As easy as 1,2,3 – possibly

Reflecting on the season which is drawing to a close, there’s a lot to be thankful for – not least the new polytunnel which has done all we hoped for. It was a big investment for us and it was a nightmare getting it up in the freezing cold and wet of March; but without it I don’t think we’d be making tomato sauces for storage on anything like the scale we’ve been able to. Within two weeks we’ll be taking up the vines and any green tomatoes will be turned into chutney. We weren’t so lucky with the aubergines mainly due – I think – to the humid weather which apparently makes the pollen sticky. But after a week of hand pollinating with a watercolour brush, the mass of flowers look as if they are setting some fruits at last. All we need now is warmth and sunshine to finish them. The other great polytunnel successes have been the melons – which I’ve already written about.

However, it’s been a savage year for slugs and then recently blight which has destroyed most of our neighbours’ tomato plants. We took the decision some years ago to grow blight resistant varieties as far as possible. They’re more expensive because they’re F1 hybrids but we’ve harvested over 60 lbs so far with another 20 still to come. Most of our neighbours have lost the lot – which is terribly discouraging, especially for newcomers. Let’s be clear, these varieties aren’t GM or anything like that; they’re just the result of old fashioned field trials and – so far as we’re concerned – they’re worth every penny. We only grow early potatoes now so blight isn’t an issue; but we have grown blight resistant potatoes (Sarpo varieties) in the past and they’ve worked very well. There’s a dilemma here because it would be lovely to continue with heritage varieties but if they die before they provide any food you have to wonder whether it’s worth the heartache. The devil here, of course, is climate change which has utterly altered the weather that most heritage varieties were selected to grow in.

But that only addresses the problem of blights and fungal infections. Pests are another problem and once again there’s a dilemma because since we started filming our nocturnal visitors we’ve seen foxes, cats, badgers, squirrels and an assortment of greedy birds. The one animal we haven’t seen – and if the image of the allotment as a wildlife haven were true, we should have seen – is the hedgehog. In five years not a single one has been seen on the allotment, and the reason is patently obvious – it’s slug pellets. Most of us talk the talk when it comes to controlling slugs and snails harmlessly; but when slugs fell a whole row of spinach seedlings in a night, it takes a whole lot of forbearance not to reach for the pellets. Now that metaldehyde has been banned, the new iron phosphate replacement might fill the gap but hedgehogs, badgers, toads and birds would be far more effective. Surely giving up the pellets would be a sacrifice worth making if we could get the natural predators back on the job?

And that immediately raises another dilemma. How do you keep the ‘useful’ predators off the crops you want to eat? Badgers especially can destroy a whole year’s corn in one rampage. The photo says it all!

Badgers destroyed this crop on a neighbour’s plot 2 days ago.

There’s a cultural tic that afflicts a lot of allotmenteers that treats any expenditure at all as a bit – let’s be honest – middle class incomer, far too rich so and so’s. I’ve witnessed many a cutting remark about those of us who choose to invest our savings in physical crop protection – fences, insect mesh and butterfly nets; but to me it seems absurd to expect to grow a significant amount of food without spending any money in defending it. This year we invested heavily in micromesh to try to stop repeated attacks of allium leaf miner and carrot fly – and guess what? It has worked brilliantly, which is why organic market gardeners and farmers whose chequebooks are permanently welded shut to preserve the bottom line, willingly shell out on physical crop protection. Pests and diseases are indiscriminate and all we can do is keep them out of our food supply without declaring chemical war on them.

Cabbage butterflies, slugs, snails and aphids aren’t going extinct anytime soon, but the higher predators who rely on them for food, well might. We need to include positive effects on biodiversity, healthy exercise as well as fresh organic food in the profit and loss account for any allotment. I’ve come to believe that there’s even a place for the rat in the great scheme of things – so long as they’re not peeing on our lettuces!

Hardening of the oughteries

Taken yesterday in Gorran Haven – who or what is “boy jowan” and is there a future for them?

The title of this post is a borrowing from Frank Lake, the inventor of Clinical Theology which has pretty much disappeared these days, but back in the day was a force for good in its attempt to make a marriage between theology and healing. Nowadays it looks like a forced marriage that was bound to fail; but this term – hardening of the oughteries – perfectly sums up for me, the danger of committing the ultimate ethical error of confusing ought with is.

On Thursday when I last posted, we were preparing for unseasonably strong winds down here in Cornwall in the far South West. An hour or so after I pressed the send button, an HM Coastguard vehicle turned up on the campsite , warning that the weather forecast had underestimated the strength of the storm that was about to make landfall, and the predicted 60 mph gusts were more likely to be up to 80 mph.

The campsite owner toured the site warning us that force ten – storm force winds – were about to arrive and giving us the option to leave ASAP if we were worried. A small convoy left the site within a couple of hours and we battened down – veterans of fifty years of western coastal camping during which we’ve lost three tents. This time we were in a campervan, it’s true, but the rest of the family were all in tents. At the height of the storm people were clinging to their tents to try to save them. Around twenty five people slept in a community room on the site while their tents were smashed by ferocious gusts of wind. In the van – broadside on to the winds – we rocked on the suspension as brief periods of silence were followed by explosive gusts slamming us.By the morning, half of the campers who’d elected to sit it out had lost their tents. It was the biggest storm we’ve ever encountered; pretty scary to see what nature is capable of throwing at us as the climate emergency advances.

All of which brings me to the oughteries. For us, and for millions of others, the link between the climate emergency and our wasteful, greedy and polluting way of life is so obvious we can splutter with rage at those who don’tor won’t – get it; and playing at being the cock that crows on the dunghill is a curiously self-regarding way of trying to change things. Hardening of the oughteries is that state of mind that abuses a kind of of self regarding personal virtue in order to detach ourselves from responsibility. When we suffer the extremes of the climate emergency there’s no virtue in claiming that we weren’t responsible because we walk everywhere and recycle plastic. Waiting for the opportunity to say “I told you so” overlooks the critical point that the climate emergency overwhelmingly affects places and people we have never met; the poorest of people generally speaking; and the kind of people who have no alternative but to become migrants and refugees in order to escape famine and wars funded by the wealthiest parts of the world and often proxy wars over scarce natural resources.

As we drove down here we took a short cut off the A30 towards St Austell and to my great surprise we passed a lithium mine. The mad rush to promote electric cars to lessen atmospheric pollution seems to ignore the obvious capacity of lithium mines to create their own unique pollution hazards. In this county which has been so hard hit by de-industrialisation and the collapse of tin and copper mining; it will be hard to say that thousands of new jobs mining lithium should be turned away. The Cornish inshore fishermen are only now realising that their dreams for a Brexit powered goldrush were a cynical con trick. I don’t want to be saying “I told you so” to any of these people, and neither do I want any of them to have to sell their houses and move away as the only option for a better future, away from the insecurity and exploitative jobs on offer in hospitality and cleaning for out of county second homers.

The ostrich approach is to believe that we can carry on the way we have and hope that the technological seventh cavalry will come galloping over the hill to save us with giant machines capable of removing gigatonnes of carbon dioxide from our polluted air. Of course it’s blindingly obvious that there are no free lunches to be had in combating climate change and big machines demand big energy to run them; setting us on a mind numbing treadmill that demands more and more energy in order to extract the pollution caused by extracting and using more and more energy.

Hardening of the oughteries simply polarizes the debate and delays any prospect of change – always to the advantage of of the biggest winners; the international corporations who stand to lose most when we finally come to our senses. Less really is more; it’s hardly a new idea but so far as I can see it’s the only viable alternative to our present course. The visionaries need to do more than shout at the cynics and so-called realists. We need to model an alternative future with every means at our disposal. It’s nothing less than a paradigm shift that we’ll need, as we watch the dream of never ending growth and progress collapse; and nothing could be a greater dereliction of responsibility to turn away and shout “I told you so” at the victims.

Something’s broken and it’s not just the weather

Common red soldier beetle – AKA hogweed bonking beetle!

The more times we set the trail cam, the smaller any sense of ownership or control we feel we have over the allotment. Last night the weather finally broke. We could feel it coming during the day as the temperature fell very slowly and an easterly breeze picked up. We spent the morning feeding the tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, squashes and courgettes; watered anything that was languishing in the heat and then sowed seeds for the autumn and winter. The weather front came up gradually and the sky filled with clouds – not the immense thunder clouds we’d half expected – but low and dense. Madame has a nose for the smell of rain on the way – it’s called petrichor – the smell, not her nose! -but there was nothing there. After we’d driven posts and ties in to support the taller plants in case of strong winds, we cleared up; ate our breakfast at lunchtime and then went on our accustomed walk eastwards along the river and back along the canal. The evening was still stifling, even with all our windows opened wide. Bath sits in a basin, surrounded by hills and in a prolonged period of high pressure the air gets more and more fetid. The much publicised clean air zone has reduced traffic by only one percent but repairs to the Cleveland bridge have diverted even more traffic through our neighbourhood so it’s worse than ever.

Consequently we’ve slept badly during the heatwave and last night there was the added distraction of imminent thunderstorms which we couldn’t wait to welcome – preferably without too much destructive power but plentiful rain to soak the earth and refill the water butts. We were up every hour during the night, peering through the shutters – our gardening lives are dominated by the weather – and around two in the morning we heard the first sounds of thunder some miles away; grumbling like a convoy of heavy lorries. At four the lightning came close and the rain began. With the wind in the northeast a cool draught woke us up again and we watched the rain gratefully through the window.

The rain didn’t last nearly long enough but at six I gave up and made tea and then kneaded a batch of sourdough bread for its second rise – which is when I decided to go up to the allotment to check for any casualties of the weather (there were none) and to extract and replace the SD card in the trail cam. It seems that we weren’t the only ones up and awake last night. There were video clips of a badger, a fox and later on, a ginger cat all out hunting on our plot. I love the way the fox hunts. He sits bolt upright and stock still with his ears almost flared; scoping the ground by slowly turning his head from side to side and rotating his ears independently. There were other clips of him coming and going along the paths so he spent some time on the plot. The badger hunts with his nose and the cat with all its senses primed. Fox and cat stalk their prey silently and then pounce, but it’s hard to imagine the badger doing anything of the kind. He’s a digger and a browser with a prodigious memory for the places he can find treats. Yesterday one of our human neighbours found a number of her bulb fennel plants dug up.

So how much sway do we actually hold on the allotment? Of course we can sow and tend our crops; but if we consider our work from a more detached perspective it’s clear that the major parameters, within which we garden, are largely beyond our control. Seasons; weather; pests; diseases, birds and larger animals are all part of the process, and if we try to interfere we often do more harm than good. Two days ago I found a dead rat on the patch. By the next day it was gone. The most likely culprit was the cat; but the remains could have been taken by either fox or badger after it had been feasted on by a multitude of flies and insects. Why tidy things up when that means depriving our neighbourly creatures of a meal? Wild gardening necessarily means stepping back from tidiness and control but it doesn’t follow that we have less food from the allotment. We expect to lose some crop, but that’s because the ground never belonged to us in the first place. It is we who borrow it from the teeming multitude of macro and micro life-forms who have been managing rather better without our help for countless thousands of years. The best we can hope to be is good tenants during our temporary lease of the land and so rather than just feeding ourselves we need to be mindful of the needs of all our neighbours. The thing about the earth is that when we treat it properly it brings abundance, but we are the first victims when we treat her carelessly and badly.

The trail cam just brings our larger neighbours to our attention. We’ve loved having so many bees, butterflies, hoverflies, dragon and damselflies as well as tadpoles and froglets in the pond. We do no more than provide a habitat for them and they pay us back tenfold by clearing up after us on the compost heaps, pollinating our plants and feasting on pests like greenfly and blackfly. To try to argue that these creatures lower the productivity of the allotment is crazy. The allotment produces abundance – more than enough to meet our need for food but also feeds our inner, spiritual needs as well; maintaining a huge community of which we are just one part. Even more significantly there’s evidence that the humble allotment is far more productive acre for acre, than many intensive farms; providing much more opportunity for engaging and creative labour. Farmers all over the country are going out of business, unable to make a profit. Local authorities, who used to be major holders of land for smallholdings, have sold off these resources but if they would lease new land from unprofitable farms it could be used to produce new allotments and smallholdings close to towns and cities that could produce good food locally and reduce food miles while improving biodiversity and creating many new jobs. Objections to this such a scheme can surely only be motivated by an ideological commitment to more chemicals, more false productivity and more growth.

The weather is a mess of our own making; the air we breathe is polluted by our addiction to oil, and we are sick from extremes of poverty and wealth; eating industrial junk; and stricken by loneliness and separation from nature. We’re governed by a bunch of clodhopping clowns with no vision and no plan except more of what’s killing us and it’s high time we pushed back and demanded something better. End of rant – but I hope you like the video clip.

Sucking eggs with granny

Since the industrial revolution the processes of growth have been speeded up to produce the food and raw materials needed by the population and the factory. Nothing effective has been done to replace the loss of fertility involved in this vast increase in crop and animal production. The consequences have been disastrous. Agriculture has become unbalanced: the land is in revolt: diseases of all kinds are on the increase: in many parts of the world Nature is removing the worn out soil by means of erosion.

Sir Albert Howard: “An Agricultural Testament”.

Great stress has been laid on a hitherto undiscovered factor in nutrition – the mycorrhizal association – the living fungal bridge between humus in the soil and the sap of plants

Op cit: both passages from the preface.

To be frank, the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962 seems an age ago, but “An Agricultural Testament” was published in January 1940 – eighty (yes eighty!) years ago and in the intervening years very little seems to changed. It’s a useful, if chastening, exercise to read these books. We so easily slip into the lazy thought that the world began at the same time as we each first became aware of it; and worse still, we can lazily assume that any science of real significance has happened within our own lifetimes.

This thought bubbled up from the bottom of the pond today as I was reading and Madame read out a couple of passages from a newspaper article on communal living. It’s all the rage once again, apparently, but I’m not expecting anyone to write and ask how it was for us when we lived in a couple of communes in the early seventies. Living in a commune seems to be a bit like having your first baby; the last thing you want is to know how your ghastly and out of touch parents managed to bring you up. The newly born baby is your tabula rasa whose unfortunate joy will be to have every one of your random habits inscribed indelibly in their minds. The fact that your random habits were almost never acquired in the study of ancient religions or the poetry of Wordsworth but in the kitchen of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam is the living proof that culture eats strategy for breakfast as the management consultants like to say. Living in communes, like bringing up children can be marvellous and it can also drain you of the will to live especially when you live in the midst of a clash of giant egos.

Anyway, that excursus off my chest, reading Sir Albert Howard today reminded me that the identification of the earth’s problems wasn’t something that happened recently, but back before I was born and it’s not just been ignored, it’s been made worse and worse as these eight decades have passed; or to put it more personally, my entire life has been spent fruitlessly protesting about it while nothing much changes.

Partly, I think, it came from a misplaced faith in the ability of science and technology to solve all our problems because, of course, the problem isn’t just scientific and technical, it’s a moral problem; our greed. But, as I hope my little vignette of family life shows, we rarely examine or question our basic attitudes – the ones we inherited when we were children. As a school governor for thirty years I saw many generations of children who were mildly radicalised by being taught about the environment. Yoghurt cartons were collected, tins saved and crushed for recycling and gardens grown and yet this early exposure to the problem of our environment rarely seemed to make it into action later on in life. Perhaps we needed to believe the story we were told that everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds without realising that the phrase itself was a parody – but the system seemed to work and unless you looked under the bonnet (risking your faith), it was easier to believe that there was no alternative, and anyway – why would my one little plane journey actually damage the earth? And so, to use another well worn phrase, “we are where we are” and all those lovely holidays and fillet steaks were being paid for by quietly selling off the family silver; and now the final demands are beginning to land on the mat.

I find the reading of books on the environment by previous generations of writers enlightening and challenging. For them the challenge to grow food rested in experience and human labour not giant machines and clever chemicals. Ninety percent and more of their wisdom and knowhow is still directly applicable even on our little plot which is, for us, a kind of laboratory for a sustainable future.

Today we worked for four or five hours clearing posts off the site of the polytunnel and preparing the new bed for five more trees. As I was digging out the posts I salvaged every useable piece of timber, every vine eye and tensioner and I even rolled the straining wires carefully because it’s really hard to get them at the moment. Just as my grandfather had done, I was storing and recycling anything at all, no matter how rusty or bent, because it might come in handy one day. The beds were weeded on hands and knees and we relocated dormant soft fruit bushes and perennial herbs. Back in the flat we’ve taken hardwood cuttings of favourite bushes. The main room is littered with piles of seed catalogues and gardening books. This isn’t hair shirt for the sake of it. The truth is that we live royally on the fruits of our labour; the things we can’t afford we do without and if we eat seasonally we can put something we grew ourselves on the table 52 weeks of the year. It’s not perfect but it’s completely absorbing as the shape and scope of the allotment evolves. At last the water storage is working properly and we can draw modest amounts of rainwater whenever we need it with enough pressure to run the auto watering drips in the greenhouse.

I’d love to be able to say that passive involvement in nature gives no benefits but the science proves otherwise. However, getting dirt under your fingernails in the fresh air; cooking and eating your own produce puts it up a couple of gears. A pound of borlotti beans in the shops is a commodity – they cost pennies. But baked beans made with your own beans and your own tomato sauce is a feast. I like to think that each time we harvest and cook we share the wisdom and experience of Sir Albert Howard, of Rachel Carson, Lawrence Hills and countless other pioneers who dared to challenge the hegemony of agribusiness. All we need now is for those thirty years plus of schoolchildren who saved yoghurt pots and crushed tins and fished for newts in the pond – most of them are now in positions of real weight and responsibility – we need them (you) to say enough of this exploitative and dangerous culture – we want to explore being really deeply human again!

It was all going to be so easy

The weather forecast was pretty clear – the present heatwave would end in the usual thunderstorms and torrential rain earlier this week, and the plan was to get on with jobs in the Potwell Inn kitchen – like processing tomatoes into sauces, and passata for the winter. This is the third day we’ve scanned the sky and not spotted a single cloud, and so with the temperature climbing to 34C in the shade, watering has become an exhausting necessity. Plants in pots, even large ones, suffer from stress very quickly. The only plants truly loving the heat are the greenhouse chillies, and there are enough ripened now to freeze and keep us going until next year.

But at the top of this post is a picture of some calendula flowers that we’re wilting before extracting from them in almond oil. We’ve never done this before but the calendula is so useful as a companion plant on the allotment it makes perfect sense to get an effective second benefit from it and so we have oil, beeswax and jars waiting to store this first attempt. We find the commercial cream incredibly effective, and so we’ll soon know whether our home-made version is worth the expense – organic almond oil isn’t cheap. They’re wilting well enough to move to the next stage tomorrow. I really hope it cools down a bit because the thought of reducing 10 kilos of tomato pulp in a kitchen that’s already airless and at 30C is a bit daunting, although the fruit is ripening in a box on the kitchen floor and there’s at least as much again ripe on the vines.

The decision to put ourselves on a pretty savage diet has been helped in one respect by the heat. Who wants to eat in this weather? But the other half of the plan – doing a brisk five mile walk every day before breakfast – has been a struggle, but a fight that’s worth winning. Got to get rid of the lockdown lard!

So we’ve been hiding from the heat indoors most of the day and I’ve been redeeming the shining hour by watching a series of webinars organised by the BSBI – (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) – on the Irish grasses and grassland. There’s plenty of overlap with the UK to make them very useful indeed, and I’m gradually discovering just how useful a knowledge of the grasses is, in searching for their more glamorous relatives. Grass looks like grass, and fields – from a distance – can all look the same, but imagine how powerful it would be to go in to a meadow, take a look at the grasses and the easily identifiable flowers and know that it’s worthwhile searching for something special like orchids. If you search for BSBI on You Tube you can watch them all.

Botanising in this heat has been a no-no, and so the photos are a selection of bridges in Bath, taken in the last 2 days. The still air and unruffled water have created some lovely reflections along our morning route. The odd one out is the heron that likes to perch on Bath Deep Lock. It’s pretty tame, and this is the closest I’ve ever got. I really love this place, but it’s hard to escape the fact that the heatwave, which is affecting gardeners, allotmenteers and farmers, not to mention the people who have to work indoors in it; is a symptom of something terribly wrong with our climate. Our clean air zone has been postponed until next year, and today a white van driver ran his engine outside our flat for at least an hour, to use his air conditioning – like that’s going to help!

It’s not all turtle soup and silver spoons!

With thanks to Charles Dickens and Thomas Gradgrind for the reference – and we’ve no plans ever to serve or eat turtle soup at the Potwell Inn, with or without the silver spoons.

One of the abiding challenges of writing a blog about being human is the temptation to create a sunny and carefree parallel world in which my ever competent and cheerful alter ego glides effortlessly through life untouched by troubles of any kind. Of course it’s not like that at all and things go wrong all the time – like yesterday when the pride of my civil engineering efforts on the allotment collapsed under the weight of water we’d gathered from some intense rain. I’ve written so often about the water storage project that I should have known it would all come back and bite me and now it has. I could see something was amiss when we came down the path and I saw that the three 250 litre water barrels, instead of standing in a perfect and level line, were leaning over drunkenly against the shed which, having distorted significantly, resisted any attempt to open it. One of the supports had collapsed under the strain of 750Kg of water and the horrible result was all too clear.

It was the crowning glory, or perhaps more honestly the last straw, because the black dog had already been following me around all day. I don’t know why -perhaps it was something to do with revisiting my past; but the mud and silt at the bottom of my inner pond had been stirred up by going to Rodway Common, and I couldn’t quite find the way out of my thoughts. The sight of the water butts moved me into a silence.

Melancholy isn’t just a middle class word for depression, tarted up to make it sound a bit poetic. Melancholy is a mind frame through which all the impermanence and fragility of the world is magnified, and these last months have carried the risk of loss so gravely that there can’t be many of us who haven’t been touched by it. Some will have fallen into depression, which is far, far worse. For the Potwell Inn, of course, the prospect of the landlord sunk in a grey mist did not inspire the landlady, and the lounge bar was as quiet as a funeral director’s waiting room. The television, leaking its poison into the room, drove me to my desk where I got stuck in the mud, wheels spinning and going nowhere. Then, after a disturbed night in which dreamed of being able to fly, I woke up feeling better and in possession of my lyrical mind once more, and also an easy way of rebuilding the water butt structure.

The last six words of any dying organisation are – “we always do it this way

What is it about the television at the moment? Endless costume dramas reinvent the past; we’ve got Jane Austin and Downton Abbey (was there ever a more unctuously dishonest series?) – coming out of our ears; and last night Countryfile – welly telly at its middle England finest – tried to present the argument that the gene editing of food crops was not the same as genetic modification. I screamed at the screen fruitlessly – “ask the question you moron!” – knowing that no serious question would be asked. The NFU will get its five minutes as the trades union of intensive farming, and there will be no mention of the adaptability of so-called pests. As Darwin said, when the merde hits the fan, it’s the most adaptable that survive (I paraphrase slightly) and that suggests that the odds are stacked against the farmers who will still be waiting for the Seventh Cavalry to come and rescue them when the better adapted blackfly have eaten their wellingtons. Just to put it simply, gene editing is the same game as genetic modification and carries many of the same dangers; and the thought of negotiating around a supermarket between rows of genetically edited carrots and chlorinated chicken does not fill me with joy.

On the allotment we concentrate on building up the soil and we know that stronger plants resist pests and diseases better than intensively farmed weak ones. Yes we get pea moth still, but we get around that by cropping them earlier. Blackfly and ladybirds sometimes take a week or two to move into synchronisation but they always do in the end, and there are a multitude of healthy ways of controlling pests -companion planting, for instance – that can work at scale as well. We often used to joke that the last six words of any dying organisation are – “we always do it this way“. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this Covid 19 pandemic, it’s that always doing it this way is the problem, and doing more of it can never provide a solution.

In my darkest moments I wonder whether the human race even deserves to survive, but we have children and grandchildren and there are millions of poor people around the world who will suffer even more than they do already, if we cling to the old ways which – in truth – are barely a couple of hundred years old in any case.

So there we are- no longer Mr Sad but definitely Mr Grumpy – and when it stops raining and I fix the water storage it will be Mr Sunny all over again; and the regulars will ask “what’s he on?” as I pull pints and sing “round and round the mulberry bush” .

Surviving in a hostile environment

I realized a while ago that I was going to have to get much closer to some of my botanical subjects in order to identify them properly and study them in more depth, and I’ve invested in a very useful 20x LED hand lens. Then a friend – out of the blue – offered to lend me a microscope, which will be a tremendous help. My desk is getting pretty full at the moment, not least because I’ve been experimenting with my Panasonic camera with a Leica 45mm macro lens photographing against a lightbox background.

I was casting around for something to practice with yesterday, and I spotted a piece of stonecrop – Sedum acre – that I’d collected while I was doing the plant survey of the car park. My desk is a mess at the best of times, and at the moment it’s also dotted with bits of drying and dying plant material that I seem to have a resistance to throwing away. So amongst the dead and dying this piece of stonecrop caught my eye and I set up the camera on a tripod (it’s almost impossible to take macro photos without one) got the flash unit going and after a few duds, got the picture.

The contrast between set-ups and the phone camera is absolute. I’ve said before that they each have their place and I wouldn’t be without either, but there’s nothing spontaneous about the set-up photograph. You’re forced to think what do I really want to see in this shot? and so I can use a small lab clamp, studio lamp, wireless flash and anything else that helps to capture the principal details. On a good day the aesthetic and the observational combine and you get a cracker, but most of the time they’re reference material for the future. I only wish my cataloguing skills could keep up but my tiggerish instincts are always racing on to the next excitement.

Anyway, enough of the technical stuff because what blew me away when I looked at this sample was that it is clearly alive and waiting patiently for the good times to roll again. They don’t put Sedums on wildflower roofs for nothing. Plants have their survival strategies and these can seem very smart indeed. The rue leaved saxifrage that lives on the wilderness of the fire escape survives by flowering and setting seed before the summer sun bakes its remains to a crisp. One of the abiding challenges of amateur botany is the brief lives of many species. Finding some plants is like getting six numbers up in the National Lottery – right place, right time, right weather ….. and so it goes on.

This gift of resilience is a marvellous thing, but I don’t at all underestimate our capacity to chemically outstrip the most resourceful life form – ourselves included. I’m reading Mark Avery’s book “Fighting for Birds” at the moment and he shows the way that extinctions are brought about so often by changes in farming practices which are not just to do with chemicals but also times of harvesting and sowing. But when the going gets tough …. and the real survivors are the kind of plant species – now totalling 26 – that can survive in the hostile environment of our car park.

But is that the kind of world we want to live in? Although I sing the praises of the sturdy beggars below my window, is that all I want? Of course not, but desperation drives us all. Yesterday as I looked out on the Green I saw a previous Director of the National Botanical Garden of Wales kneeling down with his phone to photograph some wall barley. Good for him – perhaps I’ve won him over at last, or perhaps he’s doing a survey of the Green where we’re making small progress on preserving an un-mown strip around the edge.

And if this was simply about preserving some hobby examples for grumpy old botanists and birdwatchers then you could maybe concede the point that it’s an unbalanced and unsustainable view of the world. But if we regard the reduction of our ecosystems to a few super resilient survivors, if we treat the symptoms like the canary in the mine – then it’s horribly clear that we may be the next species to disappear.

I’ve spent the greater part of my life thinking that our self-destructive way of life would end with a bomb and a nuclear winter. In many ways a sudden end to everything would be a more comforting vision than the possibility of a relentless decline into anarchy with terrible flooding, mass migrations from areas no longer capable of sustaining life and the desperate search for food, water, and ultimately air to breathe. I don’t want my grandchildren or their descendants to end impoverished lives like fish writhing on the deck of a boat, gasping for air.

I’ve written before about denial being one of Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s symptoms of grieving. But there has to come a moment when denial is overcome and a new life – with all its difficulties and disappointments – has to begin; and this is the moment. Right now.

Back on the allotment

Meanwhile, and notwithstanding the darker tone of the recent posts; things are going well on the allotment, although this year it’s become ever more evident than ever that the stately procession of the seasons has been one of the early casualties of global heating. We’ve moved into an era of ‘all or nothing’ weather which means that unseasonably hot and dry weather is punctuated by fierce storms that need a rather different sort of rain harvesting.

In the past the steady drip of rain running down the greenhouse panes into tiny gutters and thence through small pipes into the water butts, was rarely enough to overwhelm the system. This year we’ve had to modify the gutters and downpipes to cope with the short bursts of very heavy rain which, otherwise, would overtop them and overflow on to the ground beneath. Even then it takes a lot of rain to replenish 1250 litres (250 gallons) of rainwater. Luckily we have access to a couple of water troughs connected to the mains water supply. We also have several underground streams running through the site and flowing out across the pavement below us. In a perfect world we’d dig a massive tank at the bottom to capture the water and then pump it up the hill to another tank at the top, but in the present economic climate, anything beyond two days is long-term planning. That’s to say it goes on to a long list and stays there, even though the payback through saved water bills would be pretty quick.

So today’s job, yesterday’s job and likely tomorrow’s too is to water. In order to get the maximum benefit from the land area we made wood chip paths and beds, but at this time of the year the paths are populated with large pots and any other temporary containers we can press into service. These need watering every day when the temperature is in the 30’s, and the inside of the tiny greenhouse can be like a furnace – good news for the hot chillies as long as they don’t dry out completely. Anything else needs a lot of TLC.

And so just at the time the allotment is absorbing a great deal of energy, the produce is demanding more by way of cookery and preparation and with added ingenuity since ingredients rarely come off the allotment in recipe form. We have courgettes but no tomatoes or aubergines yet so ‘rat’ is off the menu. At the same time much of the soft fruit is ripening and so the question of what to do with it arises, as it does every year.

One useful discipline is to check the cupboard before we make any more of anything. We have a surplus of redcurrant jelly already so there doesn’t seem much point in making more. On the other hand we eat shed-loads of blackcurrant jam so that’s worth replenishing, but much of the other soft fruit is going to be processed into multi purpose fruit compote for summer puddings and ice cream. This year we made a generic “allotment jam” which was very good, but freezer space is limited so the gooseberries are going to be bottled. The biggest overproduction offenders are chutneys and pickles which need to be made circumspectly if you’re not to land up with a garage full of chutney because you didn’t know what else to do with an impulse buy of plums at the roadside. We find that jams last longer than a year, and chutneys can easily last three if they’re properly stored – but eventually they deteriorate and although they probably won’t kill you they won’t enhance your table either.

So we’re very busy but not too busy to keep an eye open for new plants. Today I spotted a common blue sowthistle on the site. It wasn’t too hard to identify but it uncovered the subtle distinction that most floras make between natives and incomers. Plants and flowers escape from gardens and railway lines, even on the wheels of cars and quarry lorries, and if they find a suitable spot they can settle down and grow. This one is a 19th century escapee that’s doing well but – because it’s not a genuine native – isn’t featured in most of my wildflower floras. Even the Book of Stace refuses to acknowledge it, although he will often give a line or two to my seventh cousin from Devon .

Identifying wildflowers can become a bit of an obsession, but it’s harmless and gets me out. I’ve been pacing the allotment and the canal recently trying to sort out the ragworts and, trust me, it can be a challenge. But!- there is a book and a method that’s immensely useful and it’s just been published in a revised second edition. It’s called “The vegetative key to the British flora” by John Poland and Eric Clement and it does exactly what it says on the tin – it helps you to identify plants that aren’t in flower – and even better, different plants whose flowers all look the same but which can be sorted out by closely examining the shape, disposition and minute details of the lower parts, the leaves and stems.

A massively useful tool, you might say, unless I’m trying to identify an escapee like a blue sow thistle, when the Google app on my android phone at least gets me most of the way home. I suppose if it (the sow thistle, that is), continues to do well – and it probably will – a massively suntanned botanist with a gigantic souwester for storms will give it a grudging mention in the 2050 appendix to a slim volume of all the plants that are left. Anyway, thanks to a good magnifier, a copy of Poland and Clement, and a tolerant partner I now know what a hydathode is, and consequently what is definitely an Oxford Ragwort; but the common ragwort which I have known all my botanical life as Senecio jacobaea has changed its name in the hope of escaping detection and is now known as Jacobaea vulgaris. Taxonomists can be very snotty.

Last night there was a massive party on the green. The police have been out in force on Royal Crescent, and so those in the know have come down to the Green which, being in a much less salubrious area, is less likely to generate complaints from important people. Aside from feeling a bit left-out because we’re still self isolating and ignoring the government, whom we wouldn’t believe if they told us the date; it was lovely to hear the young people having so much fun and this morning – contrary to stereotypes – there wasn’t as much as a sweet paper left on the grass because they tidied up so well. I do so hope their optimism won’t be crushed by a second wave of the Covid 19 virus.

Storm Dennis forces indoor gardening

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it got worse. When we first heard the wind soughing through any gaps in the windows it sounded suitably mournful, almost lovely. It felt good to pull up the bedcovers and entertain ourselves with thoughts of the driving rain and crashing waves outside the door. But that’s just an indulgence.

Actually being flooded is quite a different experience as we discovered one evening alongside the tidal Avon almost underneath the Clifton Suspension Bridge.  We’d been living there for some years and we were used to the occasional inundation of the Portway, but this particular night a west wind was heaping up a spring tide and driving it upstream at the same time as a snow melt was travelling in the opposite direction. What was most unnerving about it was just how quiet it was.  The water just kept on rising, over the dockside, across the low wall and then began to move across the road towards our house. We stood there in disbelief for an age, before Madame called a taxi to take the children to a safer place as I wondered how to stop the water flooding the basement. Mercifully the tide turned and the water retreated, but I’d never experienced water as malignant before.  Dark, relentless and malignant.  I think of the hundreds of people in the North for whom the water hasn’t stopped.

And now we live much further upstream on the same river – we haven’t moved far – but the river hasn’t lost its capacity to threaten and bully its way through the city. We know when it’s high when we can see the surface gleaming through the trees across the green, and still it’s largely silent when it’s at its most dangerous. There’s no theatrical roar, no whitewater, it’s just dark; swirling silently and sliding past as fast as a cyclist could keep up on the towpath. Global climate change is one problem we’re not going to be able to export to a place we don’t have to look in the eye. Which is perhaps an overly melodramatic way of cueing the fact that we didn’t go out today.  We’d made safe the allotment as best we could, and we just waited for storm Dennis to blow it (him)self out over the weekend while we got on with sowing seeds for the propagators.

It seems a bit ironic to be sowing chillies and peppers this weather, but they need a long season and so we always seem to land up sowing them when the winter weather is demonstrating that there’s still time for frost and snow. Each year we juggle the dates to try to get them ready to go up to the allotment at the exact moment the weather changes for the better. It’s called gambling, and the odds are always in favour of Nature having the last laugh, which is why you need to develop plenty of resilience, and a sense of humility to be any good as a gardener. If I had one piece of advice – or rather two pieces – for a novice allotmenteer they would be

  1. Get your seeds in early
  2. Don’t get your seeds in too early

See what I mean? That’s why this blog is about being human, rather than being clever. My guess is that in about eight weeks we’ll be trying to keep a load of very leggy and tender capsicum plants alive in the flat until the snow melts at last. Anyway, this is the time of year when almost everything you’re planning to do on the allotment is virtual; aspirational.  A few cotyledons here and there; some unopened seed packets along with some empty beds in which – we hope – remarkable vegetables will grow.

Outside the flat, the window boxes are being thrashed by the wind and rain, and I’m not sure they’ll ever reach their full potential this year. All across the UK people are enduring this seemingly endless sequence of Atlantic storms, and I’d like to think that the light is gradually dawning in the collective mind.  But then I think back to how long it took for the science around the dangers of smoking to take us to the point of giving it up.  There were huge commercial pressures and vast fortunes were spent by the tobacco industry to prop their lethal product up, and successive governments delayed any genuine action – probably because of the huge tax revenues they were gaining. We must expect that common sense will only prevail after every other option has been investigated – the trouble is we don’t have fifty years.

If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I’m very interested in finding out how farmers are responding to the climate challenge. I don’t think anyone – even farmers – believe that nothing needs to change, but I do think that some of their critics have been cherry picking the evidence against farming. So here’s another random article that landed in my inbox today.  This one is another defence of traditional mixed farming over and against feedlots and chemicals.  I found it very interesting although I can’t vouch for all the data it’s based on.  But whatever solution we reach for has simply got to gain the support of farmers and landowners if it’s going to work. I have no confidence in the capacity of the present government to challenge its own funding sources so it’s going to have to be a battle for public opinion.  The information, all of it, is out there and we need to collate and understand what it’s saying and not reach for scapegoats to carry the blame. The future of life on the earth depends upon us reaching the correct conclusion and then acting on it.

 

No hiding place

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Well not for this group of overwintering snails in Cornwall. The ivy, behind which they had been dry and cosy, was stripped off by estate workers and they were oblivious to the danger they were in from the local birds – just a matter of time before they became a lucky break for a hungry predator. Our camping pitch was home for abundant numbers of very tame rooks and it was amazing to hear what a wide range of vocalisations they had – perched, as they were, only feet away from the campervan. I guess it’s just a matter of standing still for as long as it takes to fully engage with the natural world. I always feel a bit sorry for the runners and cyclists who treat the bridle paths as speedway tracks – they don’t know what they’re missing.

But not knowing what you’re missing has a darker side because when we depopulate our minds of the the ordinary everyday wildlife; or when we’ve never experienced the sheer fun of naming the plants and trees, we’re less likely to miss them when they’re not there any more, and in an age like our own, getting to know what’s there becomes a moral issue.

These days I seem to be reading more and more angry words, and I’m constantly being exhorted to give something or other up for the sake of the planet – and almost  always it’s couched in emotional terms. If I eat meat at all I must be in favour of animal suffering – but if I talk about veganism I’m a lentil headed moron.  Plastic ? no plastic? dig? no-dig? What to wear, where to take my holidays and how to get there, shop local  …… and so it goes on. And all this effort is towards saving the planet about which most of us know next to nothing. Is it any surprise that talk of a climate emergency or an ecological disaster has almost no impact on our behaviour. We don’t feel scared because we don’t quite know what it is we’re about to lose and in our (ideologically trained) hearts we still believe that we can all get richer and more productive because we’re the cleverest species who’ve ever lived on the earth and we always come out on top – don’t we?

So here’s a suggestion. Take a walk – it’s almost spring now so there are lots of plants about to burst into life – and name as many as you can.  This isn’t about spotting ghost orchids, it’s about the most ordinary things you’ve probably walked past thousands of times without paying attention. If you can’t walk far, check out a few pavement cracks and stone walls.  The most important part of this exercise is not to show off but to understand just how little we know about ordinary plants, living heroic lives against the onslaught of strimmers, chemicals, dogs pee, drought and storm. Spend a season discovering that coltsfoot, cats ear, hawkweed, hawkbit and all their relatives are not dandelions after all. Do some bird watching but don’t buy a fancy pair of binoculars, a bird book and drive to a reserve somewhere; stand and listen very quietly – what’s that bird outside the flat? – does it care about the noise of the traffic? Find a moth that looks exactly like a twig.  Let’s be even more contentious – what breed are those sheep? those cattle?

I promise that once you’ve made the resolution not to pass up on things you don’t recognise and can’t name, your life will change completely. You’ll never be lonely again because the plants you pass will be friends; you laboured to get to know their names and so they really matter.  You know pretty much where they live and when you’ll be able to catch up again next season – this is all about ordinary everyday things, not national rarities. The thing is, species disappear when we don’t know they’re there. Our grandchildren may never hear a cuckoo, and they’ll almost certainly never hear a nightingale – ordinary everyday birds that disappeared because of what we’re doing to the environment. Last summer we were driving along an absurdly exposed and narrow road in the Yorkshire Dales, almost on the border with Cumbria. We were accompanied for best part of half a mile by half a dozen lapwing flying directly in front of us like a red arrows display team. You don’t forget moments like that, and you’re far more likely to get involved when their very existence is threatened.

So don’t get despondent or confused about what we’re supposed to do in this unrecognised crisis – there’s plenty of advice out there and some of it is even sensible! Be cautious of evangelically inclined interest groups, lobbyists, commercial interests and all the rest but also give then a fair hearing, especially if you don’t agree with them.  The best way to conduct a campaign is to know your enemy better than they know themselves. Shouting drives people into their comfort zones but quiet persistence and empathy really can change peoples minds.  But above all, know what it is we’re trying to save – name it, treasure it – because it’s not an abstract concept we’re trying to defend, it’s family and household to us  – the only family and the only household we have. Love and hold the ordinary and everyday close to your heart, and the survival of the earth can be achievable.