Henrietta Park this morning with patches of yesterday’s unmelted snow and young daffodils bursting through the ground. We’ve got a radio thermometer installed outside at the back of the flat and early this morning it was showing -4C some twenty feet above ground level. The sun shone brightly all day but even so it didn’t get much above 4C. I’ve said this before, but every season seems to bear signs of the next, and the daffodils – even just in leaf – were a cheering sight in the depth of winter. Given the temperature and the very light traffic outside, we decided to try our morning 9k walk along the river and canal and although there were one or two more crowded spots, by and large we walked alone. Tomorrow and for the next couple of weeks it looks like we’ll be back to south westerlies and showers – which isn’t going to be particularly good for erecting a polytunnel.
There’s really no room for doubt that we’re experiencing increasingly severe weather variations; certainly more storms are bringing ever larger falls of rain and we seem to have had a succession of wet winters followed by hot spells in the wrong (that’s to say early) part of summer with consequent effects on ripening crops. August was always a wetter month, but severe downpours and storms are a menace. The winter period since the new year began has seen a reversion to more typical cold weather but even so it’s felt odd – interspersed with storms that turn the river brown with topsoil. Of course we know, or at least we have every reason to know, that the cause of all this is global climate change; but there are very few signs that politicians are taking the threat seriously. My heart sinks when I read the latest and daftest ever techno-wheeze for sequestering carbon, and this week’s crop of suggestions should be nominated for the Darwin Award, not least because they promise that we’ll all be able to drive our 5 litre SUV’s around without feeling guilty.
I’ve been reading Vandana Shiva’s “Soil not Oil” and it breaks my heart to contemplate the missed targets since 2008. It’s like watching your mother drink herself to death; and the question that’s shouting at me is why? – why are we so powerless to effect political change the face of this addiction to endless growth and its consequent degradation of the environment and our quality of life? Why do politicians reward agro industrialists with the opportunity to write government policy through political gifts and lobbying, whilst describing peaceful environmental protesters as terrorists?
The tragedy is that we know what the danger is, and we also know what general shape the remedy will have to take, and we know that if no progress is made, very soon we will be facing an environmental catastrophe – no ifs, no buts and no more delays while they wait for a scaleable, saleable and monopolistic solution to turn up. What else is there to say?
You know when you’re feeling a bit down when Harold Macmillan’s well known quip comes back to haunt you; but in the minor key. When events start floating past like the ghosts of things that once seemed more important, it’s a bit of a sign that it’s all getting too much: all this endless and aimless governmental button pressing to try and factory reset the country back to an imaginary default state. I read an interesting piece by a behavioural psychologist a few days ago describing the state of mind that, having invested heavily in a solution that’s evidently not working, idles in a catatonic state, hoping that something will turn up.
Here are three signs that it’s not working. One … there was (yet another) provocative op-ed in the Farmers Weekly in which their star winder-up writes that he doesn’t understand the point of regenerative farming. I have written to him in the past about his headline grabbing tendencies (there’s a lot of it about) and point out that the crisis facing intensive farming is well understood, well researched and roaring down the line with no brakes. At what point does not understanding something so important, become a sign of sheer stupidity? I shan’t write of course because last time I did he simply rolled over with a shrug and said ‘maybe I did exaggerate a bit”. The danger is that some of his readers might use his idiotic opinions to shore up their faith in the collapsing citadel of scientific progress and Bishop Bayer.
Next, I might mention the UK government’s announced intention to revisit the debate on what they are now calling “gene editing” which is, they suggest, quite different from “genetic modification”. They used the same trick when they renamed the explosive and leaky nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield, and called it Windscale. Anyway, gene editing sounds pretty much the same to me. I read somewhere that what they mean is that they won’t be inserting genes from a different species but merely mucking about with the ones that are already there. Science fictionally that’s a shame because I’d enjoy the thought of venus flytraps crossed with alligator genes so that they could take a poacher’s leg off. Imagine the kudos of 100% organic fencing. At the point where a species of – let’s say – wheat, is reduced to a complex sequence of genetic code, I have to wonder whether we are so down the reductive path that any talk of species is a rather romantic – what’s wheaty in a single gene? and in reality, it seems to me that interspecies genetic editings and borrowings have caused more than a little trouble at the pandemic level. The inventor of the Kalashnikov rifle always denied that he had done anything more morally culpable than save the Russian government a heap of money on the cost of killing people. You can’t argue with economics …. can you?
“Item the third” (is that Sam Weller in Pickwick papers?) Our Government has just lifted the ban on a neonicotinoid spray in order to save losses in sugar beet crops. Let’s take that one step at a time. The neonicotinoid has been banned because of its capacity to kill pollinating insects. The crop it has been licenced for is sugar beet which is used to make refined white sugar which kills people. So the government had the option of encouraging sugar beet farmers (through subsidy if necessary) to grow crops that we actually need, and which don’t cause diabetes while simultaneously protecting the environment and saving insects. But then, bees don’t give money to politicians but big refined sugar companies and agrochemical manufacturers do.
I could go on forever like this – Scottish fishermen say their income has dropped by 80% since brexit. Poor children are offered the kind of subsidised food parcels that could bring back rickets while our excess death toll due to covid is now in excess of the numbers for the Second World War.
The soil and with it our souls shrink and die a little more every day; Rachel Carson’s silent spring presses hard on us and I’m locked in introspection as the sad captains of industry and their scientific infantry process, wraith like past me, reciting their little fragments of management wisdom all the way down to the pit. In Dante’s “Inferno” the outer circle of hell is reserved for those who didn’t give a shit:
And I , who felt my head surrounded by horrors.
Said: ‘Master, what then is it that I am hearing?
And what people are these, so crushed by pain?’
He answered: ‘That is the manner of existence
Endured by the sad souls of those who lived
Without occasion for infamy or praise.
They are mixed with that abject squadron of angels
Who did not think it worth their while to rebel
Or to be faithful to God, but were for themselves’
Dante The Divine Comedy – Trans. C H Sisson
Who says literature is a waste of time? That last verse has sustained me through many challenging times.
“Enough already”, I say. There comes a point when it’s best to imitate rebellious Chinese scholars and take up fishing for a while. The Potwell Inn allotment has been an illumination and a salve during what they like to call “these difficult times“, when what they actually mean is “your difficult times”. The new season approaches and we’ve finally made the decision to buy a polytunnel; in fact we’ve ordered it and paid for it and watched the video about erecting it. What could possibly go wrong?
We are well and in good health, we have enough food; somewhere to live and yet …. Has brexit and covid distracted us that we’re so focused on the immediate – on the “events, dear boy,” of day to day politics, that we’ve lost the big picture.
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield
The river level had fallen slightly today after the weekend storms but it still looked dangerous this morning as we walked past. Falling in, in these conditions, is not a safe option, and this stretch of the Avon has taken more than a dozen lives in the last ten years. That said, we did see a couple of sturdy paddle boarders making very slow progress against the flow. The pleasure boats have all stopped, due to the renewed lockdown, but I wouldn’t even think about taking our inflatable kayak out in conditions more suitable for white water specialists.
It’s a salutary experience to watch the raw power of nature. Our regular riverside walk takes us under the bridge that appears in the video, beneath which the flood levels over the past century have been carved into the plinth. Most of them are well above our heads! This last year, flood prevention work has continued down this length of the river, and a new terraced water storage area has been created while the canalised banks have been raised even further; but canalisation, while protecting the centre of town, still moves the problem downstream. There are computerised side sluices which were in use yesterday, but they occasionally jam open, causing havoc and draining the waterway in the locked section upstream. It’s only when you see a whole tree passing down the river faster than you can walk, that you can judge the awesome strength of the flow – and that’s a chastening thought when you think about the environmental dangers we’re courting at the moment.
Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published 50 years ago. I can remember any number of warning signs over the years; acid rain, holes in the ozone layer, typhoons more severe than ever before and the melting of the Arctic ice. It’s been happening for so long we’ve got almost cosy with the idea – “what catastrophe?”, we wonder, when the changes are so slow we can accommodate them easily in our minds. “Climate change?”we say – “it’s like old age creeping up; these are just twinges in the knees, there’s plenty of time to sort things out. So here’s the thing. When nature gets upset or disturbed it’s not like waking a small bear, it’s like opening a pandora’s box of events so unmanageable, so unpredictable and so indiscriminate; that none of them can be summarily dealt with. When catastrophic events that are only predicted to occur once a century turn up three at a time in consecutive years then something’s up – rather like binge drinking for years, when your liver won’t give you the luxury of a gap between “not yet” and “too late”.
Curiously enough – or maybe fortuitously enough – there was another lesson to be learned from the river today. I’ve been saying for months to Madame that I can smell the detergent as we get with 200 yards of Pulteney Weir. Today you could see it as well. This thick layer of grey foam had caught my eye as a useful visual aid for showing the speed of the flow, earlier in our walk. Here, in the backwash next to the flood relief sluice, there was a floating layer of foam a foot deep. Less than a mile upstream we’ve seen people wild swimming below Grosvenor bridge. Here’s why that might be a dangerous idea, because quite aside from the danger of getting into trouble with underwater obstacles – the kind that killed a school friend when I was twelve – this stuff, the detergent, doesn’t make its own way into the river via a separate pipe marked “not too bad”. It comes via the overflows from the sewage works dotted along the banks. When torrential rain comes – as it does ever more frequently these days – the usual legal niceties controlling the treatment works are automatically suspended and raw sewage flows out straight into the river. The detergent foam may be an indicator; it may be a menace in its own right – rich, as it is, with phosphates; but even then it’s not as immediately dangerous as the other chemical, bacterial and viral contaminants that we’ve drained into it from our kitchens and bathrooms.
I mentioned a similar problem in a newspaper column years ago and was unceremoniously chucked out of a fly fishing club for bringing its waters into disrepute. Hi guys – still fishing in your own shit?
So there it is – you can’t escape the worries even during a quiet walk up the river. On the bright side they’ve just installed the first new bridge across the river for 100 years, for walkers and cyclists only which, predictably, has brought out the trolls who call it ‘the bridge that goes from nowhere to nowhere’. In fact it creates a safe route from the South to the North side of the city without using the Mad Max roundabouts along the main car route. Here are a couple of photos: –
The crane that lifted the bridge into place was a 170 ton crawler crane that arrived on over twenty low loaders to be assembled on site. It was awesome – the biggest crane I’ve ever seen; and yet when I was admiring it the security guard said “Oh that’s only a small one – the one at the Hinkley Point Power Station is twice as big”. Unsurprisingly the crane attracted a crowd of admiring men (and their less admiring partners). What is it about hyper-powerful machinery that gets us so excited? On the other had if it came to a tug of war between the crawler crane and the river in full spate I reckon the river would win without even breaking a sweat.
For all the pleasure and education that natural history television has brought us I often wonder whether it has falsely domesticated our sense of the wild. So often we read stories of people getting attacked when they climb over security fences to get closer to the animals in zoos and wildlife parks and it may be that a contributory factor (apart from being an idiot) is the sense that the wild is there for our entertainment. Almost all our attempts to ‘tame’ nature are hubristic. I mentioned Hinkley Point earlier and thought Chernobyl even as I typed it. The last iteration of the flood prevention scheme here broke down, they say, due to a software error, and dozens of residential boats were sunk, leaving many people homeless. Here’s a bigger video of the river at Pulteney Weir today:-
By 5.00am I was wide awake and in the kitchen today. Yesterday I resumed breadmaking after a break since August when we put ourselves on a low carb diet; and, notwithstanding all my protests that it’s impossible to make a really satisfying 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf, I went ahead and started one anyway.
We survived the first lockdown by cooking (not so bad) but also eating far too many portions of comfort food; bread, cakes, biscuits and preserves and thus it came to pass that we were becoming more generously proportioned than is good for us; in fact we were as fat as Christmas hogs. The last three months of frugality have worked well, we’ve both lost approaching a couple of stone and the threat of nameless but horrible consequences has receded – no doubt like the devil seeking an opportune moment. I won’t bore you with the self glorifying details but there were two particular milestones – rediscovering my waist, and then a joyful reconciliation with a load of clothes that had been folded up and stored with a sigh years ago when it all started. Hilariously, I also discovered that when my old jeans were properly installed around my waist rather than clinging precariously under my belly I no longer needed the shortest leg length. Toulouse Lautrec eat your heart out!
The challenge with wholemeal sourdough is to get it to rise without the sharp edged bran damaging the structure by puncturing the bubbles of carbon dioxide. Those of us of a certain age will remember the Grant loaf – often as hard and dense as it was possible for a dough to be. But Doris Grant had one thing absolutely right; wholemeals don’t need as much kneading, and they ferment quickly, so leaving them for too long is more likely to lead to a collapsed dough than a life-changing loaf. My idea was to cut out the second rise altogether and see what happened; I just had my illumination at exactly the wrong moment and so I started the batter at a time which ensured I would be awake at 4.00am worrying about the dough overflowing the banneton. The idea is to catch the dough when a poke with a finger creates an indentation that feels springy and mends itself immediately. This morning I missed the optimal moment by a couple of hours and a dangerous looking muffin top was just overhanging the banneton (reminding me of my old jeans) , but mercifully the loaf forgave me and with a good sprinkle of rice flour as lubricant it slid from the peel into the hot oven without collapsing.
Yesterday the sun shone and so we took ourselves for a long walk along the canal and back – about eight miles in all. Aside from the cherry blossom I also spotted winter heliotrope in flower on the canalside. In fact there were intimations of life and growth everywhere, if you took the time to search them out. But the other thing we noticed was how much larger the population of permanent narrow boat residents has become. At a time when decent housing in Bath is beyond reach for so many young people, quite a few have taken to the water in a range of boats from the spick and span to the downright messy. In fact one of the floating homes we saw yesterday isn’t a narrow boat at all but an improvised raft.
A little further on was another boat stacked so high with stored artifacts and second hand timber it seemed to be anticipating a siege –
Are we supposed to get annoyed about this? To me it shows resilience and, after all, people have to live somewhere and if we allow a housing crisis to develop we have no right to criticise the improvised methods of survival that desperate people are obliged to adopt.
The highlight of our walk was a conversation with a young man who is developing an organic smallholding on an unpromising strip of land between the canal and the railway line. There are several such allotments dotted along the canal and this one was well stocked with pigs, goats, chickens, geese, ducks and one or two exotics in the background. A strip of land that would otherwise be producing nothing but brambles is coming to life and producing food in a largely self-sufficient way. What was so nice about our conversation was that notwithstanding maybe fifty years of difference in our ages, we shared the same experiences and enthusiasm for low impact and sustainable agriculture. I’ve just started reading the recently published “A small farm future” by Chris Smaje – you should check it out – it’s a closely argued book that repays slow and careful reading, but if our conversation with the young smallholder yesterday is anything to go by; the ideas that inspired and motivated us in the seventies and which have been so diminished and derided within this grim era of neoliberal economics, have been slowly gathering momentum and heft in the background. There’s a whole community down on the canal and it’s functioning with its own distinct (and distinctly more sustainable) culture. In my darker moments I’ve sometimes feared that everything we believed in and worked for over the past fifty years has been crushed, and that there’s no-one left to pass all the accumulated experience on to. After our long walk we came back to the flat with more of a spring in our step because there are signs of hope along the canal and in many other places. Goodness only knows how this will play out over the coming decades, but yesterday it felt as if the cultural tectonic plates really are moving – too slowly for some, no doubt – but that’s the way of the paradigm shift. For decades there is nothing but almost inaudible questioning of the status quo, the way we do things round here – and then suddenly one day it all clicks. Like sourdough, the best things are worth waiting for – and I think I’m about to have to eat my own words about the impossibility of creating good 100% wholemeal sourdough. Let’s have a taste!
My religious upbringing began in a Primitive Methodist Sunday school – don’t get hung up on the primitive word, it was anything but that, but it’s been a long road to escape the pervading sense of imminent punishment for inadvertently breaking one of the many and mostly unwritten rules. It didn’t seem to trouble some of the members much that they broke the rules themselves when it suited them. One of the leaders was outed in the local papers for selling flick knives in his shop (his defence was that if he didn’t sell them someone else would). Among the close families of the devout faithful were more black sheep than you could shake a stick at. Jack, the local baker, was OK as long as he drove a horse and cart after he stopped off at the Foresters at lunch time for a few (no, a lot of) rough ciders because the horse would take him home. In an electric float he was a menace. In fact alcohol was the principal demon that needed exorcising. I even once saw Gilbert the grave digger sitting swigging from a bottle with his feet dangling in a half-dug grave.
The Sunday School was tucked in, up an alley and next door to a small slaughterhouse behind the church and so we could hear the sheep being driven up the lane and then listen to an endless sermon that always involved a lot of smiting and the sacrifice of lambs. There was even a very large image of a lamb – more of a tup, I’d say, waving a flag and with a rather smug face that regarded us from the big window with a superior glint in its eye. The smiting often had a surprisingly modern set of references; mostly outing everyday sins which, although we were children, made us understand that an infinitude of suffering in the fiery furnace was all there was to look forward to. Amongst the eternally damned, it seemed, were any number of local people who’d pissed off the minister. Later I discovered that many of the congregation were predestinarians who believed themselves to be saved whatever they did. I never had that confidence. Once, when one of the local shopkeepers died in the night I just thought he must have had it coming.
Then there were the worms that would surely consume us; although I was never sure whether we would be eaten alive before or after the fiery furnace bit. I’ve spent much of my life trying to find a kinder way of understanding God. This post isn’t entirely off piste even for me. If I need to find an explanation for my occasional silences, one reason is that the Calvinistic silt at the bottom of my subconscious occasionally breaks out in a debilitating fog. Well furnished dystopian visions come easily to me, so be warned about what follows.
“Hell is full of amateur musicians: music is the brandy of the damned.
George Bernard Shaw
I think Shaw was being a bit unfair there. We might remember that one of the stories told about Robert Johnson was that he’d sold his soul to the devil in return for his prodigious talent as a guitar player. Music gets a bad press but we only get really good at it by going through the really bad stage first – like gardening and cooking; but what sets it apart is that at any level it has such power to move and inspire that it almost invites occult explanations.
After thirty years of complete immersion I gave up making and listening to music when I retired, because at some unconscious level I thought I could purge myself of it. It scared me; opened doors I wanted to keep firmly closed. Bach felt like the mind of God and – to level the metaphor just a bit – so did Patti Smith and countless others. A falling cadence in the Paolo Conte song “Max” felt so good it was like pressing the button on the excessive pleasure machine. So after five years of abstinence I decided it was time to risk it once again, and so – once again – the Potwell Inn is full of music.
Which is how I found myself listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams 3rd, aka Pastoral – symphony. It was as if I’d never heard it before – so full of darkness, loss and foreboding; enough properly to stir the mud in my pond. I did a quick search and discovered that even the composer had thought its presumed association with lambs gambolling in the fields was truly off the mark. What it did for me was to remind me of a strange visitation I’d once experienced in Gloucestershire. I was standing on a narrow packbridge and looking up through the woods towards Damery Lake when I became aware of an invisible presence. Specific as these visitations always are, it was an army officer – a captain – who was both in the midst of a first world war battle somewhere in Northern France, and simultaneously standing next to me. These were his woods and in particular this was his lake, and his remembrance of them in the hell of the battle had imprinted themselves upon the place and revealed themselves to me almost a hundred years later. By an almost Jungian coincidence, Ralph Vaughan Williams had first conceived of the music that was to become the Third Symphony – serving as a medical orderly in Northern France in 1916.
In this past week, waiting for the results of the US elections that sense of foreboding was everywhere. Thank goodness there’s been a chink of light at last, but in darkest Sunday School mode as I was by then, I have been fighting off the feeling that we’re not taking this crisis seriously enough. Yes of course we’ve been busy on the allotment but it somehow feels that our frantic horticultural activism is a form of displacement activity. Writing about the seed order or making stock seems such an inadequate response to what’s happening.
Populism as it’s become known is like bindweed – it can’t be eradicated by covering it with a bit of plastic or an old carpet. There are no nostrums, no easy ways or short cuts because the only thing that will remove the infestation is the slow careful removal of every fragment of root. Empty blowhard patriotism needs to be called out for the dangerous fraud it’s become, because the bridge back to any sort of imaginary golden age has been blown up for ever. Even Elgar hated the way that ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ had been hijacked and pressed into service as a jingoistic anthem to British superiority. There’s no point in pretending that with a few minimal alterations and a couple of byelaws we can go back to our old comfortable ways. It’s over.
Suddenly it feels like the autumn of 1939 all over again. I’ve mentioned here before that I’ve been reading Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal and that seems like a poetic reprise on the theme of Ralph Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony. Then yesterday I listened to a recording of Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl”. Even as I write this the radio is trumpeting a successful Covid vaccine and I can hear the cheer going up across the world.
Let’s get back to the good old days and buy some Pfizer shares. Let’s crack open another bottle of champagne and do some deals; fill our barns with chlorinated chicken and soya beans and build more walls – walls against disease, against migrants, against starvation, against rising tides, and let’s throw that communist Jeremiah into the pit again.
But it won’t do. The awful fruits of our greed and – let’s be honest – stupidity are slouching towards Jerusalem once more and the sky is dark with (organic) chickens, coming home to roost. Years ago, late one evening just before Christmas I went to Temple Meads railway station to collect one of the waifs and strays that occasionally crossed our path (she still owes me the twenty quid I loaned her to buy a ticket back to Ireland). I was standing alone on the empty platform, when a drunk man approached out of nowhere (I must have that kind of face) and ranted at me for fully half an hour about his perfidious and about to be ex wife and her unreasonable behaviour. Every few minutes he would interrupt his torrent of hatred and ask the time. I would tell him and he would rejoin his bilious monologue. Eventually he said – “How come you always know the time without looking at your watch?” I replied that if he looked up, he would see that the station clock was immediately above his head.
The facts of our dangerous situation are directly in front of us – we just need to pause and look.
Racing the weather today, we were up at the allotment early to try to get the pond finished before the storms arrive at the weekend. This has been quite a steep learning curve because it’s the first time I’ve ever built one – and every step in the process took longer than I’d anticipated; but you can see the process in the photos above.
I changed my mind at the last minute and reshaped the pool with three distinct and level steps rather than one continuous slope. There was a bit of a worry about something like a hedgehog not being able to scramble out across a very steep and slippery slope. I once rescued one from a kitchen drain where it had become firmly stuck and inundated with waste water from the sink. It took some getting out but in the end, after a feed, a wash in clean water and some mollycoddling, it made its way back to wherever it had come from. Hedgehogs are in such decline now that we can’t afford to lose a single one. So, after reshaping the slope, we lined the hole with two layers of underlay and then fiddled the waterproof membrane into place with a good deal of muffled cursing and even more rather untidy pleating. It was like wrapping the negative space of a very awkward birthday present, but after about an hour we were ready to start filling with water.
Luckily there has been enough rain to fill the water butts with clean water, and so we used our generator to power a very nifty pump and shift about 500 litres into the pond in a surprisingly short time. All the while the pond was filling we adjusted the lining to avoid stressing or stretching it and then, once it was filled and as smooth as we could make it, I refilled the outside of the frame with thirty of the bags of topsoil I’d removed and stored a few days ago – so that amounted to half a ton of water and the same amount of topsoil, no wonder my back is aching!
The plan now is to surround three sides of the pond with insect friendly, tall flowering plants and leave the paved side open for visiting animals to take a drink – all of which we hope to capture on a camera trap. Obviously we’ll also plant the pond up with water loving plants and with luck, next year we’ll give at least one of the local toads somewhere to spawn. We’re also moving tall herbs like lovage, angelica and dill, mixed with sunflowers for the birds, alongside the paved area, and hopefully I’ll have finished a pergola from which we’ll hang bird feeders.
Does this all sound a bit eccentric? I also had next year’s seed order in my pocket and tucked in at the end is a list of new fruit trees; a Shropshire damson, Victoria plum, Conference pear and a Bramley cooking apple – oh and new strawberries, some primocane blackberries (just now appearing in the UK, I think they were developed in the US); a Tayberry and a Japanese wineberry – all this, remember, on our 250 square metres. I could go on about the need to grow as much of our own food as possible, but lurking in the background is a rather deeper and even more spiritual pursuit. There are no prizes for figuring out that the earth is in a mess at the moment. Bad politics, bad economics and bad science have led us into a predictably bad place, and gardening, especially gardening with food, beauty and wildlife all sharing in the enterprise, is a chance to hold on to those precious values that we’ll need if we want to rediscover what being fully human feels like.
My inner critic whispers ‘why bother spending all that money when you’ll probably be dead in twenty years time?’ – and that’s true. But is it so pointless to lift our spirits, to set an example of what’s possible with time and a bit of hard work and to feed ourselves well in the process? Putting a little beauty back into life could never be a waste of time, and every worthwhile project needs to embrace the risk of failure – otherwise we’d never allow ourselves to fall in love.
Our allotment is so much more than a way of feeding ourselves and our family – it’s love letter to the earth.
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
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.
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.
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!)
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.