How to change the world

If only it were so easy. I was originally going to call this post “The morning after”, if only because, having done a fair bit of research and finding several target species I wanted to emphasise the fact that as sure as night follows day, there’s always a stack of work to do. I was feeling mightily pleased with myself and I envisaged myself cantering towards the finishing line and pressing the send button on the reporting software. Pleased, that is, until I started to look more closely at the photos.

I’m very used to the dead hand of confirmation bias when I’m out and about looking for a particular plant. I find something that looks a bit like it and instantly every nerve strains towards putting the tick in the box; even – or perhaps especially when there’s something that doesn’t quite fit the frame. As I was writing that sentence I thought of one of my most forensic, and therefore valuable tutors at theological college who would seize on the slightest mention of any hard work that had gone into the draft sermon I’d just delivered and say – “really Dave; no-one wants to listen to you pissing from the pulpit!”

Bugle – Ajuga reptans

Indeed not, but I hope I’m making a point of general interest here. Point one is that there are an awful lot of little white flowers around at this time of the year. They’re often quite tiny and inconspicuous and I usually have to prostrate myself with a hand lens and take a closer look. Point two is that a phone camera with a decent zoom capability is the most useful gadget in the world for recording a pile of information you didn’t notice at the time you were squinting at the specimen, but discover you desperately need when you start leafing through the 1266 pages of Stace 4 (no pictures) at home. Macro photos are so immensely useful for identification that I even bought a little clip-on macro lens which makes life even easier.

Nonetheless, the morning after feeling creeps in like mental wet rot as you stare at the photos and realize that in the cold light of day, Hairy Bittercress; Alpine Pennycress, Dwarf Mouse Ear, Common Whitlow Grass and even Barren Strawberry look like – how shall I put this delicately? – cousins, and my report if I ever send it will be seasoned with doubts. Today at a Bath Nats meeting I shared some of those doubts with a really ace botanist; so good he can enlarge at any length you like on the 275 plus subspecies of Blackberry. I say I shared, but as soon as he discerned the drift of the conversation he paled visibly and offered to look at my emails in the same tone of voice you might use to say ‘you must come round for supper some time’ – with not the least intention of specifying an actual date.

So maybe it would be better to have walked on by and enjoyed the lovely skies last week; but here’s the point. After you’ve sat and struggled with an ID for a while, the world becomes an infinitely richer place. Instead of noticing the little white flower and passing by, you now understand that it could be one of … who knows; it could be hundreds! Suddenly the world needs to expand to accommodate this new piece of knowledge because now there are five new friends where there was once only one.

Changing the world, especially at the moment, seems like a fruitless and depressing waste of emotional energy but changing it just by making it bigger, more diverse and more beautiful than it was before, is achievable. These little white flowers aren’t especially rare, although they can sometimes survive in a place that no other living thing could survive in. However they are under threat and whilst I’ve no pretensions about my own modest abilities, we footsoldiers; the botanical infantry if you like, can record them so that they can’t become rare or even extinct without someone noticing.

“Do not go gentle into that good night” – first, clear up the mess in your head!

The vandalizing of the allotment at Christmas knocked the stuffing out of us. Aside from the feelings of vulnerability which are inevitable, I suppose, the replacement toughened glass for the greenhouse has been difficult to source and the whole area inside and out needs clearing of broken shards. The polytunnel – less than a year old – is now patched with tape. In fact we were so knocked off course I mooted the idea of giving up the allotment and working as volunteers in a community garden – it’s fair to say that one didn’t go well with Madame. We discussed whether to step back and grow more perennials and fruit, which need far less attention, so we could spend more time away in the campervan. That was one of the underlying reasons for trial renting the cottage in Cornwall; selling the van would pay for a lot of holidays.

On the other hand, the campervan brings us the freedom to travel as and when we feel like it, without booking months ahead; and it’s bought and paid for – although storage, maintenance, tax and insurance can mount up unpredictably. A van is a very costly bit of kit – especially when it’s sitting outside in the rain rotting away gently at roughly the same speed as we’re getting older. Two years of lockdown had given us plenty of time to reflect on what the van gives us, and it’s clear that it’s become essential to us. When we’re away we sleep better, walk and explore more. I treasure the time and space to turn on my botanical eyes so that plants I’ve never seen before suddenly become visible. We find time to talk and reflect and – if I’m honest – carouse and drink wine and abandon the ghastly effort of acting our age. You can’t do this when your children (and grandchildren) are around because it makes them cringe!

The net result of the holiday was a kind of mixture because we decided that we would keep the van and try to take much more time away in it, as well as carrying on with the allotment and on meeting up with friends we’ve not seen for two years. Last week we lashed out on 4 new tyres and windscreen wiper blades – they hadn’t been replaced in over a decade, and a new (yet to be installed) WiFi aerial and router to get over the constant lack of signal when we’re out in the wilds. In any case the old satellite dish is so enormous we look like a TV outside broadcast van in spite of the fact that – large as it is – it can’t see past a tree with leaves on.

I think any allotmenteer will recognise that feeling when the plot isn’t going well and you almost dread the thought of going to it. As a seasonal (winter) melancholic I often have to force myself to get off my backside and do some work. On the other hand any allotmenteer will recognise that once the work is in progress there’s a tremendous sense of wellbeing: why ever did I make such a fuss? you ask.

Truth to tell, though, I think it was the greenhouse bringing me back to life

Yesterday the sun shone and we went to the plot where I cleaned up the mess in the greenhouse while Madame weeded and tended the polytunnel. Safety glass shatters into a million fragments and so kneeling in a confined space with so many sharp edges around needed extra care; however after a couple of hours the greenhouse was clean, safe, and relatively tidy and I was surrounded by reminders of past seasons like root trainers – empty and stacked neatly in their containers. Is there a psychological term for that warmth that spread through me as I worked there? Previous notions to replace the glass with polycarbonate sheets seemed to fade and I began to think – ‘let’s replace and restore it properly, otherwise the vandals win. It’s depressing seeing the greenhouse, shrink wrapped in weed control mat, bits of black polythene and duct tape, so let’s bring it fully back to life.’ Truth to tell, though, I think it was the greenhouse bringing me back to life. As we worked there in our usual contemplative silence it was obvious that the allotment was as essential to us as the campervan. Madame had a long conversation with a fellow allotmenteer whose home built polytunnel had also been slashed and he told her that watering for us while we were away in the summer was an especial pleasure because the perfume of the ripening melons, basil and tomatoes filled the tunnel. As soon as we got home I turned to the photos on the laptop and I knew that there’s no way we we can thrive without growing food. Without the allotment we shrink; our souls starve.

We’re growing old, so there’s not so much time left we can afford to waste any of it. We’ve been inseparable since we met when Madame was fifteen and the prospect of our eventual infirmity and even separation hangs over us. The earth, our earth, becomes more precious as we share in her processes and dimly understand her grace and complexity, and although this might sound counterintuitive to a much younger person, it gives us comfort. We can’t win the environmental battle without a revolution fired by collective action. So long as we’re governed by wilfully stupid, squalid, and greedy governments none of the actions we know we need to carry out, will happen. Lying awake at night in a fury because they have just licenced the use of poisonous neonicotinoids to protect sugar beet – and who needs reminding that excess sugar consumption is killing and maiming millions of people? – well, it’s a waste of emotional energy.

So long as we have our wits, and enough physical energy to do it we’ll grow food and travel whenever we can so that we can record and enjoy the natural world in all its ludicrous generosity; write about it, photograph it and draw it. What’s happening to the earth demands witnesses because without witnesses there will be no time of reckoning. So no – we won’t be going anywhere quietly, thanks!

Positively the last post on Cornwall (for now!)

I took these strikingly post-industrial photographs on the beach at Porthoustock on the Lizard Peninsula last week. The beach there is completely dominated by the huge brutalist silo – now disused – that was a part of the St Keverne quarry. The quarry still operates in a small way as you can see from the top left picture of a working excavator, and by the look of the pile of crushed stone, seems to be excavating roadstone. The local granite is apparently coarse grained and often used in sea walls and such like much of it going to South Wales.

While we were there we fell into conversation with a threesome of divers – all retired – who were looking for a suitable clubhouse in the area. The talk ran down familiar tracks; litter, dogshit, tourism, housing crisis and so forth. They mistakenly identified the silo as having to do with tin mining but I think it would have contained thousands of tons of crushed stone waiting to be loaded into the kind of small ships that could pull alongside at high tide. The ports, visible from rust stains at the side, would have discharged stone straight into the boats.

There was a turn when we discussed whether the small quarrying operation was actually removing the whole headland – it is, apparently, in the face of some local opposition – and this conversational thread led to the chronic unemployment in the area, and whether lithium mines would be a boon or an environmental menace. The key moment came when one of them said – “of course we’re all retired and so we don’t have to worry about jobs. Our instincts would be to insist that nothing changes here – it’s why we moved here in the first place.”

I don’t think for a moment that they were being as selfish as that statement implies. What I think was being expressed is the ongoing paradox of living in a wildlife paradise, surrounded by beautiful views when the local people are living in demonstrable poverty caused by inflated house prices and high unemployment mitigated only by seasonal and poorly paid work.

I did a lot of work running writers groups in the Welsh Valleys during and after the miners’ strike. You could taste the anger and depression being caused by the deliberate destruction of their culture. Now, of course, we’re trying to end coal mining altogether – and nobody worth listening to is contesting the significance of climate change; but the move to sustainable, renewable energy could have been, and now must be managed through huge investment in the retraining of local people to take on skilled, well paid jobs in a greener future.

Halfway marker on Porthallow beach

On the beach there, we saw the paradox that must be faced. Simply knocking down all traces of an old and proud culture and filling the empty space with second holiday homes and caravan parks would contribute nothing to the problem. There amidst the ruins, we saw a buzzard feeding on the remains of a dead fish. The place is alive with wildlife, and of course these post industrial sites are often nature’s hotspots. I know I’ve got a bit of a thing about this kind of landscape. It comes from growing up in an exactly similar area in Gloucestershire, where one or two of our neighbours were retired coal miners, and a couple of the pits were still in operation. We had pipeworks, brickworks and – looking much further back – names relating to the woolen industry. I spent days with my friend Eddie, tracing the old dram road that brought coal from Coalpit Heath to the river Avon. I was delighted to discover that Cornwall and Gloucestershire once shared what’s known in linguistics as a soft mutation – tram roads were always spoken of as dram roads. I felt very much at home on that beach! A handful of fishing boats and the small quarry were a sign that the culture is clinging on. Further up the coast towards Falmouth we watched a large fishing boat seine netting in the bay from Porthallow beach.

I took the pictures below in 2009, in the remains of one of the abandoned tin mines on the north coast. The technicolour stains on the cliff are a permanent reminder of the poisonous effluents that accompanied tin and copper mining. The furnaces in which the ores were extracted must have been terrifying; a real-life vision of what may yet turn out to be the end of the world. A group of volunteers have restored the old steam powered beam engine – it was an awesome sight. Naturally – or, in fact, unnaturally – we could erase the buildings and make the area ‘profitable’ by building second homes or industrial estates; but to wander through those derelict acres of ruined land – which are by now being reclaimed by wildlife and specialist plants of real importance – is the best way of telling the story of the industrial revolution in a way that lays bare the downside – the greedy and extractive ruination of a whole county by unfettered capitalism. Beneath the surface of the impoverished soil, even the fungi and bacteria are doing the work of remediating the damage that our ancestors caused.

Is there any way forward so long as Cornwall is mismanaged from London by politicians and civil servants who have no connection or knowledge of its history and culture? Bring on regional government, I say, and for goodness sake don’t even think about creating a regional structure that attempts to join Cornwall with Devon. Bishop Trelawny would rise from his grave! Cornwall is as much a country as Wales.

Marmalade, damson ketchup and dodgy arguments fill my days

In don’t usually write in the kitchen but there’s no option because I’m reducing some damson ketchup in a pan that’s incredibly prone to burning. Yesterday it was the great marmalade re-boiling after it failed to set on Wednesday. That was entirely my own fault because conned into three for two deal at the supermarket I ended up making – or rather not making – 27 lbs of marmalade in one batch. This is not something I’d recommend because it was far too much to cook in one pan and I finished up like a man dancing on hot coals – racing, thermal probe in hand, between one pan and the other which diluted my attention to detail. I love my thermometer because 104.5C is a number that feels pleasingly precise. However boiling marmalade – I would have known if I’d thought about it – always displays a variety of temperatures depending on how recently I stirred the pan, and which part of the pan I plunged it into. Normally – i.e. with an acceptably sized batch – I would check the set with a cold saucer.

I knew something was wrong even while I was filling the jars. It was all too liquid for my liking but sometimes when you’re tired it’s easier to rise above the facts and so it all went out to the chilly hallway last night and when I checked early in the morning it was almost as liquid as when it went in. I must have undershot the setting point by at least 4C. Nothing for it, then, than to laboriously scrape the whole lot out of its jars; wash and dry them all with their lids and then do the job properly. One cold night later, they’re perfectly good and properly set after removing at least a couple of pints of excess water during the second boiling.

The damson ketchup was down to Madame who pretty much used the last remaining couple of spoonfuls on her scrambled egg this morning, and reminded me that we had some bags of damsons in the freezer. The bait was dangled and I took it! Damsons are, what my mother used to call a bit of a beezer when it comes to removing the stones, but once they’ve been frozen you can much more easily remove the stones with a squeeze between thumb and finger. The stick blender that we got ten or more years ago as a £5 special offer, has become one of the most indispensable tools in the kitchen. It’s much better for soups and purees than the Magimix which is so old now, the bowl is held together with black gaffer tape to prevent it spraying hot liquid out through the cracks.

And so here I am, eyes watering as the vinegar evaporates, and waiting for the sauce to reach just the right consistency for getting it out of the bottle without resorting to skewers and long spoons. It’s really worth the effort, this sauce. When I first saw the (Delia Smith) recipe I thought it was a bit counterintuitive, but you can always measure the success of a recipe by the speed it gets eaten. Cornish pasties, for instance, go Premier League with a splash of it. And so there it is, bubbling away quietly on the stove behind me while I meditate on whether jamming, chutney and sauce making and pickling come under the heading of cooking, or ritual.

I write the distinction down because (due to the generosity of the Chelsea Green Publishing Co’s Christmas discount) I’ve come across a writer I’d never heard of. His name is – or rather was – David Fleming and somehow he seemed to have been writing about about sixty odd years of my life experiences. I fell first on the shorter book – assembled from the much larger dictionary, which I also bought. I would, by the way, nominate Chelsea Green as my personal publisher of the year because I’ve read so many of their books and learned so much from them. Anyway the shorter book is called “Surviving the Future” and my experience of reading it was rather like meeting a complete stranger at a party and getting on so well with them you’re finishing their sentences after an hour. However – and here’s the catch – what if that compelling new acquaintance suddenly, and out of the blue, makes a shocking remark. In this instance it was a quotation from Roger Scruton a profoundly irritating right wing philosopher who said this:

….. Mass immigration of people who actually don’t identify with the surrounding community would take [the local culture] away, and of course that is a problem we’re all facing.

Roger Scruton on Any Questions – BBC Radio 4, 2006.

Where to start? The Potwell Inn – even though it’s an entirely fictional conceit – has a context. It’s in the City of Bath, UK and we’re about as polyglot a community as you could ever hope to live in. I won’t even try to list the nationalities of our neighbours because it would be a long and tedious retelling of a marvellous cultural mix. Do we feel in the least diluted by the fact we can buy and eat ingredients from, let’s say, a dozen cultures all within walking distance? No! Is language so very much of a barrier? No! Do I want to regress to the kind of fantasy sovereignty dreamed of by brexiters? Not on your nelly! Our immigrant neighbours add immeasurably to the richness of life here and we love having them around. Nuff said then?

Here’s the thing. If a book is 98% full of brilliant and insightful material but quotes one wholly unacceptable philosopher (I use that word loosely) – should I stop reading? Well I think not; but before I join the adoring band of followers I’ll certainly want to read the rest of the book with my critical faculties turned on, because one thing I am completely sure of is that as the climate catastrophe builds, we’re going to accept responsibility for our role in it and that will mean welcoming many more immigrants. I for one will be pleased to share my recipe for damson ketchup with anyone that can teach me how to make falafel without them exploding in the oil!

Actually I do think of jamming, pickling and preserving as an annual ritual that holds the year together. Solstice and equinox, seasons and carnivals have their place too, and as far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier. I could have mentioned similarly upsetting quotations about hunting but Madame thinks that would be opening a wholly unnecessary battle. The fact is, not all traditions, rituals and so-called ways of life should be taken forward into the future. We need to choose which bits of the old ways we need for a very different kind of future from the last two hundred years of extractive extravagance. Going back to the good old days (which were never that good anyway) won’t be on the menu.

Three pints of damson ketchup cooling down. The glass of wine is not a prop – or perhaps it is!

Tidings of comfort and joy!

Well I will write a little about our Christmas at the Potwell Inn – which went extremely well; everyone behaved themselves and we had some great time with our family. I can also write a bit more about our attempt to feed ourselves from local and ethical sources. The almost inevitable criticism of locally, sustainable, ethical and organic food is that for every added adjective there’s another substantial markup in the price – and it’s true; there’s no denying it, and if price, disregarding any other consideration, is the final arbiter – there’s no argument either. However the other side to the argument is that the adjective laden local etc. etc. food not only fulfills an ethical, environmental and economic function; it almost always goes further and tastes far better plus it’s healthier in every sense. The catchall argument that cheaper is necessarily better is at the heart of a collapsing environment.

But that’s enough theorizing – we grow our own vegetables as far as we possibly can and trust me the premium in flavour is not some kind of placebo effect. We buy locally produced milk from a machine in the market and, because it’s low temperature pasteurised and not homogenized but treated just sufficiently to get past the regulatory hurdles it’s perceptibly better. The commodification of milk has resulted in an inferior product that carries a big carbon footprint and depends upon the exploitation of sentient creatures. We get better tasting milk, the cows get a better life and the farmer earns a sustainable income from the business.

The same trade off applies exactly to much of the food we manage to source locally, and the tragedy is that if governments across the world transferred the subsidies presently paid to fossil fuel industries mining coal and oil, to sustainable farming we’d all be able to eat better quality food for less while tackling environmental degradation, atmospheric pollution and the climate catastrophe at the same time.

However what’s really on my mind is the fact that we were attacked by vandals on the allotment over Christmas and they trashed our greenhouse, smashed the shed window as well as poking holes through the polytunnel. They also damaged three other allotment plots. I don’t want to start building any simple narratives about this. Anger, hatred and revenge are paralysing distractions when there’s so much we need to be getting on with.

These are strange times indeed; and on Boxing day we were sitting in the flat with four of our extended family, taking lateral flow tests and consulting the NHS app on mobile phones. Of all the things we might have imagined two years ago at the beginning of this pandemic, a game of self-testing would have seemed ridiculous. What’s truly worrying is that our society seems to be breaking down not just at street level but at the very top as well. It recalls the Chinese curse – may you live in interesting times!

Trying to protect the earth from our own collective greed and stupidity sometimes feels like trying to row the Atlantic in a coracle. As Thomas Edison once said – Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration – but perspiration without vision is a treadmill – so let’s keep the vision going!

Who’s the big cheese around here?

Gatt talks, WTO tariffs and trading partnerships all sound a bit remote – at least they do to me – until, that is, – I start to wonder where we’re heading with our grip on global climate change, atmospheric pollution, biodiversity loss, food policy, the obesity crisis; zoonotic pandemics, and feel free to add any other candidates. The official government line on all this is to stick its fingers in its ears and shout lalalalalalalalala as loud as it possibly can. Scientists?? pifflewaffle; we know what we think and we think what we know! The great joy of knowing the answer before you’ve even formulated the question is the amount of time it releases for doing more fun things.

Anyway, I listened to a programme on the radio last evening about Flann O’Brien’s novel “The third Policeman” and whilst thinking about bicycles (if you’ve read it you’ll know!) I remembered a theory I formulated many decades ago when I was studying ceramics. My lecturers, with the exception of the saintly David Green (the rest deserve to remain anonymous) regarded my interest in the science and technology of firing clay and decorating with glazes as a dangerous diversion from the main task of being creative. I simply couldn’t understand how I was supposed to create anything without the knowledge of the chemistry and the physics that made things possible. The alternative was the opposite of creativity because it limited you to flicking through magazines and catalogues and making things with readymade ideas and readymade materials. I paid for my interest with a drinker’s degree but with some grasp of what you could do with mud and fire.

So my theory was simple. The sum of human knowledge is accessible from any single point you might start out from rather as a bicycle wheel is supported and rendered strong and functional not by a single spoke but by a multitude of spokes radiating from the centre. A pHd in the study of one spoke will leave you as powerless as when you began. Beginning with hand made ceramics at the centre of the hub I was able to explore chemistry, physics, history, industrial and domestic design, the economic geography of the Midlands; geology – of course – and the evolution of industrial ceramics; and that’s not to mention Chinese, Korean and Japanese ceramics through their history and bearing in mind the religious cultures in which they were situated. Altogether a marvellous complement to the business of creatively expressing the idea of being human through mud, fire and human hands.

It seems to me that the same bicycle wheel analogy can be applied to any or all of the challenges I outlined in the first paragraph. Yes I’m an allotmenteer but also I’m a cook, a writer, a parent, a partner, a shopper and a human being struggling to discover how best to be human in this strange century. So all the old disciplines come back again, because to understand what’s going on it’s not enough to follow a single spoke. We need sound grasp of all of them if we’re to deal creatively with the challenges – otherwise, as my argument suggests, we are chained to endlessly repeating old and (as we now know) ineffective solutions.

What would an ecologically virtuous form of traditional mixed farming and local food chains actually look like

Let’s take cheese as a starting point – no surprise there then! The wheel of thunderous raw milk Cheddar or the block of its industrial, cling wrapped namesake share some features but it’s the differences that really count. To take an interest in cheesemaking necessitates taking an interest in farming and demands that we consider the carbon footprint of dairy farming. The two cousins may share a common ancestor but they grew up in different cultures, thriving and failing in different economic structures. They each have roots in many other questions – not least how should we feed ourselves without destroying the earth? What should we do with the waste products? Is it possible to feed the population without resorting to industrial farming with its chemicals? Can we even afford the additional expense of time and human labour if we turn our backs on the feedlot and the intensive dairy operations? Can we afford not to? What would an ecologically virtuous form of traditional mixed farming and local food chains actually look like?

We’ve become so reliant on technological solutions for complex problems that we’re shunting lethal earth-threatening events down the line awaiting the arrival of the uninvented as if technology were like the Seventh Cavalry – always appearing over the hill in the nick of time. The reality is that we’re locked in the cabin of an aeroplane that’s plunging earthwards while the crew argue about which button to press.

There will be ways of changing our bearing and finding a way through the challenges but it will demand the understanding and collaboration of the sociology and economics, psychology, agricultural and horticultural sciences and political structures in order to untangle the threads that have created this disaster. But most of all this can’t be an imposed solution without the input of farmers and the food distribution networks; of consumers and – dare I say – the thousands of workers who depend on ultra processed food production for jobs. A bicycle with a one spoked wheel is suitable only for leaning against walls.

I had a friend who was a keen amateur cyclist and once or twice he tuned my bike wheels in order to remove a kink acquired in a pothole. The sensitivity required as he turned the spoke spanner tiny amounts was amazing. Every twist on one spoke would demand a tweek somewhere else – it took ages; and so it will be as we try to deal with the crises we’re facing. The devil will always be in the detail.

not so much an orchestra as a rather poor beggar playing Annie Laurie on a school fiddle

The crisis of end stage capitalism has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. Basic foodstuffs have been so commodified that they have no relation even to the country, let alone the county of origin. Commodified milk, for instance is often sold at below the cost of production and I remember well a dairy worker telling me that when one chain wanted to depress the farm gate prices they began importing milk from Poland which, by the time it finally arrived was beginning to turn. This doesn’t matter much because, as a result of lobbying pressure from the largest producers, all milk has to be pasteurised to such an extent that the friendly natural yeasts, bacteria and microbes on which regional artisan cheeses depend for their unique flavours are all dead. So then they have to add one or more industrial starter cultures. Unsurprisingly, most commercial Cheddars taste much the same – not so much an orchestra as a rather poor beggar playing Annie Laurie on a school fiddle.

Where the trade agreements come into this is that the big producers have found it easy to crush artisan cheesemakers by imposing regulations that destroy the handmade product. The fightback has been fierce, beginning with the trumped up charge that raw milk cheeses were quite likely to infect you with Listeria. It took a titanic battle to prove that traditional raw milk cheese production – when done properly – is actually less likely to give you Listeriosis because all those naughty microbes are able to create an environment that’s hostile to Listeria. It’s just that you should avoid raw milk cheeses and soft blue cheeses if you’re pregnant or immunocompromised.

I’m sorry to have focused on cheese, but the same thing exactly goes on with cattle breeding – most high yield grain fed cattle are too closely related to one another due to the international trade in bull semen. Consequently many cattle are born sick and need copious amounts of prophylactic antibiotics just to stay alive. Traditional herbal remedies, many used effectively for centuries, have been driven off the shelves because the producers can’t afford the huge costs of testing and registration. In fact, as I’ve been reading about the scandalous results of the actions of agrochemical industries, big pharma and intensive farming and their relationships with industrial and ultra processed food.

The commodification of the food chain in order to drive down prices is the principal engine of almost every challenge we face. Cheap ultra processed food makes us sick while it drives ecological and climate devastation and, worse still, is the fact that it’s only cheap because we the longsuffering taxpayers subsidise it; throw money at it. There’s only one way forward and that’s to turf out governments that refuse to take this problem seriously; to bear down hard on the industries that spend billions on lobbying (more than 500 fossil fuel lobbyists were members of official delegations at COP26! – let alone the big pharma and agrochemical lobby), and to regulate fairly to protect and promote sustainable agriculture within local food chains. If we were to remove the subsidies for junk food and apply them to genuine producers we’d see the price differential close dramatically.

Do I sound cross? ….. you’ve no idea !!!!

Creative intervention in Bath draws the crowds

Out on our walk today we came across this contribution to the COP26 meeting. These interventions can sometimes be a bit preachy but this one conveys a powerful message with a touch of humour. Whatever the means we didn’t hear any negative comments from the gathered crowd. The placement, immediately between the iconic Pulteney Bridge and the weir which is regularly submerged during winter floods, is a prophetic take on what might easily happen if nothing is done to curb runaway climate change. When it’s in spate the river is truly menacing and the Council is spending millions on flood prevention on a river that’s also highly polluted by sewage discharges and run off from intensive farmland. With just a few days to go before COP26 this intervention just about sums it all up. It’s a brilliant collaboration between the architects Stride Treglown and artist Anna Gillespie. What we need now is an earthquake in Downing Street – metaphorically speaking of course!

“HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME”

A little literary tease!

So we were wandering back from the market clutching a refillable bottle of locally produced milk from a dispenser and I wasn’t getting any pleasure at all from it. The phrase grass fed cows ought to have pressed the endorphin button – wherever that might be found; but it didn’t. This feeling has been creeping up for weeks now and it’s come to a head, leaving me feel cranky and sad. Of course there are explanations. I don’t like these days of declining daylight and deteriorating weather – who would? – but by nature I’m an enthusiastic sort of person; I get excited by new ideas and grand projects.

The spiritual abscess came to a head and burst as I listened to a radio programme about COP 26 at lunchtime. The crisis we’re facing, the (carefully chosen) experts seemed to be saying, is no less soluble than any other technological challenge. A few bright scientists and engineers and a pile of state investment eagerly swallowed up by declining industries, will save the earth in the blink of an eye. Money, technology and investment opportunities will ride over the hill like the Seventh Cavalry and save the earth. The earth herself was never mentioned, so excited were the prospective saviours.

I was re-reading Ann Pettifor’s “The case for the green new deal” this morning and in her introductory section she makes the sensible but challenging observation that

At the same time , environmentalists have treated the ecosystem for too long as almost independent of the dominant economic system based on deregulated, globalized finance

But it’s worse than that, I think. Those of us who are concerned for the future of the earth all too often hitch our hopes on to one specialised aspect of the problem – change our diets, regenerative farming, end animal cruelty, save the trees and campaign furiously and largely ineffectively for our tiny corner of the problem. And if you say to me – ‘well you do pretty much the same, going on about allotments and moths and buying one or two things from the local farmers market’ – I’d have to plead guilty as charged. In my moments of enthusiasm I can half convince myself that the Potwell Inn allotment is part of a movement that’s saving the earth – as I once read – “one cabbage at a time”. Change can seem almost more attractive from the bottom up – especially when you’re governed by those wholly owned servants of finance and industry, known in this country as members of parliament. But, like the unhelpful advice that if we were going to get to zero carbon we wouldn’t want to start from here, there isn’t time to row back to a more propitious starting point. There’s so much at stake I could weep with frustration when I read that the Department of the Environment’s best advice is to fill some more sandbags and put the chairs on the table when it rains; or that Boris Johnson is pouring yet more money into nuclear power stations that take decades to design and build and aeons to make safe afterwards.

While I long for the day that the last feedlot shuts down and Bayer/Monsanto go bankrupt because no-one wants their filth any more; that’s never going to happen by tinkering around with a few regulations. The action that’s needed is both dramatic and quite frightening, and it involves a fundamental change in our culture, our politics, our food chains, our transport and above all the economic power of transnational finance. Anything less than such a fundamental change will fail.

Now I know how to grow carrots and lettuce; I can cook, bake bread, pickle and preserve along with the best of them. I can shop locally and walk whenever I can’t use public transport, and more; but I don’t think that entitles me to feel complacent or virtuous. The bare minimum level of citizenship is to live as ethically as the system allows, to invest our savings (if there are any) in areas that can change the future for the better, and to get sufficiently involved in this fragile democracy to compel governments to get green or get out! It’s an overwhelming agenda.

So that’s why I’m feeling flat – because I don’t know much about international finance except that it doesn’t care if thousands of people starve so long as the money rolls in. I would love to be able to suggest that another million allotmenteers could save the earth, and I truly believe that the more people grow their own food the better they’ll understand the fact that all life comes from the sun and the earth; and every leaf and blade of grass is a miraculously efficient solar panel.

Should I worry that perhaps some who’ve struggled through this jeremiad might think I’m over egging the problem? – that readers might drift away and look for comfort from more carroty bloggers? But that’s not me. I lament every single reader who pulls the plug on me but, at the end of the day – and we’re terrifyingly close to it – if we don’t embrace the challenge – things will get worse – so much worse!

Digging the dirt – could do better

No doubt this derelict shack will be appearing on AirBnb sometime soon but all that glitters is not gold.

There’s a huge difference between running cattle and sheep on 5000 hectares (12,300 acres) and growing vegetables on an allotment; but the starting point is exactly the same – earth.

Having allowed my imagination to run free in the last couple of posts, it’s time to get back down to some allotment basics – after all, one of my principal aims for this holiday was to get stuck into some serious reading about regenerative farming. I certainly got stuck at first but switched course and now I’m beginning to think that I ought to make a proper list of the books I’ve been reading so readers can join me in the journey. I’ve now just about finished reading Gabe Brown’s “Dirt into soil” and although it’s hardly aimed at our 200 square metres of allotment and is really slanted towards mixed farming with grazing animals, it cleared up a few mysteries for me and turned my thoughts about soil improvement completely upside down. It’s also given me a much clearer perspective on what is, and what isn’t regenerative farming and since our UK government is talking the talk about changing agricultural practices it’s up to us to make sure they’re also walking the walk. After all for a government that announces it’s going to move towards carbon zero and then announces it’s considering opening a new coal mine – followed by the assertion that we’ll need more nuclear power stations – this isn’t an encouraging start.

Until now I’ve always thought of soil improvement as largely a matter of adding lots and lots of compost. We started off committed to organic gardening and then, a couple of years ago we went no-dig as well. This last season we grew a variety of insect pollinators and companion plants alongside the vegetables in all our beds, and it’s gone well – and with the pond we’ve had vastly more visiting insects. Of course we’ve changed so many variables and the weather has been so random, we’ve only got anecdotal evidence that our changes have worked but we’re pretty sure that the following strategies worked:

  • Netting all the alliums from sowing to harvest with fine insect net
  • Using nasturtium to draw blackfly away from food crops
  • Sowing Calendula and Tagetes on most beds
  • Butterfly and bird netting all the brassicas

Sadly the expensive treatment with nematodes had little impact on the slugs, and the beer traps sheltered more slugs underneath than drowned in the beer.

The asparagus was spared the heavy beetle attacks that we’ve had in the past, and given that our near neighbour had his plants devastated it looks as if the border of calendula and the increased parasitic insect population may have helped. I’ve written a lot about our liability to waterlog in the winter – partly due to underground streams. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort digging woodchip filled paths between the beds to drain the water away and the two worst affected beds came through the winter very well. We’ve also added grit and sand in the worst places along with masses of compost and leaf mould. The upshot has been that our need to water in dry spells has greatly decreased. We escaped the blight with resistant varieties and early cropping of the container potatoes so, looking back it’s been a pretty successful season most of which was spent battling against a headwind of adverse weather.

If you’re still with me, you’ll have noticed that every single effort to improve our earth has been via applications to the top surface. What the Gabe Brown book – and all the others I’ve been reading – brought to the top of my thoughts was to see what’s going on under the surface, and the usefulness of ground cover crops during the winter, so that the plants go on feeding the soil through their roots all year round. And there’s the revolution, because most of us instinctively think of plants as a kind of one way street for water and nutrients when in fact they’re completely biologically interlocked with billions of soil organisms which, in return for carbon in the form of photosynthesised sugars, provide the plants with many of the micronutrients they need to grow and thrive. All this mutual aid is conducted through the truly huge mycorrhizal networks that wrap the roots and occasionally even grow inside them. Plants send signals seeking specific nutrients and the fungal networks ship them in. The astonishing discoveries of science now tell us that the creation of soil can be much faster than we originally thought and that in contrast to the received wisdom that everything goes on from above, soil creation is as much concerned with the recovery of nutrients from the subsoil. Soil can actually grow from below. This is a vast simplification but it has big implications for the way we grow plants, because these networks – having evolved over millions of years – mean that we can no longer think of what goes on underground as separate from the plant we harvest. Soil microbes have the astonishing ability to break down subsoil and rock and dissolve the essential nutrients in a way that’s barely understood. We need to start seeing our crops as giant solar energy farms, converting carbon dioxide into food through the process of photosynthesis.

So when we add artificial fertilisers to a crop the plants just grab up the 25% of the fertiliser they can use and the rest goes into the soil and gets washed into our polluted rivers. Worse still, the plants get lazy and just go for the industrialised fast food and the sugar/carbon trading mechanisms get broken. When we drench the soil with insecticides and herbicides exactly the same thing happens. Industrial farmers and gardeners then start to try to make up the deficiencies with more additives and chemicals. The other way we break those mycorrhizal connections is by digging and turning the soil, and these relationships are precisely the mechanism by which carbon gets stored in the earth.

So farmers, gardeners and allotmenteers, not to mention every other human being on earth have a common cause in not ploughing, tilling and digging; not using artificial fertilisers and not using chemicals. What ought to be the good news for farmers in particular is that chemicals and diesel oil are increasingly expensive and eat into profit margins – plus, the premium value of the produce from regenerative farms means better profits. What’s not to like?

Here’s the downside. It looks as if the agrochemical business and their captive bureaucrats in the Ministry of Agriculture are greenwashing as usual in pushing no-till, direct drilling supplemented by – you’ve guessed it – herbicides to kill weeds, plus the usual pesticides and fungicides which will do nothing to solve our problems. There is another way, for instance, to suppress weeds and reduce rainwater runoff, and that’s carefully calibrated cover crops.

But it’s not all good news for vegetarians and especially vegans because the very best and most efficient way of improving the soil is by doing (or not doing) all of the above plus carefully controlled grazing – sometimes known as mob grazing. This kind of approach can capture carbon in the soil far more efficiently and more quickly than by planting trees alone. Further – and I know what question will be next – controlled grazing on healthy soil means that dung, a potent source of methane when stored in lagoons and sprayed on the soil later – is quickly broken down by prodigious numbers of insects and soil organisms and feeding the soil. Not only that, by feeding cattle on their evolved diet of grass and forbs rather than industrial grain, their digestive systems function far better and the need for constant worming and antibiotics almost disappears. Meat will, of course, become much more expensive, (perhaps more realistically priced) which should please everyone with a concern for animal welfare.

Of course this won’t make catastrophic climate change go away – we’ll still have to break our addiction to oil in every other department of life – but farmers, allotmenteers and gardeners can at least do something to help, and everyone can help by supporting change, buying better rather than blaming farmers and growers and calling out politicians when they try to pull the wool over our eyes.

* “But a voice sounds in my ear. Why so fast, mortal?”

The moon rising over the apple trees behind our borrowed cottage in Lleyn

Full marks if you already know the title and author of the quotation at the top of this post. RS Thomas of course; poet and once parish priest of Aberdaron, just down the road from here. Sometimes when I feel completely dry and empty from too much reading and too many hopes squandered by politicians, RS is the one I turn to because he was one of the few poets who dared to stay in that mindspace and wrestle a blessing from it.

Coming back yesterday from our apple scrumping expedition we drank cider and sat peacefully in the sunshine, looking westwards towards Ireland. I’d struggled through the first 100 pages of Jacques Ellul’s “The Technological Society” and I was finding it difficult to see a way forward beyond his gloomy picture of a technological future that seemed to grow like a tumour; vascularizing and metastasizing until the life systems of the earth collapse. Are all the greener, more regenerative alternatives I’ve been happy to read about really just distractions from the only show in town?

We may quote here Jacques Soustelle’s well-known remark of May, 1960, in reference to the atomic bomb. It expresses the deep feeling of us all: “Since it was possible, it was necessary.” Really a master phrase for all technical evolution

Quoted in “The Technological Society”

So that Syngenta factory in Huddersfield that we drove past three years ago, and which produces Paraquat to sell in only in the developing world because it’s banned here – is it there by virtue of some iron law of technological development? How do I know what they make there? Because of a case in the High court in which they were fined £200,000 for a leak amounting to three and a half tons of the deadly stuff. How do I know what it does? Because a friend from art school committed suicide with it, and also I was once called to the bedside of a woman in hospital who was lucid and just about conscious and waiting for her organs to fatally break down. She was sedated but the nurses were in pieces.

Ellul seemed to think it was a logical error to suppose that any individual could alter the course of technological development but history has challenged his pessimistic view. In fact paraquat was responsible for so many deaths, both deliberate and accidental that it was banned across the developed world. That it’s still being made in Huddersfield is due to the continued sale of the weed killer in the developing world where, lacking regulation and safety precautions, the company wilfully allows the sale of a mortally dangerous compound. That’s no kind of iron law of technological development but a sign of corporate greed and moral failure at the same level as arms manufacturers who absolve themself from any responsibility for the use of their products to kill and maim. Printing a warning not to ingest a product on the side of a large container that will almost certainly be broken down into unmarked bottles is of no help to a semi-literate subsistence farmer.

Sixty years on from the publication of Ellul’s book we’ve experienced decades of economic growth, and nuclear weapons are way down the list of most peoples’ preoccupations. What bothers us since the Berlin wall came down is that the iron laws of history turned out to be no such thing, and the iron laws of economics have left most of us wondering what all that economic growth has actually brought us in terms of human happiness; and why is there always an enemy worth fighting a war against. And of course, now the earth’s vital systems are closing down; fatally poisoned. But only technology remains untouchable; the shape-shifting beast of the apocalypse like the one with the body of a lion and the head of a man that *Yeats saw in his vision and *RS Thomas mentions: ” …. [whose] hour come round at last,  slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Well, not so fast! RS says to himself, and weighs the power of the religious past against the power of the “spiritus mundi” – the consciousness, the culture, the spirit of the age. Are we that much in the thrall and power of a technology that watches our every move, predicts and shapes the choices we make to steer us away from dangerously insurrectionary thoughts. Do we really love that technology which impoverishes our lives and takes away jobs without the least scruple and sends the victims to the food banks. Do we really love the technology that feeds us with industrialised food that makes us sick and obese and then blames us. Do we really love the technology that disseminates lies at the speed of light and corrupts democracy. And when we talk about freedom isn’t it usually the trivial kind of freedom to choose between a dozen identical small objects of desire in a supermarket? If it looks like a turd and smells like a turd it probably is a turd and sprinkling a few sparkles on it won’t change its nature.

Of course technology’s principal beneficiaries would like us to believe that there is no alternative, but we’ve seen organic farming and gardening grow and grow. We’ve seen rewilding schemes demonstrating that life without chemicals is possible. We’ve seen regenerative farming gain serious support at government level. We’ve seen the power of vegetarians and vegans to force change in the offer of the food industry. We’ve seen the extraordinary growth of awareness of the coming linked crises of economic collapse, global climatic disaster and the mass extinction of pollinating insects. More particularly we’ve seen how nervous the industrial food complex and the agrochemical industry have become; spending millions on disputing with and then and trashing scientists who challenge their autonomy; funding fake experiments with fake results and spending more millions on lobbyists to bypass the science altogether and knobble the politicians directly.

Why shouldn’t it be true that the writing is on the wall and they know it. All epochal changes or paradigm shifts are like one economist described going bankrupt – it’s very very slow and then it’s very fast.

So now’s the time to hold fast.

And if you’ve stayed with me all these thousand or so words here’s a picture taken today at Porth Neigwl in the teeth of a south westerly gale and sheeting rain at times. Known in English as Hell’s Mouth the wide bay is the scene of innumerable shipwrecks; and reading the information board today I discovered an ironic reference to the fact that a small schooner named The Twelve Apostles was beached and completely wrecked by a fierce storm. Luckily the crew all survived. The problem is that there’s no escape from a southwesterly gale and so the ships – and there were many of them – were inexorably blown in to their doom. Can’t think of a better image of a paradigm shift!

* The WB Yeats poem that I refer to is “The Second Coming”; and RS Thomas wrote the equally marvellous poem “The Moon in Lleyn”.

%d bloggers like this: