About Glory

What ails you?

asparagus autumn biodiversity chillies climate change climate emergency composting covid 19 deep ecology earth economic collapse environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis farmers markets field botany foraging Fungi global climate crisis global heating green spirituality growing chillies herbal medicine intensive farming locally sourcing lockdown marmalade meditation no-dig pickling and preserving polytunnels preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions sustainability technology urban ecology urban wildlife water storage weeds wildflower meadows

I’ve been writing this blog for eight years, and ever since I migrated it to WordPress which gives the ability to tag posts and make them easier for readers to find; I’ve occasionally created a tag cloud like the one above so I can get an overview of the topics that have been concerning me. Click on any of the tags above and in moments you’ll be presented with all of the posts I’ve tagged with that term. It’s an incredibly useful tool for locating particular subjects of interest from approaching a thousand posts.

If you’ve ever run writers’ groups or taken part in therapeutic groups – and I’ve done both may times – you’ll know the “back pocket” moment when, after two hours of interesting but rarely illuminating talk, and just as the group is packing up to leave, someone comes up with an idea, a poem, an insight or a memory that almost sucks the air out of the room. Often it’s the beginning of an answer to the hard question “What ails you?” Complete honesty and self disclosure is terribly hard, and only the most heroic can manage it.

The quest.

There’s a reason that the ancient story of the Fisher King provides the inner structure of so many novels, plays, films and folk tales. They’re all quest stories, in which a journey – with all its hazards and reverses – brings resolution at last to the question “what ails you?” Think of writers like Tolkien, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman whose tremendous stories draw upon the structure of the Grail legend. Think of the foundational story of Homer’s Odyssey or the biblical story of Jacob crossing the Jabbok . I have absolutely nothing to add to the millions of words that have been lavished on this idea, and the point of mentioning it is not to add anything but to suggest its usefulness for isolating the right question when you’re trying to find a path through an oppressive cloud of difficulty. The key to the quest story is that it begins precisely with that nebulous and indefinable sense of ill, and that the resolution always demands leaving home because “for a hero a harbour is the place you set out from”. Home – in this case and with my tag cloud – is the place of certainty and settled knowledge; “the way we do things round here.” and leaving it means questioning and sometimes overturning received wisdom. However, received wisdom has its own priesthood and police force, its own pensioners and hangers on and its own ideas of what constitutes heresy. It has its own oppressive tools; belittling and marginalising those who challenge the status quo.

So the tag cloud is, in one useful sense, a mind map of the question “what ails you?” because all of its components are aspects of the greater question. Some tags may represent symptoms, and some may suggest remedies, but none of them are sufficient, and it’s our predisposition to fixing on a single term in the cloud as either cause or cure that paralyses our thinking and befuddles our actions. To take an example of that process from the tag cloud above, it’s obviously completely insufficient, not to mention illogical to take the tag “environmental catastrophe” and couple it with the tag “Composting” and claim to a fanfare of applause that the problem is thereby solved.

So – mainly because I’m not Thomas Aquinas – I won’t be offering a magnum opus on this topic. I remember standing in the library of my theological college and asking the librarian where I could find Thomas Aquinas and she replied with an expansive sweep of the arm across the shelves of the upper tier of the library – up a spiral staircase. Minutes later and slightly out of breath, I found many yards of shelves full of Aquinas and commentaries on his thought. But let me offer a single tentative thought on the significant absence of another possible tag cloud beginning with the concept of glory.

Lost in our utterly materialist and dualist culture we represent ourselves instinctively, (some instincts are the products of long enculturation), as isolated instances of consciousness separated by an unbridgeable gulf of empty space from all other instances of it. We see the earth as an object and we often see our neighbours as objects too. We are deeply suspicious of words like joy, glory and love as non material emotional states which – being unmeasurable – are beyond the reach of science and therefore worthless. Nature – and I’m indebted to *Alan Rayner for this thought – is defined as the subject of an eternal battle for the “survival of the fittest”, although we are arrogant enough to regard ourselves as the sole and final arbiters of what “fitness” might mean.

But what if this idea is completely wrong? he asks. What if the false idea that nature and the earth and all that exists, is there at our disposal, is the ultimate ideological enforcer of most of the tags in my cloud of shame? What if Darwin’s survival of the fittest, deserves the same fate as Marx’s iron laws of history? What if we were to reintroduce the idea of glory to field botany? What would happen to our inner lives if we included the notion of glory within the medicinal or culinary properties of plants? What would it do to our lives if we included much more sentience within the gifts of animals? What if we included within the general field of fitness the capacity of the natural world to acquaint us with glory, joy and love in a completely non-possessive way? What if we abandoned the idea of our separateness from nature and focused on our dependence upon her? What if the natural world is not locked in a grim battle for survival but an almost inconceivably beautiful and creative exchange between life forms?

The epoch changing wrong turn was to fossilize Darwin’s frangible theory into a law of nature and then illegitimately to extend it into almost every aspect of life – Social Darwinism was elevated into a spurious defense for unspeakably wicked political acts and the earth was reduced to abject servitude.

The really important question is about how we change. I think we all know enough about human behaviour to know that cultural change can never be brought about by presenting new “facts”. But there are practices and institutions from which we can learn about glory. Many of them have their own histories of times when ecstatic insight was fossilized into law and went rogue, but that, sadly, is a danger confronting all human institutions. The question is this – were we born to dominate and control nature to the point of self-destruction, or did we just forget where we came from?

Alan Rayner “The Origin of Life Patterns” – several videos also on YouTube

False Chanterelle – “All that glisters!”

Magic Mushrooms

Fly Agaric – Amanita muscaria

On Wednesday we went on our first organised fungus foray of the season with Bath Natural History Society. Fungus hunting goes better when there’s a bit of rain beforehand and Wednesday really benefited from the showers earlier in the week. The weather has changed decisively since the equinox, and autumn has taken over with a series of Atlantic lows with winds and showers coming from a more westerly direction.

Smitham Chimney

But this was very far from a foraging expedition for a couple of reasons, the principal one being that we were back in one of my favourite environments; the heavily polluted lead rich spoil covering an old lead mining area. Some specialized plants and fungi have a marvellous capacity for surviving in this dangerous environment and can concentrate heavy metals in themselves sufficiently to cause a serious risk of poisoning. That, of course, is entirely separate from the usual risk of misidentifying a fungus and poisoning yourself over supper. In fact a lively conversation took place about near misses amongst some of us, with Yellow Staining Mushrooms – Agaricus xanthodermus – being a popular mistake, although we had all stopped short of eating them after cooking them and then suffering from serious doubt. Another unexpected danger came from eating St Georges Mushrooms – Calocybe gambosa – which are universally regarded as edible (they’re really good to eat) but two of our fungus hunters had suddenly developed an intolerance for them after years of uneventful enjoyment.

For me, the principal reason for fungus hunting is firstly that they are simply so beautiful. Just look at this False Chanterelle – Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca. Never mind that it doesn’t taste as good as the proper one; just look at the gills and think of a gothic cathedral.

But secondly because they are some of the most impressive organic chemists anywhere in the world. They talk to each other, link up in mutually beneficial relationships with plants which, incidentally, is why you should never dig up an orchid because without its mycorrhizal neighbour it will simply die. Without fungi the earth would be thousands of feet below a layer of unrotted vegetation and, of course, they are both food, medicine and – dare I say – widely valued by many cultures including our own – as a gateway into a deeper spiritual relationship with the earth and with our own most troublesome thoughts. But don’t try this without proper help. I’ve never tried it at all, but that’s because I’m too scared! I should add that the real magic mushroom – the Liberty Cap – can be very problematic for some people. When I was a community worker we dreaded the autumn because the local lads – normally affable if rather naughty – would mix magic mushrooms with cheap cider, becoming highly unpredictable and occasionally violent as a result.

In fact in four hours with fifteen of us searching, we didn’t find a single genuinely edible species. Foragers like to go on about a wide variety of species but many of them are between disappointing and vaguely unpleasant. The most colourful species were the Fly Agarics which could be eaten – but only if you enjoy uncontrollable hallucinations and being sick.

The safest way to learn about them is to go out with someone who really knows what they’re doing, and I guess an ex President of the British Mycological Society is as safe as a safe pair of hands could be. In fact we had a variety of fungus literate members with us, along with a microbiologist, a professional forester and ecology graduate plus a couple of really expert botanists and an entomologist. Not to mention some envy inducing binoculars and cameras. But the great thing about these local Natural History societies is that absolutely everyone is both friendly and completely committed to sharing their enthusiasm. If you live near us there’s a link to Bath Nats on the sidebar.

I would seriously recommend anyone with an interest in natural history to unplug the telly and join their local society. They all have summer field trips and winter lectures, often with national experts, and I promise you’ll soon find that a walk, even through your local park, will be an entirely new and richer experience. And I should admit that when we first joined we were very apprehensive about looking silly or ignorant, hovering at the back in case anyone asked us a question. What we quickly found was that many of these people were doing really important voluntary work by recording plants and wildlife. Volunteers are at the heart of all our efforts to stave off environmental catastrophe because it’s the volunteers who overwhelmingly provide the millions of data records that form the backbone of conservation work. I’d even go so far as to say that – if you want to save the earth – learn enough about plants or birds, insects fish or mammals to be able to submit records. I’ve made some awful mistakes and not once has anyone made fun of me.

Anyway that’s enough about volunteering. Let me show you the most boring picture ever:

Lead moss

Well I did warn you! But in fact it was the highlight of the trip as far as I was concerned because it’s something I would never have found without help from someone who really knows what she’s doing. It’s not a fungus at all but another of my metallophytes. It’s an absolutely tiny moss that grows on the most polluted lead mine waste, and is called Lead Moss – Ditrichum plumbicola. Normally with exceptionally rare plants you’d keep the site obscure but in this instance I’m confident that you’d never find it in a month of Sundays, because it’s absolutely tiny – those are worm holes to give you some sense of scale! plus it’s in the database for anyone to see. Here’s a macro photo that I really struggled to take. Those shoots are not much more than 1 mm tall. What a day!

So here are a few more photos taken on the day. It was inspirational – but then isn’t nature always inspirational? And if you’ve ever wondered what mycelium looks like , just look at the last three pictures. The bulk of the real fungus is underground. Isn’t that stunning? And the beetle is a new and difficult invader called the Poplar Leaf Beetle.

More glory than you ever expected, plus an Oxford comma

Some of these photographs were taken from inside the campervan here in St Davids, and some in Whitesands Bay and St David’s opposite what’s known as the City Hall – but appears to be a charity shop. I suppose I could do a Matthew Arnold; lamenting the “melancholy soft withdrawing roar” of the tide on Brighton beach and compare my superior aesthetic response to St David’s with the inferior and faithless reactions of the pasty and ice cream eaters.

But life’s not that simple – not unless you’re one of those politicians that (they don’t deserve a who“) – can watch the destruction of lives and cultures with complete equanimity under the protection of a blind dogmatic faith (and I do mean faith) that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. It isn’t!

So I’ve been struggling to see how we can address the terrible problems that we face; and because we’re here in the van and out walking every day there’s been time to read and talk and think about how we might go on with some hope – because without it we’re sunk. With the present shower in power, it’s impossible to hope that conventional politics will ever find a way past the lobbyists and the bungs from the industrial giants and non-doms whose untaxed profits are salted away out of sight of the rest of us. There are some things we can do at a personal level, like growing allotments, walking and cycling, recycling, and, buying thoughtfully – (I stuck that Oxford comma in just to piss off Thérèse Coffey who as an obvious pedant doesn’t deserve a pause before her full stop!); but there are also some actions that can only be accomplished at a regional and national level.

There’s a tired old cliché in ‘management speak’ that has just enough truth in it to suggest a way forward: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. If national politics has a stranglehold on climate strategy and all the other major strategic decisions that need to be made then let’s concentrate on changing the culture instead. Let’s focus all our energy and resources on changing it using every cultural means possible instead of spending so many dispiriting hours at political meetings being voted down by members who just don’t get it. We have music, poetry, theatre, art of all kinds, samizdat newsletters, the internet, independent seminars and pop up schools; not to mention conversations with friends and neighbours.

There have been many occasions in history when the people – like the pasty and ice cream eaters and the people that run the charity shop, the hotel owner here who can’t get staff because of brexit, and me and Madame too, have wanted real change in sufficient numbers to sweep away the old guard. So why are we sitting around feeling sad and sorry for ourselves? To abuse a very good saying from the past – we have seen the solution, it is us!

Is botany nothing more than a science?

The Pilgrim church of St Maelrhys Church, Llanfaelrhys, near Aberdaron, Lleyn.

Buried in this churchyard are Elsi Eldridge, who was the wife of the poet RS Thomas; with their son Gwydion. RS married again after Elsi died and is buried near the door of St John’s Church Porthmadog. Also buried here is the lovely radical priest Jim Cotter who wrote the most wonderful prayers and liturgies. Needless to say the church Authorities had no idea what to do with him but he was an inspiring teacher and marvellous company and the bureaucratic incompetence of the Church of England gave him (and me) space to breathe. And finally the Keating sisters, friends of the Thomas’s, gardeners of their house Plas yn Rhiw – now owned by the National Trust – and scourges of coastal caravan sites are buried here too. All of them were artists. This churchyard is a powerful place for quiet reflection.

Well it’s a pound for the stone and thirty nine pounds for knowing what to do with it!

The quote came from a Gloucestershire stonemason I knew who was once asked how much he charged for a yard of drystone walling. When he gave the price the enquirer reacted with some scorn. “Forty pounds for a load of old stone?” – he replied. “well it’s a pound for the stone and thirty nine pounds for knowing what to do with it!”

Another secondhand book arrived in the post today. It’s called “Welsh Fare” and it was written by the anthropologist and researcher of tradition Welsh life, S. Minwel Tibbott who worked in the Welsh Folk Museum gathering and curating oral traditions. I found it in the bibliography of Carwyn Graves book, “Welsh Food Stories” which I mentioned last week. As soon as I opened the book and started to read through the recipes, the memory of the stonemason’s reply flooded into my mind, and it wasn’t so very long before the image of the churchyard on Lleyn joined him. Why so? well it was because the recipes list the very simplest ingredients without giving the slightest clue what to do with them, and knowing what to do with them has largely disappeared. Here’s a recipe for

Teisen Ddim – buttermilk scones

  • One pound plain flour
  • Quarter pound lard
  • A little salt
  • buttermilk

Rub the lard into the flour, and work in the other dry ingredients. Mix with buttermilk and knead to a soft dough. Roll out on a floured board and cut into small rounds, approximately a quarter of an inch thick. Bake on a moderately hot bakestone spread with butter and serve warm.

Llandeilo’r-fân and Heol Senni, Breconshire.

It’s all perfectly clear – except that unless you keep cows and make butter in the traditional manner by allowing the milk to separate overnight when it begins to ferment naturally, and then churn the butter in the traditional manner to separate butter from buttermilk; and unless you have a traditional bakestone and have learned what “moderately hot” feels like even assuming you have the means of heating it – well you’re not going to be able to bake the buttermilk scone.

Of course you can buy buttermilk from Tesco – except it’s not proper buttermilk but a factory made imitation – and the butter if it’s like the farmstead butter actually produced in old Welsh farmstead dairies, won’t be nearly as salty; like 3.5% salty – keeps better! And as for the lard you’d probably keep a large pot of pork lard which you could add to as you cooked joints from the fattened pig. Coincidentally it was Madame’s birthday yesterday so we had an extended family gathering and I slow cooked a whole shoulder of pork to make pulled pork for the boys and their partners. Even from a free range Gloucester Old Spot pig, shoulder is remarkably cheap and when you cook it very very (12 – 14 hours) slowly overnight it releases a huge amount of fat – dripping – which is ten times as rich and tasty as the bleached and purified block you slip into your shopping basket when you think no-one’s looking on disapprovingly. Finally the locally milled flour would have been rather darker and much more flavoursome than supermarket white. I used to bake with a marvellous 81% extraction white(ish) flour milled by Bacheldre Mill, now sadly no longer made. I hope I’ve made my point here. The simple list of ingredients tells us almost nothing if it’s become detached from its culture; and so – finally – I can leave the churchyard whose occupants once embodied a culture that’s largely disappeared, buried under second homers and Airbnb lets, and switch the topic to the so-called science of botany.

TV programmes on botany are as rare as hens’ teeth these days so we were filled with hope and excitement as we watched the first two episodes. The pleasure didn’t last. The unspoken assumption that ran through it like the writing in a stick of rock was the faintly smug and self congratulatory thought that traditional knowledge of plants was mostly held by deficient traditions which only needed some solid reductive science to reveal the truth. It reminds me of a story told to me about Archbishop of Uganda, Henry Orombi – who according to legend, reproached a tour guide near to the Victoria Falls who had foolishly asserted that the Victoria Falls were discovered by the explorer David Livingstone. ” I think” – he said – “You’ll find that we knew about them long before Livingstone got there!” Bishop Henry visited us once when one of the boys was in peak teenage rebellion, and he so charmed the angry rebel (I just love your green hair) he almost curled up in his lap and purred like a cat.

So the programme rambled on in a more or less predictable way through the history of scientific botany without so much as a mention of traditional herbal medicinal wisdom and without any sense of the vast contribution of the ancients from Dioscorides onwards. The plant kingdom was just treated as another exploitable resource to be catalogued, analysed and turned into a profitable enterprise. No sense of wonder, no mention of the inter-relatedness of all living things, no mention of the profoundly important role of plants in synthesising complex compounds beyond the reach of organic chemistry (which is by far the more interesting thing about photosynthesis and fungal networks). The last programme comes out tonight and I’m dreading the triumphal moment when the presenter announced that we’ve cracked some sort of code – probably gene editing – and finally we can exploit the poor old plants in any way that turns a profit. Wheat berries as big as pineapples or some such nonsense.

It rather reminds me of a line from Peter Shaffer’s play “Equus” – “Without worship you shrink”. To approach nature without humility, armed with scanning electron microscopes and DNA analysis misses a large part of the point. Of course I’m pleased when science discovers a new cure for malaria, or breast cancer or whatever else by understanding plants better. But plants aren’t just there for us to exploit – and misunderstanding that essential point is leading us towards extinction.

*** I just watched the last programme – it exceeded my misgivings so now I’m really scared.

At last! I’ve changed the blog tagline

The tin tabernacle in Cadgwith; Lizard, Cornwall last winter.

The penny dropped very suddenly today – hardly a Damascus Road conversion but a sudden realization that the original tagline “A sceptic’s take on being human”, which I’ve put up with for over three years, was not right. After a wonderful day catching up with old friends yesterday – almost entirely by accident – something moved in what passes for an operating system in my head, and the thought emerged that what this blog is about is not so much being human as being virtuous. I must immediately qualify that statement because there have been many people in my life who thought that being virtuous was a matter of obeying rules; but what I’m about to argue here is that being virtuous (perhaps being a moral grown-up) is more useful state of being than trying to do virtuous things. We can hardly avoid being human – after all every single member of our present lamentable government is human and see where that’s got us!

This isn’t some brave new philosophical world – virtue is fundamental to Aristotle’s ethics and it’s centred on the idea of flourishing – eudaemonia in the original Greek. There are several ways to try to steer a moral course through the ethical challenges that being human always presents us with. We can choose what to do in response to a challenge by asking “What would be the consequences of this response?” We could look up the appropriate response in a trusted book, like the Bible or the Koran (harder than you’d think), or we could trust the instincts formed over time in our character by living virtuously. Right habits have a vital role in this system; we figure out how to do the morally right thing since we are formed by our way of life because it is shaped by Aristotle’s four cardinal virtues prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. Other virtues like compassion are often slipped into the mix.

That was a bit chunky I know but the takeaway point is that in a situation such as we have at the moment with a sequence of climate, economic, ecological and political disasters advancing on us; relying on a set of rules from the past that have demonstrably failed us, is not enough. As Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Rule bound ethics (and economics) aren’t up to the job. Neither are consequential ethics because it’s almost impossible to judge what the outcome of an action might be – as Dostoyevski famously put it in “The Brothers Karamazov” speaking of a cruelly treated child whose mother thought that the concept of good and evil could be beaten into her – “The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to ‘dear God.'” 

The question I ask myself over and over – especially during sleepless nights – is “why?” – “Why do people/politicians make such dreadful decisions. Who designed the Flechette – the weapon packed with sharp plastic arrows that slice and rend the flesh but are invisible to x rays? Who concealed the evidence that glyphosate was killing people and destroying the environment? Who taught the philosophy that extractive chemical based farming is more efficient than the many alternatives we know about? Why is it OK that we have so many people living in poverty? The answer can’t be that such people are not really human because they’re as human as you or me. What they lack is virtue.

It may be that our crisis is so great that for a while we will have to become temporary consequentialists in the sense that the consequences of doing nothing are so terrible that we must insist and prevent that outcome. But ultimately any workable vision for the future must depend on teaching and leading our children in the practice of virtue, of flourishing, and living lives in which moral decisions are approached thoughtfully and on the basis of lived experience. That amounts to nothing less than changing our culture.

The consequences of magical thinking have never been clearer or more dangerous than they are at the moment and yet we still cling to the sinking life raft believing that something’s bound to turn up – a new invention, a better leader, an invasion of unexpectedly helpful extra terrestrials …… ? Meanwhile we are taking refuge in anger, shouting and threatening and lobbying for ever more draconian punishments to inflict on our enemies. But we have seen the enemy ……. it is us”

Too hot – even for red peppers

We had to remove five of these pepper plants from the greenhouse this week, because they were in danger of expiring in the heat. It’s hardly surprising that plants can be extremely fussy about their environment. A couple of years ago we had aubergines in pots in the same greenhouse and they sulked and looked deficient until I moved them outside into a border where they instantly revived and produced a decent crop. Even chillies will complain if they get too much heat.

This week I also learned an entirely new and very useful term from a book on the economics of so-called green capitalism. I’ve mentioned it before – “The Value of a Whale” by Adrienne Buller and I thoroughly recommend it. The term is “Knightian uncertainty” which describes the likelihood of an event occurring for which there is no possibility of assembling any predictive data. We’re very comfortable with the idea of risk because, as the author points out, when you’re throwing dice it’s simple to calculate the odds of throwing (say) three sixes in a row. A Knightian uncertainty is the kind we might ascribe to ecological and climate events like the ones we call “tipping points” and she cites the example of the possibility of the Thwaites Glacier collapsing completely – it already dumps 50 billion tonnes a year into the Antarctic Ocean and if it failed would raise sea levels by up to ten feet! We know it’s capable of happening but the scenario leading to such a catastrophe is simply too complicated to calculate. There are too many variables and too many possible contributory factors to make a calculation of risk. Therefore the only rational response is to abide by the precautionary principle that minimises any activities which even might be a contributory factor.

Anyway – enough of the dismal science; today we may or may not be in the midst of one of those climactic moments because we won’t know until a few more drought affected summers have passed, by which time it might be too late to do anything. “Wait and see” is not a coherent basis for climate change policy any more.

In the real world we get up increasingly early to tend the allotment and then we pretty much lock ourselves into the flat with the windows and shutters closed against the heat. Today we watered and went just as the Farmers Market was opening, and where we discovered that hundreds of other people had adopted the same heat busting tactic.

After a long process of trying out all the local butchers we’ve finally settled on Kimbers Farm Shop who are at the market every Saturday. We’ve got to know them pretty well and today the conversation inevitably turned to the drought and how it was affecting their grass-fed herd of beef cattle and the flock of sheep kept by one of the sons in law, nearby. They’ve been farming the same land for 300 years so for a long view of farming they bring a world of experience, and they’re having a desperate time at the moment. Their grass is so parched and brown that they’ve had to start cutting grass and taking it to the animals rather than grazing them in open fields. As she explained the rationale to us, one of the family members told us how – with four legs to trample, and a rear end to distribute the manure – cattle and sheep make a significant amount of precious grass inedible. It’s immensely labour intensive taking the food to the animals, and they’ve had trouble with some machinery clogging with seed heads, so it’s being done by hand. The shame, she said, is that so many wealthy incomers have bought up farms in the district and refuse to allow farming on them. In a sane system, they would be forced either to maintain the land properly themselves or rent it to farmers who would do it for them, but here in the UK if you’ve got the money you can take prime agricultural land out of circulation during what’s becoming a food crisis – just so you can enjoy the view without the bother of cows and sheep making noise and smells. We all too easily forget that there are a series of interrelated crises going on simultaneously. It’s not just climate because food production is an intimately related

Of course there are ways of regenerative farming that can preserve and build up the soil and its capacity to hold water, but they all take time to implement. Today’s Guardian featured a nice photo of a sheep dozing in the shade of a tall oak tree. The trouble with the photo is that the tree must have been at the very least fifty years old as the old joke related of the man asked for directions to a distant place and who responded with “well I wouldn’t start from here!”

Yesterday we went out into the heat to plan a route to the hospital I need to attend for a routine surveillance procedure next week. With thoughts of the drought, the heatwave and the increasing evidence that a climate catastrophe upon us right now; We had discovered that it’s only accessible by car since there’s no bus service – it’s a private hospital that only takes patients like me for a fat fee when the local NHS hospital need to massage their figures. We had to negotiate much of a ring road which was as close to hell as anything else I’ve ever experienced, and eventually after several false turns emerged into a business/industrial park in which our building was sited and indistinguishable from all the other units in which -for all I know – Russian oligarchs are busy waterboarding prisoners they’ve hijacked and sent to this country for ‘interrogation‘. It was not an encouraging introduction to these state of the art facilities in which I will be sedated and unable to flee.

I’m maundering I know, but these crises are bowling down the road towards us and yet no-one seems to be taking ownership of them or even attempting to formulate some policies. Anyone can make a mistake but to run a whole country into the buffers takes a peculiarly ideological kind of stupidity. We’re promised a bit of rain next week so we should be able to report soon on how well the Potwell Inn allotment has coped with this second heatwave in a difficult summer.

Dawn baking

For five days a week and over many decades, Brian English – once our village baker and now sadly passed away, set his dough to prove in the early evening after the bakery closed and then got up at around 4.30am to bake. It’s a punishing regime and when he retired he told me how glad he was to escape the grinding routine. You didn’t often see him in the shop unless you went early; he was a great countryman and would take his dogs out for long walks along the banks of the Severn. Sometimes he would emerge into the shop, dusted with flour, wiping his hands on his apron and share a joke or a yarn about the old days when they delivered bread by horse and cart . Jenny, his wife would sell the bread, cakes and buns adding to their value with abundant village gossip. An invaluable source of information for anyone involved in pastoral work.

So with his example in mind I can’t claim any virtue for getting up early to bake. This hot weather – it was above 22C all night – encouraged the sourdough to run away with itself and by 5.00am it was threatening to overtop its banneton like a giant muffin so there was no alternative but to bake or waste the time and flour and start again. Fermentation, being a process of nature rather than the plaything of human will; will have its way and we have no alternative than to respond.

It’s been a tricky few days; unremittingly hot and growing hotter with no respite forecast until the weekend. Hot weather brings its own challenges and out on the green, sunbathers pick their spot as if on the beach; children play all day, their happy sounds echoing around the crescent; dog walkers are out two or three times and not all of them pick up the mess. Later in the afternoon the barbecues are lit and small groups of friends take the opportunity for some alfresco dining. As afternoon turns to evening the parties grow rowdier and after dark the impact of all the alcohol begins to unravel the temporary alliances, and the conversational noise can easily turn to hostile shouting. Yesterday we had a major incident in the house with the police and ambulance attending for a couple of hours. A young man had gone off the rails in the middle of the night and needed help. Dogs bark incessantly and doors slam as the revellers return home. We’re lucky to be able to snooze during the hottest part of the day.

So I’m sitting here wearing next to nothing, drinking tea which I know will prevent me from going back to sleep and writing this post as the timer counts down. The flat is fragrant with the smell of baking. They say that change is as good as a rest – but with the climate breaking down, brush fires blazing, drought gripping the farms, fuel prices going through the roof and poverty stalking the streets with the government indulging itself with an onanistic month away from their desks, it seems like our society is hovering – two cans of cheap cider away from a riot.

Economics and the Prophets of Baal

The Littleton Wassail – January 2020

Bear with me on the title of this post, but the Old Testament contains a glorious collection of stories which I’ve pressed into service many times in the course of a long and (as far as the bishops are concerned) disreputable mission to make them comprehensible in a very different context. That’s what writers do! we nick stories from all over the place and put them to service in a new way. I well remember hearing one of the team of writers who create scripts for “Eastenders” admit that they often took a storyline from the Bible, or the Greek myths, or indeed William Shakespeare. In fact; if your subject is adultery, incest and murder you need look no further than the Old Testament.

Having spent some of the week studying Basil Bunting’s often obscure poem “Briggflatts” I feel obliged to say that I’m not using the story in an attempt to look better educated than I really am. I first heard it from the lips of Primitive Methodist lay preachers who delighted in nothing better than a bit of smiting, and this story of a battle between Elijah the Prophet and 450 of the prophets of the Canaanite God, Baal, was a positive gorefest as – having won a bet on whose god could light a bonfire with a lightning bolt – he slaughtered his opponents in a merciless display of “righteousness.” The irony of the story and the reason for the fact that I’m pinning a post on it is that Baal was the God of fertility (crops mainly but probably a bit of the other thing as well), and also sun, rain and storm with a side hustle of war. The point of this meandering introduction is to explain that considering the probable fate of the earth if we don’t get off our collective bottoms and do something dramatic; you might see this as an appropriate moment to reinvent Baal. After all his CV includes dominion over crops, sun, rain and war. Exactly the portfolio of challenges facing our next Prime Minister. Job done – next question please!

However half the fun of the story is that Elijah was so sure he was on the right side, he demanded that huge quantities of water should be poured on his pile of sticks before getting down to serious prayer. The Prophets of Baal, equally certain of their own God, danced around the bonfire, making their noisy invocations for what may well have been hours, before Elijah stood up with a swift one-liner to his God who obligingly sent the thunderbolt – that was meant to be Baal’s gig! Cue smoke, flames and a lot of smiting until the 450 were all dead.

Or were they?

It seems to me that the Prophets of Baal might – in a spooky way – be the direct ancestors of our present generation of economists. It’s perfectly fair to accuse them (and many of us) of worshipping the economy. We speak of it reverentially, as if it were some kind of supernatural entity which rewards its priesthood and smites its detractors. ‘Who will ignite the economy?’ we ask, and the economists who all speak the same arcane, almost liturgical language, step forward from the shadows and begin their little dance around the way we do things round here which is clearly breathing its last stertorous breaths; the so-called death rattle of the verities. As they circle the corpse they whirl and chant like Sufi dancers and sing of profit and loss, of efficiency and margins while others chalk obscure mathematical formulae around the victim. But the victim does not rise because economics has never learned to speak of fertility, of crops and sun and rain. Its reductive ideology has excluded almost every ethical and human consideration; aside from the costs and opportunities of war in pounds sterling. In the face of their failure they fall silent; their instruments slip from their bloodless hands; the rain washes their dismal formulae away.

Painted with the brush of objective science and rationality and enveloped in the mythology that there is no alternative, mainstream economics continues, with great effect, to cleanse our ecological crisis of its profoundly political origins and resolutions.

Adrienne Buller “The Value of a Whale. On the illusions of Green Capitalism” 2022 Manchester University Press, Page 51

It happens all the time, of course. The gods of unintended consequences have brought the economists low because they mistook their theological assumptions for science. While they snorted with derision at determinist philosophies, and knuckled their heads in disbelief at Marxism; they developed their very own iron laws. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. What these new prophets of Baal couldn’t grasp was that by excluding any consideration of relationship; by refusing to include human thriving – which is itself a relational concept; and by failing to notice that the earth is not a resource but a finely balanced ecosystem – they were not worshipping Baal, but Moloch – the god of child sacrifice.

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