People often say things like – ‘you’re so lucky to be able to paint/draw, it must be very therapeutic’ – and I smile and think to myself lucky me? it sometimes drives me completely round the bend! The same idea of therapeutic activity is now being attributed to gardening and it surely can’t be long before the RHS is offering modules, if not courses, in garden therapy. Last night we watched a BBC programme called Gardeners’ World that was entirely devoted to the therapeutic benefits of gardening and of being in amongst nature.
We’re gardeners too and it’s impossible to disagree. There’s nothing quite like a morning or a whole day on the allotment, out in the fresh air with some hard work and, with a bit of luck, some good company. Today we decided to defy the rain and we spent a couple of hours with Madame weeding and clearing beds and me moving about 3/4 ton of leaf mould and compost next to the beds they’ll be feeding this coming week. I hasten to say that much of the compost was bought in advance of our getting our own heaps flowing. I now have a backache but we came away feeling – as ever – that the allotment has been instrumental in our thriving over the last four years of adjustment. Of course we feel sad when we lose plants, and cross when our stuff gets stolen but I suspect that a significant part of the therapeutic effect of gardening is learning to cope with loss. Gardening is a perspective changing activity and it rewards our commitment in a manner quite out of proportion to our input. Putting food on the table has the power to transform a meal into a feast – every day. Anything that makes you thankful every day has just got to be good for you. It’s risky of course because an allotment can never be a fortress and you have to accept that all sorts of strangers have access to it for good or ill. But if one person sees an opportunity to enrich themself at our expense, I’ll guarantee that there are a hundred who look across from the footpath and think it’s beautiful, and a handful might even decide to try an allotment for themselves.
So today was a good day. My experiment to try reducing the cooking time of the sourdough bread by 15 minutes worked out really well, and the crust was crisp but not too thick. The oven is one of our extravagances, and it’s so highly efficient that we’ve had to recalibrate almost all our cooking times.
I woke early and for no particular reason felt completely energised. Although, as I wrote yesterday, I try to avoid writing too much about politics here, I do think that what I write is highly political. I’m an inveterate fact checker, I listen and read and then I check. Today I was searching around the issue of carbon costs and I found that much of the received wisdom around which politicians and some journalists set out their green credentials are open to serious challenge. We’re so used (well, some of us are -) to challenging racism and sexism when we encounter it but we get very shy about challenging the way that data is used. What does nuclear energy really cost? What’s the most efficient form of renewable energy? Is bio-fuel a good or a bad idea, is it true that generating electricity from biomass is better than generating it from coal? The truth is that many of the assumptions from which we work are the fruits of lobbyists with a vested interest in their particular industry. At the very least we could demand to know ‘who said this’ , who paid for the research? and what does the independent research say?.
As it happens I think I know the answers to most of the questions I posed but I’m not stating them because it’s much more important that we each find out for ourselves. It’s a very radicalizing moment to discover that you been completely hoodwinked. Just as it was very radicalizing to discover huge beds of samphire when we were on the seashore next to the western fells, but not dare to forage any of it because it was just a few miles downstream of the Windscale nuclear reprocessing plant which has a history of unacknowledged disharges. We test everything on the allotment. So called biodegradable bin bags seem to be far more resistant to composting than the label suggests; ultra green coir modules appear to be wrapped in plastic mesh. We have to cut the mesh off before composting the spent coir. Do we even know whether the big seed companies treat their seeds with insecticides?
I think the answer to negotiating our way around the challenges of the 21st century has got to be to take a much greater interest in the data that’s used to persuade us and to become proper nuisances when it comes to asking questions. Let’s be confident about handling the data and get the environmental costs on to the bottom line of every big company. They’ll soon change when it hits them in the pocket.
I’ve a lot of time for George Monbiot and I often find myself agreeing with almost every word he’s just written while contrarily wishing that he’d found a different way of writing it. It concerns me that I feel this way, because it forces me to examine that part of my history that makes me averse to harsh words. My friends will breathe a sigh of relief that there is at least someone in the brake-van, and the people I’ve sparred with over the years will continue to think what they do. There is a place for indignation and anger about our present conjoined crises of mass extinction and global heating and to hold back on that anger might feel like tacit support for the guilty. Do we really have time for the niceties of civilised debate and a coming together of minds towards agreed collective action. Well we’ve had over fifty years of debating time since Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was published, and my entire adult life has been punctuated by warnings about our abuse of the environment. From the terrible post-war smogs in London and other industrial cities during my childhood onwards, the power of legislation and enforcement has been thwarted and emasculated by powerful vested interests. Surely they’ve had their chance.
And I think that sense of urgency is a powerful defence of the language that’s sometimes used in the debate. George Monbiot is just one among the many powerful voices who’ve spoken out and challenged the culture, and if by shouting loudly about the dangers they’ve brought it to the top of the political agenda then we’ve a lot to thank them for. If our political system (and this is – ultimately – a political and economic issue) is so tin-eared, or wilfully deaf to the mounting scientific evidence, then our leaders can hardly complain when the debate is taken into the streets, because it us who have to breathe the polluted air and our children whose lungs are invaded by diesel particulates and will never hear a nightingale or a curlew.
The problem is that if it comes to a slanging match, the powerful vested interests have by far the loudest voice, and they have not been above using dirty tricks and deliberate lies to prolongue their hegemony. Stupidly, though, they don’t seem to be able to understand that we all breathe this air, we all drink the water (when there is any) we all eat the chemically compromised food. The rise in sea-level will drive millions of people away from their vulnerable homes, including those who can afford to own tropical islands. The problem is that there isn’t a column for the environment on a profit and loss statement, and so the polluters don’t pay. They’d soon stop if it hit their profits.
So yes there’s a bit of me that would like to make them suffer for the damage they’ve done, but if they were all locked up for eternity it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to the crisis. George’s article above particularly takes aim at farmers and the big environmental NGO’s, and reserves special hatred for grouse moors – there’s a picture of one the I took a few weeks ago at the top of this post.
We know the whole environmental culture has to change, and so let’s take the example of tree planting. Should we plant a million trees, say? Well yes, but where should we plant them? – and what trees should we plant? whose land shall we plant them on? who will pay for them, maintain them and keep them healthy? Can we tackle the climate crisis and the extinction crisis at the same time with the same plan – or will the two sides of the larger crisis require a plan modulated to meet both? This is where I part company with some of Monbiot’s comments because one obvious solution is to use the presently indefensible agricultural subsidy system to change the farming culture. To say to farmers “you can do what you like (within the law) with your own land, but we won’t pay you to do it if it doesn’t bring about any public good.” I’m pretty sure that most farmers would be only too pleased to stop damaging their land so long as it didn’t bankrupt them in the process. Most hill-farms get 80% of their income from subsidies. Monbiot is quite right to say that the hill-country landscape has been turned into a wildlife desert by overgrazing sheep, but whose fault is that when, until recent years, farmers were paid according to the size of their flocks so, of course, they overstocked the sheep. Millions, if not hundreds of millions of trees could be planted on some of that unproductive land but the best possible workforce and custodians of the new forests would be the farmers who presently farm sheep. They’re in place already and they know their land as only farmers do. Calling for an end to sheep farming only makes a dangerous situation worse. Do we even know what numbers of sheep might constitute a sustainable national flock? Aren’t there economic and ecological benefits to maintainin a much smaller national flock thereby retaining the best of the hill farming culture and reducing overproduction to the point where the market for sheep and wool improves. Would a revival in woollen cloth be a sustainable alternative to more plastics? I don’t see the point in alienating and threatening farmers with the expropriation of their livelihoods when we know we’re going to need them onside. The grouse moors are much harder to defend, especially when the cost of shooting is so great that only the wealthy can participate, and amid the costs to wildlife by heather burning are the sinister statistics around the shooting and poisoning of birds of prey by gamekeepers who know when to keep their mouths shut.
But this too is where we’ve seen that not all big landowners are capitalizing on their land by running shoots. Neither do they all allow hunting and stalking. Inevitably some will argue that any change will amount to an attack on their whole “way of life”. Well yes, so was the abolition of slavery and the end of public executions – we can’t go on excusing the destruction of our ecosystem because someone might get upset about not being able to wear their plus fours. I think the majority of landowners, if they are faced with the prospect of losing millions of pounds of revenue unless they change their ways, will grumble a lot and comply, because deep down they do understand. The biggest obstacle to change will be those industries that can’t adapt. The ones that will really go bust if farmers stop using chemicals! The manufacturers of the behemoths that straddle the fields and crush the life out of the soil will find ways of serving a less extractive agriculture, and no-one’s attacking the principle of using farmland productively and efficiently. It might be that instead of half-million pound machines, human beings could do more. Some of my happiest winter mornings were spent laying hedges on a playing field that didn’t possess or want to flail the hell out of them.
I’m arguing two things simultaneously – firstly that the crisis is so severe that we must take immediate action and secondly that the best strategy for achieving that end is to use both carrot and stick to change farming culture. Aggression, rudeness and threats of expropriation will just make it harder. I spent 25 years working in farming parishes and I always felt able to question why things were done in the way they were. Apart from one instance where I was shouted at by a (non farming) local councillor who’d got completely the wrong end of the stick, I found the farmers overwhelmingly open to new ideas. They loved their land and they neither wanted to poison it or lose it altogether by going out of business.
George Monbiot’s next targets in the article are the large NGO’s like the National Trust, the RSPB and the other powerful charities. Again, it’s always better to change what you’ve got than abolish it all and start again. With the National Trust, Monbiot’s main target is the policy of allowing even drag hunting on its land. If this crisis is ever going to be resolved, then dog whistle tactics will have to be set aside. The very word hunting carries a whole complex of polarizing imagery that makes resolution almost impossible, and lines the opposing views up with an angry chasm between them. Better let the whole practice die of disgust, like bear baiting and cockfighting did in their day. Where the National Trust can help is in the management of its huge land holdings, and there it’s not heped by it’s foundational ethos of preservation and conservation. It’s not good enough to use huge sums of public subscription to preserve some notional bucolic landscape for sightseers.
The same problem on a larger scale happens within the National Park authorities who can be a positive nuisance when it comes to changing farming practices. Many of these charities and NGO’s encourage a narrow (especially in terms of diversity) view of passive participation in the scenery. Charities supporting single issues like birds, butterflies or whatever else are not known for their collaboration, and can be positively hostile when other groups with different interests impinge on their “territory”.
So my plea to George Monbiot is to deal with his understanable anger and pursue the goal we all share by reaching out rather than acting out. It really does work better. To use a useful cliché once again, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ but it’s not invincible. We can’t save the earth by making vote-winning policy announcements, but it can be saved by implacable determination, never losing sight of the goal and never accepting second best delaying tactics from vested interests. The farmers aren’t the enemy, it’s us with our insatiable appetites.
I love these colours, they’re the colours of autumn for me. Every year the window boxes outside the flat seem to anticipate the change in the season by subtly changing colours. One by one the different species grow paler and drop out, leaving the geraniums as the last intense colour. The effect of this is to make it look as if we’ve done something incredibly clever, by designing the displays to anticipate the onset of autumn. Nothing could be less true because it just seems to happen. When the last flowers drop off the geraniums the window boxes come down and are replaced with the spring bulbs which soon fill the windows with the sense of anticipation. We’ve always wanted to rotate three displays but planting out and maintaining six window boxes is more than we can afford so we make do with bare windows in the dead of winter. One day, perhaps, we’ll find six recyclable window boxes and achieve our year long plan.
Seasons are important and we’re so lucky to have them because they structure the year but more importantly they structure the imagination. Sure, by the end of each season we’re liable to be thinking “I’ve had enough of this” but we know that each period brings its own grace. For me the long dark nights soon become a chore, but in just three months the days begin to lengthen again. Round and round goes the clock and we are renewed.
Today we grabbed the forecast dry start to go up to the allotment and weed. It may be perverse but weeding is one of my very favourite jobs and since we broke all the ground up into beds it’s an absolute doddle because we can work from a dry woodchip path even in the rain. I remember a woman called Eileen who lived in one of my parishes. She really needed a carer herself, but with a little support she was looking after her elderly mother and kept a beautiful garden which she would dig from end to end every year. I’d often walk past and she would be out, even in the rain, with an old waterproof macintosh tied around her waist with baler twine, digging away until the job was done. I also took the funeral for a 104 year old who had moved in with his son at the age of 90 and dug the son’s garden saying it was a mess. I should write more about these characters because they represented a hardy generation who never thought of themselves as exceptional, never used a latin name for a plant and could grow paving slab cuttings if you asked them.
The rain came soon enough but not before we’d harvested more vegetables for ourselves and released a pigeon that was captive in a neighbour’s net – it probably went straight back to eating everyone else’s cabbages. Pigeons seem especially to like Cavalo Nero which they can convert into an inverted umbrella frame in minutes.
It’s good to be back in the flat after our long travels around the country. I’ve got a pile of reading to catch up with, most of it concerned with global heating and the ecological crisis, but the reading is going to be illuminated by what we discovered on the ground, talking to people – especially farmers – and observing fields, plants and insects in their different habitats. One thing is abundantly clear already,
– we simply can’t go on as we have been.
It’s been another year on the allotment during which we finished nearly all the infrastructure, and which leaves us with huge gratitude for the productivity of the earth. I’ve seen it suggested that allotments, (presumable well-run ones), can be ten times as productive as farmland. I’m always a bit suspicious of these attention grabbing figures, but it’s pretty obvious that when two of us focus our whole attention on to 250 square metres of land, the response is positive, and it’s worth reminding ourselves before we get too smug, that the depopulation of the countryside has been one driver of the growth in intensive farming, and another driver has been our insatiable desire for cheap food without regard to standards.
Perhaps we’re a bit quick to point the finger at all farmers when there are many who are concerned about the environment, and who do practice organic farming and are up to speed with no-till systems, sustainable mixed farming on a rotational basis and higher than basic welfare standards. Climbing on to the moral bandwagon and advocating universal vegetarianism or veganism could lead to more industrial food processing rather than less, and the destruction of more forest in order to grow more soya and grain. Allowing cattle to graze freely – especially in wooded pastures – puts the muck where it’s needed, and where it can be broken down quickly before it produces ammonia pollutants. If you’ve never tried raw milk straight from the cow, you’ve missed one of the great food treats. I believe it is possible to run mixed dairy farms sustainably and without cruelty. Whether or not to eat meat is an important moral decision and we must respect those who make a different choice from ourselves.
We don’t use any chemicals, but we use our own human urine all the time on the allotment – it’s perfectly safe diluted ten to one with water, it’s packed with bio-available nitrogen and it has no smell at all. It’s storing it in huge silos and spraying the resultant slurry on the fields that creates much of the problem. So as far as the Potwell Inn is concerned …..
Are we prepared to radically reduce our consumption of meat?- YES
Are we prepared to put up with a smaller range of fresher locally grown vegetables? – YES
Would we be prepared to pay more for better outcomes in farming? – YES
The answer will likely need some complex unravelling of an entrenched farming culture, and some hand-to-hand combat with powerful vested interests who will use their considerable political and media power to convince us that it’s all hopeless idealism and only new and more powerful ‘green’ technology and targeted chemicals will bring the promised land closer. The most powerful tool at our disposal would be the subsidy system which needs to be re-focused towards payment solely for ‘public goods’. Subsidising farmers to cover good pasture land with crop trees isn’t the way forward, but creating wooded pasture or planting the right kind of trees on marginal land that can only produce a crop with heavy inputs of chemicals might well be. We’re bound to see alarmist headlines claiming that we’re all going to starve, but local authorities could be empowered or even instructed to provide much more land for allotments rather than allowing developers to build a few unaffordable homes while they bank good greenbelt land in order to keep houseprices prices up. I’m not going to get into some of my wilder ideas – I write this merely to show that there may be better ways of achieving what we universally claim we want – healthy food, a healthy environment and an end to pollution and extinctions.
Autumn is the time for new beginnings and new plans – I love it, let’s do it!
We were birdwatching down on the estuary today when I caught sight of this curious object. From 20 yards it looked like a fungus, but sadly it turned out to be just another piece of plastic waste – in this case a polyurethane foam canister leaking foam as the canister degrades in the salt water. I’d have carried it home if it weren’t for the fact that it appeared to still have enough propellant left to make it explode.
Strangely, I looked up from taking this photograph just as the sun came out further up-river and I caught sight of the chimneys at Sellafield a source of much less visible but even more deadly waste. However, far from making me more melancholic than usual, the sight of the chimney stacks and the squelching mud under my feet reminded me of the Severn estuary alongside which I spent 25 years as a parish priest. The paradox of these industrialised estuaries is that notwithstanding the nuclear power stations, (two on the Severn), chemical works and endless industrial sprawl the migrating birds kept on coming, albeit in smaller numbers as the years went on. All this, I’m anxious to say, is not to say a word in defense of these industries whose existence is a painful monument to our anthropocentric culture. In the case of the nuclear power stations we can’t demolish them anyway because they’re going to be dangerous for decades if not centuries, but the chemical works and some at least of the huge industrial complexes should perhaps be left once they’ve been cleaned up, as memorials to and reminders of the time when we nearly destroyed the earth. I can imagine schoolchildren on educational visits looking with horror at the relics as their function is explained, while all the while waders of all kinds will re-populate the cooling ponds and peregrine falcons nest in the steelwork. The people who worked on the sites will be commemorated not as the perpetrators of these ecological crimes but as the expression of a failed culture, egged on by all of us.
Meanwhile, we ambled along the familiar landscape stopping from time to time to look at distant birds and abandoned boats half-submerged in the mud while the grey clouds broke from time to time to let a patch of sunlight through.
Later we cut back inland and climbed to a higher vantage point to look back towards the sea which is normally hidden by the sand dunes of the Drigg nature reserve. So we walked accompanied by mixed feelings. The relative abundance of curlew was a real tonic for us because in our part of the world, like the cuckoo, they’re rarely heard.
We’ve been up here for a fortnight now and the only thing we’re getting used to is the weather – it rains, it seems, most of the time. The upside is that we’ve become very used to packing our waterproofs and disregarding the weather. We’ve learned a lot about local walls – you could almost work out what county you’re in just by looking at the walls, and we’ve enjoyed being spoken to by complete strangers, it’s true what they say. Tomorrow we’re crossing back across Yorkshire for our last overnight stop. And here are some local wall styles to puzzle out –
Wettest, dryest, hottest – it seems that weather patterns are breaking records across Europe and it’s very concerning for anyone who grows food. This year the plants on the allotment have had to cope with all sorts of stressful events, and it must be much worse for farmers. Neither heatwaves or torrential rain are much help for growing crops, and it’s a pity that weather reporting focuses so much on our personal convenience rather than our actual long-term needs. It is a shame that this is turning out to be the wettest August since records began, but it’s not just a shame because it messes up the school holidays. The forecasters usually manage a mention of the “morning commute” when it rains, without making the link between our addiction to the car and the climate emergency. In Bath we frequently have to breathe air that’s so polluted it breaks European safety limits. Having a government that believes the best way to deal with a problem is to stop collecting statistics isn’t going to change anything soon, and if my freedom to sit in a traffic jam with my engine idling causes a single child to have an asthma attack it’s not a freedom worth preserving.
So in a make-do and mend sort of way, had a very rainy day visit to Bath City Farm yesterday with two of the grandchildren while the other one was in hospital having yet more tests. Being a SWAN (syndrome without a name) requires a whole team of wonderful NHS consultants. She’s phenomenally resilient and yesterday after having a general anaesthetic, an endoscope, and saline solution injected into her lungs she told her dad she’d had a ‘lovely day’.
We had a lovely day too, weaving the rain into the story so that the chldren could experience slides that are twice as fast when they’re wet. The youngest thought it was hysterically funny to crash time after time into my legs after sliding down out of control. Later we went to McDonald’s as a special treat, and exactly as I did the last time, I managed to make a complete hash of the order and landed up with no chips and an extra cheeseburger. I know I’m supposed to be contemptuous of this kind of food, but it’s the exception rather than the rule for the children and we have many misgivings. However, and this isn’t a defence of junk food, if I were a hard pressed parent without much money, few cooking skills and no time, feeding a family of four for £15 must be a very tempting prospect. Haranguing people isn’t going to change the economics.
Back at the Potwell Inn, rainy days are a chance to get some preserving done, and we’ve been drying chillies, making half-sours with a huge crop of gherkins, and also making raspberry vinegar. The leftover Seville oranges on the right of the picture were brined in January in exactly the same way you would pickle lemons. Just a quarter of peel with the pith scraped off and rinsed, adds a marvellous salty, orangy piquance to a sauce. This is (another) favourite season when we turn the surpluses into food for rainy days in the broader sense. Most years the concept of a rainy day doesn’t go much beyond an occasional treat, but this year there’s greater sense of urgency as we start to contemplate the likelihood of food shortages and general upheaval. I wonder how we ever drifted into this perilous situation, and although I’m no believer in any ‘iron laws of history’ or of gods for that matter, I do think there’s a sense of inevitability about the collapse of an economic system that acts as a giant Ponzi fraud. When cultures begin to change no amount of longing for the good old days will bring them back, because to recall my first ever ethics lecture, as I frequently do, – you can’t make an ‘ought’ into an ‘is’.
I think something shifted yesterday afternoon when we all shipped up to Uncle Jo’s pizza place for an impromptu Sunday lunch. It was fairly quiet and so Jo was able to come out from beside the oven and chat. In the love and peace department families are never all they’re cracked up to be – that’s a figment of the official ideology – and so it’s a blessing beyond value when they work, even occasionally, and I wonder if the grandchildren will remember lunch at Uncle Jo’s when they’re my age. Next to the family album is a basket of vegetables we picked on the allotment yesterday – courgettes, broccoli, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers and gherkins. Later Jo came back with hs Polish girlfriend and one of our fermented half-sours was presented to her to taste. She gave them her seal of approval although I thought the home-grown garlic was a bit too fierce in the quantity I used. Interestingly our oldest son was complaining the other day that his biometric passport never works properly and he always gets called in for interrogation. He asked a passport official why, last time he came back from Europe, and was told that it was probably the ‘Pole’ surname. You have to wonder what kind of software can’t tell the difference between a surname and a nationality.
So with the day punctuated by benevolent thoughts for all our family I got back to reading in the evening. This latest binge is seeing me get through a new book every couple of days and at the moment it’s Mark Cocker’s book ‘Our Place’ which I thought might be a bit of light relief after Fred Pearce’s book ‘The New Wild’ . When I put it down for about the fifth time I realized I am only able to absorb a certain amount of bad news at a time. You’d think a book with quite as many references to Committees and Governmental enquiries would be a bit arid but this book makes it dreadfully clear that the ecological distance between where we were a century ago, and where we now are is not paved with misunderstanding and innocent lack of knowledge but by greed, selfishness and a determination by the powerful to enrich themselves at the expense of the environment, and all paid for by taxpayers’ money. When I see the Forestry Commission exposed as a government assisted tax avoidance scheme for the further enrichment of the aready rich, I need to walk around the room for a while before I can calm down and read more. The subsidy system is an elaborate and utterly destructive con trick, with the biggest beneficiaries being the wealthy.
And it was precisely that thought that lifted me out of a gathering sense of gloom. In a moment of mad insight I realized that the sense of powerlessness and despair which, according to some recent figures 60% of us share, is a last ditch attempt by the powerful to hold on to their privileges. Of course they want us to think there’s nothing we can do about it because ……. wait for it …… they’re scared, absolutely terrified that the rest of us will wake up and demand change. Their one last throw of the dice is to persuade us that we’re sunk and then put up a “strong” leader (chosen by them of course) who will bring everything back to the way things used to be – that’s to say their way.
That’s why we see so much divisive comment in the press. We’re told all the time that the way things are is the responsibility of the ‘selfish baby boomers’. Really? Or is the worry that we who were forged in the community politics of the sixtes and seventies have too much in common with the young? That we might form a formidable grouping? They want to divide us by race, by gender, even by diet or occupation or interest because that way we’re easier to marginalise, because they know all too well that a house divided cannot stand.
I’m laughing out loud at the thought of their secret late night committee meetings and ‘influencer’ friends on the internet all turning their gimlet eyed attention to the next secret weapon. Here’s a heads-up chaps (for they are mostly chaps) we don’t read the Daily Mail or the Times and we know how to block effluent from our laptops and phones.
We are the new powerful! and we take our inspiration from the earth, its tides, its inbreathings and outbreathings and its capacity to mend our shrivelled souls and bring food and shelter and joy even while it repairs the damage we have inflicted on it. The Earth is not for sale however many petrochemicals and insecticides the Prophets of Baal pour on the altar – and it would be better for the human race if they realized that the game is well and truly up.
So today was our second day at RHS Rosemoor. We always like to split a new garden into at least two days, the first to get the lay of the land and the second to go back in more detail. In fact you’d need to go two days a week for a year to truly get the measure of the place. After my big worry yesterday I was able to relax and enjoy the gardens for what they are and, hardling surprisingly, we spent a lot of time revisiting the wild meadow areas. The first thing to say is that the RHS aren’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. These meadows are as ‘artificial’ as any of the other (equally beautiful) gardens. It’s we visitors who like to put labels like “wild” and “cultivated” on what are basically different styles of garden: this kind of “wildflower meadow” style is developed by sowing and planting, using any means that works, for instance some of the plants are developed in modules and planted out. There’s no purism in the selection of species; no absolute rule that only native plants or archaeophytes are allowed in, and a scientific mowing regime is applied to encourage self-seeding. Plants that don’t do well, or do too well and start choking the others out are dealt with by removal. This is a highly labour and resource intensive version of ‘natural’.
Imagine my sadness at reading in today’s Guardian that while many of us are working flat out to try to turn around this environmental and ecological catastrophy, our government are secretly eroding controls on harmful and cancer causing chemical insecticides that are absolutely banned in the EU but which may well be reintroduced by ministerial fiat if we leave. This is the greatest danger we’re facing today. While I absolutely applaud the environmental efforts of bodies like English Heritage, the National Trust, The RHS and other non governmental authorities, we can’t save the world by building a few nature reserves like insect zoos.
Today I had a long conversation with a woman from Wolverhampton who is (pretty much singlehandedly) trying to build a wildflower meadow on a piece of land next to a housing estate. Last year was a terrible year for her and most of her spring sown seeds died during the hot summer, but she’s not daunted and today she was in Devon, at Rosemoor, trying to find out how she can give things a better chance and develop the plot. Her budget was about £250, and I think she might just pull it off, but all her work could be undermined in the stroke of a pen by a minister in thrall to the agrichemical industry lobby. I’m not very big on organised religion these days but sometimes I long for a bit of smiting from a higher power. Just a small plague of boils would do, as long as it was targeted at the right people. Better avoid the flies and frogs, though, in case Bayer come up with some new and even more horrible chemical for dealing with plagues of flies and frogs. The only (and more sensible) alternative is to make a stand with those who are trying to end this madness, and change the way we think about our relationship with (and complete dependance on) the earth.