I like these tin tabernacles! They’re often so cold in winter that your breath freezes as it leaves your mouth – I know this from personal experience because I spent twenty eight years as a parish priest; twenty five of them looking after an ever growing number of country parishes; one of them so cold in January that we moved out of the church and into the parish hall every winter. The parish hall had all the facilities and charm of an abandoned nissen hut. This particular church in Cadgwith which can only be reached by a footpath, is part of a group of six that cover the whole eastern side of the Lizard peninsula and is presently looked after by one retired priest, one non-stipendiary priest, four licenced lay ministers and four churchwardens. That’s a stupendous workload for a conscientious team .
Losing your faith is as easy as mislaying your car keys. All it takes is a couple of conversations with a bishop whose concentration span makes a goldfish look clever, coupled with the gathering sense that the institution as a whole has not the faintest idea what it is supposed to be about. Finding some sort, any sort of working faith again is bit like finishing a jigsaw when three quarters of the pieces are missing, and an unknown number of the rest come from a different box. I’m now in the position of being thought to be heretical by most, if not all of the world’s major religions, and it’s a position I rather treasure! My standby and safe place is the saying – “the Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao.”
The rupture, though, is more procedural and more cerebral than profound. It was the organisation with its systematic theology and certainties and managerial ethos, along with the idea that there was nothing left to be understood or preached. That was what did for me. During our time in Cornwall we went into the little church of St Winwaloe, on the edge of the sea at Gunwalloe; just a short walk along the coast path from Mullion, and I suddenly experienced a tremendous sense of loss. There at the back was a small leafless branch in a pot to which visitors had attached labels with messages and prayers, tied on with string. One of them read something like this – “God, if you exist, please help my niece …..” I found it unbearably touching. There was no address; this was a lost god who would, if they existed, know where to go.
But although I miss being held by the liturgy, and I miss those ecstatic and awe-filled moments when I had to step away from the words and music and hope that the service would – somehow – carry on without me; I know the god that can be described; pinned down like a butterfly or ordered to change the way of things to suit the self-righteous with calloused knees and hard hearts – is not god. The god that can be gendered into fragments or canalised into a private spiritual fountain for the use of the signed up faithful is not god. The god that can be reduced to a collection of historical facts out of which every trace of life-giving myth has been centrifuged and purged is not god either; and yet a life without music; art; literature; dance; time wasting carnival; shared meals; festivals of all kinds and the sense of community will hardly be able even to approach what cannot be spoken.
Some days start badly. Mine did yesterday, being woken by dystopian dreams in which I was exploring the branch of an old canal surrounded by decaying industrial buildings. The basin was full of huge shiny boats of the kind beloved by billionaires and they were cleaning themselves without human intervention. Detergent was pouring down their gleaming sides from hidden valves and into the polluted and dead water. “I wonder where it’s all going?” I said to a man nearby and he replied “To Westminster I hope”. I explored the buildings surrounding the basin and stumbled on what seemed like a therapeutic group whose members looked at me with kind of hostility reserved for interlopers and strangers. Elsewhere a couple of men were wheelbarrowing rubbish and dumping it inside another building. There was a full-on evangelical church in session, with a lot of shouting and witnessing that didn’t seem to relate to what was going on outside. As Thomas Berry wrote:
So concerned are we with redemptive healing that once healed, we only look to be more healed. We seldom get to our functional role within the creative intentions of the universe.
Thomas Berry in chapter 4 of ” The dream of the Earth”
All of which dreaming, along with my familiar autumn gloom, set me up for a disconsolate and unrewarding equinox. Madame, who sometimes suffers as much from me as I do from my temporary afflictions – took herself off to the allotment while I fiddled about with some new technology that was refusing to speak to any of my ancient (more than five years old) peripherals. In the end and in the face of a blank mind and blank screen I thought – “I’ll go up and take her some fruit gums, then I’ll measure temperature of the compost heap and I’ll look at the pond” – and yes, even I can see the hilarious vacuity of the plan, but hey! – any plan is better than existential self-pity.
Someone had left a large quantity of shredded cardboard in the recycling room several days ago – which is like finding a five pound note to a composter. So I was able to finish filling another of the compost bays mixing the cardboard with all the autumnal clearings from the plot. Yesterday’s temperature inside the heap had reached 35C from 20C in not much more than 24 hours, so that was a cheering result. Then I leaned on the fence that separates our small pond from the path and gave some time to simply looking. Aside from digging and lining the hole last winter, we can claim no credit whatever for what’s followed. There are tadpoles still – most of the froglets have gone – and there are always a few hoverflies, bees and other insects hanging around. Yesterday a southern hawker dragonfly was hovering, but we see any number of damselflies mating and egg laying in the pond as well. There were the usual pond skaters skating about and as I was wondering what they were feeding on I spotted an odd red blob, less than half an inch across and which was moving oddly in the water, as if propelled by something invisible.
A leading light in the Bath Natural History Society has a rather wonderful pair of binoculars that are specifically designed for scanning short distances – mosses, lichens and fungi are his bread and butter and he can identify tiny subjects without lying down in the mud. On the other hand, I’m rather short sighted and intriguing subjects such as self propelling red discs in the pond are a bit abstract. When you look at the photo I took at great personal risk of toppling into the pond, you may think that my phone merely made it look bigger but no less abstract.
However – what the photo revealed to my curious mind was that even though I couldn’t actually put names to organisms, something very complicated was going on. A sort of four dimensional rubik’s cube of predation and recycling. I have no idea what the red blob is – in fact the whole photo has a rather Japanese flower arrangement look about it. But something – maybe a hawthorn berry, I thought, has fallen into the water and is gradually being reduced to its components on its way to becoming rich sediment. Around this nodal point, pond skaters seemed to be feeding on the remains of whitefly, but the occasional movements of the anonymous red blob remained inexplicable.
It was only when I got home and took a closer look at the photo that I noticed what seem to be eggs attached to the floating twig; eggs with what could be tiny air bubbles attached to them. In fact, the closer I looked the more I could see of the teeming life in our pond which has yet to celebrate its first birthday. The eggs may well be damselfly eggs, but with so many predators around the mortality rate must be prodigious. With a bit of luck there will be rat tailed maggots down there next year and, what with dragonfly larvae the pond will resemble a Roman Arena; a gladiatorial combat between the hungry and the tasty.
I suppose the sensible and more scientific response would be to buy a fine mesh net and some water sample bottles, and get to work with the microscope so I could start (yet) another list. And I certainly don’t want to knock that approach. The very simplest enquiry revealed that not all pond skaters are water boatmen; in fact none of them are. So my somewhat generic knowledge of pond insects has been enhanced and refined and added to because there are things called backswimmers too – and I really want to find some of those right now.
But that everyday experience of having my interest piqued by species that look similar but are in fact different, took me back to the very beginnings of my own botanical adventures when I realized that not all dandelions really are dandelions. Discrimination gets a bad rap when it comes to the human species; but the power to discriminate between genuinely different species – (all humans are human however different we may look) – is crucially important; especially at this moment of environmental crisis. Let’s say our little pond is polluted by chemical runoff from a neighbour’s allotment. I know it’s highly unlikely, but bear with me for the purposes of illustration. So if, one morning, I look at the pond and there’s nothing alive in it, how many species have been poisoned? how many have I lost? Is it just those little floaty things, or is it one, or three, or thirty species of pond dweller?
The rich density of the pond life is matched with the truly teeming density of the inhabitants of the compost heap. In an average year the two of us grow maybe thirty edible species for the kitchen; but those thirty edible species stand at the top of an almost miraculously complex association of insects, bacteria and fungi. Which of us can claim the sole credit for the basil, the raspberries and the lettuce we brought home today. The generosity of the earth is so inexplicable we are, or should be, brought to our knees with gratitude for the first potato of the year.
It seems to me that any way back from the brink of the abyss will – if it’s to succeed – need us to rediscover those human traits we’ve almost lost touch with in the past two hundred and fifty years. Of course we shall need the very best efforts of science and technology to guide the way, but that will entail a fundamental change of focus from an exploitative and extractive economic structure towards a system based in our deepest human needs.
We cannot save the earth without a recovered sense of wonder and glory; without gratitude, without human community and a return to genuine seasonal celebration rather than explosions of consumption; without a spirituality that expresses the mutuality and interdependence of everything on earth. We need to find an understanding that regardless of theological orthodoxies we can all accept that the earth, or in Chinese terms the ten thousand things are – in a manner we can never fully understand – spoken into existence. The pond skater, the frog spawn, the rotifers, the rats, hedgehogs, cats and badgers the multitude of flowering plants, the trees, the fish, the vegetables and even human beings emerge as if by the speaking of a primal energy of infinite creativity. Wilfully to destroy even one species is a grave insult to the processes of the earth.
The Chinese five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water) have their equivalents in the seasons which are listed in the same sequence – spring, summer, long (otherwise known as late) summer, autumn and winter. We have the idea of an “Indian summer” which refers to exceptionally warm weather in late autumn, much later than this present month of September; but there is always, I think, a perceptible change around this time of the year between the harvesting of almost all the crops at the end of August, and the beginning of September, but before the onset of true autumn usually counted at the equinox. These are blessed and luminous days when the earth seems to be resting and soaking up the last of the sun’s warmth before the declining days with the onset of autumn and winter. These are the days when the blackberry and sloe and if we’re lucky – the field mushroom teach us that all food is a gift.
Today it’s been raining, but last week, away in the campervan in Pembrokeshire we were enjoying historically fine weather. Whether we call it long or late summer wthere is this turning point where we gather food; preserving and storing it to take us through the winter months. We harvest and process the last of the tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and melons and clear the polytunnel ready for the winter; and it takes on the mantle of a spiritual observance.
The inflow and outflow of the earth’s energy that sustains us; the sun’s energy that – through the miracle of photosynthesis – we harvest as food; and the moon’s energy that drives the tides and the more subtle seasons. The Taoist concept of yin and yang; strength and weakness; forcefulness and yielding – is a far better way of understanding our place in nature. There’s a great deal to be learned about the spirituality of gardening as seen in this fundamental cycle of birth and death; growth, ripening and senescence. We’ve grown so addicted to our illusory power; our great polluting machines and our chemicals, that we almost believe that there is no problem that cannot be solved by technology. As Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) once wrote. “If we declare war on nature we declare war on ourselves.” Perhaps it’s expressed even more powerfully in Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao te Ching:
When man interferes with the Tao
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles,
creatures become extinct.
Lao-Tzu, Tao te Ching – part of chapter 39, translated by Stephen Mitchell.
This is a season of ingathering and inbreathing and it feels appropriate that the Chinese season of late summer is associated with the earth – one of the Chinese five elements. On the allotment trail cam we found a short video of a field mouse swaying precariously at the top of one of our Calendulas in the middle of the night, greedily eating the seeds. There was something beautiful about its enormous eyes and ears; its lightness, clinging to the stalks, its vigilance and vulnerability to predators. I wouldn’t begrudge it a single seed.
Back in Pembrokeshire last week, times we could hear the tide in Ramsey Sound almost roaring through The Bitches, but as it approached the null points of ebb or flow there was a late summer moment where it flowed neither here nor there but just rested, waiting until the balance changed and began the whole cycle again. The seal cows were gathering to birth their pups on their secluded hauls at the bottom of the cliffs – out of the reach of humans.
Some years ago we were camping near Skomer Island during the puffin season, when a huge cruise liner drew close to the island and discharged a dozen high speed ribs from the side, like invading marines. The birdwatchers swept in towards the island laden with binoculars and cameras, and within an hour had gone again. What do you call that kind of ecotourism if not dangerous and exploitative? What sort of good could ever come from this phony immersion in nature?
On Tuesday, as we walked the coast path, we spotted a grey seal cow, heavily pregnant, lolling in the sea, eying us curiously from a hundred feet below . She looked old – something about her grizzled muzzle was weatherbeaten and aged. We were sufficiently close, with the help of my binoculars, for her face to fill the lenses. She had huge black eyes and nostrils and was so profoundly different a lifeform that, putting away any anthropomorphic nonsense, we had little else in common except for being alive and being there in the same place watching one another. There was no part of her being that I could appropriate to my own experience – we were both equally deserving of our part of the web of nature and yet her aloof thusness was complete. Around her were several other seal cows and their pups.
Sadly the seals have become a tourist attraction and from where we were camping on the clifftop we could see one powerful boat after another, all loaded with visitors, pause their engines momentarily at the regulated distance for photographs to be taken, and then accelerate away leaving a double wake that agitated the calm water of the sound for minutes, before the next boatload arrived.
However, aside from all the philosophical maunderings it will please the borlotti worshippers to know that we are about to harvest this year’s crop, which has gone well. Not so well in the three sisters experiment where rust and moth didn’t bother us as much as thieves breaking in to steal. Between the rats and the badger the sisters were nibbled, sat upon and starved of light – which goes to show that some horticultural ideas are very regionally specific. Luckily we hedged our bets and the individual sisters have all yielded a crop for the winter.
The allotment is looking uncharacteristically weedy and tatty now, but we don’t take it personally – it’s always like this at this time. The good news is that during last week’s hot spell the aubergines finally started to yield a late second flush. The real challenge is to remove the old and replant the new so that not so much as a square inch is left exposed to the winter wind and rain.
From “A Zen Forest” Translated by Soiku Shigematsu – White Pine Press, Buffalo
There’s a certain mindlessness about riddling compost. I sit in front of the open bay with a large bin between my knees and the riddle resting on two short lengths of wood. When the riddle has passed all the friable compost I throw the dross into a bucket and reach again with a spade to take another spit and repeat the process – over and over. Whatever escapes the bucket gets into my boots and over the path. The bits that don’t pass both the sieve and my close inspection after each load give me pause for thought. You might think the dross comprises mainly sticks and stones too large to pass through the half inch mesh, but that’s not quite true. Most of the riddled out waste is bits of plastic from old pots, the remains of so-called biodegradable teabags, old compostable sacks and metal pegs. Of course there are intractable pieces of wood in there; smooth pebbles that come from who knows where? – maybe the beach on Lleyn where we harvested seaweed for the asparagus bed two years ago. Oh and the inevitable cabbage stumps which, however hard you smash them with the back of an axe seem to resist the great carbon cycle.
Next door to the bay I’m clearing is one that’s now full to the brim and badly needing a thorough turn. On the surface are the barely wilted remains of plants we’ve only just placed there; but as I turn the heap and dig down further, things get darker and less recognisable. There’s no great smell but an abundance of slugs and snails near the top, along with wood lice, and minor league chompers in their thousands. Then as we go further we find worms in glorious writhing abundance. Very occasionally a startled rat jumps over my shoulder and scuttles off, low to the ground. I used to try to kill them with the yard fork but the very act of angrily striking at their sleek bodies seemed sacrilegious.
After a couple of months undisturbed in the next bin – the one I was clearing yesterday – and minus the twenty first century rubbish there is something that looks and smells just like earth which, of course, it is. But not just ordinary earth because in its return journey from the harvest it’s gone through the insides of a dozen little animals; been processed by fungi and finally passed through a worm – maybe two worms – richer from its passage than anything you could buy from a garden centre. Not just compost, but our compost; primed with all the fungi, bacteria, colloids and nutrients that belong in this tiny patch of the earth’s surface. Our allotment and our compost. No wonder the plants love it!
So the act of riddling, because it’s so repetitive, has a meditative quality as I participate in the alchemical process that renders green plant material mixed with cardboard and wood chip into soil. I watch each large bucket filling – as much as I can comfortably carry into the polytunnel – pondering on the process that yields such a wonderful substance and rehearsing in my mind where it should go. When I built the four bay composting setup two years ago I had no idea whether we would ever be able to fill it. I just knew the quantity of compost we would need to spread a couple of inches over the whole plot and hoped for the best. Last autumn we were in a hurry and so we just spread our first batches unsieved and picked out the plastic as it rose to the surface. It was so rich in nitrogen we experienced an explosion of leaves, often at the expense of fruit. Better prepared this year, we’ll treat it like the expensive luxury it is and sieve it all properly. Riddling is hard on the back and you definitely value the things you’ve worked hardest on, and so we intend to mix it with topsoil and a little sand for drainage.
The little quotation from “A Zen Forest” reminded me of the way we read the seasonal signs on the allotment. I guess it’s easy to feel you’ve done something when you use a strimmer or a powerful machine to shorten the hours it takes, but the din of the machinery blots out every natural sound as well as filling your nose with petrol fumes. These simple, repetitive manual jobs can be done in thoughtful silence and while you reflect, the allotment gets the chance to speak as well. It’s even better when the silence is filled with gratitude. The zen sayings caution against trying to explain or describe what is essentially beyond words. One of the sharper ones reminds that words are the hitching posts that you tie doneys to! Nonetheless, even if words can only get you to the foothills of the mountain they have some worth so long as you know when to stop.
Mindless tasks aren’t remotely mindless it transpires. They can be mindful beyond the mind’s capacity to explain. As the seasons progress we move from winter through spring and summer and then approach autumn once more. Each season brings love and loss; generosity beyond our dreams and hardship as well. It seems corny and defeated to embrace them all equally as teachers; but the machine has yet to be invented that can control the way of things – for which we can thank whatever higher beings we might follow, and be thankful for those challenging riddles in every historical culture that force us to abandon the fierce consciousness of the machine.
Our twenty first century culture is destroying the earth – we’re quite sure of it now; and so each moment of contemplative silence feeds us as the compost will feed the ground. We shall grow together; minds and compost alike sifted by riddles.
Well yes, Captain Kipper (OK actually Ludwig Wittgenstein) – but what if there’s something you’re trying to articulate that’s so liminal, so at the boundary of a concept, yet to be properly mastered, that words and their meanings need to be forged anew? Surely that’s the work of the poet? and can’t be shirked in favour of silence. Language is endlessly adaptive; always finding ways to speak the previously unsaid, and one of those ideas that’s slowly being forged into speech is the curious relationship we have with nature.
We arrived back from our family get-together in Cornwall and went straight to the allotment, as you might expect. Then we prowled around to see the state of things; set up the trail camera and made plans for today – and today it rained; so we put on our waterproofs and got on with picking out the courgettes that had swollen to blimp size during the week; harvesting tomatoes, aubergines, runner (pole) beans, potatoes, peppers, summer squashes and masses of herbs. As you will know there are only two of us so this season of plenty has to be matched with a positive frenzy of pickling, preserving, boiling, reducing, freezing and fermenting. It’s been a crazy weather year and right now with the jetstream moored south of the UK we’re stuck in a series of lows, bringing cold winds and rain in off the Atlantic – it feels like autumn already.
So today we got wet and yet we both felt completely content just to be there. After finishing harvesting, Madame got on with summer pruning the fruit trees while I wheelbarrowed down enough woodchip to level the path in the polytunnel. There’s a reason for this because our plan is to clear the tunnel completely by the end of August and then we’ll need easy access with a wheelbarrow to bring compost in to feed the beds ready for the winter crops. Later in the kitchen I made stock and prepped a dozen half litre jars ready for tomorrow’s new batch of roasted tomato passata while Madame prepared to cook a bulk batch of ratatouille which freezes very well. All the while I was making sourdough bread and attending to the starters after their week in the fridge.
Perhaps one reason for the rather philosophical opening paragraph was some marvellous video footage of our friend the badger failing to find the sweetcorn beyond two layers of soft net and a maginot line of tagetes and mint – which we make portable by growing it in pots. Badgers hunt by smell and we aim to confuse them as much as possible. The three sisters experiment is exceeding our expectations and we have corn ten feet tall with borlotti plants climbing to the very top, whilst below some fat winter squashes are developing nicely in the shade. It looks a mess but it also looks like a success. The only predator likely to get to them before us is the badger; but since we invested in the trail cam we’ve grown to love the nocturnal intruders. We want to deter them of course but we wish them – with the foxes, squirrels, magpies and even the rats – no harm and the reason for that is that we have begun to see them as having their own inalienable rights over the land. The thought that they’re out prowling during the night gives us as much pleasure as the sound of a tawny owl calling does. We share their taste for the vegetables we grow, but perhaps value them more in their appetite for the slugs, snails and rodents that trouble us. The old binary division between crop and pest is dissolving and it’s that disappearance which demands a new language. The actors haven’t changed at all – badgers love corn and that’s unavoidable. What’s changed is that we are beginning to accept that if we want to save the earth; all those binary distinctions will have to be overcome through an unprecedented change in the way we understand, and therefore speak of our place in nature .
Wheelbarrowing woodchip with the rain running down our necks; stacking the compost heap with a mixture of green waste and wood chip and feeling its rising heat the next day; summer pruning, rooting strawberry runners and sowing chard for the autumn is done not though the domination of nature with powerful tools and chemicals but by attempting to think like a fox or a badger or – more oddly still – to think like a compost heap, or like the earth in a raised bed. It demands that we learn to think like a tomato or a potato; to ask what ails you? as we did today when we were examining what might have been tomato blight but turned out to be (in all probability) didymella stem rot, caused by stress – in turn caused by a poor watering regime. Failure often brings knowledge. Yes we talk to our plants; but more mysteriously – and only when we listen with complete attention – they speak to us in a language we have barely begun to understand, and which stands on its head, centuries of binary thinking through which we believe ourselves to be independent, separate subjects moving through a sea of resource objects. In this new state of being we are (imperfectly) in what Gary Snyder described thirty years ago as a “trans species erotic relationship” with nature; which sounds clumsier today than it did when it was written – but the word erotic captures the sense that this relationship transcends the instrumentality of the old ways and enables powerful feelings for nature which offer a pathway out of imminent destruction. Talking to the trees – it turns out – is a two way conversation as long as we are willing to get over ourselves and listen.
Walking down to the sea today with the sun on our necks I experienced what John Betjeman once said of walking the River Kennet – “the glory was in me”. I find that phrase greatly moving in the way it situates the glory within rather than outside and apart from us like something that might be measured and described but never gulped down in great draughts. We come here, (I come here at least), for the plants. In the spring and early summer these western coastal fringes are a feast of botanical delights. In past walks I’ve listed well over 70 plants in flower, barely leaving the ten miles of local coastal path. When we arrived, until Saturday evening, we were enveloped in mist and cloud with the temperature sulking at around 13C. Then the sky finally cleared and the sun came out and the restrained hedgerows burst into flame.
Let’s be clear, I’m still – relatively speaking – a botanical novice on a mission to name the plants and animals I encounter. I hesitate to resort to biblical stories for fear of turning people off, and I’m not very religious myself, but I always loved the one of the two alternative creation stories in the Old Testament in which Adam is given the task of naming the creatures. Homo Sapiens – the thinking animal is only a (relatively unimportant) part of the story. Being human is, or should be, as much about naming and befriending the manifestations of creation as it is about categorising, weighing and measuring them. There’s something fundamental in the business of knowing names because it reaches out and creates a bond, a state of interdependence between the participants. We are mutually beholden – because we have put the work in, or in that unlovely management phrase – we’ve got skin in the game. Once we were strangers, but now after a time of intense regard and thoughtfulness we are on first name terms because we are all scions of the same root (and I’ll come back to that point in a moment).
Of course, that degree of plant scrutiny while you’re walking to the Co-op to buy a pint of milk would be inappropriate, which means that when – at last – we’re allowed out to do some serious plant hunting, a change of gear is called for. We’re a bit rusty, and walking with attention needs practice – that’s all getting your eye in means. Five years ago, when I made the utterly hubristic resolution not to walk past anything I couldn’t name, I quickly realized that in spite of a lifelong interest in wildlife, I hardly knew a thing – I was still really at the buttercups and daisies stage.
I suppose it will seem a bit strange to a thoroughgoing materialist but the plants have always been as much a spiritual quest as they are about ticking of boxes, and so, to pick up that earlier thread, I want to throw a brick into the water. “In the beginning” says St John, “was the Word” – the Logos.
Marvellous I always thought, until John spoiled everything by attempting to restart the whole creation from metaphysical ground zero. Gary Snyder, in the final essay in “The Practice of the Wild” – “Survival and Sacrament”, refers to the Easter Liturgy – the great sequence of songs and readings rehearsing the history of humanity. For me it was always the greatest of all the liturgies; to sing in plainsong a melody and words that were always almost unbearably powerful – so powerful I had to rehearse for an hour on my own to get beyond the tears.
But there was one flaw, and that was the attempt to restart the story at the beginning of the Christian era and erase the millennia, even geological ages that went before. Whether it should be the first verses of Genesis or the first verses of John’s Gospel that comes before all the other readings and psalms I’ll leave to the theologians. I am sure, however, that they both belong at the beginning of the liturgy. I have preached a thousand times that when God speaks, things happen. From the Big Bang to the construction of the large Hadron Collider and from the first slime mould to the emergence of distinctively human life we are all spoken. The horror of the separation – the true original sin, if you like, came on the day we decided that the story was all about us and that the rest of creation was there to service our greed.
So to get back to the plants, it seems to me that the whole of nature amounts to the speech of God, of the Dao or the Great Spirit – it doesn’t matter about the name; maybe Judaism is right, it can and never should be uttered. But the earth and all living things and all inanimate things like water and mountains are spoken out of that primordial moment, and because all of the ten thousand things are ‘spoken’ it makes perfect sense to me that the plants, being some form of ineffable language; speak – as do the mountains and the seas and all the living creatures of which we are just one. The mountains speak ‘mountainish’ and the seas speak ‘sea-ish’ and the plants, obviously, speak plantish, and I’m just struggling to learn plantish – it’s very beautiful.
And so the walking becomes a meditation punctuated by greetings – “Hi sheepsbit!” I say in my head, or perhaps in my heart, and the sheepsbit somehow acknowledges me. “Hello bladder campion” “Hello silverweed” and, on a good day – “hello dodder – haven’t seen you in a while”. The English stonecrop positively glows at me in pale pink and, just as I’m pausing to speak, a ring ouzel slips away flying low. I’ve only seen them twice and first time I was so surprised I emailed the County Recorder to ask if I was seeing things. Today I was completely confident.
Often I make lists but when I do I write the english names in first, because the names in themselves make a kind of poem or song about the past – ploughmans’ spikenard, dyers’ greenweed, woundwort, restharrow. To lose any one of these common and relatively insignificant friends would be a tragedy. What if, one day we came here and walked as we always do down towards the bus stop and the marshy ground at Pwll Trefeiddan and there were no southern marsh orchids, no ragged robin, no flag irises and none of the broad bodied chasers and damselflies who live there, glinting azure blues and reds. That’s the thing about naming and befriending; about beholding even the most common and inconspicuous fellow beings. They matter, not just as ticks on a list but as memories, precious moments, explosive little revelations.
And it goes further than names because so many of the plants have been useful to humans in some way. We eat them, grow them and forage for them. Historically they’ve been the cure for many of the simple disorders and afflictions we suffer from – yesterday, for instance, growing in the wall of St Non’s Well was a clump of pellitory of the wall – traditionally used to treat urinary complaints. Knowing the properties of plants adds a whole new depth of meaning and relationship, and it’s the erosion of our relationship with plants. with the whole natural world that has allowed us to become careless of the environment. I don’t in my heart believe that anger and demonstrations will achieve what can only be done by reconnection. The earth will be safe only when enough of us get our eye in.
If I’ve been quiet for a few days it’s for no more sinister reason than the fact that we’re in the campervan in a place where there’s no internet and only a very occasional phone signal – about as far west as it’s possible to go in Wales. However the Gods have smiled on us today and a half decent but incredibly slow signal appeared out of nowhere. We’re in Pembrokeshire, west of St Davids and overlooking Ramsey Island – most of the time. The rest of the time we’ve been in thick sea mist without even being able to see the sea, let alone the island. So we’ve been reading and walking and I’ve been writing too but that will have to wait until there’s a more reliable signal.
Six or seven years ago we were on holiday near here with our extended family and we went into the Cathedral. Generally speaking I’m not a great fan of churches and cathedrals, because after thirty odd years of working on the inside of the institution; I always hope for something powerful to happen and it rarely does – it’s a long story. But on this particular day I was standing outside the main door waiting for the others and I had the strangest intuition that there was something for me there. I was intrigued, but couldn’t see any way that whatever the gift was, it could come in the midst of the hordes of tourists who were in any case being shooed out so that a rehearsal could take place. But as we climbed up the long flight of steps towards the town I pondered on the thought of developing a cross-country pilgrimage to St Davids beginning from home – around 140 miles, probably much longer if we used footpaths and tracks. That’s me – typically thinking that gifts always need to be earned!
So fast forwarding to today, we decided to walk around the coast path past St Non’s Chapel. St Non was the mother of St David, and the chapel was always said to be at the place she gave birth to him on the clifftop one night during a terrible storm. I had absolutely no expectations other than purely antiquarian ones regarding the trip, and as we walked the cliff path we could see a small building in the distance. The site was in three parts. There is a chapel, built in 1937 but containing many fragments of much older buildings found in the vicinity. Then there are the ruins of the far older chapel, and finally there’s the well.
The little chapel is everything that the cathedral is not – tiny, empty, unpretentious but full of – let’s say – presence. What was even stranger was that as we walked in, there were two house martins fluttering around above in the roof space, near their nest. The chapel was a very powerful place in its own quiet way. Then on the way to the ruined remains of the chapel we passed the well. It was as if the peaceful moments inside the chapel had laid the foundations for a second, more powerful experience.
I’m used to being disappointed by wells too. It’s not that I’m in any way obsessive about them, but ever since my early teens I’ve been fascinated by them. Mostly they’re overgrown, completely neglected and hard to find; but this one is a big stone cistern, housed within a romanesque stone arch with descending steps. The well is reputed to have healing properties and so after a brief chat with a women who was only too pleased to take her boots off and bathe her swollen ankle in the cool water, I did the same – encouraged by Madame who offered her T shirt to dry my foot – I used my own. I think it was the gift I’d been promised all those years previously; but stumbled on accidentally and thwarting my need to earn it. Foot bathing is, of course, a pretty powerful symbol.
Having dried my foot and put my boots back on, we walked on a few yards to look at the ruins of the old chapel; but then it came to me that I’d forgotten to leave anything behind in thanks. I’d pricked my hand on a bramble while I was scrambling to stand safely on the slippery stone shelf, but I thought that leaving my blood behind was a pretty glum sort of thanks. Then I remembered the coins. I always carry some small coins in my pocket to cast the I Ching – but I don’t carry just three, I carry five from which I choose three. So I left one there, both in thanksgiving but also to establish a kind of connection. This is the kind of heterodox behaviour that gets you into trouble, I thought – without a trace of remorse.
In some of these healing places there are piles of crutches and sticks. Once, in Les Saintes Marie down on the Camargue there was a whole artificial limb we saw, but of course this wasn’t about my sore ankle. It was about an older, deeper pain. We followed a footpath back across the meadows, barely half a mile to the Cathedral. The whole walk was no more than six miles – nowhere near enough for me to be able to stride up full of self importance and demand my mysterious gift after 140 or 150 miles on the road. Bah humbug! – you might say it’s all in your imagination and that’s exactly right – where else would it be except in my imagination. That’s how the landscape and the plants and our allotment speak – so thanks, no really thanks!
At the risk of losing your attention altogether I want to add one further comment to the last two posts: Religiously planting potatoes and Ghost signs in which I’ve strayed off the subject of the allotment plan to explore the seasonal rhythms and implicit spiritualities of the allotment year.
You can check back on the previous posts to see how I managed to get from figuring out when to plant overwintering crops in the polytunnel to arrive at the significant overlap between the solar (everyday) calendar and the so-called pagan, let’s say pre-Christian and Christian calendars. I gave up on trying to incorporate the lunar calendar because – although I’ve no particularly strong opinions about it – the crucial difference between the lunar year of 354 days and the solar calendar of 365 days means that they only reconcile every thirty years . While I’m perfectly prepared to believe that there’s something very significant about the lunar cycle, what small amount of science I’ve remembered suggests that for an experiment to yield any meaningful data you need to reduce the number of variables as much as possible. The simple act of sowing a seed on the Potwell Inn allotment at the optimum time involves day length – whether spring or autumn, soil temperature, weather forecast, whether under cover or outside and probably many more obscure factors. To add the phase of the moon, whether waxing or waning for instance let alone the zodiac sign at new moon, would add a level of complication that would render any possible results meaningless. This doesn’t however imply that the sight of an autumn moon or the splendour of Orion in winter isn’t both mysterious and utterly compelling. One of our deepest human compulsions is to turn such moments into stories. Myths, I often think, are the way we try to tell the truth about mysteries we can’t fathom.
Not all our stories are equally benign, though, and during phases of fundamental change in a culture, stories can become weaponized and profoundly dangerous. At this moment we’re facing three of the most destructive stories the human race has ever concocted; the story that says for every problem there’s a technological fix; the story that evolution is a secular and linear progression towards the perfect society and another one that claims all our troubles are the fault of strangers. I don’t for a moment believe that our present crisis can be resolved by withdrawing and growing carrots because I’m neither a prepper (but) nor am I prepared to abandon hope in favour of realpolitik. The key thing is to remember that paradigm changes come slowly and are very patchy to begin with, and the attention span of politicians and journalists is easily exceeded by the goldfish. We are poorly adapted to perceiving extremely slow changes.
So I’ll leave that sort of pondering for the long winter nights because right now we’re frantically busy on the allotment and back at the flat shuffling plants in and out of the propagators on to window sills; pricking out seedlings, re-potting them as roots appear to have filled their latest accommodation and (most time consuming of all) looking for permanent markers that actually work! As we approach the vernal equinox on Saturday we find ourselves taken by surprise once again at the workload. If my wonderful new mandala could speak it would say – ‘well I did warn you!’
So the final life lesson from drawing the growing year as a wheel, comes from wondering at the way in which these seasons and their festivals have survived for so many thousands of years with different names but in so many different cultures. Isn’t it most likely that they meet some kind of deep human need that won’t be extinguished by the growth and decline of whole civilisations and their ideologies. We now understand, after a year of lockdowns, that isolation is a kind of hell – and that we are, at our very deepest levels, social beings. As I listen to the news it’s heartbreaking to listen to the way in which we’ve become divided from one another by anger and suspicion. The thing about nature is that it it’s one of the few aspects of our lives whose stock has risen during the pandemic. Without any kind of theology or explanatory apparatus we overwhelmingly agree that the natural world commands both respect and love. This at least is something we can gather together and celebrate, and we even have a servicable ancient timetable.
The simple act of sowing a seed is the beginning of understanding the generosity of the earth. It’s risky, it means learning to bend to, and accept the forces of nature – many of which we can’t begin to fathom. There is loss but often there is gain in the form of a harvest that I never quite feel I deserve and most particularly I want to say thank-you for without any ready made template to turn to. The cycle of festivals is our most powerful means of channeling these instinctive responses. Over the years I’ve led many harvest festivals, wassails, plough services, Christmas carols and rogation services where we once had a go at beating the parish bounds. It was a long walk! All of these festivals pre-date their appropriation by the Christian church which, ironically – you might think – kept them going for a couple of millennia because they couldn’t be suppressed.
If I’d quizzed the participants at those events why they were there I don’t suppose one in twenty would have come up with a theological reply. Why did we, year after year, walk a forty something mile pilgrimage across the fields between Malmesbury and Littleton on Severn to celebrate what was probably a mythical story about a murdered monk? Anyone who knows me will have heard me describe these endlessly re-enacted ancient festivals as left luggage offices where you don’t even need to know exactly what it is that you’ve mislaid somewhere in a long life, because surprisingly often it will just turn up.
There are very good reasons for being respectful of nature as we are now discovering with the threefold catastrophe of global heating, species extinction and economic chaos. For centuries – millennia even – humans put our trust in negotiations with the supernatural because there was nothing else. Then science and technology swaggered on to the street and for a while it looked as if they’d cracked it. We came to believe that, given time, there was no problem or threat that couldn’t be solved by science. Time was given – lots of time – and we discovered that science and technology were as much part of the problem as they were part of the solution.
We’ve been cynically divided and set apart by the spirit of an age which has run its course and whose beneficiaries are frantically trying to secure their wealth and power by dividing us into ever smaller and less powerful monads. But it’s so lonely being in a community of one where no-one understands or cares.
So when this is all over; those of us who love the earth and can glimpse a way of living less destructively should turn off the mobiles and bring on the festivals and feasts; bring on the gatherings for mourning and marking the great life changes, bring on the bonfires and lanterns and especially the songs and dances and community plays, bring on the strangers and the dressing up, bring on the cider (although we won’t all be drinking it) and the ash wands and the well dressing. Bring on the singers and the musicians, the sun, the moon and the stars and let the astronomers talk to the astrologers and discover that they both like daffodils; let the hydrologists talk to the dowsers and see what they can learn and the herbalists talk to the medics and see if they can swap useful ideas. Let granny talk to the historians so she can put them right on all their most egregious mistakes and finally let the politicians and journalists come on strict condition that they don’t speak but just listen – carefully for once. Tear down the shutters, pull back the curtains and open the windows wide. Let’s have the greatest ever festival to bring to reflect on all the things we don’t understand and to re-enchant and celebrate the sacred earth for taking care of us in spite of us behaving like ungrateful hooligans.
March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb
Traditional weather lore
And so it does here. Yet another Atlantic low has been raking across us for two days, returning us to winter, wreaking low level havoc and destruction across the allotments and driving all thoughts of potato planting out of our minds. On the allotment Facebook page, however, the annual question about when to plant potatoes has emerged like a sleepy bear waking from hibernation. It’s almost unanswerable without clairvoyant skills because the date of the last frost is like waiting for Godot. Maybe it’s already happened earlier than ever before; or alternatively, maybe there’s a Siberian frost lurking right now in the far north, waiting for the jetstream to drive it across Bath in early May. “Statistically” (you might say) it’s most likely to be around the end of April, but tender leaves have no regard for statistics.
The potato question was one among many I’ve been addressing; taking advantage of the awful weather to do some planning. I’ve also been reading (here we go again!) – Eliot Coleman’s “The Winter Harvest Handbook”, which is a book you need to read if you want to beat the hungry gap and grow fresh vegetables across all four seasons. Some books are go-to resources for detailed information like dates, times, varieties and tools. But because I’m British and not American, the act of reading becomes an act of translation and, (just to make it even more complicated), some of these biointensive techniques began life in the UK in the 17th century, moved to France in the 19th century long after they’d been forgotten here, and were then transplanted again – particularly into 20th century America where they were inflected by the New Age culture and cross pollinated by indigenous American horticulture. That immensely productive cultural hybrid introduced a whole new spiritual element in complete contrast to the aggressive materialism born of the blind ended agrochemical mistake. So for me, the principal take-home aspects of many of these books is the ethos, the culture.
I do much of our planning on the computer – why does that feel like a confession? – well it’s because the programme I use, although it’s not perfect, takes away the drudgery of inputting pages of basic data into a blank spreadsheet. The introduction of the polytunnel into the planning has driven us both back into the unknown. Neither of us has any experience of tunnels and so we’re both beginners once again and we need to make our learning as fast and profitable as we possibly can – which, sadly, can’t mean an apprenticeship (too old) or a course (too hard-up) – so it’s books rather than experience: which brings us to the question of sowing times.
However in the world of permaculture design, in which the tiny particulars of our plot of earth, situation, prevailing wind, water, warmth and sunlight are all added to the variables, textbooks can be a blessing and a curse. I regularly see magazines and blogs that declare unequivocally that “this is the week to plant/sow x or y”. The essential qualifier “on my plot” is more often than not left out – understandably because to fill out the details for every soil type, climate zone or frost pocket in the UK would make the article or post bizarrely complicated – not to mention deadly dull. Seed catalogues often escape the trap by using phrases like after all chance of frost is past, or sow in March or April.
So planning ahead can be dauntingly complex; but amidst the variables there are some reliable regularities that can really narrow down the options. I’m grateful to Eliot Coleman for drawing my attention to the cross quarter days and their significance for planning. In his fascinating discussion of day length in chapter five he mentions the marker days that we mostly all know and celebrate – the two equinoxes and the two solstices. But in his analysis of daylength, he points out firstly that day length varies considerably across the year according to the latitude. Here in Bath we’re at approximately 53 degrees north – rather further north than his market garden in Maine, US at 44 degrees north which means that we have more winter days with less than ten hours of daylight than him, and considerably more than a farm in California or Provence. As I said the other day, we’d d be up there with the polar bears if it weren’t for the gulf stream.
I did some back of the envelope calculations and I reckon that these growing days when the light lasts longer than ten hours in Bath, begin on 15th February and end by 26th October which means that any plants we want to overwinter need to be fully established before the end of October. That enters two fixed points into the planning calendar that will be there regardless of weather events. He goes a step further, though and associates these dates with the ancient agricultural festivals of Imbolc (2nd February) and Samhain (1st November). The other festivals fall with Beltane on May 1st and the unpronounceable Lughnasadh on August 1st. The sharp eyed among us might notice that these days that are in close alignment with what’s known as the cross quarter days in the Christian calendar.
The fly in the ointment, as it were, is that early Christianity wanted to establish its credentials as an historically based faith and was obliged by the Gospels to harness Easter Sunday to the moon’s phases – being the first Sunday after first full moon after – wait for it – the spring equinox which the church sets as March 21st regardless of the astronomical facts. So Easter wanders around after the equinox by about a month ( March 22nd – April 25th) – making it an unreliable universal guide to potato planting by suggesting it should happen on Good Friday. There is no other bank holiday that usefully coincides with potato planting because the early spring one is a bit too late for the earliest early potatoes. Good Friday is only useful for spuds in occasional years.
We know from letters written by St Augustine of Canterbury that when he was sent by the Pope to evangelize Britain he arrived to discover a thriving pagan religion with active buildings and a strongly embedded calendar of agricultural festivals which (purists take note) were almost certainly adopted from or inflected by several previous religious systems. Writing to his boss he asked what to do and the advice came back that he shouldn’t burn the buildings down but appropriate then and substitute Christian festivals for the pagan ones.
A quick look at the dates of the ancient principal festivals, then – the equinoxes and solstices; and then the cross quarter days – Michaelmas, Mayday, Lammas and Candlemas – suggests that Augustine didn’t waste time inventing new festival dates he just renamed the existing ones, leaving the pagan faithful to worship whatever they pleased as long as they kept it to themselves; which incidentally is how the Church has carried on pretty well ever since. So underlying the most recent Christian layer, it’s fairly obvious that the ancient agricultural calendar never disappeared but just went underground. Discovering it afresh is like uncovering a buried mural. Christmas was tacked on to the winter solstice celebrations and Easter/ Whitsun, following the moon, very roughly coincided with the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Mayday was too entrenched to be tamed or renamed, and Samhain, on 1st November was simply renamed All Saints Day.
So that allows the agricultural year to be divided into four seasons and four cross quarter days -eight festivals in all and closely aligned with the farming year because they are closely aligned with the defining tasks of each season – sowing, planting out, harvesting and so-forth. They embody all the dates you need to know including when to plant your potatoes and the latest date for sowing and planting your overwintering vegetables ready for the hungry gap.
You might dismiss this as a load of all romantic tosh except that in my previous existence, the biggest church attendances were not the pious events of Easter, but Christmas, Remembrance Sunday, (loosely aligned with All Saints/All Souls/ Hallowe’en), and harvest festival. The old festivals were still exerting their powerful pull almost until the end of the 20th century. Some years ago Bristol Cathedral had a very successful “bread nouveau” service to celebrate the wheat harvest in Lammastide. My friend Dick England who was a miller, grumbled about the fact that you can’t make decent bread without allowing the harvested grain to mature for a month.
But enough of this. The point is that not very far under the surface of our materialistic culture is a stratum of agricultural wisdom accumulated over millennia, and associated with a unique expression of spirituality. I’d almost go further and say green spirituality.
On my computer is the garden planning software that I’m trying to adapt for use on the Potwell Inn allotment, and I intend to abandon the division of the year into twelve months and see if it’s more practical to divide it into the eight ancient seasons. I probably won’t reunite them with their pagan names – I’ve grown used to Lammas and Candlemas which are so obscure they don’t even pretend to be Christian festivals any more. More practically still, I’ll associate each season with its tasks so that our unique calendar combines all the variables I wrote about at the head of this piece, with the passage of the sun that provides every living thing with energy. The biggest problem is that computers and spreadsheets are linear by their very nature and can convey the entirely false impression that the past has nothing to say to us. In the end, I fear, the only way of preparing my new calendar will be to draw the great circle on a piece of paper and divide it into the seasons and their festivals so that gratitude, hope, generosity and thanksgiving are as much a part of it as the best date for planting potatoes on our allotment (which is after the vernal equinox and before Mayday: but keep the fleece handy until the middle of May). Lands End, John O’Groats and Anchorage Alaska will need to calculate their own dates!
There’s something almost medieval about this shot of families out bright and early, building snowmen with their children. Some of the games we play can hardly have changed for centuries. Dogs must have run in crazy excited circles in the snow for ever, and I daresay parents have always taken the opportunity to play at being children again. Some things do change. This afternoon we saw a couple out sweeping the green with a metal detector in search of a lost object; and then we saw a group of six socially distanced young people sharing a joint – you do have to wonder if they’ve quite grasped what’s going on here with the covid pandemic.
Knowing that we were due a big fall of snow kept me awake worrying about the nets on the allotment; but pacing at the bedroom window during the dog watch was a bit pointless because it didn’t start snowing until 6.15am; fell intensely for less than an hour and then promptly stopped again. During the “Beast from the East” we were too late to save the biggest net which had gathered a huge weight of snow. Today we were luckier and as soon as we could, we walked up and shook the snow off with no more harm than a bit of cold powder down our sleeves.
Yesterday as I was balanced on a very precarious step ladder, ramming in the last of six fence posts I was pondering the spiritual benefits of our engagement with nature. I know it’s supposed to confer a kind of super-chilled saintliness on us and I see rather a lot of breathless writing on the subject; mostly written by ex merchant bankers who’ve saved up their bonuses in the City and bought themselves a chunk of land from a bankrupt farmer. Almost without exception after a couple of years they no longer actually farm or market garden full-time for a living, but earn most of their income writing books and running courses. One old friend and mentor of mine, with a long lifetime’s experience of beekeeping was mightily hacked off when someone who had only done a six week novice beekeeping class set herself up as a trainer just down the road from him. He had taught hundreds of novice beekeepers, me included, without charging anyone a single penny. I had to give it up when I developed a scary intolerance for stings. Nature’s got teeth too!
I’ve been struggling to read one such book – “Miraculous Abundance” by Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer; but its self-satisfied tone is so immodest I can only read a couple of paragraphs at a time. I’m sure there’s some good stuff in there, but all I can see is the shining face of the self-appointed guru. I would love to say to them that permaculture isn’t a religion and it certainly doesn’t need any bishops. Even the BBC’s Winterwatch programmes seem to be going after the Templeton prize for folk religion with its very own mindfulness spot accompanied by winsome pictures of breaking waves and robins.
I think I’ve been perfectly explicit here at the Potwell Inn that there does seem to be a spiritual dimension wrapped up in our relationship with the natural world. The question is whether watching an osprey catching (always the same) salmon on telly amounts to a relationship or an entirely passive experience. Does watching a stream of massively talented natural history programming amount to a pilgrimage of some sort or is it more like eating magic mushrooms? – all over in a few hours and then back to normal.
Maybe this is my rather austere theology shining through, but it does seem important to me that any adequate spirituality is formed in a practice of some kind. You couldn’t learn Tai Chi from a book and you couldn’t form a deep relationship with nature without getting your hands dirty and your feet wet. So here’s my (completely inadequate) guide to a possible green spirituality.
god doesn’t have to be supernatural.
If there is god at all, they/it won’t be at all religious.
If they/it speak(s) to you (which hardly ever happens) it won’t be in a silly stage voice full of thee’s and thou’s it will be quietly through your experience.
There isn’t a person alive who can’t teach you something you need to know.
They don’t have to look like a Danish surfer!
Real wisdom is not the sole property of the western educated classes.
Any god worth considering would be utterly beyond our comprehension.
Therefore it’s best to keep quiet about it, otherwise you’ll sound silly when you forget the punchline.
A bowl of vegetables with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate. (Proverbs 15:17 -New Living Translation)