We dream of these days

A Harvest Moon rising behind the campsite last night

There’s a particular combination of pale blue autumn sky and thin cloud that for me, encodes in a glimpse what would take an eternity of thought to express. As if a haiku could be condensed into a single syllable. I call it China Blue – I’ve no idea why – but that name seems to work for me; possibly something to do with early Chinese ceramics, when the cobalt for blue had to be pounded from the ore, impurities and all .

I can however name some of the associations with this particular sky. I think of wetlands; the thrilling call of a curlew; of rusting corrugated iron barns, of rhynes (a local name for drainage ditches). I think of sunny days and cool evenings and the sound of the wind in the drying grasses, and long T shirt walks; field mushrooms; ripe apples and slightly drunken conversations in the dusk. Such days are days of grace and can’t be planned – you just have to grab them as if your life depended on it, which of course it does.

When we came here to St David’s the weather forecast was for two weeks of non-stop rain, and we weren’t expecting too much – some reading, a little writing and then lots of sleep. However there is what we have learned to call the peninsula effect – probably unknown to any respectable scientist, but encouraged by fifty years of camping trips to different west facing peninsulas from Lizard in Cornwall to Ravenglass in Cumbria. On a significant number of occasions, the forecast of rain was fulfilled several miles inland leaving us in dry and even sunny weather. This theory is entirely without foundation so always take your raincoat and remember that we, as avid allotmenteers , read weather forecasts like you might read the Racing Times; being prepared to gamble.

Yesterday, however, the weather forecast promised a day’s respite between two dwindling Atlantic storms and we woke up to a change in wind direction and warm sunshine. A perfect China Blue day. And so we decided to walk out of the back of the campsite across to Lower Treginnis Farm – home to one of three Farms for City Children and on down to Porthlysgi beach. It’s not a long walk, but it’s near to one of our favourite mushroom foraging spots whose exact location is a secret!

It’s a great walk because you walk from the campsite into an extremely well run organic mixed farm run by a young Welsh couple who are happy to talk about what they’re up to. We had walked the track the previous day and noticed that the straw stubble from a previous crop was longer than it would normally be. “I wonder if they’re going to direct drill it?” – I said to Madame. Contrary to received wisdom about perfidious farmers ruining the soil and polluting the atmosphere; an increasing number are way ahead of the game; organic, no-dig, low impact mixed farming. Those of us who are trying to change the way we spend on food towards local and sustainable foodstuffs really need local farms such as this to make it work. I know George Monbiot would disagree vehemently but I don’t think he realizes that his campaign to cover much of the uplands and marginal land with trees, and turn the entire population into vegans would induce even bigger environmental and cultural destruction; destroying whole landscapes and playing into the hands of the industrial food producers. The industrial farming of trees has the same adverse effects on biodiversity as the industrial farming of cattle.

Anyway, when we returned from mushrooming we found our two farmers direct drilling a grass seed mixture into the stubble. In the surrounding fields we found all the Clover and normal weeds that would be destroyed by spraying, but in addition there was a good deal of Plantain, Sorrel and Chicory which must surely have been part of the mixture. Chicory, having a long tap root, is very drought resistant and so is Plantain. Commercial varieties of these (no longer) wild plants are increasing drought resistance and increasing weight gain and milk yields on experimental farms in New Zealand because they’re very *palatable to cattle and sheep.

This year’s lambs looked in fine shape, enjoying the pasture which has been revived by plentiful rain. Nearer the coast on the same farm last year we spotted a small flock of what might have been Katahdin sheep, developed in the United States. I couldn’t be sure of the breed but they are apparently easy to manage hair coated sheep (so don’t need shearing), hardy, with high fertility and strong flocking instinct. In a farming environment where margins are low, labour expensive and wool not worth selling, they seem like a perfect breed. Those of us who are depressed by climate destruction and the apparent lack of government action have a kind of duty to read about and support the many non intensive, non polluting and carbon reducing regimes that are being trialled in farms like this one around the country. Good luck to them!

After our farm diversion we pressed on towards the beach, picking a breakfast’s worth of wild mushrooms in a place we’d never before found them, and then alongside a stream down to Porthlysgi beach. It’s usually quiet there but the fine weather and the autumn flush of coast path walkers had turned it into a busy highway. We bagged an available spot away from the crumbling cliff and sunbathed uncomfortably for half an hour, but there was a walking tour guide with a large party noisily occupying half the beach and we decided to wander back to the van.

As we left the beach we noticed a small cairn which had been attracting a good deal of attention from passers by and especially from dogs. We went to see the cause of the excitement and were distressed to see a dead Gannet, roughly covered with pebbles and presumably a victim of H5N1 bird flu which has hammered the local breeding colonies, and originated – wouldn’t you know – in intensive chicken farms in Asia. I couldn’t get the sight of that powerful beak and the sightless eyes out of my mind. One of the treats of the beach is (was?) to watch the Gannets lasering almost vertically down at huge speed after fish. By all accounts many other breeds have been affected – we usually hear the Manx Shearwaters coming in at dusk, but none this year – perhaps they flew home earlier. So once again the culprit is not so much farming as highly intensive farming.

I spent the night dreaming miserably about the fate of the Gannet. I can’t think of any logical reason why I should be so upset, and yet a strong connection with the bird and its fate seems inescapable, not just by losing the aesthetic joy of watching them hunt but something more like a bereavement – as if a bit of me had died with the bird. The question – “How could a bird relate to me?” and its converse “How should I relate to a bird?” – turns out to be far more challenging than I ever imagined, but answering it lies at the heart of the present environmental and ecological crisis. Excluding the sentimental, the extractive and the passive relationships with nature on general offer leaves something that looks a bit metaphysical. The learned doctors of the Christian church decided centuries ago that animals cannot have souls and they probably never gave a moment’s thought to whether trees, rocks, plants or landscapes could. The modern age in the west brought many benefits to us but it smuggled an instrumental relationship with nature into the culture that spread like an evil miasma into every aspect of our lives. The Taoists on the other hand forged an attractive and non-theistic faith based on the deep relationship between all animate and inanimate nature. But that’s a “Peering over the wall” view of another faith. I’m drawn to Robin Wall Kimmerer and her exploration of the contribution that First Nation Indian traditions could bring to ecology. I’m also drawn to that meditative tradition within Christianity represented by St John, St Francis, Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen among others. The way forward if we really want to save the earth and her inhabitants from destruction is to give all faiths a place at the table and not hand it over entirely to science, industry and unregenerate economists.

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” –

Albert Einstein

*I was always advised not to try to use sheep to cut the grass in my churchyards because “they always ate the flowers first”

A very wet day in the campervan

Having dipped my toes into the water, an unexpected turn.

The steps leading down to St Non’s Well.

You might justifiably think that this post is a fragment that escaped too soon. But I reached the last two words – “I did” – and felt strongly that I should stop before wading into a pointless attempt to explain or justify what happened. The previous post – “Suspend disbelief – dip toe in water” – gives more detail and sets the scene.

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

TS Eliot – from “Little Gidding”

So since I’ve been mentioning St Non, I owe an explanation of her place in history, which won’t take long since almost nothing reliable is known about her except that she was the mother of St David and legend has it that she gave birth to him on a clifftop in the midst of a thunderstorm near the place where the ruins of an original chapel and the well can now be found. As supernatural endorsements go I suppose that’s a ten out of ten. I always assumed that this birth took place amidst the shrubs and bracken but I have seen a suggestion that she might have been living in a cottage there. Most of the other stories about her emerged during the next 500 years and were catalogued by Rhyfarch around 1095 – five centuries later. What’s undeniably true is that this became a place of pilgrimage quite soon after her death and continues to attract pilgrims even in this secular age when, from my own experience, most walkers fail to notice the well and go straight to the chapel ruins where they take a photo and walk on. There’s a modern chapel nearby which was built in the 1930’s and includes a good deal of ecclesiastical archaeology recovered from the area and built into the unusual altar. The chapel seems to be used only for occasional weddings now. For me, neither the modern chapel nor the ancient ruins hold much attraction; but the well is different.

I’ve been fascinated by and drawn to wells ever since I was a schoolboy. I would pore over the local OS map and search them out. My first ever was St Aldhelm’s well near Syston which turned out to be a fairly miserable puddle but which was reputed to be good for healing eye complaints. Wells, springs and resurgences – perhaps because their water appears to come from nowhere – have a naturally mysterious quality. As for the links between wells and saints, my best guess is that it’s metaphorical and poetic rather than factual. What’s really important is the capacity of the water, emerging from the unknown, to evoke a change of mood, a kind of meditative openness – if only the pilgrim allows it.

The logical, scientific mind would have none of this of course. “So Dave, your supposedly healing well is dedicated to a saint who probably had nothing to do with it and probably never visited it. Furthermore we now understand exactly how the water, falling as rain, percolates through the ground and emerges at the well, and the supposedly healing properties of the water cannot be identified by the most detailed analysis.” and I would reply “Every word you say is true; but in such a limited way you miss the point altogether. The well, the stories of saints and the water are nothing more than the setting in which the real work is a kind of silent dialogue between the pilgrim and what one 15th century Christian mystic called “The cloud of unknowing”.

No-one knows or ever could know what the emerging water says, because – in exactly the approach of Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Christian mysticism and almost any other religious tradition – the Word – is only heard in the silence when every preconception, theological assumption or personal pleading is put aside. All of which was a rather long winded answer to the question – “Did your ankle get better?” – Well, thanks for asking – but no, not really. On the other hand I did.”

It seems perverse to call a drought followed by a heatwave a watershed moment, but let’s hope it is!

This year’s first giant Sunflower – bird food!

Another day of extreme heat here in Bath keeps us confined to the flat with the shutters and windows closed. We go to the allotment early to water and then sit in the gloom reading and writing. Yesterday – which broke temperature records we tested the “closed windows and shutters” regime with some thermometers and consistently managed the indoor temperature to 10 degrees below the outside.

I hear a lot about our alleged feebleness in confronting temperatures that are quite familiar in, say, Southeast France. These inadequate arguments almost always fail to address the fact that our infrastructure is geared to a temperate climate; so in continental Europe, transport doesn’t grind to a halt because it’s designed not to. And it’s not for lack of warnings. Our privatised utilities have known what’s coming for years but ignored the scientists in favour of dividends to the shareholders. In Southern France, for instance, it’s normal to have very thick insulating tile roofs, thick stone walls and external shutters and the traditional working day embraced a long break at midday. Crops are harvested earlier in the year and the village fêtes occupy much of August. Here, in the UK, farmers and gardeners struggle with the unpredictability of climate change and many homes are not insulated against temperature extremes. Allotmenteering – and also farming- becomes a constant gamble against the unexpected turns of the climate.

The other argument – which is an offshoot of the first – claims that we happily take holidays in hot climates and manage perfectly well. I saw this argument advanced recently by Jeremy Clarkson, the moron’s philosopher. This is a half truth dressed up as a clincher because although it’s true we seek out hot places, we do so to relax, not to work; we often stay in hotels with air conditioning and swimming pools and we have absolute freedom to seek out shady places and cold beers whenever it suits us. Working in impossible conditions is no fun at all. I once unwisely asked a retired South Wales coal miner if he missed it and he said “no I bloody hated every minute of it!”

We’ve been warned for decades about the imminence of global heating and yet our politicians and planners have been pushing back at the kind of changes that we know will need to be made. With a four year electoral cycle there’s always an incentive to avoid climbing the mountain by taking a more pleasant and scenic diversion. So let’s think a bit about the word watershed, as we’re inclined to see those moments when the consultant leans over sympathetically and announces that all those years of overeating, smoking or drinking are demanding their payback.

If sitting in a UK room at 26C (80F) in high summer with the windows and shutters closed and with the electric lights turned on because it’s too hot to venture outside – if that’s not a watershed moment then there’s nothing to do except sit and wait for the end. Among the many things the politicians have remained silent about, there’s been a drought since the beginning of the year and suddenly we’re being told to be careful with our water use because the river levels have fallen too low to replenish the reservoirs.

I’m indebted to the Mashed Radish website for a proper explanation of the term watershed. If, for instance, you drive South through the central spine of France you will reach a signposted point where the rivers which had been flowing Northwards throughout the first part of your journey, suddenly reverse direction somewhere on the Massif Centrale, and shed their water in a southerly direction. A watershed is a place, or an instance of profound and significant change – a paradigm shift if you prefer. “Go with the flow” for too long, and there will be a point at which the direction will, of necessity, change. At the heart of any discussion of watershed moments is an acceptance that resistance is futile. The change, however unpleasant or costly is going to happen and our only path is to adapt. A watershed moment is a non-negotiable fact on the ground. Voila! welcome to the climate crisis – our bridges are well and truly burnt and there ain’t no return to the Promised Land.

If there’s any good news in all this, it’s that no amount of fiddling with the great ship of state is going to help. The media, the corporate lobbyists, the industrial behemoths and above all their plaything politicians have failed comprehensively. Endless growth was a Ponzi scheme heading for disaster, and the bad news for capitalism is that climate disaster is nothing if not democratic. No one can relocate to a more favourable earth. Relying on uninvented technology to save us is like waiting for the Seventh Cavalry to ride over the hill – it only works out well in films. In real life we are left standing to confront the folly of our behaviour. My entirely provocative personal opinion is that not a single drop of oil should be pumped from a new well until the last Range Rover or similarly wasteful SUV has been consigned to a giant scrapheap along with all the products of the weapons industry.

Do I sound a bit cross? I generally try to avoid getting too excited about politics on this blog so you can be thankful I’m not the least bit interested in getting into politics. Complete cultural change, on the other hand, is a different matter.

I’m sick of being told by journalists that because I’m both old, male and white I must, perforce, be a gammon faced right wing climate-denier. It’s not true for me and it isn’t for huge numbers of older people. The Potwell Inn – understood properly – is a provocation; an act of defiance against the politics of the status quo, and a shout-out for a deeply fulfilled humanity, lived in all the huge potential for diverse expression within the earthliness of the “at hand”; the other life forms upon which we depend for food and (dare I say) spiritual growth. Alternatively allotments usually do the trick.

Once again, walking down to Percuil, our hearts are lifted.

Potwell Inn regulars will know that I get a bit grumpy when people take the therapeutic powers of nature as the fixed and immutable reward for stepping outside the door. Hand on heart I suspect I’m a victim of the protestant work ethic that guarantees there’s no gain without plenty of pain. I lay the blame for that disposition squarely on the Primitive Methodists who were rather keen on rewards but much more on punishments. Then, like today, we occasionally go for a gentle stroll with no particular quarry in mind, and we return almost breathless with joy.

Cornish lanes are never lovelier than they are in Spring and the footpath down to Percuil from Gerrans was as lovely as any lane ever has been.

We walked this way six weeks ago and the change has been astonishing. One of the most intriguing features of our walks is to see the successional drifts of flowers following one after another. You can no more hold back the emergence of the next wave of plants than you can hold an eel in your bare hands. I took this photograph because the combination of colours: the pink of the Campions, the white of the Stitchworts and the blue of the bluebells looked so beautiful in the sunshine against the green vegetation. You don’t even have to know the names of the plants to appreciate their beauty. Looking more closely you can spot Navelwort, Dock, Herb Robert and Hogweed. Further down the path we spotted a patch of Early Purple orchids – some with spotted leaves and others without; plants don’t read textbooks.

As we went down the path we could see the successions working out. Six weeks ago there was a mass of Winter Heliotrope, mostly finished flowering. with Alexanders emerging through them. Today the Alexanders were almost finished and the Cow Parsley has thrust through them, closely followed by Hogweed. Already the Cleavers (Goosegrass if you prefer) is threading up through the competition and even showing some tiny white flowers. There’s something wildly, needlessly extravagant about nature – like a Sufi dance – that can lead, (I say grudgingly), into direct awareness of the Power, the Spirit, the Tao; whatever you want to call it.

Percuil harbour

Down at the harbour we perched on the concrete wall of the chandlery come boatyard and laughed about the time we got beaten by the tide and the wind as we paddled back in our kayak and had to be towed in by the instructor. One of the boatyard workers drove past us on a tractor and as he walked back I asked if they were busy. “Yes,” he said, “The season always takes you by surprise”, and he graced us with a friendly smile. Behind the wall an invisible woman was having a loud conversation on a mobile and a hundred yards away the sound of a conversation on the verandah of a holiday let, skimmed across the hard sand towards us. We’d hoped for the sounds of Curlew or Cuckoo but today we were content to listen to a whole choir of other species. Upstream on the creek, a Heron and an Egret eyed each other cautiously over a patch of territory.

We walked back up the road with Madame’s rucksack stuffed with Corsican Pine cones for her to draw. I think she’d scaled the fence of a rather grand house to snaffle them under the gaze of a dog walker who she’d confused with me. That’s the joy of a meandering stroll with no particular purpose in mind.

On the other hand there’s serious work to be done and I’d spotted a couple of plants of what I think is Smith’s Pepperwort – Lepidium heterophyllum on a footpath. I checked on the BSBI database and although it’s been recorded all around us on the map, it’s not been seen here. Distribution maps can sometimes tell you more about the distribution of field botanists than they can about the private life of plants. Anyway, with the prospect of filling the last missing square in the jigsaw I was like a dog with a bone and sent a preliminary enquiry with a couple of poor photos to the local Vice County Recorder. That cost me £35 because in all conscience I couldn’t continue relying on the BSBI, (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland), for help without at least joining. And so I proudly present the evidence below with very little expectation that anyone else will be interested. Little things please little minds.

This little lot cost me four visits, one of which was to sniff a crushed leaf. The fact that it didn’t smell foetid or of garlic turned out to be important. So were the hairy leaves and the tough old perennial rhizome, not forgetting the purple stamens.

There’s a huge difference between looking and beholding

My old music teacher AF Woodman had an assortment of names for me. Sometimes he would address me as “rod, pole or perch“, and on others he would extend my name by stressing every letter into a strangulated “poe-ill”. I didn’t care what he called me because he gave me a lifelong love of music. One of his pet phrases was – “I know you heard it Poe-ill; but were you listening?

Much later in life I was on a retreat at the La Retraite convent in Clifton, and we were invited to take the hands of a complete stranger but rather than something easy like telling them what we had for breakfast, we were instructed to behold one another. This turned out to be incredibly hard for me because it involved letting my guard down. It was, in its own small way, a life changing experience, because it uncovered a complexity and depth of possibility in an encounter with a stranger that eventually became the key to my pastoral work. Dangerous, messy and (in a very limited sense) erotic beholding, enabled a form of listening which involved all of the senses.

It took its toll, of course, and eventually I just ran out of steam. Too many bereavements; too much grief. I needed to get out before I burned out.

Anyway, that was then and as I’ve written here before, the key to surviving crises is a capacity to reinvent yourself using the strengths that are left after the broken bits have been laid up; all of which maunderings lead to a further look at the alleged healing powers of nature. The italicized “alleged” is not there to knock the idea but it’s just asserting that the healing powers of nature are a hypothesis not a natural law.

On Monday last we went back up to Velvet Bottom in a further search for Spring Sandwort – Minuartia verna. Our recovery from Covid – which we caught a month ago – has been very slow. The acute phase was pretty horrible, but that was followed by all sorts of symptoms that seemed more psychological than physical. Combined with a really busy time on the allotment it was as much as we could do to keep up with the routine work because any physical effort seemed to drain us both completely. So our trip to Mendip was compromised by my incapacity to focus, or draw any inspiration at all from what would normally excite and engage me. Madame was kind enough to keep her counsel, but I must have been a miserable companion. All I could think of was to lie down on the grass and sleep. Fortunately, a week on, we both feel almost normal again.

The urge to lie down on the warm grass, though, was inspired by an experience in my early teens when I lay on the grass on Rodway Hill and had what Romain Rolland described to Freud as the oceanic feeling. I’ve no idea how long it lasted but I seemed to be completely absorbed into the earth and her processes. From my point of view it was a completely passive experience and even though I was very young I just gave myself up to it. It was a completely unasked for healing that I’ve never forgotten. I lay there looking up at the blue sky, dappled with summer clouds and listened to the wind riffling through the drifts of grass. Now, with hindsight, I would include this in a description of the healing powers of nature only with the proviso that it can never be sought – it’s an experience of undeserved grace that can’t be guaranteed in any particular place, and which only fell to me a couple of times despite many attempts to force its hand.

But there’s another way of engaging with nature that’s quite different and is capable of and responsive to being sought; and it involves a kind of beholding, directed at natural rather than human subjects. Yes of course it’s possible to reduce field botany to a kind of trainspotting, and I’m certain that there are people out there who ask nothing more of nature than a new record. But when I go out on a field trip with some people, I sense that their engagement with the tiniest of nature’s gifts is far deeper; a two way engagement that both speaks and listens. To walk with such a person is – to quote a favourite heretic

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

From Auguries of Innocence – William Blake

For them a tiny rope of mycelium tracking across a dead tree; the elaborate hieroglyphic of Graphis scripta lichen a couple of inches in diameter on a tree trunk , the little Moschatel with its cubic flower head giving it the name Town Hall Clock; these are not ticks in a box but true encounters – beholdings, if you like – engagements with nature that have spiritual power and maybe even (if the seeing becomes a true beholding) an offer of healing. So in this sense too, it means something more than wishful thinking to speak of the healing powers of nature.

I hesitate to introduce terms like dangerous, messy and erotic to the pursuit of field botany, but if they have any use, it’s to move the heart of the enterprise away from the rational calculations of the identification key, spreadsheet and grid reference towards something more akin to wonder. Perhaps the healing powers of nature could be more easily embraced after her re-enchantment.

You’ll know where we are if you’ve been following!

Yes – of course we’re back on Mendip but this time just above Velvet Bottom because today we thought we’d explore the Ubley Warren and Blackmoor nature reserves. This is such a unique environment that it comprises getting on for ten nature reserves, some of them SSSI’s (sites of special scientific interest) and all of them with a handful of rare and nationally rare plants.

You’ll see that the ground well and truly deserves the local description of “gruffy” – that’s to say thoroughly worked over by lead (and possibly silver) miners since Roman times. These deep cuttings are known as rakes and the spoil heaps, although mostly no longer bare, are a specialized environment for plants tolerant of heavy metal contamination.

Having found the Spring Whitlow grass – Erophila verna in Velvet Bottom a couple of weeks ago I was keen to see if we could find another specialist called Spring Sandwort and so we concentrated on likely looking ground – all to no avail because I think we were a bit too early.

Anyway, we did find a rather knackered Early Purple orchid (Orchis mascula) snapped off at the bottom of the stalk – possibly by a marauding dog – and then as we carried on looking through the list of likely/possible rarities we came across Dwarf Mouse Ear – Cerastium pumilum – which is nationally scarce, and also Alpine Pennycress – Noccaea caerulescens which is similarly rare. And if that sounds either lucky or clever I’m reminded of a story I heard about a very well known local drystone waller who was asked how much he charged. He answered that it was £100 a yard – at which his questioner backed away, saying it was a lot to pay for a load of stones. Well, he said, it’s a pound for the stone and ninety nine for knowing what to do with it! My luck today owed everything to the research I was able to do before we even left the flat, and I contributed nothing at all to the incredible databases and local floras that showed me exactly where to look. As per Mark Twain; it’s 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.

The only downside to a delightful morning were the bags of dogshit abandoned almost everywhere we went – come on you retards – you’ve already picked the disgusting, slimy (and warm) mess, up. Just take it home for goodness sake!!!

All of which ranting brings me back to an often visited question – “does the Potwell Inn really exist?” Well yes it does – in one sense only; because its only physical manifestation is the campervan (called Polly) in which we can close the door against the Idiocy. But it principally exists in the form of a conceptual framework that gives me just about enough head space to survive. The Potwell Inn is the place in my head where poetry and art jostle with spirituality, green politics and where walking and botanizing or looking out for living things are not merely allowed, but encouraged. The Potwell Inn is a space in which the gentle domestic arts of growing and cooking and eating together and building community are not treated as a bunch of hippy idealism or even communist infestation.

So the Potwell Inn hereby permanently bars the cretinous bunch of sociopaths, adulterers, drug abusers, liars, fantasists and thieves in the government, along with all their media supporters, lobbyists, climate change deniers and Russian backers who abuse our intelligence day by day. They should not enter the premises because they will not be served, and if they persist they will be sent to the end of the nearest pier where they can parade their meagre comic talents before an audience of stuffed weasels. This is the only way I can stay sane; by carving out a small space where I can grow to be as human as is possible for me and the people I care about, by creating an alternative to our etiolated spiritual and moral environment which sucks all possibility of creativity out of the air we breathe.

The Potwell Inn is a challenge; a one fingered salute to polluters, poisoners and to the entitled. The Potwell Inn is a refuge; a retreat house and a portal. Everything that happens here is true; but “here” can pop up anywhere – wherever the Potwell Inn sets its foot on the ground. Even if that ground happens to be an old slag heap, buddle pit or mine tip.

This is the season when most of the allotment is the kitchen

That’s a bit of an exaggeration because we’re still harvesting an abundance of broccoli, leeks, chard and parsnips from the open ground, and lettuce, coriander, parsley and spinach from the polytunnel; but these are the last of the winter crops and we’re just entering the hungry gap; the period between the past and the coming season when there’s not much about. Most people would assume that the hungry time is in midwinter but it’s not. This is the time when the stores come into their own. The jams, preserves, pickles and the food in the freezer are what get us by even though the temperature may be in the late teens and we’re dressed in T shirts. Revelation of the year is the wonderful flavour and texture of our own home-grown borlotti. So plump and soft and full of goodness. This year we’ll grow even more, because they store so well. But in reality it’s that time when the myth of self sufficiency is punctured by the cold logic of the seasonal year. The last frost can be as late as May 6th here and it’s heartbreaking to see prematurely exposed plants wilt and die.

The strawberries from last year’s runners, that I moved to their new bed a few weeks ago are flourishing under a fleece covering and even showing a few flowers. Angelica, lovage and French sorrel are all going well and the first asparagus tips are poking gingerly through the soil. Broad beans are safely under bird nets and every bare patch of ground is eagerly covering itself with opportunist weeds. The saddest casualty of winter is my beloved Sweet Cicely which is at best a short lived perennial. It’s a devil to get going but we’ll try again in the autumn. Last year we doubled the number of dwarf fruit trees and they’re all looking good with the apples in flower. Even the speculative planting of tiny rhubarb stools (Fulton’s Strawberry Surprise) have come good; but we’ll leave them to gather strength this season. There are now three successional varieties of rhubarb to supply us from March through summer.

In the kitchen, though, it’s all going well with the tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, lettuce, melons, courgettes and peas all potted on, and there are seed potatoes out on the landing. So this is Spring; the season of hopefulness and big dreams.

More on foraging

The glossy magazines continue to publish articles on foraging; some even daring to suggest that foraged food might help bridge the poverty trap for some people. I’m a foraging cynic. Recently we had reports of professionals stripping Cornish lanes of wild garlic. In Epping Forest the foraging of fungi had to be banned after entrepreneurs were found taking tens of kilos of fungi for sale to flashy restaurants. Nearly all the articles I see are written by people who make a living either by stripping the land themselves, or by running courses on how to do it. The idea that taking huge amounts of food away from its habitat – because it’s ‘free‘ – is somehow more “green” than growing some, (but never all) your food, is a dangerous fantasy that draws on precisely the same selfish and greedy instincts that underpin factory farming and fossil fuel extraction.

If, and when, we find something wild and delicious – field mushrooms for instance – we take enough for one feed and that’s it. I’m absolutely not arguing that picking a few blackberries, elderflowers or sloes is going to drive the trees to extinction but I’d apply a test that was suggested to me many tears ago by one of my mentors. Take (or give) enough not to be ashamed, but never enough to be proud.

The very moment in a foraging expedition where you have enough is the moment to stop. When gratitude for the gift slips into pride, the gift becomes toxic. One of my books on herbal medicine makes the admirable suggestion that the harvesting of plants and flowers for our healing should always begin with an act of thanksgiving. It sounds a bit cheesy, but I think it’s absolutely right, and I often find myself saying thank you out loud when we’re harvesting from the allotment. My maternal grandmother had a little saying that I hated when I was young because it always seemed to go with not being allowed any more pudding. She would say “enough is a feast” .

The single most awe inspiring thing about nature is not the big televisual stunts but her sheer undeserved generosity. When we abuse that generosity we become the prodigal children who want to spend the family inheritance in excess and then come back when it’s all gone and beg for more with a mumbled and insincere apology.

Sunken lanes

There were 21 species of wildflowers that we found in a rapid count along our favourite lane here in Cornwall on Thursday. Today we took a long loop around the coast path and then finished by walking back up the same lane and I identified four more – ground ivy, hairy bittercress, germander speedwell and common fumitory. I have to say the fumitories are a bit of a monster to identify, but I think I got there in the end and there are now 25 entries in my list. Of course there are many more to come because plants sensibly arrange themselves to emerge in sequence through the growing season. Sadly we’re unlikely to be here to identify them all unless we come back every month – and with the allotment demanding attention that’s not likely to be possible.

Sunken lanes – and there are lots here in Cornwall – are an absolute joy to walk along and to look for wildflowers. We were blessed with a strong northeasterly wind today and although the sky was clear and the sun shone without interruption, it was bitterly cold along the coast path where there was no shelter. Northeast being an offshore wind, however, we were able to sit at the base of a rather dodgy cliff and enjoy the sea. When we turned up the lane we entered an entirely different microclimate. Sheltered from almost every direction and yet wide enough to be in sunshine for much of the day, it’s hardly surprising that many of the flowers we were finding are very quick out of the gate; stealing two or three weeks of early spring.

When I used the metaphor of an earth-sized PV cell yesterday I could have explained the idea better. Without the sun there would be no life on earth. Every blade of grass and every leaf of every tree is busy converting sunshine into carbohydrates – that’s to say that water plus sunshine plus essential minerals transported to plants by subterranean fungi make food for us and for every other living creature; and so at this time of the year I always sense the prodigious energy gathering within the earth ready to burst into new life. You can almost hear it on a day like today.

Winter wheat

I’m not going to nag about this. The way we abuse this annual gift is creating huge problems that we’ll have to answer for – soon and painfully; but the pain of giving up some of the things we’ve learned to rely on – mostly fossil fuels – could be offset to a degree by the re-enchantment of the earth. Wandering around bent over looking for mostly tiny plants might seem like a rum way of enjoying yourself on holiday, but don’t knock it if you’ve never tried it. The earth and her fruits get more lovely, more complex and more full of joyful discovery the closer we look.

It’s often a pain to identify a plant, but the exercise takes us deeply into their structures and processes; it is – if you like – a meditation on the thusness of nature. Drawing is another way. Gardening reminds us that at best we do best when we walk with the earth and her processes. It puts us in our proper place, and that place turns out to be very good.

While I was writing this Madame was drawing some cones from a Corsican Pine that we picked up on the walk. The two of us in the campervan, so absorbed in our work we didn’t even notice that it was getting dark.

Losing my religion

St Mary’s Cadgwith

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.

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 ….

William Blake – Auguries of Innocence

We are the undeserving guests at the feast

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.

Sunset over Ramsey Island, Wales

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