Drowning in the wrong metaphor

St Ives in January 2016

I do lot of reading – you may have noticed if you’re a regular reader – and occasionally I come across a truly daft example of letting a metaphor run away to the point where you can only ask WTF? On one occasion during the formal prayers in church, one of my colleagues who always prepared immaculately, was working up a long metaphorical improvisation on the spiritual power that can inspire creativity and, thinking to finish with a flourish, entreated us to “all fertilize one another”. A request that the congregation, mostly over sixty, chose not to follow up. After a bit of merciless teasing he conceded that he could have chosen his words more carefully!

I don’t retell this story because I disliked him, in fact he was my most trusted friend and something of a surrogate father to me. I tell it because, as I think (I think from memory) Paul Ricoeur once said, “we live in a story shaped universe”; and the stories we tell, the metaphors we use and the pictures we paint actually shape the world we live in and so we have a huge duty of care when we employ them.

Here’s an example from Thomas Berry’s “Dream of the earth”, which I’m re-reading at the moment. I greatly enjoy his writing and in the current climate it’s a book that – if you’re at all interested in any kind of green spirituality – you should read. However here’s an absolute zinger of a metaphor that’s overextended so far it must have ruptured its achilles tendon: “…… without the gravitational attraction experienced throughout the physical world, there would be no emotional attraction of humans to one another.” (Chapter 5 – The ecological age.)

Try as I will, I can’t get my head around the idea that human attraction is related in some material way to our mass. Would I become even more fatally attractive if I gained fifty pounds? It’s just the overextended metaphor escaping and taking on a life of its own. Would we be far less attractive in the low gravity environment of the moon? Ah well, a better editor would have put a blue pencil through that one.

Politicians, of course, love a good metaphor because they understand that in this story shaped universe a well turned phrase can influence behaviour far more powerfully than a 20,000 word policy statement. “Fighting them on the beaches” and “finest hour” convey more emotional content for a useful group of older voters in a couple of words than almost any other phrase in British politics. The fact that they were both coined in times of defeat and failure makes no difference whatever.

So why all this pondering? Well it comes from a long and enjoyable reading of Charles Massy’s book “Call of the reed warbler” in which he frequently blames the “mechanical mind” for much of the critical damage we’ve done to the environment over the past two and a half centuries. I understand, just for the sake of clarity, that we humans started impacting nature as many as ten thousand years ago but we lacked the technological power to put the earth beyond repair. I know exactly what he means by the phrase; especially when it’s opposed to the “ancient organic mind” of our so-called primitive ancestors. He blames the enlightenment for the changing mindset that regards the earth as no more or less than an endless resource that is entirely at our disposal.

What I’m interested in is why? How, culturally, did we change from being stewards to environmental tyrants and how, given the urgency of the crisis, can we build a new culture? Somewhere within the answer there has to be a serious look at which forces most influence our core beliefs and behavior. There’s no point in criticising farmers without examining the agrochemical industry , the industrial food market, media and the marketing and advertising industry. Then we must examine our own role in sustaining these dangerous industries by buying and using their products. This week alone I’ve received three so-called objective reports praising the safety of glyphosate from different organisations which nowhere mention Monsanto or Bayer or indeed Syngenta but cite only evidence that was commissioned and paid for by the industry.

If we live in a story shaped universe then as westerners we need to understand the biblical story about humans being given dominion over all the earth and consider whether we should reject it. We need to understand how and why we talk about endless growth as a settled and universal constant; how and why we tell ourselves that all problems are soluble by technology; how and why our democracy fails to to represent the poor and marginalized – especially those in developing countries but here as well. We need to understand what form of cognitive dissonance allows us to follow a path that day by day which so clearly leads us deeper into trouble.

So thinking about the power of words, pictures and representations is a key task for those of us who want to pursue a different path and perhaps this will turn out to be a golden age for new and powerful stories that undermine the way we do things round here – always my favourite definition of culture.

We need stories that explain how caring for our loved ones can be a fulfilling joy, not a candidate for outsourcing to an underpaid and overworked carer. We need stories that show how non mechanised organic gardening and farming are not drudgery and that there’s more to cooking, eating together and building up our communities than grabbing a solitary coffee and a sandwich. We’ve got nowhere after years of explaining so why not steal the devil’s best tunes and do for the age of technology what Charles Dickens did for the cotton mills and bottle factories. We need to mock the false claims and laugh in the faces of the high priesthood of PR teams and their focus groups. We need to celebrate – in the words of a tremendous poster/poem by Thalassa Ting – all kinds of love. We need to stop looking for redemption through introspection and self hatred and find it on our everyday pilgrimages among strangers. We need to practice the kind of incontinent generosity that shames the ambitious and greedy into dipping a toe into these entirely new waters and we need to work up new opportunities for gathering and expressing thanks for all that we have, rather than shouting and throwing things at those who don’t yet get it. We need to become the hardest of targets; wily coyotes, sly foxes and punch and judy professors who appear and disappear leaving stories that can’t be suppressed but spread like benign wildfires leaving flowers in their wake.

Meanwhile I shall be reading Paul Ricoeur ( The rule of metaphore”) and Jacques Ellul (“The technological society”)who will hopefully break through the crust of the “mechanical Mind” metaphor at the cost of a good deal of head scratching I fear. Being French, and both what we call continental philosophers I had them smuggled through customs in a consignment of newly printed passports – but there it is. At least I’ll be looking at the Irish Sea again.

Putting it together – in a reflective mood

Some of this year’s borlotti harvest

I don’t normally suffer from insomnia, but sometimes I’m reading a book that’s so mind changing I can’t wait to wake and start reading again. Charles Massy’s “Call of the reed warbler” is one such book that straddles half a dozen fields of interest that, until now, I’d pursued separately. I’ll write at much greater length later, but meanwhile here’s a quotation from the last chapter – Towards an emergent future – that, even before dawn at five o’clock this morning, filled me with excitement and hope for the future. This book is a wonder. At around 500 pages it’s not a breeze, but it will stand as a bulwark against the phoney greenwashing schemes of the (literally) unholy alliance of the politicians and the multinational companies who are reducing the earth to dust and our lives to exhaustion and sickness.

“Significantly, the new regenerative agriculture is not just being practiced on small backyard plots or half-acre (quarter-hectare) allotments (for these too are part of the solution, and some of the practices apply and are indeed being practised there). No, the approach is also being applied on tens of millions of acres, while elements of it have the potential to be applied equally broadly worldwide, as I have described in this book. These include holistic grazing management, grassland grains, pasture cropping and natural intelligence agriculture, a new agroforestry, farmer-managed natural regeneration, biological agriculture and many others.

Therefore, this revolution has the potential to make massive inroads into addressing the key Anthropocene challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, distortions to the nitrogen, phosphorus and other biogeochemical cycles, land degradation, malfunctioning of the water cycle, and so on. In addition, regenerative agriculture has astounding potential to address human ill health; to therefore address the huge burden of modern health costs on society; to make farmers more profitable and free of the clutches of banks and large multinational chemical and energy suppliers; and to free farmers and urban cousins alike from capture by the merciless behemoths of agribusiness, commodity trading, financing, retailing, food processing and the like. Consequently, we need to be aware that a new regenerative agriculture is subversive: but in a truly constructive way. That is why I call it an ‘underground insurgency’, for it is a bottom-up revolution instigated by a new mind.”

Without the farmers there is no solution to the environmental crisis

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

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

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

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

George Monbiot in his Guardian column.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good days and bad ones

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riddling out the twenty first century dross

One leaf fluttering,

tells of autumn

0ver all the country.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say Hi and thanks to Minnesota!

Minnesota Midget – delicious!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The storm that’s coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting for Storm Evert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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