The earthy spirituality of the allotment

So yesterday I completed the new raised strawberry bed in a bit of a rush because the weather forecast was predicting a week of rain. It was in the same place as the two glass cold frames that were stolen last year, so I just used the same board foundations. However, the business end – ie. the new planting surface – is about two feet higher than the old frames, and the idea of simply burying all that topsoil was too much to bear (about £150 to replace) so I dug it out, down to the subsoil, and moved the good stuff on to two nearby beds. I’ve got a bit of a ‘thing’ about never wasting soil. When we moved on it was very poor after years of neglect, and covered with not one but two layers of buried carpet. The official description of the soil is ‘clay loam’ but that hardly described the waterlogged and claggy mess that we inherited. The previous owner had assured us that the ground was hopeless and nothing would grow on it – but he’d failed to investigate beyond the top three or so inches, so he never figured out why it was so bad. We’ve also got two underground streams running through the middle and along one edge of the plot, so you can see that soil management became the number one priority.

When building an allotment on quite a steep slope as ours is, terracing is the obvious answer. Initially we dug deep trenches to form the wood chip paths which function (quite successfully) as drains, and threw the topsoil up on to the beds, so it’s hardly rocket science to point out that left us with rather sunken ‘raised beds’. Over the last four years we’ve added tons of compost, brought in topsoil, leafmould and, in the wettest places, agricultural sand and gravel to increase the depth and improve drainage; and the upshot is that every ounce of topsoil has become precious, with nothing ever going off site. Now, after four years, the beds are level and uniformly deep (a full spit and more of rich dark earth) and we’ve managed to steer a middle path between too much and too little drainage. The driest areas are at the bottom of the plot where the retaining boards are 18″ deep and the drainage must be quite fierce.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and without any intention of conducting an experiment, Madame recently shoved a few desperately weedy looking Swiss chard plants into one of the plots because there was a space, and they just roared away. Now they look like veg catalogue supermodels. The empty strawberry bed is waiting for me to dig out the new pond, and all the subsoil from the big hole will go into the base of the raised bed where we’ll cover it with a layer of woodchip, followed by a mixture of compost, topsoil and sand. I’ve heard experts say that woodchip increases acidity and locks up nitrogen, disrupting fertility for ages. They also say that leaf mould does much the same thing and I can only respond by saying – not in my experience. Wood chip rots down pretty quickly on the paths, and whenever I dig into it I always find an abundance of earth worms in the degraded layer. As for leaf mould, the soil is hungry and will consume all the leaf mould we can produce. Indeed when we moved on we covered several of the beds with six inches of leaves straight off the trees and covered them with sheeting. By the spring they’d all disappeared, taken down by the worms, and the soil texture was greatly improved. If I put on my potter’s hat for a moment, leaves and wood from different species all have different chemical characteristics and Chinese potters exploited this to control their glazes – some leaves rot fast and others don’t. It’s life’s rich tapestry and the lignin in the leaves is the resistant residue that does wonders for soil structure. In our experience both wood chip and leaf mould make excellent mulches; they don’t however, add much by way of fertility so plants still need compost and any other food you care to use. The exception might be raw seaweed, straight off the beach and, stinky though it may be, rots down quickly and adds some very valuable minerals to the soil. In the photograph top left, beyond the stolen cold frames is the asparagus bed. It produced so freely in the summer that we (almost) got fed up with eating it. But that too needs lots of compost and a good mulch. Two years ago we brought an enormous sack of seaweed back and mulched the bed and the asparagus and the soil both loved it. The bed was so smelly when we spread the seaweed that our neighbour packed up and went home.

There’s no magic ingredient or secret recipe, heritage variety or anything else you can market that makes good produce. It’s about soil.

Press here for the politics!

The soil is the beginning and the end of it all. When I look at some of the impoverished stony waste that much industrially farmed land has become and watch farmers struggling to force one more harvest out of it with ever more powerful chemicals, I’m sad rather than angry. Having worked in rural parishes for 25 years I grew to admire and respect the farmers I knew, even though I profoundly disagreed with the path they’d taken. It was the British government that started the madness during and after the war by driving productivity at the expense of everything else. Industrial chemical manufacturers were left with nothing to sell after the use nerve gases was banned and so they repurposed their factories and their research departments to make insecticides and herbicides. Then the supermarkets bludgeoned the farmers into a downward spiral of land abuse and falling prices aided by industry lobbyists acting as advisers. Finally the CAP made everything even worse by subsidising quite the wrong things. How did this all happen without a fuss? Well maybe the way in which government ministers are offered ludicrous amounts of money to work a few hours as corporate ‘advisors’ in these industries when they leave government has something to do with it. It’s not corrupt in the most direct sense. Nobody is suggesting that the big companies actually bribe government ministers, but surely the prospect of huge corporate earnings after a career in parliament, acts as an incentive not to annoy the future paymasters? In the case of the defense industry it’s even easier – you just let them drive a tank and they’re yours forever!

In the end, as the Ash Wednesday ceremonies have it – we are dust and to dust we’ll return -glorious, holy, space dust (you don’t have to be religious to see this) living in all our infinite diversity on the thinnest of layers on the surface of the earth. Every atom in our bodies has been circulating since the big bang in a myriad of forms, both animate and inanimate because the earth wastes nothing – nothing that is until the human race came along and imagined in our hubristic way, that it was all put there by some beneficent God (insert variety here) who put it all there for our exclusive use and pleasure.

And that thin layer, the ecosphere on which all our futures and possibilities are rested, is dying. Everything we know or have ever known or loved and treasured has come out of that vulnerable crust of soil.

And that’s why the allotment is – in the broadest and least sectarian manner – holy. Allan Ginsberg (and Patti Smith) were right. This is urgent!

Here’s one that the devil got to.

Succisa pratensis – Devils Bit

Sorry, it’s not the best photo ever but today the blog is held together, if it holds at all, by the photos. We were out walking the clifftop today. The sky was a colour I’ve always thought of as ‘china blue’ and I’ve never known until very recently why that name fitted this particular sky so perfectly but it came to me – as these things do – that it’s very like the pale blue of some Chinese blue and white pottery. I have to say ‘some’ because although all ceramic blues come from cobalt, the colour was sourced from different minerals that contained other elements, for instance manganese, which subtly affects the colour. For most potters since the 19th century, blue meant – well, darkish cobalt blue; but for thousands of years the Chinese had valued this colour for its almost spiritual quality and equally valued the various hues to be got from minutely different sources. Manganese, for the sake of an illustration, when mixed with cobalt might well yield a colour not unlike the devils bit at the top of the page. Goodness what glorious ceramic piece it was that took up residence in my mind; and neither do I recall where I might have seen it but it lodged there as the colour of the autumn sky; faintly milky but infinitely deep, and which is a feature of the sea sky and big wide estuaries. China Blue it will always be, so I’ve capitalised it to nail the point.

Anyway, there it is – autumn, the Irish sea stirred up by a blustery South Easterly and more birds than you could shake a stick at – greater black backed gulls, herring gulls, black headed gulls, common tern (I’m pretty sure), shag, kestrel, swallows, turnstone, oystercatcher, meadow pipit, rock pipit. We sat and watched them, especially the tern which – now we’ve got them in our heads – are more and more interesting to watch; diving like gannets but delicately and acrobatically, aborting a dive at the last moment and turning in the air to resume their patrol.

But everywhere along this northern coast of the peninsula are signs of abandonment: collapsing corrugated iron sheds flapping noisily in the wind, rusting gear and capstans half buried in the sand at the head of abandoned slipways. All landscapes have this capacity to hold their histories written in heaps and mounds, or walls and chimneys. This particular landscape is rich in earthworks that could be ancient but more likely are the leavings of attempts to drain the marshy ground inland from the sea. An abandoned customs lookout reminds us that this area was once frequented by sail-coasters crossing from Ireland, which is so close here that our mobiles have, once or twice, tried to connect to Irish phone masts. Roaming here can be costly.

The largest farms are replete with the latest technology – one in particular with hostile warnings about entering what looked like a small industrial site. Others – the ones that haven’t converted all their outbuildings to holiday cottages – look careworn and shabby; needing a lot more than a lick of paint. This is traditional farming practised under the constant threat of the bailiffs – you can smell it in the air – fishing, shipbuilding, coastal trade and farming all slowly sinking. A late boom in tourists might not be enough to mitigate the effects of coronavirus and a hard brexit.

But to get back to the beginning, the devils bit has a good back story. Until the nineteenth century it had a big reputation for its healing qualities, and the tale goes that it was so good that the devil intervened and bit off part of its root to prevent the people being healed – you can see where this is going. So here’s another photograph – same walk, same sky and this time it’s a large roofless and abandoned enclosure.

Cofiwch dryweryn – again!

Of course, with one door gone, you wouldn’t necessarily recognise it but there it is again; the same militant slogan and probably the same graffiti artist but this time half of the door has been battered off by the storms and now the gateway to nowhere is blocked by a huge pile of plastic jetsam awaiting collection. The fruits of another unfolding tragedy.

I wrote a couple of days ago that if I were a Welsh voter I’d be thinking hard about independence and after I’d pressed the ‘send’ button I wondered if I’d thought this through clearly. Trust me, readers punish me if I overstep the mark and for 24 hours I waited for some kind of reaction. With this blog it’s as clear as a bell; the numbers drop – I can almost hear the screens being slammed shut. But – on the other hand – we’ve got to think about these difficult issues, and this blog is about being human and not necessarily being perfect. If I thought there was a solution to our current multifaceted crisis – the collapse of species diversity, uncontrolled global heating, gross pollution, poverty and unemployment, homelessness, the disappearance of whole cultures (it’s not just the Amazon we need to worry about) and the relentless gathering of wealth into fewer and fewer hands – if I thought there was any way of addressing this without speaking out and making people feel uncomfortable – then I’d give up and do field botany.

Being fully human isn’t a part-time job and it involves some agonising dilemmas. Looking at the lonely nationalist slogan and the accompanying pile of rubbish today forced me to realise that the only way we’ll ever save the earth from our own behaviour is to draw together, not split apart. The present governance of the Western world is kept alive by division. Common goods are all too easily destroyed – like the roots of devils bit in the telling story. Where our few leftover treasures and cultural possessions, languages, memories and stories stand in the way of profit, they are excised, and the more we can be persuaded that the cause of all our problems is those Welsh, or those Scots or those English or those refugees or those Europeans or whatever other separated scapegoat for the disastrously wrong turn the human race took after the 1950’s; the easier it is for them to pick us off one group at a time. So to answer my own question in an epically convoluted way – no I wouldn’t be campaigning for devolution I’d be campaigning for change, for a functioning democracy that gives us all representation.

One flower I haven’t mentioned is yarrow – there’s lots of it in flower on the cliff tops here. Traditionally yarrow stalks were used in the casting of the I Ching. I’ve got a set at home, gathered for that purpose decades ago and as I passed a plant today with all this swirling around in my mind I remembered that the whole ethos of this ancient art – it’s called divination pejoratively as if it were like reading tea leaves- is to seek the path of balance. Good government doesn’t comprise conning everyone into thinking they can have what they want. When balance is achieved, when we work in harmony with the Tao that calls the ‘ten thousand things’ -including the ‘hawkish’ plant below, the hair grass bending to the wind, and the chamomile – into being, then we thrive.

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.

The thick history merry go round

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Roman, medieval, Georgian and modern in one picture

Since Willsbridge Mill (Saturday 25th, ‘Joining the dots’)  – I can’t get settled. I’ve been living on online searches, in books, photographs and maps of the hundred or so square miles in which I’ve lived the greater part of my life and it’s a truly immersive experience. The great thing about a blog is that no-one expects it to be great literature unless it’s a Joycean kind of stroll through the weather of life. Aside from taking out the odd word, turning it in my hand and either discarding it or giving it a bit of a polish and setting it back in the wall, I don’t anguish too much.  It’s obsessive, for sure but only in the sense that it sharpens my collector’s instinct, and so I carry a notebook and a phone camera to record the things that strike me. If there’s any sort of metaphysic behind the Potwell Inn it’s the fact that I believe there’s nothing more extraordinary than the ordinary, the old William Blake poem that urges us:

To see a world in a grain of sand. And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour.

That’s just about it.  I call it Muckyannydinny Lane, the place where everything and nothing happens.  Where the ordinary is suddenly but never more than momentarily revealed and sets up its home in the imagination. Not great thoughts but the pocket lint and bus tickets that accumulate on our journey. 

But sometimes, the ordinary of  “today, here, in this place”  is inflected by an intuition of the history.  The thin, linear description of the way things are around here suddenly thickens – as it did when I wrote about the South Gloucestershire Coalfield and mentioned Handel Cossham’s name.  As I typed it I remembered Brandy Bottom, the pit he owned, and which was joined underground to Parkfield, the pithead where I played and sometimes peered down the shaft to see hart’s tongue fern sprouting from the walls into the gathering darkness. Cossham built a hospital and endowed a community hall, but he employed children – small children – to drag the coal trucks to the bottom of the shaft in the confined spaces of the mine. I went looking for Brandy Bottom a few years ago and found the abandoned buildings almost covered with ivy.  It’s being restored now – “The most perfect remains of a Victorian mine in the UK” – they say, but I was haunted by the ghosts of those children. As I stood there, transfixed by the thickening of the air, I knew that in some dimension the old mine was still functioning, the children were still there, pale skinned and blackened with coal dust. Children were even cheaper than ponies in those days. The practice of using them wasn’t ended because it was wicked in itself, but because the Victorian moralists thought they might get up to things, wicked sexual things down there in the darkness. Seems like Victorian thick history was different from mine. 

And so the landscape here has suddenly deepened to include what’s beneath;  the coal measures and the wealth and cruelty they created, the surface farmland which has become the scene of another, later, despoliation under intensive farming, and during which – since my childhood – whole species have disappeared, and then above the fields the atmosphere which has become so polluted by the burning of hydrocarbons that in summer, during prolonged sunny periods, a yellowish photochromic haze forms. 

Here in my imagination today I might easily see a steam train running in to Green Park Station across the river.  I might encounter Mr King, the retired miner, walking back from Parkfield before it closed in the 1930’s, and making for his allotment above the railway tunnel at the end of our garden. I might see lapwing in the fields, or pass a horse and cart taking milk or cream down to the station incline.  And does this inflected, ‘thick’ sense of being human intuit the future as well? What’s going on there beneath the bright surface of the present? It’s like fishing. You have no idea what’s going on beyond the reflections on the water aside from experience of how it was before. You might see the float bob, or sense a tug on the line but it might be caught on a shopping trolley for all you know. 

Last time I fished here, in thick history, I think to myself –  humans were selfish, greedy, unfeeling creatures who found it hard to accept responsibility for their actions.  Is that the future? We were all raised on the idea that the industrial revolution had brought us into a new age of prosperity but it never occurred to us that we would suffocate in the fumes of its success. Handel Cossham lives on, but his mines were sold in 1900 and his money is probably invested in India or some other place where the state doesn’t take much interest in poverty or child labour; and the supreme gold-standard irony is that we came to believe that the industrialisation of the Southern hemisphere was a kind of human right.  That the poor people of India deserved the right to be evicted from their farmland so that more factories could be built, more wealth extracted from the earth – because it was better for them to live in megacities scratching a living on rubbish tips.  

We have seen the enemy – it is us