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.

First frost – bang on time

 

Or at least, bang on time as long as two consecutive years make a trend. Cropping French beans in the autumn is always going to be a bit speculative, and although we’ve had a few feeds off these and another batch, last night’s frost was enough to do for them. A year ago we’d had the coldest October for many years and this year it’s been the wettest, all of which is completely symptomatic of global heating. Twenty years ago we could entertain ourselves with thoughts of a Mediterranean climate but now we are begining to grasp that what we’ve inherited from our destructive behaviour is extreme and destructive weather.  Last night the temperature on our north facing  second floor window ledge went down to 4.5C, and when I looked out of the window as soon as the sun came up I could see frost on the green outside. When we got up to the allotment the beans had succumbed. However this year we were ahead of the game, and so any other tender plants have been moved under cover or harvested and stored.  This has produced a great deal of material for composting and we’d been slightly concerned that the heap wasn’t heating very well, largely due to the ingress of rain. But adding a lot of cardboard, turning it roughly and chopping the waste by getting on top of the heap with a spade have all helped. Along with a few handfuls of fish blood and bone sprinkled  with the wood ash from our incinerator, the heap was heating up fast today and we’ll resist resist adding any more material until we can turn it all into the next bay and start afresh.

The window boxes are due to be changed too, and so today we swapped the first couple with new ones planted up with spring bulbs. It doesn’t make much of a photograph, but gardeners have a lovely knack of seeing beyond the bare facts into the future.  To me those neat boxes, covered with gravel to stop the mud splashing up aganst the windows, are a promissory note for the future, and it won’t be long before the green shoots appear. We’ll strip out any of the existing plants in the summer boxes that can be saved, divided or propagated and get them ready for next summer. Any spare or spent earth and growing medium goes straight on to the allotment.

The wisdom of converting to raised beds really came home today.  After so much rain, in the past we’d have struggled to do any work at all on the wet ground – but now it’s easy, and the no dig regime means that we just loosen any weeds and pull them out carefully. The beds themselves are often firm enough to step on without fear of compressing the soil too much. Weeding, and the raking up of any green material that’s lying around isn’t just cosmetic. Slugs feed on decaying matter and the less food we leave lying around for them the better.

This morning the christmas cake emerged from its wallpaper hat and went into a cupboard wrapped in greaseproof paper and ready to be fed with a little brandy whenever I think about it. Maybe this year I’ll actually get to ice it, but it takes ages and costs a fortune for the marzipan, and I’ve noticed that the family often peel the icing off and leave it on the plate because it’s so sweet. Madame and me, however, love to share a flask of tea and a slice of Christmas cake up on the allotment on cold winter days.  As soon as I’ve sent this post I’ll be back in the kitchen making Christmas puds – so then all the preparations are done and we can concentrate on everything else we want to do. There’s never a dull moment at the Potwell Inn.

 

Trouble with the bogs

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The Potwell Inn has moved briefly to a new location in Cornwall which is very beautiful but could be described as KB/sec land. More pictures tomorrow but the connection speed is agonisingly slow and whether this will ever appear I don’t yet know! I’m aware some readers would rather I confined myself to the sort of sourdough/allotment/wildlife topics that often feature in the blog.  I love writing them too, but there are some issues that haunt me and what follows is one of them.

On Monday we had the first of the Bath Natural History Society indoor meetings and heard Prof David Goode talk on “the ecology and conservation of bogs”. If you ever thought of a specialist talking about bogs might be a bit dry (couldn’t resist that one) then think again. In fact don’t just think again, grab a magnifer, take a trip to a bog somewhere near you and take a really close-up look at some mosses – they’re really beautiful, colourful, and it seems extremely important, especially at this moment of ecological crisis.

Mosses aren’t just a bunch of plants, they create their own ecosystems by acidifying and adding phenolic compounds to the water they’re growing in and so create exactly the kind of anaerobic conditions which prevent rotting, thereby preserving Tollund Man and millions of tons of carbon in perpetual storage without the intervention of a single yet-to-be-made invention. Even better they have a bunch of structural but dead cells called hyaline cells which resemble tiny bladders that can store up to 26 times their dry weight in water. All of which means that blanket bog is better at storing carbon than the Amazon rain forests, good news because the UK has 13% of the world’s blanket bogs.

At this point, and in fairness to Prof David Goode, I should say that the message I took away from his excellent talk and the way in which I’m going to develop it, is entirely my responsibility.

While we are pleased to sign petitions aimed at foreign dictators and multinational companies who are enabling the destruction of the Amazon rainforests are we guarding our own precious home-grown carbon stores – the blanket  bogs of the UK?

Well sadly we’re not.

When you drain a bog – possibly by abstracting water to drain it for farming, or in order to create a better environment for commercial grouse shooting, it begins to die.  It dies even quicker when the blanket bog is deliberately drained and burned so a very few extremely wealthy people can get to shoot wild birds. We less privileged mortals are only just beginning to turn away from using peat in our gardens, so you can’t reduce this problem entirely to wealth and privilege.

On grouse moors the bogs themselves are degraded and depleted whilst any creature remotely threatening the grouse is trapped, poisoned or shot. The upshot only adds to the catastrophic loss of wildlife on these habitats, while the depletion of the massive water storage capacity of the bogs results in more run-off into rivers and dangerous flooding downstream.  In addition, as the bog conditions disappear all that stored carbon as well as methane is released back into the atmosphere to wind up the ratchet of the same global heating that is already helping to dry out bogland across the world. Peat extraction has the same effect, and I was astonished to learn that in the past it has been burnt as a fuel in power stations.

So here is a terrifying figure.  The earth’s remaining area of near natural peatland stores more than 550 gigatonnes of carbon, representing 42% of all soil carbon.  The hotter the earth gets the more of this carbon is going to be released into the atmosphere, along with millions of tonnes of methane from the melting permafrost.

Some people are advocating planting trees to stabilize the climate but this is something of a scientific mirage because a tree only stores carbon during the period it’s growing. Let’s imagine for the sake of argument we planted 100 million trees tomorrow.  For the next 25 or perhaps 50 years they would take carbon out of the atmosphere but once they die, or are felled, we would have to use the timber as a building material to preserve its carbon storing integrity, or bury it deep in the earth under controlled conditions.  I suppose eventually (over geological time, that is), it would turn into coal which would at least be stable as long as we left it there in the ground. But any talk of bio-fuels or renewable energy based on burning wood or plant material is a chimera because without yet-to-be-invented methods of carbon capture, these supposed renewable fuels are as dangerous as any other hydrocarbon fuel.

Let’s get real about this. There is no way that we can avert the related disasters of global heating and species extinction and keep living the way we do. I’m fascinated at the psychological mechanisms we unwittingly deploy to ignore the warnings.  I wrote recently about the psychology of grieving which, I think, plays a part. There’s also the fact that we don’t experience directly or immediately the effects of our behaviour. It took decades for cigarette smoking to reduce because hardly anyone died immediately of lung cancer.  The same goes for drinking too much; it’s most insidious property is its plausible deniability.  People rarely die of asthma attacks right alongside the queuing traffic jams  on London Road (Bath) and its all too easy to think something like “my little car won’t make much difference”.

But there’s another way of looking at our behaviour, and that’s our attitude to moral wrongs. Let’s suppose there’s a crowd of people in a room with a table in the centre on which stands a bowl of sweets with a notice that reads “please don’t take the sweets”. In a crowd, where wrongdong is hard to get away with without invoking peer disapproval, we’re more inclined to do the right thing.  But imagine that same crowd of people passing through the room one at a time with no-one observing them. I’d wager that more than a few sweets would disappear. Social disapproval is a powerful force for behavioural change, and so if we really want to stop people buying those enormous 3 litre gas guzzlers  we need to express our disapproval. Nobody wears a real mink coat these days expecting a round of applause. That’s not to argue that a voluntary code will be sufficient. In the end, our strategies for dealing with this crisis will have to be enshrined in law, because the current beneficiaries of ‘the way we do things round here’ are not going to give up their privileges without a fight. By adopting the principle of making the polluter pay and only subsidising activities that bring definable public goods, our present unsustainable and dangerous lifestyle would have to change.

The impact of neo-liberalism isn’t confined to financial markets, it’s insinuated itself into our cultural bloodstream to the point where we can’t think straight about the environment. Somehow, flying across the Atlantic in an aeroplane or feeding fillet steak to your dog is regarded as a ‘freedom’ whereas breathing fresh air, drinking unpolluted water, listening to a turtle dove, having a roof over your head and a rewarding job with a modest but sufficient income is a burden on society.

So – just now, bogland has absolutely no rights, but if it disappears we disappear too. So I’m not trying to enter the hideously technical argument as to whether any non-sentient being can have rights.  My argument is simpler and suggests that my rights, our rights as flourishing human beings are contingent upon the flourishing of the biosphere. That’s not a lump of sphagnum moss at the top of this post, it’s a life support system!

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Storm passing over Mount’s Bay. St Michaels Mount is just visible in the centre

 

 

 

Please God – no more tomatoes!

Just two trays of green tomatoes left to ripen, thank goodness and the cupboard is absolutely jammed with sauces, relishes, passata and now chutney.  I cannot look another tomato in the eye.

Blogging can get awfully repetitive, I fear.  There must be a limit to the patience of longsuffering followers when I enlarge yet again on the tomato.  It’s been a long season and I’ve entirely run out of things to say, but just imagine how much worse it would be if I was a dairy farmer – day after day when nothing much happens except milking the cows. “Daisy looked a bit off colour today” is even less interesting when Daisy is reduced to a number. The whole enterprise of blogging is an encouragement to big-up the achievements at the expense of the truth. “Finished seventh novel today, quick photo shoot with Vogue to model my latest line in dungarees and wellingtons”.

My days really can be a bit boring, apart from the fact that I’m rarely bored by the same thing more than a couple of times a month. I’ve often enough written about the rather sacramental quality to cooking and gardening, but the impact of that internality is the need to explain what’s going on inside my head while I cut up onions or dig potatoes. Revelations, unique insights and life enhancing lessons only crop up rarely and there’s essentially nothing external to look at, or describe.  The photo at the top of the page next to the unmentionable bottles of GTC is of Madame’s Grandmother’s collection of recipes.  As it happens it’s a recipe for tomato sauce which, being a wartime recipe, has the tomatoes bulked out by a whisked egg and some breadcrumbs to make it go further. Its only connection with today’s activities is the slender thread that connects our lives to hers – and it’s a good feeling to honour the past even by completely ignoring this particular lesson.  I’ve never been tempted to make parsnip cordial either. Much ordinary life is just same-old same-old, – except it’s not, because it’s the lived experience of being human and that’s a wonderful thing even when it looks a bit boring….

So today we dug the last potatoes, hopefully enough to keep us going for a few months. We scrumped an apple off a tree on an abandoned allotment (photo), and I cooked venison meatballs in T sauce (sorry). One of our neighbours beamed at us in the street, and we saw a man from the Christadelphians carrying a crate of cups and saucers out of their meeting room. I saw a gluten free pizza being cooked – it looked truly horrible – and we feasted on a few chocolate marshmallows – see what I mean?  Step away from the blog please, there’s nothing going on here.

IMG_6186All this, of course is displacement activity because what I ought to be doing is reminding you how important the latest “State of Nature” report is and explaining why it might be that these peaches were rotten before they were ripe, but that would involve an elaborate reconstruction of their immersion in gases, their interminable journey at low temperatures in large ship-borne containers or giant lorries. The fact is, they’re on the compost heap right now along with a big pile of cardboard that took ages to tear up into small pieces.  It’s essential to add plenty of carbon to a compost heap and that’s a bit of luck because one of our neighbouring flats has been refurbished and we’ve been able to recycle heaps of cardboard from the newly delivered white goods.  The downside is that the old and probably functional items were simply stacked in the basement and when we kicked up a fuss with the management company, the guilty party just dumped the rest in the road outside.

I may be a bit more grumpy than usual because living, as we do, in a block of flats with a high turnover of tenants means we get the odd nuisance upstairs.  Yesterday we spent all day listening to them having a noisy time until about midnight when all went quiet – only (it turned out) because they went out clubbing and came back at about 4.00am and started all over again. Childishly we retaliated this morning by turning two radios up to full volume in the hope of spoiling their lie-in. Did I ever claim to be a saint?

So that’s it – another ordinary day at the Potwell Inn – but we got some stuff done, we’re prepared a little better for the winter and for the clusterf**ck that is about to be visited upon us and I cling to the tiny hope that this is all a bad dream and that we won’t need those wartime recipes after all.  But then, did the Romans who built this bath house in Ravenglass ever imagine that within a couple of decades they’d be on the boat home. Wherever that is?IMG_6019

 

“Not now George?”

With thanks to Joyce Grenfell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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