the science proves otherwise. However, getting dirt under your fingernails in the fresh air; cooking and eating your own produce puts it up a couple of gears. A pound of borlotti beans in the shops is a commodity – they cost pennies. But baked beans made with your own beans and your own tomato sauce is a feast. I like to think that each time we harvest and cook we share the wisdom and experience of Sir Albert Howard, of Rachel Carson, Lawrence Hills and countless other pioneers who dared to challenge the hegemony of agribusiness. All we need now is for those thirty years plus of schoolchildren who saved yoghurt pots and crushed tins and fished for newts in the pond – most of them are now in positions of real weight and responsibility – we need them (you) to say enough of this exploitative and dangerous culture – we want to explore being really deeply human again!

Dead Prime Minister fails to get it up!

Palmerston – later on and run out of steam!

I just couldn’t leave Wales without a piece on our day trip on the Ffestiniog Railway on Tuesday. Last year we travelled the Welsh Highland Railway line from Porthmadog to Caernarfon which climbs through the mountains past Snowdon (or Yr Wyddfa, if you will) and down again to the sea – a magical five and a half hours there and back, with mugs of tea and Welsh rarebit to keep body and soul together. This year with Covid restrictions there are only half journeys available so we opted for the Ffestiniog Railway up to Tan y Bwlch.

anyone who’s ever lived in a commune will recognise the fact that there’s almost always one person whose revelatory vision everyone else is expected to serve

We’ve got history with the railway -well more of a one night stand actually – because when we lived in a self described commune in Bristol we spent a weekend working there as ‘volunteers’. The word volunteers is italicised because anyone who’s ever lived in a commune will recognise the fact that there’s almost always one person whose revelatory vision everyone else is expected to serve. That was John then, and probably still is. The pith helmet and khaki shorts of his childhood were invisible to most people but always rankled with me and so, with the certainty that winter follows spring we clashed. He was born to be a district agent in the great days of the Empire when Palmerston was Prime Minister and I could only aspire (in his mind) to be that insolent little chap – what was his name again? -who served the tea. Funnily enough he brought two of his admirers into a cafe I was in a few years ago and I recognised his booming voice immediately – I was so troubled by it I had to get up and leave.

Anyway this mountain adventure was an entirely ‘voluntary’ weekend event with the usual unspoken three line whip. Most of the commune members were doing office or teaching jobs, so a weekend breaking stones in Wales was probably more attractive to them, but we dutifully went along and even took two friends – Mike and Di – along with us. It was the weekend I first saw – rather heard – a Hydram (hydraulic ram pump) in action. I followed the camp water supply down the steep hillside towards the sound of the pump, each rifle shot crack sending a pulse of water up the pipe. Eventually I found the source in a walled off dam at the end of an old drift mine shaft, and I fell instantly in love with a machine that could raise water at least a hundred feet, free of charge and all day, every day. Sustainability in an elegant lump of cast iron with no more complex engineering than a pressure chamber and a couple of flap valves.

So that was it really. It snowed heavily and the bunkhouse felt like a scene from a Russian gulag. The occupants regarded us with suspicion; several of them were explosives experts who seemed to prefer to make a cutting through the mountain by reducing it to vapour. Others were living in the dream of the completed railway line so completely they were socially unavailable to the present moment and so like all bored twenty somethings we found our own fun and climbed the neighbouring mountain Moelwyn Bach in our wellies – cue major ticking off for irresponsibility, but the view was worth it! Then we rode a truck down the mountain from the end of the line and lost control of it completely, jumping off and watching it roll down the hill. After that no-one spoke to us, can’t blame them really, and mercifully we were never invited again. On our way back down the line on Tuesday we caught sight of the same kind of (refurbished by now) truck.

But that was then! On Tuesday we joined the socially distanced mini throng of travellers, and an elderly guard locked into our sealed compartments: third class with bench seats, to play with the leather window straps while we waited. Our engine – called Palmerston after the previously mentioned Prime Minister of the British Umpah era was steaming copiously at the front – possibly a tad too copiously as it turned out. The Ffestiniog railway was originally built to bring slate down from the quarries at Blaenau Ffestiniog. It’s a narrow gauge railway run almost entirely by volunteers and they run it well. The line climbs steeply uphill on its way to the mid point at Tan y Bwlch and the little engine was straining at every valve on the steeper bits. Then half a mile before the station the engine gave up the ghost altogether and we stopped in silence. For a while it was like Adlestrop, just the engine wrapped in a cocoon of steam, a few sheep and the sound of the drizzle. Welsh Mountain drizzle could fill a small lake in five minutes; it’s the only kind that you can actually hear drumming on the windows. Rebellious noises from passengers began to mount and the ancient guard trudged up and down the line trying to explain through the windows without having much of clue himself what was going on.

Eventually they sent a replacement engine to tow us up the last section of the line and Palmerston, humbled, was brought into Tan y Bwlch station three quarters of an hour late. At this point communications seemed to break down entirely with railway volunteers on their mobiles and engineers of all genders poking and pointing. A diesel (if I was making this up it would have been number 666 and called Harold Wilson – but that wouldn’t be true) so a diesel engine came along and shuffled two lots of abandoned carriages around the station until they were in the right order and yet another steam engine came and pulled the first train down the hill while we drank tea from paper cups and took lots of photographs under a temporary canvas canopy. Then they brought yet another engine and we set off back to Porthmadog.

I’m not a steam engine enthusiast in the usual sense. My dad was a railwayman and I was born next to the railway and so the sounds of trains been a part of my whole life – they still are, we can hear the engines passing through Bath Spa station quite clearly. Then there’s the coal to think about. How do you balance the desire to see the back of coal as a fuel with these hundred year old engines, restored and in regular use. I can’t see it attracting many visitors if they put electric motors in the engines and stuck red light bulbs in the fireboxes!

Steam trains have all the features needed to become a true addiction; a uniform, a private language (who knows what a top link man is these days?) and a proper set of exams to pass. Then there’s the sound. I once heard a recording of the foetal sounds that are the soundscape we all inhabited before we were born. You can’t tell me the similarity doesn’t trigger an aching sense of familiarity in the mind. But I remember my dad having to memorise miles of railway line when he went for his guard’s promotion. He would put a woollen blanket on the table and cover it with file cards filled with the esoteric language of the track. But he hated the railway, hated the shifts and the hours and the constant threat of redundancy during the Beeching era. So no, I’m not the least romantic about the railways. But I love Snowdonia and I love those trains – a beautiful paradox.

If a tree falls in the wood and no-one hears it, does it make a sound?

IMG_20191215_141322
Tansy – Tanacetum vulgare, flowering out of season in December, on the towpath.

Many years ago I spent a week on a silent retreat in a Franciscan convent in Compton Durville in Somerset.  Sadly the sisters eventually had to move because they were unable to cope with managing such a large house, but it was a very beautiful place to spend a week in silence. I was the only man there, and so they gave me a small cottage all to myself. There was a mostly rather solitary silence except, that is, for 1.00pm, after lunch, when the radio was turned on for the BBC news headlines and off again immediately they were over. It was during the reign of Margaret Thatcher and one day there was a particularly tendentious headline (they were troubled times) and one of the more radical sisters snorted in word-free despair,  a snort in which we were probably all complicit, and we went back into what you might describe as a newly established communal silence. You have no idea how intensely a silence can communicate.

This last few days the memory of that week came back to me. After the disastrous results of the election were announced, as I’ve already written, I had to deal with a whole pile of anger and despair and among the things I did in response, more instinctively than deliberately, I gave up listening to the broadcast news or buying any newspapers at all. I didn’t even cheat by reading the papers online. It seemed to me that the cacophony of opinions, stupidities and anger were echoing around in my head and it was like being trapped on a bus with a drunk, powerless to stop the fetid tide, and I thought to myself –

“if this were happening in the room I’d get up and walk away”,

So I’ve walked away and you’ve no idea what a difference it’s made. One way and another I’ve spent quite a bit of time around and close to monastic communities. Aside from being extremely married, I completely lack the strength of character it takes to live in community, but I’ve pressed my nose against the window many times.  We’ve lived in several communes and I promise that they can bring you closer to murder than any other way of life! In some Benedictine houses the doorway into the chapel is inscribed “To pray is to work” as you go in, and as you leave the inscription reads “To work is to pray”. Any which way, life is better when it’s prayerful and even having such a liminal faith as mine, it never seemed truer.

After days of awful weather we got on to the allotment this morning and, after a rotten week, we began to feel human again.  We often work in silence, completely absorbed with the task in hand.  It’s quite prosaic – I was turning the compost and spoiling our resident rat’s day again; Madame was planting out broad beans, and I thought fondly of the monastic gardens I’ve been in.

I can almost hear some of my friends gnashing their teeth at my proposal to withdraw for a while, but there are many noble precedents.  In China, monks who were odds with the emperor would take themselves off ‘fishing’. But disengaging from what Heidegger called “das gerede” – the endless torrent of gossip that destroys our authentic life, is essential for us if we are to discover what it means truly to be ourselves, however painful that process might be. At a less philosophical level, getting out of that stream of ideological noise that constantly tells us who and what we are, and how we should behave and what we should believe, is the only way we’ll survive with our souls intact.  For a few days I’ve lived a monastic silence right in the middle of the world and I can breathe again. To walk and weed and to turn compost and plant beans is to pray, just as to meditate is hard work.

So the tansy we found yesterday as we walked down the towpath alongside the swollen river is out of season, it shouldn’t be there – none of the books think it should be there – and yet it is; vibrantly alive in mid December in complete defiance of expert opinion. Can this be true?  Can a plant defy all-powerful human research? If a tree falls in the wood and no-one hears it, does it make a sound? There’s the coming extinction in a sentence. Does something only truly happen when it happens for us, and for our benefit? The tansy flowers, cast a glow amongst the rough grasses on the towpath. I thought of all the long history of using the plant, the women it helped discreetly, the wisdom of  its use and its dangers.  This was a plant that once befriended the truly desperate – no moral judgement here, and as I touched the blossoms and smelt them it felt as if I was being invited to share a secret – as indeed it was, when knowing the plants could be a sign of witchcraft and cost you your life.

But if my tansy had been growing unobserved in the depths of the forest, and without a name it would still have been there, blissfully unconcerned about our fear filled lives. The earth doesn’t need us: we’re probably the most useless and destructive species that ever lived, and if we should disappear altogether through our own greed and stupidity the tree would still fall unheard in the forest and the tansy would still flower whenever it saw fit.

But meanwhile, in the intervening years we would do well prayerfully to consider our situation. Years ago I stood at the top of a ladder lopping a long and heavy branch off a horse chestnut tree. As the branch fell away, the part of it that was supporting the ladder jumped upwards and the ladder fell with me on it.  I threw the chainsaw as far away as I could and landed in an embarrassed heap. That day, work turned into prayer in the blink of an eye. My only worry with my quiet regime is that when I get really old and the doctor asks me what day it is and what the prime minister’s name might be, I won’t know the answer!