They were very large, very beautiful Cox’s and we agreed – Madame Eve and me to eat a couple. Sadly what followed was not the wrath of God, or being driven out of the Potwell Inn and into the desert but just – disappointment. In fact we’ve eaten, or rather not eaten any amount of lovely looking but ultimately disgusting, tasteless and pappy fruit ripened in a nitrogen filled cold store and pimped with wax and a little union jack designed to make us feel exceptionally virtuous. Advertising and presentation, supermarket snake oil, is just the way agribusiness can fool most of the people all of the time. “Well don’t buy them!” would be a well deserved rebuke, but we still do in the hope that they might be alright after all. The fact is, almost all supermarket fruit is artificially retarded from ripening, bred with genetically enhanced armour plated skins and designed for presentation and not flavour. In our experience many fruits like apricots, mangoes and peaches will never ripen at this time of the year.
So what’s good at the moment? …. Pears. Good old cheap as chips Conference pears eaten so ripe you have to eat them like a mango, with your sleeves rolled up. Forget the exotic fruit with all its glamour and airmiles and eat pears, preferably organic ones. And then there are Seville oranges of course, to make better marmalade than you could ever buy, at a fraction of the cost, and Bramley apples. Aside from them, stick to vegetables – it’s winter – and then when the new season comes around you can swoon with delight at the sheer intensity of in-season flavour. We’re still eating squashes, greens and spuds from the allotment, and of course there’s blackcurrants, raspberries. red currants and gooseberries in the freezer. It’s really not the end of the world if we have to wait a few months before the Discovery apples come off the trees, and in any case what are jams preserves and pickles for, if not providing us with a bit of food variety during the hungry gap?
But that’s enough. What really promoted this mini tantrum was listening to the BBC Food Programme this afternoon. The subject was Spirulina – blue green algae – which, it’s manufacturers claim, is the food of the future. full of protein, vitamins, minerals and so good for you you’ll live forever. After half an hour of listening to its breathlessly excited merchandisers it slowly became obvious that it tastes filthy unless you bleach-boil it in nitric acid for two days and then separate the tasteless powder in an industrial centrifuge. Even the vitamin B12 it’s had claimed for it, turns out to be unavailable to our digestive systems. The key question, put by the presenter of the programme, was never answered and it was “do we really want to increase the amount of industrially manufactured foods we eat?” Or put more simply, if it tastes and looks filthy and can only be made palatable by industrial processing, isn’t it likely that it will then be stuffed full of artificial flavourings and texturizers before being packaged, promoted and sold back to us as as the best thing since white sliced bread?
If, like me, you’re interested in the numbers, then it looks as if you’d probably do better to eat a boiled egg: and let’s not get into the ethical arguments because it seems possible that in our anxiety about food we’re so focused on the ethics we haven’t noticed that we’ve become the new battery hens; fed dangerous untested foods, confined in dingy polluted surroundings for 15 hours a day and discarded in old age when we’re no longer productive. If you want to live a long and healthy life the best advice I’ve seen is Michael Pollan’s dictum ” …. eat food, not too much, mostly veg.”
I wrote a while ago about the fact that I hadn’t initially understood what the deep ecologists were saying when they talked about the “aquarian conspiracy”, but here’s an excellent example in the way that our go-to solution for all problems has become industrial technology. We’ll solve all the problems that confront us by inventing new technologies like carbon capture, food technology, genetic modification, fusion power – and so the list goes on. If I put myself back on the couch and articulate all these unrealised and unrealisable desires to a psychotherapist they might, if they were any good, gently probe my deeper motivations. “What are you most frightened of?” My own psychoanalytic psychotherapist once cracked the funniest joke (extremely unexpected) after I recounted a recurring dream about being shadowed by two elephants. He responded “Oh, well I’m a Freudian so they’re sex and death!”
I’m convinced that, since the collapse of religious imagery, we’ve lost the means of articulating our deepest fears about both of my dream elephants, and so issues of sexual identity and the fear of death have found new expressions in our culture. In the past these fears were managed and exploited by the God industry and converted into secular power, political influence and some nice buildings. What’s happened is that a new bunch of hucksters have stepped in to skim the profits. These days you don’t need a knowledge of ancient Greek or Latin to understand the theology; a qualification in business studies and the ability to trace the true ownership of the latest quasi artisan brand of gloop will do better. They still trade on fear; fear of death, fear of illness, fear of the loss of vitality, fear of old age or ugliness or poverty or whatever and they are ready, so very ready, to monetize that fear.
Industry knows very well how to bait the hook to catch a fish, and the hook here is often additionally baited with the climate catastrophe, environmental destruction and species extinctions. Wherever you look within the food trade you see entirely specious claims – often more implied than in your face (for fear of breaching advertising standards regulations), that eating or drinking industrial gloop will save the earth in some unspecified way. So by linking together our personal fears with our justified fear for the environment they prop up a weak argument with powerful emotions. As an example of the power of advertising, smoking no longer makes you look sexy; but it did once! – and I well remember a photocopied herbalist’s catalogue from the early 1970’s among whose testimonials were accounts of satisfied customers coughing up or otherwise passing tumours in the kind of events that would have had me running screaming to A & E. Hope and fear are powerful sales tools.
For what it’s worth, there’s more sex and death on the average allotment than you’ll see in a season of Scandi Noir, and all of it absolutely real. My own mortality and vulnerability are contextualized within the ebb and flow of nature, with the sun and rain on my back; and at the stove and the table later where food becomes sacramental rather than instrumental. There’s very little difference in tone between foodie fundamentalists and religious ones, and between them they’ve precipitated the need for saving the earth by a warped religious understanding of our place within it, and invented an impractical and ideologically distorted plan for saving it.
Saving the earth and flourishing as humans certainly needs urgent action on our part, and won’t happen without some challenging changes in the way we live, but there’s no magic bullet.
Every gift horse should have its teeth examined regularly by a qualified vet.
I should dedicate this posting to Sid Harris, my sociology tutor at tech college, a thousand years ago, who would challenge my sociological flights of fancy with the words – “- that’s all very exciting David, but where’s the evidence?” If there is any way of sending a profound thank-you to the past it would be to Sid for providing me with the alethiometer (great TV adaptation isn’t it?) that all thoroughgoing sceptics need to get through the mire of speculation, quackery and sheer roguery that infests our culture.
But the question has its price – particularly that going after the evidence demands a lot of commitment, blind alleys and reading which, added up, mean you have to live until you’re at least 110 to understand a simple question like ‘why does peeling onions make your eyes water?’ My latest read – yes I get through 3 or 4 books a week – is “Garlic and other Alliums” by Eric Block, and which is a magnificent book that makes me want to cheer and applaud every other paragraph. But understanding the central chapters depends on a familiarity with organic chemistry which I don’t have. Every opening door leads to another whole corridor.
But today I’ll start with a Guardian article that perfectly demonstrates the thought I’m working on. If you haven’t clicked on the link, the article concerns biochar – a form of charcoal made by burning wood in an atmosphere starved of oxygen – so far so ordinary charcoal – but by doing it in a retort that captures all, or most of the nasties that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. The hypothesis is that by making huge quantities of this compound and digging it into the earth we would be sequestering carbon in a way similar to, let’s suppose peat bogs or coal reserves. The article goes on to suggest that the biochar might also improve soil fertility and even the health of grazing animals at the same time. It’s a no-brainer, we should all go out and buy it right now save the world in a day. Except for a paragraph towards the end-
While academics and researchers are optimistic about the benefits of biochar, they are not blind to the risks either. “If we’re wrong, and we spread hundreds of thousands of tonnes of charcoal over the UK, we can’t get it back out of the ground. We’ve got to be right. The stakes are really high,” says Udall.
The evidence isn’t there yet. It might be there in a year or two, if we do the research, but like most breathlessly announced breakthroughs, we need to slow down a bit. I imagine that the article itself will be mentioned many times, used as a sales pitch and generally enter the consciousness of allotmenteers and gardeners all over the world without the small-print warning following it.
When I started to read about the deep ecology movement I was puzzled by the phrase ‘aquarian conspiracy’ which often cropped up. For me the ‘age of aquarius’ was a song in a musical where some people got their kit off on stage, I couldn’t associate it with the idea of a conspiracy. But what the phrase seems to allude to is the concept of a ‘new age’ in which all of the great challenges facing us are ‘solved’ by the application of new technology. Apparently this became something of a Silicon Valley mantra. While you might think that making charcoal in a fancy retort is hardly ‘technology” it’s clear that the ideological use that it might be put to could be a dangerous diversion from the pressing issue of our anthropocentric environmental greed. Soaking up excess carbon is a must, but you need to stop producing it at the same time. The pressing danger of the ‘aquarian conspiracy’ is that it allows us to carry on polluting in the false belief that there’s always a technology around the corner. And there’s no evidence for that either!
Evidence based science often clashes with the sales pitch – it’s hardly surprising – and the danger is that we rely so much on the carefully crafted ‘evidence’ produced for us like pre-digested seagull food, because we lack the skills to find out for ourselves. Here’s an interesting quotation from David Hoffmann’s book “Medical Herbalism”
I was asked to present a paper on the topic of “Herbal Alternatives to Prozac”. This quest to identify a herbal alternative to Prozac is a perfect example of how the real gifts of herbalism can be deflected by underlying assumptions. It would, in fact, be more appropriate to consider the holistic alternatives to the current vogue for psychopharmaceutical solutions.
When judging outcomes in phytotherapy, the quality of an outcome depends on your values. If an RHS judge with a passion for formal gardens was asked to comment on our allotment they might say it’s a mess because it doesn’t meet their criteria (tidiness, straight lines, complete absence of pests and diseases), for “a good allotment”. A good outcome in holistic therapy (or gardening) might be an enhanced sense of wellbeing whereas a medical assessment might depend on a series of abstract measurements. Neither method is more correct than the other, they both try to be rigorous and they each have strengths that we depend upon – and in any case I have to say that being loved cared for and listened to is the best healer and that defies almost all science.
I remember well a ward sister at the General Hospital in Bristol where I was a part time chaplain. When she died in a riding accident, they put a plaque on the wall to commemorate her. It’s gone now and they’ve turned the hospital into expensive flats – and I’ll make no further comment on that subject! However Sister Valerie Helps – this is my little personal commemoration – had a gift beyond any scientific exploration. Post operative patients in severe pain would feel better when she came on to the ward. She would say -“could you hold on for just another half hour?” when they were calling for morphine, and they discovered that they could. She would challenge the doctors when they were attempting to do something stupid and inspire complete confidence in patients and relatives alike.
Lets do the science – masses of it – and be prepared to learn from it, even if it means changing some of our assumptions. But for science and healing to work together they each need to broaden their underlying assumptions. For science there’s the need to try to describe and quantify a broader range of outcomes which will have to include wellbeing and other ‘subjective’ states. For herbalism, gardening and the whackier reaches of human culture we need to accept that not every hand-me-down remedy is necessarily, a priori, better. I remember my mother talking about the lives saved when sulfonamides were first used during the 2nd world war. They’ve been superseded now, for the most part, but in their day they were lifesavers. To go back to biochar, it may be a part of the answer to the climate catastrophe but in ethics they always say “you can’t make an ought into an is” and that’s not just a lesson for ethicists but for all of us.
The brain of sparrows being eaten, provokes lust exceedingly
I mentioned a couple of days ago that I’d got hold of a rather disappointing edition of Culpeper’s Herbal. It wasn’t an absolute stinker, but it had been heavily edited with much of the archaic language translated rather than transcribed, and it was missing hundreds of pages of the kind that I quoted above. It wasn’t that I was particularly searching for aphrodisiacs (well I would say that, I suppose), but that I stumbled on it when a chapter entitled “parts of living things and excrements” caught my eye as I scrolled through. The edition, by the way, is an online transcription as part of the Gutenberg Project – free and massively useful.
The thing is, Culpeper can only be understood within its own context, and without that – the astrology, the doctrine of signatures, the battles he was having with the authorities – it boils down to a very strange mixture of bad ideas like eating sparrows’ brains. But within the pages there’s the beginnnings of a revolution. Just as Luther’s translation of the Bible changed the churches for ever, so the translation of these remedies into the common tongue changed the course of medicine and probably changed the distribution and cultivation of wildflowers for ever. Imagine any cottage garden and it’s a fair bet that some at least of the plants will be the distant offspring of medicinal herbs, and I think I read somewhere recently that something like 40% of our current prescription drugs are derived from plant material. Yet another reason for fighting against unnecessary extinctions, and remember that not all useful drug yielding plants are found in the Amazon rain forest – some are undoubtedly living outside our front doors – if we could but see them.
Plants are wonderful synthesisers of compounds utterly beyond the reach of science, and the clues as to where to look won’t be found within the pages of a translation forged in the culture of the 21st century, but with a sympathetic reading of the way things seemed to the apothecaries of the past within their own culture and at that time. Sadly, for all its great strengths, science tends to lack humility in the face of very old ideas.
Anyway, enough of that. Tonight promises a hard frost and so this afternoon we were up at the allotment with fleece and cloches to protect our vulnerable plants.
Madame was off life drawing at the university today so I thought I’d better put my money where my mouth is and make a start on painting that leaf. There’s an algorithm, a way of getting on with a painting that side-steps all those anxious moments when you doubt whether you’re up to it. I say this because from time to time I get very blocked with negative thoughts and this is the way that I deal with it. I break the task down into easy steps and in the process I render the subject ‘strange’ – I transform it into something I’m not in love with or in awe of in order to get on. So I start with lots of photos, because these ephemeral subjects can change very quickly – they curl up and dry out and they change colour dramatically. You can already see that happening above, in just a couple of days the leaf has got substantially more brown. The good news is that I’ve already got the colour set that attracted me to it in the first place.
So photos – lots of them to refer back to, and then I make a tracing of just the outline and the main features on to tracing paper, strengthen the image with indian ink, grid it up for later in case I change the size, and then reverse the tracing paper so I can transfer the image to a sheet of watercolour paper. The next stage is to carefully draw in any areas like holes, that need to remain completely white, with drawing gum – that includes the entire outline. At this stage I’m working on an increasingly remote stage of the original image, turning the page around to work – which all helps with the distancing process, because the painting that will be is not a leaf but a painting with its own set of rules, rituals and standards. I can move things around slightly, emphasise some parts and move some back in the interests of clarity. I can even alter colours just a bit on aesthetic grounds.
When all that’s done I can start painting, in this case mostly wet-in-wet which demands good quality paper. The first few trys might well be practice runs, clarifying any methods I’m not sure of and practicing the colour mixes. When I first started a couple of years ago, Julia Trickey – our marvellous tutor – had us do a colour exercise using only three primary colours – printer’s primaries – cyan, magenta and yellow which can all be bought in warm and cool hues according to your taste. I’ve stuck with the same three colours ever since, because it saves lugging around a massive collection of dried up tubes. As ever the better the quality the easier it goes. Oh and a tube of lamp black is sometimes useful right at the end.
Why am I writing all this here – well it’s certainly not because I’m an expert because I’m not one of those by a country mile, but I enjoy it and I notice things – structures, textures, colours and minute details that really help me to get a better purchase on field botany – and I’m not an expert in that either.
I don’t hold much with notions like exceptional talent in painting and music, writing, or green fingers in allotmenteering. It’s not about luck it’s about practice and I think it’s one of the great crimes of our education system that so many young people leave full-time education having been talked out of their creative potential. So I’d say to anyone have a go! – no-one dies if your early attempts aren’t very good and you’ll get better as long as you don’t talk yourself out of even trying, it’s much better to be an amateur painter than a professional charlatan. Just think – if the thought of watching politicians lie in their teeth, unchallenged by spineless journalists gives you the creeps, redeem the shining hour by doing a painting or writing a letter, anything. Pay no attention to them, they’re not worth it, but vote well; vote carefully because global heating and species destruction are symptoms of a corrupt ideology.
And speaking of trying, the Christmas puds survived their spell in the pressure cooker and they’re all packed away in the cupboard. The allotment is looking very stripped back now but there are a lot of seeds germinating and quite a few winter vegetables just about to come into their own. I took the temperature of the compost heap just to see if it was feeling well, and it’s running at 25C – so there’s obviously some microbial action going on, but not so hot as to drive the worms down. I even put a temporary hard roof over the first bay to keep the rain off.
Just two trays of green tomatoes left to ripen, thank goodness and the cupboard is absolutely jammed with sauces, relishes, passata and now chutney. I cannot look another tomato in the eye.
Blogging can get awfully repetitive, I fear. There must be a limit to the patience of longsuffering followers when I enlarge yet again on the tomato. It’s been a long season and I’ve entirely run out of things to say, but just imagine how much worse it would be if I was a dairy farmer – day after day when nothing much happens except milking the cows. “Daisy looked a bit off colour today” is even less interesting when Daisy is reduced to a number. The whole enterprise of blogging is an encouragement to big-up the achievements at the expense of the truth. “Finished seventh novel today, quick photo shoot with Vogue to model my latest line in dungarees and wellingtons”.
My days really can be a bit boring, apart from the fact that I’m rarely bored by the same thing more than a couple of times a month. I’ve often enough written about the rather sacramental quality to cooking and gardening, but the impact of that internality is the need to explain what’s going on inside my head while I cut up onions or dig potatoes. Revelations, unique insights and life enhancing lessons only crop up rarely and there’s essentially nothing external to look at, or describe. The photo at the top of the page next to the unmentionable bottles of GTC is of Madame’s Grandmother’s collection of recipes. As it happens it’s a recipe for tomato sauce which, being a wartime recipe, has the tomatoes bulked out by a whisked egg and some breadcrumbs to make it go further. Its only connection with today’s activities is the slender thread that connects our lives to hers – and it’s a good feeling to honour the past even by completely ignoring this particular lesson. I’ve never been tempted to make parsnip cordial either. Much ordinary life is just same-old same-old, – except it’s not, because it’s the lived experience of being human and that’s a wonderful thing even when it looks a bit boring….
So today we dug the last potatoes, hopefully enough to keep us going for a few months. We scrumped an apple off a tree on an abandoned allotment (photo), and I cooked venison meatballs in T sauce (sorry). One of our neighbours beamed at us in the street, and we saw a man from the Christadelphians carrying a crate of cups and saucers out of their meeting room. I saw a gluten free pizza being cooked – it looked truly horrible – and we feasted on a few chocolate marshmallows – see what I mean? Step away from the blog please, there’s nothing going on here.
All this, of course is displacement activity because what I ought to be doing is reminding you how important the latest “State of Nature” report is and explaining why it might be that these peaches were rotten before they were ripe, but that would involve an elaborate reconstruction of their immersion in gases, their interminable journey at low temperatures in large ship-borne containers or giant lorries. The fact is, they’re on the compost heap right now along with a big pile of cardboard that took ages to tear up into small pieces. It’s essential to add plenty of carbon to a compost heap and that’s a bit of luck because one of our neighbouring flats has been refurbished and we’ve been able to recycle heaps of cardboard from the newly delivered white goods. The downside is that the old and probably functional items were simply stacked in the basement and when we kicked up a fuss with the management company, the guilty party just dumped the rest in the road outside.
I may be a bit more grumpy than usual because living, as we do, in a block of flats with a high turnover of tenants means we get the odd nuisance upstairs. Yesterday we spent all day listening to them having a noisy time until about midnight when all went quiet – only (it turned out) because they went out clubbing and came back at about 4.00am and started all over again. Childishly we retaliated this morning by turning two radios up to full volume in the hope of spoiling their lie-in. Did I ever claim to be a saint?
So that’s it – another ordinary day at the Potwell Inn – but we got some stuff done, we’re prepared a little better for the winter and for the clusterf**ck that is about to be visited upon us and I cling to the tiny hope that this is all a bad dream and that we won’t need those wartime recipes after all. But then, did the Romans who built this bath house in Ravenglass ever imagine that within a couple of decades they’d be on the boat home. Wherever that is?
“All my life I have been in and around wild nature, working – exploring, studying and even living in cities. Yet I realized a few years ago that I had never made myself into as good a botanist or zoologist or ornithologist as so many of the outdoor people I admire have done. Recalling where I had put my intellectual energies over the years it came to me that I had made my fellow human beings my study – that I had been a naturalist of my own species. That I had been my own object-of-study too.”
Gary Snyder – in ‘Blue mountains constantly walking’ from his collection “The practice of the wild”.
Twobooks were very much at the top of my mind as I was writing this post. First, as the title suggests, I was remembering William Cobbett’s book describing rural poverty in 1830, (and incidentally, citing a book doesn’t mean I agree with all the writer’s sentiments. Cobbet was probably a very unpleasant man who, in this instance, had his finger on the pulse because he went and saw for himself). But secondly I was reading Gary Snyder’s book “The Practice of the Wild” while I was writing it and I’m sure it’s leaking through every line. This is a truly important and inspiring book for our times although it was published in 1990, and I can’t recommend it too highly.
The net result of this reading and the reason for the quotation from Gary Snyder was that I found myself putting aside my hand lens and county lists in favour of pondering just what we’re doing to ourselves and how and where we allowed our humanity to be so diminished. I had to become “a naturalist of my own species”.
Holidaying together on the border between Cumbria and Yorkshire, we are one of those temporary communities that forms and re-forms from time to time in different places. Our extended family flows like a busy stream around the large kitchen table in this eighteenth century farmhouse. Noise and conversations are continuous – everyone talking at once and nobody listening, children tugging at me and racing about with swords and shields enacting a fight I hope they never see for real. I play the elder, and I am straining to understand who is cross with whom today, who had too much to drink last night, where are the cracks in the family brickwork. The big range at the end of the kitchen is in constant use as we take it in turns to cook according to the rota and so the whole symphony is punctuated by cries of “hot!” and “watch out!” as we swirl like advancing and retreating waves, occasionally pausing to eat and clear and wash up once again. The children have their own cycle between excited chatter in the mornings as they visit us all in our bedrooms to steal biscuits and cuddles, and howls of anguish and rage as they are put to bed in the evening and the first bottles are opened. Yesterday it was announced that the government intended to suspend parliamentary democracy in order to force through the plan to leave the European Community. Here in the depths of the Yorkshire Dales the news was filtered through a shaky and ancient portable radio.
When the news came on Madame’s little radio I lost it completely and hurled bad tempered abuse at the radio. I’m truly scared by what’s happening. Fear and powerlessness are nasty and unproductive emotions and I was reproached for my outburst for frightening the children. There was nothing for it but to retreat to the river and sit there on a rock watching the peat stained water for half an hour imagining terrible acts of violence and revenge and struggling to allow the river to take the unwelcome thoughts away. It worked, as it always does, and so, sufficiently shriven, and after a supper of bacon, cheese and potatoes accompanied by anxious looks from my family, I consoled myself with Gary Sneider’s book for a while before rejoining the throng.
I never see myself as being particularly patriotic. I think I love this country as I love my family, mindful of all its faults but leaning on the assumption that ultimately we are one. It is only when it is threatened that I become fierce and defensive.
Outside the conservatory window we’ve been watching three brown hares, one much larger and two of them smaller – possibly a doe and her leverets as they relax in the sun and occasionally eat. Up on the hill we found a dead and half rotten raptor beyond identification – possibly shot – this is grouse country. While we followed the river down to a bridge that has been damaged for the umpteenth time by a passing lorry, we heard the thrilling liquid song of curlew and watched lapwing flying across. These remote places are the breeding grounds for many threatened species of bird. Down by the river we watched a yellowhammer, a bird I haven’t seen in ages. Here the landscape and its inhabitants look familiar enough from a distance but when I get my eyes down to ground level I discover that my knowledge of natural history is more appropriate to the western coastal regions. There are strangers here among the flowers and wildlife, just as there are among the “larger than wolf, smaller than elk” humans who work this landscape and speak in a totally unfamiliar dialect that can speak Slaithwaite as ‘Slough’it’ which makes me feel like a stranger.
This could read rather like a Cobbettian travelogue in the bad-tempered mould of Rural Rides, because much as I’d like to bathe in the silent beauty and rustic charm of it all, it’s impossible not to be alarmed at the fragility of both communities and landscapes. To drive from the West Country to Huddersfield, and thence across this huge county to the Yorkshire Dales is to experience all the contradictions that are throwing this country into a civil war whose deadliest weapon is passive aggression. We fear the climate crisis and yet we cannot manage without the cars and lorries that turn traffic jams into toxic clouds. Just to get here we queued for miles on slow moving motorways that turned our journey time on both of the first two stops from four hours to six. Last year it took us longer to drive from Cornwall To Bristol than it used to do 50 years ago before the A38 was relegated to history by the M5 and extensive dual carriageways.
Our friends in Huddersfield share a great part of our history and values. They are highly active in the community, avid gardeners and implacable in their opposition to destructive chemical use by farmers, even going so far as to engage with one of the largest producers face to face. They describe the efforts of these companies to justify their noxious products as “greenwashing” and it’s hard not to agree when you read the notes taken at the meetings. ‘S’ has made several poncho’s by ironing together plastic supermarket bags, an operation which she says is best carried out carefully and outside because of the smell.
There are many signs of hope and they have helped the MASTT build a lovely community orchard complete with its own complement of bees. The bees were the idea of a Syrian asylum seeker who has now moved on to run a community beekeeping project close by. Why this delightful man and his family with so many gifts to offer should be regarded as a threat, escapes me altogether. We never needed writers so much as we need heirs to Cobbett and Dickens to lead the charge against the mendacity of the politicians who are leading the country into catastrophe.
As if to drive home the point we spent part of a day walking on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, built in the heat of the last industrial revolution, and which never really turned a profit. These days its principal use is for tourism, and even that is limited by narrow width, daunting sequences of locks and the longest, deepest and highest canal tunnel in the UK. We drank tea outside the entrance to Standedge tunnel and talked to a man with an intimate knowledge of the feeder lakes and reservoirs, who told us that the recent collapse of Whateley Bridge dam, a canal feeder reservoir in Derbyshire, was the direct result of the management failure to respond to weather forecasts by lowering the reservoir level. We were told that they are absolutely paranoid about running the reservoirs low for fear of negative publicity if a prolongued drought should increase the demand for water in the canals. We were also told that this was not the only nineteenth century dam liable to collapse after sudden floods, and that other centres of population are equally under threat from old dams being subjected to excessive loads by keeping them full. Whether any of this will emerge during the enquiry is doubtful as the more senior levels fight to cover their arses and blame the weather as if it were a surprise. No doubt “lessons will be learned” but there is no hope that among those lessons the government will put any extra money into averting a disaster. One day, perhaps, dozens or even hundreds of people will be killed, and a minister will visit for a photo opportunity in a hi-viz jacket, but the facts on the ground will not change – nature is not there to be controlled and farmed for our own benefit.
After an equally testing drive westwards to the other side of the county (it was a bank holiday weekend) we came into the Yorkshire Dales. We had rented a cottage right alongside the upper reaches of the River Swale, miles from anywhere and entirely without phone signal or internet, which made it so much easier to unwind. But the news every day is so awful that even in this peaceful setting I woke in the night with the horrors after dreaming about the situation. Driving through the much diminished places that were once centres of industry, mill and mining towns where houses can be bought for next to nothing because there is no work is so obviously depressing that it hardly warrants attention any more. We’ve got used to poverty, food banks and Pound Stores.
But anyone who comes to the Dales, which still seem the same as ever, and thinks the landscape – which really does take your breath away – is ‘natural’ in any way at all, is deluded. These dales are the product of not one but many forms of agriculture over the millennia. The ancient landscape was not so long ago buried under hundreds of metres of ice and with no flora at all; there’s nothing immemorial about it, and it could change again in the blink of an eye or the stroke of a pen far away in London. The farmers here rely on public subsidy for 80% of their income and, trust me, they are not rich. Were it not for the support they get, the land – which is marginal and unproductive – would be left ungrazed and would swiftly become scrub. Woodland and forest, desirable though they may be in the right place, are not ‘free’. In historical terms the whole landscape was intensively managed and if it is to remain in the form that we love, open and available to us with its biodiverse communities, and able to achieve the balance between sustainable food production and intensive farming leading to ecological breakdown, we will need to invest money, and farmers will still have to do the work. When a whole farming community disappears we lose the skills that have been honed over centuries and built into common life. The media like to fret about disappearing tribes in the Amazon, but don’t get sufficiently excited about the prospect of losing the hill farming communities in our own country.
Here the becks and rivers seem eternal. The landscape is sculpted by forces we can barely conceive of, and at the human level everything seems uncompromising. When it rains, it rains with a scale and intensity that sends hack journalists towards words like ‘biblical’, except it isn’t. It could never be tamed and put in a box with Jesus and the others. What the journalists never want to mention is that in the Genesis myth, the flood was a punishment for the over-reaching greed and promiscuity of the human race. But rain is rain, that’s it – fierce, driving, scarifying, clarifying rain gathered from the oceans and hurled back at the hills that gout it back at us. Hills that float on water, notwithstanding their great age and mass. The wind searches at the doors of the farmhouse and rattles the doors at night as if seeking entry to level us to dirt again.
But stuff happens and things do change. The circus has moved on and it’s appallingly obvious why people here voted as they did to leave the EU. The collapse of heavy industry was no less predictable than the onslaught of unpredictable weather that presages the climate catastrophe. But the politicians, safe and well-rewarded inside their closed communities had no inclination to think ahead while they profited from strip mining human communities of every shred of extractable wealth: of housing, education, health care and self-respect but more wickedly they destroyed whole cultures.
It’s almost too late as the farmers contemplate the cost to their livelihood, but one thing is sure. We need to reinstate democracy from the ground up. From citizens’ assemblies to parish and district councils, to county councils, regional assemblies, constituencies and only finally government, we must learn to engage democracy for the good of all – and that includes the earth that sustains us. It’s philosophical dualism that’s led us to this – me and ‘it’, the worthy and the unworthy, the future and the past, human and nature, God and servants, rich and poor, clever and stupid.
For the first three days we had almost continual sunshine, and then the weather closed in and reverted to its stereotype, but nothing kept us indoors, and several of the nights were clear enough for stargazing. There are no artificial lights for many miles and so old and familiar constellations and planets (well, Saturn at least) were surrounded by multitudes of stars we’d never seen before. One of our party had brought a telescope and after an abortive attempt when we forgot to put in one of the lenses(?) the boys finally found Saturn’s rings. There’s a huge difference between knowing things in your head and knowing them with your senses. They were completely energized when they told us at breakfast the next day.
As we left after a week, we struggled to get the van up the steep and narrow track leading to an equally precipitous and narrow road. I had to reverse the whole 3 ton truck back down and around a sharp corner and then take it at a run with only a tap on a wing mirror as I roared through the first set of gates. As we turned towards civilization we were accompanied by a small flock of half a dozen lapwing who could easily have flown to the left or right on to the fell, but flew in front like a miniature honour guard or possibly they were fighter planes escorting us away from their territory. We all went our separate ways, and with the benefit of a phone signal, photos were exchanged and progress reported. Our journey took us north and west, looping around the Lakes to the coast at Ravenglass past Bassenthwaite Lake where we once almost went to live save for the rainfall – which has subsequently proved to be monumental.
The journey, once again, took us past several depressed mining towns and villages that demonstrate all too painfully that tourist money only sticks in a few places in the Lakes. This was once a great centre for the mining of coal and iron ore and which supported a prosperous and skilled workforce. There had been fitful attempts to build industrial estates and business parks on the abandoned sites but it all seemed too much like sticking plaster. As we approached the coast the looming buildings of the Windscale nuclear reprocessing plant hogged the landscape. Was this where the politicians learned to lie on an industrial scale. Was this where the idea that it was morally acceptable to lie to the population “for the good of the country” was conceived? A large sign on the roadside proclaims “The Energy Coast” without a trace of irony or self-awareness. The radioactive beaches tell a different story.
I want to stop looking and worrying. What I’d really like to do is go back to botanising and growing plants on the allotment and forget all this, but I can’t. The union jacks and crosses of St George flying in the gardens of so many run-down homes and businesses give testimony to the lie – the great lie – that we can have it all. The mainstream political parties still don’t get it – they each peddle the snake oil remedy that they alone possess, to run the country better without changing anything. Best stop here, I think, before I start ranting on (like Cobbett) about turnips. We’re in Ravenglass now on the third leg of the journey and at the point where the Cumbrian fells of the Western Lake District drop from the heights of Scafell down to the sea. It’s mournfully beautiful, a melancholic’s pick-me-up.
There’s a really interesting feature about urban farming in Bristol in today’s Observer that described one urban farmer (not known to us btw) as “a veteran of the grow-your-own, self-sufficiency movement of the 1960s and 70s”. That rattled our cages a bit – “veterans” indeed – we weren’t even pioneers, just ordinary everyday descendants of the Diggers and other subversives who didn’t much care for “the way they did things round here” – which is as good a working definition of culture as you’ll ever need. A single glimpse of the photos was enough to say that even if we didn’t actually know this younger generation of urban farmers, we certainly knew their spiritual forbears and possibly even their parents.
One of the few shafts of light in these gloomy times is the re-surfacing of values that we feared we’d lost forever. The bailiffs and developers had moved in on our inner mindscapes and trashed them as they trashed the environment, and I never tire of arguing the point with our oldest son, who was born in the year that Thatcher came to power, that it wasn’t the whole of our generation who stitched up the young; and large numbers of his generation have been only too pleased to be bought off by the machine. Yes were were allotmenteers back in the day, and we kept a goat, recycled as much as we could, did anything we could to keep financially afloat, we lived in a couple of communes and set up workers’ cooperatives not small businesses. The principal ideal in those idealistic days was to put something back, not extract value from other human beings and pocket it.
Today we sat together and read the article with a sense of real excitement that these (often) young people still share the same values. It’s nice when they listen to us, but this is a time when we, who will not be around to see the Great Harm bearing its evil fruit, should listen to them. The allotment movement was rejuvenated after the First World War because the enforced clearance of the commons through the Enclosure Acts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had left the vast majority of the population landless – just as we are today. That was what opened up the intensification of farming for profit and ignored the question of the public good which is just now resurfacing. Bristol City Council should be applauded for making land available to the community in this way and not – as Bath City Council tried recently to do – to build a park and ride scheme on ancient and species rich flood meadows. We shouldn’t have to shame our representatives into doing the right thing.
Anyway, the article – do read it – was a great scamper around some of the opportunities and the issues, and brought up another previously neglected thread when discussing development. We’ve got very used to scientists – ecologists, botanists and medical researchers for instance, hogging the microphone when it comes to debating the natural world. Yes of course they have a right to put their point, but not to drown out those who fight for the emotional impact of the natural world. Wildflower meadows are good for us because they heal us – not just by boiling roots and steeping flowers in alcohol but by simply being there. There’s a hotlink below to more detailed information:
One of the staff later mentions the influence of Miles Richardson, a professor of human factors and nature connectedness at the University of Derby. Richardson has recently shown that people who feel an emotional and physical connection to nature are 30 times more likely to do something to help the natural environment than those who have just read, or been taught, about it.
If and when the merde hits the Dyson, we won’t just be digging for victory, we’ll be digging (or perhaps no-digging) for sanity and for the future of the earth.
Just to finish, I wrote last week about a riverside development here in Bath, and particularly about the impact on the environment. Last night we were having a meal with several couples who live over there. The willow trees planted next to the river have, amazingly, grown rather well over the last three years and so they’re being pollarded this winter to keep them in check. They also said that a promising young oak tree that had been planted in Ryegrass Park has been sawn off at ground level for no discernable reason. I expect the developers will fix that when they fix the missing dampcourses, the absence of wall insulation and structural features supporting tons of glass which, mysteriously were never installed either. There is a platoon of scissor cranes in permanent residence over there, doing work which the residents fear will take at least a year. It’s austerity, you see. There were hardly any buildings inspectors left so the developers were unimpeded by the nanny state. I suppose it’s just possible that by the time it’s finished the evicted invertibrates will have moved back in and it will have become a derelict industrial site once again.
Most posts begin with an idea, even a title, or a photograph. I took this photo through the kitchen window three days ago, but I could have, just as easily taken it today because the scene outside is not much different. We’re in a spell of fairly typical south -westerly weather with alternating hours, of heavy showers and (if we’re lucky) days of sunshine. Photographs work hard for us, capturing in a fraction of a second an image that bears a huge amount of information. Here, the empty green, the trees in full leaf, the Georgian terrace and the moody sky combine to suggest a time and place. As everyone says when they see the flat – “you’re so lucky to have the view”, and we are very fortunate – the photo shows it.
There are things the photo doesn’t show, like for instance the fact that we’re here, and and not somewhere else far less attractive, because when I retired we became technically homeless. The flat is owned by the Church of England and we got it for no better reason than the fact that it became vacant just as we were looking desperately for somewhere to live. If I called it ‘social housing’ it would slot us into a far less desirable milieu, placing us with all the other displaced, ephemeral, faintly dodgy and occasionally deranged people of a dozen or more nationalities who also live here. But we, and all the others happily populate this area which mostly comprises social housing. There are students, singles, nurses, retired university professors, artists, refugees, rugby players, teachers, designers and retired clergy – the list goes on. It’s a splendidly diverse culture that demonstrates Plato’s notion that the city is a work of art.
And there in a nutshell is an awkward and difficult problem with nature, described using human actors and environments. Is an environment best described by its appearance and history? – ‘the view’? Much of Bath is a World Heritage Site, for instance, and Royal Crescent illuminated by the setting sun is astoundingly beautiful. Or is it better described scientifically, with the heavy lifting done by sociologists, anthropologists and economists? Bath makes millions from tourism, notwithstanding the difficulty of crossing the city at the height of the tourist season and especially the Christmas Market. Or is the essence of Bath embedded in its human ecology, its sheer diversity, the mixture from ostentatious wealth to grinding poverty, the novelists and the drug dealers. How do you weigh neighbourliness and human community? If it’s a work of art, in essence, how much of Bath would you have to destroy for it to become another place – “notbathanymore”?
I’ve written about this challenge a lot in the past few days. Yesterday we walked across the river to the Gulag to see the new park. It was officially opened the week before last and I felt I owed it a chance, having slagged it off. You’ll remember this very large and ‘prestigious’ (aren’t they all?) development was built on what’s known as a ‘brownfield site’ which was really very green indeed and housed a regionally important population of invertebrates – bugs in English. My initial impression was of surprise – our entrance coincided with a large border of weeds that ran the northern edge of the riverside park and was maybe fifteen feet wide. I was even happier that it had been seeded with a well thought out mixture of largely native grassland plants. Full marks to the person who passed up on pan-european seed mixes and paid a few quid extra to get the real deal. How long the border will last in the face of opposition from the owners of the £1million+ flats who think they’re messy is another matter, but in trade-off terms, this patch is a sop. a salve to the conscience, a token. Fifty well-meaning Knapweeds is not enough when the area of Gillette shaved ryegrass is twenty times greater and dully limited by notices that forbid almost anything human beings like to do. The original environmental survey was done by reputable ecologists – I’ve heard one of them speak, loyally and regretfully on the subject. The seed mixture was obviously chosen by someone well-trained enough to do the right thing. Here’s Murray Bookchin, quoted in “Deep Ecology” – and well worth reading –
…. The choice must be made now before the ecology movement becomes institutionalized into a mere appendage of the very system whose structure and methods it professes to oppose. (p4)
How long until we get to “Not bath any more”? How long until we get to “Not nature any more.”
The one approach that’s not much spoken of because it has a very high ‘cringe factor’ for our materialistic culture, might be called the spirituality of nature. I know instantly that this will be dismissed as hippy dippy tree-hugging, but those sorts of responses speak more loudly of fear than they do of confident atheism; fear that the baby has gone down the plughole with the bathwater. Here’s the Potwell Inn kitchen early this morning –
Messy ain’t it! First thing we have tea in bed (made by me). Then I knead the sourdough (top left bowl) and go back to bed for another hour’s reading, we try to limit “busywork” at the Potwell Inn. Then, when the mood takes me I get up again and strain the kefir ready for breakfast. We didn’t grow the tea but we’re profoundly grateful to those who did. The sourdough starter is nothing whatever to do with me. I can claim no credit for what is a gift of the earth, and neither can I claim any virtue for the kefir grains on the same grounds. I didn’t buy either of them, they were given to me by my son and the air we breathe.
On the allotment yesterday we harvested the first batch of potatoes along with all the usual seasonal suspects. Supper last night came entirely out of our own bit of earth, aside from some cheese. It is quite impossible to harvest from the allotment without a deep sense of thanksgiving directed at who knows what? Harvesting has a profoundly non-sectarian and non-theistic spirituality. Feast and famine alike are the gifts among which we live, and so too is the natural world.
We have a Blackbird outside the flat – he’s gone quiet at the moment, but on spring days he sings in a way that weaves my entire past and present into a single song. Even in the depths of our miserable basement among the rubbish bins, we hear his song. How should I respond to it? Should I photograph him? make a written record for the Natural History Society? Count the syllables of each phrase? Fight to create a site of special scientific interest? write to UNESCO and ask if they knew we’ve got blackbirds as well as Roman baths? Or should I rather fall into the arms of it and allow myself to be held by him and healed of all my melancholy? The first time I really looked at a Forget me not, I thought that I was seeing through the portal of the blue petals into some kind of unreachable heaven beyond.
Nature needs recording and counting of course, and it needs scientific understanding. We need what nature offers by way of sustenance and medicines. We’re part of the same ungraspable unity – “the Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao” Blackbirds and Forget me nots are not rare, and neither are potatoes and courgetttes or the micro-organisms that feed the soil and ferment wine and beer, sourdough and kefir. They’re not rare, that is, until we take them for granted and they disappear. And who will heal us then?
Sometimes the gentlest put-down is a tiny work of art. My son, for instance, was at a party once and recounted an overheard conversation that went something like this:
She: Where do you work then
He: Oh I’m a physicist, I work in Cerne
She: On the Hadron Collider?
She: You mean that big one that goes for miles underground?
He: No I work on the small one.
She: How sweet!
One of my many come-uppances came when I was a curate at St Mary Redcliffe. I was introduced to a very well dressed woman wearing the kind of understated clothing that announces itself silently and tells you exactly where you belong in the great scheme of things. I was wearing an extremely expensive silk cassock that was bought for me as a gift and which lifted me out of my mongrelry into another category of humanity. It was a useful disguise. When she discovered my name she demanded (no really, she demanded in a voice like melting pack ice) “are you one of the Somerset Poles?” “no”, I replied airily “I’m one of the Kingswood Poles”. Part of my dad’s family did in fact come from Somerset but they most certainly weren’t part of the Somerset Poles and I didn’t feel obliged to enlarge on my reply.
However my quarry today is a different branch of the put-down family that relates to the way we perceive and value the natural world. If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that we had a break in St Davids a few weeks ago and I got going on a list of plants I found while we were there – there were well over a hundred in the end. Several, though, turned out to be a bit of a rarity and so I emailed a local botanist with their names just so he could check them out (referee them) and add them to the records. Yesterday, after a long silence, I had a charming reply to my email thanking me and mentioning in passing that this was the second record for Sedum forsterium he’d received and that the other, found a couple of streets away, was – the finder believed – the garden form, ssp. elegantissimum. I was instantly deflated, notwithstanding the fact that I’d identified it properly, but a garden plant?
So how is it in the great scheme of things that a large hadron collider is more important than a small one, a Somerset Pole is more worthy of conversation than a mongrel Pole from Kingswood, and a rare wild plant more important than a hybrid of the same family that manages to escape from a garden and eke out a miraculous living on a streetside wall. Who is it that determines these things? and does it even matter?
Well yes, it matters a great deal when our environment is becoming more and more degraded, because sympathy, money and research tends to flow to the places determined as ‘more important’ and away from those determined to be less so. I was disappointed with myself that I had fallen into a lazy way of thinking about priorities that had been handed to me as a ‘faite accompli’ and lurked unchallenged at the back of my mind for goodness knows how long.
Opposite where we live there used to be an old industrial site complete with gasometer and suchlike. In Bath there is a desperate need for more housing, and the local council have no money and so like so many other councils they had to allow the desperately needed houses to be built by a developer. But first there was a legal requirement to conduct an environmental impact survey – which I’ve read, along with the promises of low-cost housing, a doctor’s surgery and a new primary school. Here’s a retrospective environmental assessment of what actually happened –
The trend is for steady loss of this habitat type. When Bath Western Riverside was cleared for redevelopment, invertebrate communities of Regional importance that were associated with this habitat were lost.
The school and the surgery were quietly dropped because they impacted on the profits, and the first-time housing that had been so loudly trumpeted as a sweetener started off at £500,000 a flat. The ‘regionally important’ habitat was bulldozed away and replaced by a miserable “park” of municipal ryegrass. Little notice was taken of a wildlife corridor connecting the centre of the city to the countryside to the west and crucially all this was assisted in its passage because the development was taking place on a ‘brownfield site’. Who goes out to demonstrate over a derelict gasworks when there are homeless people living on the streets? Our use of language and imagery really does matter because it colours our priorities, and wrong priorities take us further away from our desired objectives. Clearly we all agree that the environment is increasingly important because all the evidence stacks up behind that proposition. But expressions like ‘brownfield site’, ‘alien’, and ‘invasive’ subtly embody a hierarchy of significance that can subvert our behaviour. What if the ecologically diverse environments are now the brownfield sites and the ‘green belt’ land we’re so desperate to protect is so doused in chemicals and so overcropped that the soil is all but dead? In a ‘battle of the priorities’ homes, surgeries and schools will always win over spiders and bryophytes. It all changes, though, if the schools and surgeries are never built, the houses are utterly beyond the reach of first time buyers and the ecologically diverse environment is destroyed in any case, in the pursuit of profits for developers.
It matters that this isn’t an argument about aesthetics, although the riverside development is known among the locals as “The Gulag” and it certainly looks like a Soviet era bonded warehouse. I thought the gasworks site with its abundance of Ragwort and Buddleia looked better and the wildlife certainly thought so! But we’re not facing a crisis of beauty, we’re facing a crisis that entails the death of thousands of species, the destruction of the soil that feeds us and the air that we’re forced to breathe. “We have seen the enemy – it is us”, and we can’t solve the crisis unless we accept that more of the same can only make things worse.
Let’s imagine I own the wall with the Sedum forsterianum in St Davids and I want to knock the wall down, dig up the garden and build a car port for a holiday rental. The local council are minded to grant the permission because it knows the city relies absolutely on the tourist trade. A local and enthusiastic amateur botanist comes along and says “you can’t do that it’s a three star rarity”. I appoint an independent enviromental consultant who says – yes you can it’s ssp. elegantissimum which is just a garden escape. The County Recorder joins the fray and says “not only is it a garden escape it’s an invasive garden escape that’s driving out all the real (i.e pure) Sedum forsterianum from the inaccessible cliffs hereabouts. The local Friends of the Earth get involved and start a petition to prevent any more car ports while the Gardening Club are incensed at the marginalisation of a favourite rockery plant. Plaid Cymru demand an end to holiday lets because the local people can’t affotd to buy houses any more. A local independent councillor says “something must be done!” without specifying what exactly that might be. Meanwhile a tidy minded council worker spots the offending weed in the wall and sprays it with Roundup while he’s doing the cracks in the pavement.
It’s a rare plant, it’s an invasive menace, it’s a garden escape, it’s a hybrid, it’s a weed, its a meal ticket for a host of experts and it’s a vote winner too. It’s the gift that goes on giving for me, the lucky developer because every specialist interest group in town is so engaged in this turf war about a plant that they can’t agree what to do, and I get my application through without any effective opposition. The environmentalists all get to keep their virtue intact and the environment takes another small step in the wrong direction.
No amount of home baking, kefir production, artisan gin and allotmenteering is going to save the environment unless we learn to collaborate and that means watching our language and engaging seriously with a flood of data that may feel difficult and counter-intuitive at times. Sometimes I feel like withdrawing to the allotment or propping up the Potwell Inn bar until it’s all over but in my heart I know that the only chance we have is to engage. The Sirens with their dark money will say we can have it all – but it’s not true and it never was. The sun’s shining and the insects will be out and about this morning so our neighbour Trigger will be up at the allotments with his little hand spray. He doesn’t tell his wife he’s spraying and she will sometimes say “d’you know these beans were covered with blackfly last week and now they’re all gone.” He doesn’t tell her about his little secret spray because he knows she’s trying to garden organically and because he loves her, he wants her to succeed. Damaging the evironment doesn’t require evil or malice, just lack of thought will achieve the same end.