Watering, weeding, watching and witnessing!

Up at Priddy last week we went for a long walk, introducing our youngest son to some of the sheep droves that make wonderful (and sometimes very lengthy) wildlife walks. We stopped off at the pub – naturally – and feasted on some delicious and very high carb old style pub cooking; but on our way towards it we noticed the field in the photo above that had a recently cut border of something that looked like a red-leaved grain. None of us had any idea what it might be, but there’s a notice up there with the farmer’s phone number on it so next time I’ll make a note of it and ask what it is: desperately hoping that it won’t be some sort of chemical spray.

The soil up there is thin and better suited to sheep farming, so any exposed soil on arable fields always looks impoverished and stony. Several times we’ve spotted small herds of wild deer browsing there. Crossing the fields back from Eastwater Drove to the village green, passing Swildon’s Hole on the way, we encountered a solitary caver walking back along the same path. Many of the fields, although they lack the sheer density of White Field at Dyrham Park, are very rich in wildflowers. What’s interesting is that different species seem to dominate each different environment. As we walked along the Green past the thatched piles of hurdles that are brought out for Priddy Fair every year, we spotted some eggs for sale and bought half a dozen mixed. The next morning I cracked a couple open for breakfast and they sat up beautifully – in perfect condition for poaching.

After this prolonged dry spell our rapidly growing plants need a lot of water, and today we were up at six before the heat got too much for us. This time of year it’s all weeding, watering and waiting on the allotment. We’ll have our first feed of new potatoes and broad beans tonight – that’s one wait I’m glad to end! Weeding is a constant job because we don’t want any of them to set seed or develop stolons or rhizomes. As I was watering I drenched the borders of the pond and a fully grown frog shuffled out of the way. I can’t begin to express how pleased we were to see it. This year none of us have had frog spawn and we were afraid that the disease that’s rampaging through a lot of amphibians had taken them all – but this one looked absolutely fine to me. Yesterday I spotted a hoverfly, one of the handful I can name; Helophilus trivittatus – it doesn’t have an English name. I remember it because its larvae are rat tailed maggots – weird looking creatures with long snorkels.

The best thing about early starts is that we can take longer walks during the day. Yesterday was a ten miler along the river and back down the canal. As we came back into Bath I noticed some Figwort growing at the edge of the path and so I took photos because I don’t recall seeing it there before, and did my best to ID it before emailing the photos to the Vice County Recorder with my suggestion of its identity. I was almost right, but I’d failed to notice two very small details that made it Water Figwort rather than the (less common here) Common Figwort. Anyway, I provided so much detail she was happy to make it a record and I get the credit for noticing it while she gets it for knowing exactly what it was.

Does it matter at all? Is all the voluntary effort to record what most people would regard as weeds actually worthwhile? That’s where the witnessing part of the title comes in. When you walk through a field of chemically supercharged and weed killed Ryegrass it still looks like a field – until you get down on your hands and knees and look more closely and discover there’s nothing there but grass. Yesterday we passed one of our local homeless people with an obvious addiction problem. He was emaciated – bent over and looked as if he might not last a fortnight. I think of these intensively farmed fields as an exact parallel. Whether you’re addicted to crack cocaine or chemical weed and bug killers, you get sicker and sicker and then you die. I try not to dwell on this because it makes me sad; but if we don’t record what’s left now after fifty and more years of intensive farming, then these wonders will slip away and the whole earth will suffer before we wake up one morning and wonder when the last cuckoo was heard, or when the pollinators all died. That’s the witnessing bit. I can’t say whether we’ll succeed but we won’t let up in our mission to record what may one day be lost.

Revisiting the scene of a crime.

I thought I remembered writing about this several years ago, but a search failed to deliver. I was thinking back to a Bath Nats fungus foray when a visitor harvested an entire stand of Parasol mushrooms behind the back of the group leader who, moments earlier, had asked us to leave them for others to enjoy. Anyway that memory has stuck in my mind ever since because it’s a bit of an argument for the so-called tragedy of the commons; the pernicious (to my mind) argument that the peasants couldn’t be trusted not to take more than their share of the commons and so enclosure was the only humane solution. More humane, it transpired, for the landlords than the peasants who were driven off the land and into the towns and cities. The afternoon was made all the more poignant by the fact that the larcenous offender was the daughter in law of one of the biggest landowners in one of my parishes.

Anyway that patch of land has always stayed in my mind and what with lockdown and closure of the grassland we haven’t been able to see whether any permanent damage was done. Fungi are very seasonal and you have to be there at the right time. However on the back of this doleful memory I taught our grandson how to look for patches of darker grass in the field where, if you were lucky, you would find fungi at the right time. He was a quick learner and was eventually sprinting from patch to patch, finding fungi. In this instance they were St George’s mushrooms; one of the simpler ones because they fruit early in the year, around St George’s Day, 23rd April.

So today after a frosty start we went back to the same walk and before long I spotted a clump of much greener grass amidst the winter colours. Poking through were what looked (from a distance) like the flower heads of Ribwort Plantain – which would be a very odd time for them to flower. A closer look immediately showed that the grass was Meadow Foxtail; handsome with its roots in a nitrogen rich fungal feast. I looked around and it seemed that there was some sort of association between the grass and what I know will be St George’s mushrooms within the next few weeks, because the Foxtail was entirely limited to the the darker green patches in the field.

Anyway with that little question/project hovering in the back of my mind, we wandered on down through the terraces and spotted a clump of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Trachystemon orientalis) growing in the shade of a wall and gate as we entered the formal gardens. Slowly; too slowly, learning your flowers moves from the starting point of answering the “what’s that” question with a blank mind, towards a much better starting point – that’s to say – “I know I don’t know that one, but I know what family it belongs to.” I knew that I didn’t know what this pretty borage – looking plant was called. I should say I’ve got into the habit of naming plants we pass (silently) and trying to remember as much about them as I can. It’s a great way of learning and shortens the recognition process greatly.

The big decision to come from our spontaneous visit today was that we should adopt the circuit of the park, including Whitefield the magical wildflower meadow, as our regular walk. Even though the car park can be hideously crowded the fact is most folks don’t stray far from the house and formal gardens; dogs are banned, so apart from arriving and leaving we’re pretty much on our own.

In the back of my mind at the moment – jogged by a new series of a popular TV series – is the idea of pilgrimage. I’ve had some experience of pilgrimages since I invented a 45 mile walk from Malmesbury to Littleton on Severn and led yearly pilgrimages for years. I also walked a 200 mile stretch of the Camino. I need to think some more about this but it seems to me that the difference between hiking and pilgrimage concerns intention and reflection. Pilgrimage, in my mind, is a form of liturgical walking; expressing rhythmically through legs and feet what’s more normally expressed in music and song. What I can say with absolute certainty was that an accidental and very short pilgrimage to St Non’s Chapel in St David’s yielded more spiritual insight that any of the tougher walks I’ve done; so it’s absolutely not about blood, sweat, tears and suffering. It’s about vulnerability.

What do we teach the children?


Sometimes reading a single book can make me sit up and think seriously about one of my own taken for granted understandings, but sometimes it takes a combination of two or three, read almost simultaneously. This past couple of weeks I’ve been reading three together:

Suzanne Simard – “Finding the Mother Tree”
Merlin Sheldrake – “Entangled Life”
Robin Wall Kimmerer – “Braiding Sweetgrass”

It’s fair to say that my grasp of what goes on under our feet on the allotment was – until recently – pretty scant. We had made up our minds to do our best to grow more pollinating insect attractors and dig the pond, but this is the first year we’ve set out to associate plants with their companions and the first time we’ve made an informed effort to try the three sisters method. I couldn’t say it’s made our life any easier as we’ve had to do a great deal of rearrangement and grow dozens of companion plants from seed. The no-dig philosophy was already baked in from the time we finally got the beds sufficiently weed free and rich in organic matter. The pond has been a triumph for the wildlife, with a crop of fat tadpoles already, and, at the weekend, three Large Red Damselflies – Pyrrhosoma nymphula two of them mating and laying eggs (Still joined together) on one of the pond plants.

Suzanne Simard and Robin Wall Kimmerer begin their stories – as it were – from opposite positions; Simard is representative of the settler traditions and Kimmerer of the First Nation/ Native American. Each writer seems to move through her life and scientific work, towards a more sympathetic understanding of the other. Merlin Sheldrake (and I’m simplifying horribly) struggles with the tension between anthropomorphism and detached observational science but concedes in the end that so long as we understand that we’re using metaphor to describe things for which we have no adequate words and that metaphors can’t be swapped for facts; then referring to the invisible networks and affinities that enable plants and trees to communicate in ways we don’t fully understand can fairly be described as like a brain. All three books are wonderful contributions to a changing mindset.

In my case I came away understanding much better not just the terrible and bitter effects that follow the destruction of a whole culture, but also the grievous loss of wisdom and experience embodied in it. To lose a language is to lose a way of thinking, and to learn one is to open the door to thoughts and understandings that can only be spoken in their native tongue. In the end, the culture, languages and philosophies of settlers and Native Americans alike were crushed and destroyed by extractive profit seeking and industrialized farming. In a much milder way we were schooled out of our local dialect and fed a completely bizarre diet of altered history to convince us that we were the most fortunate and blessed nation in the entire world. As a child, when there were no adults around we would speak in dialect using archaic terms like thee and thou and understanding perfectly without the aid of Eng Lit and William Shakespeare, that calling someone “you” was a distinctly cool form of address. The highest aim of our education was to make us middling; loyal and obedient to the status quo; so creativity and leaps of the imagination were ruthlessly stamped out. Here I am aged 74 and only now are the dreadful facts of slavery and colonialism being examined as part of our national story.

But we too have seen an ancient culture erased, enclosures and clearances driving people off their ancestral land and into cities. We’ve seen famine, poverty and disease accompanying the slums of growing cities populated by displaced people. My grandmother died of tuberculosis caused through poverty and overcrowding, and one of my great aunts died in the workhouse. You can’t say that we lacked knowledge of traditional medicines but they were useless against the diseases caused by overcrowding, poverty and poor sanitation. Thank goodness for modern medicines, but wouldn’t it be better if we could return to healthier ways of living? Slavery in the colonies was the bedrock, supplier of raw cotton, and paymaster to hundreds of thousands of jobs in the mills of Northern Britain – many of them involving children in arduous dangerous labour. Charles Dickens’ novel “Hard Times” paints a bleak picture of the consequences for the other end of the Atlantic slave trade.

We stretched the family reunion to five days with the bank holiday and it was joyful. Some of the grown-ups had breakfast together outside Widcombe Deli, on the pavement; we had a barbeque on the green; lots of walks outside and yesterday we got together with the grandchildren and their mum at Dyrham Park – our first visit there in 15 months. I could put up the family snaps, but they look just like everyone else’s family snaps. Viewed through loving eyes, of course, three children sitting on a tree branch is a Leonardo and, like Madame, they deserve their privacy so you’ll have to take my word for it – they are the cleverest, most beautiful and talented children ever to walk the earth!

So yesterday as I walked across the field at Dyrham Park with our grandchildren; the tongues and welts of my boots bright with yellow grass pollen I started showing the oldest how you could judge the fertility of the soil, and therefore the likelihood of finding some really good wildflowers, by looking at the vegetation. Too much nitrogen is the great enemy of plant diversity.

There was nothing much there except for rank grasses, ryegrass, cocksfoot and buttercups. Then I spotted a patch of darker green and I sent him over to take a look. Sure enough he shouted that he’d found a fungus and we went to take a closer look. It was a St George’s mushroom; named on account of normally fruiting around St George’s day – 23rd April; which goes to show how late the season is this year. So I cut it in half and showed him the white gills; gave it to him to smell – it’s an unmistakable smell often described as mealy which is pretty useless since you’d need to be over 100 years old, probably, to know what a sack of meal smells like. Then later I spotted another dark patch of grass and sent him off again to find some more. Finally we fetched up on a large ring that I know will produce parasol mushrooms in the autumn. As we left he brought me a leaf from one of the avenue of limes dotted with Eriophyes tillaes – gall mites. I was so delighted he’d got his eye in I said to his mum “I’m going to make an ecologist of him” (he’s only eight) and she said “good” – so I guess that’s permission to continue.

Later I was talking to our allotment neighbour – always known as Flash – about our day at Dyrham Park. His mum was born in Jamaica and he was born here in Bath and we discovered that we had both, as young teenagers, regularly climbed the walls of the park and trespassed on the estate. I wondered what we would have thought of one another if we had ever met sixty years ago, as trespassers in the shadow of the great house, built on the proceeds of slavery. Racism would always have been, and still is the elephant in the room. That today we can gossip as equals about growing beans and killing slugs is a kind of grace.

Dyrham Park – which picture?

 

I first climbed over the wall of Dyrham Park as a trespasser – about sixty years ago. I think the Blathwayt family or their descendants had long since gone and the place had been sold on to the Ministry of Works.  It was in a bad way, that’s for sure, and I’ve never quite lost the sense of not belonging there.  As a teenager I thought it was one of the most beautiful green spaces I’d ever seen – although I never dared approach the house for fear of being caught and getting into trouble.  I could cycle there in an hour and hide my bike in the bushes before I climbed over the wall, and I could see the whole of my life in a landscape from the top of the escarpment, right at the end of the Cotswolds. .

Sometimes I would  lie there in the grass, just watching the clouds pass over – it was hard to find any peace and solitude at home as a teenager.  Once the park passed into the hands of the National Trust it got easier and Madame and me have even ridden horses in the grounds, galloping across the wide open spaces a few times, but I was never going to make a confident rider.  Nowadays we’re National Trust members and so we can wave our cards and walk freely in the grounds knowing that no-one is going to ask us what we’re up to.

IMG_20191110_125434I’ve never been inside the house.  It’s the open spaces, the deer, Whitefield meadow in July, the autumn fungi the gardens and an occcasion tea and cheese scone in the cafe that we go for.  More often than not we take the long walk around the boundary, just passing by the house and the gift shop – always crowded.  Today the car parks were packed with hundreds of cars and yet by taking our favourite route we hardly saw a soul for most of the time. There wasn’t much to see in the wildflower department except for some encouraging signs of new leaves at the edges of Whitefield meadow and a solitary oxeye daisy.  The gardens were a different matter and the gardeners should be proud of the colour and variety they’ve achieved in November.

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These extraordinary Clerodendrum trichotomum – harlequin glorybower or peanut butter tree – are both exotic and thoroughly odd. Elsewhere in the formal gardens there is masses of colour, with the dogwoods just approaching their best. I’ve never been much of an enthusiast for very formal gardens, I’m more of a cottage garden, Gertrude Jekyll sort of fan but all the same we wandered around, I took a few photos and wished that someone would start a medicinal herb garden there – it would be yet another touch of authenticity for a house soaked in history.  So I had history on my mind as we wandered to the end of the formal garden, thinking about Culpeper whose 1653 herbal would have been a staple around the time the house was being restored betwen 1692 and 1704 . It was all very romantic until we turned around.MVIMG_20191110_130608

Looking back towards the house it’s impossible not to be impressed at the beautiful baroque building while being simultaeously appalled at the source of the wealth that built it. William Blathwayt made his fortune as an MP and civil servant administering the slave plantations of America. In fact I wonder how much of Bath was built on the backs of numberless slaves.  The Beckford Tower, the Georgian crescents, the Sidney Gardens.  Hugely important architecturally and historically; generating millions in revenue from tourism every year and yet fatally compromised for me by the suffering that made them possible.  And that’s why I’ve never been inside the house, because all that architectural beauty came at a price. The beauty and ecological richness of the surrounding parkland is still uplifting even as the environment is under threat but it never truly belonged to us.

“There’s no such thing as clean money” I used to say glibly to anyone who criticised St Mary Redcliffe where I worked,  for being built on slave money. I was wrong. The issue as to whether slavery was evil is settled, but the issue of how we live with its fruits is not. British taxpayers didn’t finish paying off the debt incurred by compensating slave owners for the loss of their “property” until four years ago. Yes four years ago. It’s Remembrance Sunday today.  Remembering is, or ought to be, more than a sentimental costume drama.  Remembering is radical, dangerous and challenging, it makes demands on us.  Even a simple walk on a sunny day can get swept into its vortex.

Oooh you little showoff

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IMG_5747.jpgWe only clocked the lovely Pyramidal Orchid as we were leaving Dyrham Park this morning.  It was hiding behind a fence on the road out and right next to it was the flowering spike from an Agrimony plant – that photo’s a bit out of focus because I was blocking the exit road and rushed it.  The occupants of the car behind didn’t even pause to look what I’d just been on my knees photographing.

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Here’s a photo of Whitefield Meadow, the object of our attention this morning. It’s a prime example of what can happen on unimproved land  – and if ever there was a revealing oxymoron it’s that one. Here’s another one, the so-called ‘green revolution’ which involved replacing perfectly sustainable agricultural systems with a fatal combination of fertiliser and pesticides.

A few years ago I did a 23 mile walk aross this part of the Cotswolds using public footpaths the vast majority of the time.  One of my companions that day was a retired grain merchant who had  bought and sold grain off the field, while it was still growing, and we fell into a conversation about what constituted good and bad land. In his view he could only give his seal of approval to half a dozen fields, the rest were – frankly – not improved enough. Half a dozen fields in 23 miles! So it depends what you mean by ‘improved’. The temptation to improve yield at the expense of biodiversity is a feature hard wired into our economic system. If the ‘cash value’ of the crop is allowed to dominate all other less tangible but equally significant values then monoculture and biologically barren land is inevitable. It’s all about culture: farming culture but equally the supermarket food culture that’s grown up bringing with it the demand for ever more diversity of choice but ever more uniformity in flavour, texture and appearance plus, of course, the lowest possible price. We quite literally get what we pay for, and we – through successive governments – have poured subsidies into the wrong farming systems. It’s no use blaming farmers or supermarkets or customers for the pickle we’re in, we have seen the enemy and it is us.

Meanwhile on the remaining three percent of proper meadow like Whitefield, we can see what we’ve lost. We didn’t find the longed-for Bee Orchids but we will one day, and in any case who could resist the sight of hundreds of Mabled Whites stuffing themselves silly on Knapweed nectar.  The whole meadow is waiting for its annual cut and, to be honest, parts of it are looking very dry. We spent an hour wandering around and during that hour the whole of the main car park filled up, and yet we were the only people in the meadow for three quarters of the time.  Later we met another solitary orchid hunter but she had not found the elusive plant either. As we move into high summer, many of the plants have lived their entire cycle and can only be identified by their seed heads.  The Yellow Rattle is rattling, The Goats Beard  – Tragopogon pratensis – looked as if it had finished early.  One of the fences was amost lined with Lady’s Bedstraw enough to stuff a paliasse for a fragrant but uncomfortable night.  Maybe a little Fleabane might thicken it up a bit. Cow Parsley and Hogweed both seemed to have run their courses, and were dying back leaving their seeds as the most reliable indicator of species,  but I spotted one plant of Fools Parsley peeping through. My work with the Apiaceae seems to be paying off and Fool’s Parsley is a new one on me.  Three years ago they all looked the same.

The daisy family were at their most perplexing best, and seem to be jealous of the time I’ve given to the umbellifers – I will get there eventually I promise. And the Knapweed – I could go on for ever!

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And then back to the allotment where we harvested the last of the peas with the first of the French beans, a  bunch of carrots, a container’s worth of the Red Duke of York potatoes and some courgettes. Early summer on a plate. I stuffed a chicken with nothing but a lump of butter and a big bunch of Tarragon for stuffing – I even made some gravy but in the end didn’t have any of it because the vegetables, unadorned, were so delicious.  I’ve never been a great fan of courgettes but today I coooked them in the simplest way I could –   finger thick and three inches long straight off the plant and sliced into 1cm rounds rinsed, patted dry and fried in butter. So many vegetables taste so much better straight out of the ground that they don’t need any fancy treatment.

The only fly in the ointment was finding our neighbour (we call him Trigger) inundating his runner beans with some kind of chemical for the second time in a fortnight. Is there some kind of etiquette that calls us to remain silent when a neighbor is spraying his plants at exactly the wrong time, just when the pollinators are at their most active. I felt as if he was killing our bees. If you can actually smell these chemicals they’re already on your allotment, and you have to wonder whether it’s safe to browse your own organic veg and eat them raw. There was a ghastly management phrase that cropped up regularly in meetings in the past – “culture eats strategy for breakfast” . It’s all the more annoying for being true.  Whether it’s Trigger with his allotment, or a grain merchant insisting on 99.9% purity, or a farmer struggling to make a profit it’s all part of the same culture and it needs to change.

 

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