“Run the economy like a business” – are you completely batshit crazy? we need to run it like a garden!

Another night of strange dreams led to a sleepless night for Madame as I tossed and turned and made (as she described them) weird noises. I dream a lot, and years of work – hard work too – with a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, have taught me to treat them with the utmost seriousness. So here’s the deal – my dream was about cutting metre square sections of rough grass full of weeds, and setting them out in the usual unspecified way, to conduct an experiment concerned with watching weeds grow. I even dreamed of setting the trailcam to time lapse mode in order to get a continuous film of them growing. Principal among them was our old garden enemy – Bindweed.

Then this morning I was reading Robin Wall Kimmerer marvellous book – “Braiding Sweetgrass” when a connection dropped into place and I was able to see a very small part of a remedy for the crisis we’ve now created for ourselves.

The hot seat!

Allow me a small diversion to help explain the background. I was a school governor for over forty years and in that time we interviewed at least six head teachers. In spite of endless pains we still managed to appoint one complete dud but otherwise they were great human beings with a passion for making children into moral grownups. We interviewed them over two days, handed them heaps of data and gave them an hour to read and digest it then come up with a viable step by step plan. We tested their management and leadership skills by asking them to debate the difficult data with other candidates. We watched and noted those who could embrace challenges thoughtfully and without becoming defensive. It was exhausting for us and even worse for the candidates, but slowly the best candidate for our particular school – with its own unique history and challenges – would emerge.

If you compare that level of diligence with the present election for Prime Minister you will understand immediately how our political system makes such terrible decisions. As I once heard on a bus on the way home from Southmead – “That Jack B …….. he can’t tell shit from pudding!” I have a whole collection of those kinds of remarks, overheard from people who stretch the colloquial into Shakespearean beauty. We have a parliament full of people who share Jack B’s incapacity.

So back to dreams and weeds and revelations, and the connection is this. When we plan the next season on the Potwell Inn allotment we pay attention to the space we have, the nature of the local climate and its variabilities; the soil and its state and – in particular – we pay attention to our own needs. Do we need fifty purple sprouting plants? How many pounds of tomatoes do we really need?

And we also know that our land isn’t just for us – it’s for the thousands of species that – while we can’t eat them – play a vital role in the ecology of the plot. Some of the pests who predate upon the pests who damage our crops are visible – frogs, toads, parasitic wasps and so forth. Some are microorganisms. Some are mixed blessings – badgers for instance; and foxes, cats and even rats play complicated roles of fleas and smaller fleas in the terms of the old rhyme.

Weeds and pests and their many interactions play such a huge and poorly understood role in the overall health of the plot that we leave them alone. So to chase down an analogy – we either draw a binary distinction between friend and foe, and then bomb the foe out of existence in the manner of intensive chemically driven agriculture, or we nurture the richest possible mix of living creatures and edible plants and allow nature to find the kind of balance that allows us a crop, reduces pest damage and leaves the soil in good heart. And it really works!

Running the economy – and especially the ecology – of the earth as if it were a business completely focused on financial profit and loss is a form of ideological madness. Public goods are very hard to monetize, and yet we know that climate destruction brings tremendous costs. We know that farming practices which lead to wholesale species destruction will result in food shortages. We know that viruses can cross over between animals and humans and cause pandemics, and we suspect that the destruction of animal habitat through forest clearance makes this possibility greater. We also know that intensive farming of any kind causes pollution; carbon release and therefore global heating. The point of this line of argument is to emphasise that running the earth as a business so often ignores the cost of adverse consequences. If the full long-term costs of maintenance and disposal of radioactive waste are added to the business plan no investor in their right mind would take the risk. Sadly our government is able to use our money to make us compulsory investors in this dangerous industry.

Running the economy – basing our governance on its impact on the whole earth would make big business howl. Just as an example – the current price of all electricity is based on the inflated price of fossil fuels. This represents the mad economics of subsidising the oil companies by penalising renewables. In a genuine – that’s to say not rigged – market. The renewables would outcompete the fossils on price and the oil and gas producers would have to invest their ill gotten gains in renewables in order to stay in business at all. This is not fantasy economics.

Why weeds then? Why embrace pests and predators? Because any unstable ecosystem will be made more stable if a natural balance is reached. Climate catastrophe is the end point of ignoring the instability made worse by politicians who make stupid policies such as running the economy like a business – and then facilitate the predatory activities of corporate behemoths.

James Lovelock died this week. His Gaia theory gives us the best possible tool for understanding the harm we’ve done to ourselves and future people. The key is going to be diversity. The binary world of bad science and dangerous politics needs to be swept away so we can learn to tend the whole earth – in all its inspiring diversity – as a garden.

Meet some more Potwell Inn visitors.

The foxes have been regular visitors all along. We’re wondering if this one has found the pond for a drink?
Badger passing through very quickly – probably jinxed by the sound of the camera.
Too tall for a Muntjac – so probably a Roe Deer eating the strawberry runners!!

We’re still experimenting with the best position to set the trailcam to get the best shots of passing animal traffic. Obviously the best location is the crossroad through which all visitors have to pass, but these videos suggest that we should create a slightly longer shot by setting the camera about 3 metres further away and looking west rather than east to avoid the morning sun burning out the picture. That would allow us to set the camera a tad higher without losing the smaller creatures.

There have been rumours about deer on the site for years, but no-one’s ever come up with any proof. The circumstantial evidence is there, with sweetcorn being eaten at cob height without breaking the plant off as badgers tend to do. Rats climb up the stalks but leave half the cobs untouched – same as squirrels.

There’s a real dilemma here for us. We’ve worked hard to create a wildlife garden that’s still productive. We think we’ve succeeded in the butterfly/insect/moth/bee/fly/ amphibian department. As I’ve previously written, the competition between prey and predators seems to have reduced insect damage to the food crops; but although it’s delightful to see these larger mammals on the plot, they can wreak havoc there. It’s likely the deer was disturbed by a tremendously loud Michael BublĂ© concert in front of Royal Crescent on Friday and Saturday, although that’s a pure guess. Roe deer are brilliant as concealing themselves – we once photographed half a dozen of them clearing up windfall apples in our previous garden.

Roe Deer photographed in our previous garden on New Years Eve 2013

Badgers, of course, are a major predator of hedgehogs which makes it impossible to know whether the reason we’ve never seen hedgehogs on the site is down to predation or the excessive use of slug pellets and rat poison. It’s the age old problem that always occurs when we interfere in an ecosystem. There’s no doubt that hedgehogs would be a tremendous asset in controlling slugs. The blackbirds do a great job hunting the path edges; and robins also help control soil pests as well as worms. We see Buzzards overhead and it’s only a matter of time before the introduced Eastern and Welsh populations of Red Kite meet and become frequent flyers. What with Peregrines nesting on St John’s Church, we’re potentially well ahead with avian predators to hunt our rats – a truly joyful prospect. Pigeons are a major problem on the allotment and any brassicas that aren’t securely netted are likely to be eaten back to the ribs. The thing about animal predation is that animals kill to meet their immediate needs. Even foxes, when they kill a dozen or so hens – which has happened to us at least three times – would come back, drag them away and bury them; especially when they’ve got cubs.

As ever we just have to get out of the way and stop pretending that the earth exists purely for our benefit and give up shooting, poisoning and trapping these creatures. I sometimes have to pinch myself to think that all these wild beings are living in the centre of a busy city like Bath; probably because we have so many parks and gardens, along with significant wildlife corridors along the river and reaching out in other directions, north and south.

Just as an aside, I was astounded to see a BBC report this week that up in the pine forests of Scotland, the foxes eat significant quantities of dog poo. Who knows what cleaning up they do on the green outside the flat! Apparently it has the same calorific value as the usual prey species and it doesn’t run away. Who’d have thought it?

So what do we do about the deer and the badgers? It seems perfectly reasonable to fence our vulnerable crops because neither species is going to disappear as long as there are so many alternative sources of food. I daresay they’ll still come down and mooch about a bit, then hopefully wander off somewhere else having posed for the trailcam. On the other hand I remember watching a badger completely demolish a fence we’d just installed around the Head Groundsman’s garden. In this case there was nothing to eat – he just resented having his customary route blocked . A 24lb male badger repeatedly throwing himself against a fence until it broke was a memorable and chastening sight. The best laid plans of mice and men ….. etc

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