Groundhog Day, or Ordinary Time?

No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

MEDITATION XVII Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
John Donne 

I want to start with a verse from John Donne’s 17th century poem in order to work together two threads of an argument towards a green spirituality; not a particularly ambitious attempt – which would require many more threads, but to try to lay down some markers for myself and for anyone who’s interested to read my post. Hopefully there are one or two out there in the darkness!

The significance of Donne’s meditation on our connectedness with all human life was never more significant than it is today, when it’s so under threat. The second thread, though, concerns time; our understanding of it and the way that understanding shapes our lives.

I watch the television (my grandfather always called it ‘the idiot’s lantern’ – although he was the first person in his Chiltern village to own one because he was also an inveterate early adopter. There are phrases and ideas that come up over and over again on TV – so often, in fact, that they take up residence in our minds as a dreadful kind of common sense. ‘Taking control’ is probably a good idea if you’re a passenger in a speeding car when the driver has just collapsed – but if it comes to be applied in every aspect of your life it’s a thoroughly bad one. My favourite example of this perfidious lunacy is the idea of taking control of the covid virus – after you Boris! If we really want to take control of something it makes sense to consider whether control is appropriate or even possible. King Canute demonstrated his limited powers by sitting in the path of the oncoming tide and ordering it to stop. Point taken, then. In nature, taking control can be delusional.

‘Because I’m worth it’ is another one. Why anyone except an idiot would consider that their personal appetites should override any other consideration demands an explanation. What both popular phrases demonstrate is what happens when we stray from John Donne’s insight that we stand or fall together. We are either a part of the human race in our whole lived experience, or we have become parasitic grazers of experiences that please us.

So let’s insert this dangerous selfish gene into the DNA of another idea, the idea of time. Boldly put, is the unfolding of time a kind of line that begins with the big bang and ends when the sun runs out of heat? In a sense that’s undeniable, but the timescale over which it happens is so vast as to be beyond our understanding. There are more pressing problems at hand than the cooling of the sun in millions of years time, because our concern has to be whether the earth becomes a barren wilderness within a few hundreds of years. The ultimate fate of the earth becomes an almost metaphysical argument when it’s compared with the extinctions that are pressing upon us.

The limited argument here is that ‘taking control’, ‘because I’m worth it‘, and similarly superficial slogans, have become a default defence for the destruction of the environment.

Never mind about these temporary worries, we’ll soon find a fix and we’ll all march together into Canaan where there will be food for everyone and we’ll all live forever in magic houses where robots do everything for us.

There should be a mea culpa at this point from Christian theologians for inadvertently providing the ideological weaponry for our troubles; and yes, I have read St Francis and Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhardt and Matthew Fox and all the others, but sadly they were always outsiders. Mainstream theology focused on sin, redemption and getting into heaven – popularly known as ‘pie in the sky when you die’. The idea of challenging the status quo, right here and right now, so often landed up being trumped by the thought that it didn’t much matter in the end because this miserable life was a bit naff unless you were a bishop. To put it in more academic terms, the theory of evolution plus Christian eschatology (the doctrines of the ultimate ‘last things’) leads into a linear mindset that (when the religious impulse fails) supports an ideology of endless progress towards the perfect society. It’s an entirely instrumental view of life without a shred of validity or vitality and with more in common with Marx than it does with the future of the earth.

So let’s oppose this linear, instrumental view of life with something very different. It’s worth doing this, I think, because trying to oppose the extractive ideology of the present day by offering counter facts doesn’t seem to work. The government say fracking is a great idea because we (actually it should be they) get lots of free fuel. We put up all the scientific arguments against, but nobody is listening and no-one is changing their mind because they’ve got too much invested in the way we do things round here. The agents of destruction don’t believe what they do because they are in possession of a different set of facts which we can alter by offering some better ones. They are able to do these things because their entire worldview is contained within a powerful culture. ‘Because they’re worth it‘ means they have every right to ‘take control’ because that is the law that flows from their understanding of nature.

For all practical purposes the fullest human lives are lived in a more cyclical manner. What I’m getting at is that we’ll never change the world by only pursuing counterarguments. It’s important that we carry on arguing but it’s a hopeless task because we’re always fighting on their linear, instrumental turf. They offer facts, we offer counterfacts and they offer counter-counter facts and someone says ‘lets’ set up an enquiry’ and before it’s finished deliberating for a couple of decades the lights have gone out and it’s ‘goodnight Irene’.

Putting aside the inevitability that the earth will one day perish, (because it’s always better to deal with the proximate danger first); opens up the possibility of arguing that because the inglorious moment of the last instance is so inconceivably far away, that we can forget the idea that there will be a cunning plan someday soon and adopt a radically different notion of passing time.

So what if we were to engage people by living better? Instead of inhabiting this linear worldview where there’s always something better just down the road that never arrives; the ship that never ‘comes in’: we could choose to incorporate and live out the polarities, the cycles and rhythms that have sustained the earth and all her ecosystems over millennia and would continue to do so for millennia more if we only let them? Let’s not fight just with facts, let’s change perspectives because once we’ve changed someone’s perspectives their collection of facts will have to change too because they don’t work any more.

I think it’s fair to argue that when I look at the sun rising in the morning, I can be sure that if I were around in twenty million years time it would still look much the same. The cooling down of the sun is slow slow slow. But global extinction is fast. The earth is finite – just like us. The earth has her cycles and seasons; the moon has hers too drawing up and releasing the tides. The seasons were once beautifully represented in the Christian liturgical year – it’s all gone now, but Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, Pentecost, Harvest, Remembrance and – finest of all – Ordinary Time – all reflected the rhythms of the earth and our own lived experience of feast and famine, joy and sorrow; the sadness of loss and bereavement and the witnessing of new life in the fields and in our homes. We’ve lost the ability to dream our dreams and sing our songs. This is absolutely not an appeal to get back to the local tin tabernacle for a prayer and a bollocking but it is an appeal to consider our humanness as essentially sacramental rather than instrumental. The will to fight for the environment is, (to pinch a phrase from the evangelicals), better caught than taught, and there is an alternative that we can communicate in its lived form, rather than belittling people’s innocently acquired beliefs with angry counter-arguments.

We grow food because it is in our nature to grow things and it teaches us gratitude and humility. We love to eat together because we are essentially creatures of community. We care for one another; the old, the young and the sick because that’s where our humanity grows. We can build on core values like joyfulness, gratitude, openness and – dare I say – thriftiness; and the greatest benefit of living sacramentally is that it’s completely sustainable because that’s the nature of earth, and we can live in peace rather than in violence and greed because in the end, any other way of life is self-defeating.

Of course some will say this is idealistic nonsense, and the favoured trap, laid especially for us, is fear. “It’s all so complicated” we’re taught to think – “we don’t even know where to start; what happens if it goes wrong; better the devil you know etc etc …..”. But the choice isn’t between the groundhog day of eternally repetitive cycles – peasant life, in fact; and the pursuit of technological dreams that are destroying the earth. Sacramental life is endlessly creative; no two seasons are the same any more than any two people are identical. Nothing in nature’s cycles precludes innovation and change for the better. It’s a way of life forged in music, songs and stories, dancing, drama and pictures. The only limiting factor is that we must stop laying waste to the environment simply because we were taught to believe that we’re worth it. In fact we’re worth much more. We’ve seen the enemy – it’s us.

Whatever it takes, please – please read this book!

I don’t normally do straight book reviews and neither do I promote anything; I’ve no desire at all to be an ‘influencer’ whatever that might mean, but I will mention books when they’re good, or important; and so over the last couple of years I’ve worried and written a lot about the ecological crisis we’re in, and some of the books that have guided my thoughts. One day I’ll make a bibliography and put it up as a purely personal and probably idiosyncratic list that might help someone to make a start. Back at the Potwell Inn there are shelves full of them but it wouldn’t be difficult to rank them. Some are academic and hard to grasp – that doesn’t make them bad but I’d hesitate to recommend a book that might put anyone off the trail. Some are so partisan and angry that I could only read them a few pages at a time for fear of being overwhelmed. We’re not farmers or a horticulturalists here, and so people like us sometimes figure in the shadowy world of the consumer in these books, the apparently dimwitted customers who, by demanding ever cheaper food, helped to create the crisis we’re now in.

I don’t like being hectored or finger-wagged at. I don’t like being treated as an idiot or being held personally responsible for the way things are – and neither do farmers or ‘newt counting’ ecologists. We really are – (after carefully wiping the politicians’ snake oil off the phrase) – ‘in this together’ and the only workable solution will come from working together. The system is broke.

So who better than someone right inside the mess to show us what it feels like from the inside. I ordered James Rebank’s latest book “English Pastoral’ on a whim. Madame had read his previous book ‘A Shepherd’s Life’ previously and been quite lyrical about it but being an old stick in the mud I resisted. So when I ordered the new book I made sure I’d read the earlier book first. It’s good – patchy but good. There was a touch too much of the caricature blunt Yorkshireman I thought, and I also thought the tales of youthful rebellion, ‘drinking and shagging’ as he puts it, and the ferocious arguments with his father were a bit over-egged until, that is, the little voice in my head reminded me that we always dislike in others what we most dislike about ourselves and my own school career ended when I was escorted from the school (by the collar) by the headmaster for being a disruptive and disobedient pain; beginning three years of sombre reflection in dead end labouring jobs. It was Madame who got me into college and back on course. There were more parallels than you’d find in a school geometry set.

So ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ was always a better book than my grudging soul would admit and I’m glad I read it. ‘English Pastoral’ is even better. I really couldn’t put it down. He’s apparently friends with Wendell Berry, and has read Henry Williamson and somehow manages to weave together the lyrical voice with downright practical wisdom, occasionally shocking earthiness and a better grasp of the big picture than anyone else I’ve read. But the big sell, for me, was that I felt I was being embraced as part of the grand plan. The occasional snarky remarks in the first book about tourists’ collective ignorance of what fell farming is really like, have disappeared. The narrowness and suspicion of outsiders and experts, ecologists and economists and interfering incomers in the younger farmer, have all gone and what’s left is a conversation being led by a farmer who commands and deserves respect; a mea culpa in places for going with the flow against his better instincts and a luminous vision of the way forward. Any fierceness is reserved for the agrochemical industry and their accomplices and lobbyists; the manufacturers of ever more destructive machinery; the greedy banks, and the economic orthodoxy that turned land and crops into commodities.

It’s a desperately needed working paper in a world of conflicting demands; offering a model that takes seriously the need for farmers to make a living, that addresses some of the key faults of the extreme end of the rewilding movement, and which dismisses any idea of a one size fits all policy. It addresses the need for food security and completely smashes any idea that what we need is another technological fix so we can carry on the way we are.

Read it, please, if you’re a farmer or a naturalist, or an ecologist or walker, and especially if you live, like me, in a city – and ponder what and where to buy sustainable food. Read it if you’re an allotmenteer because there’s a lot about soil there. Read it if you’re a banker or an economist because this movement is not going away.

When I was a child we used to catch the train up to Reading to see our grandparents who lived a country bus ride away in the Chilterns. The journey involved a change at Didcot, and what was most thrilling (and terrifying) about it was that the train didn’t actually stop at Didcot at all, but just slowed down so that the ‘slip coach’ could glide, engineless, into the station controlled by the guard who presumably operated the brakes.

This morning as I finished the book I remembered that childish adventure and pondered whether, when the great neoliberal train finally crashes the buffers at Oxford, they might discover that the rest of us got off at Didcot and that the banks and the hedge funds and the agrochemical complex have finally reached the catastrophic end of their triumphant journey. Alone.

Fasting and feasting

I like the way they do harvest in Provence where everything ripens by the end of July and for the next six weeks it’s too hot to work the land so there’s nothing but fêtes, bull runs and general mayhem. The bull runs are especially good fun because they get a fairly safe bull with blunt horns and all the village lads dress up, douse their white shirts in red paint, put on their red neckerchiefs and get completely hammered before they dash drunkenly up the main street between walls of steel barriers, being chased by the bull. No-one seems to get hurt but it seems to work like pheromones with the local girls. In Uzės, on the other hand, it’s a big deal where the local Camarguais cowboys (and girls, but cowpersons sounds like a secret Bayer agri project) drive a genuinely scary bull down the main street, galloping flat out on either side of it out while the young men try to dive between the horses and wrestle the bull away from its escorting riders by grabbing it by the tail – that’s serious! It’s an extraordinarily moving spectacle, especially because the riders are all dressed in traditional costume and they’re ferociously good riders, and the competing young men are completely fearless. Hundreds of spectators line the street and some of the drunker ones even squeeze between the barriers at great risk.

Back at the Potwell Inn it’s a bit more prosaic. Harvesting the last of the tomato crop today we reckoned we’ve picked around sixty or seventy pounds which have been preserved as sauces (3 recipes), passata and dried; while there are still two trays of green tomatoes and one of immediate eaters. We’ve got jams in three or four flavours, damson vodka and sloe gin (even though we don’t drink), and pickles and couli and I’ve spent days on the stove, bottling and preserving and there’s still more to do – and so today as we carried the latest trays back up to the car Madame said “It’s harvest festival”, and she’s almost right. It’s been the weirdest season ever but as the summer crops come to an end we’re pleased that we coped as well as we did. Everything about the weather has been hyperbolic – wettest, coldest, windiest and hottest, sunniest and most disappointing – and yet we coped and learned a great deal and began to plan for next season when we’ll be introducing far more wildflowers and a pond.

But as for a harvest festival, well that’s a different thing altogether. We spoke to a couple of fellow allotmenteers as we carried the last tomatoes up and laughed about the weather (it was raining) but as for any kind of community thanksgiving – not necessarily religious – there’s none. Religious or not it seems churlish not to give thanks for the sheer generosity of the earth, and I’m perfectly sure that I’m not in a minority of one. Maybe it’s because it feels weird to offer thanks to an invisible power without any apparent content to get a handle on. On the other hand I’m perfectly at home with the experience of thankfulness without attributing my good fortune to any particular branch of the God franchises on offer. Perhaps that’s the answer to my own question “who, or what should we thank?”, and it’s this: It’s the thankfulness that matters much more than the address you send it to.

The autumn – which we’ve just entered untidily – is one long occasion of thankfulness, and nothing dents my enthusiasm for it; not long hours at the stove with a backache, not turning the compost or watching plants you’ve tended all season die back, because the joy is the way we can preserve food and ourselves against the coming winter.

But that doesn’t answer the other part of the question. While I can find thankfulness in my own, or our own few square yards of the earth it’s hard not to be sharing it with others. There used to be a big flower show in Bristol, in fact they happened in almost every village in the country and they’re dying out. The Bath allotmenteers used to have a show until the council imposed insurances and form filling made it no longer viable. The Church of England used to be another kind of place you could take your bit of thankfulness and share it with all the other lukewarm or absolutely non- Christians; just bring the courgette that grew and grew and that was your ticket with no fear of any theology spoiling the occasion. Now they’ve taken out the back row and it’s full of gimlet eyed enthusiasts.

The big flower shows and harvest festivals were the last survivors of an age when a full larder and good friends was the difference between surviving the winter and starving. We’ve been sold the lie that we can feast every day and forget about famine, except that there are tens of millions of children in the UK who know differently. Our inner lives have been broken up and sold off in lots to private enterprise along with the air we breathe and the water we drink and there are powerful people who think that protesting against the injustice is the same as terrorism. Am I beginning to sound like William Cobbett? In “Cottage Economy” he wrote that the only time you could rely on a visit from the local minister was after you’d killed the fattened pig for the winter.

So what does that make a harvest festival? is it a worrying far left demonstration against the food industry? A sign of how far we have to go to escape the clutches of irrationality? A sales opportunity for artisan producers of pickle and gin? Or is it an enormous freewheeling gale of gratitude from those of us who have grasped the essential fact that our culture, our agriculture and our food industry are on the road to ruin, and who are trying to live differently.

Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a stalled ox and hatred therewith’

Proverbs 15:17 (you’d better believe it – no faith required!)

Finally some rain

If there’s a quieter, more beautiful or more remote place than this, I want to be there.

Bearing in mind that this photo was taken a year ago in the Yorkshire Dales, a couple of miles away from the border with Cumbria; the storm here, was very similar but the setting a million miles away. It was a long time coming, and after days at 36C there was a false start in the early evening when the clouds gathered so densely that a party on the Green began packing up. But at around 11.00pm the rain started properly and you can choose your own metaphor – biblical, if you must; stair rods? – but who knows what a stair rod is these days? – or cats and dogs? none of the usual clichés comes close. On the television yesterday we saw a derailed train, cars floating down rivers and I don’t doubt there will be crops beaten to the ground and ruined. Mercifully, the allotment is made of sterner stuff and seems unscathed after an urgent inspection in the morning. Yes, the rain was welcome but the intensity of weather events this year is an ominous sign of what’s coming and there’s little sign yet that our wretched government, which failed to prepare for Covid even after months of warnings, is prepared to listen to the fifty years of warnings since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, and species began to disappear under the onslaught of oil, chemicals and extractive agriculture.

So being human, which is – and always has been – the principal area of interest for the Potwell Inn, is getting harder but more important with every breath. The environmental catastrophe which is bearing down on us, is a result of losing our sense of what it means to be human in nature. Even the Shooting Times, for goodness sake, forty years ago, used to acknowledge that our responsibility towards nature was one of stewardship. It may have been down to self interest in preserving habitat for animals to be killed in for sport, (and I’d have that ethical discussion with them any day), but we might be better off thinking that at least some of the assumed enemies of change, are halfway towards us already. Now’s not the time for division and name calling. I remember once spending a day at an army camp in Wiltshire talking to the chaplaincy team and to some of the young soldiers who were training there, and being astonished at their moral maturity. During the run up to the Gulf war I noticed that the number of service personnel attending church suddenly increased dramatically as they approached deployment. I didn’t meet a single one who thought that it was a just war in any sense at all.

I don’t want this to be gloomy, and so I’ll stop there with the thought that being human is a desperately difficult road to walk, and to do it well we need to be aware of ourselves and our deepest needs. As you get older (and I’ve got a lot of experience in that subject) you can take a longer view, freed from timetables, busyness, childcare and then parent care; and things begin to become more clear.

I’ve been pondering for ages whether to take the blog down this track, but I fear that without the underlying philosophy, without a spirituality which is so essential to being human; all my talk of the allotment, of field botany and cooking and making bread, the junkies on the street, the environmental crisis and our beloved grandchildren might be taken as a number of separate disconnected interests that I happen to pursue. That’s not the case, and it’s essentially not the case. What I’m trying to tease out, because I don’t know the answer myself, are the threads, the warp and weft of being fully human. What are the essential aspects of a fulfilling and fruitful life, lived well?

I’ve tried religion (and I mean tried! thirty years of intense work is a bit more than a dalliance!), but as time went on I found myself more drawn towards Taoism and Buddhism. I was exhausted by trying to fit myself into a system that pretended it could make everything fit, but only by excluding so much of my whole being that I felt I hardly existed. Let’s not go there except to say that somewhere near the top of my list of crucial qualities is a thoroughgoing scepticism. Scepticism is a greatly underestimated strength.

Personal well being depends on relatively well understood factors. The problem is that resisting the spirit of the age can make you sound like a gimlet eyed extremist. A good diet, physical exercise, strength, heart health and time to stand and stare, contact with nature, love and friendship – human community, dreams and projects, curiosity, the love of science and creative art and some kind of spirituality that grows our ability for all these threads to work in harmony – this is what being human is all about.

Today I turned up an ebook of class notes by my old Tai Chi teacher Alan Peck. I was a pretty useless student, too busy to practice properly; endlessly missing sessions because of meetings and yet I always, without exception, felt better after a session and found some peace in the midst of all the demands being made on me. I opened the book on my laptop today and in a strange way I heard his voice as I read the familiar phrases from his sessions and I noticed an idea that positively jumped off the page at me. He was saying that it didn’t much matter which form you were learning, or how advanced you had become. All that really mattered was letting go into the practice and only then would you be able to receive. No amount of straining and grabbing would ever get you there. I can’t think of a better description of being fully human.

To “let go of everything” refers to an experience of understanding beyond concepts. Usually we label everything either consciously or unconsciously and experience very little that is fresh to our mind without previous conditioning. “To let go of everything” refers to a level of experiencing that does not rely on previously formed patterns of response. In this case, there is less judgement and more potential for creative response. It is an act of surrender.

Alan Peck teacher of Natural Way Tai Chi who died in 2010.

What was the date of the last time you heard a cuckoo?

Arrhenatherum elatius ssp bulbosum otherwise known as a bit of dead grass

To be able to answer that question you’d need to have heard the cuckoo, recognised it and made a note of where it was that you’d heard it. I know where I heard the last one – it was with friends whose smallholding is near Crickhowell in Wales and I could find the date by looking for the photos I took on that day. That was getting on for two years ago and sadly I haven’t heard one since which gives me a little pang of sadness. What if that was it? – no more cuckoo ever …..

So maybe there is a point in being a bit of a list nerd, even if becoming one means you have to irritate the hell out of all your nearest and dearest while you read (buy) incomprehensible and expensive books, spend hours with pencil and notebook writing in secret code and develop a pronounced bend in the spine as you spend days on end looking at the ground, and enthuse about tiny bits of plants that no-one in their right mind cares a hoot about …. except – I should stop there! But if you’ve done all those things and write the event up and even send an account of it to someone who also records these things but on a grand scientific scale; then it’s just possible that something could be done in time to stop the cuckoo becoming a footnote in an annotated student’s Shakespeare crib.

On Tuesday I gathered 10 samples of grass from Bannerdown and as I mentioned earlier, I was up early yesterday morning and after some pretty intense work I managed to identify nine species; and I even managed to match them with all the other plants we saw yesterday and come up with my first ever NVC (National Vegetation Classification) code. More than a year after my resolution to “do the grasses” I’ve finally reached the point where I’m pretty confident with identifying them, and half a dozen I can recognise from twenty paces. A red letter day for me and possibly of no interest to anyone else, unless like me you’ve embarked on a stupidly difficult quest without much by the way of experience.

So why bother then? Why not leave it to the professionals? Well the answer is that there aren’t nearly enough professionals to do what’s needed. There are now hardly any opportunities to study botany at degree level in this country. We’re in the midst of an environmental catastrophe that will lead to the disappearance or even extinction of a huge number of species from environments that no one has ever recorded – and I don’t just mean Amazonian jungle and Arctic tundra, I mean the derelict site next door, the unappetising urban stream with the supermarket trolleys in it, and the allotment sites that hard up local authorities would love to sell off. The article from today’s Guardian newspaper that I cited above is concerned with UK mammals, and just like the mountain gorillas and snow leopards, our wild mammals live on wild plants, insects and other wild mammals and they are disappearing because their environmental niches are disappearing. As meadows, hedgerows and streams disappear along with all their specialised plants, their larger and more glamorous inhabitants disappear too; so saving the hedgehog means saving the hedgehog’s environment and the multitude of invertebrates that it lives on – which means saving the plants on which those invertebrates feed in turn. The earth is a joined-up ecosystem – with the emphasis on system and it can’t work even if small parts fail. Just as when the hinge on my laptop breaks it becomes a pile of junk. During my grass binge I have spent a lot of time on the internet looking for answers and I promise you I found a website (run by a agrochemical business) headed “How to identify grasses and eradicate them. “Attaboy – lets civilise the lawns and fields of this great country!”. Letting the nettles and the couch grass flower around the edges of your allotment shows you’re a part of the resistance movement.

Natural history has always had its share of amateurs. There are few other disciplines where we can make such a significant contribution. It’s true we don’t have the knowledge or the equipment to study plant DNA at home, but increasingly we’re becoming the infantry in the battle to save nature, (with saving ourselves as a side-order). There’s a place for everyone at every level and the amateur recorders are the intelligence corps, helping to collate the evidence. I first got involved in this kind of thing when I was a schoolboy and sent postcards (remember them?) back to a science project investigating thunderstorms. I remember I had to record the number of seconds that elapsed between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder, and add a few details about the storm. I think I had to buy my own postage stamps.

However, the reasons for getting stuck in aren’t just about saving our skin. To lift a phrase from a well known naturalist:

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

Karl Marx – “Eleven theses on Feuerbach” – (and inscribed on his grave)

So let’s hear it for the sheer beauty of nature, for the way it frames us and sets us within our proper place, for the way it inspires the sense of the numinous, the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans“, the terrible and compelling face of nature that draws worshippers and list makers alike to record what might be the last great moments of a collapsing civilisation. “Glory be to God for dappled things” said Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem “Pied beauty” and although these days I find the whole idea of God – especially the great gammon in the sky version promoted by most churches – impossible to understand, I know well enough what glory feels like!

It’s not all turtle soup and silver spoons!

With thanks to Charles Dickens and Thomas Gradgrind for the reference – and we’ve no plans ever to serve or eat turtle soup at the Potwell Inn, with or without the silver spoons.

One of the abiding challenges of writing a blog about being human is the temptation to create a sunny and carefree parallel world in which my ever competent and cheerful alter ego glides effortlessly through life untouched by troubles of any kind. Of course it’s not like that at all and things go wrong all the time – like yesterday when the pride of my civil engineering efforts on the allotment collapsed under the weight of water we’d gathered from some intense rain. I’ve written so often about the water storage project that I should have known it would all come back and bite me and now it has. I could see something was amiss when we came down the path and I saw that the three 250 litre water barrels, instead of standing in a perfect and level line, were leaning over drunkenly against the shed which, having distorted significantly, resisted any attempt to open it. One of the supports had collapsed under the strain of 750Kg of water and the horrible result was all too clear.

It was the crowning glory, or perhaps more honestly the last straw, because the black dog had already been following me around all day. I don’t know why -perhaps it was something to do with revisiting my past; but the mud and silt at the bottom of my inner pond had been stirred up by going to Rodway Common, and I couldn’t quite find the way out of my thoughts. The sight of the water butts moved me into a silence.

Melancholy isn’t just a middle class word for depression, tarted up to make it sound a bit poetic. Melancholy is a mind frame through which all the impermanence and fragility of the world is magnified, and these last months have carried the risk of loss so gravely that there can’t be many of us who haven’t been touched by it. Some will have fallen into depression, which is far, far worse. For the Potwell Inn, of course, the prospect of the landlord sunk in a grey mist did not inspire the landlady, and the lounge bar was as quiet as a funeral director’s waiting room. The television, leaking its poison into the room, drove me to my desk where I got stuck in the mud, wheels spinning and going nowhere. Then, after a disturbed night in which dreamed of being able to fly, I woke up feeling better and in possession of my lyrical mind once more, and also an easy way of rebuilding the water butt structure.

The last six words of any dying organisation are – “we always do it this way

What is it about the television at the moment? Endless costume dramas reinvent the past; we’ve got Jane Austin and Downton Abbey (was there ever a more unctuously dishonest series?) – coming out of our ears; and last night Countryfile – welly telly at its middle England finest – tried to present the argument that the gene editing of food crops was not the same as genetic modification. I screamed at the screen fruitlessly – “ask the question you moron!” – knowing that no serious question would be asked. The NFU will get its five minutes as the trades union of intensive farming, and there will be no mention of the adaptability of so-called pests. As Darwin said, when the merde hits the fan, it’s the most adaptable that survive (I paraphrase slightly) and that suggests that the odds are stacked against the farmers who will still be waiting for the Seventh Cavalry to come and rescue them when the better adapted blackfly have eaten their wellingtons. Just to put it simply, gene editing is the same game as genetic modification and carries many of the same dangers; and the thought of negotiating around a supermarket between rows of genetically edited carrots and chlorinated chicken does not fill me with joy.

On the allotment we concentrate on building up the soil and we know that stronger plants resist pests and diseases better than intensively farmed weak ones. Yes we get pea moth still, but we get around that by cropping them earlier. Blackfly and ladybirds sometimes take a week or two to move into synchronisation but they always do in the end, and there are a multitude of healthy ways of controlling pests -companion planting, for instance – that can work at scale as well. We often used to joke that the last six words of any dying organisation are – “we always do it this way“. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this Covid 19 pandemic, it’s that always doing it this way is the problem, and doing more of it can never provide a solution.

In my darkest moments I wonder whether the human race even deserves to survive, but we have children and grandchildren and there are millions of poor people around the world who will suffer even more than they do already, if we cling to the old ways which – in truth – are barely a couple of hundred years old in any case.

So there we are- no longer Mr Sad but definitely Mr Grumpy – and when it stops raining and I fix the water storage it will be Mr Sunny all over again; and the regulars will ask “what’s he on?” as I pull pints and sing “round and round the mulberry bush” .

A bit of wonder

So this isn’t anything special, as photos go – it was a bit of a studio set-up (if my desk counts as a studio) with a lightbox background and a bit of fill from a lamp and taken on a Pixel 3 phone camera.

Warts and all, then, this picture of a couple of globe artichokes from the allotment, with a fair bit of insect frass and whitefly remains thrown in to add gritty realism. These plants were among our first imports to the allotment but we value them far more for their architectural beauty than for their food content, Sure they taste good, but you’d need to harvest a whole row for a decent feed, and the wastage would be truly shocking. For us they’re a great boundary plant, being horribly prickly and tremendous insect attractors in addition to being stunning to look at. The true harvest is in Madame’s room where they have been the subject of many drawings and paintings over the years.

I’m really interested in the rather messy conjunction between the natural, the aesthetic and the spiritual ‘frames’ within which we try to understand the sense of wonder which grips us, if we’re lucky enough, when we pause to contemplate something as simple as an artichoke, or a dragonfly or even the tiniest detail of a plant. I remember one memorable walk I shared during a pilgrimage with a friend who’d spent most of his life buying and selling grain. It was the day I learned the way to identify cereal crops early in the year, simply by examining their leaves. The day that I first heard the terms ‘ligule’ and ‘auricle’ not from a naturalist but a salesman, and I remember the sense of excitement, approaching awe, at the way the natural world somehow makes sense if you know, or are taught, how to look.

That sense of awe transforms our inner lives in a way that little else can. We can read disturbing stories illustrated with statistics about the state of the earth and push them to the back of our minds, and yet when we try to describe matters of the most profound importance to us we instinctively reach for the imagery of nature.

Our days are like the grass;

We flourish like a flower of the field;

when the wind goes over it, it is gone

and its place will know it no more.

Psalm 103

I’ve long since lost my copy of Raymond Williams’ book “Keywords” but I can remember that he wrote at length on the complexity and ambiguity that surrounds the word natural. I can understand perfectly well – intellectually – that we are a part of nature and I could write at length about the way that changing our understanding of our place as a part of the whole creation is a prerequisite for our return to wholeness, but nothing quite expresses the fragility of life than to observe the brief life of a flower. Nothing quite expresses our grief better than the memory of the wind passing over moorland grass in winter. Our lives are measured in seasons, our passions in roses, our personalities in creatures – we are tigers and sloths, owls and larks, rats and cats. So much of our interior lives is furnished with natural imagery it’s amazing that we treat the natural world as badly as we do; but without being the least religious about it I can understand the way that the fictional story of Adam and Eve embraces the profound sense that we have, through our perverse belief that we are the sole purpose of creation, been cast out from paradise. The story isn’t about sex – it never was – it was about getting too big for our boots. But that’s not a soapbox I want to climb on right now. Religion has done so much damage to the creation myths they’re no longer useable.

Natural history stands as a kind of bridge between nature and science. It’s driven to science by wonder and fascination. But human language is also saturated with natural history and, as I’ve already said, furnishes our sense of the numinous with images from the natural world. So the inner language we use when we think about the global environmental crisis is bound to be expressed in ways that some scientists and almost all economists and politicians would rather dismiss. Talk of God or Gaia or even nature can’t be measured in degrees centigrade or gross domestic product; you can’t quantify wonder and it would be difficult to bring paintings, drawings, poems and drama; music and all the variety of human artifacts as evidence because in thinking about the global crisis we are both the accusers and the accused. Francis Schaeffer, the founder of L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, described human beings as “glorious ruins”

A recent piece in The Ecologist magazine takes a well known paper by Jem Bendell to task for using bad science to back up a cataclysmic view of climate change which, the authors say, is more likely to lead to fear and paralysis than action to stem catastrophic climate change. Within the article there’s a section that deserves repeating –

One reason for its popularity is that Deep Adaptation does a couple of things effectively that other works do not. First, it talks in stark emotional terms about something that is undoubtedly very scary. It does not shy away from describing feelings that all people concerned with the climate crisis feel on a regular basis.

This emotional expression is something that scientific writing and reporting rarely employs, as scientists strive for detached objectivity in presenting facts. While frank discussion of the psychological and emotional impacts of the climate crisis is sorely needed, it must still be a discussion grounded in reality. “

Thomas Nicholas
 Galen Hall
 Colleen Schmidt
 | 15th July 2020

I absolutely agree with that whole sentiment – bad science is a curse , but as long as science, creative language and spirituality continue to eye each other suspiciously and refuse to engage seriously with each others strengths, we’ll never be able to muster the forces we really need to change the world. All great paradigm changes need their novelists and poets and their spiritual leaders as well as their chemists, engineers and sociologists.

The mid nineteenth century was fortunate to have Joseph Rowntree to highlight the horrors of the industrial revolution, Charles Dickens to bring them to the attention of a huge public, Joseph Bazalgette to build the sewers that ended cholera epidemics, Charles Booth to take Christian spirituality to the poorest areas in the country and Charles Darwin finally to put us in our place, not as the purpose, the telos of creation but as a rather gloriously interesting part of it. I could add many more; what about Marx for instance? We’d have to have a space for write-ins, and I can’t imagine them getting on very well, but that’s not the point.

There’s a lovely interview with James Lovelock in the Guardian today in which he speaks about the divisions between scientific orthodoxies as being every bit as damaging to science (and the earth) as sectarian religious disputes.

I realize my argument could easily be parodied as a kind of hippy dippy “why can’t we all be nice to each other?” indulgence, but I’m totally serious. Couldn’t our headlong rush into environmental catastrophe be said to be in need of redemption without invoking the whole ghastly apparatus of religious belief? It makes perfect sense to me that if you want someone to end their self-destructive behaviour you have to present a more powerful image of a possible future for them (that’s the bit that artists and writers are best at) and you also have to embrace some means of relieving the burden of guilt about past behaviour (that’s the spiritual) before you can help them over the threshold into a new lifestyle, that must necessarily be guided by the best science we have. Why try to invent an entirely new way of leading that process when we have all the tools we need at hand?

We have met the enemy, and they are us.”

The updated version was first used in the comic strip “Pogo,” by Walt Kelly, in the 1960s and referred to the turmoil caused by the Vietnam War.

Surviving in a hostile environment

I realized a while ago that I was going to have to get much closer to some of my botanical subjects in order to identify them properly and study them in more depth, and I’ve invested in a very useful 20x LED hand lens. Then a friend – out of the blue – offered to lend me a microscope, which will be a tremendous help. My desk is getting pretty full at the moment, not least because I’ve been experimenting with my Panasonic camera with a Leica 45mm macro lens photographing against a lightbox background.

I was casting around for something to practice with yesterday, and I spotted a piece of stonecrop – Sedum acre – that I’d collected while I was doing the plant survey of the car park. My desk is a mess at the best of times, and at the moment it’s also dotted with bits of drying and dying plant material that I seem to have a resistance to throwing away. So amongst the dead and dying this piece of stonecrop caught my eye and I set up the camera on a tripod (it’s almost impossible to take macro photos without one) got the flash unit going and after a few duds, got the picture.

The contrast between set-ups and the phone camera is absolute. I’ve said before that they each have their place and I wouldn’t be without either, but there’s nothing spontaneous about the set-up photograph. You’re forced to think what do I really want to see in this shot? and so I can use a small lab clamp, studio lamp, wireless flash and anything else that helps to capture the principal details. On a good day the aesthetic and the observational combine and you get a cracker, but most of the time they’re reference material for the future. I only wish my cataloguing skills could keep up but my tiggerish instincts are always racing on to the next excitement.

Anyway, enough of the technical stuff because what blew me away when I looked at this sample was that it is clearly alive and waiting patiently for the good times to roll again. They don’t put Sedums on wildflower roofs for nothing. Plants have their survival strategies and these can seem very smart indeed. The rue leaved saxifrage that lives on the wilderness of the fire escape survives by flowering and setting seed before the summer sun bakes its remains to a crisp. One of the abiding challenges of amateur botany is the brief lives of many species. Finding some plants is like getting six numbers up in the National Lottery – right place, right time, right weather ….. and so it goes on.

This gift of resilience is a marvellous thing, but I don’t at all underestimate our capacity to chemically outstrip the most resourceful life form – ourselves included. I’m reading Mark Avery’s book “Fighting for Birds” at the moment and he shows the way that extinctions are brought about so often by changes in farming practices which are not just to do with chemicals but also times of harvesting and sowing. But when the going gets tough …. and the real survivors are the kind of plant species – now totalling 26 – that can survive in the hostile environment of our car park.

But is that the kind of world we want to live in? Although I sing the praises of the sturdy beggars below my window, is that all I want? Of course not, but desperation drives us all. Yesterday as I looked out on the Green I saw a previous Director of the National Botanical Garden of Wales kneeling down with his phone to photograph some wall barley. Good for him – perhaps I’ve won him over at last, or perhaps he’s doing a survey of the Green where we’re making small progress on preserving an un-mown strip around the edge.

And if this was simply about preserving some hobby examples for grumpy old botanists and birdwatchers then you could maybe concede the point that it’s an unbalanced and unsustainable view of the world. But if we regard the reduction of our ecosystems to a few super resilient survivors, if we treat the symptoms like the canary in the mine – then it’s horribly clear that we may be the next species to disappear.

I’ve spent the greater part of my life thinking that our self-destructive way of life would end with a bomb and a nuclear winter. In many ways a sudden end to everything would be a more comforting vision than the possibility of a relentless decline into anarchy with terrible flooding, mass migrations from areas no longer capable of sustaining life and the desperate search for food, water, and ultimately air to breathe. I don’t want my grandchildren or their descendants to end impoverished lives like fish writhing on the deck of a boat, gasping for air.

I’ve written before about denial being one of Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s symptoms of grieving. But there has to come a moment when denial is overcome and a new life – with all its difficulties and disappointments – has to begin; and this is the moment. Right now.

Believing and belonging

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” – on Karl Marx’ gravestone.

I have met some people for whom even the mention of Karl Marx would lead to the paroxysms of tooth grinding and frothing, so for the sake of sanity, and to save anyone the bother of frothing, the quotation is not a wholesale endorsement of  everything Marx said or wrote; but he’s an important thinker and deserves better than being wildly misquoted at every turn.

So simply knowing that there are some people in government who think that demonstrating against environmental damage and species extinction amounts to a form of terrorism is a chilling thought. Just as a ludicrous overreaction, it could be laughed off if it weren’t backed up by hard state power. I’m quite sure that there are many more people in this country and across the world who believe the evidence that a global catastrophe is looming up on us but feel powerless in the face of the ideological onslaught that tells us every day, and in a million subtle ways, that there is no alternative. Since the brexit referendum and in particular since the UK general election I no longer listen to news broadcasts and I don’t read the newspapers which are part of the problem. I choose my sources carefully and I try as best I can to verify what they’re saying – especially if I really want their stories to be true. As a result I have no idea who the members of the Cabinet are, for instance, but I’ve a pretty good hunch that they’re a dangerous bunch of charlatans and chancers.

Which is all very well except it raises the dilemma of how to respond effectively in a particularly challenging way. Let’s assume that there’s no point in writing letters about it to MP’s who, it seems to me, have no horizon beyond the next election or being appointed to profitable directorships. Successive prime ministers have learned the art of ignoring demonstrations, however huge, and convincing themselves that they know what “the people” are thinking even when best part of a million of them are walking peacefully past the houses of commons suggesting that they don’t. The principal opposition parties all seem to be clutching their favourite parts of a potential policy jigsaw but refuse to collaborate with anyone else in order to put something workable together. Waking up every day feeling powerless and lonely is a bad place to be.

I’ve always been a bit sniffy about direct personal action. I’d wonder – sometimes out loud – how wearing organic cotton T shirts or making your own soap was supposed to change the world. I suppose in part it’s my age, what with being a first generation hippie and seeing our dreams of a better world crushed relentlessly. I’ve written before about my own moment of enlightenment at a free festival in Bath, when I saw a young mother scraping the crap off her baby’s nappy against the only standpipe and water tap on the site. People have always misunderstood St Augustine when he said “love and do what you will” What he meant was that if you love, then you will make better moral choices – like, for instance, not threatening hundreds of people with salmonella because you can’t be arsed to clean your baby up safely.

Although the language changes, selfishness, greed and idolatry – in our case the worship of profit and the neoliberal economy – have always been the real problem. That’s my belief and it brings me no comfort whatever. Even if I were able to convince millions of people that my belief is correct, it wouldn’t do anything to get us off this self destructive path.  The only way to do that is to change our behaviour and – I’m finally beginning to understand – that it begins with me. It may not change the world if I wear an organic cotton T shirt or eat more veg, but if I do –  I’m part of the solution and not part of the problem. Change from the bottom up is the only show in town now and we at the Potwell Inn have been thinking about it for ages.  The allotment, our diet, our choices when we replace our worn out clothes, the way we get about, how we wash and what we wash with, what goes down the sink, how effectively we recycle – all these things are part of the fight back. I suppose you could say “that’s just virtue signalling”  – I’ve said the same many times as a defence against changing.

The most encouraging thing is that when we change our own lives we inevitably start to interact with other people who are doing the same thing. Just like the way you notice when you’ve got a baby on the way that the world is full of pregnant women, so it is that the allotment site is full of people who feel the same way about organic farming and gardening. Today we were continuing our search in Bath for somewhere we could buy food staples without packaging, and reading the small print on the back of re-chargeable shampoo bottles – it takes all sorts! – and we found just the shop we’d been looking for and it was like coming home.  We even met a fellow allotmenteer who works there.

The signpost in the photo at the top stands in a guerilla garden on Walcot Street and when I spotted it I felt the presence of a mass of people who also want to change the world. The new community crosses all the barriers that artificially divide us – age, gender, orientation WTF?

Any half decent evangelist, for any cause whatever, will understand that belonging is far more important than believing. Environmental change will happen when our collective imagination reaches the tipping point where not to change becomes unthinkable.  So the most powerful strategy for change in the face of a hostile government is having more fun, being better neighbours and refusing the limits that their edited version of human possibility try to impose on us. They’ll  tell us that we’ll only survive if we build a better machine, invent a new technology, build a higher wall. And we’ll show them what human flourishing really looks like. When you look at it that way there’s no contest.

 

Taking the fight to Australia

Today was the day of the cake stall that our seven year old grandson organised for the victims of the Australian bush fires, and in particular he was hoping to raise a substantial sum to support relief work for animals on Kangaroo Island.  He’s pretty dotty about wildlife in general and with an Australian mum he was totally focused on the task, ‘though being a proper pom I don’t know the first thing about Kangaroo Island except that it seems that it’s name doesn’t reflect that it’s the last stronghold of disease free koala bears.  I guess there must be quite a lot of kangaroos as well.  What’s clear is that the climate driven crisis in Australia has become a worldwide cause for environmentalists and animal lovers and it’s reached into the hearts of millions of British people as well.  The parents at his primary school really got on-side today and there were more cakes than you could shake a stick at but better still, hosts of customers willing to buy their own produce back at ridiculous prices, egged on by our grandson who was overheard telling one customer that ‘he didn’t do change’! All the teachers rallied round; the local firefighters turned up to support but then got called away to a fire and between them they all blew my estimate out of the water.  I thought he might make £50, but it looks as if there was over three hundred pounds in notes, so by the time the coins are counted it’s going to go to four hundred if not five.  What a magnificent effort for a seven year old! – even if it was with a bit of help from family and friends and especially Mum who was so nervous about today going well that she looked as if she’d burst into tears if anything went wrong.

I was despatched early this morning to go to a local catering supplier to get paper plates and I looked for paper bags as well, this being in response to an environmental crisis.  I managed to find ample supplies of compostable plates, but paper bags came in 250’s which made them rather pricey. I spotted some reusable paper bags treated with beeswax, sold in tens, but they would have cost twenty times more than the paper ones.  Tickets to the moral high ground are a bit pricey it seems. What was so encouraging was that people, dozens of people – many of them parents were getting it. It didn’t feel like our grandson was pushing at a door, it felt like he’d opened it and the people were pouring through.  I know we get very dispirited by governments and the media for propagating and apparently believing their own lies, but here were around a hundred parents and their children in an ordinary British primary school refusing to buy their guff. I don’t have the bottle to accuse a bunch of bright seven year olds of being ridiculous and idealistic because they’re our hope for the future or, for me perhaps, their future if they’re to have one.

So I really believe that today’s effort was one more small step in the right direction.  We can’t rely on national politics so we’ll ignore them and take on the task locally.

How do I finish off a day like today? Well, I wrote about my favourite breakfast of home made marmalade and home made sourdough, so here’s a picture. My cake baking efforts were unevenly received – I was up against some very stiff and colourful competition, so I bought back most of my cheese scones at a delightfully inflated price, but most of the blueberry muffins found a new home.

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