Where wild means wild!

How about watching a family of long tailed tits; great tits; several robins; nuthatches; blue tits and a wren in about ten minutes of pure rapture, looking out of the kitchen window – 900 feet up a hill on the Brecon Beacons? Autumn gets to me – that’s no secret – the reasons are so obvious that I’m not even bothering to rehearse them here; but there always comes a time, often a single day, when the black dog slinks away and feel I’ve turned a corner.

I haven’t written for a while but that’s not because I’ve been sitting in the corner weeping silently (not my style) – but because we’ve got the allotment largely under control, and we’ve spent hours and days fungus hunting. I’ve been interested in them for years but this year we’ve gone into hyperdrive; photographing, identifying and recording these beautiful and fugitive life-forms. Fungi live on decaying matter; they also share resources with plants and trees and – at this time of year especially – are the tangible evidence of the ever renewing web of life beneath the fallen leaves.

My friend Nick who graciously let me play with some serious machinery.

And so we came up to stay for a couple of days with old friends on the Brecon Beacons where they keep a smallholding. Feeding the pigs and the chickens, moving the sheep around and helping out around the place – oh and eating the freshest eggs and the best organic produce; planking and planing seasoned oak from the woods; keeping the stove going; cooking together with food grown and raised less than a couple of hundred yards away and talking, talking, talking. These are truly – and I’m avoiding the therapeutic cliché – renewing activities. In between showers, the sky cleared and the sun shone through the raindrops, illuminating the landscape with pinpoint jewels of refracted light.

At night the Tawny owls called to one another over the sound of the springwater filling the cistern outside our bedroom in a musical series of spurts and sputters. Even the sound of a dog barking down the valley in the darkness engorges the imagination. The autumn ground was a pointillist painting in ochres offset by dazzling yellows and reds and buzzards and carrion crows called overhead. For three days we escaped the tyranny of linear time and allowed ourselves to be embraced by the greater and lesser cycles of sunrise and moonrise; season and lifespan.

Sheep on the horizon – looking as if they’re about to charge us

Even the farmhouses have their span. In the year I was born, just after the war, this cottage was derelict, and for the past thirty five years we’ve watched it come to life under the care of our friends. It’s been a home, playground and a natural history mentor to three generations of children and their friends. If intuition and imagination aren’t included among the senses how we are ever to understand how neighbourhood, community and mutual aid, along with an understanding of our vulnerability and finitude are the foundation to our flourishing. Yesterday evening we sat in the old parlour and talked by the light of the only remaining gas mantles I know of. The mantles themselves now cost something like £14, but this isn’t a life of self indulgent luxury – their car has done 220,000 miles.

On Saturday we visited a couple of community projects in the village. One of them was an orchard run by the Marcher Apple Network which is a voluntary charitable organisation set up to preserve traditional apple varieties from the Welsh Marches.

They have collected and grafted all sorts of almost unknown apple varieties on to modern rootstocks and have begun to set up a DNA database so they can be identified and propagated through grafting – as a service to the future. I have to confess to scrumping a few, and trust me, they’re not all utterly delicious! One of Madame’s first jobs after leaving Art School was working as a trials assistant in a cider research station and so she was in seventh heaven as we walked around photographing some of the apples for our records. While we were there a couple of young people from the local community run pub were picking up windfalls for the apple bobbing at their Halloween party. This village is rich in community projects. You’ll see below why some apples have rudely descriptive names such as Goose Arse and Pig’s Snout

Possibly one of the ugliest apples I’ve ever seen.

Then we went up the hill to a community run woodland which we scoured for fungi and found quite a few we’ve never seen before. One of the best things about being a relative beginner in any field is the fact that even very common and well known species are exciting first time finds. A fungus like the Panther Cap – deadly poisonous – takes on a whole new reality when you’ve got down and dirty photographing it in a rain soaked woodland. Our friends were generous enough to scout the wood for new fungi for us to see – we had a ball – and then finished up down at Llangorse Lake drinking tea in the cafe as the clouds gathered over Pen y Fan.

So what could be better than eating with friends? Well cooking with them surely comes to the top of the list. I cooked one of my party pieces – Carbonnade Nimoise, and with a free run of the food stores we used some hogget leg steaks. Hogget is lamb in its second year, so it comes between lamb and mutton. Most butchers give you a funny look if you ask for it but it’s worth searching for. It’s more expensive than lamb because it’s been fed for an extra season but the flavour is marvellous. Oh what a weekend!

So here are a few of the fungi we saw – they’re not named because we need to check and double check, but they are so beautiful that they need no justification at all.

And yes, the one at the bottom is almost certainly a Panther Cap – greatly to be avoided when you’re foraging! In fact its neighbour in the centre is almost as bad. The lesson is – never forage unless you’re with someone who really knows what they’re doing (so don’t ask me!). And if you recognise the only innocent one in the ID Parade – good for you. And I hope you’ve had as much joy from finding out as we have.

As for us, we drove home contentedly with a couple of big bags of fragrant sheep daggings in the back of the car. It’s an acquired taste I know, but they’re better than Chanel Number 5 for arousing a compost heap!

Forbidden fruit?

As I began to write, Madame was eyeing up this bowl of quinces and wondering what to do with them. At the moment they are filling the room with the most wonderful fragrance. However as she was Googling possible uses, she informed me that they are thought (by some people) to be the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the Old Testament. Other (equally benighted) people – think it’s the apple. My goodness how awful that would be, if we could have avoided all that suffering if they’d just turned down the chance of a scrumped Bramley. Sadly, if people actually read the Bible instead of furnishing their prejudices with it, it was neither the apple nor the quince that introduced sin into the world – according to the incredibly important mythical story. The tree in question – and I quote – is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A short diversion into dangerous territory

The power to determine between good and evil – or to remove the terms from their religious frame – right and wrong, is almost the only power not awarded to Homo sapiens in the Old Testament and it’s the usurpation of that power by fragile, impatient, greedy and none-too-clever humans that has been the Granddaddy of all the pain and suffering ever since. It’s called idolatry and it’s the almost universal temptation to worship the partial over and against the whole. And that’s my considered view as a card carrying Post-Christian lost soul!

It may seem anachronistic to brandish an ancient myth in a modern scientific and rational culture but – to risk just one more spadeful before the hole closes over my head – I’d say that idolatry is a greater danger now than it was in the past, except we are more inclined these days to worship ‘rational’ idols like The Economy, Efficiency, Productivity, GDP and so on, and these false gods come disguised as common sense. The high priests of this death cult wear suits rather than robes but make no mistake, they wouldn’t care if they reduced the earth to ashes and humanity to slavery as long as it turned a profit.

Back to Quince and Redlead Roundheads

It may be SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) – or perhaps it’s a perfectly rational response to the impotence of our democracy to find anyone with more than half a brain to find the way back from the cliff; but this time of year always gets to me. There’s something inherently melancholic about the allotment which – until we clear it – is populated by the ghosts and skeletal remains of crops past. Angelica, Lovage and Sunflowers have passed into dry senescence, their seeds eagerly consumed weeks ago by birds and mice. After a drought-blighted summer, we went away for a couple of weeks and returned after the rain had encouraged a billion weeds to burst into new growth. The patch of Common Ramping Fumitory amongst the leeks, which I’d reprieved because it’s rare round here, had repaid my generosity by swamping the bed; I suppose there’s a clue in the name! Slightly late, we spent yesterday clearing and sowing winter salads which would stand a chance if the autumn is warmer than average. However average weather is an increasingly fragile concept as climate change moves into its terminal phase.

On the bright side, we dug potatoes and beetroot – we’ve been blessed with the best ever crops this year – and as I carried a box of apples up to the car, Madame disappeared for five minutes and then reappeared with four quinces, foraged from a neighbour’s tree. Neither of us have ever seen such a huge crop on that tree before; there must be hundreds of ripening fruits there. We’ll email her and ask her permission to take about ten pounds for jelly and, perhaps, marmalade. Meanwhile they’re a far better fragrance around the flat than the stuff that comes from an aerosol and makes your eyes water.

As for the Redlead Roundhead fungus, it was hiding under a wayward clump of Catnip and my eye suddenly caught a glimpse of bright red – hence Redlead – lead oxide. The battered specimen in the photo hardly does it justice, but it has an interesting backstory because it seems to be a species from Australia and although it used to be quite rare, the fashion for woodchip (its favourite food) for mulching and paths has given it a new lease of life.

The life of the allotment is the perfect antidote to the terrible modern myth that time is an evolutionary straight line where everything except us humans – the allegedly most highly evolved – is an exploitable resource. Real life, away from the trading floors, is cyclical, seasonal, rich and vulnerable; dependent upon wind and weather. Old Pete – something of a fixture on the allotment – leaned over the fence as we were packing up. “It’s a bit of a mess” – he said. I responded, through gritted teeth, “Well we’ve had the best crops ever this year”. Nature – real nature – is glorious, extravagant, messy and governed by relationships that the new high priests will never begin to comprehend. It’s just too immersive; there are too many variables, there’s too much about it that challenges their grey reductionist orthodoxy. So we choose not to throw in our lot with their nasty little gods. The Potwell Inn is on the side of the natural mess.

The Amethyst Deceiver – and a similar phone app

Meet this wonderfully colourful and easy to identify fungus – just one of the treats we discovered on a wander yesterday through Stockhill Plantation on the Mendip Hills. The books disagree as to whether it’s edible or safe. Roger Phillips says yes and others say no – or at least to foraging them. Luckily we had the heavyweight Collins Guide with us and unlike some of our finds, Google Lens, on my phone, got it right the first time. Now I know that phone apps are a wonderful thing, but only when used with a considerable amount of caution. One or two fungi were bang on the money, but all too often the ID offered by the phone was too dodgy to trust.

I prefer to photograph the fungi carefully, including shots of the full length of the stipe (stalk) from soil to cap, some idea of the size, the gills from below and from the side and similarly the cap. Then I can take the pictures home and with a bit of luck get a sound ID. Any mycologist will object that often a proper ID relies on looking at the spores through a high powered microscope and even measuring them – in microns! – none of which I can do, so nature wins that round. So my photos aren’t taken with aesthetics as the principal aim. They’re a form of electronic notebook. The real work begins at home and it’s such good fun, like reading a fungal Agatha Christie – you know the answer’s in there somewhere!

Where phone apps like Google Lens – there are others that may well be much more reliable – so where they go wrong is in the part of our brains that really wants to trust them. There were two or three identifications yesterday that could have been dangerously misleading. I really wanted to believe that these were respectively Penny Buns – Boletus edulis and Saffron Milkcap – Lactarius deliciosus, and if I’d been a forager relying on the phone I would have given us both a nasty surprise. Another identification included a seriously hallucinatory mushroom – not the Fly Agaric or the Magic Mushroom (we were in woodland) but another deceptively innocuous one which was first cousin to the good to eat one. As I see it, the best use for the phone app is to try to discover the family and the to turn to books.

So it’s peak fungus right now, and as foraging becomes ever more popular, my plea is that we should all be careful and even with a certain and verified identification we should never over-pick at the expense of the fungus’ capacity to reproduce itself. For me, they extend the season for walking and exploring into autumn and that’s wonderful. But there’s always space for wonder at their capacity to conceal themselves in leaf litter or on grass, even though they often display luminous and occasionally garish colours. Picking them just deprives another walker from experiencing that burst of joy. My other suggestion is to join a group – not just a foraging group. There are thousands of fungi out there and some of them will blow your mind – literally if you’re not careful! You’ll learn so much from fungus forays; and notice I wrote foray and not forage.

Here are some yet to be properly identified heroes and villains amongst the racing certainties.

And here’s a shot of where we were, and as you’ll see immediately if you know and love the Mendip Hills as we do, this is yet another post-industrial site; another lead mining area that extends across the road into the Mineries which hasn’t been covered with trees and has its own flora and fauna. It’s hard to believe that over the centuries this whole site was dug over, tunnelled into and polluted with heavy metals. Now, apart from the road through the middle, it’s quiet with just the sound of the wind in the trees and a few dog walkers and nature lovers.

On being an outsider.

Porth Neigwl – Hell’s Mouth beach in the gale yesterday

Notwithstanding the cool welcome at the end of the lane, and the Free Wales stickers on the signposts, my love of Wales is undiminished by any sense of guilt at being English – not least because I’ve never owned a mine or a blast furnace; I’ve never taken a penny out of Wales; my whole investment has been spent locally, and there will never be a time when I will be able to afford land or property here. I would support independence in a breath; and if there was enough time, learn the language because it would give me a whole new field of expression . I just think it’s one of the most beautiful places; plundered to near dereliction and stripped of its natural resources from water (see Dryweryn) through coal, copper and manganese to its language and most talented young people who simply can’t afford to live here anymore. Have I left anything out?? Oh and its poets – the Thomas’s – RS and Dylan; its underrated artists; its folk tales, food and farming history. I think I’ll shut up there.

Is there anything I don’t like so much? Well perhaps a certain lugubriousness at times. Some insularity, which never plays well with me because I live in a street where you can hear six languages in a hundred yard walk – which makes for a rich community. An occasional tendency to self pity – which I regard as by far the most pointless waste of emotional energy ever and finally a love of dressing up; most acute in Anglo Catholic priests and Druids. These mild criticisms probably seem a bit rich from an Englishman but there we are; call me a critical friend. In my defence I’ve never felt at home in an English culture that the media and right wing politicians conjure up under portraits of Winston Churchill. In all our many visits to this country I’ve only once experienced the old and legendary situation where the locals all started talking in Welsh when I walked into the pub; and that was when Operation Julie was underway and Tregaron was about to be turned upside down over an LSD factory run by English hippies. I know this because I was teaching one of them at the time (and in a prison – him, not me).

Anyway I just wanted to describe the place we’re staying at, whilst preserving its location except to say it’s on the Lleyn peninsula. As I write this I’m looking through the window and down a steep sided valley lined on both sides with an impenetrable thicket of Grey Willows, Sloes, Hawthorns and Apples; so shriven by the constant fierce weather that they look as if they’ve just about given up. The valley runs about a quarter of a mile to the Irish Sea and down it runs a brook that, emerging on to the shingle beach, spreads itself generously, sinking into the pebbles. Occasionally we see seals both there and also further up the coast. There are almost always Rock Pipits. The sun is just setting into the sea in a clear sky after 48 hours of constant gales and fierce rain that howled and rattled around the house without ceasing. At the end of the footpath to this little beach we’ve got a favourite mushroom spot, but this time there were no field mushrooms but a rarely reported fungus we’ve never seen before called Agaricus littoralis which has recently been given the English name “Coastal Mushroom”; and another called Macrolepiota excoriata which has been given the English name – “Frayed Parasol” – two for one annoyingly difficult fungi renamed by the radicals!

You might think that the award of an English name was an uncontroversial nod to the growing popularity of foraging but you’d be mistaken. Every pursuit has its Victorian Society or Prayer Book Society for whom the Latin binomials were obviously in the bibliography of one of the lost books of the Bible and must therefore never ever be tampered with. Harsh words have been spoken on this subject. Anyway, these Coastal Mushrooms were a tough gig and even now I’m not totally sure. I’ve been unable to find any reference to them as edible so we didn’t. Personally I rather like the sound of Brain Funguses, Dog’s Vomit and Dog’s Cocks – not to exclude Slippery Jacks. They’re like the Victorian names for moths – descriptive and downright poetic. The last time I allowed myself to be so contrarian in a newspaper article I was thrown out of a fishing club for noticing in print that sewage was getting into their expensive trout stream! Maybe they should have listened.

This is a wonderful place for wildlife. I just went into a local village to pay a bill – cash of course! – and as I parked up I saw this wall, resplendent with hard ferns and Maidenhair Spleenworts, not to mention the lichens.

The little valley below the cottage is a haven for insects, and therefore birds. Kestrels hunt the clifftop, constantly mobbed by Jackdaws and Crows. The understory is a rich mixture of Bramble, Hart’s Tongue ferns and other ferns; Maidenhair Spleenwort and – nearer the stream – Water Mint. There are foxes and badgers too along with a multitude of pollinators and bees. At night we hear Owls.

We started coming to Wales after Cornwall was so badly damaged by tourism – but now, in the absence of RS Thomas and the redoubtable Keating sisters the campsites are spreading along the coastline, and local people are being driven out by the rising price of housing because they can’t compete with second homers and Airbnb rentals. The butcher’s shop where RS Thomas once publicly upbraided the butcher for labelling his meat in English is now a Spar shop. There’s a huge selection of booze on sale at every local shop these days. Are we – the Potwell Inn crew – part of the solution or part of the problem? We’ve received nothing but warmth and kindness from local people here. Dunno, then. I just love coming here – although we could have done with a bit less rain this week.

And yes, the trees in the bottom left photo really do grow at that angle!

Is the climate emergency really a conceptual emergency?

A section of the soil strata on the appropriately named Hell’s Mouth Bay – Porth Neigwl

That’s it folks. That’s all there is!

For three centuries we had been encouraged to consider the earth simply as an inert and bottomless larder stocked for our needs. To be forced to suspect now that it is instead a living system, a system on whose continued activity we are dependent, a system which is vulnerable and capable of failing, is extremely unnerving.

Yet the damage already done undoubtedly shows that this is so. How can we adjust to this change? As I have suggested throughout this book, in conceptual emergencies like this what we have to attend to is the nature of our imaginative visions – the world-pictures by which we live. In the vision belonging to the contractual tradition, the natural world existed only as a static background. It was imagined simply as a convenient stage to accommodate the human drama. That vision radically obscured the fact that we are ourselves an organic part of this world, that we are not detached observers but living creatures continuous with all other such creatures and constantly acting upon them. It blinded us to the thought that we might be responsible for the effect of these actions. In order now to shake the grip of that powerful vision what we need, as usual, is a different one that will shift it. We need a more realistic picture of the way the earth works, a picture which will correct the delusive idea that we are either engineers who can redesign our planet or chance passengers who can detach themselves from it when they please. I think that we need, in fact, the idea of Gaia.

Mary Midgley – From “Individualism and the Concept of Gaia” in “The Essential Mary Midgley” Published by Routledge, Page 350.

I was totally struck by that sentence about this being a conceptual emergency, but of course it’s a no brainer if you think how much our attitudes and unexamined core beliefs shape our actions. In a conversation with Alan Rayner last Wednesday about his book (See the post “About Glory” for more details), he said that what is needed is no less than a paradigm shift in our understanding of the way evolution works; and I completely agree. Mary Midgley expresses this as a conceptual emergency and urges us to create new imaginative visions; “the world pictures by which we live” – and this is work for poets, artists and dreamers. A shocking piece of American research, featured in the Guardian a few days ago, showed that only 2% of American TV and film even referenced the environmental catastrophe that is barreling down towards us.

There’s a very good reason why changing the description from environmental crisis to conceptual crisis is a brilliant strategy, and that’s because moving the problem up a level takes the search for a solution out of the hands of the unholy trinity of big business, politicians and scientists and moves it back to all of us and the way we do things round here. Only a complete conceptual change supported by new visions , new hopes and an acceptance that we are a part of nature will do. The broken concept under which we are suffering is the same one that is destroying the earth and all that it is capable of doing is offering some new kind of kryptonite widget at great expense and available only to the wealthiest. Like the medical treatments of the past, their cure is to bleed the patient – and if the patient (rapidly becoming the victim) fails to get better, to bleed them again until they expire. In our case the patient is the earth and the doctors are the politicians whose fundamentally wicked attitudes were on display this week at the tory party conference.

I’m happy to count myself among the “enemies of enterprise” if by enterprise they mean the kind of extractive enterprise that impoverishes all but the most powerful and pollutes the earth. And I’m happy to count myself as part of the “anti growth coalition” for the same reason although I’m grateful for the inadvertent gift of a good rallying cry.

Just look at the photograph at the top of this piece and notice how thin is that precious layer on which we are utterly reliant for life itself. There is absolutely no need to turn this into a new religion, dance around maypoles (although that might be a lot of fun) or ingest hallucinogens – although I’m very tempted to do just that, after all at my age what’s to lose? But the identification of fungi is quite a bit harder than you might think. It’s taken me two days to provisionally identify my clifftop find as Macrolepiota excoriata – the delightfully named “Frayed Parasol” as opposed to the “Shaggy Parasol” or the Slender Parasol. Endless lexical amusement and a long draught of poetry after a week of shameful news.

Four seasons in one day

Thrift in flower!

We’re back in Snowdonia on the northern side of the Lleyn peninsula and it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that the weather has been very Welsh indeed. We arrived in bright sunshine on Sunday afternoon and since then we’ve had driving rain, more warm sunshine, gale force winds, a very warm night and two cold ones. The plan was to get some walking in, and while we were doing that, to look for some fungi, but Monday and Tuesday found us pretty much stuck indoors while we waited for the storm to calm down. We weren’t idle by any means, though. I’ve taken the opportunity of doing some serious reading while Madame drew.

I’ve been reading “The Essential Mary Midgley” edited by David Midgley, published by Routledge; alongside Alan Rayner’s book “The origins of Life Patterns in the Natural Inclusion of Space in Flux” published by Springer. I often find that there’s an advantage in reading in parallel across a similar theme where one text illuminates another. Anyway – lest that implies that I’m some kind of academic I’m really not; I’m just trying to figure out what practical steps we might take firstly to understand the dodgy ideology that’s led us into the current earth crisis in order best to tackle it with something more effective than depression, banners and a set of counter arguments. Alan Rayner’s book offers a new paradigm for understanding the way that evolution works while avoiding badly understood Darwinism with its endless battles for survival, and also the triumphalist writing of Richard Dawkins and others who, like Vladimir Putin, have declared premature victory just as their new religion runs into winter and endless mud. Mary Midgley was writing with exactly the same concerns and is just a dream to read; scything off bad arguments at the knees with laugh out loud efficiency.

Anyway, between early mornings at an improvised desk and dodging the rain for a bit of fresh air, we did manage to find some Ink Caps and common Puffballs in the garden and then as soon as a wisp of blue sky appeared at lunchtime today we walked off to the clifftop and a favourite mushrooming spot. And yes, we found some field mushrooms but when I got them back to the kitchen they were a bit too wormy even for me. Still, we’ll go back tomorrow to look for some more because there’s a fine circle of Fairy Ring Mushrooms that I’ll pick and dry. They’re as tough as old boots, but dried in a string in the kitchen they make a good addition to stocks because they’re full of umami flavour. There was another fungus there that I brought back to the cottage because I didn’t know what it was. I’m doing a spore print in case that adds any light and I think it’s some kind of Dapperling but I’m no mycologist. Anyway I’ve put some photos below in case anyone can cast any light, and (although I’ve no intention of eating it) there’s no noticeable smell; the stipe is hollow towards the top and swollen towards the base and I didn’t find a ring or any significant sign of one – although it’s a mature specimen and it could have disappeared.

I think it’s really lovely that just as the wildflowers pack up for the year we get weeks of fungus hunting and then we can hunt for mosses and liverworts or lichens. Tomorrow is forecast with fine weather so we’re off to Rhiw where there’s a good fungus field according to our son, and then up to the top of Mynedd Rhiw for some fabulous views and down again to Porth Neigwl – Hell’s Mouth bay to pack in some supplies of wonder and glory to get us through the winter.

About Glory

What ails you?

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

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

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

The quest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

False Chanterelle – “All that glisters!”

Magic Mushrooms

Fly Agaric – Amanita muscaria

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

Smitham Chimney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lead moss

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

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

Now this is what a holiday looks like!

Madame with a handful of freshly picked field mushrooms – note the one stuck in her binoculars.

Our son, (at least, one of them did), said once that we can’t go on holiday because by virtue of being retired we’re always on holiday. I told him to get on his bike, because there is a profound difference in being away and being at home and working flat out on the allotment. Even going to the supermarket in a new place is more interesting than the same old same old. That said, we know this particular place pretty well now – so we know where the good walks are and especially we know where the field mushrooms grow abundantly at this time of the year.

So what’s so great about St David’s? Well I’ve already written about St Non’s Well so I won’t repeat myself except to say that it’s a very special place. St David’s itself is not necessarily very beautiful, and there’s not much to see apart from the cathedral – but – it’s a place that repays a peaceful and contemplative walk with its profound sense of history. Walking in the footsteps of 1500 years of pilgrimage puts you in your place in the gentlest of ways, and beneath the huge dragon backed rock formations of St David’s Head, you sense a history that goes back two or three times as far as that. Ancient is a powerfully affective concept.

Apart from that, just today we watched a couple of young women swimming in the sea being captivated as they were approached by a curious seal. We had taken our ludicrously expensive super lightweight chairs (retirement gift) down to the beach so we were able to sit comfortably and quietly on the pebbles which meant that a couple of rock pipits were able to approach within four feet of us, searching for insects in the seaweed. So amidst the plashing of the waves there was a robin singing non-stop just behind us, crows and jackdaws were crossing the little bay in noisy groups chattering to one another in what must surely be some sort of Corvid language. On our way back from the beach we saw a buzzard being mobbed by crows. Sheep were being noisily sheepish, some of them well raddled, while the tups wandered around flaring their lips in search of love.

Our supposition that chicory flowers would be palatable to the sheep was dashed as we passed them today, but an examination of the leaves suggested that it’s the green bits that the sheep like. The flowers were pretty well untouched – ah well.

A Dragonfly was depositing her eggs in a pond that we passed. They have several different ways of egg laying; some attach eggs to water plants but this one was dipping her ovipositor and dropping them one at a time into the water. We crossed stiles past a bog where abundant Brooklime covered the surface and Water Mint, in flower, pushed its way into the warm sun. Where in April the grass would have been yellow with Dandelions, here in early autumn there was an abundance of Fleabane. The sloes are poor here, at least half their normal size due to the drought in the summer, but the field that was direct-drilled with grass only a few days ago is green with germinated seed.

I had to keep stopping as we walked back along a bridle path edged, on one side with Withy bushes and Comfrey and on the other with bracken, because the sound of bees and insects was so overwhelming. Dozens of Speckled Wood butterflies were nectaring and scrapping with one another. On the roadside verges Alexanders were already pushing their first leaves through the grass ready for an early start in the New Year. It’s curious the way that there are always signs of the coming seasons, slowly appearing. Nature is replete with fugitive signs; never still for a moment.

Is botany nothing more than a science?

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

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

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

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

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

Teisen Ddim – buttermilk scones

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

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

Llandeilo’r-fân and Heol Senni, Breconshire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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