I’m constantly writing and thinking about the reason the natural world so deeply affects me (and so many of us), in such a way that it’s almost impossible to express in words. Feeling good about the natural world hardly does justice to it when for instance – at the moment of taking this photograph of the Percuil river – I was so filled with inexpressible gratitude and joy. It was an intensely spiritual moment, I might say; except that any half sensible interrogator would ask – “Well what does spiritual actually mean?”
We’d just walked down the path in the photo, through open woodland that was just alive with wildflowers. Now and again we caught glimpses of the river across a gated field entrance but mostly we were concentrating on re-finding the reliable patch of Early Purple orchids we’d found several years running. The dappled woodland was a perfect setting for the yellows, blues and reds of Celandines and Buttercups; Bluebells, Cow Parsley, Herb Robert and Red Campions. Little moments of visual intensity suspended in air above the green background; a silent triumphant chord turning one of the five senses into another.
Plant hunting turns out to be an incredibly sensual experience. With a bit of experience the exploration of any new plant – it needn’t be rare at all -uses all of the senses. The texture, colour, minute details of form, taste, (used with extreme discretion) and smell. The geology underfoot, time of day and time of year, exact setting – mid field, hedgerow, open woodland or dark forest; all these play into a reflection that draws on our memory and previous experience distilled down to a single moment with a single expression of Nature.
Yesterday I was idling along looking at different kinds of Dock – I was able to comfortably name three – all of them ubiquitous in this country – Broad Leaved, Curled and Common Sorrel. I could have managed a couple more but they weren’t there, but in naming them I used exactly the sensual plus procedure I described above. When I started out I almost always forgot the diagnostic powers of stroking and sniffing, until I encountered Hedge Woundwort whose crushed leaves smell horrible.
When we reached the little boatyard at Percuil we sat on a wall in the sun, looking at the moored boats when Madame caught sight of a familiar plant right in front of us. “Its Fennel” – she said – “Go and look”, and so I did. It wasn’t difficult because we use Fennel and grow it ourselves. So a roll between the fingers and a sniff confirmed beyond any doubt. But at this point the story took another entirely new turn because the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland), have just published an online database of all the plants, their distribution, their increase and decrease in the face of this environmental catastrophe. Thirty odd million records processed and mapped. So out came my mobile phone and with a few taps we discovered that Common Fennel is indeed very common around the coast but hasn’t been recorded in the little four kilometer square in which we were sunbathing. So that’s a new record that sits like the last piece of a jigsaw in a long coastline.
But once you’ve photographed, checked and rechecked and consulted the field guides and satisfied yourself that the name is factually correct, there’s always a remainder. A chunk of the experience that refuses to be reduced to dimensions and probabilities and pays no heed to logic and expertise. It doesn’t even have to be a rare plant – it could as easily be a Dandelion. Maybe some kind of spirituality is where that remainder lives. When all the pub quiz / trainspotter stuff is over and done, something is left that feels as if it’s mostly made from love, wonder and gratitude. A whole other sense above and beneath the tactile, the sensual and the intellectual. Maybe the beginnings of a Green Spirituality lie within this barely explored sense. The earthy, material, exhilarating phenomenon that we call Nature speaks through our senses. Here’s the orchid – still there and below that, some bits and bobs including a stunning bit of walling.
There was me, writing here a few days ago lamenting the absence of what I chose to call cultus; call it what you will really but it’s about moments of communal celebration – and then today it’s May Day.
Not that anything very discernable happened. No maypole to be seen on the allotments; no May Queen, no carousing and drunkenness; no dangerous and profligate behaviour. All you could say was that the allotments today were busier than they’ve been since last autumn. We’ve endured long periods of solitary allotmenteering as winter extended its grip to a full six months and we wondered whether we would ever see the sun again. Now we have two consecutive bank holidays and a coronation and aside from a meet the street gathering here next Sunday it seems that big and boozy community events were dealt something of a death blow by Covid. Somehow we’ve got out of the habit – out of the habit of harvest festivals, Christmas carols, plough mondays, Whitsun; and beating the parish bounds; other flavours are available if you can remember them.
There are probably many who wish good riddance to the lot of them – Christian festivals are a bit passé now – except for the fact that most of the meaningful festivals that still exist were pinched from the pagans centuries ago. Oliver Cromwell did his level best to ban the lot of them but the moment the Restoration happened they emerged from their brief hibernation as full of energy as before.
When St Augustine of Canterbury arrived in Britain in around 597 he discovered that a fully functioning pagan religion had returned in the period since the Romans left. He sent a desperate email – (OK letter!) – asking the Pope what he should do and in one of the few sensible decisions in the history of Christian evangelism; some months later the Pope replied that it was better to take on the pagan buildings and traditions and give them a Christian backstory. Welcome to Plough Monday, the first Monday after the (Christian) feast of the Epiphany – OK then, Twelfth Night – when traditionally the sowing of crops began after the Christmas lockdown. Plough Monday was the pagan festival celebrating the beginning of the agricultural year. In fact there’s an uncanny tie-in between the surviving Christian festivals and the old pagan calendar; and some, like Wassailing, that were never successfully co-opted at all.
All of which is a rather long winded approach to the fact that today, May Day, is also celebrated as Beltane; the traditional festival celebrating the beginning of summer. Fires, singing and a bit of carousing would once have taken place all over the country. I’ve got a photo of my mother as a child (born in 1918) dressed in white, with a garland of flowers round her head and standing next to a ribbon decked maypole on an Oxfordshire village green. Sadly since the triumph of the Evangelicals – Cromwell’s withered soulmates – most of the Christian Churches see these entirely innocent reminders of the earth cycle as heretical if not as devil worship. If you really want to see devil worship go and stand outside the chemical works in Huddersfield that still produces Paraquat and sells it to poor farmers in India.
The point here is that the earth cycles – the solstices, Winter (Christmas); Summer (Midsummer Day); equinoxes; Spring (Easter); Autumn; (Michaelmas) and the intervening quarters; Imbolc (Candlemas); Beltane (May Day); Lughnasadh (Lammas) and Samhain (Halloween) need to be detached from their captivity within institutional Christianity not because I would like to damage what became my own spiritual dialect but because the context has changed; history has moved on and – in the story shaped universe that we created and now inhabit – the earth cycle has (once again) become the story we desperately need to move us away from the dominant narrative – neoliberal economics and politics – towards an earth centred spirituality, not because it feels like a nice idea, but because our lives depend upon it.
So today we were on the allotment. Madame was mulching our fruit bushes with sheep fleeces given to us by our friends NIck and Kate who live in Bannau Brycheiniog – the old and original Welsh name for the Brecon Beacons. We’re expecting a plot inspection any day now and, to be honest, it looks as if a small flock of Jacobs Sheep has died in the fruit cage, under the blackcurrants and gooseberries. Fleece, which is almost valueless these days, makes an excellent mulch and slug repellent and it’s very good as an additive to the compost heap. Anyway we hope we don’t give our neighbours palpitations.
While Madame was engaged with the fruit cage, I was earthing up the potatoes. Years ago I bought a ridging tool which I only ever use once a year but it’s exactly right for earthing up spuds. The soil is black and friable and smells lovely with a bit of sun on it. It’s worth ridging up this time of year because it protects the emerging leaves from a late frost better than fleece, which allows Jack Frost to do his destructive work wherever it touches the leaf.
Everywhere there are signs of growth. The immense energy of spring drives the plants upwards into our realm and as I hoed the soil, I touched, for a moment that sense of sacredness that occasionally visits a gardener in quiet thought. This moment of inspiration was accompanied by a speaking; not at all an auditory hallucination but the clearest intimation that the soil itself is the mother of all life. We might imagine for a moment that those Buddhist monks who rake gravel temple gardens have, somehow, a higher form of spirituality. It’s not true of course. The sacred is always ordinary; the ordinary seeking us out.
But I can’t leave this thought with any suggestion that the paganism which I have referred to here is in any sense inferior, heretical or dangerous. My point in using it is to suggest that its connection with the earth cycle may be an insight whose time has come again. In 1966 First Nation Canadian, Buffy Sainte Marie, released a song called “Little Wheel Spin and Spin” and it just wouldn’t leave me yesterday. You might like to listen to it – it’s on YouTube music. Fifty seven years on it’s as powerful and prophetic as it was when I first heard it.
Christianity has been a rather poor guardian of the ancient traditions it once co-opted. Maybe it’s time to ask for our ball back? Happy Beltane.
This is going to be a very short post but I think it’s important to think aloud occasionally, if only to begin to set out some kind of a stall. My aim here is to tease out a couple of missing threads in the environmental movement; threads that – if we could fill them with life – might release enough energy to get this heavy stone to the top of the mountain.
The only data I really understand is myself and my feelings which seem constantly to suck the life out of any hope. Despair is utterly destructive. I’ve mentioned before (often) that any kind of earth spirituality needs a structure, a framework in which to function, to act, to think and to conduct our daily lives. This doesn’t seem to me to require the invention of any supernatural entities; there’s more than enough awe in nature to inspire the biggest of thoughts and responses and even to drive to our knees from time to time. That’s the first missing link – a structure or framework which will need to be maintained and expanded by our best thinkers.
This would be the first task of what I’ll call the geologians – the earth philosophers who know how to ask good questions and frame good answers. Theologians do God which is a good deal easier since “because I say so” is a circular argument which I’ll come to with the next missing link. Geologians will help us to think sensibly, coherently and truthfully without waving big sticks like damnation and purgatory.
The second missing link after the framework begins to take shape will be to form a canon – a collection of writings that can command general acceptance. This wouldn’t be too hard, there are loads of books on my shelves that call themselves “readers”- selections of writings that seem to demand our attention because they help us to think more clearly. I’m certainly not proposing we turn our geologians into a high priesthood. A canon is a collection of trustworthy writings that come with the assurance that they won’t lead us into the wilderness – and I’m sorry for the occasional reference to more biblical notions but they’re handy shortcuts sometimes. However, as I hinted before, even canonical literature needs to be constantly examined and revised if it’s not going to die and become putrid. That’s why “because I say so” ican never be on the agenda.
The third, and possibly the trickiest component will be what we have to describe as the cultus – without for a moment implying a derived cult. The cultus might involve – for instance – thanking a plant for meeting some of our needs before we dig it up; community harvest or planting festivals and so forth.
These three threads already exist extensively within native, first nation and ancient cultures. They have elders and wise people who maintain the culture and guide actions, they have highly refined structures of belief and they abound in ceremonies and rituals which enfold communities and hold them together. However this can’t mean that we could just take a system off the shelf and apply it to ourselves. Many of the existing systems are highly localized – to plains communities; herding communities or forest communities. We in the overdeveloped and greedy west have obliterated the concepts of theology, cultus and canon in order to remove any opposition to neoliberal capitalism. The vision I’m talking about refers more to a possible post apocalyptic future. The driving force is the hope that the most thoughtful and creative minds of our generation; artists, poets, scientists engineers and philosophers (well not my generation perhaps; I’m pretty ancient!) – may forge a new vision that can act as a bridge towards a new sustainable future.
Most revolutions are fought without much of a vision of what happens afterwards and this is what leads to populism and dictatorship; easy to fall into and hard to dispense with. Lashing out might feel good for a moment but the bad actors have all the power and they won’t hesitate to use it. What they don’t have is the power to eradicate a contagious vision. Faith – as the evangelists often say – is caught and not taught. Belonging is far more powerful than believing. We’ve got local elections in the UK in a few days time and I’m immensely disheartened by the fact that the Greens have the right policies expressed in the style of a university seminar reading. To borrow and adapt an idea from Monica Furlong; feminist theologian “anger is hope overwhelmed by despair”. Only visions can express theories with sufficient power to change “the way we do things round here”.
Yesterday was just one of those days that left me almost breathless with pleasure. We were five old friends whose various relationships reach back way over fifty years; five old friendships that have seen and survived all manner of triumphs and tragedies and five human beings sharing a walk (well, more of an amble) on a stunning spring day, while we followed the course of the remains of the Somerset Coal Canal which was built to carry coal from the North Somerset coalfield to the junction with the Kennet and Avon canal, near Dundas aqueduct. For me, a light bulb went on when I realized how much of the old stone structure had survived, but Madame also had it written down as a place to return to – a lot!
It wasn’t a long walk by any stretch but we gave it several hours anyway, soaking up the sun and exploring off the path from time to time, looking at plants and rusting iron lock gate nails with equal interest; catching glimpses of the equally abandoned railway line that forced the demise of the canal. For me it’s a paradise of post industrial relics and possible sites for interesting wildflowers, and by all accounts it has some very interesting geology, which is always good news for plant hunters. But it wasn’t all green wellies and Tilley hats. C and I had a friendly bird app competition with our phones and I realized that the absence of an in-phone database meant that hers identified a Black Cap Warbler much faster than mine which was still looking for a signal. Just for interest I was using Birdnerd and C had Merlin – hers was clearly better for off-grid id’s – mine’s always worked perfectly well but perhaps I’ve just been lucky with phone masts.
There were no rarities spotted, but it was just as reassuring and pleasurable to see Dandelions, Cuckoo Flowers, Cowslips, White Nettles and Ground Ivy all flowering in profusion. The only oddity was what I think must have been Weld – Reseda luteola, AKA Dyers Weed, Dyers Rocket or Yellow Weed. No prizes, then, for guessing what it was once used for. If it was Weld I suppose that would make it a post industrial plant relic from a much earlier historical moment. Lurking up and down these beautiful valleys are the ruins and remains of monastic communities with their medicinal herb gardens and watermills, grinding grain from local farms. Far from being enjoyable just for its remoteness and quietness, you could almost feel the presence of innumerable farm labourers, fishermen, monks, boaters, miners, navvies and railwaymen, all those faint echoes flowing towards the river Avon. The horizons are punctuated by the silhouettes of grand mansions and farms such that we were obliged to consider the source of all that wealth. One of our party had long dead ancestors who were in the cloth trade and who may have furnished the backs of navvies, slaves and workhouse inhabitants. with fustian – rough but hard wearing cloth that combined cotton weft on linen warps.
We finished up – as all good walks do – in the pub where I photographed the hauntingly lovely sign at the top of this post; something I’ll come back to in a moment.
I’ve been struggling for a long time to find a way of expressing what seems to me to be a fundamental difficulty in this post-religious age. A few days ago I wrote this:
the intoxicating smell of the wet but warming earth – known as petrichor – carried the subliminal message of the season. Is there some kind of spirituality here? – something to do with being held by an embracing framework?
The trouble with words like Spirituality and Love is that they’ve been so trampled upon by blowhards, bishops and pornographers they no longer have any meaning at all except for a vaguely felt inflammation of the imagination which could be anything from a vision to a mild virus, and so writing about such things becomes an exercise in frustration; altogether lacking the tools for the job.
For me, best and most creative ideas come when the parts of a solution finally come together for no discernable reason except the relaxed mindfulness of a walk. These ideas, quite often, are not the lofty analytics of a Holmesean three pipe problem. They can seem vulgar, irreverent and occupy worlds so different it’s almost like harvesting the energy of colliding comets.
So here’s the problem – how can we find a contemporary way of expressing the content of words like spirituality and love. What kind of love, from all of the available flavours, would best express our love for the Earth in this age of catastrophe? and secondly, what form of spirituality could provide a language accessible to the religious, the determinedly non-religious and that huge population in the middle who long for a structure, a framework for understanding a way of being human that isn’t part of what’s destroying us all?
And so what about these three components?
The marriage service
These three rather disparate ideas have at least one thing going for them because they include a painful (but not fatal) human condition, a plant that provides a useful remedy, and a form of words that might just provide the beginnings of a framework.
Let’s take Chef’s Ass first. If you’re working in very hot and humid sweaty conditions – for instance in a restaurant kitchen, polytunnel or just walking for long distances in inappropriate clothes you may contract a very uncomfortable form of abrasion rash known colloquially as chef’s ass in the trade. I consulted our son – who’s a chef – on a possible cure, and he said he’d once tried alcoholic hand gel which turned out to be effective but screamingly painful. I hoped I could find a less extreme cure for my similar gardening related problem and turned to our home made Calendula Cream which, to my great surprise and relief worked miraculously well. It’s so cheap and easy to make I wonder why anyone would pay £15 for a tube, or resort to potentially dangerous remedies like hydrocortisones.
Forget God for a moment because there’s absolutely no reason to invoke any kind of higher level supernatural powers here. The earth provides us with a multitude of effective remedies for many unpleasant, painful but non-malignant diseases. Calendula is just one example. Now the application of the cream did the trick for me, but that left me with the odd sense that I should be able to say thank-you for that help. I get exactly the same feeling harvesting our produce, eating it and sharing it with friends. That unchannelled, unfocused gratitude needs somewhere to land but all too often, like a boomerang, it circles back on itself and manifests itself as pride.
I know I’m using a religious term here but bear with me just for a moment while I explain. Pride is a very dangerous thing not least because it blinds us to our own fallibility. But collective pride – for instance in our ability to solve every challenge, even catastrophic climate change, through our own cleverness is a form of idolatry. Our thank-you’s desperately need to be channelled into something less destructive than pride.
So with that in mind I’ll turn to to some words from the marriage service which once seized me so powerfully in the course of a wedding service I was taking, that I had to stop in my tracks and recover my wits before I could continue. Each of the couple (and I’m using this example in a completely secular and non gendered way) say to one another – “All that I am, I give to you, and all that I have I share with you”. From that moment onwards I almost invariably reminded my couples that the second half of the promise was the easy bit. “All that I have I share with you” is the kind of arrangement that any half witted solicitor could organise. It’s a kind of prenuptial clause. But the second half of the promise- “All that I am I give to you” is on a different plane. How many of us have even the faintest clue what “all that I am” means for ourselves, let alone our prospective partner?
And yet the point here is that the earth has made precisely that promise to us. The earth says – “all that I am I give to you” and means it utterly, to the end. But we, in our infinite pride, forget that in this imagined marriage relationship with the earth we secretly and covetously hope to get our hands on the money and say that sentence with our fingers crossed behind our backs. There’s no more destructive relationship than a one sided and selfish marriage. This is not a religious point!
So at last I come back to the pub sign. I’m a sucker for naive paintings and a complete fool for the ones that express in paint something that the painter could never have articulated in words. Our angel, with a look of considerable doubt on her face is taking an anchor from the heavenly (that’s the hope bit) to the earthly ( that’s the anchor). When the rope breaks there’s no guide to the way back and we are lost. So to recap from the top; all those ancient voices flowing down to the river and onward to the sea were the hopes of our ancestors, lived out in the world of nature that provided food and health as best the earth could offer. It was greed and selfishness that fouled things up and because of that idolatrous worship of our own powers we now face an existential crisis.
Ironically (or maybe not), we five walkers all agreed that it wasn’t just the complete ineptitude of our politicians or the continuing impact of lockdown; the war in Ukraine, or even the cost of living that was making us depressed and unhappy. There is something deeper that wrecks our sleep and furnishes our worst dreams. Without finding a new relationship with the earth and all living things we’ll remain delusional, lonely and ultimately doomed.
I picked the photograph carefully by typing “river” into my photos database and going through them carefully, waiting for the spark to happen. This was it; the Potwell Inn expressed in a single image. Incidentally my sister once told me off because, (she said), every time I wrote a lyrical piece I would throw a spanner in the works at the last moment, as if I couldn’t bear the thought of a happy ending. It was a reasonable criticism because, on reflection, that’s something I often do. Yesterday I read a single page of an essay concerning grass written by John Ruskin. I thought it was so gushing and overheated that I counted the adjectives on a single paperback sized page and there were 25. As I wrote a couple of days ago, my inner eye could scan the grasses on Mendip or – let’s say on the Lizard with interest, but alight with joy on a heap of mine spoil or bare serpentine rock. My defence would be that I’m far from being pessimistic by temperament; it’s experience!
The Potwell Inn is, and always was, my safe place. Since I read it as a set text at fourteen years old I’ve never lost the liberating sense of delight when Alfred Polly, the hero of HG Wells comic novel stumbled upon this idyllic pub with its own ferry after running away from his own bungled suicide which (long story) resulted in inadvertently burning his hated shop down and heroically rescuing an elderly woman from the blaze. From that moment all my ambitions centred upon finding my own Potwell Inn and my very own landlady. Someone – was it William Goldman? – once wrote that the structure of all great adventures is the Grail legend; the search for an answer to the question “what ails you?” – the one question in life that can never be answered through introspection.
The fact that sixty years later I chose the Potwell Inn as the name for my imaginary happy place, should be an awful warning to parents, teachers and economists about the power of stories. But there’s another thread that animates all great stories and that’s threat and release. Love is only truly love because it always ends in loss. Bereavement is the price we pay for flying, like Icarus, too close to the sun. If you look carefully at the sidebar you may notice the odd category “Uncle Jim” which I hardly ever use, but refers to the threat of annihilation by the large woman’s drunken brother. His threats are comical, but the menace is very real, and occasional confrontations (and dunkings in the river) only end with Uncle Jim’s accidental death wearing Polly’s jacket; relieving the unhappy Polly of his identity and allowing the new beginning he’d dreamed of.
So in one sense, the idea of the Potwell Inn as a safe place is only partially true. Which brings me back to the photograph. The canoeist in question is not paddling – as you might imagine – towards a magnificent sunset. The light floods across from the huge and mythically unlovely blocks of flats that were built on the old gasworks site across the river from us. Grossly overpriced, jerrybuilt monstrosities that resemble Russian bonded warehouses. The old gasworks site on what’s been named by an overheated copywriter as “The Western Riverside” was an ecological hotspot as well as providing a wide wildlife corridor towards a brief strip of countryside – awaiting ‘improvement’ from an ambitious architect with a couple of prisons under their belt. In my view that’s a crime that unites Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Binsey Poplars” with John Masefield’s “cheap tin trays”. [sorry – this is a rant so no prisoners!]
But the threat element of my story goes further because the Potwell Inn of my imagination is also bordered by the river on which my canoeist paddles; but this real river is carrying more than its share of human effluent – the telltale signs are the ice floes of detergent foam that signify that someone – in a treatment plant somewhere close – has dumped another load of shit into the vicinity of my safe place.
I worry that my frequently elegiac rendering of the Potwell Inn distracts from the reality that Uncle Jim, who regenerates more often than Doctor Who, currently wears an expensive suit and loves to entertain Councillors and Planning officials at party conferences : – ( it’s all in the declarations of interest so no-one need bother denying it).
It’s too much – sometimes – this sense of threat. One of my producers once said that my best writing was in the lyrical style. Well yes – but the lyricism of mine and much current nature writing is in danger of becoming politically useful greenwashing. When was the last time I heard a cuckoo? In North Wales last week we were both startled with joy at the sound of a cuckoo which turned out to be no more lyrical than the dishwasher doing its rhythmic thing. The last real cuckoo was probably five years ago on our friends smallholding on the Brecon Beacons. How long will it be before we forget altogether?
On the other hand I’m having a bit of a fern binge at the moment and we found loads of Wall Rue on the wall outside the flat. How ironic that in my previous post I wrote about the way the plants and insects will outlive us when the catastrophe finally happens. Today I’m thinking how unutterably sad it will be if the only witnesses of the unfolding tragedy are dead?
Another week on the Lleyn peninsula, at the feet of the Snowdon range and jutting out into the Irish sea. The drive home was an idyllic spring journey through three mountain ranges, Snowdonia, the Cambrians and then the Brecon Beacons. I suppose we could have driven home the quick way via the motorway network but then we’d have missed the superb clear views of the mountains. On one occasion a couple of years ago we took a wrong turn and drove up beside the Arenigs and Lake Bala. It cost us a couple of hours finding our way through the Welsh Marches but it felt as if we were following in George Borrow’s footsteps as he researched for his book “Wild Wales”.
The weather was iffy to say the least, but then it usually is in North Wales, and we found sunshine and time for walking every day – which led to a surprise discovery. Coltsfoot (bottom left) isn’t rare by any means but I haven’t seen it for over a decade. The last occasion was on a bike ride along the Severn estuary when the verges were thinly covered by melting snow. It’s one of those plants which flowers before the leaves emerge and I suspect the contrast of golden yellow against the mud spattered roadside snow caught my eye. I’ve been back to the same place often at this time of the year to see it again, if only because it cheers me up to see it defying the last of winter, rather like Celandines do. It’s possible, though that I haven’t found it because it just wasn’t there – because it’s fussy about its environment, but only in the sense that (like the Twits) it relishes disturbed and unpromising environments like landslides, mudslides disturbed ground and generally mashed up land. Last week there were so many Coltsfoot plants punctuating the wind and sea-lashed mud cliffs of Porthor beach, I thought I’d gone to heaven.
And I really like these places. Madame rolls her eyes and laughs at me when I run rapturously towards a slag heap, but here you can find some of the great survivors of the plant world. Often absolutely tiny, they make a scant living in the most unpromising places; for instance those lumps of dark rock in the bottom right hand photo are actually lead slag and in early spring, Common Whitlowgrass is among the few plants that can tolerate the concentrations of heavy metals like lead. The top right photo is of Danish Scurvygrass growing in pure sand. It’s common all around the coast, and I once chewed some (picked out of dog range) and it tasted pretty horrible – like gone off horseradish with mustard. For sailors however it was once a lifesaver due to its concentration of Vitamin C. Foragers like it for reasons best known to themselves and for them the good news is that salt gritting the roads has created Scurvygrass highways, reaching inland on verges.
Many ferns too can scratch a living on drystone walls and almost bare rocks, and so the list goes on. The adaptations to allow these precarious lives are as varied as the species themselves, and that’s the thing about evolution – it’s got time and sheer weight of numbers on its side; so many combinations and mutations to select from. One seaside favourite is the thickening and toughening of the skin – the description succulent kind of misses the emphasis that should rather lie with the plant’s capacity to resist drought, salt and all the other indignities of marginal life. Some ferns rely on what’s called apomixis – they’re self fertilised and so the minute spores can set up shop almost anywhere without fertilization by another plant – and my goodness they can travel in a favourable wind.
I get bored by formal gardens mainly because their glorious arrays are almost always the result of intensive breeding and human effort. They’re the well bred six footers who always get noticed first at the bar whilst the rest of us poorly bred peasants have to wait.
The most misused concept in farming is the idea of “improved pasture” because it’s not improved in any conceivable way- it’s just more productive in the single sense that it makes cattle fatter quicker. But the fact is that unimproved grassland yields better, stronger, far more biodiverse, health promoting and nutritious food; not just for meat production but also capturing and sequestering more carbon whilst sustaining the intricate web of wildlife – birds, flowers, pollinating insects in balance. Improved grassland is just a wasteful and expensive way of turning soil into dirt!
I don’t blame the farmers for this impasse. Decades of government policy and propaganda from supermarkets and agrochemical businesses have promoted the gods of economy, “progress” and yield, but just as the Canaanite god Moloch demanded child sacrifice, the gods of intensive agriculture have sacrificed the soil; offering only dwindling returns and throwing countless small farmers into bankruptcy and poverty.
Of course, picking up my initial thread, some plants will succeed in the most impoverished and polluted situations – which may be of comfort to those foragers who haven’t yet tried salad leaves contaminated with heavy metals. But there will be no botanists there to record and admire them. You see, to return to the idea of evolution, we have to remind ourselves that evolution carries on whether or not there are any humans around. After the barren earth and the inevitable famines, there will be plants and every other kind of wildlife, doing what my favourite plants have always done; adapting surviving and flourishing. This is the point we’re missing. If we want to survive as a species we need to follow their example and adapt the way we live until balance is restored once again.
There will always be snake oil sellers who offer fossil fuelled shares in going back to the good old days. Laugh at them. Laugh in their faces at their risible stupidity, because if there’s one thing we’ve forgotten in this scientific age it’s encapsulated in this adapted quip.
Here on the Lleyn peninsula we’ve had to cut our cloth according to the southwesterly weather systems that (as always) brought periods of blissful sunshine punctuated by rain-bearing fronts that threw everything bar the kitchen sink at us. The gale even found the resonant frequency of the steel chimney and periodically filled the cottage with the sound of a full Brahmsian symphony orchestra tuning up. It was quite unnerving until we worked out what it was.
But it wasn’t the end of the world – or our break – because we both had indoor things to do; sharing the dining table, with me identifying plants from photos and Madame drawing. Just how interesting this is for anyone else is a moot point at the moment because the bill for the next two years of the Potwell Inn blog just arrived and I have been thrown into introspective maunderings as I try to interrogate my own motives.
If raw visitor numbers were the sole criterion the decision would be easy because I know that this is one of those niche blogs that tend to disappear beneath the waves of controversy and narcissism. I’m not, and would never want to be an “influencer” of any sort, neither would I dare to set myself up as an expert in any of the subjects I write about. I’ve covered over the years, for instance, the allotment; cooking – especially baking sourdough bread; growing, harvesting and preserving food; wildlife, especially wildflowers and then a few branches in the road towards art, poetry, philosophy and especially global climate catastrophe and ecological destruction. Not quite in the – “an ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own” category – I’m rather proud of it in fact – but by no means essential reading for saving the earth. My unspoken aim since I first started this as a private journal nine years ago, was to try to reflect the arduous business of being human at a time when our humanity, our survival is under threat; and lest that sounds too worthy by half I’m bound to say that I just love writing. Three quarters of a million words don’t seem nearly too many to me. I’d like to get up to a million but ………. here’s the thing …….. I wouldn’t want to get there by just focusing on my most popular subjects because – frankly – I’m easily bored. I’m a grown up and I’m sure that my loyal readers are grown-ups as well, and can cope perfectly well with a bit of complexity. I even like to think that my occasional literary or philosophical references are part of the fun. And so my readership increases at the glacial pace that would make a sloth feel pleased with itself, and I’m denied the egotistical pleasures of boasting about my immense popularity.
However, that doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in numbers. The challenge, for me, is to give myself and my interests (OK obsessions!) space to evolve and mature. Right now I’m pretty busy with naming plants, but I’m nowhere near competent enough to set myself up as an expert. I rely on a whole network of fabulously competent people to referee and mentor my efforts. They could easily write their own field botany blogs but my interests are slightly divergent from the mainstream. For instance I’m enchanted by the English common names of plants, and today as we were waving goodbye to our son I caught sight of a ferm I didn’t recognise – a very small thing. So I turned to the books and came up with Black Spleenwort. Isn’t that just beautiful? Just as Vipers Bugloss, or Lungwort and Wolfsbane are beautiful, evocative and poetic words weeping with historical associations. But if I add the Latin names to them is that off putting to non specialists? – or should I press on with them because they add a whole new depth and dimension. As my interest and knowledge deepen I’ve had to learn about huge databases, ecological niches, brownfield and polluted sites – not to mention geology, and so it goes on.
A bellringer once tried to explain method ringing to me. We were in the kind of pub that – back in the day – had nicotine dripping from the ceiling when it got crowded. In order to explain his passion for bellringing, he upturned the ashtray on to the table and drew in the slurry with his finger to illustrate the sinuous complexities of the method. I was utterly lost after the first couple of sentences. That’s just what I don’t want to do! On the other hand I once drove a blind bellringer to a tower in Winford and they rang a method which I probably misremember as Bristol Surprise and which – like the song of a blackbird – almost broke my heart with its beauty.
How far do you go to communicate that intense feeling? Well I think I have half an answer to that question. I’ve never forgotten a “joke” cracked by Canon David Isitt while I was training. We were planning a service soon after our ordination, and he said “I want you each to bring a symbol of your ministry – I’m bringing a condom!” He was so right about all too many people except himself. Too much of any kind of ‘ology’ can shut an audience down in seconds. My (entirely personal) theory is that technique and deep technical understanding are absolutely essential to creative work – BUT they should always remain hidden. No-one needs to be told how clever you are, and showing off is fatal. On the other hand the best teachers draw you into their world and encourage you to try for yourself.
So the future of this blog is under consideration, but meanwhile here are some photos of the Black Spleenwort – Asplenium adiantum-nigrum, but don’t worry too much about that. More to the point is the fact that – with a small magnifier – the world becomes ever more intensely beautiful as you look more closely. British summer time began today. Make the most of every precious moment!
Just before we left Cornwall the week before last, and after we’d loaded the car and returned the key, I had a quiet couple of minutes leaning on the gate looking out to sea while the birds were singing their hearts out in anticipation of spring. A Mistle Thrush rehearsed his repetitive chorus; Robins sang their plaintive songs, Great Tits, Blue Tits and gulls of several persuasions added their descant; crows and Magpies rattled on about nothing much – all adding to the rhythm of waves beating on the pebble beach below; and I realized how little I wanted to leave. I struggle to quantify or even understand the healing power of nature, but I completely and gratefully accept it.
However, there were things to do back in Bath, not least a Bath Natural History Society lecture on regenerative farming given by local farmer, Jeremy Padfield. It was an excellent talk on a subject I’ve often explored in the Potwell Inn and I made so many notes that I felt inspired to write an account for the Bath Nats website and the annual report. A quick enquiry about length solicited a noncommittal response and so I set to and wrote just over 1000 words just as an email from the editor of the annual report arrived to suggest 350 words. So a postcard then! Much anguished editing and sacrifice of my little darlings boiled the stock down to a thick jus and off it went.
Simultaneously a report in the Falmouth Packet, (local Cornish newspaper which I like to keep an eye on), printed a story about the lovely strip of coastal land running up from St Just to St Ives. It’s a place we know well and have often walked, and the newspaper was working itself up into a froth because the area has just been designated a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) due to the rich biodiversity of the land which has a tremendously wide variety of habitats rare flora and fauna and even a breeding colony of Dartford Warblers. Sadly and predictably one or two farmers were describing the move as a “land grab” – comparable to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – well Natural England weren’t exactly bombing the area in order to protect it, and at first sight this seemed like a bit of a Luddite knee jerk reaction. Nonetheless I was interested to see whether their fear of being driven off their land was justified.
The outcome was that I was reading the (54 page) Natural England report on the West Penwith SSSI at the same time as I was reading about the new ELMS scheme for Farming subsidies; trying to discover what actual subsidies would be available to Cornish farmers in the SSSI, whilst writing my piece on Regenerative Agriculture.
The lecture itself was illuminating . Since 2009 when two Duchy farms reached an agreement to work together it seems that tremendous progress has been made: here’s my shortened report.
Regenerative Farming has become a bit of a buzzword recently but it’s an idea whose time has come, not least because of the new Government policy – the ELMS scheme – which aims to move farm subsidies completely from the old system based on farm acreage to “public funding for public goods” – rewarding farmers for carrying out important environmental work. Compensation for lost output will now be based on income foregone. LEAF has two functions, firstly as a charity promoting Integrated Farm Management and secondly as a marque for food produced under LEAF standards.
Jeremy Padfield and his business partner Rob Addicott, farm about 1000 acres of the land under Higher Level Stewardship Agreements of which 80 acres are specifically conservation managed for wildlife. Their combined Duchy farms became LEAF demonstration farms in 2006. Over subsequent years soil organic matter averages out at around 5%; no insecticides have been used within the last 5 years; weed killing is targeted only reactively; antibiotic use has been reduced by 58% and plastic use is down by 60%. Minimum tillage leads to a 68% drop in fuel consumption; water is intensively managed and stored, and solar energy meets much of the needs of the farm buildings. As well as wider wildlife field margins, Stratton Farms have been experimenting with skylark plots and wide strips of wildflowers and companion plants through the crops. Additionally, 20 acres of trees and 2000 metres of hedgerow have been planted.
This may sound like a revival of traditional farming, but what makes it profitable is the use of very hi-tech equipment like drones with three yearly intensive soil testing and highly technical GPS delivery systems which have dramatically reduced the amount of artificial fertilizer applied to the soil.
The most memorable illustration of the evening was when he took an apple to represent the earth and then cut successive slices away to represent otherwise unprofitable land. The proportion left on which food crops could be grown turned out to be breathtakingly tiny. A well attended talk which drew together the threads of shared interest that unite farmers, environmentalists and consumers.
Dave Pole – report to Bath Natural History Society.
Impressive stuff, we thought – as seemingly most of the members present agreed. However when I checked on the DEFRA website, some of the subsidies looked pretty minimal – the best example being the skylark nesting patches for which they would receive just £10. Lapwings come in quite a bit higher. Just how much admin time it would take to replicate the old EU subsidies, or whether it’s even possible is a moot point. If these measures are not properly funded then the government will be expecting farmers to fund environmental improvement of the land from their own pockets. That would be a good deal easier for a farmer on 2000 hectares of prime land than for a small mixed farmer with just a couple of hectares of grassland in the middle of a SSSI.
Then, shockingly, the Observer this weekend featured a piece on the present state of the replacement farm subsidies being managed by DEFRA. It’s almost unbelievable, but only .44% – less than half a percent of the sum set aside has actually been paid! There was no detail on which farms and farmers had actually received their payments, but one regenerative farmer reported a 48% fall in government payments.
I’m beginning to wonder whether the undeclared policy of the government is to do precisely what those West Penwith Farmers fear most – drive them off their land in order to achieve heaven knows what objectives. After a recent edition of Countryfile on the BBC featuring the mining of lithium and selecting Cornwall as a prime area for reviving the (all kneel please) economy , I wrote to the BBC complaining that there had been no spokesperson opposing the extension of this wasteful and polluting process. If joining the dots is the only way to figure out what this government actually wants to do with the countryside I’d say that on present evidence their policy amounts to greenwashing the continuation of an extractive economy which has brought the environment to the brink of destruction.
“‘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.
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.