The role of maypole dancing in confronting the climate catastrophe.

Carter’s wonderful steam fair.

This is a postscript to yesterday’s piece which mentioned the philosopher Roger Scruton and the way in which some of his dodgier ideas seem to have infiltrated the writing of David Fleming and his book “Lean Logic; a dictionary for the future and how to survive it”.

I knew when I went to bed that there was some unfinished business on this subject and it came to me in the middle of the night that one among many dangers that face us is the sentimental turning back to the old days – you know the kind of thing; village greens, cricket, warm beer and old ladies on bicycles as John Major tried to explain it.

Of course it’s very tempting to look for an off the shelf strategy for coping with the oncoming catastrophes of global heating, collapses in biodiversity, economic collapse, mass migration and so it goes on; but the key point is that the current crisis has no real precedents, and so you might use the metaphor of a failed relationship: it’s no use either party in an acrimonious relationship breakdown asking why can’t we go back to the way we used to be? because the bridges have all been burnt. Moving on means letting go.

These thoughts were prompted by a conversation with our son last night. I had been thinking about the way in which I discovered that many of my early heroes had feet of clay when it came to facing the challenges of the last century. In my twenties I read the whole of Henry Williamson’s output. Tarka the Otter, of course; but also the multi volumed (15 in all) Chronicle of Ancient sunlight and the four volumes of “The Flax of Dream”. I borrowed all the books through the library and I was initially completely in love with them. His knowledge of natural history was so deep I began half living in his mystical Devon landscape. But as time went on and volume followed volume; small doubts began to accumulate and eventually I did a bit of research and discovered that Williamson had become a fascist sympathiser. I was devastated.

Ezra Pound also tumbled into the broken box; as did so many other artists and writers. Talking to our son last night he reminded me of another hero of mine, the philosopher Martin Heidegger who went even further and became an active supporter of Hitler and never subsequently repented. I began to wonder whether the passionate love and advocacy of the natural world was (and may still be) just one false step away from authoritarian and backward looking beliefs.

This isn’t a big deal if we understand it and guard against it. There’s always risk, so we should be really careful which thinkers we invoke when we’re trying to plot a course into a saner future. It’s too late to ask David Fleming why he repeatedly quoted Roger Scruton in illustrating his theme, and it may be that he was doing so because a selective use of those particular words seemed to support his argument. Fleming stood for many of the features of a possible way forward that we would support. Commonality, local networks, carnival, ritual and so forth. But if, lurking in the background, there’s an unspoken narrative that excludes – ‘others’ – strangers and pilgrims from other cultures, then that’s not on. If the image is of an old society that collapsed through its own inequity or cruelty, it should be a no-go for us, because real life is not a costume drama. Maypole dancing might be a powerful metaphor for community life; but no amount of prancing around on a plastic village green is going to usher in a sustainable and more equitable future.

Old Nog

“What’s your movie?”

Is a the title of a song written by Mose Allison; I’ve got a (possibly bootleg) recording of him singing it at Ronnie Scott’s and I only mention this because Henry Williamson cornered the anthropomorphic market in herons with Old Nog, (who came to life in Tarka the Otter), and I hesitated to name my first thought when we passed this heron on the canal today. Anyway, the song asks a question that’s often asked of literary portrayals of animal life. The worst of them – dare I suggest Watership Down – simply transposes human emotions and dispositions into more or less cuddly animals – which utterly diminishes both the reader and the subject.

“What’s your movie” asks what film character we most identify with or act out – I often listened to its merciless takedown of human weakness on my way to therapy sessions. It always served its purpose in getting me in the right frame of mind for lying on the couch (oh yes) waiting for a word in the silence. A bit like saying your prayers except God was sitting behind you.

What’s your movie?

Are you the artist that’s misunderstood?

The bad guy tryin’ to do good?

Or just the nicest fella in the neighborhood

Mose Allison

So I really enjoy(?) the song but at the risk of trespassing on Henry Williamson’s territory, sometimes another life form – a heron for instance – irresistibly brings someone human to mind. Snakes, donkeys, foxes and butterflies are two a penny but I confess that this bird instantly became a member of an extreme Baptist denomination known as “the strict and particular Baptists“. Heaven only knows what remote root of the luxuriant tree of heresy divided the already strict from the not particular enough members of the original congregation but it must have been fun. I passed what could easily be their only church, driving to Southend one day. But I can find no hope in this heron’s unsparing gaze. He sits absolutely motionless for hours on one or another of his fishing grounds and strikes mercilessly at some poor dace like Amos Starkadder spotting a sinner in the third row of the quivering brethren; gripping the edge of the pulpit and growling “you’re all damned”.

Some animals; dogs for instance but not cats; robins but not peregrines; tench but not pike, can almost convince me that some communication is happening – some thread of negotiable common ground; but not so the heron whose launch into flight seems to defy the possibility of lifting off and yet makes a far better job of it than a mute swan that needs to run on the water before launching. I guess I’ve got nothing that a heron needs enough to bother learning how to flatter me.

I’d have said the the octopus was another creature that failed the common ground test, until we saw recently the remarkable documentary “My Teacher the Octopus” (on Netflix) which seems to suggest that we’re not trying hard enough. If you haven’t seen it you should try, but be warned, you’ll probably never want to eat another octopus. Craig Foster, who made the film (and another equally disturbing/stirring one about tracking animals for food in the Kalahari desert) is apparently now a vegan.

If we’re ever going to find our proper place on this planet we’re going to have to learn a great deal more humility in the face of all its other occupants, from moulds to mountain lions. I don’t, by the way, go for the conventional graphic of evolutionary progress from protozoa to humans, we’re so inextricably part of one another that once you start to zoom in it’s hard to see where one life form begins and another one ends – just ask my gut bacteria! So the poor old heron would have every right to resent being compared to a human preacher.

The daily walk continues to challenge and delight us as the very earliest foliage begins to emerge, intensely green, like a promissory note from the future. More and more of the winter heliotrope are coming into flower and so their elusive fragrance often has you wondering whether it’s the plant or a passer by wearing a tiny trace of perfume. I should stop and watch which insects are visiting, but kneeling down on the towpath risks the danger of being flattened by runners and cyclists locked in their musical islands and breathlessly pursuing their 10K dreams. There are loads of other sturdy beggars of the plant world strutting their stuff in the cold and mist. We’re so lucky to have this all so close.

We were looking at some crime statistics this morning and it appears that 70% of the recorded crimes in Bath are committed in our district. If you include the area immediately across the river it goes closer to 80%. Obviously the figures don’t include undeclared taxable income on property, or white collar fraud. Strangely we feel perfectly safe here and it’s a wonderfully diverse community where you can hear a dozen languages being spoken just while walking into the centre. We’re what happens when you cut whole sections of society adrift. Today we passed Ken Loach – film maker – remember Kes? on our walk. Madame said hello and the poor man looked startled although he’s seen us at any number of meetings. If we lived in the posher parts of Bath we’d have nothing but bedding plants and weed free grass to remind us of nature, but here – down amongst the social housing we can tell a ragwort from a tulip – although you’re more likely to see a red kite than a house sparrow, sad to say.

I notice that the BSBI (Botanical Society of Great Britain and Ireland) at their virtual AGM had a session on a year of plants growing in the pavement. I think I caught a radio programme on the same theme a couple of months ago – absolutely fascinating. Sadly only 66 people had accessed the BSBI video on YouTube. Does that say something about our national priorities?

asparagus autumn biodiversity chillies climate change climate emergency compost bins composting coronavirus covid 19 deep ecology earth environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis field botany food security foraging global climate crisis global heating green spirituality herbal medicine intensive farming locally sourcing lockdown marmalade meditation no-dig pickling and preserving polytunnels potatoes preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions sustainability sustainable agriculture technology urban wildlife water storage weeds wildflower meadows

There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,

I think I blame my mother for possessing so much plant wisdom, and Henry Williamson for fanning the flames. I only say this because today as I was quite literally rooting around in search of a rhizome in the car park today so I could nail down my unexpected finding of a Hoary ragwort – Jacobaea erucifolia next to the fire escape, I suddenly realized why I was there. “It’s the names, you fool” – I thought. “You’re in love with the names”. Since I was there in the rain, on my knees, digging gently with my penknife so as not to damage the plant, the neighbours may well have though me barking mad but in fact I was rolling the names around in my head – ragwort, ragweed, stinking willie, devildums, dog stalk, mares fart, muggert – among dozens listed by Geoffrey Grigson in”The Englishman’s Flora” – an excellent book which can be read by women too! It was also the plant used by fairies for getting about because broomsticks were much too big which, I suppose, would have been well known to William Shakespeare who knew his plants and their uses very well.

I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows,

Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,

Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,

With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:

William Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream

But it was Williamson who got me going; so much so that after I’d read “Tarka” and all the others when I was still very young, I ordered up all 27 (I think) books of his “Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight” – which I read avidly until I realized that he held some political views that would have made him a Mosleyite fascist. It was the end of the affair for me, but half the time – I excuse myself here – it was his extraordinary knowledge of nature that captivated me. The only thing that held me back was that when I read the plant names I had never seen them and wouldn’t recognise them if I did. I had become enchanted by the names; seriously and fatally compromised by the words themselves.

Weed of the day: Field Bindweed – Convolvulus arvensis

Then there was Shakespeare with his woodbine, oxlips, eglantine and all the rest. I would gaze out of the window during English lessons, rehearsing the names in my head like a rosary, knowing that my destiny was supposed to be engineering and all I really wanted to do was understand those words. At the time I wouldn’t have known a botanist from a chimney sweep. My mother’s knowledge of plants was organic – it wasn’t a subject, it was a culture, a history, an upbringing in the Chilterns where, she once told me that the first time she saw a flush toilet she was afraid to use it because she’d only ever seen an earth closet before that.

I bought my first flora “Wildflowers of the Wayside and Woodland” published by Frederick Warne some time before I was 20 and I still have it. The story ought to proceed along the usual tramlines but it doesn’t. Wildflowers were pushed to the edges and we met occasionally during holidays; but slowly as I got older there was more time and I could afford better books – many better books, and it was always there lurking in the shadows. I’m in awe of the field botanists who’ve made a profession of it; in awe of their capacity to recognise plants and remember their latin names – but I think I’ve got the best deal in the end because I spent my career studying what it means to be human, and occasionally getting my waders full in the process. So the plants and small creatures have become redemptive in their way. Even when I work out something that’s absolutely blindingly obvious to the experts, to me it’s a moment of illumination and re-enchantment. A holiday romance revived and, more often than not, a literary experience as well. Of course the irony is that the more I find out the more complicated it all becomes. I’ve written about grass and today I did some more practice identifications but the highlight was discovering that the ragwort in the car park behind the flats was neither of the alternatives I was considering but a third type altogether. As Paul Valery once said – “A difficulty is a light. An insurmountable difficulty is a sun”.

Today the sky was iron grey and it was drizzling but we were both eager to be out so we went off in search of Browne’s Folly a(n) SSSI and nature reserve up a tiny lane that’s exceptionally tricky to find. And so, to get back to the beginning before the bell goes, there’s wild thyme growing there …. and Bath asparagus and loads of other things that most people probably wouldn’t get worked up about but how could you not be bowled over by the pale blue of a field scabious and there’s a patch of grassland there that just shouts orchid! Oh and an abandoned stone mine with bats. It was slippery with mud and Madame was less than thrilled with some exposed bits of path, but the view from the top was tremendous. The folly is a Bath stone tower built during a slack economic period as a highly visible advert for the quarry. I peeped inside and there was a stairway leading in a spiral to the top but no handrail so after a couple of flights my courage failed me and I climbed back down clinging to the wall.

Back home, we resolved to go back for a serious plant hunt, and then we went to the allotment; pruned the autumn raspberries back and tied them in before harvesting some food for the weekend. A lousy weather day completely redeemed by nature, mud and all. And tomorrow there are a couple more raised beds that require our attention.

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