Come on George Monbiot – you can do better than this!

Cattle doing what comes naturally – eating grass.
“‘Let them eat lentils’ won’t save us from animal farming – we must embrace meat substitute”.

From the very first sentence – “Our insatiable appetite for meat is laying waste to the planet. But the alternative is looking (and tasting) better by the day” – I can hear the voice of my one time sociology lecturer Sid Harris demanding “It all sounds very nice David, but where’s the evidence?” and this piece by George Monbiot is all too characteristic of some of his recent writing. It’s peppered with hot links most of which are references to scientific papers, some of them hidden behind paywalls so we get the headline but none of the supporting evidence. In fact they create the illusion of hard facts without letting us judge for ourselves. The hotlinks and the somewhat breathless style suggest an overuse of green ink and handwritten capitals. The most tendentious statements – like the one above – “Our insatiable appetite for meat is laying waste to the planet ……” is plain silly. I’m pretty hard up but I’d still bet a tenner that Monbiot couldn’t stand that one up without being allowed to empty the shelves of available prejudices and heavily redacted papers. I’ve linked to the whole article, not because I want to promote his fundamentalist views but because they’re an example of the evacuation of analytical thinking from too many mainstream media opinion columns.

Clearly we have an environmental crisis bearing down upon us, and clearly there is some evidence that some farming practices – like intensive feedlots and so-forth make a substantial contribution to that, but to pretend that there is any equivalence between small mixed farms, peasant and subsistence farms and intensive farms with thousands of cattle being fed intensively farmed soya is a deliberate distortion of the statistics. To suggest that meat farming is the principal engine of global climate change is pure vegan wishful thinking. In fact the continuing burning of fossil fuels in every part of the so-called developed world – some of which is used to drive farm machinery and make chemicals and fertilizers – but much of which is used by aviation, private car use, and the transport of foodstuffs over hundreds if not thousands of miles; this is what’s driving the crisis.

Do we eat too much meat? – undoubtedly the answer is yes. We eat too much of it and especially we eat too much of the wrong kind of it; the kind that’s fattened in conditions of appalling cruelty and fattened on food that makes cows sick. They’re ruminants, they evolved to eat grass not grain and soya meal. Should we ignore ethical questions surrounding farming and troll people who elect not to eat meat? Of course not, and I wish they’d stop the trolling in the opposite direction. Does referring to milk as an “animal secretion” encourage sensible debate? Do I really need to answer that? Is there any doubt among scientists that the way in which Co2 equivalent is calculated is at least questionable? – here’s a link to a paper in Nature that you can actually read!

As long as we allow this critical debate to be dominated by cherry picked evidence and hyperbolic statements on all sides, the battle to save the earth will be stalled. We don’t have the leisure of all the time we need to sort this out – successive COP meetings have seen time and energy wasted by bad faith and bad data.

The wildlife and plants that are so important to me and to millions of us have value in their own right, although they have no seat at the table to make their case. They are the canaries in the mine and they are disappearing by their hundreds and thousands while this sterile debate goes on.

If only it was true that we could save the earth by doing just one thing – ban farming; ban big cars, blah blah blah – but we can’t because it’s a hugely complex problem with more tentacles than the Hydra in Greek mythology. The simplest explanation – but it’s not that much help – is that the age of extraction, burning, waste and neoliberal economics has run its course. We need to find an alternative, but much as I admire some of George Monbiot’s work, columns like this one are not going to be part of the solution because they’re part of the problem.

Take a bow, Simon Fairlie

Photographs taken in the Lost Gardens of Heligan farm in October 2018

Walking, reading, thinking and writing just about sums up my idea of a good holiday. Mercifully Madame feels much the same and so on our trips away anyone keeping a close eye on us might conclude that we’ve nothing to say to each other; but they don’t see the subsequent conversations in which we read aloud extracts from the books we’re reading and share ideas. It’s just that when we’re out and about we don’t always need to talk because that’s when my eyes are on the hedgerows looking for plants and hers are focused in the trees looking for birds, butterflies and all the rest.

Anyway, this week amongst all the other things we’ve done I’ve been reading Simon Fairlie’s autobiographical book “Going to Seed”. I may as well get the unsolicited plug out of the way by recommending it wholeheartedly for many reasons – not least if you’re around the same age as me it will evoke warm memories of what turned out to be a brief and largely unsuccessful rebellion against the status quo, but also if you’re the same age as our children and grandchildren it will fill in the embarrassing details of how we lived our lives to the full in the 70’s and 80’s. Far from impoverishing their inheritance we (some of us) were actually trying to create a sustainable and more fulfilled future for them, but we were no match for the suits who were better practiced at creating the narratives of pure hokum which were the real cause of the current crisis. Those times were good and bad in equal measure, but we set up cooperatives, lived in a couple of communes and earned peanuts from insecure part time jobs. The book is a thoroughly good read and Fairlie never lets his self critical gifts slip. We got things wrong and underestimated the sheer inertia of the status quo. On the other hand, if ever there was a time to revisit some of those visionary ideas it’s now in the face of the global systemic failure of economics, species extinctions and environmental catastrophe.

Simon Fairlie has also written “Meat, a Benign Extravagance” – a carefully argued case for small scale sustainable mixed farming that takes on some of the shriller and sillier notions of fundamentalist veganism as well as demolishing the arguments of the agrochemical giants. It’s a joy to see the supporting evidence for all of his arguments – “go check for yourself” he invites us, rather than following the probably apocryphal story of the preacher whose sermon was annotated with the words “argument weak here – shout loudly!”

There’s a third book “Low Impact Development” that I haven’t managed to read yet but is available secondhand. But there’s another reason why I find an instinctive kindred spirit in him. Starting from opposite ends of the social spectrum we were both difficult, argumentative and occasionally reckless teenagers; both ultimately thrown out of school and both on a journey – me towards a proper education and he in pursuit of the practical skills of a social class from which he’d been excluded by birth and culture. Neither of us – and I’ve never met him – were apparently prepared to swallow the predigested bird food that passed for an education – the question “why?” was so burned into our souls.

You may have gathered that I’m a binge reader and so a modest amount of research threw up two excellent magazines, the first of which – The Land Magazine – he is co-editor, and another – Resilience – to which he is a regular contributor. One article that caught my eye can be found on this link to Resilience which lists all of his contributions. If you search for the article “A convenient Unruth” you will find a forensic takedown of the current debate about the methane emissions of ruminants. He makes a convincing argument that the widespread obsession with cattle emissions is based on bad reporting which is not the fault of the scientists who came up with an initial estimate of the global warming effects of methane which has been falsely used to imply that methane emissions are, in simple terms, 32 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide. This false claim is possible only by ignoring the fact that methane degrades relatively quickly (a half-life of ten years) whereas carbon dioxide never degrades. I’m simplifying greatly here, but given that the size of the national UK herd has declined over the past 30 years whereas car ownership and Co2 emissions have grown enormously, the arguments pursued by George Monbiot – whilst they may have real ethical weight – are scientific nonsense. Fairlie is as firmly against intensive agrochemical farming as is Monbiot; but again the reason is the prodigious cost in Co2 emissions of fertilizers, agrochemicals, gigantic farm machinery and grotesque transport footprint. No amount of cherry picked evidence is forgivable if the net result is to send agriculture to oblivion and force feed the rest of us with junk food gloop produced by the multinational food corporations using huge quantities of green energy that would be better applied to new mass transport systems or ending the scandal of old people freezing in their homes.

So yes – hats off to Simon Fairlie, and if I ever buy a scythe it will be from him. Prophets are rarely appreciated in their own country.

Think of your Sole

Fishing boats hauled up on Cadgwith beach – January 2022

A couple of days ago I mentioned the sinking of the Crig-a-Tana off Cadgwith last November and the rescue of the two man crew by the Lizard Lifeboat. Both men were ironically members of the lifeboat crew and even more darkly ironically the boat was named after a pretty vicious looking reef off Kuggar called Crig-a-tana rocks. The sinking of the boat had nothing whatever to do with the rocks because she went down 6 mile southeast of Bass Rock and they are waiting for a report from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch to discover what happened. Fishing and farming remain two of the most dangerous industries in the country.

Anyway, all best wishes to the crew who have been through a horrendous experience, but this raises once again the insecurities and dangers that the inshore fishing fleet have to contend with, and lends support to the idea that unless we support these industries by buying their produce they may not survive for the future. Interestingly the Government published their proposals for the ELMS scheme today – this is a payment support scheme that offers farmers subsidies in return for public goods – like environmental schemes. Once again the big arable farms will be able to claim most of the subsidies while small farms and hill farms will be competing for the scraps. I needn’t mention again the betrayal of the inshore fleet by the brexit debacle.

And that’s why we at the Potwell Inn try to buy as much as possible of our food from local sources, preferably direct from the producers and bypassing the supermarkets. With that in mind we trogged off to Porthleven yesterday for a walk and to buy some fish. Who knew that fish are seasonal? I sort of knew it in the recesses of my mind but when we got to the fishmonger she had some Lemon Sole on display, as well as Haddock – not a major fish around here, and of course crabmeat. Lemon Sole are bang in season at the moment and I think I must have cooked them badly at some time in the past and never bothered again. Madame on the other hand absolutely loves them so we bought a couple of fillets each of Haddock and Lemon Sole (more expensive!) plus a tub of mixed white crab meat with the brown splodgy bit). The brown meat is much cheaper and yet it’s full of flavour. So we’ve been gorging ourselves on fish, which in Cornwall has sometimes been tricky in the past – because apart from supermarkets you never see it fresh. Unlike the Continent, the local fisherman don’t sell their catch off the boat as a matter of course.

So £23 for three meals seems a lot, except fish prices have escalated; but think that we paid £6.00 for the crab meat and made three rounds of crab sandwiches which would have cost something like £30 in a cafe. We also lashed out on a £10 bottle of Muscadet which would have been marked up to £25 or £30. That looks like value for money to me. The haddock, which we had for supper cost about £8 – compared with £15 a portion for fish and chips. Then we had the Lemon Sole today – dusted with seasoned flour – and simply fried in butter and olive oil. The trick is to hammer the skin side until it’s crisp and then turn the heat down and turn the fish for a minute – it cooks quickly. Once again delicious with 1/2 bottle of cheap Albariño. Learn to cook – it’ll save you a fortune and you’ll eat like a Russian oligarch!

Seasonal fish isn’t always to everyone’s taste – I love Cod Roe – which is almost unobtainable now due to the complete absence of any other customers. You can buy smoked roe for taramasalata at almost any time but the raw roe probably looks too much like a pair of giant testicles to attract the faint hearted. These were the last I ate, seven years ago.

But the take home point is that fish have their seasons and like every other food it’s best to eat them while they’re ‘in‘ and when they’re local because they’re that much fresher and come without a contrail of air miles.

But we haven’t just spent the past few days eating. I finally got to scrambling up a cliff path to a patch of promising looking gorse and managed to identify the two most common gorse species in this part of the world. Growing next to each other made it relatively easy tpo see the differences and I’m reasonably sure of my ID because the larger Gorse/ Furze Ulex europaeus was in flower and the smaller Ulex Gallii – Western Gorse wan’t, and it fitted most of the other descriptors. Clive Stace – who must be obeyed in all matters botanical – demands the mean of ten measurements of certain flower parts before identification is made – but since one of them wasn’t in flower and wasn’t expected to be in flower until June I decided not to wait. It is quite absurd, the amount of pleasure to be gained from nailing the names of two plants so similar you need a magnifying glass to distinguish them but honestly it’s the best fun you can have while keeping your clothes on. Naked botanising among gorse plants in a brisk offshore wind is an overrated pastime. Finally, just to complete my joy I noticed a Cornish Heath nestling among its taller neighbours. I believe some vulgar botanists refer to this as a slam dunk. Here they are.

Jumping the chasm between ought and is.

“A half legendary miasma of once upon a time gallimaufry” – a quotation from my post yesterday.

I’d really like to be writing about leaping out of the car and measuring gorse thorns in search of Western Gorse – Ulex gallii, or paying a return visit to a possible Babington’s Leek – Allium ampeloprasum down near the watermill at Poltesco. It’s all so romantic – if you like that sort of thing. But actually what keeps grabbing me and shaking my shoulder is just one feature of the gathering climate catastrophe, and that’s the link between species loss, landscape devastation and what we like to think of as human culture.

Our materialistic worldview has taught us all that nature is a kind of evolutionary pyramid at whose pinnacle we sit; masters of all we survey but somehow separate from it at the same time. What the agonised debates surrounding climate change are beginning to teach us is that if the pyramid collapses we disappear with all the rest. A ridiculous ideological blind spot seems to allow us to carry on with destructive economics, dangerous fossil fuel burning and anthropogenic species extinctions regardless of the ecological damage – by systematic avoidance of the evidence.

And to take a step further in the argument we might ask – what is it that so scares us about the gathering storm that we can’t bring ourselves even to think about it? My suggestion is that it’s something along the lines that loss of species, habitats, farming and horticultural practices, manufacturing and the whole panoply of material practices is not just a loss of ways of doing stuff but of ways of being. So the loss of any of those practices entails a corresponding loss within our culture; chipping away at our sense of what it means to be human.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Here in Cornwall, and especially in North Wales the sense of loss is palpable. In Wales it’s language that has become the focal point of all that grief. To lose a language is the greatest tragedy that can befall a nation because it is the cultural matrix that holds past, present and future together and allows us to feel at home; fully human. In Cornwall it seems to be a festering grievance that the relationship between England and Cornwall has been essentially colonial. Great wealth has been removed from the county, won by miners working in appalling conditions, and now the English are completing their extractive work by pricing some of the poorest people in the county out of their homes, which are turned into holiday homes and AirBnb lettings.

Cultural losses are the inevitable collateral damage of material changes, and in that light the pushback by fishermen against quotas, and by would-be lithium miners against environmental objections is easier to understand. So too with farmers and vegetable growers struggling against piratical supermarket contracts; and especially hill farmers – because they all labour against not just the weather but the onslaught of trolling by smart ass politicians and commentators who’ve never held a spade or a net in their lives.

What this can easily result in is a kind of truculent resistance even to productive and necessary change and a clinging to an over sentimentalized vision of the past which can always trump the future because that’s a bit speculative. They’ve all heard “we’re all in this together” when the evidence is that they always seem to trouser the proceeds. The great thing about looking back is that you can always remember the full nets of pilchards but eliminate the memories of home made oilskins and regular famines. Stargazy pie celebrates the relief of a famine in Mousehole when a fisherman called Tom Bawcock braved a storm to bring pilchards back to a starving village. That was in the 16th Century – memories are deeply rooted here.

Only a new vision – and I mean vision – will give us the collective will to face the daunting challenge. Until we know, really know ourselves to be a part of nature, and as vulnerable as any red list plant or Orangutan or Whale then the difficulties will be insuperable. In this age of populist dictatorships the liars will always think of a more appealing narrative that allows the rich to drain the last drop of lifeblood until we all fall silent.

We have to be courageous enough to cross the chasm between the way things used to be by accepting that the past, its languages, symbols and culture enrich the future – we mustn’t let them threaten it.

This wonderful poem, first published in 1937 – that’s eighty three years ago – just about sums up what I’m saying. It’s a reflection on mortality, written in the shadow of the first world war and the gathering strength of nazi power accompanied by the Great Depression of the 1930’s. It matters because Thomas manages, almost miraculously, to frame in a non religious way the interpenetration of nature and humanity. It’s that kind of thought that will lay the first stone in the bridge between ought and is.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

Dylan Thomas

Pristine? Virgin? – is it time to give these concepts a break?

Mine rake on the Mendip Hills

Reading Fred Pearce’s book “The New Wild” again this week I felt uncomfortable. As he listed some of the less glorious attempts of some conservationists to turn back the clock in the hope of recovering the pristine environment, a voice in my head was shouting – what about Whitefield in Dyrham Park? what about those glorious wildflower meadows in North Yorkshire or – closer to home the hills surrounding Bath? The main thrust of his book is to say – look here, nature is fast, adaptive and highly dynamic. Trying to hold back change by micromanaging nature reserves and SSSI’s is an expensive path to nowhere, so we should maybe step back and give evolution a chance.

But then, as I pondered my instinctively hostile reaction, I thought of Eddie Cox – my first and best childhood friend – and our adventures and exploits out in the wild as children. Wild, for us, was post industrial; brownfield and, on reflection, very dangerous; but if our inner landscape is furnished by early memories then my young imagination was furnished by crumbling nineteenth century buildings, an abandoned dram road running back from the river to abandoned coal mines; paths hard packed with waste from the nearby fireclay pipeworks; mineshafts we could drop stones down, the old Cattybrook brick kilns whose flues we could wriggle up and watch the sky above the chimney and surrounded by spare and half starved soil. There were rows of miners’ cottages whose original occupants were long since dead.

Our environment – although we were far too young to understand it – was a palimpsest; one historical layer superimposed on another. At the surface were us baby boomers navigating the fragile demilitarized zone between our parents’ wartime experiences and our own unknown futures among the remains of an industrial revolution that had run its course. Below us and also around us were the remains also of a wealthy woollen industry; the unrestored magnificent houses of slave owners and place names which went back to the Domesday Book. Amidst the burgeoning post-war housing estates where we lived, were sacred wells and ancient footpaths. The older local people knew the plant names but often worked in the last of the factories; Douglas motorcycles, Vespa motor scooters and the ubiquitous small workshops supporting the local shoe industry – all now gone.

Rodway Hill

So what was my pristine? Well as sure as hell it wasn’t rare orchids and wildflower meadows. My grandparents left their smallholding in rural Oxfordshire and came to Bristol before I was old enough to name a plant. My first ecstatic memories of plants were all from Rodway Hill; a gruffy outcrop of sandstone where I would lie amongst the tussocky grass and inspect the Harebells. The memory has its own inscrutable hot links and my idea of the pristine was forged from these unpromising elements. Orchids and wildflower meadows came much, much later.

So what I dredged up from the sediment of my mind as I pondered Fred Pearce’s book was the reason for my attachment to these post industrial landscapes and their flora. When we walk down Velvet Bottom or almost anywhere else at Charterhouse I feel at home because in that complicated subconscious way I am at home. When I look through the albums of photographs of plants I’ve taken, less than half are what you might call proper wildflowers; the rest are the waifs, strays, stragglers and thugs of the plant world who’ve learned how to live with little light, food or soil, or being constantly trampled by walkers, peed on by dogs and strimmed off by zealous council workers. Some of these plants have developed the capacity to live on mine waste polluted by heavy metals. They’re often tiny little things with tiny un-showy flowers but you can’t help but admire them for their tenacity.

When I run over the list of our favourite places like mid Wales, Lizard in Cornwall and so the list goes on; they’re all post apocalyptic post industrial landscapes. Yes of course, walking through a meadow and totting up twenty plants in flower is a wonderful experience, worth a day of anyone’s time – but according to Fred Pearce and many others including Richard Mabey, the old post industrial brownfield sites have become haven and home to multitudes of flora and fauna which can no longer survive the inundation of their native habitats by the plough and with chemicals. The point is – nature is showing the way to adaptation. We humans, who created the anthropocene and can’t survive a day without our mobile phones, need to accept that there are no good old days because the peregrines nesting on the spire of St John’s church here in Bath have made the transition already.

Gerard Manley Hopkins was right – nature is not a steady state phenomenon constantly needing repair – it’s a Heracletian fire”.

What do we need most urgently, a green philosophy? a green spirituality? or a green ethic?

The great ship of state is sinking fast!

OK so this quotation looks a bit chewy but don’t panic, in fact skip it altogether rather than give up because it’s profoundly important that we understand what’s at stake. There are essentially three points here. I’ve shortened the quotation from its original length by cutting out the proposition that music, poetry, art, spirituality and drama are all ways of thinking, and I’d argue more broadly that the whole of human culture – (including doing botany and allotmenteering), embodies tools for doing so. The second point follows – that shutting down philosophy is a pretty moronic thing to do when we need to practice thinking clearly in order to stay alive. The third point is that waiting for technology to come over the hill like the Seventh Cavalry and save us from all our problems is plain wrong.

In the 1980s, as one philosophy department after another was closed under a Conservative government led by former Somervillian Margaret Thatcher, Mary [Midgley] led a campaign to rescue hers. Though unsuccessful, she never gave up in her mission to defend philosophy. Philosophy is not a luxury, Mary insisted. Philosophy is something we humans need in order for our lives to go well. She argued trenchantly against the mythical idea that we can entrust our future to technology and artificial intelligence. This is a comforting sedative, but when it comes to figuring out what to do next about climate, war, environment or education – it is ultimately suicidal. She ends her final book, What is Philosophy For?, with a warning and an imperative:

“[W]hat actually happens to us will surely still be determined by human choices. Not even the most admirable machines can make better choices than the people who are supposed to be programming them. So we had surely better rely here on using our own Minds rather than wait for Matter to do the job.

And, if this is right, I suspect that… philosophical reasoning-will now become rather important. We shall need to think about how best to think about these new and difficult topics – how to imagine them, how to visualize them, how to fit them into a convincing world-picture. And if we don’t do that for ourselves, it’s hard to see who will be able to do it for us.”

Metaphysical Animals – How four women brought philosophy back to life. Chatto & Windus 2022. Page 298

The River Avon, 50 metres from our flat, is running at its highest level for 20 years and may well go higher as the last two days of heavy rain run off into it. I’ve run out of metaphors for its sheer power. The speed and intensity of the flow defies description. Ideas such as malignant are way off because rivers don’t bear us any grudge, they just do rivering. Rivers have moods of course but these are not human sulks or bursts of sudden rage; these moods are morally neutral. On a balmy day in Spring it’s possible to kid yourself that nature has been “put on” just for us; a kind of revelation or – as Mother Julian might have written – a shewing; a manifestation of something divine. But if that’s true; is the river today a sign of divine anger? Is it smiting us in some sense? Is there an intelligence behind it all that we’ve insulted?

I don’t think that inventing supernatural beings, especially humanoid ones, settles any arguments at all. We’re still always left with a ‘WTF are we supposed to do?? ‘ which usually ends by throwing some poor individual or group under a bus. But if this awe-inspiring flood is humbly accepted as an instance of natural forces, it loses none of its power to contextualise us within nature. Nobody’s showing off here. We’re not here to learn lessons, we’re here to think with all judicious haste how to respond to the song of the river, and it does have a song if you stand and listen. The bare earth and yellow grass had a song last summer, a dry and rustling song. The East wind has another song as it shrives the plants for day after day until their cells have burst and they collapse. The unseasonable weather has a song; a lament if you prefer, that that we are adrift. The seasons, by which we once navigated as if they were a kind of compass, have become anomalous and untrustworthy; our seeds fail to germinate and our crops fail.

Much of our predicament is marked – not by presence but by absence. The Cuckoo, the House Sparrow, the insects and bees and butterflies. Slowly, bit by bit, the complex dialect of our sense of place – the voices, the histories and memories, the regularities, the fragmentary graffiti of everyday life – are all gone. The environmental catastrophe, understood just as bad science and failed technology is missing great continents of meaning. The same catastrophe taken a simple legal battle with the guilty in the dock and the innocent as complainants edits all the complexities out.

We are in the midst of a growing catastrophe of being. Culture – the way we do things round here – has been so eroded, let’s be clear, by the theocratic madness of neoliberal economics, that we have had the joy; the spirituality; the heftedness; the manual labour; the cooking; the teaching; the nurturing; the everyday poetry and song, the sense of belonging to something so big that it could never be traversed in a lifetime; the ebb and flow of the seasons and their celebrations; the capacity to love and be loved back without reserve or fear …….. all bled out, reprocessed and sold back to us as simulacra.

So to return to the title of this post, my answer would be that we need them all – green philosophy; green spirituality and green ethics – the trinity of disciplines that will enable us once again to find our true place in nature, and to hear the Song of the Earth once more.

Uncle Jim drops by

The shed – damaged by vandals two years ago

Our hearts sank when a post on the allotment group Facebook page alerted us to the fact that once again we’d had intruders on the site who had broken into about 15 sheds. Luckily, this time we had escaped their attention. It’s impossible to overstate how insecure this made us feel. Theft and vandalism are almost universal on allotment sites and the emotional damage is enormous. There’s a huge difference between a garden and an allotment plot because your garden is usually attached to, and part of your home – whereas an allotment is often several miles away and also open to all comers. It’s almost impossible to insure your tools for that reason, and of course vandalism and theft of crops puts your plans back by a whole season.

A couple of nights ago I couldn’t sleep. My mind was churning over some big issues when I had a flash of inspiration about one aspect of the Potwell Inn that I’d never really articulated. The reasoning behind the name of this fictitious place comes from the HG Wells novel “A History of Mr Polly” and the campervan is called Polly for that reason. I first read the novel as an English set book when I was at school. I’d reached that awkward stage in life – my early teens – when nothing seemed to work. Nothing fitted or suited me and I felt bolshy and shy in equal measure. Most of my teachers had fought in the war and their various traumas were all too apparent – often rude, domineering and gimlet eyed when it came to any deviation from the straight and narrow of a lesson plan that could never ever accommodate my restless mind. There were exceptions of course. Bill Williams could make maths into an intellectual adventure; Chris Levinson introduced me to modern American poetry and literature. Whacker Allan, notwithstanding his considerable and violent canings never dimmed my determination to get to France; but Punch Neesham thought that a headlock was the best way to facilitate the removal of a sweet from a fourteen year old’s mouth. So reading “Polly” was a bit of a revelation to me – offering an escape route from all that. I didn’t identify with Polly, because for a while I became him. I wanted to fall in love – anyone would do. I wanted to clown around and, if need be, burn down the crippling suburban prison in which I felt trapped.

When eventually aged 17 I was escorted out of school by the scruff of the neck by a Headmaster who had a great deal to be modest about, it felt like a kind of liberation. Whatever crap I found myself wading through, I knew that it was my crap; my choice and I could endure it because the alternative was to fall into a pit of mediocrity in which you were promoted for not threatening the system.

The thought of finding or creating my own version of the Potwell Inn never left me. Sometimes it came to me as a kind of vision – like the memory of drinking a pint of Exmoor Gold leaning on the sea wall outside the Griffin at Dale. If ever anyone saw my eyes drifting away during times of particular hardship it was because I’d have taken a temporary absence in my mind. Back to the pub and the sea. Once I’d got together with Madame – I was 18 and she was only 15 – we were able to break away and create the first of many iterations of the Potwell Inn together.

But there was always Uncle Jim to contend with. In the novel he’s the landlady of the Potwell Inn (AKA the plump woman’s) nephew. He’s a violent drunk who believes he has been cheated of his inheritance – the pub – and occasionally turns up in the midst of their little paradise threatening terrible things. In our own lives there were lots of Uncle Jims and you never knew when, or in what disguise, they were going to turn up; often in the form of someone claiming to want to help, and especially as people who thought my whole purpose as a parish priest was to do exactly what they required of me and act as some kind of chaplain to their mysterious status quo.

My restless night suddenly reminded me that that Potwell Inn – that’s to say this particular version of it – is a very precious and visionary place that somehow overlaps our real lives and sometimes for a few hours or even days actually becomes our real lives. Most of the time, living in the centre of the city where in winter the sun really does set over the needle exchange we need the Potwell Inn to help us recover. In our souls we take it everywhere, especially in Polly the campervan.

Today, across the Green, the river is running higher than we’ve ever seen over the past seven years. The riverside paths are covered by up to a couple of feet of muddy water travelling faster than I could run, and Pulteney Weir has all but disappeared. We’ve had drought and record summer temperatures, a vicious cold spell, unduly warm winter weather and now days and days of heavy rain. We’re at a bit of a loss to decide what to grow next year because this global climate catastrophe is galloping up on us. A less than divine visitation by an all too humanly created Uncle Jim. And suddenly the Potwell Inn takes on a whole new dimension and becomes a kind of Ark.

December 2020 – this year the water is two rails higher.

Spring in my step at last

Sea Campion, Silene uniflora -photographed near Gunwalloe church 18th January 2022

It really shouldn’t be a surprise because it happens every year, but suddenly the thought of another year’s joyful plant hunting is filling my mind. The photograph – taken in Cornwall – is proof that spring is just around the corner and I am so looking forward to it; sorting out the books and maps and planning our visits to try and maximise our chances of finding one or two rarities amongst the old friends. When we go out plant hunting in the company of the vastly experienced Bath Natural History Society leaders I can only marvel at their sharp eyes and encyclopaedic knowledge, but they are so willing to share their expertise I’ve realized that half the battle is learning to access the databases that are available to anyone with an interest in plants, so now we go out equipped with maps and lists which save endless wasted time looking for plants that just aren’t there.

Is this sudden shift in mood just down to day length? Is there – somewhere in my brain – a sensor that, just eleven days after the winter solstice, sends a signal to somewhere else in my brain, telling it (telling me) to clear the decks? Is there a causal relationship between day length and the fact that I just opened Google Photos and searched for images taken in January? Is there an underlying hormonal link between this rain soaked day which lasts just a few minutes longer than it did a fortnight ago? – because I’m quite certain that it wasn’t opening the application that led to the shiver of anticipation but the reverse. Opening the photo album merely confirmed what I already knew – somewhere deep inside – that Coltsfoot, Celandines and Sea Campions will be there waiting in a couple of weeks when we return to Cornwall. I remember, one December, visiting my Spiritual Director, a truly radical Roman Catholic Sister. I was full of woe and feeling thoroughly sorry for myself and she told me that I probably just needed some sunshine.

Now we’ve moved into a (very small) city there won’t be any Plough Monday celebrations and I’ve no idea whether the Littleton Cider Club will organise a Wassail in the orchard behind the White Hart that Madame once helped to plant; although I have heard that the cider apples were very small this year, and so full of sugar the resulting cider is fearfully strong. I’m sad that I’m no longer involved in all those ceremonial markers of the farming year but it seems that my mind is still ahead of the game without any need for dressing up or handmade prayers.

It’s New Year’s Eve. We shan’t be up late – but tomorrow morning the old year will be vanquished in all its economic and political stupidity. Half our Christmas cards this year have contained critical remarks about the state we’re in, and that’s something I don’t think I can ever recall happening before. Is the serpent awakening? Tomorrow looks grey, with more seasonably cold weather returning, but Monday will be sunny, briskly cold and we’ll be out like plant hounds – sampling the air with cold noses and thick sweaters and greeting each tiny promise of new growth with hoots of pleasure.

I’m tempted at this point to quote Mother Julian’s “All will be well and all manner of things will be well”, but there’s got to be a caveat because of course unless we change course, things will not be well at all. The government will tell us that there’s no alternative but only a fool would believe them. Madame and I have the tremendous advantage of being old enough to have lived some of the alternatives to the way we do things around here (one of my favourite definitions of culture). There’s no state sponsored cure for the challenges we face because turkeys don’t vote for Christmas (or Thanksgiving)! The answer may feel as if it’s occluded by anxiety and sorrow but it’s there, waiting to be rediscovered and it looks a lot like a successful human community rescued from the debilitating clutches of the Gradgrinds, the curators and gallerists and all the other gatekeepers defending the system against artists and poets. We’ll banish the ambitious and the greedy and those who have never even discovered their own shadows, let alone learned to live with them. We shall only escape the tyranny of spreadsheets, efficiency curves and economic growth when we refuse to play that game and return to joyfully experiencing of the riches of nature without giving anything an economic value. We’ll get back to singing, dancing and feasting together in ways that defeat all the categories of sponsored division and to a community where Jacob Rees Mogg and his pals will have to make a thin living as pantomime dames, being laughed at in village halls and impromptu community centres all over the country: what a wonderfully cheerful thought.

Here are some more January 2022 photos – Happy New Year.

Eating beyond our means!

The Marie Antoinette moment
One of our own parsnips.

Two articles in the Guardian caught my attention this week. The first was tactfully entitled Replace animal farms with micro-organism tanks, say campaigners – advocating the rewilding of 75% of the earth’s farming land with trees and then growing most of our food in microbial factory farms known as “precision” fermentation. “Precision” like “technical” is like sticking a plastic filigree on a rotten argument. A Range Rover is both technical and full of precision engineering but it ain’t helping climate change. Two counter arguments spring immediately to mind. Firstly, to achieve this technical miracle you’d have to destroy millions of livelihoods and absolutely crush local food cultures the world over. Secondly you’d have to turn over the feeding of the world to corporations whose present behaviour does not encourage any optimism that these behemoths would pick up the tab for supporting the ruined and the poor. Thanks, but no thanks. That’s a real food hater’s charter that could have been designed by Bayer/Monsanto. A fruitful third line of attack might investigate the real costs of so-called rewilding. Rewilded land still needs maintenance and a great deal of human intervention. And maybe a fourth line of investigation could discover whether the majority of us think that there’s a bit of a way-in being promoted for the intensive forestry industry to become the green fuel supplier of choice. Long live Drax – probably best not. Then there’s the impact on biodiversity of forestry monoculture. This kind of thinking is the reductio ad absurdum of reductionist thinking.

The failure to distinguish between the climate impact of intensive animal feedlots and small mixed farms undermines any climate solutions derived from these dodgy figures. Yes I do understand that de-intensifying farming will impact food production but the argument for eating less meat is now pretty well established for all except Cargills who profit handsomely from shipping feed grain around the world. Sadly for us the era of cheap food is over because the true costs are hidden by using both the earth’s atmosphere and her surface as a dump. We are subsidising our own ultimate destruction if we carry on as we are – but that’s no excuse for campaigners on either side sticking their fingers in their ears and saying la la la to shut out any opposing arguments.

So what about the cost of living?

Another Guardian article on the rising cost of popular foods gave a list of the ten foods whose price has inflated most over the past couple of years. They are:

  • Heinz tomato ketchup sauce – top down 460g 53%
  • Dolmio lasagne sauce 470g 47%
  • Heinz classic cream of chicken soup 400g 46%
  • Dolmio bolognese original pasta sauce 500g 46%
  • Anchor spreadable butter tub 500g 45%
  • Heinz cream of tomato soup 400g 44%
  • Colman’s classic mint sauce 165g 44%
  • Colman’s horseradish sauce 136g 44%
  • Batchelors super noodles BBQ beef flavour 90g 43%
  • Hovis granary wholemeal 800g 43%

So here’s the rather dangerous Marie Antoinette moment. IF we are to campaign effectively for change we can’t be telling people who are already living on the edge that they should be eating cake. So very hesitantly I’ll say that of the ten items on the list, we at the Potwell Inn are already making our own much cheaper versions of nine. Butter, sadly, is beyond our reach. OK so we grow 90% of the tomatoes we use but that’s in a 15′ X 10′ polytunnel on the allotment. But there are other sources of cheap tomatoes – you can often buy them by the box from veg markets clearing out their old stock. Lasagne sauce – come on .. really? Dolmio and Batchelors produce ultra processed foods and bread is so easy to bake you’d never want to go back to the supermarket version. What’s needed is a little investment in tools and equipment; some time; a few fairly simple to learn skills and a bit of forward planning.

Of course this is me with sixty years of practice, but believe me when we started we hadn’t a clue. We’ve always been relatively hard up, especially with three sons to raise – so buying the equipment was never easy, but here’s a lesson you’ll soon learn – always buy the best equipment you can afford. Don’t be seduced by Damascus steel knives and all that blather- I’ve tried most of them; all the top German brands, but my go-to knives for the past ten or fifteen years have come from IKEA! – and keep them sharp. Raw ingredients – except for meat and fish are relatively inexpensive so never be afraid to fail. Failures are your best teachers so don’t wimp out, figure out what went wrong and do it better next time. Meat is expensive if you insist on buying the most expensive cuts – but the cheap cuts are the ones that butchers take home. A piece of slow cooked brisket or pork belly is often far better flavoured. Always buy the best quality meat you can afford – but not too often. The lives of £4.00 chickens don’t bear thinking about, so buy free range and organic infrequently and then you’ll be able to spread the meat over several days and after that, make your own stock. The Potwell Inn fridge is never without a litre or so of stock. It’s the ultimate culinary pixie dust and it’s unbelievably easy to make – I’ll put the method up if anyone’s interested.

Eating is – as I was quoting the other day – an agricultural act. It’s also a sacramental act. To cook for someone you love is the greatest honour, and that’s a lesson we learned from Sid Harris our unorthodox Jewish tutor who was a witness at our wedding. I wish we could teach more people to cook – we taught the boys and two of them are now professional chefs; in fact our youngest came third in a National Pizza Competition only yesterday, and his older brother was once a finalist in the Young Chef of the Year awards.

So do the two halves of this post join up in any way? Well, I think they’re deeply related because the future of the earth relies on an enormous cultural change that affects our food culture, the way we travel, and the way the majority of people earn their living. Less could really be more in this unfamiliar vision, but trying to pile all the blame on the others is never going to work. Nothing suits the corporate giants better than watching their opponents exhaust themselves by fighting each other. The new world order needs to meet what are often portrayed as unreasonable demands. More time, better working conditions, better health and social care, better and broader education and training and an earth sustaining agriculture and horticulture. We’re not fighting for ourselves, we’re fighting for our grandchildren. The only certainty in all this is that we can’t go on as we are.

A cautionary true story about my favourite river.

On 30 January 1607, around noon, the coasts of the Bristol Channel suffered from unexpectedly high floodings that broke the coastal defences in several places. Low-lying places in Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire, and South Wales were flooded. The devastation was particularly severe on the Welsh side, extending from Laugharne in Carmarthenshire to above Chepstow in Monmouthshire. Cardiff was the most badly affected town, with the foundations of St Mary’s Church destroyed.

It is estimated that 2,000 or more people were drowned, houses and villages were swept away, an estimated 200 square miles (51,800 ha) of farmland inundated, and livestock destroyed, wrecking the local economy along the coasts of the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary.

The coast of Devon and the Somerset Levels as far inland as Glastonbury Tor, 14 miles (23 km) from the coast, were also affected. The sea wall at Burnham-on-Sea gave way, and the water flowed over the low-lying levels and moors.

Wikipedia

Of course, you might think, it could never happen again here. You might think it but it would be wishful thinking. I’ll come to that in a moment. The domain name for this blog is “Severnsider” for a reason. I’ve loved the Severn since long before I found myself working in a parish whose boundary ran somewhere in the middle of it. I knew the parish boundary well enough to guide the skipper of the paddle steamer MV Balmoral to the spot where I once slipped the ashes of a retired Severn Pilot called Peter into the swirling waters, to the mournful sound of three long blasts on the ship’s steam whistle.

The river Severn is Britain’s longest river at 220 miles and it can be dangerous; overtopping its banks regularly as floodwaters pour down from the Cambrian Mountains, joined by its many tributaries. The estuary itself, is vulnerable to the South westerly prevailing winds and has the largest volume of water flowing into the sea of any river in England and Wales. When the enormous downstream spring tides meet gale force winds blowing upstream, flooding will follow as night follows day. Not often, but often enough in the past and in the last decades becoming the norm.

As a river it’s been hammered by industrial developments and pollution, warm water from a couple of (now closed) nuclear power stations and more recently by the eutrophication of large stretches by intensive farming – especially in the River Wye which joins the Severn beside the first modern Bridge carrying the M48. I knew the last putcher fisherman on our side of the river and he once told me that salmon were turning up with terrible sores on their flesh. Before he gave up he said he’d only caught three fish in several years.

Nobody in Government seems at all keen to tackle the pollution, but the many thousands of homes on the floodplain are a real political problem when, year after year they’re being inundated for weeks on end by filthy polluted water – and so in these decades of austerity, the combined forces of local, regional and national funding have found £100 million to improve flood defences . Amazon have built a huge warehouse in the middle of one of the affected areas and their astute tax lawyers will have made quite sure that none of their profits are diverted into protecting their own warehouse.

Notwithstanding all these problems the Severn still manages to be a hauntingly beautiful river; visible from miles away as a silver ribbon threading down through small farms and villages with their patchwork fields divided by rhynes and cider orchards along with one of my clutch of country parishes whose church and churchyard were sensibly built on a prominent knoll from which I expect to spend eternity keeping an eye on the river from my high vantage point – immune to winter storms and exalting in the sounds of migrating geese.

Anyway, enough maundering; my point is that the river floods but over the past years £100 million are being expended on keeping our feet dry. Except …….

For the past eight years we’ve kept our campervan in a locked compound barely fifty yards from the sea wall. There were occasions, before the works began, when we kept an anxious eye on the weather forecasts and then after a couple of major floodings up and down stream we joined an automatic warning service which sends out a text message when flooding is expected. We hadn’t expected that yesterday – well outside the normal flooding season – we would receive this text message.

Flood Alert Issued. Severn Estuary at Severn Beach. floodline.uk/112WATSVN1. To hear more information on this Alert, call Floodline 0345 9881188,8

UK Floodline alert.

Once again, the same scenario as 1607. A flood tide meeting stormwater plus a Southwesterly upstream gale heaps up the water (106 cubic metres a second at Apperly on a normal day – that’s a lot of double decker buses!) – and the defences are broached – even after all that money is being spent!

The point of all this is that we’re not preparing for the catastrophic effects of global climate change, we’re limping along after it; parsimoniously spending too little and too late while doing nothing to address the causes. Here we are again as politicians gather in Egypt for COP 27 and make promises they’ve no intention of keeping, while the lobbyists and their tame journalists spend billions persuading us that there’s no cause for alarm – it’s all a long way away and somewhere else. Well it isn’t. It’s right here and right now

But to say a little more about Peter, the Severn pilot. I discovered that during the 2nd World War he would pilot the petrol barges up from Avonmouth to the lock at Purton, just below the old railway bridge. In wartime this was a terribly hazardous journey against fierce tides, numerous underwater shallows and a winding course without the benefit of radar or even lights. Peter – who was a quiet and thoughtful man, would walk the banks of the Severn whenever he had some time off – to memorise the hazards. At his funeral service one of his old friends told me that one day he was prowling the bank in thick fog and as a ship drew near he heard a voice calling – “Is that you Peter?” On  25 October 1960 a couple of petrol barges misjudged the lock at Sharpness and were swept out of control upstream, colliding with one of the piers of the Severn Railway Bridge which, in the ensuing explosion and fire, collapsed. Five crew members died that night. The Severn has claimed many more victims over the previous centuries and we can only hope that she will not take many more lives as a consequence of our wishful thinking about climate change.

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