Something to celebrate

Lesser Celandines on the river bank yesterday

At the risk of losing your attention altogether I want to add one further comment to the last two posts: Religiously planting potatoes and Ghost signs in which I’ve strayed off the subject of the allotment plan to explore the seasonal rhythms and implicit spiritualities of the allotment year.

You can check back on the previous posts to see how I managed to get from figuring out when to plant overwintering crops in the polytunnel to arrive at the significant overlap between the solar (everyday) calendar and the so-called pagan, let’s say pre-Christian and Christian calendars. I gave up on trying to incorporate the lunar calendar because – although I’ve no particularly strong opinions about it – the crucial difference between the lunar year of 354 days and the solar calendar of 365 days means that they only reconcile every thirty years . While I’m perfectly prepared to believe that there’s something very significant about the lunar cycle, what small amount of science I’ve remembered suggests that for an experiment to yield any meaningful data you need to reduce the number of variables as much as possible. The simple act of sowing a seed on the Potwell Inn allotment at the optimum time involves day length – whether spring or autumn, soil temperature, weather forecast, whether under cover or outside and probably many more obscure factors. To add the phase of the moon, whether waxing or waning for instance let alone the zodiac sign at new moon, would add a level of complication that would render any possible results meaningless. This doesn’t however imply that the sight of an autumn moon or the splendour of Orion in winter isn’t both mysterious and utterly compelling. One of our deepest human compulsions is to turn such moments into stories. Myths, I often think, are the way we try to tell the truth about mysteries we can’t fathom.

Not all our stories are equally benign, though, and during phases of fundamental change in a culture, stories can become weaponized and profoundly dangerous. At this moment we’re facing three of the most destructive stories the human race has ever concocted; the story that says for every problem there’s a technological fix; the story that evolution is a secular and linear progression towards the perfect society and another one that claims all our troubles are the fault of strangers. I don’t for a moment believe that our present crisis can be resolved by withdrawing and growing carrots because I’m neither a prepper (but) nor am I prepared to abandon hope in favour of realpolitik. The key thing is to remember that paradigm changes come slowly and are very patchy to begin with, and the attention span of politicians and journalists is easily exceeded by the goldfish. We are poorly adapted to perceiving extremely slow changes.

So I’ll leave that sort of pondering for the long winter nights because right now we’re frantically busy on the allotment and back at the flat shuffling plants in and out of the propagators on to window sills; pricking out seedlings, re-potting them as roots appear to have filled their latest accommodation and (most time consuming of all) looking for permanent markers that actually work! As we approach the vernal equinox on Saturday we find ourselves taken by surprise once again at the workload. If my wonderful new mandala could speak it would say – ‘well I did warn you!’

So the final life lesson from drawing the growing year as a wheel, comes from wondering at the way in which these seasons and their festivals have survived for so many thousands of years with different names but in so many different cultures. Isn’t it most likely that they meet some kind of deep human need that won’t be extinguished by the growth and decline of whole civilisations and their ideologies. We now understand, after a year of lockdowns, that isolation is a kind of hell – and that we are, at our very deepest levels, social beings. As I listen to the news it’s heartbreaking to listen to the way in which we’ve become divided from one another by anger and suspicion. The thing about nature is that it it’s one of the few aspects of our lives whose stock has risen during the pandemic. Without any kind of theology or explanatory apparatus we overwhelmingly agree that the natural world commands both respect and love. This at least is something we can gather together and celebrate, and we even have a servicable ancient timetable.

The simple act of sowing a seed is the beginning of understanding the generosity of the earth. It’s risky, it means learning to bend to, and accept the forces of nature – many of which we can’t begin to fathom. There is loss but often there is gain in the form of a harvest that I never quite feel I deserve and most particularly I want to say thank-you for without any ready made template to turn to. The cycle of festivals is our most powerful means of channeling these instinctive responses. Over the years I’ve led many harvest festivals, wassails, plough services, Christmas carols and rogation services where we once had a go at beating the parish bounds. It was a long walk! All of these festivals pre-date their appropriation by the Christian church which, ironically – you might think – kept them going for a couple of millennia because they couldn’t be suppressed.

If I’d quizzed the participants at those events why they were there I don’t suppose one in twenty would have come up with a theological reply. Why did we, year after year, walk a forty something mile pilgrimage across the fields between Malmesbury and Littleton on Severn to celebrate what was probably a mythical story about a murdered monk? Anyone who knows me will have heard me describe these endlessly re-enacted ancient festivals as left luggage offices where you don’t even need to know exactly what it is that you’ve mislaid somewhere in a long life, because surprisingly often it will just turn up.

There are very good reasons for being respectful of nature as we are now discovering with the threefold catastrophe of global heating, species extinction and economic chaos. For centuries – millennia even – humans put our trust in negotiations with the supernatural because there was nothing else. Then science and technology swaggered on to the street and for a while it looked as if they’d cracked it. We came to believe that, given time, there was no problem or threat that couldn’t be solved by science. Time was given – lots of time – and we discovered that science and technology were as much part of the problem as they were part of the solution.

We’ve been cynically divided and set apart by the spirit of an age which has run its course and whose beneficiaries are frantically trying to secure their wealth and power by dividing us into ever smaller and less powerful monads. But it’s so lonely being in a community of one where no-one understands or cares.

So when this is all over; those of us who love the earth and can glimpse a way of living less destructively should turn off the mobiles and bring on the festivals and feasts; bring on the gatherings for mourning and marking the great life changes, bring on the bonfires and lanterns and especially the songs and dances and community plays, bring on the strangers and the dressing up, bring on the cider (although we won’t all be drinking it) and the ash wands and the well dressing. Bring on the singers and the musicians, the sun, the moon and the stars and let the astronomers talk to the astrologers and discover that they both like daffodils; let the hydrologists talk to the dowsers and see what they can learn and the herbalists talk to the medics and see if they can swap useful ideas. Let granny talk to the historians so she can put them right on all their most egregious mistakes and finally let the politicians and journalists come on strict condition that they don’t speak but just listen – carefully for once. Tear down the shutters, pull back the curtains and open the windows wide. Let’s have the greatest ever festival to bring to reflect on all the things we don’t understand and to re-enchant and celebrate the sacred earth for taking care of us in spite of us behaving like ungrateful hooligans.

Next time – back to the allotment, I promise.

“God for Harry, England and …” oh do shut up!

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First thing this morning, as soon as I turned my phone on, came the proclamation of St George’s Day tomorrow. I like St George’s Day because it’s a fixed point in the year unlike Easter that wanders all over the place.  I also like it because it’s peak dandelion time in the UK and I like it because it’s the closest memorable festival to the date of the last frost here. What amuses me greatly is the fact that the flag of St George has been adopted so enthusiastically by the extreme right who appear blissfully unaware that he was almost certainly a dark skinned Maltese. Shakespeare, sadly, introduced a lot of beautiful but daft clutter into our national consciousness.

Aside from the stereotype that the British are obsessed with the weather – (in my book it can’t be a stereotype because it’s true) – for an allotmenteer or a gardener weather matters big-time. Weeks of preparation and nurturing of young tender plants can be ruined in a night, but the difference between gardening and allotments is that gardens are adjacent to the house and so a last ditch trip outside in the dark can save the day.  On an allotment there’s a risk that you’ll wake up half a mile from the ruins.  Madame used to work at an apple research station where in one experiment , during blossom time, they would spray a fine water mist over the trees because paradoxically it didn’t damage but protected the crop even when, at dawn, the orchards were a fairyland of icicles – much loved by local TV crews when it was a slow news day.   The ice would melt, the trees would shrug and life went on. Historically, less high-tech solutions would be strategically placed bonfires, and on our allotments we’ve fixed fabric barriers to slow the frost that rolls down the hill and parks itself over us. It’s easier when the trees at the top of the site come into leaf; but in gardening the best you can ever do is slow things down to avoid the worst of the risk. Nets, cloches and fleece are all lifesavers – but only if you remember to put them out.

On the internet – which, like Shakespeare, has a lot to answer for, you can gather an array of last frost dates and this morning when I looked I saw that one gardening site has moved our last date back by a week to the ‘end of April’. Good news if it’s true but I’ve got May 6th in my diary for the last time our runner beans got slaughtered and so that’s the date we’ll go with here at the Potwell Inn, thank you very much. The thing about frost is that it can be ridiculously local – down to the corner of a field. Here as in so many things, local knowledge beats Google hands down.

All the gardening books talk about ‘hardening off’, but I think I prefer the term ‘tempering’. Plants are funny creatures and a large part of so-called ‘green fingers’ is being able to read their moods.  At this time of the year we’ve raised almost all of our tender plants in the propagators and then they go through a slow progression through the warmth and sunshine of the tables against south facing windows and into the hallway which has a softer light and is probably seven or eight degrees cooler, and thence to the unheated greenhouse followed by days outside and nights inside. It can take several weeks to go through this tempering process and all the while we’re watching the weather. Last week we moved some chillies into the hall and, after a couple of days, we could see that in some indefinable way they weren’t happy.  Moved back inside they said ‘thank you very much’ and got on with their lives. ‘Hardening off’ suggests a rather harsh, one-off life lesson centred solely on temperature,  ‘Tempering’, on the other hand feels more like education; a preparation for life outside in the beds.

Inevitably there’s a brief pause between the sowing of seeds indoors and the planting out, perhaps a month later. Meanwhile there are always last minute preparations to the beds, harvesting the early risers and feeding the fruit trees. For the third year running we’re enjoying a sunny few weeks in April, although this year it’s been a bit compromised by cool easterly and north-easterly winds. But you can’t have it all – the south-westerlies are the best bearers of rain and so we also spend quite a lot of time watering the recently planted out hardy seedlings. Even in the harshest of times – and these are harsh indeed, the modalities of sun, rain and earth remind us that there’s a bigger story that won’t go away. Every day, as gardeners, we learn that we must relinquish any dreams of control over these great forces and do as the Taoists do – learn to trust and move with them.