A walk on the wild side?

Luckily the threatened rain held off all day yesterday so our time with the grandchildren, while their mum was at work, was at least dry enough to go over to Dyrham Park for a bit of fresh air and subtle natural history. I’ve been going there for over sixty years – when I was young and before the National Trust acquired it I was a bit of a trespasser. I used to cycle ten miles or so culminating in a fearfully steep hill on my old gearless Raleigh bike, and climb over the wall into a different world. Much later on Madame and I would hire horses at the stables and ride through the park only more or less in control of their ill-tempered behaviour. I remember one particularly evil horse called Copper who knew every low branch in the park and took off at a full gallop hoping to unseat me. I was never a natural rider!

The field now called Whitefield was directly adjacent to the hill and the wall and so, although this is just a faint memory, I must have laid on my back there and watched the clouds passing overhead; one of my first experiences of what came to be known as oceanic feelings, although at the time I was too young to have known anything at all about Rolland and Freud – but as a result the place has always been very special to me.

Back, though, to Dyrham Park in 2023 and the creeping sense that the 21st century hunger for what the copywriters call “experience” as they tack it uneasily to any old event; has infected even the National Trust . What might once have been going to look at a garden is inflated to “Having A Garden Experience”, as if somehow the having of an experience adds a new layer of gravity and depth to it. This shift of emphasis also leads to the awful domain of the curator whose superior understanding of almost everything from art to gardens and Egyptian mummified remains compels them to lead us by the hand through the world and – where there’s not quite enough interest to it – to put the missing bits in. We buy our tickets at the entrance and get our biodegradable bag of ooohs and aaaahs to spend on the way around.

Wild Carrot

This is especially troubling in relation to nature and wildlife because being driven around a wildlife reserve behind a tractor with a rather loud commentary is in no sense a substitute for lying on your back and watching the clouds, listening to the birds and getting a Cider With Rosie view of the lowest level of plants; in amongst the roots and stalks. To be clear, there are no tractors or commentaries at Dyrham Park but some of the most lovely footpaths have been winter proofed with intensely white crushed limestone in order to direct the visitors around the park without getting their shoes muddy and – what’s worse – the edges of the paths have – in some of the busiest areas – been sown with wildflowers mixes that feature plants which would not normally be seen there. In high summer they’re extremely pretty but there’s no signage to assist visitors in understanding that this is a thoroughly unnatural display. In fact these wildflower displays might even nudge visitors into thinking that ecological destruction is not really happening because they’ve seen fields that are absolutely full of life. Yesterday we even spotted Cornflowers, alongside Poppies and other all-but-extinct pests of arable land; virtually poisoned out of existence by intensive agriculture in their natural habitat. There were huge drifts of Wild Carrot looking rather out of place but stunningly beautiful architectural plants in their more usual setting. This was a trick that the planners tried to use to greenwash the development of the riverside in Bath. Sadly, but inevitably the wildflower mix only lasted for one season and then were outgrown by the usual thuggish natives.

The awful truth is that there is just one area of genuine wildflower meadow in Dyrham Park and that’s Whitefield now fringed on two sides by a road and an expanded car park, and yesterday – after a lovely display of wildflowers and orchids in early spring – now bone dry and looking all but dead because the truth is – beyond the fences – the curated scenery of the pay to view park mocks the climate destruction and extreme weather conditions that are causing increasing extinctions of some of our most rare plants. Worse still, it’s outside the boundary of the park and is used as a dog walking area. This was brought home to us yesterday when – as we always do – we took the grandchildren to their favourite part of every trip there; playing in the stream that flows down from a spring below Whitefield, following the road down to the big house. But it wasn’t there; it had dried up completely. Whitefield looked more like the South of France in August. Notwithstanding the rain running down the windows as I write this, we’re in drought and we’ve been in drought for months.

Roesel’s Bush Cricket plus youngest grandson.

But nothing dampened the enthusiasm of the grandkids for hunting grasshoppers and crickets, and I even managed to work in a brief lesson on grass ID with the oldest. We play natural history games constantly in the hope that some of this invaluable knowledge will rub off on them. I was blessed by a Grandfather and a Mother who did the same with me and it enriched my life. I wonder if we’re not our own worst enemies when it comes to understanding and teaching about climate change. Dyrham Park, beyond the gaudy displays and formal gardens has got some really good plantlife. With three children to look after it’s hard to spend time riffling through the grass; but yesterday offered a feast of grasses apart from the usual suspects like Cocksfoot, Perennial Rye and False Oat grass. There were Timothy, and different Fescues, and some very fine grass – probably clinging on after the departure of the deer. There was Yorkshire Fog … oh and I could go on, but my point is that if we want to encourage people really to treasure the environment we need to encourage them to give the time and energy to move into a deeper slower and more personal experience of the natural world.

I used to have an inspiring teacher who taught us how to read literature better by way of what he called CAT sessions. CAT stood for close attention to text. We could spend an hour unpacking a single sentence. Natural History deserves its own CAT sessions. Yesterday I noticed something about the Wild Carrot flower that I’d never seen before. I’ll put the photo below, but if you look carefully you’ll see a red flower in the centre of the umbel. I’d never before given it the close attention it needed and when I checked it got even more interesting because no-one really knows what it’s there for. I think I must have assumed it was one of those bright red beetles sometimes known as bonking beetles. Some suggest it may be to attract pollinating insects but who really knows; but simply noticing it reminded me how poorly I often attend to the smallest details of wildflowers.

Back home we fed the children with hot dogs and afterwards the oldest told us that they’d had hot dogs the day before, and then when we delivered them back home they asked what was for tea and their Mum said – Hot Dogs. Three days running – poor souls, they must love us!

Wild Carrot – Daucus carota – plus mysterious red flower.

Bread and circuses?

A Mallow beside Whitesands Bay – but which Mallow? definitely a three pipe problem which, for a non smoker, is a bit tricky!

This post, which is a bit of a change from my usual more lyrical writing, came after spending a couple of very happy hours going through my photographs and doing a bit of ID searching and cataloguing while I went along. I know it sounds very nerdy, and I suppose it is, but it always gives me intense pleasure – especially when I discover that I have already photographed a plant which I’ve only just learned how to identify. My collection of thousands of photographs is more than a library catalogue because each one recaptures a plant, a time and a place; it lights up my memory of events and places that might have happened years ago.

It was the appalling thought that these irreplaceably beautiful reminders of our vulnerable earthiness might not be available to our grandchildren that made my hackles rise. Field botany; the finding and mapping of plants is overwhelmingly done by volunteers like me (in my very small way). The more data we gather the more it becomes obvious that the rate of extinctions is accelerating and that more and more of the plants described in literature will no longer be found in a ruined environment. This is not an act of some invisible and spiteful god but the inevitable consequence of the deranged relationship of the wealthy countries with the earth. I use the word deranged thoughtfully because it seems to me that it’s only what’s known as cognitive dissonance – our ability to obscure and tolerate the yawning chasm between our beliefs and our aspirations – that stops us from rising up in rage against this cruel extractive and exploitative regime.

… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

Juvenal 2nd Century Roman poet – in Satire 10; 77-81

When Juvenal wrote this he was not so much criticising the Roman elite as raging at the way the mass of people preferred free food and lots of violent and bloody spectacle rather than engage in their civic duty and responsibility; and – sadly – it’s not difficult to see a parallel between the declining Roman Empire and our own times. Our society is in terminal decay with corruption, greed and institutional lying, obscured by the salacious reporting of sexual scandals in the media.

So at what point does our capacity to believe Mother Julian, that “all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”, break down? When will our hearts finally rebel in the face of the incontrovertible evidence of catastrophic climate change, economic collapse, and hunger? How much longer can the final demands pile up in the hallway before we – the people – demand better? The bread is becoming unaffordable and the circus is a seedy porn show so – something has to break soon.

But just when we need visionary leaders, we get lumbered with two main parties who seem to be neck and neck in a feeblest platitude competition; staring into the abyss with their political telescopes firmly planted on their blind eyes. Personally I wouldn’t vote for either of them if the only other candidate was a dead sheep. The present electoral system has been so rigged by the powerful that without urgent reform the lights will go out while they’re still organising the agenda for a preparatory discussion among five of their mates. But we need not (must not) resort to cudgels or any form of violence. Bernard Lonergan came up with a list of seven virtues which we should try to live out ourselves in order that we can demand them from our politicians. As I write them out I’m astonished at how naive they sound and yet … here they are from Wikipedia:

“be humble, be hospitable, be merciful, be faithful, reconcile, be vigilant, and be reliable”

Bernard Lonergan

Or to take a more traditional approach – and I’m sorry that both these examples come from Christian teaching:

Justice; Temperance; Prudence; Fortitude

Or to take a Buddhist view of the virtues:

loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity

I could go on but suffice it to say that almost all religious faiths, not to mention atheism and agnosticism will come up with a very similar group of virtues. This isn’t something that confines itself to the religious or those capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast; and here it might be wise to remember that there’s abundant scientific evidence that those who do easily believe those six impossible things are utterly immune to evidence – which only seems to strengthen their belief; as witnessed by those groups who withdraw to the desert to await the end of time who, when it fails to materialise, blame themselves for calculating it wrong: or indeed those brexiters who say the problem isn’t that it was a terrible idea but that it was badly implemented!

Politicians have one point of vulnerability which – even with the help of the largely supine media – they cannot conceal. If we refuse to vote for the charlatans, the delusional, the liars and half-wits and lend our votes to the most virtuous (people displaying the qualities I’ve listed above) then it’s sending a clear message to them all that we demand change and won’t tolerate backsliding on promises at the behest of paid lobbyists. Neither of the two main parties in the UK meet those criteria and so I’m happy to say I won’t vote for them but I will vote for the candidates who embrace earth-first policies and are prepared to change the electoral system so that it can deliver the policies we need to avoid catastrophe. He have to elect leaders who walk the walk and not merely talk the talk.

Maybe the Ragwort and the Cinnabar moth stand more chance of surviving than we do!

A genuine first for me – I’ve seen opium harvesting on the allotments!

I thought I was pretty much bomb proof after my years working with extremely marginalized people, but this one took me completely by surprise. We were walking up from our plot last night after shutting the greenhouse and the polytunnel when Madame spotted a young man, in his late twenties or early thirties crouching on a neighbouring allotment. I asked him what he was doing and he answered rather unconvincingly that he was taking photographs. I couldn’t see a camera and judging by his whole appearance he was more likely to be a drug user nicking strawberries or soft fruit – he had that hollowed out sallow look and couldn’t even be arsed to make a plausible excuse. How did I make that rather harsh judgement? – well experience I suppose.

Anyway he wandered off and climbed back over the gate and I thought no more of it until this morning when we went back to work and I took a look at the spot he’d been crouching in. There were neither strawberries nor any other edibles anywhere near where he’d been but there were poppies and it took no more than a glance to figure out that what he’d been up to was cutting seed heads to get the milky sap which is the precursor to most of the dangerous drugs in the world, and mother to the crime that is endemic to the trade in drugs.

But I’m not accusing this poor young man of being some kind of drug baron because clearly he is one of the victims. It’s when that sticky white sap is scraped off the seed heads and pressed into dark brown balls that it enters the drug trade. I suspect that his intention was to scrape a little sap and then smoke it in a pipe; inhaling some of the fifty alkaloids which include heroin, morphine and cocaine but heaven knows what other poisons. A few minutes escape, perhaps, from a dreadful life or perhaps a misjudged permanent escape.

Is the economy now an object of worship to which we must sacrifice human lives?

Of course we could do more to help, but listening to the news at lunchtime today, the government seem to be saying that another 100,000 people thrown out of work is a price we have to pay to stabilize the economy. Grenfell and Covid suggest a rebalancing of the economy based on the sacrifices of the weakest in society and the continuing enrichment of the already wealthy . Somehow the shaming of Johnson has not made me as happy as I’d hoped. Now we see the problem, and it’s a metastasising tumour for which the only cure is to root out the intolerance and indifference to suffering that feeds it.

Here at the Potwell Inn we see the results every day. Notwithstanding the eagerness of the local businesses and the Council to project an image of Bath as the place where history comes to life; here in this neglected ward so close to the city centre we see how badly the dreams of Bridgerton and Jane Austin unravel in the harsh light of neoliberal economics. In a world of transcendental beauty – if you know where to find it – the rats still fight over fast food litter – and slavery, however modern, still stalks the earth; out of sight, and so out of mind. The drug dealers still gather on the corner of the Green to sell their wares, the street beggars pass us morning and night as they return to their shelters – and the deranged, denied any proper mental health support, howl at one another and at the skies with inarticulate rage. But I would argue that we are fortunate to live in a place where the contradictions are so cruelly exposed because, however painful it might be, we can’t look away.

The young man on the allotment is not the folk demon crackhead; but the political and economic culture which has trodden him down to such a desperate and vulnerable state is the true work of the devil, where vice masquerades as virtue and evil wears a suit and handmade shoes. Three calamities – the climate emergency, the environmental emergency and the economic emergency are the unholy trinity at the root of all these phenomena and confining our response to saving a few rare species, recycling, going vegan and buying a bike just won’t do. It takes will and determination and – as Ukraine demonstrates – courage to rise to the challenge and resist.

When the going gets tough …..

The endlessly adaptable Mexican Fleabane – Erigeron karvinskianus spreading along our street year by year
Phew what a scorcher! – says the sub editor for the 10,000th time

The Met Office defines a heatwave as a period of three days or more when the temperature rises above the expected. So no argument then! we’re in a heatwave; something I guess most of us in the UK would have known without the benefit of the definition. However, definitions sometimes throw up potential problems such as this one. In a time of global heating what’s expected? Upon what form of statistical calculation is that decision made. Is it the average temperature? the mean temperature? – and what happens when the temperature is rising year on year? Even if the mean June temperature is calculated over the past five, ten or even fifty years, it will surely rise; and at what point will the media be dutifully reporting a cold snap because the mean June temperature falls below a level that we’ve become wearily accustomed to. Maybe we need an alternative way of expressing the impact of temperature rises – for example excess deaths; the effect on crops; the price and availability of food; the water levels in the reservoirs; pollution in rivers as the reduced dilution effect of dry weather gives the game away ?

Of course, what we usually do in the real world is lament the idiocy of politicians who are too cowardly to address the crisis, and get on with it as best we can. Here at the Potwell Inn we’re getting up early and going to the allotment soon after seven o’clock so we can get three or four hours in before it’s too hot to work any more. Some jobs are much harder – for instance setting out young plants when temperatures are likely to rise to 30 C (86 F). They need intensive care from day one. The simplest manual jobs like tilling a bed or raking in compost or fertilizer can be exhausting, and watering becomes a test of stamina. At its worst I can walk 10000 steps between the water troughs and the allotment.

But there’s an upside too. After a seemingly endless winter in our flat we both felt thoroughly seedy and out of condition, but now we’re suntanned and as fit as fleas. Allotmenteering is both a physical and also an intellectual challenge – trying to predict what might happen next. I suppose you could say it resembles sailing, inasmuch as reading the weather almost becomes an obsession. We look to see where the wind is coming from. South westerlies can be warm but they also bring rain in from the Atlantic. A cold easterly can decimate fruit blossom and kill tender plants – we lost our Tarragon and Rosemary as well as an established Clematis during the winter and any heavy rain or snow can be destructive of plants or netting. It’s no use thinking “I’m not going out in this” because staying in might cost you your crop or your nets.

So we don’t feel in the least downhearted about this heatwave because, like the Mexican Fleabane in the photo, we can – if we work at it – adapt to all manner of changes. Don’t for a minute imagine that I’m saying we can adapt ourselves out of catastrophic climate change without changing our whole lifestyle. What I am saying is that being hard-up for most of our lives, being prepared to keep the household just about going by earning a living wherever it’s possible is a great training in resilience – I’ve washed up in a hotel, driven buses, been a rather poor welder, a groundsman, a night cleaner in a factory, worked nights on my own in a rat infested factory sawing large blocks of polystyrene foam into sheets, and worked in a prison and a couple of old style mental hospitals. I can cook, clean and grow stuff and of course I worked as a parish priest for 30 years and I think I learned a great deal about being human or how not to be human. Madame has a very similar skill set and so we muddle along contentedly together, knowing that a good life doesn’t depend on having a Range Rover.

I’ve been reading a short article by Prof Massimo Pigliucci in “Philosophy Now” which I picked up from a newspaper stand before I looked at the price. Anyway the article lists six ethical ideals shared by almost all the world’s faiths. This is a long way from religion in the commonly understood sense. These values are:

  • Practical wisdom
  • Justice / morality
  • temperance / moderation
  • fortitude / courage
  • Humanity
  • Transcendence (gratitude, hope, spirituality

This group of dispositions broadly represents what’s usually called Virtue Ethics. To risk simplifying the idea so much it becomes a parody, these kind of dispositions, when internalised and lived out in everyday life, are the most effective guidance we have for flourishing – not for getting rich, or amassing honours and power but simply flourishing, being / becoming human. When you think about it it would be hard to express a better wish list for gardeners, nurses, or so-called captains of industry.

There’s a kind of grim satisfaction in knowing that when the climate catastrophe finally strikes us, the wealthy can only hope to buy a few more years of absolution from the bletted fruits of their behaviour before they realise they’ve got no talent for being human and no skills to change themselves. The snake oil salesmen and the invisible Seventh Technological Cavalry will have fled, and their last moments will be spent howling at a blackened sky like Violet Elizabeth Bot “I’ll thcweam and I’ll thcweam and I’ll make mythelf thick!”

Percuil

I’m constantly writing and thinking about the reason the natural world so deeply affects me (and so many of us), in such a way that it’s almost impossible to express in words. Feeling good about the natural world hardly does justice to it when for instance – at the moment of taking this photograph of the Percuil river – I was so filled with inexpressible gratitude and joy. It was an intensely spiritual moment, I might say; except that any half sensible interrogator would ask – “Well what does spiritual actually mean?”

We’d just walked down the path in the photo, through open woodland that was just alive with wildflowers. Now and again we caught glimpses of the river across a gated field entrance but mostly we were concentrating on re-finding the reliable patch of Early Purple orchids we’d found several years running. The dappled woodland was a perfect setting for the yellows, blues and reds of Celandines and Buttercups; Bluebells, Cow Parsley, Herb Robert and Red Campions. Little moments of visual intensity suspended in air above the green background; a silent triumphant chord turning one of the five senses into another.

Plant hunting turns out to be an incredibly sensual experience. With a bit of experience the exploration of any new plant – it needn’t be rare at all -uses all of the senses. The texture, colour, minute details of form, taste, (used with extreme discretion) and smell. The geology underfoot, time of day and time of year, exact setting – mid field, hedgerow, open woodland or dark forest; all these play into a reflection that draws on our memory and previous experience distilled down to a single moment with a single expression of Nature.

Yesterday I was idling along looking at different kinds of Dock – I was able to comfortably name three – all of them ubiquitous in this country – Broad Leaved, Curled and Common Sorrel. I could have managed a couple more but they weren’t there, but in naming them I used exactly the sensual plus procedure I described above. When I started out I almost always forgot the diagnostic powers of stroking and sniffing, until I encountered Hedge Woundwort whose crushed leaves smell horrible.

When we reached the little boatyard at Percuil we sat on a wall in the sun, looking at the moored boats when Madame caught sight of a familiar plant right in front of us. “Its Fennel” – she said – “Go and look”, and so I did. It wasn’t difficult because we use Fennel and grow it ourselves. So a roll between the fingers and a sniff confirmed beyond any doubt. But at this point the story took another entirely new turn because the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland), have just published an online database of all the plants, their distribution, their increase and decrease in the face of this environmental catastrophe. Thirty odd million records processed and mapped. So out came my mobile phone and with a few taps we discovered that Common Fennel is indeed very common around the coast but hasn’t been recorded in the little four kilometer square in which we were sunbathing. So that’s a new record that sits like the last piece of a jigsaw in a long coastline.

But once you’ve photographed, checked and rechecked and consulted the field guides and satisfied yourself that the name is factually correct, there’s always a remainder. A chunk of the experience that refuses to be reduced to dimensions and probabilities and pays no heed to logic and expertise. It doesn’t even have to be a rare plant – it could as easily be a Dandelion. Maybe some kind of spirituality is where that remainder lives. When all the pub quiz / trainspotter stuff is over and done, something is left that feels as if it’s mostly made from love, wonder and gratitude. A whole other sense above and beneath the tactile, the sensual and the intellectual. Maybe the beginnings of a Green Spirituality lie within this barely explored sense. The earthy, material, exhilarating phenomenon that we call Nature speaks through our senses. Here’s the orchid – still there and below that, some bits and bobs including a stunning bit of walling.

Mayday

This photograph of the allotment was taken on May Day 2016, two months after we took it on.

There was me, writing here a few days ago lamenting the absence of what I chose to call cultus; call it what you will really but it’s about moments of communal celebration – and then today it’s May Day.

Not that anything very discernable happened. No maypole to be seen on the allotments; no May Queen, no carousing and drunkenness; no dangerous and profligate behaviour. All you could say was that the allotments today were busier than they’ve been since last autumn. We’ve endured long periods of solitary allotmenteering as winter extended its grip to a full six months and we wondered whether we would ever see the sun again. Now we have two consecutive bank holidays and a coronation and aside from a meet the street gathering here next Sunday it seems that big and boozy community events were dealt something of a death blow by Covid. Somehow we’ve got out of the habit – out of the habit of harvest festivals, Christmas carols, plough mondays, Whitsun; and beating the parish bounds; other flavours are available if you can remember them.

There are probably many who wish good riddance to the lot of them – Christian festivals are a bit passé now – except for the fact that most of the meaningful festivals that still exist were pinched from the pagans centuries ago. Oliver Cromwell did his level best to ban the lot of them but the moment the Restoration happened they emerged from their brief hibernation as full of energy as before.

When St Augustine of Canterbury arrived in Britain in around 597 he discovered that a fully functioning pagan religion had returned in the period since the Romans left. He sent a desperate email – (OK letter!) – asking the Pope what he should do and in one of the few sensible decisions in the history of Christian evangelism; some months later the Pope replied that it was better to take on the pagan buildings and traditions and give them a Christian backstory. Welcome to Plough Monday, the first Monday after the (Christian) feast of the Epiphany – OK then, Twelfth Night – when traditionally the sowing of crops began after the Christmas lockdown. Plough Monday was the pagan festival celebrating the beginning of the agricultural year. In fact there’s an uncanny tie-in between the surviving Christian festivals and the old pagan calendar; and some, like Wassailing, that were never successfully co-opted at all.

All of which is a rather long winded approach to the fact that today, May Day, is also celebrated as Beltane; the traditional festival celebrating the beginning of summer. Fires, singing and a bit of carousing would once have taken place all over the country. I’ve got a photo of my mother as a child (born in 1918) dressed in white, with a garland of flowers round her head and standing next to a ribbon decked maypole on an Oxfordshire village green. Sadly since the triumph of the Evangelicals – Cromwell’s withered soulmates – most of the Christian Churches see these entirely innocent reminders of the earth cycle as heretical if not as devil worship. If you really want to see devil worship go and stand outside the chemical works in Huddersfield that still produces Paraquat and sells it to poor farmers in India.

The point here is that the earth cycles – the solstices, Winter (Christmas); Summer (Midsummer Day); equinoxes; Spring (Easter); Autumn; (Michaelmas) and the intervening quarters; Imbolc (Candlemas); Beltane (May Day); Lughnasadh (Lammas) and Samhain (Halloween) need to be detached from their captivity within institutional Christianity not because I would like to damage what became my own spiritual dialect but because the context has changed; history has moved on and – in the story shaped universe that we created and now inhabit – the earth cycle has (once again) become the story we desperately need to move us away from the dominant narrative – neoliberal economics and politics – towards an earth centred spirituality, not because it feels like a nice idea, but because our lives depend upon it.

So today we were on the allotment. Madame was mulching our fruit bushes with sheep fleeces given to us by our friends NIck and Kate who live in Bannau Brycheiniog – the old and original Welsh name for the Brecon Beacons. We’re expecting a plot inspection any day now and, to be honest, it looks as if a small flock of Jacobs Sheep has died in the fruit cage, under the blackcurrants and gooseberries. Fleece, which is almost valueless these days, makes an excellent mulch and slug repellent and it’s very good as an additive to the compost heap. Anyway we hope we don’t give our neighbours palpitations.

While Madame was engaged with the fruit cage, I was earthing up the potatoes. Years ago I bought a ridging tool which I only ever use once a year but it’s exactly right for earthing up spuds. The soil is black and friable and smells lovely with a bit of sun on it. It’s worth ridging up this time of year because it protects the emerging leaves from a late frost better than fleece, which allows Jack Frost to do his destructive work wherever it touches the leaf.

Everywhere there are signs of growth. The immense energy of spring drives the plants upwards into our realm and as I hoed the soil, I touched, for a moment that sense of sacredness that occasionally visits a gardener in quiet thought. This moment of inspiration was accompanied by a speaking; not at all an auditory hallucination but the clearest intimation that the soil itself is the mother of all life. We might imagine for a moment that those Buddhist monks who rake gravel temple gardens have, somehow, a higher form of spirituality. It’s not true of course. The sacred is always ordinary; the ordinary seeking us out.

But I can’t leave this thought with any suggestion that the paganism which I have referred to here is in any sense inferior, heretical or dangerous. My point in using it is to suggest that its connection with the earth cycle may be an insight whose time has come again. In 1966 First Nation Canadian, Buffy Sainte Marie, released a song called “Little Wheel Spin and Spin” and it just wouldn’t leave me yesterday. You might like to listen to it – it’s on YouTube music. Fifty seven years on it’s as powerful and prophetic as it was when I first heard it.

Christianity has been a rather poor guardian of the ancient traditions it once co-opted. Maybe it’s time to ask for our ball back? Happy Beltane.

With just anger and despair we’re on a hiding to nothing. We need a few geologians to help us draw thinking and actions together.

This is going to be a very short post but I think it’s important to think aloud occasionally, if only to begin to set out some kind of a stall. My aim here is to tease out a couple of missing threads in the environmental movement; threads that – if we could fill them with life – might release enough energy to get this heavy stone to the top of the mountain.

The only data I really understand is myself and my feelings which seem constantly to suck the life out of any hope. Despair is utterly destructive. I’ve mentioned before (often) that any kind of earth spirituality needs a structure, a framework in which to function, to act, to think and to conduct our daily lives. This doesn’t seem to me to require the invention of any supernatural entities; there’s more than enough awe in nature to inspire the biggest of thoughts and responses and even to drive to our knees from time to time. That’s the first missing link – a structure or framework which will need to be maintained and expanded by our best thinkers.

This would be the first task of what I’ll call the geologians – the earth philosophers who know how to ask good questions and frame good answers. Theologians do God which is a good deal easier since “because I say so” is a circular argument which I’ll come to with the next missing link. Geologians will help us to think sensibly, coherently and truthfully without waving big sticks like damnation and purgatory.

The second missing link after the framework begins to take shape will be to form a canon – a collection of writings that can command general acceptance. This wouldn’t be too hard, there are loads of books on my shelves that call themselves “readers”- selections of writings that seem to demand our attention because they help us to think more clearly. I’m certainly not proposing we turn our geologians into a high priesthood. A canon is a collection of trustworthy writings that come with the assurance that they won’t lead us into the wilderness – and I’m sorry for the occasional reference to more biblical notions but they’re handy shortcuts sometimes. However, as I hinted before, even canonical literature needs to be constantly examined and revised if it’s not going to die and become putrid. That’s why “because I say so” ican never be on the agenda.

The third, and possibly the trickiest component will be what we have to describe as the cultus – without for a moment implying a derived cult. The cultus might involve – for instance – thanking a plant for meeting some of our needs before we dig it up; community harvest or planting festivals and so forth.

These three threads already exist extensively within native, first nation and ancient cultures. They have elders and wise people who maintain the culture and guide actions, they have highly refined structures of belief and they abound in ceremonies and rituals which enfold communities and hold them together. However this can’t mean that we could just take a system off the shelf and apply it to ourselves. Many of the existing systems are highly localized – to plains communities; herding communities or forest communities. We in the overdeveloped and greedy west have obliterated the concepts of theology, cultus and canon in order to remove any opposition to neoliberal capitalism. The vision I’m talking about refers more to a possible post apocalyptic future. The driving force is the hope that the most thoughtful and creative minds of our generation; artists, poets, scientists engineers and philosophers (well not my generation perhaps; I’m pretty ancient!) – may forge a new vision that can act as a bridge towards a new sustainable future.

Most revolutions are fought without much of a vision of what happens afterwards and this is what leads to populism and dictatorship; easy to fall into and hard to dispense with. Lashing out might feel good for a moment but the bad actors have all the power and they won’t hesitate to use it. What they don’t have is the power to eradicate a contagious vision. Faith – as the evangelists often say – is caught and not taught. Belonging is far more powerful than believing. We’ve got local elections in the UK in a few days time and I’m immensely disheartened by the fact that the Greens have the right policies expressed in the style of a university seminar reading. To borrow and adapt an idea from Monica Furlong; feminist theologian “anger is hope overwhelmed by despair”. Only visions can express theories with sufficient power to change “the way we do things round here”.

Calendula cream, chef’s ass, the marriage service and a green spirituality

One of the best pub signs I’ve ever seen!

Yesterday was just one of those days that left me almost breathless with pleasure. We were five old friends whose various relationships reach back way over fifty years; five old friendships that have seen and survived all manner of triumphs and tragedies and five human beings sharing a walk (well, more of an amble) on a stunning spring day, while we followed the course of the remains of the Somerset Coal Canal which was built to carry coal from the North Somerset coalfield to the junction with the Kennet and Avon canal, near Dundas aqueduct. For me, a light bulb went on when I realized how much of the old stone structure had survived, but Madame also had it written down as a place to return to – a lot!

It wasn’t a long walk by any stretch but we gave it several hours anyway, soaking up the sun and exploring off the path from time to time, looking at plants and rusting iron lock gate nails with equal interest; catching glimpses of the equally abandoned railway line that forced the demise of the canal. For me it’s a paradise of post industrial relics and possible sites for interesting wildflowers, and by all accounts it has some very interesting geology, which is always good news for plant hunters. But it wasn’t all green wellies and Tilley hats. C and I had a friendly bird app competition with our phones and I realized that the absence of an in-phone database meant that hers identified a Black Cap Warbler much faster than mine which was still looking for a signal. Just for interest I was using Birdnerd and C had Merlin – hers was clearly better for off-grid id’s – mine’s always worked perfectly well but perhaps I’ve just been lucky with phone masts.

Weld – Reseda luteola

There were no rarities spotted, but it was just as reassuring and pleasurable to see Dandelions, Cuckoo Flowers, Cowslips, White Nettles and Ground Ivy all flowering in profusion. The only oddity was what I think must have been Weld – Reseda luteola, AKA Dyers Weed, Dyers Rocket or Yellow Weed. No prizes, then, for guessing what it was once used for. If it was Weld I suppose that would make it a post industrial plant relic from a much earlier historical moment. Lurking up and down these beautiful valleys are the ruins and remains of monastic communities with their medicinal herb gardens and watermills, grinding grain from local farms. Far from being enjoyable just for its remoteness and quietness, you could almost feel the presence of innumerable farm labourers, fishermen, monks, boaters, miners, navvies and railwaymen, all those faint echoes flowing towards the river Avon. The horizons are punctuated by the silhouettes of grand mansions and farms such that we were obliged to consider the source of all that wealth. One of our party had long dead ancestors who were in the cloth trade and who may have furnished the backs of navvies, slaves and workhouse inhabitants. with fustian – rough but hard wearing cloth that combined cotton weft on linen warps.

We finished up – as all good walks do – in the pub where I photographed the hauntingly lovely sign at the top of this post; something I’ll come back to in a moment.

I’ve been struggling for a long time to find a way of expressing what seems to me to be a fundamental difficulty in this post-religious age. A few days ago I wrote this:

the intoxicating smell of the wet but warming earth – known as petrichor – carried the subliminal message of the season. Is there some kind of spirituality here? – something to do with being held by an embracing framework? 

The trouble with words like Spirituality and Love is that they’ve been so trampled upon by blowhards, bishops and pornographers they no longer have any meaning at all except for a vaguely felt inflammation of the imagination which could be anything from a vision to a mild virus, and so writing about such things becomes an exercise in frustration; altogether lacking the tools for the job.

For me, best and most creative ideas come when the parts of a solution finally come together for no discernable reason except the relaxed mindfulness of a walk. These ideas, quite often, are not the lofty analytics of a Holmesean three pipe problem. They can seem vulgar, irreverent and occupy worlds so different it’s almost like harvesting the energy of colliding comets.

So here’s the problem – how can we find a contemporary way of expressing the content of words like spirituality and love. What kind of love, from all of the available flavours, would best express our love for the Earth in this age of catastrophe? and secondly, what form of spirituality could provide a language accessible to the religious, the determinedly non-religious and that huge population in the middle who long for a structure, a framework for understanding a way of being human that isn’t part of what’s destroying us all?

And so what about these three components?

  • Chef’s Ass
  • Calendula officinalis
  • The marriage service

These three rather disparate ideas have at least one thing going for them because they include a painful (but not fatal) human condition, a plant that provides a useful remedy, and a form of words that might just provide the beginnings of a framework.

Let’s take Chef’s Ass first. If you’re working in very hot and humid sweaty conditions – for instance in a restaurant kitchen, polytunnel or just walking for long distances in inappropriate clothes you may contract a very uncomfortable form of abrasion rash known colloquially as chef’s ass in the trade. I consulted our son – who’s a chef – on a possible cure, and he said he’d once tried alcoholic hand gel which turned out to be effective but screamingly painful. I hoped I could find a less extreme cure for my similar gardening related problem and turned to our home made Calendula Cream which, to my great surprise and relief worked miraculously well. It’s so cheap and easy to make I wonder why anyone would pay £15 for a tube, or resort to potentially dangerous remedies like hydrocortisones.

Calendula flowers drying in August 2020

Forget God for a moment because there’s absolutely no reason to invoke any kind of higher level supernatural powers here. The earth provides us with a multitude of effective remedies for many unpleasant, painful but non-malignant diseases. Calendula is just one example. Now the application of the cream did the trick for me, but that left me with the odd sense that I should be able to say thank-you for that help. I get exactly the same feeling harvesting our produce, eating it and sharing it with friends. That unchannelled, unfocused gratitude needs somewhere to land but all too often, like a boomerang, it circles back on itself and manifests itself as pride.

I know I’m using a religious term here but bear with me just for a moment while I explain. Pride is a very dangerous thing not least because it blinds us to our own fallibility. But collective pride – for instance in our ability to solve every challenge, even catastrophic climate change, through our own cleverness is a form of idolatry. Our thank-you’s desperately need to be channelled into something less destructive than pride.

So with that in mind I’ll turn to to some words from the marriage service which once seized me so powerfully in the course of a wedding service I was taking, that I had to stop in my tracks and recover my wits before I could continue. Each of the couple (and I’m using this example in a completely secular and non gendered way) say to one another – “All that I am, I give to you, and all that I have I share with you”. From that moment onwards I almost invariably reminded my couples that the second half of the promise was the easy bit. “All that I have I share with you” is the kind of arrangement that any half witted solicitor could organise. It’s a kind of prenuptial clause. But the second half of the promise- “All that I am I give to you” is on a different plane. How many of us have even the faintest clue what “all that I am” means for ourselves, let alone our prospective partner?

And yet the point here is that the earth has made precisely that promise to us. The earth says – “all that I am I give to you” and means it utterly, to the end. But we, in our infinite pride, forget that in this imagined marriage relationship with the earth we secretly and covetously hope to get our hands on the money and say that sentence with our fingers crossed behind our backs. There’s no more destructive relationship than a one sided and selfish marriage. This is not a religious point!

So at last I come back to the pub sign. I’m a sucker for naive paintings and a complete fool for the ones that express in paint something that the painter could never have articulated in words. Our angel, with a look of considerable doubt on her face is taking an anchor from the heavenly (that’s the hope bit) to the earthly ( that’s the anchor). When the rope breaks there’s no guide to the way back and we are lost. So to recap from the top; all those ancient voices flowing down to the river and onward to the sea were the hopes of our ancestors, lived out in the world of nature that provided food and health as best the earth could offer. It was greed and selfishness that fouled things up and because of that idolatrous worship of our own powers we now face an existential crisis.

Ironically (or maybe not), we five walkers all agreed that it wasn’t just the complete ineptitude of our politicians or the continuing impact of lockdown; the war in Ukraine, or even the cost of living that was making us depressed and unhappy. There is something deeper that wrecks our sleep and furnishes our worst dreams. Without finding a new relationship with the earth and all living things we’ll remain delusional, lonely and ultimately doomed.

In which I reveal the true identity of Uncle Jim.

Lone canoeist on the river at dusk

I picked the photograph carefully by typing “river” into my photos database and going through them carefully, waiting for the spark to happen. This was it; the Potwell Inn expressed in a single image. Incidentally my sister once told me off because, (she said), every time I wrote a lyrical piece I would throw a spanner in the works at the last moment, as if I couldn’t bear the thought of a happy ending. It was a reasonable criticism because, on reflection, that’s something I often do. Yesterday I read a single page of an essay concerning grass written by John Ruskin. I thought it was so gushing and overheated that I counted the adjectives on a single paperback sized page and there were 25. As I wrote a couple of days ago, my inner eye could scan the grasses on Mendip or – let’s say on the Lizard with interest, but alight with joy on a heap of mine spoil or bare serpentine rock. My defence would be that I’m far from being pessimistic by temperament; it’s experience!

The Potwell Inn is, and always was, my safe place. Since I read it as a set text at fourteen years old I’ve never lost the liberating sense of delight when Alfred Polly, the hero of HG Wells comic novel stumbled upon this idyllic pub with its own ferry after running away from his own bungled suicide which (long story) resulted in inadvertently burning his hated shop down and heroically rescuing an elderly woman from the blaze. From that moment all my ambitions centred upon finding my own Potwell Inn and my very own landlady. Someone – was it William Goldman? – once wrote that the structure of all great adventures is the Grail legend; the search for an answer to the question “what ails you?” – the one question in life that can never be answered through introspection.

The fact that sixty years later I chose the Potwell Inn as the name for my imaginary happy place, should be an awful warning to parents, teachers and economists about the power of stories. But there’s another thread that animates all great stories and that’s threat and release. Love is only truly love because it always ends in loss. Bereavement is the price we pay for flying, like Icarus, too close to the sun. If you look carefully at the sidebar you may notice the odd category “Uncle Jim” which I hardly ever use, but refers to the threat of annihilation by the large woman’s drunken brother. His threats are comical, but the menace is very real, and occasional confrontations (and dunkings in the river) only end with Uncle Jim’s accidental death wearing Polly’s jacket; relieving the unhappy Polly of his identity and allowing the new beginning he’d dreamed of.

So in one sense, the idea of the Potwell Inn as a safe place is only partially true. Which brings me back to the photograph. The canoeist in question is not paddling – as you might imagine – towards a magnificent sunset. The light floods across from the huge and mythically unlovely blocks of flats that were built on the old gasworks site across the river from us. Grossly overpriced, jerrybuilt monstrosities that resemble Russian bonded warehouses. The old gasworks site on what’s been named by an overheated copywriter as “The Western Riverside” was an ecological hotspot as well as providing a wide wildlife corridor towards a brief strip of countryside – awaiting ‘improvement’ from an ambitious architect with a couple of prisons under their belt. In my view that’s a crime that unites Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Binsey Poplars” with John Masefield’s “cheap tin trays”. [sorry – this is a rant so no prisoners!]

But the threat element of my story goes further because the Potwell Inn of my imagination is also bordered by the river on which my canoeist paddles; but this real river is carrying more than its share of human effluent – the telltale signs are the ice floes of detergent foam that signify that someone – in a treatment plant somewhere close – has dumped another load of shit into the vicinity of my safe place.

I worry that my frequently elegiac rendering of the Potwell Inn distracts from the reality that Uncle Jim, who regenerates more often than Doctor Who, currently wears an expensive suit and loves to entertain Councillors and Planning officials at party conferences : – ( it’s all in the declarations of interest so no-one need bother denying it).

It’s too much – sometimes – this sense of threat. One of my producers once said that my best writing was in the lyrical style. Well yes – but the lyricism of mine and much current nature writing is in danger of becoming politically useful greenwashing. When was the last time I heard a cuckoo? In North Wales last week we were both startled with joy at the sound of a cuckoo which turned out to be no more lyrical than the dishwasher doing its rhythmic thing. The last real cuckoo was probably five years ago on our friends smallholding on the Brecon Beacons. How long will it be before we forget altogether?

On the other hand I’m having a bit of a fern binge at the moment and we found loads of Wall Rue on the wall outside the flat. How ironic that in my previous post I wrote about the way the plants and insects will outlive us when the catastrophe finally happens. Today I’m thinking how unutterably sad it will be if the only witnesses of the unfolding tragedy are dead?

Life on the edge

Another week on the Lleyn peninsula, at the feet of the Snowdon range and jutting out into the Irish sea. The drive home was an idyllic spring journey through three mountain ranges, Snowdonia, the Cambrians and then the Brecon Beacons. I suppose we could have driven home the quick way via the motorway network but then we’d have missed the superb clear views of the mountains. On one occasion a couple of years ago we took a wrong turn and drove up beside the Arenigs and Lake Bala. It cost us a couple of hours finding our way through the Welsh Marches but it felt as if we were following in George Borrow’s footsteps as he researched for his book “Wild Wales”.

The weather was iffy to say the least, but then it usually is in North Wales, and we found sunshine and time for walking every day – which led to a surprise discovery. Coltsfoot (bottom left) isn’t rare by any means but I haven’t seen it for over a decade. The last occasion was on a bike ride along the Severn estuary when the verges were thinly covered by melting snow. It’s one of those plants which flowers before the leaves emerge and I suspect the contrast of golden yellow against the mud spattered roadside snow caught my eye. I’ve been back to the same place often at this time of the year to see it again, if only because it cheers me up to see it defying the last of winter, rather like Celandines do. It’s possible, though that I haven’t found it because it just wasn’t there – because it’s fussy about its environment, but only in the sense that (like the Twits) it relishes disturbed and unpromising environments like landslides, mudslides disturbed ground and generally mashed up land. Last week there were so many Coltsfoot plants punctuating the wind and sea-lashed mud cliffs of Porthor beach, I thought I’d gone to heaven.

And I really like these places. Madame rolls her eyes and laughs at me when I run rapturously towards a slag heap, but here you can find some of the great survivors of the plant world. Often absolutely tiny, they make a scant living in the most unpromising places; for instance those lumps of dark rock in the bottom right hand photo are actually lead slag and in early spring, Common Whitlowgrass is among the few plants that can tolerate the concentrations of heavy metals like lead. The top right photo is of Danish Scurvygrass growing in pure sand. It’s common all around the coast, and I once chewed some (picked out of dog range) and it tasted pretty horrible – like gone off horseradish with mustard. For sailors however it was once a lifesaver due to its concentration of Vitamin C. Foragers like it for reasons best known to themselves and for them the good news is that salt gritting the roads has created Scurvygrass highways, reaching inland on verges.

Many ferns too can scratch a living on drystone walls and almost bare rocks, and so the list goes on. The adaptations to allow these precarious lives are as varied as the species themselves, and that’s the thing about evolution – it’s got time and sheer weight of numbers on its side; so many combinations and mutations to select from. One seaside favourite is the thickening and toughening of the skin – the description succulent kind of misses the emphasis that should rather lie with the plant’s capacity to resist drought, salt and all the other indignities of marginal life. Some ferns rely on what’s called apomixis – they’re self fertilised and so the minute spores can set up shop almost anywhere without fertilization by another plant – and my goodness they can travel in a favourable wind.

I get bored by formal gardens mainly because their glorious arrays are almost always the result of intensive breeding and human effort. They’re the well bred six footers who always get noticed first at the bar whilst the rest of us poorly bred peasants have to wait.

The most misused concept in farming is the idea of “improved pasture” because it’s not improved in any conceivable way- it’s just more productive in the single sense that it makes cattle fatter quicker. But the fact is that unimproved grassland yields better, stronger, far more biodiverse, health promoting and nutritious food; not just for meat production but also capturing and sequestering more carbon whilst sustaining the intricate web of wildlife – birds, flowers, pollinating insects in balance. Improved grassland is just a wasteful and expensive way of turning soil into dirt!

I don’t blame the farmers for this impasse. Decades of government policy and propaganda from supermarkets and agrochemical businesses have promoted the gods of economy, “progress” and yield, but just as the Canaanite god Moloch demanded child sacrifice, the gods of intensive agriculture have sacrificed the soil; offering only dwindling returns and throwing countless small farmers into bankruptcy and poverty.

Of course, picking up my initial thread, some plants will succeed in the most impoverished and polluted situations – which may be of comfort to those foragers who haven’t yet tried salad leaves contaminated with heavy metals. But there will be no botanists there to record and admire them. You see, to return to the idea of evolution, we have to remind ourselves that evolution carries on whether or not there are any humans around. After the barren earth and the inevitable famines, there will be plants and every other kind of wildlife, doing what my favourite plants have always done; adapting surviving and flourishing. This is the point we’re missing. If we want to survive as a species we need to follow their example and adapt the way we live until balance is restored once again.

There will always be snake oil sellers who offer fossil fuelled shares in going back to the good old days. Laugh at them. Laugh in their faces at their risible stupidity, because if there’s one thing we’ve forgotten in this scientific age it’s encapsulated in this adapted quip.

Q: What’s the difference between God and Nature?
A: You can negotiate with God.
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