I know my place!

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Looking west from Dyrham Park on the Cotswold escarpment towards Wales

OK so – if you examine that statement from every angle it  might look smarter than I  intend. I do know my place, after all I’ve lived in it for most of 73 years, my speech is inflected with its dialect and there’s not much of it I haven’t walked, cycled, driven  or tried to grow things in at some time or another. I recognise a respectable amount of its wildlife in a thoroughly non-professional way, and I know most of its history. So I know my place; I’m hefted to the area around two rivers, the Avon and the Severn, and to the land west of the Cotswolds and north of the Mendips.

And so by extension I know a lot less about many other areas that I love just as passionately, especially the far western parts of England and Wales, but they’ve been holiday romances rather than family. I make lists of plants, watch birds and animals and always come back refreshed and inspired. I’m an amateur, a bit of a peasant, an autodidact, living an inch from the edge of a howler, an intruder into the VIP lounge of proper (whatever that’s supposed to mean!) experts. And so reading George Monbiot’s book “Feral” has been a big struggle because I know, even with my street wisdom, that there’s something wrong with his argument – I just don’t quite know what it is. There’s porridge in the radiator, gear oil in the sump and quite a bit of well disguised filler in the bodywork and notwithstanding the good looks on the forecourt I know it’s a wrong ‘un.

I’ve been reading it restlessly, on and off. I shout at it, slam it shut, double check the data. I managed to struggle through the first couple of chapters, although I found some of the tales of superhuman derring do  – paddling six miles out to sea in a kayak – running twenty miles before breakfast with a young Masai man, dodging bullets in a Brazilian mining settlement – well, a bit desperate. The beatific visions and revelations of true nature were a touch too Ignatian for me, and I was just waiting for the wrestling with bears bit so I could just accept it as a fictional ‘coming of middle age’ narrative . The picture of Vladimir Putin on a horse kept floating into my mind.

But when he kicked off on the so-called Cambrian desert I had to race to the laptop.  Where is this scene of dereliction and abandonment overrun by malignant sheep and even more malignant Welsh hill farmers? A quick check on the BSBI website turned out  to be difficult because reorganised boundaries have rendered the vice county list a bit impenetrable. Powys, for instance, includes bits of Montgomeryshire *(VC47), Radnorshire (VC43), Brecknockshire – Breconshire if you’re English – (VC42) and a bit of Denbighshire (VC50) and the Cambrian Mountains also embrace some of Ceredigion(VC46) and Carmarthenshire(VC44). That’s a lot of lists, but checking them all I couldn’t see even one of them with a significantly lower number of plant species; but I could see that there were quite a few rarities in amongst them.  Even from my own scant knowledge I know  that there are irreplaceable habitats there, bogs, mires and wetland areas.  The road between Tregaron and Abergwesyn seemed to me, when I first drove it, a paradise. And what on earth is he suggesting when he writes in the same chapter that there were no birds? He seems to have set out with a self imposed vision of a despoiled land, and exercised iron discipline on himself to exclude any evidence to the contrary. The red kite, thank goodness, is now as common as medieval hill towns in Provence – who’d have thought it? I stopped reading when the book started to make me feel fearful.

But I know my place, and I can’t offer anything approaching a sensible review of the book from a more experienced perspective.  I know it’s a contested area of thought and I’m slowly trying to catch up after decades of the more (dare I say) piles and varicose veins side of spirituality that is the life of an almost extinct species of country parson. So I searched through the original reviews, found some hiding behind paywalls, but  some more that shared at least a few of my misgivings and then I stumbled on this blog by Miles King which has a review written with far more authority and expertise than I’ll ever have, and which I’ve found invaluable. I realize I’ve been rather harsh, but we’re in a crisis and what we need, more than anything else, is to follow the facts on the ground even if they contradict (especially if they contradict) our presuppositions and prejudices. Making up ‘facts’ to advance an opinion is morally wrong and – at the moment – dangerous because it hands ammunition to the enemy who will use exactly the sort of logical contradictions that abound in “Feral” to attack the whole project.

So I’m going to put the book back on the shelf now because I’ve just got hold of “Meadows” by George Peterken whose lecture we went to a while ago at Bath Nats. In the midst of a crisis there’s no time for a canonical literature to emerge, no place yet for the final word or the revealed truth, but there are enough half-baked ideas out there to furnish a lifetime of village flower and produce shows. “Meadows” looks to me to be a better bet if I want to find out what’s really going on and what we might have to do about it. There are plenty of elephants in the room already without parachuting them into Powys.

  • these are all vice-county lists of plants found in the designated areas and maintained by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland

 

Hotting up in the flat, sleet and rain on the allotment!

Outside on the green, the buds on the trees are swelling, lending a faint green haze to the view, although the hawthorn is well ahead of the pack. Not the least reason for celebrating the leaves is that they obscure the riverside housing developments which are not only thoroughly ugly but also poorly built – so much so that after only four years many of these ludicrously expensive buildings are having missing fire protection and non existent waterproof membrane installed at vast expense (I hope) to the developers and even vaster inconvenience to the residents. Of course many of the  Georgian buildings we so admire these days were thrown up in much the same kind of speculative fever, but at least they look good from the outside.

Enough of that, though, because as we approach the equinox, seeds sown during late winter and raised in the propagators are now demanding better lodgings, and like teenage children they have to be accommodated within our rather small flat. Each year at this time we get the camping tables out, one in front of each south facing window, and they rapidly fill with small plants.  Every few weeks they need potting on into even bigger pots, and long before mid-May when we can put plants like tomatoes, chillies, courgette and peppers straight into the ground, we’re struggling to find space for them all. When removal day finally arrives the flat seems uncannily empty, but at least then we can change the early window boxes for their summer equivalents.

The kitchen doubles up nicely as a potting shed but the competition for space is fierce and so this year I’m fixing up the greenhouse to house a dozen trays of the plants as they slip off the end of the production line. It probably doesn’t sound much, but the allotment rules only allow a six by four structure; a rule that’s generally honoured in the breach by our neighbours but it’s a more manageable size for two of us. Incredibly, few of the bigger greenhouses are ever used to their capacity and almost every autumn we see a few over ripe tomatoes clinging to tinder dry brown foliage, roasting in the sun. It’s amazing how the enthusiasm of Easter fades as the season progresses.

Some kind of pattern finally establishes itself for us. It takes a season or two to adjust to the land and to our own needs, for instance we know we need to grow fifteen outdoor (blight resistant) cordon tomatoes to keep us in sauces through the year. In addition we need a handful of salad tomatoes, and a surprisingly large number of roots – ready for winter. We’ve cut down on potatoes, and this year we’re focusing on our favourite earlies. A couple of courgettes are more than enough, and we need more borlotti beans.

Last year we discovered, much to our surprise, that the aubergines and peppers and the less fierce chillies actually preferred it outside. We made far too many pickles, more than even our hungry extended family could help us consume, and so a single gherkin plant would probably do. Which brings us to the big economic question – is it cheaper to buy plants or sow seeds? Well, packets of F1 hybrids often only contain 10 seeds, but if you only want a couple of plants, it might be cheaper to buy them at the garden centre because they don’t last forever and they may not be viable after five years.  The advantage of growing from seeds is access to a far wider range of varieties,  but plants are professionally reared and get you going quicker.  I don’t think there’s an answer  except to put in a word for open pollinated and saved seed.  With a little care, and once you’ve discovered what goes really well on your own patch, this is free source, and sometimes seed will even adapt to your precise environment and soil – just as potatoes and maize have done in South America.

Weatherwise, it’s been continuing in much the same pattern; a day of sunshine and a week of rain, even sleet today. The south west of the UK is fairly mild and they’ve had it much worse further north, but we’ve seen freak frosts and even flurries of snow as late as May.

I’ve been reading George Monbiot’s book “Feral”. I’ve had it on the shelf for ages and made a start several times but put it aside because I found it – dare I say – a bit intense. This time I soldiered through the first couple of chapters and I think, at last, I can see where he’s going with it and so I’ve sealed my intent to finish it with a bookmark. More to follow, then.

“Not now George?”

With thanks to Joyce Grenfell.

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I’ve a lot of time for George Monbiot and I often find myself agreeing with almost every word he’s just written while contrarily wishing that he’d found a different way of writing it. It concerns me that I feel this way, because it forces me to examine that part of my history that makes me averse to harsh words.  My friends will breathe a sigh of relief that there is at least someone in the brake-van, and the people I’ve sparred with over the years will continue to think what they do.  There is a place for indignation and anger about our present conjoined crises of mass extinction and global heating and to hold back on that anger might feel like tacit support for the guilty.  Do we really have time for the niceties of civilised debate and a coming together of minds towards agreed collective action. Well we’ve had over fifty years of debating time since Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was published, and my entire adult life has been punctuated by warnings about our abuse of the environment. From the terrible post-war smogs in London and other industrial cities during my childhood onwards, the power of legislation and enforcement has been thwarted and emasculated by powerful vested interests. Surely they’ve had their chance.

And I think that sense of urgency is a powerful defence of the language that’s sometimes used in the debate. George Monbiot is just one among the many powerful voices who’ve spoken out and challenged the culture, and if by shouting loudly about the dangers they’ve brought it to the top of the political agenda then we’ve a lot to thank them for.  If our political system (and this is – ultimately – a political and economic issue) is so tin-eared, or wilfully deaf to the mounting scientific evidence, then our leaders can hardly complain when the debate is taken into the streets, because it us who have to breathe the polluted air and our children whose lungs are invaded by diesel particulates and will never hear a nightingale or a curlew.

The problem is that if it comes to a slanging match, the powerful vested interests have by far the loudest voice, and they have not been above using dirty tricks and deliberate lies to prolongue their hegemony. Stupidly, though, they don’t seem to be able to understand that we all breathe this air, we all drink the water (when there is any) we all eat the chemically compromised food. The rise in sea-level will drive millions of people away from their vulnerable homes, including those who can afford to own tropical islands. The problem is that there isn’t a column for the environment on a profit and loss statement, and so the polluters don’t pay. They’d soon stop if it hit their profits.

So yes there’s a bit of me that would like to make them suffer for the damage they’ve done, but if they were all locked up for eternity it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to the crisis. George’s article above particularly takes aim at farmers and the big environmental NGO’s, and reserves special hatred for grouse moors – there’s a picture of one the I took a few weeks ago at the top of this post.

IMG_5321We know the whole environmental culture has to change, and so let’s take the example of tree planting. Should we plant a million trees, say? Well yes, but where should we plant them? – and what trees should we plant? whose land shall we plant them on? who will pay for them, maintain them and keep them healthy? Can we tackle the climate crisis and the extinction crisis at the same time with the same plan – or will the two sides of the larger crisis require a plan modulated to meet both? This is where I part company with some of Monbiot’s comments because one obvious solution is to use the presently indefensible agricultural subsidy system to change the farming culture. To say to farmers “you can do what you like (within the law) with your own land, but we won’t pay you to do it if it doesn’t bring about any public good.”  I’m pretty sure that most farmers would be only too pleased to stop damaging their land so long as it didn’t bankrupt them in the process. Most hill-farms get 80% of their income from subsidies. Monbiot is quite right to say that the hill-country landscape has been turned into a wildlife desert by overgrazing sheep, but whose fault is that when, until recent years, farmers were paid according to the size of their flocks so, of course, they overstocked the sheep. Millions, if not hundreds of millions of trees could be planted on some of that unproductive land but the best possible workforce and custodians of the new forests would be the farmers who presently farm sheep. They’re in place already and they know their land as only farmers do. Calling for an end to sheep farming only makes a dangerous situation worse.  Do we even know what numbers of sheep might constitute a sustainable national flock? Aren’t there economic and ecological benefits to maintainin a much smaller national flock thereby retaining the best of the hill farming culture and reducing overproduction to the point where the market for sheep and wool improves. Would a revival in woollen cloth be a sustainable alternative to more plastics?   I don’t see the point in alienating and threatening farmers with the expropriation of their livelihoods when we know we’re going to need them onside. The grouse moors are much harder to defend, especially when the cost of shooting is so great that only the wealthy can participate, and amid the costs to wildlife by heather burning are the sinister statistics around the shooting and poisoning of birds of prey by gamekeepers who know when to keep their mouths shut.

But this too is where we’ve seen that not all big landowners are capitalizing on their land by running shoots. Neither do they all allow hunting and stalking.   Inevitably some will argue that any change will amount to an attack on their whole “way of life”. Well yes, so was the abolition of slavery and the end of public executions – we can’t go on excusing the destruction of our ecosystem because someone might get upset about not being able to wear their plus fours. I think the majority of landowners, if they are faced with the prospect of losing millions of pounds of revenue unless they change their ways, will grumble a lot and comply, because deep down they do understand. The biggest obstacle to change will be those industries that can’t adapt. The ones that will really go bust if farmers stop using chemicals! The manufacturers of the behemoths that straddle the fields and crush the life out of the soil will find ways of serving a less extractive agriculture, and no-one’s attacking the principle of using farmland productively and efficiently. It might be that instead of half-million pound machines, human beings could do more.  Some of my happiest winter mornings were spent laying hedges on a playing field that didn’t possess or want to flail the hell out of them.

I’m arguing two things simultaneously – firstly that the crisis is so severe that we must take immediate action and secondly that the best strategy for achieving that end is to use both carrot and stick to change farming culture. Aggression, rudeness and threats of expropriation will just make it harder.  I spent 25 years working in farming parishes and I always felt able to question why things were done in the way they were. Apart from one instance where I was shouted at by a (non farming) local councillor who’d got completely the wrong end of the stick, I found the farmers overwhelmingly open to new ideas. They loved their land and they neither wanted to poison it or lose it altogether by going out of business.

George Monbiot’s next targets in the article are the large NGO’s like the National Trust, the RSPB and the other powerful charities.  Again, it’s always better to change what you’ve got than abolish it all and start again. With the National Trust, Monbiot’s main target is the policy of allowing even drag hunting on its land. If this crisis is ever going to be resolved, then dog whistle tactics will have to be set aside.  The very word hunting carries a whole complex of polarizing imagery that makes resolution almost impossible, and lines the opposing views up with an angry chasm between them.  Better let the whole practice die of disgust, like bear baiting and cockfighting did in their day. Where the National Trust can help is in the management of its huge land holdings, and there it’s not heped by it’s foundational ethos of preservation and conservation. It’s not good enough to use huge sums of public subscription to preserve some notional bucolic landscape for sightseers.

The same problem on a larger scale happens within the National Park authorities who can be a positive nuisance when it comes to changing farming practices. Many of these charities and NGO’s encourage a narrow (especially in terms of diversity) view of passive participation in the scenery. Charities supporting single issues like birds, butterflies or  whatever else are not known for their collaboration, and can be positively hostile when other groups with different interests impinge on their “territory”.

So my plea to George Monbiot is to deal with his understanable anger and pursue the goal we all share by reaching out rather than acting out. It really does work better. To use a useful cliché once again, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’  but it’s not invincible. We can’t save the earth by making vote-winning policy announcements, but it can be saved by implacable determination, never losing sight of the goal and never accepting second best delaying tactics from vested interests. The farmers aren’t the enemy, it’s us with our insatiable appetites.

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Lunch at the Potwell Inn

IMG_5176And very nice it was too.  Madame and me had gone for one of those most dangerous of things – a wander around town, passing by the lovely veg stall outside M & S where prices all seem to be negotiable. “Come on” shouts the barker with a voice so loud you can hear it across town.  “Weeee-ve got rainy day reductions on fruit”……. “Weeee’ve got purple sprouting – which is what we call broccoli when it’s purple!” – You get the picture, he’s a comic with a dry sense of humour but for £10 you can fill two carrier bags with fresh veg. Six people working flat out on the stall. Our perambulation took us through several favourite shops and we arrived back at the Potwell Inn HQ with a bag of mussels, a bottle of Pecorino and a loaf of sourdough bread because I was feeling too lazy to start a loaf yesterday and anyway the oven door is falling off and creaks dreadfully when you open and close it. More expensive repairs I fear.

As for mussels, as always keep it simple.  Today I fried some finely chopped bacon before adding chopped shallots but often I leave the bacon out.  When everything is softened I chuck in a glass or perhaps two of white wine and a handful of chopped parsley with the mussels, slam the lid on and cook it hard for a couple of minutes until the mussels are all open. Voila – job done. Eat the mussels with your fingers then drink the rich stock with a slice of decent bread and finish the bottle of wine while you set the world to rights.

Today we were talking about how to join up the local with the global. It’s a constant challenge to many of us to see how our tiny efforts at the local level will ever make the kind of difference we need to head off the twin disasters of ecological degradation and climate change. Does our tiny effort at composting our kitchen waste ever amount to anything more than virtue signalling?  Does our individual refusal to use chemicals on the allotment ever make more than a nanopercentage of the thousands of tons being poured on the earth by agribusiness? And at a time when the government has its eyes firmly fixed on retaining the patronage of the few, who’ll look after the rest of us? Or – to put it another way – have all these years of campaigning and lobbying for ‘green issues’ been wasted?

Oddly enough, I think, this time of political turmoil has had some unintended consequences which could lead to real change. It’s rapidly dawning on a generation of the kind of people who might never previously have counted themselves as ‘politically active’ that they’ve been cheated, and they’re getting cross about it – I suppose I’m one of them. Let me give an example. This year you’ll know, if you’re been on board for a while,  I built a manure-fired hot bed.  It works, it’s been an education. Then the other day I discovered that some manure is contaminated with an insecticide .  Environmentalists have once again been thwarted by the use of exemptions following lobbying by the powerful agrochemical industry. The chemical is called Dimilin and it’s used to control insect infestation in intensive rearing units – themselves a morally dubious operation. And here’s the bit that got me spitting fire – it’s been listed as a food additive, even though it’s clearly a systemic insecticide. So conceivably, the manure that we allotmenteers have been applying to our precious soil, has been contaminated with a systemic insecticide which is persistent enough to pollute soil and run-off water and, worse still, my be contributing to the disastrous decline in insects. Whose brilliant idea was that? We thought that neonicotinoids had been totally banned, but it turned out that they’re  still in use for some crops. It’s also emerged that many thousands of protected wild birds have been slaughtered through the liberal use of exemptions provided by Natural England to landowners, and these weren’t all pigeons and seagulls – the linked article quotes “at least 40 species, including the skylark, blackbird, great tit, bullfinch, robin, wren, red kite, moorhen, mute swan, kestrel, peregrine falcon and golden plover.”

My question is – how many other pieces of hard fought-for environmental legislation are being quietly undermined and made mockery of by powerful interests who know how to use their financial muscle and connections?

“Think global and act local” is a good slogan, but I’m much preoccupied with the interaction between the two. Yesterday this chain of thought was provoked by a new green initiative  called Natural Climate Solutions and fronted up by George Monbiot among others. Most of the initiatives proposed there are on a large scale, not the kind of thing you can do in a single garden or allotment.  So there’s the conundrum in a nutshell – think globally because some solutions to the unfolding crisis can only be addressed at the larger political level.  But acting locally needs to be linked to it in a way that we know will make more difference than helping us to feel we’ve just done something. If we think of what kind of campaign we need to conduct, as a kind of lever that can magnify the effects of the local in order to lift a heavy load in the larger sphere, what will the fulcrum be? What could be the single cause around which sufficient people at the long end of a lever, could coalesce around an idea, a dream that would move the mountain of vested interest?