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

-4C then almost springlike sunshine

Henrietta Park this morning with patches of yesterday’s unmelted snow and young daffodils bursting through the ground. We’ve got a radio thermometer installed outside at the back of the flat and early this morning it was showing -4C some twenty feet above ground level. The sun shone brightly all day but even so it didn’t get much above 4C. I’ve said this before, but every season seems to bear signs of the next, and the daffodils – even just in leaf – were a cheering sight in the depth of winter. Given the temperature and the very light traffic outside, we decided to try our morning 9k walk along the river and canal and although there were one or two more crowded spots, by and large we walked alone. Tomorrow and for the next couple of weeks it looks like we’ll be back to south westerlies and showers – which isn’t going to be particularly good for erecting a polytunnel.

There’s really no room for doubt that we’re experiencing increasingly severe weather variations; certainly more storms are bringing ever larger falls of rain and we seem to have had a succession of wet winters followed by hot spells in the wrong (that’s to say early) part of summer with consequent effects on ripening crops. August was always a wetter month, but severe downpours and storms are a menace. The winter period since the new year began has seen a reversion to more typical cold weather but even so it’s felt odd – interspersed with storms that turn the river brown with topsoil. Of course we know, or at least we have every reason to know, that the cause of all this is global climate change; but there are very few signs that politicians are taking the threat seriously. My heart sinks when I read the latest and daftest ever techno-wheeze for sequestering carbon, and this week’s crop of suggestions should be nominated for the Darwin Award, not least because they promise that we’ll all be able to drive our 5 litre SUV’s around without feeling guilty.

I’ve been reading Vandana Shiva’s “Soil not Oil” and it breaks my heart to contemplate the missed targets since 2008. It’s like watching your mother drink herself to death; and the question that’s shouting at me is why? – why are we so powerless to effect political change the face of this addiction to endless growth and its consequent degradation of the environment and our quality of life? Why do politicians reward agro industrialists with the opportunity to write government policy through political gifts and lobbying, whilst describing peaceful environmental protesters as terrorists?

The tragedy is that we know what the danger is, and we also know what general shape the remedy will have to take, and we know that if no progress is made, very soon we will be facing an environmental catastrophe – no ifs, no buts and no more delays while they wait for a scaleable, saleable and monopolistic solution to turn up. What else is there to say?

“Events, dear boy, events!”

Detergent foam on the river.

You know when you’re feeling a bit down when Harold Macmillan’s well known quip comes back to haunt you; but in the minor key. When events start floating past like the ghosts of things that once seemed more important, it’s a bit of a sign that it’s all getting too much: all this endless and aimless governmental button pressing to try and factory reset the country back to an imaginary default state. I read an interesting piece by a behavioural psychologist a few days ago describing the state of mind that, having invested heavily in a solution that’s evidently not working, idles in a catatonic state, hoping that something will turn up.

Here are three signs that it’s not working. One … there was (yet another) provocative op-ed in the Farmers Weekly in which their star winder-up writes that he doesn’t understand the point of regenerative farming. I have written to him in the past about his headline grabbing tendencies (there’s a lot of it about) and point out that the crisis facing intensive farming is well understood, well researched and roaring down the line with no brakes. At what point does not understanding something so important, become a sign of sheer stupidity? I shan’t write of course because last time I did he simply rolled over with a shrug and said ‘maybe I did exaggerate a bit”. The danger is that some of his readers might use his idiotic opinions to shore up their faith in the collapsing citadel of scientific progress and Bishop Bayer.

Next, I might mention the UK government’s announced intention to revisit the debate on what they are now calling “gene editing” which is, they suggest, quite different from “genetic modification”. They used the same trick when they renamed the explosive and leaky nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield, and called it Windscale. Anyway, gene editing sounds pretty much the same to me. I read somewhere that what they mean is that they won’t be inserting genes from a different species but merely mucking about with the ones that are already there. Science fictionally that’s a shame because I’d enjoy the thought of venus flytraps crossed with alligator genes so that they could take a poacher’s leg off. Imagine the kudos of 100% organic fencing. At the point where a species of – let’s say – wheat, is reduced to a complex sequence of genetic code, I have to wonder whether we are so down the reductive path that any talk of species is a rather romantic – what’s wheaty in a single gene? and in reality, it seems to me that interspecies genetic editings and borrowings have caused more than a little trouble at the pandemic level. The inventor of the Kalashnikov rifle always denied that he had done anything more morally culpable than save the Russian government a heap of money on the cost of killing people. You can’t argue with economics …. can you?

“Item the third” (is that Sam Weller in Pickwick papers?) Our Government has just lifted the ban on a neonicotinoid spray in order to save losses in sugar beet crops. Let’s take that one step at a time. The neonicotinoid has been banned because of its capacity to kill pollinating insects. The crop it has been licenced for is sugar beet which is used to make refined white sugar which kills people. So the government had the option of encouraging sugar beet farmers (through subsidy if necessary) to grow crops that we actually need, and which don’t cause diabetes while simultaneously protecting the environment and saving insects. But then, bees don’t give money to politicians but big refined sugar companies and agrochemical manufacturers do.

I could go on forever like this – Scottish fishermen say their income has dropped by 80% since brexit. Poor children are offered the kind of subsidised food parcels that could bring back rickets while our excess death toll due to covid is now in excess of the numbers for the Second World War.

The soil and with it our souls shrink and die a little more every day; Rachel Carson’s silent spring presses hard on us and I’m locked in introspection as the sad captains of industry and their scientific infantry process, wraith like past me, reciting their little fragments of management wisdom all the way down to the pit. In Dante’s “Inferno” the outer circle of hell is reserved for those who didn’t give a shit:

And I , who felt my head surrounded by horrors.

Said: ‘Master, what then is it that I am hearing?

And what people are these, so crushed by pain?’

He answered: ‘That is the manner of existence

Endured by the sad souls of those who lived

Without occasion for infamy or praise.

They are mixed with that abject squadron of angels

Who did not think it worth their while to rebel

Or to be faithful to God, but were for themselves’

Dante The Divine Comedy – Trans. C H Sisson

Who says literature is a waste of time? That last verse has sustained me through many challenging times.

“Enough already”, I say. There comes a point when it’s best to imitate rebellious Chinese scholars and take up fishing for a while. The Potwell Inn allotment has been an illumination and a salve during what they like to call “these difficult times“, when what they actually mean is “your difficult times”. The new season approaches and we’ve finally made the decision to buy a polytunnel; in fact we’ve ordered it and paid for it and watched the video about erecting it. What could possibly go wrong?

We are well and in good health, we have enough food; somewhere to live and yet …. Has brexit and covid distracted us that we’re so focused on the immediate – on the “events, dear boy,” of day to day politics, that we’ve lost the big picture.

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield

What goes around ….

River Avon at Widcombe

The river level had fallen slightly today after the weekend storms but it still looked dangerous this morning as we walked past. Falling in, in these conditions, is not a safe option, and this stretch of the Avon has taken more than a dozen lives in the last ten years. That said, we did see a couple of sturdy paddle boarders making very slow progress against the flow. The pleasure boats have all stopped, due to the renewed lockdown, but I wouldn’t even think about taking our inflatable kayak out in conditions more suitable for white water specialists.

It’s a salutary experience to watch the raw power of nature. Our regular riverside walk takes us under the bridge that appears in the video, beneath which the flood levels over the past century have been carved into the plinth. Most of them are well above our heads! This last year, flood prevention work has continued down this length of the river, and a new terraced water storage area has been created while the canalised banks have been raised even further; but canalisation, while protecting the centre of town, still moves the problem downstream. There are computerised side sluices which were in use yesterday, but they occasionally jam open, causing havoc and draining the waterway in the locked section upstream. It’s only when you see a whole tree passing down the river faster than you can walk, that you can judge the awesome strength of the flow – and that’s a chastening thought when you think about the environmental dangers we’re courting at the moment.

Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published 50 years ago. I can remember any number of warning signs over the years; acid rain, holes in the ozone layer, typhoons more severe than ever before and the melting of the Arctic ice. It’s been happening for so long we’ve got almost cosy with the idea – “what catastrophe?”, we wonder, when the changes are so slow we can accommodate them easily in our minds. “Climate change?”we say – “it’s like old age creeping up; these are just twinges in the knees, there’s plenty of time to sort things out. So here’s the thing. When nature gets upset or disturbed it’s not like waking a small bear, it’s like opening a pandora’s box of events so unmanageable, so unpredictable and so indiscriminate; that none of them can be summarily dealt with. When catastrophic events that are only predicted to occur once a century turn up three at a time in consecutive years then something’s up – rather like binge drinking for years, when your liver won’t give you the luxury of a gap between “not yet” and “too late”.

Curiously enough – or maybe fortuitously enough – there was another lesson to be learned from the river today. I’ve been saying for months to Madame that I can smell the detergent as we get with 200 yards of Pulteney Weir. Today you could see it as well. This thick layer of grey foam had caught my eye as a useful visual aid for showing the speed of the flow, earlier in our walk. Here, in the backwash next to the flood relief sluice, there was a floating layer of foam a foot deep. Less than a mile upstream we’ve seen people wild swimming below Grosvenor bridge. Here’s why that might be a dangerous idea, because quite aside from the danger of getting into trouble with underwater obstacles – the kind that killed a school friend when I was twelve – this stuff, the detergent, doesn’t make its own way into the river via a separate pipe marked “not too bad”. It comes via the overflows from the sewage works dotted along the banks. When torrential rain comes – as it does ever more frequently these days – the usual legal niceties controlling the treatment works are automatically suspended and raw sewage flows out straight into the river. The detergent foam may be an indicator; it may be a menace in its own right – rich, as it is, with phosphates; but even then it’s not as immediately dangerous as the other chemical, bacterial and viral contaminants that we’ve drained into it from our kitchens and bathrooms.

I mentioned a similar problem in a newspaper column years ago and was unceremoniously chucked out of a fly fishing club for bringing its waters into disrepute. Hi guys – still fishing in your own shit?

So there it is – you can’t escape the worries even during a quiet walk up the river. On the bright side they’ve just installed the first new bridge across the river for 100 years, for walkers and cyclists only which, predictably, has brought out the trolls who call it ‘the bridge that goes from nowhere to nowhere’. In fact it creates a safe route from the South to the North side of the city without using the Mad Max roundabouts along the main car route. Here are a couple of photos: –

The crane that lifted the bridge into place was a 170 ton crawler crane that arrived on over twenty low loaders to be assembled on site. It was awesome – the biggest crane I’ve ever seen; and yet when I was admiring it the security guard said “Oh that’s only a small one – the one at the Hinkley Point Power Station is twice as big”. Unsurprisingly the crane attracted a crowd of admiring men (and their less admiring partners). What is it about hyper-powerful machinery that gets us so excited? On the other had if it came to a tug of war between the crawler crane and the river in full spate I reckon the river would win without even breaking a sweat.

For all the pleasure and education that natural history television has brought us I often wonder whether it has falsely domesticated our sense of the wild. So often we read stories of people getting attacked when they climb over security fences to get closer to the animals in zoos and wildlife parks and it may be that a contributory factor (apart from being an idiot) is the sense that the wild is there for our entertainment. Almost all our attempts to ‘tame’ nature are hubristic. I mentioned Hinkley Point earlier and thought Chernobyl even as I typed it. The last iteration of the flood prevention scheme here broke down, they say, due to a software error, and dozens of residential boats were sunk, leaving many people homeless. Here’s a bigger video of the river at Pulteney Weir today:-

Busy bee

OK its probably a hoverfly, but cherry blossom on the riverside in November is a lovely sight!

By 5.00am I was wide awake and in the kitchen today. Yesterday I resumed breadmaking after a break since August when we put ourselves on a low carb diet; and, notwithstanding all my protests that it’s impossible to make a really satisfying 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf, I went ahead and started one anyway.

We survived the first lockdown by cooking (not so bad) but also eating far too many portions of comfort food; bread, cakes, biscuits and preserves and thus it came to pass that we were becoming more generously proportioned than is good for us; in fact we were as fat as Christmas hogs. The last three months of frugality have worked well, we’ve both lost approaching a couple of stone and the threat of nameless but horrible consequences has receded – no doubt like the devil seeking an opportune moment. I won’t bore you with the self glorifying details but there were two particular milestones – rediscovering my waist, and then a joyful reconciliation with a load of clothes that had been folded up and stored with a sigh years ago when it all started. Hilariously, I also discovered that when my old jeans were properly installed around my waist rather than clinging precariously under my belly I no longer needed the shortest leg length. Toulouse Lautrec eat your heart out!

The challenge with wholemeal sourdough is to get it to rise without the sharp edged bran damaging the structure by puncturing the bubbles of carbon dioxide. Those of us of a certain age will remember the Grant loaf – often as hard and dense as it was possible for a dough to be. But Doris Grant had one thing absolutely right; wholemeals don’t need as much kneading, and they ferment quickly, so leaving them for too long is more likely to lead to a collapsed dough than a life-changing loaf. My idea was to cut out the second rise altogether and see what happened; I just had my illumination at exactly the wrong moment and so I started the batter at a time which ensured I would be awake at 4.00am worrying about the dough overflowing the banneton. The idea is to catch the dough when a poke with a finger creates an indentation that feels springy and mends itself immediately. This morning I missed the optimal moment by a couple of hours and a dangerous looking muffin top was just overhanging the banneton (reminding me of my old jeans) , but mercifully the loaf forgave me and with a good sprinkle of rice flour as lubricant it slid from the peel into the hot oven without collapsing.

Yesterday the sun shone and so we took ourselves for a long walk along the canal and back – about eight miles in all. Aside from the cherry blossom I also spotted winter heliotrope in flower on the canalside. In fact there were intimations of life and growth everywhere, if you took the time to search them out. But the other thing we noticed was how much larger the population of permanent narrow boat residents has become. At a time when decent housing in Bath is beyond reach for so many young people, quite a few have taken to the water in a range of boats from the spick and span to the downright messy. In fact one of the floating homes we saw yesterday isn’t a narrow boat at all but an improvised raft.

Noah’s Ark?

A little further on was another boat stacked so high with stored artifacts and second hand timber it seemed to be anticipating a siege –

Are we supposed to get annoyed about this? To me it shows resilience and, after all, people have to live somewhere and if we allow a housing crisis to develop we have no right to criticise the improvised methods of survival that desperate people are obliged to adopt.

The highlight of our walk was a conversation with a young man who is developing an organic smallholding on an unpromising strip of land between the canal and the railway line. There are several such allotments dotted along the canal and this one was well stocked with pigs, goats, chickens, geese, ducks and one or two exotics in the background. A strip of land that would otherwise be producing nothing but brambles is coming to life and producing food in a largely self-sufficient way. What was so nice about our conversation was that notwithstanding maybe fifty years of difference in our ages, we shared the same experiences and enthusiasm for low impact and sustainable agriculture. I’ve just started reading the recently published “A small farm future” by Chris Smaje – you should check it out – it’s a closely argued book that repays slow and careful reading, but if our conversation with the young smallholder yesterday is anything to go by; the ideas that inspired and motivated us in the seventies and which have been so diminished and derided within this grim era of neoliberal economics, have been slowly gathering momentum and heft in the background. There’s a whole community down on the canal and it’s functioning with its own distinct (and distinctly more sustainable) culture. In my darker moments I’ve sometimes feared that everything we believed in and worked for over the past fifty years has been crushed, and that there’s no-one left to pass all the accumulated experience on to. After our long walk we came back to the flat with more of a spring in our step because there are signs of hope along the canal and in many other places. Goodness only knows how this will play out over the coming decades, but yesterday it felt as if the cultural tectonic plates really are moving – too slowly for some, no doubt – but that’s the way of the paradigm shift. For decades there is nothing but almost inaudible questioning of the status quo, the way we do things round here – and then suddenly one day it all clicks. Like sourdough, the best things are worth waiting for – and I think I’m about to have to eat my own words about the impossibility of creating good 100% wholemeal sourdough. Let’s have a taste!

I’ll tell you what it tastes like tomorrow ….