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.

We dream of these days

A Harvest Moon rising behind the campsite last night

There’s a particular combination of pale blue autumn sky and thin cloud that for me, encodes in a glimpse what would take an eternity of thought to express. As if a haiku could be condensed into a single syllable. I call it China Blue – I’ve no idea why – but that name seems to work for me; possibly something to do with early Chinese ceramics, when the cobalt for blue had to be pounded from the ore, impurities and all .

I can however name some of the associations with this particular sky. I think of wetlands; the thrilling call of a curlew; of rusting corrugated iron barns, of rhynes (a local name for drainage ditches). I think of sunny days and cool evenings and the sound of the wind in the drying grasses, and long T shirt walks; field mushrooms; ripe apples and slightly drunken conversations in the dusk. Such days are days of grace and can’t be planned – you just have to grab them as if your life depended on it, which of course it does.

When we came here to St David’s the weather forecast was for two weeks of non-stop rain, and we weren’t expecting too much – some reading, a little writing and then lots of sleep. However there is what we have learned to call the peninsula effect – probably unknown to any respectable scientist, but encouraged by fifty years of camping trips to different west facing peninsulas from Lizard in Cornwall to Ravenglass in Cumbria. On a significant number of occasions, the forecast of rain was fulfilled several miles inland leaving us in dry and even sunny weather. This theory is entirely without foundation so always take your raincoat and remember that we, as avid allotmenteers , read weather forecasts like you might read the Racing Times; being prepared to gamble.

Yesterday, however, the weather forecast promised a day’s respite between two dwindling Atlantic storms and we woke up to a change in wind direction and warm sunshine. A perfect China Blue day. And so we decided to walk out of the back of the campsite across to Lower Treginnis Farm – home to one of three Farms for City Children and on down to Porthlysgi beach. It’s not a long walk, but it’s near to one of our favourite mushroom foraging spots whose exact location is a secret!

It’s a great walk because you walk from the campsite into an extremely well run organic mixed farm run by a young Welsh couple who are happy to talk about what they’re up to. We had walked the track the previous day and noticed that the straw stubble from a previous crop was longer than it would normally be. “I wonder if they’re going to direct drill it?” – I said to Madame. Contrary to received wisdom about perfidious farmers ruining the soil and polluting the atmosphere; an increasing number are way ahead of the game; organic, no-dig, low impact mixed farming. Those of us who are trying to change the way we spend on food towards local and sustainable foodstuffs really need local farms such as this to make it work. I know George Monbiot would disagree vehemently but I don’t think he realizes that his campaign to cover much of the uplands and marginal land with trees, and turn the entire population into vegans would induce even bigger environmental and cultural destruction; destroying whole landscapes and playing into the hands of the industrial food producers. The industrial farming of trees has the same adverse effects on biodiversity as the industrial farming of cattle.

Anyway, when we returned from mushrooming we found our two farmers direct drilling a grass seed mixture into the stubble. In the surrounding fields we found all the Clover and normal weeds that would be destroyed by spraying, but in addition there was a good deal of Plantain, Sorrel and Chicory which must surely have been part of the mixture. Chicory, having a long tap root, is very drought resistant and so is Plantain. Commercial varieties of these (no longer) wild plants are increasing drought resistance and increasing weight gain and milk yields on experimental farms in New Zealand because they’re very *palatable to cattle and sheep.

This year’s lambs looked in fine shape, enjoying the pasture which has been revived by plentiful rain. Nearer the coast on the same farm last year we spotted a small flock of what might have been Katahdin sheep, developed in the United States. I couldn’t be sure of the breed but they are apparently easy to manage hair coated sheep (so don’t need shearing), hardy, with high fertility and strong flocking instinct. In a farming environment where margins are low, labour expensive and wool not worth selling, they seem like a perfect breed. Those of us who are depressed by climate destruction and the apparent lack of government action have a kind of duty to read about and support the many non intensive, non polluting and carbon reducing regimes that are being trialled in farms like this one around the country. Good luck to them!

After our farm diversion we pressed on towards the beach, picking a breakfast’s worth of wild mushrooms in a place we’d never before found them, and then alongside a stream down to Porthlysgi beach. It’s usually quiet there but the fine weather and the autumn flush of coast path walkers had turned it into a busy highway. We bagged an available spot away from the crumbling cliff and sunbathed uncomfortably for half an hour, but there was a walking tour guide with a large party noisily occupying half the beach and we decided to wander back to the van.

As we left the beach we noticed a small cairn which had been attracting a good deal of attention from passers by and especially from dogs. We went to see the cause of the excitement and were distressed to see a dead Gannet, roughly covered with pebbles and presumably a victim of H5N1 bird flu which has hammered the local breeding colonies, and originated – wouldn’t you know – in intensive chicken farms in Asia. I couldn’t get the sight of that powerful beak and the sightless eyes out of my mind. One of the treats of the beach is (was?) to watch the Gannets lasering almost vertically down at huge speed after fish. By all accounts many other breeds have been affected – we usually hear the Manx Shearwaters coming in at dusk, but none this year – perhaps they flew home earlier. So once again the culprit is not so much farming as highly intensive farming.

I spent the night dreaming miserably about the fate of the Gannet. I can’t think of any logical reason why I should be so upset, and yet a strong connection with the bird and its fate seems inescapable, not just by losing the aesthetic joy of watching them hunt but something more like a bereavement – as if a bit of me had died with the bird. The question – “How could a bird relate to me?” and its converse “How should I relate to a bird?” – turns out to be far more challenging than I ever imagined, but answering it lies at the heart of the present environmental and ecological crisis. Excluding the sentimental, the extractive and the passive relationships with nature on general offer leaves something that looks a bit metaphysical. The learned doctors of the Christian church decided centuries ago that animals cannot have souls and they probably never gave a moment’s thought to whether trees, rocks, plants or landscapes could. The modern age in the west brought many benefits to us but it smuggled an instrumental relationship with nature into the culture that spread like an evil miasma into every aspect of our lives. The Taoists on the other hand forged an attractive and non-theistic faith based on the deep relationship between all animate and inanimate nature. But that’s a “Peering over the wall” view of another faith. I’m drawn to Robin Wall Kimmerer and her exploration of the contribution that First Nation Indian traditions could bring to ecology. I’m also drawn to that meditative tradition within Christianity represented by St John, St Francis, Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen among others. The way forward if we really want to save the earth and her inhabitants from destruction is to give all faiths a place at the table and not hand it over entirely to science, industry and unregenerate economists.

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” –

Albert Einstein

*I was always advised not to try to use sheep to cut the grass in my churchyards because “they always ate the flowers first”

A very wet day in the campervan

Runaway season brings early blackberries.

I was going to write about our polytunnel tomatoes which have done very well this year – just loving the hot weather. So a piece I was thinking about on the making of panzanella will have to step aside because we were totally gazumped by the blackberries yesterday.

Given the number of privateers who like to climb over the fence and nick our produce without the bother of paying for it or growing it; we’ve capitalized on two of the most useful properties of the blackberry, that’s to say its murderous thorns and its ability to put down roots whenever one of the shoots touches the ground. The third property never really entered our heads, that’s to say the marvellous eating qualities of some wild blackberries. That italicised “some” comes from the fact that the blackberry hybridizes like nothing else, and whilst they all look pretty much the same they vary in palatability from heavenly to a mouthful of sour grit. So what are the chances of choosing a random blackberry to make a fence impregnable and hitting on a bigger, sweeter and more fragrant variety than any of the professionally bred hybrids we’ve all been planting at no little expense.

The downside of this horticultural magic trick, is that word gets around and a polite but steely middle class battle to harvest the fruit is conducted. There are no rules, but the winner takes all. This year we won! And after a dawn raid we came home with a carrier bag and four pounds of sweet blackberries plus a few assorted spiders and grubs.

It was an early encounter with blackberries that introduced me to the spiritual conundrum – that the profound gratitude I was feeling had no home to go to. Who to thank for this outrageous generosity? It’s a question I’m still working on – so please, no easy answers! I’m ashamed to say that we repaid the generosity by making forty pounds of the most disgusting chutney ever, and giving it away to friends. That’s probably why we haven’t got many friends.

Good blackberry bushes, like good spots for harvesting field mushrooms and other fungi are family secrets and never divulged to strangers. Just as when asking farmers how they’re doing you expect nothing more than noncommittal shrug and a mournful shake of the head so too, the passing stranger – asking if the blackberries are any good – will likely be told that they’re very poor indeed, but the rabbit seems to like them; but in the secrecy of the kitchen where the ripe berries have a perfume as fugitive and erotic as truffles, we hug one another and celebrate our great good fortune. In the midst of bad news we’ve pulled a rabbit out of the miserly hat. My uncles were pretty good poachers apparently and doubtless shared the same feelings.

Of course, harvesting them is one thing and locking that exquisite floral perfume into food is another. Blackberry and apple pie never really floats my boat and blackberry jam shares the same pippy texture even when the perfume is there; and so my very favorite way is to make bramble jelly. It’s tricky to make because it needs a bit of pectin to set it and if you add apples you tend to lose the glossy burgundian transparency and so we use proprietary jam sugar which seems to give a better finish.

The other challenge is that the fragrance is really very fugitive and so gentle cooking followed by the shortest possible boil to setting point is the only way to lock in the perfume of the blackberries; but when you bring it off, it’s worth all the faff. Jelly making always seems a bit wasteful but I usually let the initial ingredients drip for at least 12 hours. Our blackberries yielded just under a litre of juice (another reason for finding the best bushes) and with under a couple of pounds of jam sugar it made four and a half small 14oz pots which will only be brought out for special occasions. I remember my grandmother dropping a spoonful of bramble jelly on a rice pudding as a special treat.

And so an intimation of the harvest came early in this season of drought and heat – but it sent us singing into the kitchen where Madame cooked while I assembled the first panzanella of summer. If the Government Scrooges knew how good it felt they’d make it illegal!

Taking a step backwards to go forwards – and another new visitor to the allotment.

Madame hard at work

Ernest Hemingway wrote a letter to his daughter in which he said something to the effect that the only point of an education is to recognize bullshit! I very much agree with that, and over the past few years my own bullshit detector has almost worn out under the onslaught of vintage crap. I want to scream when politicians claim that they are following the evidence – when it’s evidence that they only just finished dreaming up on the back of an envelope. Science, of course, is supposed to be free of those kinds of bias – except it’s not. Too much science is bought and paid for, or suppressed by huge conglomerate industries who want you to believe that there’s nothing new or troubling about having glyphosate in your urine.

Of course it’s always been a bit like this. An old friend – a scientist with a mission to debunk dodgy claims – once showed me the catalogue of a local supplier of herbal remedies. It was full of testimonials to the fact that after only two days the correspondent had coughed, passed or otherwise voided tumours of considerable size and been returned to perfect health. Herbal medicine has always suffered from charlatans who prey on the desperate – which is a shame because in genuinely scientific trials, thousands of herbal remedies have been shown to have some merit. Drug companies have played a dirty double game making vast fortunes by identifying and synthesizing useful components of herbal medicine whilst lobbying to make sure that small scale herbalism is hamstrung by regulations preventing any claims of efficacy.

Madame and I have been reading the same book – “A Midwife’s Tale” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, which unravels the 27 years covered in the diary of Martha Ballard; an American midwife and local healer. For her, the plants she harvested in the neighbourhood and those she bought from the local doctor were the mainstay of her work, and although sometimes it takes a little research into local names, many of them find a place in Culpeper’s Herbal. What’s fascinating is the way that over the period the Harvard trained – therefore male – doctors began to dominate and push the women to one side.

Reading some of the entries you quickly realize that Martha Ballard’s herbal treatments didn’t – weren’t intended – to cure the multitude of injuries and illnesses that presented themselves, but to relieve symptoms; to bring comfort and some hope where there was none. This kindly battle against ordinary everyday suffering took place in a society without the means to heal many of the diseases modern medicine has almost vanquished. The drift into scientific medicine has immeasurably improved our life expectancy, but not without the loss of a huge resource to deal with the everyday complaints.

I was so intrigued by the diary that I began to think about the Potwell Inn allotment. Over the years we’ve planted a few things that we were aware have some healing properties. We make Calendula ointment every year, for instance because it’s tremendously useful for minor skin problems and costs a fortune to buy. The upshot was that I had a quick search through a modern translation of Culpeper edited by Steven Foster and discovered that we presently have forty two plants, mentioned and used by Culpeper, growing on the allotment – and it’s only 150 square metres. There are at least twenty more growing on the whole site, and I could find another twenty or thirty growing in the immediate vicinity – up and down the river and the canal. The canal is an especially useful resource because the narrowboat community would have sown patches of useful herbs along the length of their route to London. Essentially, these aren’t rare plants at all, but they’re potentially very useful – if not miracle cures – for the everyday ills we all know.

Fennel

I’d argue that the loss of the traditional knowledge of these remedies is a factor in the overloading and breakdown of the primary care system. The doctors won the monopoly to treat all our ills, but now that the funding has shrunk, they’re completely overwhelmed – often by precisely the kind of ordinary and non life-threatening problems the old remedies were best at dealing with.

The other point worth mentioning is that the list of useful plants on the allotment seems to sit somewhere in the middle between food and medicine. I suppose it’s blindingly obvious, but the distinction between the two categories is entirely arbitrary. Eating well keeps us well – is that so hard to understand? Let’s be clear, I’m not suggesting for a moment that we all become amateur herbalists, but that knowing that a plantain leaf is even better than a dock leaf for soothing nettle stings is one to pass on to the children, and the commercial herbal remedy we use for coughs is more effective and less dangerous than some of the heavily advertised alternatives. There are dozens of potentially effective remedies for minor ailments that would help to keep us out of the doctor’s waiting room – that’s if you can find one anyway!

So that’s a third arm to my argument in favour of gardening – it keeps us fed, it keeps us fit and healthy and it keeps us mindful. Someone should write a book about it – maybe it’s me?

Anyway the excellent news is that we now have a common frog living in the little pond. Here’s a photo – we think it’s beautiful.

This is the season when most of the allotment is the kitchen

That’s a bit of an exaggeration because we’re still harvesting an abundance of broccoli, leeks, chard and parsnips from the open ground, and lettuce, coriander, parsley and spinach from the polytunnel; but these are the last of the winter crops and we’re just entering the hungry gap; the period between the past and the coming season when there’s not much about. Most people would assume that the hungry time is in midwinter but it’s not. This is the time when the stores come into their own. The jams, preserves, pickles and the food in the freezer are what get us by even though the temperature may be in the late teens and we’re dressed in T shirts. Revelation of the year is the wonderful flavour and texture of our own home-grown borlotti. So plump and soft and full of goodness. This year we’ll grow even more, because they store so well. But in reality it’s that time when the myth of self sufficiency is punctured by the cold logic of the seasonal year. The last frost can be as late as May 6th here and it’s heartbreaking to see prematurely exposed plants wilt and die.

The strawberries from last year’s runners, that I moved to their new bed a few weeks ago are flourishing under a fleece covering and even showing a few flowers. Angelica, lovage and French sorrel are all going well and the first asparagus tips are poking gingerly through the soil. Broad beans are safely under bird nets and every bare patch of ground is eagerly covering itself with opportunist weeds. The saddest casualty of winter is my beloved Sweet Cicely which is at best a short lived perennial. It’s a devil to get going but we’ll try again in the autumn. Last year we doubled the number of dwarf fruit trees and they’re all looking good with the apples in flower. Even the speculative planting of tiny rhubarb stools (Fulton’s Strawberry Surprise) have come good; but we’ll leave them to gather strength this season. There are now three successional varieties of rhubarb to supply us from March through summer.

In the kitchen, though, it’s all going well with the tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, lettuce, melons, courgettes and peas all potted on, and there are seed potatoes out on the landing. So this is Spring; the season of hopefulness and big dreams.

More on foraging

The glossy magazines continue to publish articles on foraging; some even daring to suggest that foraged food might help bridge the poverty trap for some people. I’m a foraging cynic. Recently we had reports of professionals stripping Cornish lanes of wild garlic. In Epping Forest the foraging of fungi had to be banned after entrepreneurs were found taking tens of kilos of fungi for sale to flashy restaurants. Nearly all the articles I see are written by people who make a living either by stripping the land themselves, or by running courses on how to do it. The idea that taking huge amounts of food away from its habitat – because it’s ‘free‘ – is somehow more “green” than growing some, (but never all) your food, is a dangerous fantasy that draws on precisely the same selfish and greedy instincts that underpin factory farming and fossil fuel extraction.

If, and when, we find something wild and delicious – field mushrooms for instance – we take enough for one feed and that’s it. I’m absolutely not arguing that picking a few blackberries, elderflowers or sloes is going to drive the trees to extinction but I’d apply a test that was suggested to me many tears ago by one of my mentors. Take (or give) enough not to be ashamed, but never enough to be proud.

The very moment in a foraging expedition where you have enough is the moment to stop. When gratitude for the gift slips into pride, the gift becomes toxic. One of my books on herbal medicine makes the admirable suggestion that the harvesting of plants and flowers for our healing should always begin with an act of thanksgiving. It sounds a bit cheesy, but I think it’s absolutely right, and I often find myself saying thank you out loud when we’re harvesting from the allotment. My maternal grandmother had a little saying that I hated when I was young because it always seemed to go with not being allowed any more pudding. She would say “enough is a feast” .

The single most awe inspiring thing about nature is not the big televisual stunts but her sheer undeserved generosity. When we abuse that generosity we become the prodigal children who want to spend the family inheritance in excess and then come back when it’s all gone and beg for more with a mumbled and insincere apology.

Revisiting the scene of a crime.

I thought I remembered writing about this several years ago, but a search failed to deliver. I was thinking back to a Bath Nats fungus foray when a visitor harvested an entire stand of Parasol mushrooms behind the back of the group leader who, moments earlier, had asked us to leave them for others to enjoy. Anyway that memory has stuck in my mind ever since because it’s a bit of an argument for the so-called tragedy of the commons; the pernicious (to my mind) argument that the peasants couldn’t be trusted not to take more than their share of the commons and so enclosure was the only humane solution. More humane, it transpired, for the landlords than the peasants who were driven off the land and into the towns and cities. The afternoon was made all the more poignant by the fact that the larcenous offender was the daughter in law of one of the biggest landowners in one of my parishes.

Anyway that patch of land has always stayed in my mind and what with lockdown and closure of the grassland we haven’t been able to see whether any permanent damage was done. Fungi are very seasonal and you have to be there at the right time. However on the back of this doleful memory I taught our grandson how to look for patches of darker grass in the field where, if you were lucky, you would find fungi at the right time. He was a quick learner and was eventually sprinting from patch to patch, finding fungi. In this instance they were St George’s mushrooms; one of the simpler ones because they fruit early in the year, around St George’s Day, 23rd April.

So today after a frosty start we went back to the same walk and before long I spotted a clump of much greener grass amidst the winter colours. Poking through were what looked (from a distance) like the flower heads of Ribwort Plantain – which would be a very odd time for them to flower. A closer look immediately showed that the grass was Meadow Foxtail; handsome with its roots in a nitrogen rich fungal feast. I looked around and it seemed that there was some sort of association between the grass and what I know will be St George’s mushrooms within the next few weeks, because the Foxtail was entirely limited to the the darker green patches in the field.

Anyway with that little question/project hovering in the back of my mind, we wandered on down through the terraces and spotted a clump of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Trachystemon orientalis) growing in the shade of a wall and gate as we entered the formal gardens. Slowly; too slowly, learning your flowers moves from the starting point of answering the “what’s that” question with a blank mind, towards a much better starting point – that’s to say – “I know I don’t know that one, but I know what family it belongs to.” I knew that I didn’t know what this pretty borage – looking plant was called. I should say I’ve got into the habit of naming plants we pass (silently) and trying to remember as much about them as I can. It’s a great way of learning and shortens the recognition process greatly.

The big decision to come from our spontaneous visit today was that we should adopt the circuit of the park, including Whitefield the magical wildflower meadow, as our regular walk. Even though the car park can be hideously crowded the fact is most folks don’t stray far from the house and formal gardens; dogs are banned, so apart from arriving and leaving we’re pretty much on our own.

In the back of my mind at the moment – jogged by a new series of a popular TV series – is the idea of pilgrimage. I’ve had some experience of pilgrimages since I invented a 45 mile walk from Malmesbury to Littleton on Severn and led yearly pilgrimages for years. I also walked a 200 mile stretch of the Camino. I need to think some more about this but it seems to me that the difference between hiking and pilgrimage concerns intention and reflection. Pilgrimage, in my mind, is a form of liturgical walking; expressing rhythmically through legs and feet what’s more normally expressed in music and song. What I can say with absolute certainty was that an accidental and very short pilgrimage to St Non’s Chapel in St David’s yielded more spiritual insight that any of the tougher walks I’ve done; so it’s absolutely not about blood, sweat, tears and suffering. It’s about vulnerability.

Growing, cooking, eating

Of course, however much we’d like to boast how skilled, clever or green fingered we are the truth is that it’s more likely that the allotment is growing us rather than the other way round. However well planned and executed the season is, our plans are at the mercy of the weather and a thousand other unpredictable variables any of which can trip us up. For instance when we arrived back from Wales we checked on the garlic and pulled a single bulb to see how things were going on. It looked fine – it just needed another couple of weeks to plump up. I think I mentioned this when I wrote on Friday or Saturday,

Anyway, yesterday I got down to some serious weeding in the garlic bed and discovered that one or two plants were soft where the stalk met the bulb. A quick survey of the whole bed revealed about half a dozen badly affected plants and so we decided to pull the lot in case there was an outbreak of something really nasty like white rot. There were two varieties in the bed – one was much more affected than the other, and after a long consultation of the text books it looks 90% sure that the plants had been infected by basal plate rot, a fusarium fungus. This is caused by a multitude of stresses; weather, water and over fertilization for instance and so regretfully we’re putting it down to yet another instance of the collateral damage caused by the exceptional weather this spring,which has broken records in alternating between continuous rain and drought, coolest and warmest consecutive months and persistent episodes of cold wind from the northeast and northwest. Plants don’t like stress and that’s when they get diseased or attacked by pests.

The upshot is that we have lost about half of the crop and we’re presently drying the (apparently) unaffected plants. At least fusarium can be controlled by rotation, whereas white rot persists for decades. I don’t think over fertilisation is the problem because we use no fertilisers, just compost. Ah well; life’s rich tapestry we say; but it’s another piece of evidence that maybe we have to change the way we grow things. It’s almost a given that it’s a good thing to sow some crops – like garlic, broad beans and even peas in November/December to get them off to a rapid start in the spring with the promise of an early crop. But for several years we’ve been wrongfooted by the weather and now we’re wondering whether to abandon the technique of overwintering our plants (except perhaps in the polytunnel) and getting everything in much later than we’ve been used to.

We talk a lot about the pleasures of gardening – and they are many – but we tend not to stress the disappointments, perhaps for fear of putting people off or of simply showing what terrible gardeners we really are. Organic gardening deliberately eschews all the chemical shortcuts and remedies so it’s more like hand-to-hand combat in amongst the rows. We embrace and encourage coalitions of friendly forces by inviting in the trillions of soil friends, insect predators, companion plants and physical barriers; leaning on nature rather than technology to even the scales in our favour.

The payback, of course, is on the plate. I love the surveys that purport to show that there’s no difference in flavour between organic and intensively grown vegetables. What they don’t mention is the fact that all supermarket veg, whether organic or not, are stale if not close to death before the tasting takes place. If you ran a bowl of our fresh allotment peas, straight off the vine, with even the best brands of frozen peas – you’d wonder of they were the same vegetable; and “fresh” peas from the supermarket are fit only for soup. Cooking times (usually steaming for us) are shorter the fresher the vegetable is and so their nutritional value is greater. Better flavour, shorter cooking times and higher nutritional values make cooking more rewarding than ever.

Today, apart from a greedy bucket of peas, we picked a large bag of elderflowers from which we’ll make cordial tonight. The only two food items we seem to be completely self-sufficient in are elderflower cordial and tomatoes as puree, passata, dried and as various sauces. The elderflowers are free, of course, and greatly undervalued as a flavouring. We often use the cordial to sweeten rhubarb; but at the moment it’s perfuming the whole block with its strange combination of nectar and cat’s pee. The neighbours must be wondering what on earth we’re cooking now. The variety we picked today is a decorative purple cultivar that makes the loveliest pink syrup.

I said at the beginning that the allotment is growing us as much as we grow it and by that I mean firstly that most of the traditional varieties we grow have been selected and preserved for many years – so in a sense we’re part of their reproductive process. But in another way, we grow because in spite of the occasional disappointments nature is generous beyond all our deserving. We learn fast that our hard work is as nothing in the great cycles of seasonal change. We try to dispose but we cannot compel and can never forget that even half a crop of garlic is at least ten times what we planted – and in the case of our foraged treats we did no work and invested nothing. Cordial is £3.50 a bottle and we make it for about 50p so our carrier bag full of flowers today was a free gift from Mother Earth. The insect life seems to be increasing every day as the season progresses and more and more allotmenteers are growing wildflowers and digging ponds. The site is close to becoming a 4 acre nature reserve. Learning to embrace the occasional failure is another kind of gift too. Sometimes we get despondent, but it’s not personal because there’s more strength in yielding than attacking with fire and chemicals. Today it’s one nil to the fusarium, but hey – it’s got to make a living too!

St Francis of the boot rack

Our youngest son has a fine sense of irony

I’ll get back to St Francis in a moment but I know that many of you will be desperate to see the Potwell Inn Christmas Day Menu. Excluded from Europe and the physical company of everyone we love, we decided to tear up tradition and please ourselves entirely as regards what we ate in splendid isolation – and so:

  • Tea in bed
  • Breakfast: muesli (made by me)
  • lunch: Christmas pudding with crême fraiche – nothing else
  • Supper: Chicken fajita

The children were a bit shocked to see that we had wilfully abandoned the family tradition; rather more, I think, because it somewhat undermined their own efforts to keep it alive. But in these circumstances I always quote the famous last six words of every great institution – “we always do it this way” – and being old is the perfect time to become an iconoclast because no-one else seems to want to put Christmas out of its misery. It was surprisingly easy to do; to wave away the orgy of overspending and overeating; and under the circumstances we felt no compulsion to pretend that everything was back to normal. “Bah humbug” – you accuse, and affecting not to understand we reply “que?!

And so to St Francis.

I did say that I intended to write something about some kind of green spirituality, but the more I thought about it the harder it became until Joe’s Christmas present was delivered. It was a bit of a shock I must say. How would you describe something that’s hilariously funny, excruciatingly kitsch and borderline blasphemous?

I’ve always had a soft spot for heresy, whether the religious sort or the Christmas dinner menu makes no difference. A good heresy is the engine of change because good heresies are always tempting, otherwise they wouldn’t be any good. All great paradigm shifts are kicked off by a heresy. So St Francis of the boot rack (the name came to me instantly in a moment of pure grace), put me on the back foot in the most wonderful manner and rather than accepting the gift with a fake smile and gritted teeth I thought to myself – “this is marvellous”. But why???

Forgive me if you’ve read a previous post where I told this story but it fits well here. Some years ago we visited Chartres Cathedral which, on first impressions, was a kind of religious Disneyland. Queues of pilgrims clutching plaster models of the Virgin Mary waited to have them blessed. The building was heaving with visitors and I was rigid with the kind of anger that comes from fear; fear because I couldn’t understand what was going on. Nothing in my aesthetic experience had prepared me for such a festival of utterly bad taste. Until, that is, I was overwhelmed by a sense of holiness that was completely impervious to the cattle market atmosphere. I was so overwhelmed that I took off my shoes and socks and, for a hour, walked barefoot around the building as it spoke to me through my feet. It was one of the shortest pilgrimages ever conducted and I still haven’t fully digested it but, like a zen koan, it shorted out my overeducated theoretical mind and showed me another mind space altogether.

Pop. There goes another one!

So St Francis of the boot rack – what’s he saying? Well I think he’s teaching a lesson about idolatry – and I’m sorry for the big, loaded word but it’s a crucial shorthand way of describing the way we habitually try to cram an ocean of meaning into a fishbowl. This piece of fibreglass kitsch has no aesthetic merit at all and yet its strength lies somewhere else altogether – perhaps in its innocence, its naivety, its acceptance that it claims no more for itself than the grid reference can claim to be the mountain. Idolatry just means worshipping the part, thereby diminishing the whole. St Francis of the boot rack is a device for popping ego bubbles.

Next, sometimes reading a book can lead to the uncanny sense that the writer has somehow broken in to your mind and carried off your memories. I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the second clue to constructing a green spirituality came to me when he wrote about an experience that exactly parallelled my own – not that it was a special revelation at all, but simply the puzzle, for a non believer, of dealing with the sense of thanksgiving for an entirely undeserved gift that comes out of nowhere. When picking blackberries in the autumn; when coming across a field full of fresh mushrooms; when harvesting a crop on the allotment. Who to thank?

I suppose we could walk away from such an experience congratulating ourselves on our foraging expertise, mycological acumen or horticultural skill; but it never seems enough because, in truth, we make very little contribution to our good fortune .

Of course there are any number of theological readymades queueing up to claim these oddly numinous experiences for themselves, but they all come with a heavy price tag. They all require that you buy into the whole system with all its inconsistencies and occasional cruelties just in order to give you a mailing address where you can post your thank-you’s.

For the avoidance of idolatry that narrows these experiences down until they become trivial; and the avoidance of the great systematic theologies that confine these ecstatic experiences like wild animals in a zoo; any credible green spirituality would, for me, need to remain largely silent. In fact you might steal a concept from the Carthusians and other religious communities who keep a great silence after compline each day. Such a great silence would need to stop struggling to explain things while giving us a space to which to bring our thanksgivings and laments. There is so much that lies beyond our present capacity for explanation (maybe our science needs a paradigm shift as well) – that there’s no need to invent supernatural entities to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. There is the earth whose ways are still largely unknown to us. There is the sun, the moon; there are stars and there is weather and there are the great orders of living things. I’ve naughtily paraphrased St Francis great Canticle of the Sun because I still kind of identify with him in his artless extremism; his simplicity and his love of nature. I should own up to the fact that I was once a lay member of the Anglican Third Order of the Society of St Francis and like all the best teachers, Francis embedded himself in my mind even though I moved on and away from the orthodoxies.

The religious systems of the past don’t have the monopoly on concepts such as humility –humus, the condition of the earth – on forgiving or on generosity, on equality or thanksgiving or human love. They’re all there ready to be recycled and repurposed in ways that work for us, speak to us and generate new meaning. Naturally the concessionaires and leaseholders of the existing spiritualities will kick up a fuss – they would, wouldn’t they – and we shall always have to look out for a new breed of snake oil salespeople who talk the talk but don’t do the other bit, they’re human after all, just like the rest of us. But – I’m just speaking for myself now and I don’t expect you to agree – for me a Green New Deal without some kind of spirituality would be too thin to survive. A farming method or an algorithm for life without poetry, music and dance , without thanksgiving and (dare I say?) liturgy would be a poor half-starved creature; unfit for purpose.

Just forget the dogma, the hierarchy, the keyholders and all the bureaucracy. Forget all that “we always do it this way” stuff and gaze in wonder at the daft plastic statue of St Francis of the boot rack. What better reminder of our frailty do we need.

You can stuff your truffles!

It doesn’t take long for us to find our inner forager, especially when we know a place as well as we know this. The fungi in the picture are Macrolepiota procera – parasol mushrooms. We were pleased to see them, although we didn’t collect them (I don’t recall ever having eaten them) – however they were a good sign that the season is underway and so we were a bit more switched on to see what other fungi we could find, and they were there: horse mushrooms, puffballs, waxcaps and fairy ring mushrooms – dried they’re very good in stocks but a bit too tough to be palatable.

So we went on to a tried and tested clifftop site and found the field mushrooms exactly where they’ve appeared in the past. They were a bit more difficult to collect, though, and I had to scramble across a steep cleft and down the top of a cliff to get a handful of button mushrooms – they’re the best because they’re less likely to have been attacked by grubs – the one in the photo was the best we saw but it involved a dangerous climb over a thirty foot drop so we left it. In twenty minutes we’d collected enough for breakfast plus one intruder that was probably a yellow staining mushroom, and which betrayed itself in the bag by turning chrome yellow. I’ve been caught out by them before and always because greed overcame caution or I picked them on the borders of a hedge in longer grass. Luckily I’ve never eaten them, but our cat once ate some that I put aside (she licked them because they were cooked in butter) and she was violently ill, poor thing. This particular usurper was hanging around the edge of a patch of gorse. The genuine field mushrooms prefer open grass, particularly when it’s well cropped by sheep. In our last house we lived next to the playing field of the local primary school, and every summer there was a competition between me and the local milkman to harvest the masses of mushrooms early in the morning. He was a very early riser and it turned into a bit of a competition until we agreed a truce and each left plenty for the other.

But field mushrooms are a proper treat. Overnight the kitchen filled with their fragrance and cleaned and fried this morning they turned an omelette into a feast. I do wonder a bit why people pay such fabulous prices for imported truffles. Our son’s a chef and he once gave us a whole black truffle as a Christmas present and, to be brutally honest, it tasted like the smell of a gas leak – not North Sea gas, but the old fashioned sort of towns gas. If it was as free as a field mushroom and if it grew locally we’d probably acquire a taste for them but paying fifty quid and much more for them seems more like a way of poncifying – or worse, disguising – mediocre food and just bragging about the rarity and expense. Anyway, the seasons roll on endlessly and each brings its delights; autumn fruits and fungi give way to the winter when the only show in town for a nosy naturalist are bryophytes and lichens – always something to try and identify.

We’re slowly learning how best to use the trailcam, and we’ve captured some decent videos of birds. Last night a fox was poking around in the woods below the cottage, so tonight I’ll put out some peanuts to try to lure it closer.

Yesterday on our clifftop walk I noticed something red hiding in the grass on the edge and it turned out to be a Crocosmia – goodness knows how it got there, it’s miles from the nearest garden. But what else is in flower at the moment? Given that it was a proper walk I had to be circumspect but I spotted (without being spotted) loads of yarrow, watermint, common ragwort, fleabane, a few stragglers of silverweed and ditto thrift, purple clover,lesser knapweed, red campion, bramble, meadowsweet, wild angelica and, of course heather.

Then there was one harvestman spider – I don’t know why I was so pleased to see it but I was!

And then the birds – sorry this is turning into a list, a bit of symptom possibly, but we were alerted by the insistent demands of a young shag demanding food, herring gulls in abundance, one oystercatcher hanging out in a little inlet that we climbed down to. Last year we spotted seals there and last night you could see why. A shoal of fish were leaping in the water, some of them large enough to see their dorsal fins quite clearly. The oystercatcher is a lot bigger than you’d expect when you get close. Finally, and I’m not that good at birds, there were a small number of what I think were terns, in the mix. I’ve come back and read them up a bit so when we go back I can identify them properly.

The coast path was crowded with walkers – and I mean crowded – Madame asked one group (rather challengingly I thought) where their coach was parked. Whistling sands was more crowded than we’ve ever seen it so we beat a retreat and completed our walk in the evening, rather luckily as it turned out because we picked our breakfast.

Oh and as we walked the path we found what looked like an ancient earthwork but which, I suspect was a more recent (last century) attempt to drain a large area of marsh. Luckily it hadn’t succeeded so that’s a treat for another expedition and a different set of books!

Figs

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If ever you needed a demonstration of the extravagant dynamism of nature this is it. This cluster of figs didn’t exist a fortnight ago but yesterday we noticed them in all their come and get me  beauty; pristine, glossy and crowned by leaves so new that if they were lambs they’d be jumping for joy. I quickly run out of superlatives for these young fruits, not least because if they make it to full ripeness they’ll be the stars of any table.  I didn’t really like figs until we went to Corsica where they grow wild and ripen properly in the fierce summer sun, and there I discovered how good they can be. I brought the taste for them back with me and, although I wouldn’t go quite so far with a metaphor as D H Lawrence, there’s enough about a well ripened home grown fig  to make them a fleeting treat in the autumn – so long as you can pick the precise moment to pick them, which is about thirty minutes before the flies get there.

But there’s another reason for stopping to look, because these figs are squatters; vagrants escaped from the mother tree about twenty yards away and completely self-sufficient. Where we have to grow most of our crops, these we can forage because they’ve set up home in the demilitarized zone between our allotment and our neighbour’s so they don’t really belong to either of us. Neither, incidentally, are they fed, mulched or primped in any way. The only principle adopted for pruning them is to keep the path between us clear; so there is no counting of buds or consideration of shape.  We just hack them back to the point where a wheelbarrow can pass. As they approach ripeness we feign even-handedness about picking them, but we still mutter darkly when more distant neighbours are spotted giving them a squeeze as they pass. I once spotted the most brazen grazer of all slipping away with two carrier bags full of ripe figs from the mother tree – an act of larceny he excused because the tree was planted thirty years ago by a long deceased friend. There’s a PhD to be written on the ethics of the allotment site.  Occam could sharpen his razor on the distinction between a single bay leaf, picked for some stock or the complete removal of all the fixtures and fittings on an abandoned plot. We’d all agree that there is a distinction to be made but we’d probably place it just a little way beyond our own secret removals.

But how can we be so pleased with our little horticultural triumphs which involve hours of work and no little expense, when this fig demonstrates its independence so beautifully. I’m not a permaculturalist, mainly because the cost of making it universal would be depopulation on a huge, even monstrous scale; but that doesn’t mean that I’m not deeply interested in those resources that the earth provides and which we neglect as we stuff ourselves with rich processed food to the detriment of our health and the entire ecosystem. I read last night that the leaves of red valerian – Centranthus ruber – are delicious in salads.  Aside from the fact that one of our sons is horribly allergic to it, I’d never thought of eating it because however botanically sophisticated I may have become as I grow older, I still instinctively divide plants into ‘food’ and ‘weeds’ and I suspect my mother placed border guards in my head to warn me off inviting strangers into the kitchen. Recently I laughed heartily at a seed catalogue offering couch grass for money, in spite of the fat that I readily rub an ointment containing its roots into my skin when I get small patches of eczema. That said, maybe I should start a rumour that the figs are escaped from a deadly plant breeding experiment aimed at quietly exterminating Italian waiters.

Today it’s been raining again so I redeemed the shining hour by making bread and baking another Dundee cake. Life at the Potwell Inn is ever challenging and so today we turned the mattress on the bed and put some clean sheets on; such is the nature of the ordinary – you have to wrestle a blessing out of it

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