Without the farmers there is no solution to the environmental crisis

I think this is a Katahdin sheep – photographed in St Davids this week

I ought to agree with George Monbiot more than I do. To all intents we’re on the same side of the argument when it comes to the climate catastrophe that’s bearing down on us; and yet there’s one theme that keeps on coming up in his columns, films and writing that’s typified in his column in today’s Guardian.

He reiterates his argument that governments are acting far too slowly to the crisis but then, in a throwaway line without any attempt to stand it up he writes this:

But net zero commitments by other sectors work only if farmland goes sharply net negative. That means an end to livestock farming and the restoration of forests, peat bogs and other natural carbon sinks.

George Monbiot in his Guardian column.

I’ve just finished reading Nicolette Kahn Hyman’s “In defence of beef” and I’m now reading Charles Massy’s book “Call of the warbler” which is a brilliant and passionate book about the Australian farmers who are trying to rectify the terrible damage done to their soils by decades of intensive farming and heavy chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, justified by the mindset he terms “the mechanical mind”.

Amongst a pile of challenging and hopeful ideas, one in particular comes to the fore – it’s to do with rewilding and reforesting. Thinking just about water runoff, one of the ideas that keeps getting pushed is tree planting. I don’t know enough about soil hydrology to put numbers to this but it seems possible that the amount of water capture achieved by tree planting would be very much smaller than the capture that could be achieved by the combination of tree planting and soil improvement. What emerges from Alan Savory’s methodology is that undergrazing is as dangerous as overgrazing in promoting desertification. Bringing back beavers to slow runoff is obviously a good idea, but it’s a stage too late by the time runoff reaches the streams and rivers. Here’s where there’s a possibility of working with farmers to improve upland areas which are often overgrazed, by subsidising tree planting (right kind of long-lived mixed woodland that could be possible in lower regions) and holistic grazing management that would rebuild soil structure and increase water holding capacity. What is clear is that if we just put a fence around upland areas and do nothing, the results would be unpredictable and possibly adverse; quite aside from driving out an established culture of small farms that manage the landscape on our behalf. Farmers – hill farmers particularly – are a conservative bunch and would need persuading that a different way of managing flocks and landscape could still provide a (likely subsidised) income and guaranteed future. To quote from “In defence of beef” – it’s not the cow but the how!

The takeaway point from these and many other studies – I think immediately of Simon Fairlie’s “Meat, a benign extravagance” – but I could as easily cite Sir Albert Howard’s “An Agricultural Testament” or a dozen other writers – the contribution that livestock can make to soil recovery if, (this is the important bit) – if – grazing is part of a holistic rotation, mob grazing is one type.

So after a fifty year obsession with intensive farming and the inexorable rise in consumption of junk food we’re starving and dying prematurely in a sea of waste, while species extinctions rise and pollution threatens our rivers. My point is that our problems aren’t caused by livestock farming per se but by intensive industrial farming. Of course we need to change the how of livestock farming, and of course we will necessarily have to eat much less, but far higher quality meat. The evidence is mounting that it’s not meat eating that’s causing the epidemic of ill health, but refined sugar and junk food. If only George Monbiot would read the evidence he would be able to take a much more balanced view of the potential for farming to mitigate some of the most pressing climate issues. It’s a fact that well managed grazing can capture carbon and increase water retention while providing high quality food at the same time. Until human beings learn how to digest grass and twigs – OK cellulose – we will probably need to access some high quality protein, vitamins and trace elements by consuming meat. It’s not coherent to argue that we should all be vegans. We in the UK are stuck/blessed with a vast amount of grassland that’s unsuitable for any other agricultural use than grazing, and all the oughts in the world will not grow a single soybean on a Welsh hill farm. Oughts and is’s are not – as any first year ethics student will know – interchangeable.

To return to an earlier point, undergrazing is as bad for the soil as overgrazing and so any sort of walking away strategy for so-called rewilding is a recipe for ecological disaster – just a different sort of disaster from the one being caused by intensive industrial farming. So while I agree with 90% of what George Monbiot writes, simply ending livestock farming would just throw the baby out with the bathwater. Charles Massy’s book shows several instances where farmers have reduced fertilizer and pesticide use to zero, improved biodiversity, reduced fossil fuel use and increased profitability all at the same time. Here in the UK, the much talked about Knepp wilding project uses grazing livestock as an integral part of their strategy.

In our compartmentalized way of thinking it’s easy to divide the climate catastrophe into ring fenced enclosures. We think that it would be a good thing to increase pollinating insects, but don’t think much about the role that insect predators, sawflies, hoverflies could play in reducing pesticide use. The whole chain of nature is one, vastly complex web of interactions. The only way to address the problem is to treat it holistically, not to imagine that we can change nature by cutting out the bits we don’t like. Ending, or attempting to end livestock farming would lead to the degradation of landscapes, the loss of habitat and biodiversity, and the destruction of human skills and communities that persisted for generations until the industrial mechanical model took over. Without enlisting the farmers to replace industrial farming with smaller and local mixed farms with strong ties to their communities and short supply lines; without reducing fossil fuel use on farms and putting aside our addiction powerful earth destroying machinery and chemicals; without transforming our entire food system, we shall see ever more destructive exploitation of the best croplands accompanied by the profound loss of the grassland biodiversity. Let’s say it – no more lapwing, skylark or any of the ground nesting birds.

I go back over and again to Michael Pollan’s dictum – “Eat food, not too much, mostly veg.”

Good days and bad ones

But first, an extraordinarily heartwarming conversation with my eight year old grandson. We were in Dyrham Park, walking along the edge of Whitefield – a stunning wildflower meadow which we haven’t managed to see for two years because of Covid. The grandchildren had all been dosed with antihistamine because their mum knew they’d be rolling around in the grass at some point during the day. It happens that their sister is given the drug as a liquid, orally and to save time the other two also got it from a small syringe this time. So oldest grandson and me were chatting about all this and we wandered into the topic of words that sound the same but are spelt differently and have different meanings. Orally and aurally came up of course – and then he said to me quite unexpectedly – “they’re called homophones”. I could have cried with joy at him even knowing the word, and -in the way that children are – he was a bit surprised (but rather pleased) at how thrilled I was. High fives all round. I love going for walks with him because he’s so eager to learn. Each time we go out I teach him the names of different flowers, plants and trees, and tell him their stories. It lights up the day for both of us.

But at the very top of this page – the one that comes up every time – there’s a photo of the same grandson walking down an avenue of limes, holding hands with his uncle Jonah’s hand. Sadly the avenue of trees no longer looks the same – and it’s for the oddest reason.

The aspect of the landscape in that particular shot caught my eye, not so much for its natural beauty, but because in reality it is so artificial. The lower leaves in the regular avenue of limes is – or rather was – clipped to such an even height above the ground it reminded me of the famous Marienbad film setting. But this wasn’t achieved by platoons of gardeners but by a wild herd of roe deer which has lived there for a couple of hundred years. Sadly the herd was all slaughtered during the Covid outbreak because of a persistent outbreak of bovine TB. It was all very hush hush in the way it happened; probably in anticipation of a fiercely negative response from the thousands of visitors who’ve grown to love them. If you live in the UK you’ll already know about the furore that’s arisen over the slaughter of a single llama for the same reason. However it’s done now and we’re promised the deer herd will be replaced as soon as possible. I simply don’t know whether the vaccines that exist for farm cattle would work for deer, but if they do I’d be saddened by the fact they weren’t used. There may be other reasons, though. Some visitors had no idea how to treat the deer as wild animals, and one ranger told me they’d had to intervene when a large group of visitors tried to corral a section of the flock in order to take photos! Deer, like all wild animals, respond badly to stress and I’ve long wondered whether TB isn’t a symptomatic disease of stressed animals.

The upshot of all this is that the grassland character is rapidly altering, with rank grasses taking over; and the lime avenue is looking distinctly ragged now. It’s amazing how quickly this has happened. The countryside as expressed in the great English parks is about as artificial as it gets; and it’s easy to see, particularly at the higher level of the park – the scrub will very soon take over when it’s no longer grazed by the deer. Eco purists and some rewilders might think this is a good idea; but I’m not so sure. All landscapes are artificial in one way or another, depending on the management strategies in place. Wildflower meadows are no more “natural” than municipal parks if by natural you mean left completely to their own devices. Each type of landscape – even (or especially) abandoned industrial sites – develops its own unique ecology. Maintaining peat bogs requires minute attention to water levels, for instance. So diversity is best maintained by deliberate management. I just don’t see how Dyrham Park can be maintained as it was – without its deer herd.

But finally, the bad news is that the badgers on the allotment eventually found a way past our barriers and finished off the sweetcorn. The video at the top was probably the marauder himself leaving the scene of the crime. And so, the fencing will be strengthened even more next year. Luckily we had a least a few feeds, and although we could wish they hadn’t broken in; we wouldn’t want to see them disappear altogether. Once again, maintaining ecological balance has its pluses and minuses. A couple of days ago I lamented the fact that there are no hedgehogs on the site, but of course badgers are one of the main predators of hedgehogs. Whenever we intervene in nature, however worthy our intentions, the results are often full of unintended consequences.

Farming, gardening, house building and transport infrastructure – to name just four of many possibilities – are all loaded with ecological consequences and ethical choices. Even a visit to a National Trust attraction involves ethical choices. The earth is a place for moral grown-ups; or at least it is if we want to save our place in it. Occasionally, on my bleaker days, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to leave it to the plants and animals who got here first; but usually I just think – better get on with it then.

Riddling out the twenty first century dross

One leaf fluttering,

tells of autumn

0ver all the country.

From “A Zen Forest” Translated by Soiku Shigematsu – White Pine Press, Buffalo
Working at the riddle

There’s a certain mindlessness about riddling compost. I sit in front of the open bay with a large bin between my knees and the riddle resting on two short lengths of wood. When the riddle has passed all the friable compost I throw the dross into a bucket and reach again with a spade to take another spit and repeat the process – over and over. Whatever escapes the bucket gets into my boots and over the path. The bits that don’t pass both the sieve and my close inspection after each load give me pause for thought. You might think the dross comprises mainly sticks and stones too large to pass through the half inch mesh, but that’s not quite true. Most of the riddled out waste is bits of plastic from old pots, the remains of so-called biodegradable teabags, old compostable sacks and metal pegs. Of course there are intractable pieces of wood in there; smooth pebbles that come from who knows where? – maybe the beach on Lleyn where we harvested seaweed for the asparagus bed two years ago. Oh and the inevitable cabbage stumps which, however hard you smash them with the back of an axe seem to resist the great carbon cycle.

Next door to the bay I’m clearing is one that’s now full to the brim and badly needing a thorough turn. On the surface are the barely wilted remains of plants we’ve only just placed there; but as I turn the heap and dig down further, things get darker and less recognisable. There’s no great smell but an abundance of slugs and snails near the top, along with wood lice, and minor league chompers in their thousands. Then as we go further we find worms in glorious writhing abundance. Very occasionally a startled rat jumps over my shoulder and scuttles off, low to the ground. I used to try to kill them with the yard fork but the very act of angrily striking at their sleek bodies seemed sacrilegious.

After a couple of months undisturbed in the next bin – the one I was clearing yesterday – and minus the twenty first century rubbish there is something that looks and smells just like earth which, of course, it is. But not just ordinary earth because in its return journey from the harvest it’s gone through the insides of a dozen little animals; been processed by fungi and finally passed through a worm – maybe two worms – richer from its passage than anything you could buy from a garden centre. Not just compost, but our compost; primed with all the fungi, bacteria, colloids and nutrients that belong in this tiny patch of the earth’s surface. Our allotment and our compost. No wonder the plants love it!

So the act of riddling, because it’s so repetitive, has a meditative quality as I participate in the alchemical process that renders green plant material mixed with cardboard and wood chip into soil. I watch each large bucket filling – as much as I can comfortably carry into the polytunnel – pondering on the process that yields such a wonderful substance and rehearsing in my mind where it should go. When I built the four bay composting setup two years ago I had no idea whether we would ever be able to fill it. I just knew the quantity of compost we would need to spread a couple of inches over the whole plot and hoped for the best. Last autumn we were in a hurry and so we just spread our first batches unsieved and picked out the plastic as it rose to the surface. It was so rich in nitrogen we experienced an explosion of leaves, often at the expense of fruit. Better prepared this year, we’ll treat it like the expensive luxury it is and sieve it all properly. Riddling is hard on the back and you definitely value the things you’ve worked hardest on, and so we intend to mix it with topsoil and a little sand for drainage.

The little quotation from “A Zen Forest” reminded me of the way we read the seasonal signs on the allotment. I guess it’s easy to feel you’ve done something when you use a strimmer or a powerful machine to shorten the hours it takes, but the din of the machinery blots out every natural sound as well as filling your nose with petrol fumes. These simple, repetitive manual jobs can be done in thoughtful silence and while you reflect, the allotment gets the chance to speak as well. It’s even better when the silence is filled with gratitude. The zen sayings caution against trying to explain or describe what is essentially beyond words. One of the sharper ones reminds that words are the hitching posts that you tie doneys to! Nonetheless, even if words can only get you to the foothills of the mountain they have some worth so long as you know when to stop.

Mindless tasks aren’t remotely mindless it transpires. They can be mindful beyond the mind’s capacity to explain. As the seasons progress we move from winter through spring and summer and then approach autumn once more. Each season brings love and loss; generosity beyond our dreams and hardship as well. It seems corny and defeated to embrace them all equally as teachers; but the machine has yet to be invented that can control the way of things – for which we can thank whatever higher beings we might follow, and be thankful for those challenging riddles in every historical culture that force us to abandon the fierce consciousness of the machine.

Our twenty first century culture is destroying the earth – we’re quite sure of it now; and so each moment of contemplative silence feeds us as the compost will feed the ground. We shall grow together; minds and compost alike sifted by riddles.

Say Hi and thanks to Minnesota!

Minnesota Midget – delicious!

This is the very first melon we’ve ever grown – largely – I should say, on account of the new polytunnel with its controllable warm environment in an unpredictable year. The packet of six seeds didn’t leave much room for failure but after a kick start in a warm propagator we choose the three most healthy looking plants and put them in at the end of the the tunnel nearest the door. We saw the variety recommended by a number of gardeners – most of them North American – but there was no problem getting seeds in the UK. We knew they’d be – well – midgets (the one in the photo is no more than 3″ across) and we had no great expectation of getting a crop at our first attempt but they’ve done well and this evening we had our first taste. The melon was fragrant; sweet, and with a flavour that’s so good it’s hard to describe. We’ve only allowed three fruits per plant to develop so it’s not going to be a feast – but wow. In Plato’s way of looking at it, we’d inadvertently eaten the actual melon of which all other melons are shadows on the wall. The ur melon. On our table and in our mouths. I must stop writing before I get creepy about it!

It’s a shame that Yotam Ottolenghi has used the title “Plenty” for his book because that’s exactly the word I’d most like to use of the allotment at the moment. Late July and August are always peculiar months because the spring crops have all been cleared and the first flush of growth is looking tired. There’s a slightly blown feeling at this time of year. For a start both weeds and pests present a big problem. Once the asparagus is harvested we have to constantly watch the growing fronds to keep them clear of the beetles – finger and thumb style I’m afraid. The bindweed becomes almost impossible wherever it’s managed to put out a few leaves in the previous weeks, and the first batch of flowers and flowering herbs need cutting back ruthlessly to encourage them to flower again. Fruit trees look a bit unkempt before their summer pruning and it’s easy to get fed up.

But on the plus side there are tomatoes and cucumbers in abundance and more runner beans than we can eat so the possibility of a pickling and chutney binge hoves into view. Piccalilli is a favourite with us. It gets used as a Christmas present for the boys, and it’s terribly handy for making surpluses last into winter. Green tomatoes and beetroots all get turned into relishes and chutneys, and cucumbers are pickled. Chillies are dried, with tomatoes and the tomatoes are also turned into sauces and stock jars to be added wherever the need arises later on. At this time of the year half the time is spent in the kitchen and the danger is that we don’t get to eat our own vegetables because we’re too busy or too tired. Even fermenting gets a bash although Madame often eyes the jars suspiciously – especially when ectoplasmic layers develop on the surface. I just think it’s a cultural thing. Most year we are plagued by a superabundance of courgettes but on the site as a whole the yields are poor this year. On the other hand we’ve harvested some lovely big aubergines.

But one of the big problems comes when a crop like red cabbage does especially well; because you get far too much to cope with. Luckily we have a scheme on the site to share surpluses with a local charity. Allotment sites are a bit like villages. They can be alarmingly insular and gossipy, but an awful lot of sharing and helping out goes on. Seeds, experience, tools and advice are shared and when we ask a neighbour to water the tunnel if we’re away then we can return the favour at another time – which reminds me there’s a loofah plant in the greenhouse that we were given and against the odds it’s thriving in a tiny pot but desperately needs a bigger berth.

But all work and no play etc. is a poor strategy so we’ve been taking advantage of any spare hours to go walking. Today we took a long loop around Batheaston and Bathampton following the river and the canal. On the road leading towards the George (good pub) I took three photographs within a couple of hundred yards as we crossed the bypass, the main railway line and the Kennet and Avon Canal. Here they are – three hundred years of history in a quarter of a mile. I forbear to mention the climate situation just this once except to mention that a goods train passed us pulling forty five large lorry containers; taking thousands of tons of freight off our polluted roads. Anyway; no lecture tonight – just the photo. You can draw your own conclusions.

But one other observation. It can’t be a surprise to learn that I love the wildflowers on the river and canalside. The succession is fascinating. Hedge Parsley gives way to hogweed and hemlock water dropwort in wet places too. But today there were the wonderful purple stalks of wild angelica as well. The balsams were in flower too – pestilential though they may be. And the trees have a particular density and sound that marks out the season quite as well as any picture. When it rains on trees in full leaf there’s a powerfully evocative smell and sound that doesn’t appear at any other time. If you were blindfold you’d know that only in summer that fleeting sound defines the season absolutely. As we walked through Bath today I spotted this house – the remains of a whole terrace that slipped down the hill with many casualties long ago. It was the density of the trees around it that reminded me of the rain sound.

The storm that’s coming

So what I’d rather be writing is a bit of a lamentation about the fact that our good friend the badger – about whom I wrote so warmly only two days ago – managed to limbo past the upturned crates and multiple bits of chicken wire, sheep wire, and underneath the lowest branches of a cordon apple to get right into the middle of the three sisters experiment where he must have sat his fat bottom on top of a squash plant whilst munching a couple of our cobs. The fencing – in the traditional British allotment style – was a bit too haphazard for this crafty and heavyweight poacher who must have laughed out loud as he scoffed our food. Nevertheless we shall love him through gritted teeth because he’s family now; a bit like a teenage boy (we had three) who can empty a fridge without opening the door. Anyway enough selfish angst! because right now the badger is the least of our worries.

And precisely how big does a worry have to be to be considered an existential worry anyway? Both two and four legged poachers and browsers are a problem, but I don’t wake up in a bewildered daze dreaming about them at five in the morning. It seems a bit overblown to react so strongly to the three greatest challenges of our age – our economic structure, our climate emergency and the mass extinction of creatures, the very existence of which we are often unaware. And yet ……..

“Your tears of frustration are important to us, please call again”

This week we’ve seen (and experienced in person in one case) – floods, unseasonable storms, drought and enormous forest fires and yet our government not only seems unprepared – but unwilling to engage seriously at all with the coming storm. I’d love to be able to write lyrically about the allotment; its minor setbacks and little triumphs. I’d love to think that if enough of us got into gardening the crisis would disappear; but it’s not true. It’s not possible to sort the mess out without mending our broken politics; kicking out the grifters, the panderers, the greedy, the entitled and the downright lame. If I wake at night it’s because it seems as if there’s no-one at the wheel. “Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” is what being on-message seems to mean. Panglossian optimism is being broadcast on every print and broadcast medium followed by the small rider – “This is a recorded message – your tears of frustration are important to us, please try again”.

Well everything is not for the best at all, but thinking at the national and international level just sucks the oxygen out of my brain. With the clowns in charge you’d be looking for a very large miracle indeed. So is there a way through without suffering paralysis or indulging in pointless gestures? Think ……. neighbourhood; district; town; county; region; parliament? At which word did your eyes glaze over?

We live in Bath. The problems here are not so different from the problems elsewhere. We have the challenge of tourism which the local authority seems to treasure above any other possible economic activity. We have an enormous problem with housing, poverty, homelessness, overstretched healthcare and traffic – the really big one. Every one of these issues arises as we progress through my hierarchy of authorities, but the chance of making a real difference is far greater at the local level. Let’s take food distribution as an example. If we really want to increase locally sourced food with minimum transportation we can campaign locally for farmers markets and more – many more – smallholdings and allotment sites. Local politicians find it much harder to ignore issues that are raised by voters when they are face to face with us. Our part of the solution is to support the new ways and not endlessly snipe at them via social media because we might be mildly inconvenienced by not being allowed to park our Range Rovers on the pavement outside the shops. They put warnings and lurid photos of tumours on cigarette packets; why not on cars?

Can I just spell this out for the record – we need to stop driving so much – no if’s or buts!

I get very agitated by the kind of greenwashed argument that suggests we can carry on exactly as we have been so long as we adopt this, or that, new bit of technology. When I was a child there was just one car in our street – owned by a commercial traveller called George Webb who emigrated to Canada. The only television in our immediate two streets was owned by Terry Winnum’s dad who let us all in to watch the coronation. Back in the day you’d have to fall asleep in the middle of the road for two days to get yourself into a confrontation with a car. Actually we just played there – a whole street full of kids re-running recent history in war games and cowboys and indians in which – because we had been spared any direct knowledge of what had really happened – no-one got hurt. I thought that some men were just born with one leg, and it never occurred to me to wonder why my dad was so prone to getting drunk and having black moods.

Giving up cars in favour of well organised universal and clean public transport would be a huge step in the right direction and it’s not like going back to the so-called dark ages (I’m 74 not 774 years old!) – it’s going forward to a sustainable future and cleaner air almost immediately whilst – if we’re really serious – it might head off floods, droughts, storms, fires and famines further down the line. I don’t hear many people arguing that they’d gladly accept a global catastrophe if it meant they could go on driving their 3 litre SUVs through Bath. Mad Max is only a film after all. Most of the really significant environmental damage has been done in the last 50 or 60 years.

The point is – and I’m desperately sorry (only joking) to disappoint Coco the Prime Minister’s environmental spokesperson – we’ve tried freezing the leftover bread but it didn’t stop the fires in California. In fact we’ve tried just about every trivial, cost free, feelgood and instantly gratifying bit of greenery we could – and nothing has changed. So when the little things don’t work it’s essential that we turn to the big, expensive and culturally challenging things – like engaging with other countries and frightening the readers of the Daily Telegraph – which is all too easy, but anyone who’s still communicating by way of telegraph is going to experience a bit of time delay in the system! Serious change is going to cost serious money – so we might have to abandon plans to tunnel under stonehenge and build half a dozen new airports.

But then, perhaps I should tell you about the first batch of pickled gherkins this season which are excellent. Did I ever mention what wonderful displacement activity gardening is?

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Well yes, Captain Kipper (OK actually Ludwig Wittgenstein) – but what if there’s something you’re trying to articulate that’s so liminal, so at the boundary of a concept, yet to be properly mastered, that words and their meanings need to be forged anew? Surely that’s the work of the poet? and can’t be shirked in favour of silence. Language is endlessly adaptive; always finding ways to speak the previously unsaid, and one of those ideas that’s slowly being forged into speech is the curious relationship we have with nature.

We arrived back from our family get-together in Cornwall and went straight to the allotment, as you might expect. Then we prowled around to see the state of things; set up the trail camera and made plans for today – and today it rained; so we put on our waterproofs and got on with picking out the courgettes that had swollen to blimp size during the week; harvesting tomatoes, aubergines, runner (pole) beans, potatoes, peppers, summer squashes and masses of herbs. As you will know there are only two of us so this season of plenty has to be matched with a positive frenzy of pickling, preserving, boiling, reducing, freezing and fermenting. It’s been a crazy weather year and right now with the jetstream moored south of the UK we’re stuck in a series of lows, bringing cold winds and rain in off the Atlantic – it feels like autumn already.

So today we got wet and yet we both felt completely content just to be there. After finishing harvesting, Madame got on with summer pruning the fruit trees while I wheelbarrowed down enough woodchip to level the path in the polytunnel. There’s a reason for this because our plan is to clear the tunnel completely by the end of August and then we’ll need easy access with a wheelbarrow to bring compost in to feed the beds ready for the winter crops. Later in the kitchen I made stock and prepped a dozen half litre jars ready for tomorrow’s new batch of roasted tomato passata while Madame prepared to cook a bulk batch of ratatouille which freezes very well. All the while I was making sourdough bread and attending to the starters after their week in the fridge.

Perhaps one reason for the rather philosophical opening paragraph was some marvellous video footage of our friend the badger failing to find the sweetcorn beyond two layers of soft net and a maginot line of tagetes and mint – which we make portable by growing it in pots. Badgers hunt by smell and we aim to confuse them as much as possible. The three sisters experiment is exceeding our expectations and we have corn ten feet tall with borlotti plants climbing to the very top, whilst below some fat winter squashes are developing nicely in the shade. It looks a mess but it also looks like a success. The only predator likely to get to them before us is the badger; but since we invested in the trail cam we’ve grown to love the nocturnal intruders. We want to deter them of course but we wish them – with the foxes, squirrels, magpies and even the rats – no harm and the reason for that is that we have begun to see them as having their own inalienable rights over the land. The thought that they’re out prowling during the night gives us as much pleasure as the sound of a tawny owl calling does. We share their taste for the vegetables we grow, but perhaps value them more in their appetite for the slugs, snails and rodents that trouble us. The old binary division between crop and pest is dissolving and it’s that disappearance which demands a new language. The actors haven’t changed at all – badgers love corn and that’s unavoidable. What’s changed is that we are beginning to accept that if we want to save the earth; all those binary distinctions will have to be overcome through an unprecedented change in the way we understand, and therefore speak of our place in nature .

Wheelbarrowing woodchip with the rain running down our necks; stacking the compost heap with a mixture of green waste and wood chip and feeling its rising heat the next day; summer pruning, rooting strawberry runners and sowing chard for the autumn is done not though the domination of nature with powerful tools and chemicals but by attempting to think like a fox or a badger or – more oddly still – to think like a compost heap, or like the earth in a raised bed. It demands that we learn to think like a tomato or a potato; to ask what ails you? as we did today when we were examining what might have been tomato blight but turned out to be (in all probability) didymella stem rot, caused by stress – in turn caused by a poor watering regime. Failure often brings knowledge. Yes we talk to our plants; but more mysteriously – and only when we listen with complete attention – they speak to us in a language we have barely begun to understand, and which stands on its head, centuries of binary thinking through which we believe ourselves to be independent, separate subjects moving through a sea of resource objects. In this new state of being we are (imperfectly) in what Gary Snyder described thirty years ago as a “trans species erotic relationship” with nature; which sounds clumsier today than it did when it was written – but the word erotic captures the sense that this relationship transcends the instrumentality of the old ways and enables powerful feelings for nature which offer a pathway out of imminent destruction. Talking to the trees – it turns out – is a two way conversation as long as we are willing to get over ourselves and listen.

Waiting for Storm Evert

It’s probably not the best time to come to Cornwall for a family birthday party under canvas but there we are – storm Evert is bearing down on us offering gusts of sixty miles and hour, and those campers who haven’t left and gone home, have been busy all day banging in pegs and fixing storm lashings. The next door tent looks like a giant cat’s cradle. We’re strangely excited at the thought of the storm and spent much of the day emptying and filling tanks and preparing for a lock-in while the family – mostly the grandchildren – went paddling in the water. So much of the remainder of my day has been spent reading, and re-reading Gary Snyder, who I’m coming to believe, nailed the coming crisis many decades ago. With very limited phone signal, there isn’t enough bandwidth to show the photo of three red legged partridge who joined us today as they foraged along the hedgeline. And so I’ve picked out a few lines from the essay “Tawny Grammar” which is so beautiful I’ve read it three times in as many weeks. Reading his latest collection of poems – “The Present Moment” is completely liberating, and reading it alongside the opening chapters of his book “A Place in Space” – especially “Notes on the Beat Generation” and “The New Wind” – is an exhilarating challenge to the creative deadness our times. Assuming we get through the night unscathed I’ll write again tomorrow.

American society (like any other) has its own set of unquestioned assumptions. It still maintains a largely uncritical faith in the notion of continually unfolding progress. It cleaves to the idea that there can be unblemished scientific objectivity. And most fundamentally it operates under the delusion that we are each a kind of “solitary knower” – that we exist as rootless intelligences – without layers of localized contexts. Just a “self” and the “world.” In this there is no recognition that grandparents, place, grammar, pets, friends, lovers, children, tools, the poems and songs we remember, are what we think with. Such a solitary mind – if it could exist – would be a boring prisoner of abstractions. With no surroundings there can be no path, and with no path one cannot be free.

Gary Snyder from the essay “Tawny Grammar” in “The Practice of the Wild” – new edition published in 1990

The glory (as well as the devil) – is in the detail

Sorry to use the same photo twice, but as I was making our second batch of elderflower cordial last night I was having a think about the way our prior understanding frames our perception of nature. The tree from which we harvested all our elderflowers this week, is an ornamental cultivar – that’s to say it’s got an extra name; not just Sambucus nigra but Sambucus Nigra “Guincho Purple”; which makes it – let’s be frank – not wild. Strangely in some circles the appellation “wild” confers an extra patina of grace. The tree is extraordinarily beautiful; so much so that one day when I was up at the allotment working I came across a fashion photographer plus assistants surrounding a model clad in the most expensive clothes including a purple leather coat that exactly reflected the colour of the flowers. As I passed the team of a dozen or so people, they parted to let me through and someone asked me in a faintly imperious (lord of the manor to peasant) tone, whether there were any lavatories on the allotments. “No” – I said – but offered the loan of a bucket if the need should be urgent. My offer was not taken up.

So – wild being necessarily good; does the fact that we picked our elderflowers from this effete suburban tree make the resulting cordial taste less authentic? Don’t be silly – it tastes every bit as good and looks superb in sparkling water and I’m planning to make an exotic dessert using the cordial, some prosecco and a couple of leaves of gelatine.

“Wild” and “cultivated” have become a bit of a battleground recently. Wild salmon, for instance, might well be wild in one sense, but if they’re unsustainably fished by industrial trawlers they might not be such a good thing. Almost every vegetable we grow is a cultivar of some sort; carefully cross bred to achieve a particular style of plant. Brussels sprouts for instance have had much of their traditional bitterness bred out of them. But there is one sense in which the closer a vegetable is to its origin, the more robust it’s likely to be. Robust, but not necessarily high yielding. The devil is always in the detail.

I once worked in a satellite radio station back in the wild west days, and over the mixing desk was a large notice saying – “In the event of equipment failure please RTFM”. I asked one of the technical people what it meant and he responded (I’ll paraphrase) -“Read the manual”. I guess it’s our ultimate responsibility to pay attention to the details and make a decision based on the fullest possible information. My much missed friend Don Streatfield always refused to label his honey as “organic” on the grounds that bees foraged wide and far and there was no way you could guarantee that they hadn’t been feeding on chemically treated flowers. The price premium – for him – didn’t justify a barefaced lie.

If I were to describe our elderflower cordial as ‘natural’ I’d be wondering if beet sugar – which I used because I couldn’t find any cane sugar – is as ‘natural as any other. Beet sugar is, after all, produced here but cane sugar has to be shipped around the world. It’s no wonder we throw up our hands and take the easiest course of action.

The glorious aspect of detail comes from a different perspective. Sitting on my desk is a small microscope and pretty well wherever I go I take a hand lens. Passing a very ordinary looking weed and stopping to look more closely often reveals a wonderland of unseen insects and inner structures of breathtaking complexity and beauty. Close attention to details – and especially in reading, close attention to the text – is a marvellous way of getting to know things we don’t understand. Who’d have thought, for instance, that growing wildflowers and digging a pond on the allotment would introduce a whole range of pests I’ve never seen before. In the photograph is the grub of an iris sawfly. We never had any such thing until we dug the pond and planted irises around the edge and now we do. We left them there, of course, because hopefully they’ll provide a meal for a hungry predator.

Another surprise came yesterday as we walked along the river. I was looking at a patch of brambles and wondering if it was going to be a good year for blackberries, when I spotted a leaf that looked completely wrong. Following the peculiar leaf back to the stem I discovered the most blackberry looking prickles you could hope for. So a quick search told me that this was a close relative of the blackberry – not a native so probably a garden escape – known in the US as a dewberry. A new plant I/D for no better reason than paying close attention to a weedy wall in an industrial area of Bath.

Hen party season is back with a vengeance here. Walking down the river a noisy boatload of bride plus friends were enjoying a male striptease dancer, cavorting in a thong on the deck. Two boat dwellers in a total drunken pickle were attempting to swim in the river so the police and an ambulance had been called out. Back home we settled for a sandwich because we were too tired to eat, and looking out we saw four addicts scoring and then injecting themselves – just across from the Potwell Inn. Then one of them lifted up his shirt and another knelt in front of him and tenderly injected whatever it was straight into his belly. Life’s rich tapestry you might say. These young men weren’t disturbing anyone while they destroyed their own lives; but they aren’t getting the help and support they need either.

People ask where we live sometimes and we say “Bath”. “Oh – Baath!” they say, imputing a social class far above where we live. They don’t know the half of it. After a noisy and vitriolic battle to reduce traffic in the city because of our illegal pollution levels, a much weakened Clean Air Zone was introduced a few months ago, pretty well confining its ambitions to pedestrianising the most popular tourist areas. The car lobby had worked day and night to win exemptions for all and sundry and so when the first set of traffic data was released last week we discovered that our traffic had decreased by just about 1%. The devil was in the detail as always, and I guess the majority of readers barely pushed past the triumphalist headline. One of the leading lights of the campaign to cut pollution has been sidelined by her party and has now resigned and joined the Greens. The last thing I want to do is alarm anybody, but is there a hole in the hull of this magnificent ship of state?

Tree talk – joining the dots.

Lovely mature beech – photographed in the grounds of Muncaster Castle, Cumbria in 2017

I’ve just finished reading Suzanne Simard’s newly published book “Finding the Mother Tree” and I’m a bit – well, breathless! – and I’m also slightly ashamed of myself for never having heard about her work before; except that by her own account she’s been regarded with some suspicion by both the forestry industry and the academics too, because her painstaking scientific work was overturning their received wisdom – oh and, of course she’s a woman in an overwhelmingly masculine world. You can get an 18 minute summary of her work on YouTube in her Ted Talk but the book is far fuller and more detailed.

OK so I found parts of it troublingly anthropomorphic – but that turned out to be my problem because in the light of her researches over thirty plus years she has discovered not only that trees communicate with one another (you can read that one once a month in a glossy magazine somewhere), but much more thrillingly that they cooperate; that over time they build huge supportive networks through symbiotic relationships with mycorrhiza which transport so much more than carbon; that the old forests function almost like a biological internet, and that the oldest – mother trees – recognise and nurture their own offspring selectively and strike up mutually beneficial relationships with other species of tree. The forest – she argues – is a perfectly functioning cooperative where mutuality rather than competition rules. Describing all this complexity in human metaphorical terms is entirely justified so long as we understand that it just helps us to embrace the central point she’s making: that just as we have mutually supportive and complex relationships, so too do forests and so to think of them as commodities is to become part of the problem.

Turning a reified version of Nature into a secular object of worship has its millions of followers, but the point here is that our methods of harvesting forests for profit is misguided on many more than aesthetic grounds, or for their capacity to cheer us up in stressful times. The practice of clear cutting forests at once destroys invisible and underground mycorrhizal networks which also embody untold amounts of carbon that is then released into the atmosphere. Clear cutting frequently uses vast amounts of herbicide to kill the weeds and finish off any remaining fungal networks, with the result that newly planted seedlings die because their support network has been destroyed. That’s not to mention the hydrological damage and the incredible damage to wildlife. Depriving humans of a walk in nature comes way down the list of harms.

OK so review (lecture) over I’d urge you to read the book because you really won’t ever feel the same again when you walk through an ancient woodland and feel the decaying sticks crackling underfoot or stoop to pick a fungus: – and when you read that the government wants to drive a railway line through ancient woodland you might see it as a crime against humanity rather than swallow the old economic necessity lie.

As I put the book down, a picture of my grandfather’s smallholding in the Chilterns came to mind. Beyond the house he built for himself, the land shaded into beech woodland and there was a favourite place that my mother would take my sister and me to, beneath a mature beech straddling a mossy bank, exactly like the one I photographed in Cumbria a couple of years ago where I was forced into silence by its beauty and my memories. The beech was nothing in comparison with the enormous mother trees of British Colombia; and nothing at all now, because when my sister and me thought we would scatter our mother’s ashes in the woods there, I discovered that the entire area has become an industrial estate. I also have a memory that our father had carved his and my mother’s initials in the tree. They became engaged during the war without ever having met, after a courtship by letter, and although nothing was ever said, my father’s black depressions and unpredictable moods affected all our lives.

But I need to round this off by saying that for me the takeaway points from the book weren’t just about being abstractly angry at environmental destruction. There are lessons that affect our understanding and management of the allotment that need to be embraced. Something that became clear as the book progressed through her research was that many of the pieces of this vast jigsaw existed previously in their separate compartments and she was able to draw together lab and field research from which she could formulate her own enquiries. For allotmenteers, it’s all too easy to compartmentalize the things we know into the well worn categories – no dig, organic, composting, companion plants and so-on. But as I put the book down I think I understood better than ever before the relatedness of all these ideas. The soil isn’t separate from the crop, the plant nutrition, the pests, the harvesting and eating – they’re one single complex system with us as participants. I began to think my understanding of the three sisters combination; growing beans, squashes and corn together, was hopelessly narrow. The corn isn’t just there to provide a physical support for the beans and neither is the sole function of the squash the suppression of weeds. Many generations of First Nation experience suggest that there is something far more significant going on.

The ancestral understanding was of a symbiotic relationship between the sisters. We ‘know’ (in separated mental compartments) that legumes have nitrogen fixing nodules. Is there – in their patch of earth, teeming with microorganisms, worms and insects, yeasts, and fungi – a similar collaborative and mutually beneficial relationship going on? Are almost invisible mycelia, dependent upon the organic health of the soil, transporting carbon in the form of sugars from species to species? Are they messaging one another, assisting in the repulsion of insect and fungal pests, firing up defence mechanisms? Our whole atomised and compartmentalising scientific logic encourages us to step back dispassionately and regard each phenomenon in its own right. But what if they’re communicating with one another and it’s us who are the dummies, unable to comprehend their language. Companion planting must have a biological mechanism that we could investigate; and suddenly talking to trees makes more sense.

The writing’s on the wall

Graphis scripta – script lichen or secret writing lichen

Or in this case the writing is on the trunk of a tree. Madame spotted it first as we were walking down Eastwater Drove (we’re back on Mendip) – and at first thought someone had fixed some waymarkers on the trunk. As soon as I saw it I knew that I knew what it was but couldn’t put a name to it without photographing it and doing a search in Google Lens. It’s a free app on my Pixel 3 camera phone and the more it’s used the better it seems to get. Even if it’s only in the right area it gives you a start on where to open the book. At first sight it looks like it’s an illustration in a Tolkien story; a runic sign saying this way to the cavern. Anyway, although the van is loaded with plant books – bird books and butterfly books the lichens were left back at the Potwell Inn. I have to say there’s a good side to getting into Lichens and Bryophytes which is that they’re always there, and there’s always something to look at, even in the bleakest of midwinters. Here around Priddy, many of the walls are so covered in mosses that the stone structures underneath are all but invisible.

These last few days I’ve been thinking a great deal about the future, and especially how we can get to a sustainable and equitable future for the whole earth without the kind of violence and instability that often accompanies profound cultural change – without waking the bear as I often used to say to our teenage sons. “What’s gone wrong?” we ask, and more often than not we land up with the notion that changing our personal behaviour is a step in an iterative process that leads to our goal of a world in which we can all be fully human and live without fear; sustainably and equitably.

The gaping hole in that argument is the word ‘iterative’ – step by step. Even if step by step progress towards our goal could work eventually, our present situation is so perilous that collective action is the only possible way to head off the coming tragedy – economic turmoil, climate crisis, ecological disaster, famine, migration and pollution to name but a few. The real problem is that our solitary actions can give us the individual space to feel extremely virtuous while doing little or nothing to solve the problem.

Here at the Potwell Inn, and on our allotment we try to do the best we can; we grow our own food as best we can and when we can’t we buy organic. We recycle, walk whenever we can and cut down on meat eating and read all the books to stay in touch with the issues. We ought to feel insufferably virtuous and yet we don’t because when the elections come around we vote carefully and thoughtfully and …….. nothing happens.

I wrote a couple of days ago about the I Ching. It’s a book I’ve read a great deal but only used infrequently over the years – probably due to my somewhat austere Christian and Protestant background. I have almost instinctive reservations about divination – Old Moore’s Almanac, astrology and all that. But that’s not the whole story because behind my very 2oth Century scientific rationalist upbringing lies a real fascination with them, and against all cultural expectation I’ve studied most of them; so among the faiths I’ve studied, Taoism is the one I come back to most often – fascinated by its immersion in nature. You should realize that four of the five paragraphs I’ve just written would have been enough to get me into big trouble with the church authorities. Taoism, Tai Chi, the I Ching relate to one another, feed from one another, and always bring to my mind the possibility of peace; of equilibrium with nature and of justice. Unlike many of the world’s religions it seems to me that Taoism places less emphasis on individual salvation while stressing that we humans can only flourish when our lives are aligned with with the Tao. Just, peaceful and equitable lives are very much this worldly and experiential, rather than distant and abstract.

The incomprehensible ‘writing’ on that lichen brought to mind the I Ching whose history began by interpreting the cracks on animal bones created by burning. So yesterday, because we’re away from home and in a very peaceful place, I cast a hexagram with the question in mind that I’ve tried to explain in the opening section of this post and I was given gua 7 Shi. Having pondered it (there were some [jargon alert] moving lines) I’m simply not experienced enough to give a reading (and by withholding the moving lines I’m not inviting anyone else to do one) BUT – in a way that’s close to a this-worldly creative insight such as you might gain during psychoanalytic psychotherapy, the suggestion came to me that one deeper issue here concerns leadership. Of course our personal behaviour and the choices we make matter; but when they are drawn together in united action they have the capacity to achieve change. Our present crisis is as much about poor leadership as much as anything else. In a parliamentary democracy we’re encouraged to believe that leaders appointed by election are somehow anointed with the qualities needed to lead well. It’s called the “grace of orders” in some systems, and I think it’s a load of old hokum. When we elect fools and liars we get foolish and dishonest leadership that puts peace and tranquility beyond reach.

So as well as doing what we can personally, we also need to pay attention to recognising and nurturing the kind of leaders whose lives and behaviour are worthy exemplars – all of a piece with their professed beliefs, humble enough to hear the cry of the poor, wise enough to seek the Tao and lead in the right manner, and decisive enough to act when the moment is ripe. If we have a collective responsibility for the crisis it’s been in delegating power to the wrong people.

We know well enough that the writing is on the wall for the present system. The hexagram I was given speaks of ‘the multitude’ in the Alfred Huang translation where he refuses the usual name which refers to an army. The Ritsema/Sabbadini translation gives the title “Legions” which is at least ambiguous. The Huang translation speaks more loudly to me. A leaderless multitude can be dangerous (a mob) or ineffectual (a rabble) turned in on itself and riven by factional disputes.

You may hope that this post is just an aside and that I’ll soon get back to the real business of the Potwell Inn which must be (according to the stats) growing borlotti beans. But allotments are part of the real world, not an escape from it. Our lives are always far richer as we discover that we’re not the two up – two down kind of useful and compliant but rather dull people our culture is so good at creating.

I once spent an evening talking to an hotelier in St Ives (Cornwall). His mother used to deliver meals on wheels to people in the town, and one of the people they delivered to was Alfred Wallace- an artist who was discovered and nurtured by many of the great names of 20th century art who lived in the town at that time. Wallace was (rather dismissively) known as a naive or primitive painter and he would make paintings on any surface that came to hand, including dinner plates. The hotelier’s mother would take them back to base and wipe off the paintings which would now be worth tens of thousands of pounds. That’s what the system does to millions of human beings and we say it’s a crying shame but there’s nothing to do about it because we’re powerless. No we’re not – we’re disorganised and leaderless.

Here’s a photo I took of Alfred Wallace’s grave – tiled by Bernard Leach the famous potter.

In Barnoon Cemetery St Ives, March 2017