Rescued by Patience Gray!

Good Friday is supposed to be the traditional day for planting potatoes in the UK – which is a slightly dodgy proposition because the date can vary by about five weeks between March 20th and April 23rd if I’ve got my golden numbers right (you’ll have to look that one up!). Ours have been in for a couple of weeks but we cover them in fleece because the emerging leaves are liable to be nipped by a late frost. A short frost doesn’t necessarily kill them but it certainly sets them back. Early potatoes are a treat and they’re a better bet than main crops because they’re out of the ground before the blight season.

I have tremendously warm memories of childhood Good Fridays. It was a bank holiday – one important reason why the long Easter weekend was, for many people, the beginning of the new season’s gardening. The earth is starting to warm up, the days are getting longer and there’s a four day long weekend. All the best religious festivals relate in some way or another to seasons or big life events and Easter is no exception; the fundamentalists will deny it, of course but that’s the general way of it. And in any case planting a potato is, from my point of view, a spiritual act; an act of trust in the power of nature to produce food out of dirt. Dust you are and to dust you shall return. Your handful of Good Friday earth was present at the beginning of the universe;  its smallest particles have shared in the inventory of all created things since then and will continue in their vagrant journeys until the end of time.

But this isn’t an ordinary Easter – for a start the churches are closed because there’s a pandemic, or is it a plague? I woke up thinking of my brother in law who became one of the statistics a few days ago, another number on a spreadsheet.  I woke up knowing that there will be no proper funeral, no prayers, no gathering or best clothes or meeting people we haven’t seen for years.  No nervous laughter outside the crematorium, no stories and catch-ups, no space where tears are allowed and impossible dreams of meeting again are permitted. No compassion; just disease control. social distancing and efficiency. Somehow it feels all wrong, it leaves our grieving rudderless and incomplete, we need a proper goodbye.

There’s a name for all this but I don’t know whether I dare type it. Idolatry sounds like such a religious word as if were owned by a Strict and Particular Baptist sect (yes they really do exist!) – but it’s a perfectly simple and non religious idea.  If you worship (and that means not much more than if you make it your highest guiding priority) – so if you worship something that’s only a part of the whole you’re committing the sin of idolatry, and bad things always follow.

Idolatry isn’t something that exists only within religion then. I’d say that the worship of money, power, profit, technology, even of nature or human beauty is dangerous and wrong because it takes a tiny part of what it means to be human, sets it up on a pedestal and demands that we all worship it. All too soon the world we live in becomes distorted and things start to go wrong. Species extinctions, genocides, climate catastrophe are the symptoms of idolatry because they measure life and diversity through a powerful but very narrow ideology.

“Without worship you shrink” – that’s a quotation from Peter Schaffer’s play “Equus”  and it’s true.  But we need to situate our principal human values within the whole and not the partial. We need to ditch the partial gods altogether and build a belief in the interrelatedness of all living and material things because we are all made of the same stuff. Of course it will be culturally inflected worship, but we surely can list some of its general qualities  –  there are loads of lists out there. Our basic problem began at the moment we evolved the belief that our human selves are somehow separate from the rest of the created world –  the grand-daddy of all idolatries – and that’s the point at which this post shouted at me – give me some space won’t you!

IMG_20200410_170856I started writing it on Thursday and hit a brick wall, but now I’ve deleted a great chunk of what I initially wrote because I think I got lost in the memory of my old friend Eddie’s dad. It was his garden I was thinking of when I wrote about planting potatoes on Good Friday. It was the smell of his garden, the murmuring of his pigeons in the loft at the top of the steep slope and seeing him, in my memory, bent over his spade and puffing on his pipe as he dug. And in the way that these things work, there was the perfume of wallflowers in there somewhere too.

I was cross; so cross at what’s going on that I wanted someone to shout at; to blame them, to accuse them for the situation we’re in. But I also wanted a way out of my sense of paralysis. I suspect I’m far from unusual in the progression of my moods  during this crisis.  At the start, I was all action; gathering up all that we needed and putting our survival plans into operation. That was almost the fun bit; but then after a month of lock in (we were early adopters) next there was an awful ennui – a great yawning what’s the point? – and that’s where I was all weekend until Patience Gray came to my rescue with “Honey from a weed”.

IMG_20200412_171609It’s not a cookery book it’s a peculiar, almost spiritual, classic about being human.  In particular it’s a book about being human with very few material possessions but within the rich culture of the southern mediterranean. We’ve worked hard all weekend – I was driving vine supports nearly a metre into the ground in the hot sun.  We watered, sowed and transplanted and magically, Madame said this evening as we ate our supper – “Do you know. I think we’ve eaten better than ever since the lockdown began”.  Our supper was a flan made with our own broccoli spears picked this morning, our own asparagus, radishes and salad leaves.  There was fresh bread cooling down, made with the new sack of flour. We’ve feasted on what we had around us and it’s been a revelation. Of course there are staples we rely on – we’re absolutely not self-sufficient – but every day we have eaten food we’ve grown, cooked, preserved and stored.  I reckon we’ve got through 13 litres of home cooked tomato sauce, for instance, over the winter months.

The governance of this country may be shambolic but there’s no point in driving myself half mad with recriminations.  We survive – that’s all that matters, and if I never saw another newspaper or listened to another news broadcast I’d survive – probably happier than ever. There will always be cheats, liars and chancers and in the way of things some of them will probably be running the country.  As long as we’ve got some dirt to tend we’ll be OK.   

You have to eat your peck of dirt

But not eating it won’t help you live longer

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It was my turn to prep the veg tonight.  We’d brought back a red cabbage, the last of the summer broccoli, carrots, beans – the usual suspects at this time of year – and they all went into the sink for a swill.  Generally we give the leaf veg a quick soak in salted water so any beasties float to the top – a couple of well fed slugs surfaced tonight. The carrots had got a mild attack of carrot fly and rather than reject them all I cut the iffy bits out – you probably know the score.  We cut any green bits off the potatoes but unless they’re green right through we eat the rest. Blackfly, whitefly, caterpillars we see them all and we try not to cook them, but if one or two slip through the net we don’t worry.  It’s an organic allotment and we don’t inundate our crops with chemicals, we just take the pests off. We don’t peel if we can help it and we don’t even scrub them with abrasive pads because ……

everybody needs to eat their *peck of dirt before they die –

Some are so fearful of dirt and bugs that I’ve even heard of people spraying lettuce with antibacterial spray but sadly the converse of the proverb isn’t true at all.  Not eating your peck of dirt might impoverish your immune system of challenges and make you less resistant to infections – I remember our GP saying years ago that we all washed far too much and then got skin problems. If the evidence of the Potwell Inn kitchen is anything to go by, we’re wading through an invisible soup of micro-organisms every day.  We use them to make bread and pickles and to preserve food for the winter. Our kefir helps to keep our gut healthy and it’s everywhere apparent that our immersion in the creatures with which we’ve evolved is, by and large an essential part of remaining well. I was reading this week that even the somewhat messy events of our birth can give our immune sytem a head start.

By way of a caveat I should say that there ae some micro-organisms that should be avoided.  My particular bitter experience has given me a useful aversion to campylobacter, which I’ve had three times – probably making me a candidate for the Darwin award. In every case I’d eaten processed chicken which I’d barbecued badly — that’s to say on the outside of the grill and in a strong wind. Yet another reason for thinking carefully about cheap meat! But a bit of ordinary dirt, or the occasional accidentally boiled caterpillar doesn’t pose an existential threat nearly as great as a kitchen full of chemicals and a careless chef.

And just to add an amusing postscript to my solemn pronouncements on sourdough loaves, I mentioned at the weekend that I’d started a loaf to cheer myself up after the theft of our coldframes. In my haste I forgot to put the usual 20% of soft plain flour into the mix, and so I was hoping that the resulting loaf would prove my theory that what’s needed is to lower the protein content of the flour a bit in order to get that sought-after open texture, and provide me with a ‘with’ and ‘without’ side by side photo so I could brag about my scientific method. However nature stepped in and I seem to have created two almost identical loaves. Ah well, I’m not as clever as I thought – as if I didn’t know that already!

*And if you were wondering, a peck is 1/4 bushel – but we all knew that didn’t we?  In American dry measure it’s 8 quarts, which is a lot to eat all at once so it’s probaby best to spread the load over a long healthy lifetime.

 

 

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