I fell asleep last night clutching a new wildflower book – I would have called it a flora but that would have been misleading since Madame’s name (which is a closely guarded secret) is not Flora. But it’s a sign that the natural world, in the course of a couple of riverside walks, has got me back in her grip. I was lamenting the impossibility of botanising in Cornwall or Wales for weeks, but the last two days on the riverbank have energised me in much the same way – the sheer pleasure of recognising old friends that I never knew grew here in the middle of a small city; here today, wintercress and broomrape growing within a few hundred yards – neither of them rare. The slightly mad abundance of plant life is a telling sign that nature doesn’t need us half as much as we need her. Over the river in the Crest Nicholson gulags they left a wildflower meadow in one corner of a field of hard-wearing perennial ryegrass – no ball games permitted – which struggles in the teeth of the siberian winds generated by the tall buildings. The grounds are maintained by a company with a cunning plan to mow another inch off the meadow with every cut. It will then disappear; the last sop of ecological reparation for the destruction of the old gasometers and abandoned industrial buildings that really were a wildlife haven. But we still have the anarchic, weed infested verges; the real eco-deal thriving under their neglect by the strimmer army – long may their funding be neglected!
At home, energised by thoughts of weeds, I woke with cheese scones on my mind. I know that sounds like a non-sequitur but there’s nothing quite like baking to calm you down, and so I baked a batch of the ultimate comfort food. I really should have baked a Dundee cake but there wasn’t time because we wanted to go to the allotment to see how our wind and frost preparations had survived. The max and min thermometer in the greenhouse showed that the inside temperature had dropped to 5C during the night, so that meant the outside got down to around 2 or 3C – too close for comfort for the tender plants, so we were pleased that we’d gone to the trouble of wrapping them all up and building new screens. I’m beginning to sound a bit manic here, I know, but life’s too good to waste a minute – even in lockdown.
So everything in the garden was lovely (ish) and we added a new screen attached to the grapevine training wires. The bad news was that thieves had dropped by again and stolen our neighbour’s new shed which was waiting to be assembled and so rather vulnerable. I find it really difficult to connect with a mindset like that – and even if *’hell and heaven and all that religious stuff’ is abolished now, should we keep just a tiny corner of hell going for allotment thieves – just for old times sake?
Coming home we overheard a conversation about roasting rhubarb in the oven. I’m ashamed to say we’d never heard of it, but we promptly roasted half a kilo of our own Victoria, with some light brown sugar, and it’s delicious. We’ve eaten so much rhubarb in the last few weeks I think if you shoved a chimney pot on my head I’d lose weight and turn pink – I’d settle for being tall!
is a quotation from a rather fun poem by ee cummings
As an addendum, today we found a shop selling bakers flour, rye flour and yeast. The threat of torture wouldn’t induce me to say where it is, but for those in the know, if you flare your nostrils and search out the perfume of patchouli and listen carefully for Joni Mitchell you’ll know where I mean.
Having barely left the flat for weeks – except for going to the allotment – we went out for a walk yesterday evening, drinking in the unusual peace and quiet. The trees on the green are stunning at this time of the year, not least the horse chestnuts in full flower. The initial object of our enquiries was the state of the elderflower blossom which looks as if it will be ready to pick on Friday. Cue for a great manufacture of cordial to last the year. Our neighbours have excelled themselves this spring with front door displays. These houses may look like haunts of the wealthy but they’re not. Moving clockwise from the top left, the third photo was taken outside a house that’s been abandoned for years. The lovely display of Mexican fleabane is entirely spontaneous. The other doorways are all maintained by individual flat dwellers and they really lift the feel of the street. The photo of the window boxes on the bottom right are our window boxes from June 2017 – so a bit of a cheat. This years are going to be less opulent because we haven’t been able to get the plants from the garden centres which are all closed, but we’ve been propagating geraniums and ivy and we managed to get a few petunias by mail order so we’ll catch up eventually. But the main doorway to our flats is a bit barren and decorated only by a bit of graffiti that appeared a couple of nights ago. I suppose it slightly advances our edgy credentials, but it’s a shame.
So having checked out the elderflower crop we wandered on into town via some of the tourist hotspots. Royal Crescent was all but deserted and the streets around it were much the same. The main visitor car park was completely empty – not a car in sight, and as we walked along the deserted road towards the Circus a full moon was showing beautifully above the trees. Everywhere we walked was deserted with businesses closed – some for good – and notices for creditors on the windows. The Loch Fyne restaurant was boarded up. There were out of date posters advertising long cancelled events, and the only signs of movement were cyclists delivering takeaway food. Delightful to see Bath in this way, but quite spooky too – something terrible is happening and it feels as if a whole way of life with its infrastructure of cafes, restaurants, bookshops, pubs, clubs and theatres is under threat. What will emerge is a hugely important question, but we can sense the drive amongst some politicians to get back to normal as soon as possible oblivious to the fact that it was the old normal that got us into this disaster in the first place.
For us at the Potwell Inn, this crisis is causing a complete rethink of where and how we buy the things we can’t grow ourselves. The deficiencies and inequalities in our society have been forensically exposed by covid 19. We can do better than this.
No – nothing to do with the photo or the present royal family but more of a mea culpa because yesterday, having thought about it, we marched back down the hill and put the tomatoes back into the greenhouse where they should be safer. Tomatoes don’t really like going below 10C and night time temperatures at this time of the year are inclined to drop a little below that. On sunny days like today and under a cloche, the plants would almost certainly make do with the radiated warmth of the earth; but we’ve got a grey and cooler week coming and we can’t rely on good fortune getting the plants through. All of which reversal of the previous strategy leads me to warn that I’m no gardening guru – just muddling through the perplexities of growing crops in strange times like everyone else!
The asparagus in the photo represents the amount we’re able to cut every other day on our small patch at the moment. It’s the third season and so we’re allowing ourselves the luxury of cutting for a few, maybe three, weeks before we let the plants grow and feed their roots for one more year before we crop them properly. Over the last two weeks the production has grown steadily, but it’s clear that asparagus is more of a seasonal treat than a staple. On the other hand, after the first few rather skinny fronds that can be a little bitter, the flavour is (to borrow a line from ee cummings) as big as a circus tent. There’s only one other luxury that comes close and that’s our artichokes, but they too take up a lot of space for which they repay us by being astoundingly beautiful. Allotments are as good at feeding the soul as they are at feeding the body.
Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen, our indoor basil crop had matured and we were able to cut 200g of leaves, which is quite a big pile, and so Madame made a big pot of pesto that filled the flat with the fragrance of the mediterranean – and was very good later on a slice of toasted sourdough brushed with oil and grilled on a big ribbed cast iron pan, topped with salad greens and the asparagus – much of which was our own produce.
But now, apart from the propagators, the flat is free of young plants; the greenhouse is full once more and we were able to dismantle the array of improvised tables that filled every south facing window – so now we can close the shutters after dark. The allotment is looking fine, but our gentle terracing is expensive of topsoil, and having ridged up the potatoes twice, there was nothing left to cover them with so I’ve ordered a ton of topsoil which is arriving today and will need wheelbarrowing down the site. A whole ton sounds like a lot, but it’s surprising how quickly the allotment swallows it up. Someone suggested yesterday that we pinch the soil we need from the vacant plot below us. I was stunned to hear it! This was a perfectly law abiding and very pleasant person suggesting that we steal the fertility from another plot, depriving its future tenant of its goodness. No doubt the soil that’s delivered will have come from some poor paved-over garden, or maybe bulldozed off from a pristine woodland standing in the way of the HS2, but at least we’ll give it a new life, like a liberated battery hen. There’s a sermon to be preached there which I’ve no intention of burdening you with – but it’s a wonderful example of the way an ideology, in this case the way of thought that the earth is no more than an exploitable resource, can warp and corrupt our whole view of life. Breaking out of the cage is a struggle, but the change of perspective is exhilarating, like being reborn – if I dare say so.
We like to blame agribusiness, intensive farming or the chemical industry for the plight of the earth, but we all play our part in patrolling the ramparts of the ideological prison; buying the products, buying the big story and imagining that life inside the prison is the only show in town.
Enough! and praise be for the sunshine today. At last all the beds will be pretty much level with enough topsoil to grow championship parsnips – not that growing championship parsnips is a particular ambition.
I’m never quite sure what constitutes the first fruits of the new season because some of our favourite things like leeks and purple sprouting broccoli have been in the ground for a season already. So if you exclude all of last year’s starters, then the first crop has to be one that was sown this year and once again (it never changes) the radish comes in first because it just loves the hotbed and always obliges us in record time. These were the very first thinnings, but we were so pleased we just blew the loose dirt off, wiped off the rest on my overalls and ate them. They were delicious and remember, everyone needs to eat their peck of dirt! The asparagus is putting in a magnificent effort and will certainly come second, but it just needs a few warmer nights. Very soon we’ll be eating the first thinnings of lettuces and then – true joy – the first broad beans. The hungry gap is always much later than most people imagine – it doesn’t come in the dead of winter when there are always roots and a few hardy brassicas to be had – it’s now when you can feel the first heat of the sun on your back and the birds are singing.
Paradoxically, the social isolation policy coupled with millions of people being laid off or working from home, has allowed many people to get on with their allotments and every day sees more work being done. But there are other fascinating consequences. This morning when our grocery delivery arrived, instead of coming in a big diesel van it arrived on an electric bike – I couldn’t quite believe it – but the boss of a local bike delivery company had lost almost all his work due to shop closures so he offered to help the supermarket out.
Our own plot is a constant source of pleasure. Today we went up early, thinking there wouldn’t be much to do because yesterday we decided to do a bit of weeding and we struggled to finds any weeds! Two people working seven days a week on 250 square metres of ground can defeat even bindweed after 4 years. Actually I’m a little ashamed that it looks so clinically clean at this time of the year, but give it six weeks and it will look a lot more random. We’ve scattered no end of “good” weeds around the beds but they’re slow to germinate.
The biggest job today was to plant out the garlic that we’d started off in pots last year. We experimented by splitting the bulbs into two batches – half were planted straight into the ground and the other half into big pots filled with home made free draining compost. All winter the pots were winning – the ones in the ground were sitting in very wet soil and we were quite concerned for them. But as soon as the rain stopped the situation reversed completely and the ones in the ground started to pull ahead so convincingly that today we put the rest into the ground. The original idea was to use the potted ones to move around the plot and sit them on paths to deter pests. Pots can be a bit tricky though, and even after the wet winter we’ve just had, the pots were drying out even after a week of good weather. Garlic likes moist soil but hates the wet and hates drying out just as much. The watering regime for garlic is one of the keys to success and we’re still learning how to manage it. Pots need a lot of attention – that seems to be the learning point.
As ever we’ve put things into the wrong place and they soon tell you. I’ve already moved some lavenders into a home made bed that would kill many plants, but we saw a bunch of lavenders planted in what looked like an impossibly dry and sunny spot on the side of the canal last year, and I remember shaking my head sagely at the time – assuming that they’d be dead by the end of the season – but they just loved it there. Now we’ve got to find a new home for another sun lover – a Clematis armandii that’s on the wrong side of a hazel hurdle. The best laid plans etc ….. Last year I spent many hours planning on the computer, but we altered so many things on the ground that we’ve become a bit less picky. Rotations are important, but making a fetish of them drives you mad, I promise!
So not much time for reading today but suddenly, as I was reading Thomas Berry the thought popped into my mind that although human slavery was (theoretically) abolished many years ago, precisely the same set of attitudes lies behind intensive farming. The victim this time is the whole earth and so by extension all of us. The absolute power that science and technology have gifted us over the processes of nature is not accompanied by any sense of responsibility, or by any spiritual awareness of a debt to the earth which sustains us, out of which we have emerged over unimaginable periods of time, made from the very elements and energies of the moment of origin.
Those grubby hands in the photo are holding a miracle that – rightly considered – should bring us to our knees in gratitude.
I know, it makes me feel a bit premature too, since we’re probably about to break the record for the wettest February since records began – but if climate change means anything at all it’s the fact that our weather is becoming less and less predictable. The swings are wilder; feast and famine come together in the weather cycle and ironic though it might seem, we’re investing heavily in water storage at the moment at the Potwell Inn because it’s raining. Starting to wonder what to do after it’s been dry for six weeks and the government is planning a hosepipe ban will be too late. We’ve been storing 1000 litres for a year and I’ve been busy planning and building a new storage layout, connecting the butts and increasing our capacity to 1250 Litres immediately and later perhaps adding another 500 Litres to take the water running off the compost storage bins. It seems all wrong to use pure drinking water for the allotment, but for the most part we’re all very inexperienced when it comes to efficient watering. I’m quite sure we water too much – in my case because I actually enjoy it on a summer evening – but much of it will be wasted. So one of our climate change lessons for the next few years is to learn how to water just enough and not too much.
We’ll also need to be looking at the plants we grow; the varieties that work and a whole range of new horticultural skills. There will be things that can’t survive the new weather regime and I’m sure the seed catalogues will be offering lots of expensive new varieties. On the other hand, open pollinated varieties using the best seed gathered on our own allotment year on year might do even better. I’ve read that it’s surprising how quickly adaptations happen. There’s a good case for looking again at some of the trad varieties that could bring useful genes into play. I once had a micro-variety of cherry tomato that had been treasured since the war by a retired firefighter. It had no name – just ‘Tim’s tomatoes’ and the fruit was absolutely delicious. Sadly they died with him but whatever they were, they loved life exactly the way Tim grew them.
There are so many things we can do as growers to mitigate climate change. That’s not an excuse for not doing all the things we know about in our personal lives, the way we shop and travel and dress. But change, when it comes, will come slowly and we need to prepare for the extremes in the meantime. We’ve done some trials with windbreaks and frostbreaks (hardly needed this winter); I’ve written often about drainage and improving soil condition – all these things can add resilience to an allotment. Our allotment is sheltered from the prevailing southwesterly winds by a line of tall trees, but the northwesterlies, northerlies and northeasterlies can be incredibly cold and destructive and so we’ve put all our structures – greenhouse, shed and compost bins on the North side, and we’ve built a strong windbreak to the east. We’re not allowed to have fences or hedges but there’s nothing in the rules about training vines and growing vigorous soft fruit along wires.
The hotbed, although it’s quite small has also given us flexibility during the early months of the year. It’s surprising what you can grow on 12 square feet of fertile soil, kept at a steady 20C. Climate change is a real challenge, but it’s one we can rise to. I’ve just spent the happiest couple of days sourcing exactly the right kinds of pipes and connectors and one additional water butt that fell into my hands when I walked into a local garden centre and saw the very thing I was looking for next to the till waiting to be returned to the wholesaler. I did a deal with the boss on the spot and got it at a reduced price. So that’s in the back of the car along with a pile of connectors and pipes that I can’t wait to assemble. For the first time we’ll have a free (OK it cost a bit) but a sustainable source of rainwater that flows freely to a convenient tap at watering can height. It’s been a logistical challenge but by a bit of judicious juggling I’ll have preserved all bar a couple of gallons of the water that we’d already stored. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed it. That’s one bit of infrastructure to cross off the list, and then I’ll turn to putting a roof over the compost bins and harvesting the rain off another 60 square feet. Further down the line I want to try out an idea for solar heating using an old radiator that I saw at the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth years ago and I might even have a go at an irrigation scheme run off a 12V battery and a solar panel on the shed, used to operate a solenoid valve and ……….
Madame gets exhausted by my enthusiasms so I’d better shut up. The flat is full of seedlings. Greta Thunberg came to Bristol today. Bristol – for the benefit of the political commentariat who never leave London (the Great Wen as William Cobbett would have it) – Bristol is a large city near the confluence of the Wye, the Severn and the Bristol Avon where people speak with a funny accent and around which the electrification of the railway was diverted because too many people voted Labour. George Ferguson the previous Mayor was very involved in Green Politics and the present Labour Mayor has continued in the same vein. There were about 30,000 people there at the demonstration and the march passed off completely peacefully as everyone except the police and the media expected. The local evening news reported that ‘thousands’ of demonstrators turned up and probably by 10.00 pm the BBC will be reporting that ‘quite a few’ people came and ruined the grass on College Green. It’s a good job, then, that these wicked demonstrators have already started raising money to repair the damage to the grass caused by 30,000 pairs of feet. Meanwhile the police were busy filming these nascent terrorists – some of them at primary school – are we living in la la land?
Naturally – and I mean that literally – naturally none of this is actually available on the allotment right now. I could almost certainly walk across to Sainsbury’s and buy them all, relatively cheaply but today we don’t need them because today we picked the first of our purple sprouting broccoli. That’s a red letter day in our calendar. We still have potatoes – although they’re starting to sprout now, and we have leeks plus all the stored tomato sauces and passata, a few herbs, rhubarb and loads of frozen pesto. We shan’t starve, but the point is we spent the day on the allotment clearing the last of the beds. I was building the frames for a new arrangement of water butts which should give us easier access to stored water at slightly higher pressure, with the aim of using it in soaker hoses.
Is it hard work – on the allotment? Well yes, I suppose it is. For sure, hammering large posts 2 feet into the ground is hard work, but they’re going to have to support 750Kg of water. In fact most of the infrastructure work is quite hard – building paths and beds; wiring supports and wheelbarrowing compost around; turning compost is really hard going and yet although I’m pretty ancient by most standards, however hard a day on the allotment turns out to be I invariably feel better at the end of it. I didn’t take a photo today because to be honest there wasn’t much to look at. About 2/3 of the beds are empty – they’re prepped and ready for planting out – but not yet.
And that’s the point of the photo from early last season. Apart from the potatoes which were grown in sacks, everything came out of the hotbed and they’re all in there again doing what plants do; sending down roots, making friends with the soil and all its inhabitants , soaking up whatever sun is available and gathering strength every day. I suppose Madame and me were doing exactly the same thing today. pottering around and dreaming of the first taste of all the plants we’ve sown, soaking up the brief moments of sun, listening to the birds and enjoying that strange semi-meditative state that can make mundane jobs, like weeding, into a pleasure. Gardeners don’t see the earth in the same way – we see the potential for wonderful food where anyone else might see bare earth. There’s a marvellously companionable side to allotmenteering and gardening, because the plot quickly becomes a kind of friend; a friend with funny ways and particular preferences like a dog that loves being scratched behind one particular ear. The wheelbarrowing and weeding aren’t work as much as caring as you might care for a friend. In return the earth gives us back our efforts with compound interest – food with peace of mind thrown in, plus bird watching, insect spotting, butterflies and moths, field mice, badgers, deer, hedgehogs, rats, wasps and bees, shared produce and neighbourly chats – all for £40 a year. The allotment teaches us patience, resilience when the inevitable failures come along, attention towards small things. It sets the day and its troubles into a longer perspective, gives us time to think and often to be grateful and brings home the old Benedictine couplet – “to work is to pray, and to pray is to work.” – and I don’t mean all that religious stuff, I mean real prayer that takes you out of yourself (ec-stasis) – and gives you some sense of belonging to the earth rather than just standing on it.
It seems odd to me, writing in this way because all too often blogging becomes a list of things we’ve done rather than trying to explain what they mean to us. Growing food carries meaning far beyond the nutritional value of the product. What we do can’t really be measured in productive units, calories, added value or any of the usual metrics so beloved of economists. Growing food is a way of life but not a lifestyle. It’s the hub of a wheel of interest and concern whose spokes extend to every part of our lived experience. We become naturalists, ecologists, economists, community activists and politicians because that’s where growing food leads us.
Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it got worse. When we first heard the wind soughing through any gaps in the windows it sounded suitably mournful, almost lovely. It felt good to pull up the bedcovers and entertain ourselves with thoughts of the driving rain and crashing waves outside the door. But that’s just an indulgence.
Actually being flooded is quite a different experience as we discovered one evening alongside the tidal Avon almost underneath the Clifton Suspension Bridge. We’d been living there for some years and we were used to the occasional inundation of the Portway, but this particular night a west wind was heaping up a spring tide and driving it upstream at the same time as a snow melt was travelling in the opposite direction. What was most unnerving about it was just how quiet it was. The water just kept on rising, over the dockside, across the low wall and then began to move across the road towards our house. We stood there in disbelief for an age, before Madame called a taxi to take the children to a safer place as I wondered how to stop the water flooding the basement. Mercifully the tide turned and the water retreated, but I’d never experienced water as malignant before. Dark, relentless and malignant. I think of the hundreds of people in the North for whom the water hasn’t stopped.
And now we live much further upstream on the same river – we haven’t moved far – but the river hasn’t lost its capacity to threaten and bully its way through the city. We know when it’s high when we can see the surface gleaming through the trees across the green, and still it’s largely silent when it’s at its most dangerous. There’s no theatrical roar, no whitewater, it’s just dark; swirling silently and sliding past as fast as a cyclist could keep up on the towpath. Global climate change is one problem we’re not going to be able to export to a place we don’t have to look in the eye. Which is perhaps an overly melodramatic way of cueing the fact that we didn’t go out today. We’d made safe the allotment as best we could, and we just waited for storm Dennis to blow it (him)self out over the weekend while we got on with sowing seeds for the propagators.
It seems a bit ironic to be sowing chillies and peppers this weather, but they need a long season and so we always seem to land up sowing them when the winter weather is demonstrating that there’s still time for frost and snow. Each year we juggle the dates to try to get them ready to go up to the allotment at the exact moment the weather changes for the better. It’s called gambling, and the odds are always in favour of Nature having the last laugh, which is why you need to develop plenty of resilience, and a sense of humility to be any good as a gardener. If I had one piece of advice – or rather two pieces – for a novice allotmenteer they would be
Get your seeds in early
Don’t get your seeds in too early
See what I mean? That’s why this blog is about being human, rather than being clever. My guess is that in about eight weeks we’ll be trying to keep a load of very leggy and tender capsicum plants alive in the flat until the snow melts at last. Anyway, this is the time of year when almost everything you’re planning to do on the allotment is virtual; aspirational. A few cotyledons here and there; some unopened seed packets along with some empty beds in which – we hope – remarkable vegetables will grow.
Outside the flat, the window boxes are being thrashed by the wind and rain, and I’m not sure they’ll ever reach their full potential this year. All across the UK people are enduring this seemingly endless sequence of Atlantic storms, and I’d like to think that the light is gradually dawning in the collective mind. But then I think back to how long it took for the science around the dangers of smoking to take us to the point of giving it up. There were huge commercial pressures and vast fortunes were spent by the tobacco industry to prop their lethal product up, and successive governments delayed any genuine action – probably because of the huge tax revenues they were gaining. We must expect that common sense will only prevail after every other option has been investigated – the trouble is we don’t have fifty years.
If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I’m very interested in finding out how farmers are responding to the climate challenge. I don’t think anyone – even farmers – believe that nothing needs to change, but I do think that some of their critics have been cherry picking the evidence against farming. So here’s another random article that landed in my inbox today. This one is another defence of traditional mixed farming over and against feedlots and chemicals. I found it very interesting although I can’t vouch for all the data it’s based on. But whatever solution we reach for has simply got to gain the support of farmers and landowners if it’s going to work. I have no confidence in the capacity of the present government to challenge its own funding sources so it’s going to have to be a battle for public opinion. The information, all of it, is out there and we need to collate and understand what it’s saying and not reach for scapegoats to carry the blame. The future of life on the earth depends upon us reaching the correct conclusion and then acting on it.
Well not for this group of overwintering snails in Cornwall. The ivy, behind which they had been dry and cosy, was stripped off by estate workers and they were oblivious to the danger they were in from the local birds – just a matter of time before they became a lucky break for a hungry predator. Our camping pitch was home for abundant numbers of very tame rooks and it was amazing to hear what a wide range of vocalisations they had – perched, as they were, only feet away from the campervan. I guess it’s just a matter of standing still for as long as it takes to fully engage with the natural world. I always feel a bit sorry for the runners and cyclists who treat the bridle paths as speedway tracks – they don’t know what they’re missing.
But not knowing what you’re missing has a darker side because when we depopulate our minds of the the ordinary everyday wildlife; or when we’ve never experienced the sheer fun of naming the plants and trees, we’re less likely to miss them when they’re not there any more, and in an age like our own, getting to know what’s there becomes a moral issue.
These days I seem to be reading more and more angry words, and I’m constantly being exhorted to give something or other up for the sake of the planet – and almost always it’s couched in emotional terms. If I eat meat at all I must be in favour of animal suffering – but if I talk about veganism I’m a lentil headed moron. Plastic ? no plastic? dig? no-dig? What to wear, where to take my holidays and how to get there, shop local …… and so it goes on. And all this effort is towards saving the planet about which most of us know next to nothing. Is it any surprise that talk of a climate emergency or an ecological disaster has almost no impact on our behaviour. We don’t feel scared because we don’t quite know what it is we’re about to lose and in our (ideologically trained) hearts we still believe that we can all get richer and more productive because we’re the cleverest species who’ve ever lived on the earth and we always come out on top – don’t we?
So here’s a suggestion. Take a walk – it’s almost spring now so there are lots of plants about to burst into life – and name as many as you can. This isn’t about spotting ghost orchids, it’s about the most ordinary things you’ve probably walked past thousands of times without paying attention. If you can’t walk far, check out a few pavement cracks and stone walls. The most important part of this exercise is not to show off but to understand just how little we know about ordinary plants, living heroic lives against the onslaught of strimmers, chemicals, dogs pee, drought and storm. Spend a season discovering that coltsfoot, cats ear, hawkweed, hawkbit and all their relatives are not dandelions after all. Do some bird watching but don’t buy a fancy pair of binoculars, a bird book and drive to a reserve somewhere; stand and listen very quietly – what’s that bird outside the flat? – does it care about the noise of the traffic? Find a moth that looks exactly like a twig. Let’s be even more contentious – what breed are those sheep? those cattle?
I promise that once you’ve made the resolution not to pass up on things you don’t recognise and can’t name, your life will change completely. You’ll never be lonely again because the plants you pass will be friends; you laboured to get to know their names and so they really matter. You know pretty much where they live and when you’ll be able to catch up again next season – this is all about ordinary everyday things, not national rarities. The thing is, species disappear when we don’t know they’re there. Our grandchildren may never hear a cuckoo, and they’ll almost certainly never hear a nightingale – ordinary everyday birds that disappeared because of what we’re doing to the environment. Last summer we were driving along an absurdly exposed and narrow road in the Yorkshire Dales, almost on the border with Cumbria. We were accompanied for best part of half a mile by half a dozen lapwing flying directly in front of us like a red arrows display team. You don’t forget moments like that, and you’re far more likely to get involved when their very existence is threatened.
So don’t get despondent or confused about what we’re supposed to do in this unrecognised crisis – there’s plenty of advice out there and some of it is even sensible! Be cautious of evangelically inclined interest groups, lobbyists, commercial interests and all the rest but also give then a fair hearing, especially if you don’t agree with them. The best way to conduct a campaign is to know your enemy better than they know themselves. Shouting drives people into their comfort zones but quiet persistence and empathy really can change peoples minds. But above all, know what it is we’re trying to save – name it, treasure it – because it’s not an abstract concept we’re trying to defend, it’s family and household to us – the only family and the only household we have. Love and hold the ordinary and everyday close to your heart, and the survival of the earth can be achievable.
We’ve gambled on a brief spell of sunshine and after a frantic planting out session on the allotment we’ve driven the campervan down to Cornwall to spend a little time at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, soaking up some inspiration. Whenever we come here, and we try to come three or four times a year to catch the changing seasons, we take away loads of ideas, a few plants and usually some books as well. The campsite is right next door to the garden which, of course, is not lost at all but very well signposted. When it was properly lost I bet the locals knew it was there all the time. I once heard a lovely story about a Ugandan Bishop who reproached a tour guide at the Victoria Falls for saying that they were discovered by David Livingstone in 1855. “I think you’ll find”, he said, “That we knew about them long before that” The lost gardens sounds a bit more impressive than the completely neglected gardens and all power to Tim Smit who’s brought some proper jobs to the area and created a beautifully restored garden and farm not just as a history lesson, but as a model of sustainability too.
Naturally, being Cornwall where it rains every day, it rained all the way here and I’m sitting typing this with the rain drumming on the roof of the van; but the forecast looks pretty good for tomorrow. It’s only 130 miles south of Bath but that can amount to several weeks earlier for the wildflowers to show themselves, and with this ridiculously mild and wet weather I’d be surprised if I don’t find some spring favourites.
Of course the van, being a bit long in the tooth, needs a bit of love and care. Things wear out and need replacing, and this last couple of weeks I replaced the heating controller, which cost a fortune, only to discover that the leisure batteries are knackered and need replacing too. The upshot is that although the heater is working perfectly, the batteries are unable to keep it going if we’re not hooked up or running the engine. This means that the controller has reverted to its native German language. Luckily I know enough German to turn it on and off, and I decided to keep it going in German as a sign of European solidarity. I’ll replace the batteries as soon as funds permit. The other snag to beset us is that the WiFi isn’t working on the campsite due to some building work; so the laptop is piggybacking my phone and making inroads into my data allowance – but it works, that’s the main thing.
I’ve been reading Thomas Berry’s “The Dream of the Earth” and he manages to express very beautifully some kind of answer to the question “how did we get to where we are?” I’m paraphrasing a bit because I haven’t got the book here with me, but it spoke to me because I’ve lived through most of the period during which our whole mindset began to change. I can really identify with the profound capacity of natural history to grip us. There’s probably never been an epoch that knew more about the way that nature works, how lifeforms came to be the things they are and why they grow as they do. But with that growing knowledge came the need to use it carefully, much more carefully than we have done. If we add to that huge development in understanding, the pervasive idea that we are not only separate from nature but free to do as we please with our knowledge, we slide from a basic assumption of a stewardship relationship to one of domination and extraction; and I’m struggling even to write this paragraph without using words like ‘thing’ and ‘it’ in relation to non human beings – it’s so embedded within our language, hidden as a bacteria might hide within a cell. The industrial revolution was premised on the idea that the earth was an infinite resource given to us by a beneficent God and whose exploitation was a kind of moral duty. The discovery and the exploitation, through scientific advance, of the material wealth of the earth was seen as a sign of God’s favour. Until Darwin, nature was eternal and unchangeable and, in a sense safe from harm; it was just there.
Our bad attitude to the earth is rooted as deeply as once was slavery and still is rooted in racism, misogyny and religious hatred and the same intensity of reflection, self examination and pushing back will be required before anything will change. Again and again I come back to the certainty that spraying facts and data, and shouting at people is not going to be enough. The change in our relationship with the earth and with all its living things, times, tides and seasons, is more akin to a conversion experience than to the acquisition of new knowledge. Of course it begins in reason, but travels far beyond it.
Maybe that’s why we find gardens like Heligan so powerful. It is, in its own way, a memorial to the lost, the lost gardeners who never returned from the First World War; a lost way of life in recreating the self-sufficient household, and a lost innocence because we know better than ever before how selfish, greedy and depraved we humans can be. It was always this way but now we know and we can’t unknow it. The fact that the location of the gardens was mislaid for a decade or so is probably the least interesting thing about it.
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.