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.

Believing and belonging

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” – on Karl Marx’ gravestone.

I have met some people for whom even the mention of Karl Marx would lead to the paroxysms of tooth grinding and frothing, so for the sake of sanity, and to save anyone the bother of frothing, the quotation is not a wholesale endorsement of  everything Marx said or wrote; but he’s an important thinker and deserves better than being wildly misquoted at every turn.

So simply knowing that there are some people in government who think that demonstrating against environmental damage and species extinction amounts to a form of terrorism is a chilling thought. Just as a ludicrous overreaction, it could be laughed off if it weren’t backed up by hard state power. I’m quite sure that there are many more people in this country and across the world who believe the evidence that a global catastrophe is looming up on us but feel powerless in the face of the ideological onslaught that tells us every day, and in a million subtle ways, that there is no alternative. Since the brexit referendum and in particular since the UK general election I no longer listen to news broadcasts and I don’t read the newspapers which are part of the problem. I choose my sources carefully and I try as best I can to verify what they’re saying – especially if I really want their stories to be true. As a result I have no idea who the members of the Cabinet are, for instance, but I’ve a pretty good hunch that they’re a dangerous bunch of charlatans and chancers.

Which is all very well except it raises the dilemma of how to respond effectively in a particularly challenging way. Let’s assume that there’s no point in writing letters about it to MP’s who, it seems to me, have no horizon beyond the next election or being appointed to profitable directorships. Successive prime ministers have learned the art of ignoring demonstrations, however huge, and convincing themselves that they know what “the people” are thinking even when best part of a million of them are walking peacefully past the houses of commons suggesting that they don’t. The principal opposition parties all seem to be clutching their favourite parts of a potential policy jigsaw but refuse to collaborate with anyone else in order to put something workable together. Waking up every day feeling powerless and lonely is a bad place to be.

I’ve always been a bit sniffy about direct personal action. I’d wonder – sometimes out loud – how wearing organic cotton T shirts or making your own soap was supposed to change the world. I suppose in part it’s my age, what with being a first generation hippie and seeing our dreams of a better world crushed relentlessly. I’ve written before about my own moment of enlightenment at a free festival in Bath, when I saw a young mother scraping the crap off her baby’s nappy against the only standpipe and water tap on the site. People have always misunderstood St Augustine when he said “love and do what you will” What he meant was that if you love, then you will make better moral choices – like, for instance, not threatening hundreds of people with salmonella because you can’t be arsed to clean your baby up safely.

Although the language changes, selfishness, greed and idolatry – in our case the worship of profit and the neoliberal economy – have always been the real problem. That’s my belief and it brings me no comfort whatever. Even if I were able to convince millions of people that my belief is correct, it wouldn’t do anything to get us off this self destructive path.  The only way to do that is to change our behaviour and – I’m finally beginning to understand – that it begins with me. It may not change the world if I wear an organic cotton T shirt or eat more veg, but if I do –  I’m part of the solution and not part of the problem. Change from the bottom up is the only show in town now and we at the Potwell Inn have been thinking about it for ages.  The allotment, our diet, our choices when we replace our worn out clothes, the way we get about, how we wash and what we wash with, what goes down the sink, how effectively we recycle – all these things are part of the fight back. I suppose you could say “that’s just virtue signalling”  – I’ve said the same many times as a defence against changing.

The most encouraging thing is that when we change our own lives we inevitably start to interact with other people who are doing the same thing. Just like the way you notice when you’ve got a baby on the way that the world is full of pregnant women, so it is that the allotment site is full of people who feel the same way about organic farming and gardening. Today we were continuing our search in Bath for somewhere we could buy food staples without packaging, and reading the small print on the back of re-chargeable shampoo bottles – it takes all sorts! – and we found just the shop we’d been looking for and it was like coming home.  We even met a fellow allotmenteer who works there.

The signpost in the photo at the top stands in a guerilla garden on Walcot Street and when I spotted it I felt the presence of a mass of people who also want to change the world. The new community crosses all the barriers that artificially divide us – age, gender, orientation WTF?

Any half decent evangelist, for any cause whatever, will understand that belonging is far more important than believing. Environmental change will happen when our collective imagination reaches the tipping point where not to change becomes unthinkable.  So the most powerful strategy for change in the face of a hostile government is having more fun, being better neighbours and refusing the limits that their edited version of human possibility try to impose on us. They’ll  tell us that we’ll only survive if we build a better machine, invent a new technology, build a higher wall. And we’ll show them what human flourishing really looks like. When you look at it that way there’s no contest.

 

Taking the fight to Australia

Today was the day of the cake stall that our seven year old grandson organised for the victims of the Australian bush fires, and in particular he was hoping to raise a substantial sum to support relief work for animals on Kangaroo Island.  He’s pretty dotty about wildlife in general and with an Australian mum he was totally focused on the task, ‘though being a proper pom I don’t know the first thing about Kangaroo Island except that it seems that it’s name doesn’t reflect that it’s the last stronghold of disease free koala bears.  I guess there must be quite a lot of kangaroos as well.  What’s clear is that the climate driven crisis in Australia has become a worldwide cause for environmentalists and animal lovers and it’s reached into the hearts of millions of British people as well.  The parents at his primary school really got on-side today and there were more cakes than you could shake a stick at but better still, hosts of customers willing to buy their own produce back at ridiculous prices, egged on by our grandson who was overheard telling one customer that ‘he didn’t do change’! All the teachers rallied round; the local firefighters turned up to support but then got called away to a fire and between them they all blew my estimate out of the water.  I thought he might make £50, but it looks as if there was over three hundred pounds in notes, so by the time the coins are counted it’s going to go to four hundred if not five.  What a magnificent effort for a seven year old! – even if it was with a bit of help from family and friends and especially Mum who was so nervous about today going well that she looked as if she’d burst into tears if anything went wrong.

I was despatched early this morning to go to a local catering supplier to get paper plates and I looked for paper bags as well, this being in response to an environmental crisis.  I managed to find ample supplies of compostable plates, but paper bags came in 250’s which made them rather pricey. I spotted some reusable paper bags treated with beeswax, sold in tens, but they would have cost twenty times more than the paper ones.  Tickets to the moral high ground are a bit pricey it seems. What was so encouraging was that people, dozens of people – many of them parents were getting it. It didn’t feel like our grandson was pushing at a door, it felt like he’d opened it and the people were pouring through.  I know we get very dispirited by governments and the media for propagating and apparently believing their own lies, but here were around a hundred parents and their children in an ordinary British primary school refusing to buy their guff. I don’t have the bottle to accuse a bunch of bright seven year olds of being ridiculous and idealistic because they’re our hope for the future or, for me perhaps, their future if they’re to have one.

So I really believe that today’s effort was one more small step in the right direction.  We can’t rely on national politics so we’ll ignore them and take on the task locally.

How do I finish off a day like today? Well, I wrote about my favourite breakfast of home made marmalade and home made sourdough, so here’s a picture. My cake baking efforts were unevenly received – I was up against some very stiff and colourful competition, so I bought back most of my cheese scones at a delightfully inflated price, but most of the blueberry muffins found a new home.

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There’s something happening here!

Last summer we made our first trip to Cumbria, driving from East to West across the country, very roughly following the route of the Coast to Coast Path. We stayed for a week in Ravenseat in a cottage that was actually on the path and then we moved on West, picking up on the A5086 at Cockermouth, through Frizington, Cleaton Moor, Egremont, Calder Bridge, Gosforth and finally Ravenglass, within sight of Seascale nuclear reprocessing plant. Although we’d never been to the area before, somehow the names of these villages seemed familiar and after a while I remembered why.  They were, or rather had been, mining villages.  Both coal and iron were mined there – the perfect combination for driving the industrial revolution. But not any more. It was quite depressing, in truth; there was a terrible air of dereliction hanging over the villages.  They looked sad, run down and depressed. There were many posters demanding brexit, St George flags – big ones – mounted on aluminium flagpoles at no little expense. Even a large sign outside Seascale announcing that we were on the “Energy Coast” seemed more ironic than triumphant.

If ever there was a living example of the coming crisis it was here, and I haven’t been able to shake it out of my mind since the summer. The results of the general election have only brought it back more strongly because this is where the paradoxes that caused the collapse of our present economics  are obvious to anyone who comes. Just as William Cobbett witnessed in his (1822 – 1826) Rural Rides –

The stack-yards down this valley are beautiful to behold. They contain from five to fifteen banging wheat-ricks, besides barley-ricks and hay-ricks, and also besides the contents of the barns, many of which exceed a hundred, some two hundred, and I saw one at Pewsey another at Fittleton, each of which exceeded two hundred and fifty feet in length. At a farm which, in the old maps; is called Chissenbury Priory, I think I counted twenty-seven ricks of one sort and another, and sixteen or eighteen of them wheat-ricks. I could not conveniently get to the yard without longer delay than I wished to make; but I could not be much out in my counting. A very fine sight this was, and it could not meet the eye without making one look round (and in vain) to see the people who were to eat all this food ; and without making one reflect on the horrible, the unnatural, the base and infamous state in which we must be, when projects are on foot, and are openly avowed, for transporting those who raise this food, because they want to eat enough of it to keep them alive; and when no project is on foot for transporting the idlers who live in luxury upon this same food; when no project is on foot for transporting pensioners, parsons, or dead-weight people!

The ‘pensioners’ that Cobbett mentions, by the way, are not senior citizens but recipients of government generosity for indefinable contributions to their continuance in power.

I was reading today that there is a proposal for a new deep mine in Whitehaven producing 2.5 million tonnes of coking coal a year and offering 500 new jobs.  The proposal was supported by Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians in the face of strong criticism from environmental groups.

So there’s the paradox. How can we deny these post industrial areas of high poverty the jobs that could put them back on their feet? “The coal is in the ground, why not take it out and sell it?” they say.  Are you weeping and gnashing your teeth yet? Are there no other less destructive occupations than releasing carbon into the atmosphere that could be encouraged? The challenge before us is to change a whole culture, and it’s no use coming up with endless strategies because – as any business consultant will tell you for a large fee – culture eats strategy for breakfast!  The culture in question has centuries of entrenchment under its belt – so much so that it’s become commonsensical to regard the earth’s resources as if they were created entirely for the enrichment of humans,  and without any value intrinsic to itself. To suggest that we might have to treat the earth as a partner smacks of tree hugging madness.

For years the evidence has piled up, and no-one took much notice, but now it’s the experience we’re getting. The rainwater that floods into valley towns and flood plains, ruining land and houses is not a theory.  The forest fires aren’t theories and the extreme weather isn’t a theory either. It’s not an academic exercise to encounter the diminishment of the soil and the declining yields that can only be propped up by more and more of the very chemicals that are causing the problem.  Massive increases in stress and diet related diseases aren’t theoretical and asthma resulting from atmospheric pollution isn’t a figment of some doom-monger’s imagination, neither is the mass extinction of insects, and it breaks my heart to see mainstream politicians waving through policies that will make things worse for the sake of a few votes in a run-down area. They should hang their heads in shame.

Meanwhile the very same interests who have conceived, promoted and benefited from the violation and destruction of the earth have taken complete control by driving their juggernaut through the ranks of the opposition because the opposition had no plans for anything except managing the destruction a little more ‘fairly’. There was no teaching, no vision, no genuine conversation with these depressed areas, just the odd hospital and road thrown their way in the hope it would be enough to stave off change. Our politics has shown itself to be no longer fit for purpose. Workington men and women, and millions of other disillusioned people voted from despair because no-one ever listened, nothing ever happened and no-one was offering a coherent picture of a way forward, the only show in town was a regression to the imaginary glory days. I can’t get that line of mining towns out of my head.  I took a school trip down Big Pit once, and I got chatting to a retired mine electrician at the pithead.  “you must miss it” – I said.  “Miss it?” he snorted – “I hated every bloody minute of it!”

Driving across Yorkshire to Cumbria we passed some of the prettiest and some of the most derelict areas in the UK. It’s collapsing, the whole political and economic structure is falling apart and the earth on which we depend utterly is screaming its distress at us. The threads of a new culture are there.  They lack all sorts of detail, but I think we now understand that our relationship with the earth has to be understood as a spiritual “I -Thou” relationship and not the “I- it” relationship of modernism.  I think we understand that people really matter, and that strong human community is as essential to us as air and water. I think we understand too that our politicians need to stop speaking and start listening more.  I’m not the only person who gets exasperated by being told what I believe by a person who’s never spoken to me. And I think that we understand that the fruits of the earth and of our labours must be more equitably shared.  It would be a crime of the highest order to export the crisis to the poorest people on earth in order to preserve our wasteful way of life. And finally we have to change ‘the way we do things round here’ – the way we grow and harvest, the way we eat and the way we enjoy our leisure. The people of Whitehaven deserve better – just not that kind of better.

So I’ll finish with some words from Roger Gottlieb from an essay entitled “Spiritual deep ecology and the Left: an attempt at reconciliation”  – I found it in the first edition of “This Sacred Earth” and I’m quoting it because I think we need to talk.

 

A fruitful exchange between deep ecology and the left, however, requires that adherents of both perspectives suspend  some entrenched prejudices. Leftists need to open themselves to the possibility that a spiritually oriented perspective might actually have something to teach them: in this case, something about the ultimate source of value in our lives and about limitations in our conventional sense of self. Deep ecologists, on the other hand, would do well to suspend their ahistorical arrogance about their own wisdom, their pretensions to being above or beyond political struggles and their too facile dismissal of left movements as unremitting agents of the exploitation of nature.

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Although committed to ending unjust systems and ending oppression, leftist or progressive political movements have often reproduced, rather than opposed, the conventional ego.  Classic liberalism emphasised personal rights, enshrined individual economic activity at the heart of its system, and believed the central purpose of society was to protect and further ownership and consumption.  Surely this will not help us face the environmental crisis.

Sadly, more “radical” political movements of the West – despite their emphasis on community, class or racial experience, and their attempt to generate an ethic of collective solidarity and struggle – have also too often presupposed an individualistic consumerist ego. The practical politics of the left have frequently aimed to provide more things, money, and prestige. They have too often represented the interests of one segment of the oppressed while claiming to represent all, and they have repeatedly failed to challenge the individualist premise that a higher standard of living will make for greater happiness. It has been a rare progressive party that called for less, not more, consumption – at least until the Green Parties of Europe came into being; and there has been little assertion that human fulfillment may be directly opposed to high -consumption lifestyles.”

Still crazy after all these years

IMG_20191118_162125I’m a little younger than Richard Mabey – I checked – and the courses of our respective lives have been very different, but there are bits that coincided too. I was reading the first of the short pieces in his book – “A Brush with Nature” last night.  Yesterday we were feeling a bit stir crazy after a morning in the flat so we went around to Toppings to check out their natural history section and then, because there was nothing that caught my eye, we wandered down to Waterstones where I found the book amongst an entire case of ‘nature writing’. I bought it because he’s never written a dud book.

The first of his concerns – about the (then) dearth of nature writing has, I think, been more than abundantly  addressed. There are shelves full of the stuff, some of them proper old potboilers of course, but some real and distinctive voices who have changed the way I see things.  I’m sure that if Richard Mabey and me could lay our lifetime bibliographies side by side we’d find they overlapped in many cases.  Yes I read Henry Williamson voraciously when I was young.  In fact I ploughed my way through all 15 volumes of  “A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight” and many of his other novels and books before an increasing sense of creepiness led me to the disturbing discovery of his right wing politics – and that was that, the affair was over. Yes, I’ll bet, to Richard Jefferies, Gilbert White, JA Baker, DH Lawrence, and all the others. I bought J W White’s “Bristol Flora”  although I couldn’t afford it, and I’m glad I did because I’ve spent many hours poring over it and remembering places, let alone plants, that no longer exist. Too many books to list – I’m a magpie – and could never say no to a second hand book that just might be useful one day

After we left art school we both found ‘temporary’ jobs in horticulture, Madame at Long Ashton Research Station where she assisted the Trials Officer, and me as a groundsman and bus driver at Clifton College. Working outdoors gave me the chance to look for plants, and even then I kept notebooks – I found one of them when we were moving house.  It was badly affected by wet, and the ink had run but there were sketches and even a couple of spore prints as well as yards of notes. It seemed, at the time, as if the natural world was static – what didn’t get done today could wait until tomorrow. I was loose in a library of botanical temptations that I could return to later, and so I could peep into a room, make a note of the location and vow to come back later when there was more time, many plants I didn’t have time to identify went on to the  back burner and now they’ve gone.

Because something’s changed and there is no more time – and of course we all know what it is. Environmental degradation, extinctions and the rapid onset of climate change have eaten through my to-do list, and because of it my whole mindset has changed. What might once have been presumed as the permanent features of nature have become fugitive pleasures. Each cuckoo might be the last I’ll ever hear, and the flash of iridescent blue flying low ahead of us on the canal might be the last kingfisher. The major key of reliable joys has modulated into the minor key of loss.  There are days when a walk feels like a day in a wartime clearing station, a sad search for survivors. Yes of course I can go and find some of them marooned in a reserve, complete with paths and fences and informative displays, a kind of zoo for threatened species, but I don’t care for zoos and where’s the fun if you already know it’s there?

Walking one day in Cornwall fifty years ago a heron took off from a pond just close to where we were.  My heart froze as this ancient looking creature cranked itself into the air and wheeled away. I’m not a twitcher.  I can’t imagine the mindset of one bridegroom whose wedding I took, and who I had to order not to bring his pager to church – “just one day off – please”  He once drove overnight to Scotland to join a throng of fellow twitchers watching some rare migrant.  Not my scene. My haunt is the ordinary, the everyday and my sadness is that it’s thinning out. I probably wouldn’t drive to Cornwall just to see a heron, but life without herons altogether would be immeasurably poorer.

We are less confident and  more strident because we’re losing the lyrical sense and it’s eating away at some immaterial part of our being. And yet there is room to hope because  those shelves of books in Waterstones are, in their own way, deeply subversive; for an attentive reader they’re just a step towards the resistance. The holy grail of nature writing today is not to bathe the reader in a glow of purposeless sentiment – not to provide stunning but ultimately sterile pictures of lovely things, but to challenge – to take the reader to the casualty clearing station and invite them to join the battle.