Take a bow, Simon Fairlie

Photographs taken in the Lost Gardens of Heligan farm in October 2018

Walking, reading, thinking and writing just about sums up my idea of a good holiday. Mercifully Madame feels much the same and so on our trips away anyone keeping a close eye on us might conclude that we’ve nothing to say to each other; but they don’t see the subsequent conversations in which we read aloud extracts from the books we’re reading and share ideas. It’s just that when we’re out and about we don’t always need to talk because that’s when my eyes are on the hedgerows looking for plants and hers are focused in the trees looking for birds, butterflies and all the rest.

Anyway, this week amongst all the other things we’ve done I’ve been reading Simon Fairlie’s autobiographical book “Going to Seed”. I may as well get the unsolicited plug out of the way by recommending it wholeheartedly for many reasons – not least if you’re around the same age as me it will evoke warm memories of what turned out to be a brief and largely unsuccessful rebellion against the status quo, but also if you’re the same age as our children and grandchildren it will fill in the embarrassing details of how we lived our lives to the full in the 70’s and 80’s. Far from impoverishing their inheritance we (some of us) were actually trying to create a sustainable and more fulfilled future for them, but we were no match for the suits who were better practiced at creating the narratives of pure hokum which were the real cause of the current crisis. Those times were good and bad in equal measure, but we set up cooperatives, lived in a couple of communes and earned peanuts from insecure part time jobs. The book is a thoroughly good read and Fairlie never lets his self critical gifts slip. We got things wrong and underestimated the sheer inertia of the status quo. On the other hand, if ever there was a time to revisit some of those visionary ideas it’s now in the face of the global systemic failure of economics, species extinctions and environmental catastrophe.

Simon Fairlie has also written “Meat, a Benign Extravagance” – a carefully argued case for small scale sustainable mixed farming that takes on some of the shriller and sillier notions of fundamentalist veganism as well as demolishing the arguments of the agrochemical giants. It’s a joy to see the supporting evidence for all of his arguments – “go check for yourself” he invites us, rather than following the probably apocryphal story of the preacher whose sermon was annotated with the words “argument weak here – shout loudly!”

There’s a third book “Low Impact Development” that I haven’t managed to read yet but is available secondhand. But there’s another reason why I find an instinctive kindred spirit in him. Starting from opposite ends of the social spectrum we were both difficult, argumentative and occasionally reckless teenagers; both ultimately thrown out of school and both on a journey – me towards a proper education and he in pursuit of the practical skills of a social class from which he’d been excluded by birth and culture. Neither of us – and I’ve never met him – were apparently prepared to swallow the predigested bird food that passed for an education – the question “why?” was so burned into our souls.

You may have gathered that I’m a binge reader and so a modest amount of research threw up two excellent magazines, the first of which – The Land Magazine – he is co-editor, and another – Resilience – to which he is a regular contributor. One article that caught my eye can be found on this link to Resilience which lists all of his contributions. If you search for the article “A convenient Unruth” you will find a forensic takedown of the current debate about the methane emissions of ruminants. He makes a convincing argument that the widespread obsession with cattle emissions is based on bad reporting which is not the fault of the scientists who came up with an initial estimate of the global warming effects of methane which has been falsely used to imply that methane emissions are, in simple terms, 32 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide. This false claim is possible only by ignoring the fact that methane degrades relatively quickly (a half-life of ten years) whereas carbon dioxide never degrades. I’m simplifying greatly here, but given that the size of the national UK herd has declined over the past 30 years whereas car ownership and Co2 emissions have grown enormously, the arguments pursued by George Monbiot – whilst they may have real ethical weight – are scientific nonsense. Fairlie is as firmly against intensive agrochemical farming as is Monbiot; but again the reason is the prodigious cost in Co2 emissions of fertilizers, agrochemicals, gigantic farm machinery and grotesque transport footprint. No amount of cherry picked evidence is forgivable if the net result is to send agriculture to oblivion and force feed the rest of us with junk food gloop produced by the multinational food corporations using huge quantities of green energy that would be better applied to new mass transport systems or ending the scandal of old people freezing in their homes.

So yes – hats off to Simon Fairlie, and if I ever buy a scythe it will be from him. Prophets are rarely appreciated in their own country.

How to cook an egg

2 poached eggs on sourdough – cooked by Madame

I wish – I really do wish that cooking eggs were that simple. Do it this way – do it another way – so many cookery books declare from on high, and you try it; book propped open next to the cooker, or in my case last week – laptop getting grease spattered while the whole attempt falls apart. In reality, eggs are quite difficult because there are so many rarely mentioned variables; how fresh they are; what temperature they’re at and so on. And then there’s the subjective issue of what exactly constitutes a properly cooked egg. Madame likes her boiled eggs well cooked with the yolks firm. I like mine with runny yolks and if they come out with snotty whites then that’s a price I’m prepared to pay, and even with a timer counting in seconds we regularly get it wrong.

Half of the problem with eggs is that the whites and the yolks set at different temperatures. Sous vide users have worked out a way to make perfect boiled eggs but my sous vide cooker gave up years ago and I never replaced it; I’m a cook not a biophysicist. As is always the case, the answer to questions about the way to cook an egg would need to be “well it depends”. I’m innately suspicious of terms like “perfect” and “authentic” which often hinge on entirely subjective criteria – I prefer to say “well I like it this way” and leave it to the questioner to figure out whether I’m a moron; [yes!].

Raw eggs are apparently a sovereign cure for hangovers – an idea I tried out just once when I swallowed a whole egg and immediately puked it back into the sink without even breaking the yolk. Of course the real problem with them is that they change state – ie from liquid to solid- extremely quickly, which is why your hollandaise will split if you take your eye off the ball for a second when it’s on the heat. Mayonnaise too will split at the drop of a hat; in fact the easiest egg emulsion to make is aioli which is almost bombproof or even better allioli in which the excessive garlic makes it impossible to get wrong. Greek chefs whisk an egg into bechamel which transforms it into an altogether lighter and more elegant sauce.

The fresher the eggs and the more natural the life of the hens, the better they’ll taste – except the very freshest eggs (laid this morning) are better left for a day before you cook them because they often won’t set. It’s a bit of a mystery how hens manage to make such beautiful things from slugs and snails and puppy dog’s tails but they do; and however much we puff up the idea of saving the earth by eating insects, I’d rather break the process into two stages – that way we all get to enjoy ourselves.

Even getting the egg out of the shell is a matter of controversy. Some chefs show off by breaking them on the edge of the pan and shelling them one handed. Others tap the shell with a knife to get the process going (NB bits of shell are inclined to drop into the bowl and such is the viscosity of whites you’ll waste ten fruitless minutes chasing them with the tip of your knife. Finally there are those that prefer the sharp tap on a table – which works well until you get a thin shelled egg which bursts all over the floor. This hazard is much more prevalent in battery eggs. Organic and free range hens eat calcium containing dirt with their normal diet, and thoughtful owners give them grit too. Worms have an innovative process of digestion which is aided by grit – hence passing calcium to the lucky hens that eat them. One broken egg from a pack increases the price of the rest by 16%, and in times of inflation that’s not a price you want to pay.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should all get our eggs by Deliveroo from some ghastly factory run by Mac-Cock-a-Doodle. Eating less but better is always the way to go.

Eating together is an inherently communitarian and democratic act – never ever allow an expert to tell you what to cook and how to cook it. Experience, a good memory and a willingness to learn from your mistakes will make you a better cook than a dozen makeup artists, food stylists and dieticians will ever do.

Food as resistance – pushing back against the lies that blind.

Home made lentil soup and home baked sourdough with autumn sunshine.

Eating is an agricultural act

Wendell Berry

That memorable quotation from Wendell Berry is the same sentence that inspired Michael Pollan – both of them profoundly important voices within the US farming and food scene. You’ll find posts about both writers here on the Potwell Inn site. For Wendell Berry the point is that eating is part of the agricultural cycle. Crops are sown, cattle are tended and the culmination of that process is eating. Of course there are good and bad ways both of growing and tending, and these form a crucial moral prelude to the decisions we make about the food we eat. Here at the Potwell Inn we’re neither vegetarian nor vegan but we absolutely respect the rights of others to make their own ethical decisions about eating. We all have to accept responsibility for our food choices.

But it’s not that simple to know what’s happened to the foods that supermarkets sell and the advertising media promote at vast cost. Yesterday Madame and I watched every TV news channel we could find in order to get some information about a big demonstration in London. The media were silent; but not the kind of silence that comes from simply not knowing anything. This was the silence of omerta. A tacit vow of silence that evades scrutiny and protects the powerful. And so we turned to a reliable source of news on the internet – Double Down News – where we watched a powerful video by George Monbiot, forensically examining what Vance Packard (more than sixty years ago) called “the hidden persuaders”; building his case on an examination of the intensive salmon farming industry. Monbiot is a vegan, but this was not an attack on eating fish. It was an examination of the hellish conditions surrounding intensive fish farming, the slaughter of seals if they threaten the “crop” and the utterly misleading advertising that leads consumers to believe that this industrial product is somehow the natural expression of historic and wild Scots culture. That’s “natural”; historic”; “wild”; “Scots” and “culture” stripped of their red light warning apostrophes and stapled on to an unforgivable product like a prom dress.

Before lunch today we were sitting and wondering how it is possible to live honest and virtuous lives in a post-truth culture when Wendell Berry’s sentence popped into my mind. I’d love to be able to say that I’d spent hours preparing the bread and the soup, but in reality neither take up that much time. Sourdough bread matures slowly like a narrow boat journey but with a bit of forward planning it always arrives bang on time with no more than 20 minutes of actual work. It takes longer than that to walk to the supermarket and back.

The lentil soup is act two of a very simple meal of gammon poached in cider and vegetables. The (very small piece of) meat, free range Gloucester Old Spot, raised on a local farm and sold by the farmer at the Saturday market, lasts us for at least two meals. The poaching liquor becomes stock for the soup. The herbs and vegetables are either grown on the allotment or bought at the same market and the cider comes from Herefordshire – forty miles up the road. In this way an occasional treat stretches to three meals and four batches of nourishing winter soup. This kind of thoughtful eating pushes back at the tide of disinformation, challenges the lobbyists and PR execs and enables us to live really fulfilled lives, eating cheaply and well and staying healthy without falling under the spell of the industrial behemoth.

At every stage in the production of food there are moral and ethical decisions being made which we know nothing about. At every stage there also are bad and downright greedy decisions being made that lead inexorably to eutrophic “dead” rivers and contaminated soils producing food that may even have carcinogenic properties. The story that’s not being told is about the many, often small pioneering projects that are producing foods which are ethical, organic and taste wildly better than their industrial imitators.

Nick and Kate’s eggs

A couple of days ago I wrote about our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons. Amongst the sheep and pigs; half a dozen hens spend their days scratching amongst the fallen leaves and dirt. Between them in peak season, in a good week they probably produce three dozen of the best eggs you’ll ever taste. Dark yolked and full of goodness, the eggs are the product of a free-ranging diet of insects, grubs windfall apples and worms with a feed of layers mash at night. These are eggs you can poach without being ashamed. The yolks sit up proud in self contained whites. What if the price of this kind of food to us, the eaters of it, is that we must confine ourselves to eating less of it? Well, why not?

Of course even finding such food can be a slow business, but the farmer whose meat we finally settled on is someone we now know and trust. The dairy farmer whose milk we buy sells better tasting milk and is able to run his herd profitably by selling direct to consumers. The flour we bake with is organic and comes from UK farmers – some of them no further than a short drive away. Again we buy direct from the producers; and of course our vegetables are mainly grown by us on the allotment.

So it turns out that growing, harvesting, shopping, cooking and eating really can be an act of resistance – pushing back hard against the lies that blind us to the realities of intensive industrial food production. Just as a thought exercise, imagine asking the manager of the local Sainsbury’s supermarket where his eggs come from? How much dairy farmers are paid for their milk? What exactly Red Tractor standards represent? I imagine the reaction would be one of bewilderment followed by the dark suspicion that you, as a dangerous radical; possibly hippy communist agitator would very likely be gluing your hand to a till, or throwing tomato ketchup at the security guard in the next couple of minutes.

So if you can’t get answers to these perfectly reasonable questions, don’t buy the product. Nothing is more likely to change attitudes than mindful shopping. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that selling milk from a vending machine at 20% above supermarket prices – next door – to a supermarket would be a sure fire failure. But it’s not. I regularly have to queue behind several other economically illiterate people to fill my bottles. Resistance – it seems – is anything but futile because every BS resistant customer represents a tiny but significant dent in the profits.

A simple meal with love is better than a feast where there is hatred.

Proverbs 15:17 Contemporary English Version.

Of course you might be thinking to yourself “how on earth would I find the time to do all this searching and growing? – and in any case I can’t cook !” There’s no denying that’s a tremendous problem for all too many people but I might respectfully suggest that a long and penetrating reflection on the kind of life we live; on work-life balance and whether cooking for and eating with people you love isn’t more deeply fulfilling than a solitary microwave meal in front of the idiot’s lantern – might signal time for a whole change of lifestyle. Madame and I have been hard-up all our lives and yet we’ve had tremendously fulfilling times. We somehow understood that living as simply as possible freed us from the tyranny of lies. Greed and dissatisfaction are symptoms of an autoimmune disease of the soul for which the only cure is withdrawal from the steroid fuelled world of unfulfillable aspiration. Our eyes are all too often fixed on the destructive and false goal of freedom to do as we please, whereas true freedom is not so much freedom from want – we all deserve to have our basic needs met – but freedom from endless wanting. And if such a philosophy drives a few PR operatives out of business that’s a price I’m more than happy for them to pay!

Corn Salad!

Corn Salad – Valerianella locusta

The monks’ gardens or herbularii contained beds in which were separately grown rosemary, mint, sage, lilies, iris, rue, gladiolus, roses, fenugreek, fennel, cumin etc. [ ……. ] What is significant is the survival of this ‘knowledge’ in seasonal culinary practices, among Greeks, Italians, Catalans, in a tradition unsupported by literacy. The ‘knowledge’ is handed down, chiefly from mother to child, while stooping to gather the plants. (Fallow deer behave in the same way, the mother showing the fawn which plants to eat.) The question now is – without Greek village ladies, Etruscan Dirce,and little girls like Eugenia, how are people to begin to recognize and identify plants? The answer is, I suppose, to consult good books on the subject, although this will be a slower and more uncertain method than those described above. One book to consult is Roger Phillips’ Wild Food. In it you will find a warning. The subject – edible weeds – has aroused an interest just when its pursuit is threatened by the use of pesticides and weed-killers. One has now to acquire an acute awareness in any locality of the use of chemicals. In the Salento the user of these commodities hangs up a bottle or tin from a tree at the entrance to his terrain as a warning sign.

But there is another problem: in Britain, for example, certain wild plants are ‘protected’, and one must know which they are. Ignorance of the law can lead to heavy penalties.

So, quite apart from the ability to discern the edible plants, and awareness of their seasonal apparition, exact knowledge on two counts is required – the Law and the application of pesticides.

It is unfortunate that many modern plant books, relying on colour photographs, ignore the nature of the roots of plants, often vital to the identification of edible weeds by amateurs. The entire plant is to be considered, not just its visible parts.

Nor are botanists particularly interested in edible properties of plants today, with a very lively exception in Geoffrey Grigson (The Englishman’s Flora). His considered opinion of particular edible English weeds, even when prepared by a Queen of Cooks, is not always encouraging.

Patience Gray – “Honey From a Weed

This long section from “Honey From a Weed” is taken from the chapter on edible weeds. Just by way of explanation, Patience Gray was a contemporary of Elizabeth David (I don’t think they cared for one another very much) but each followed very different lives, as did Jane Grigson whose husband Geoffrey is referenced at the end of the quoted section. Very different though they are, for me they are the Holy Trinity of mid 20th century food writers. Between them they did so much more than give me some favourite recipes, because they articulated the foundational truth that cooking is a cultural activity. It’s rooted in the everyday lives of human beings who live in vastly different settings. When I open Patience Gray I can smell the wild oregano and hear Puglian olive trees as their leaves rustle in the hot sun. Patience Gray gave me one of our favourite courgette recipes – Zucchini al forno – but also taught us about human lives, lived out of difficult unforgiving soil and embracing both fasting and feasting. Lives full of seasonal rhythms and texture which led to a book stuffed with insight. I’d urge you to get a copy and embrace it, because I know that if we carry on in the crazy way we’re going and when the climate suddenly switches into something far less temperate – then we’re going to have to live very different lives.

Anyway, this merry thought came to mind as we were watering the allotment early in the morning, trying to beat the suffocating heat. Just recently I’ve spent a lot of time looking at little white numbers, rather like the picture at the top. Many of them are known as Crucifers because they have four petals, symmetrically arranged in a cross shape. Easy peasy. However if you count the petals on the flowers in the photo at the top they all have five petals, which means they’re something else. I had a little chew – don’t try this if you’re not familiar with a plant, but it was pretty sweet and salad-like. It’s Corn Salad, also known as Lamb’s Lettuce probably self seeded from a neighbour’s allotment. But regardless of whether it came via a seed packet or a stray wild seed, it brought Patience Gray immediately to mind. She was a great one for the spring purgative of wild weeds to clear the blood.

To return to a theme that’s been occupying my mind recently, it seems completely random to divide plants into binary groups; edible/inedible, food plant/ medicinal herb. We are both fed and healed by the food we eat, if we choose wisely; and as Gray points out, that leaves the onus on us to choose wisely.

In the kingdom of the blind

So with these thoughts in mind, I set off on a Bath Nats field trip yesterday and found myself being the only person with a modicum of botanical knowledge. Normally I coast along at the back, content to leave the ID’s to a real expert; but in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king and so it fell to me to rummage around in my disorderly memory to try to assist the other members with even less experience than me. I think I blagged my way through it pretty well simply because nearly all the plants that came my way were ones I’d recently struggled with and identified; and I have to say it was terrific fun – I really enjoyed it.

The walk took us in a long four and a bit miles loop around the village of Newton St Loe, which is pretty much owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and shared between several farms, a stunningly beautiful village and one of the Bath Spa University campuses that contains a couple of fishing lakes. The wildlife was, as you might imagine, very rich and varied – lots of birds, insects, dragonflies and the kind of plants you expect to find in mixed woodland and open grassland. The species list will emerge in due course, I’m sure, but I wanted to focus on just two fields which we passed through as we climbed towards the Wilmington Ridge with spectacular views across some archetypal countryside. The first field had a mixed crop of field peas and barley that really threw me, because when I first looked at it I thought it was a complete mess. However a bit of research when I got home, suggests that we’re going to see more and more of this kind of crop as landowners turn to regenerative farming. The peas are grown to augment the protein content of the conventional grain and as a substitute for imported soybeans. Being legumes, the peas also fix nitrogen in the soil and store carbon – so it’s a win win. Obviously there’s a question to be addressed about growing these mixtures to fatten cattle but this is a relatively small mixed organic farm doing its best to adapt to climate change. I’m sure George Monobiome wouldn’t approve but I’m not clear he approves of anything these days (except forests and nuclear power stations ????)

The other field showed a long term result of increasingly intensive cereal farming. A crop of wheat was completely infested with Black Grass – Slender Foxtail, Alopecurus myosuroides. This is a weed of arable crops that has become a massive problem for farmers because it’s easily infected by ergot fungus which it passes on to the host crop – possibly even making it unsaleable. The refined extract of Ergot, Ergotamine, is used by midwives to induce labour. In historical times when it infected rye, it caused a disease known as St Anthony’s Fire which killed around a million people at the end of the first millennium and caused immense suffering through boils and hallucinations. This is not a road you want to go down! This didn’t used to be a problem when crops were mostly spring sown, but these days cereals are sown earlier and earlier in the autumn; germinating at exactly the same time as Black Grass. This challenge converged with another one – the overuse of chemical herbicides – and the Black Grass began to develop immunity to almost all the herbicides that had been used to keep it under control. A small problem suddenly became a really big one. The good news (if there’s any good news in this sorry tale of industrialisation) is that farmers are now having to cope with astronomical rises in the costs of diesel fuel, nitrogen fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, and so, suddenly the organic, regenerative and – dare I say – traditional mixed farming skills are getting a lot of attention.

So to go back to Patience Gray, we’ve fallen for the great lie that we can have feasting, feasting and more feasting if we follow the path of industrialisation. There’s nothing preventing us from moving towards a far more sustainable future so long as we can accept that every day can’t be Christmas Day without destroying the earth. There can be no more feasting unless we accept that a full and sustainable life has to embrace fasting as well.

Watering, weeding, watching and witnessing!

Up at Priddy last week we went for a long walk, introducing our youngest son to some of the sheep droves that make wonderful (and sometimes very lengthy) wildlife walks. We stopped off at the pub – naturally – and feasted on some delicious and very high carb old style pub cooking; but on our way towards it we noticed the field in the photo above that had a recently cut border of something that looked like a red-leaved grain. None of us had any idea what it might be, but there’s a notice up there with the farmer’s phone number on it so next time I’ll make a note of it and ask what it is: desperately hoping that it won’t be some sort of chemical spray.

The soil up there is thin and better suited to sheep farming, so any exposed soil on arable fields always looks impoverished and stony. Several times we’ve spotted small herds of wild deer browsing there. Crossing the fields back from Eastwater Drove to the village green, passing Swildon’s Hole on the way, we encountered a solitary caver walking back along the same path. Many of the fields, although they lack the sheer density of White Field at Dyrham Park, are very rich in wildflowers. What’s interesting is that different species seem to dominate each different environment. As we walked along the Green past the thatched piles of hurdles that are brought out for Priddy Fair every year, we spotted some eggs for sale and bought half a dozen mixed. The next morning I cracked a couple open for breakfast and they sat up beautifully – in perfect condition for poaching.

After this prolonged dry spell our rapidly growing plants need a lot of water, and today we were up at six before the heat got too much for us. This time of year it’s all weeding, watering and waiting on the allotment. We’ll have our first feed of new potatoes and broad beans tonight – that’s one wait I’m glad to end! Weeding is a constant job because we don’t want any of them to set seed or develop stolons or rhizomes. As I was watering I drenched the borders of the pond and a fully grown frog shuffled out of the way. I can’t begin to express how pleased we were to see it. This year none of us have had frog spawn and we were afraid that the disease that’s rampaging through a lot of amphibians had taken them all – but this one looked absolutely fine to me. Yesterday I spotted a hoverfly, one of the handful I can name; Helophilus trivittatus – it doesn’t have an English name. I remember it because its larvae are rat tailed maggots – weird looking creatures with long snorkels.

The best thing about early starts is that we can take longer walks during the day. Yesterday was a ten miler along the river and back down the canal. As we came back into Bath I noticed some Figwort growing at the edge of the path and so I took photos because I don’t recall seeing it there before, and did my best to ID it before emailing the photos to the Vice County Recorder with my suggestion of its identity. I was almost right, but I’d failed to notice two very small details that made it Water Figwort rather than the (less common here) Common Figwort. Anyway, I provided so much detail she was happy to make it a record and I get the credit for noticing it while she gets it for knowing exactly what it was.

Does it matter at all? Is all the voluntary effort to record what most people would regard as weeds actually worthwhile? That’s where the witnessing part of the title comes in. When you walk through a field of chemically supercharged and weed killed Ryegrass it still looks like a field – until you get down on your hands and knees and look more closely and discover there’s nothing there but grass. Yesterday we passed one of our local homeless people with an obvious addiction problem. He was emaciated – bent over and looked as if he might not last a fortnight. I think of these intensively farmed fields as an exact parallel. Whether you’re addicted to crack cocaine or chemical weed and bug killers, you get sicker and sicker and then you die. I try not to dwell on this because it makes me sad; but if we don’t record what’s left now after fifty and more years of intensive farming, then these wonders will slip away and the whole earth will suffer before we wake up one morning and wonder when the last cuckoo was heard, or when the pollinators all died. That’s the witnessing bit. I can’t say whether we’ll succeed but we won’t let up in our mission to record what may one day be lost.

Drowning in the wrong metaphor

St Ives in January 2016

I do lot of reading – you may have noticed if you’re a regular reader – and occasionally I come across a truly daft example of letting a metaphor run away to the point where you can only ask WTF? On one occasion during the formal prayers in church, one of my colleagues who always prepared immaculately, was working up a long metaphorical improvisation on the spiritual power that can inspire creativity and, thinking to finish with a flourish, entreated us to “all fertilize one another”. A request that the congregation, mostly over sixty, chose not to follow up. After a bit of merciless teasing he conceded that he could have chosen his words more carefully!

I don’t retell this story because I disliked him, in fact he was my most trusted friend and something of a surrogate father to me. I tell it because, as I think (I think from memory) Paul Ricoeur once said, “we live in a story shaped universe”; and the stories we tell, the metaphors we use and the pictures we paint actually shape the world we live in and so we have a huge duty of care when we employ them.

Here’s an example from Thomas Berry’s “Dream of the earth”, which I’m re-reading at the moment. I greatly enjoy his writing and in the current climate it’s a book that – if you’re at all interested in any kind of green spirituality – you should read. However here’s an absolute zinger of a metaphor that’s overextended so far it must have ruptured its achilles tendon: “…… without the gravitational attraction experienced throughout the physical world, there would be no emotional attraction of humans to one another.” (Chapter 5 – The ecological age.)

Try as I will, I can’t get my head around the idea that human attraction is related in some material way to our mass. Would I become even more fatally attractive if I gained fifty pounds? It’s just the overextended metaphor escaping and taking on a life of its own. Would we be far less attractive in the low gravity environment of the moon? Ah well, a better editor would have put a blue pencil through that one.

Politicians, of course, love a good metaphor because they understand that in this story shaped universe a well turned phrase can influence behaviour far more powerfully than a 20,000 word policy statement. “Fighting them on the beaches” and “finest hour” convey more emotional content for a useful group of older voters in a couple of words than almost any other phrase in British politics. The fact that they were both coined in times of defeat and failure makes no difference whatever.

So why all this pondering? Well it comes from a long and enjoyable reading of Charles Massy’s book “Call of the reed warbler” in which he frequently blames the “mechanical mind” for much of the critical damage we’ve done to the environment over the past two and a half centuries. I understand, just for the sake of clarity, that we humans started impacting nature as many as ten thousand years ago but we lacked the technological power to put the earth beyond repair. I know exactly what he means by the phrase; especially when it’s opposed to the “ancient organic mind” of our so-called primitive ancestors. He blames the enlightenment for the changing mindset that regards the earth as no more or less than an endless resource that is entirely at our disposal.

What I’m interested in is why? How, culturally, did we change from being stewards to environmental tyrants and how, given the urgency of the crisis, can we build a new culture? Somewhere within the answer there has to be a serious look at which forces most influence our core beliefs and behavior. There’s no point in criticising farmers without examining the agrochemical industry , the industrial food market, media and the marketing and advertising industry. Then we must examine our own role in sustaining these dangerous industries by buying and using their products. This week alone I’ve received three so-called objective reports praising the safety of glyphosate from different organisations which nowhere mention Monsanto or Bayer or indeed Syngenta but cite only evidence that was commissioned and paid for by the industry.

If we live in a story shaped universe then as westerners we need to understand the biblical story about humans being given dominion over all the earth and consider whether we should reject it. We need to understand how and why we talk about endless growth as a settled and universal constant; how and why we tell ourselves that all problems are soluble by technology; how and why our democracy fails to to represent the poor and marginalized – especially those in developing countries but here as well. We need to understand what form of cognitive dissonance allows us to follow a path that day by day which so clearly leads us deeper into trouble.

So thinking about the power of words, pictures and representations is a key task for those of us who want to pursue a different path and perhaps this will turn out to be a golden age for new and powerful stories that undermine the way we do things round here – always my favourite definition of culture.

We need stories that explain how caring for our loved ones can be a fulfilling joy, not a candidate for outsourcing to an underpaid and overworked carer. We need stories that show how non mechanised organic gardening and farming are not drudgery and that there’s more to cooking, eating together and building up our communities than grabbing a solitary coffee and a sandwich. We’ve got nowhere after years of explaining so why not steal the devil’s best tunes and do for the age of technology what Charles Dickens did for the cotton mills and bottle factories. We need to mock the false claims and laugh in the faces of the high priesthood of PR teams and their focus groups. We need to celebrate – in the words of a tremendous poster/poem by Thalassa Ting – all kinds of love. We need to stop looking for redemption through introspection and self hatred and find it on our everyday pilgrimages among strangers. We need to practice the kind of incontinent generosity that shames the ambitious and greedy into dipping a toe into these entirely new waters and we need to work up new opportunities for gathering and expressing thanks for all that we have, rather than shouting and throwing things at those who don’t yet get it. We need to become the hardest of targets; wily coyotes, sly foxes and punch and judy professors who appear and disappear leaving stories that can’t be suppressed but spread like benign wildfires leaving flowers in their wake.

Meanwhile I shall be reading Paul Ricoeur ( The rule of metaphore”) and Jacques Ellul (“The technological society”)who will hopefully break through the crust of the “mechanical Mind” metaphor at the cost of a good deal of head scratching I fear. Being French, and both what we call continental philosophers I had them smuggled through customs in a consignment of newly printed passports – but there it is. At least I’ll be looking at the Irish Sea again.

Gotcha!

Some of this season’s garlic harvest hanging inside the shed to dry

At last we’ve captured a video of the badger on our plot. It’s a very poor but unmistakable image, just from the shuffling gait alone, but it was almost touching the camera so it was rather out of focus – I’ve put it at the end of this post. The existence of the badgers is well known because there’s a sett at the top of the site. They have a reputation for sniffing out the ripe sweetcorn on the very day we plan to cut it and so over the years we’ve had to devise ways of keeping them out.

I once used to watch badgers at night when I was working as a groundsman and they were plaguing the boss’s kitchen garden. One day we put a strong chicken wire fence around the plot and to our amazement the same evening a big boar badger threw himself at it until it collapsed and then sauntered into his domain. There’s no doubt that badgers love sweetcorn, and the constant growing of fodder maize on dairy farms has led to an increase in the badger population just at the time the farmers are trying to blame them for the rise in bovine TB. It’s not that I doubt TB is a constant problem for dairy farmers; but I’d love to see some research done on whether there’s a connection between the occurrence of the disease and the intensity of the farming method being used. I’d be interested in discovering if low intensity grass fed herds are less susceptible to the disease. In human populations TB is associated with poverty and stress and although it may seem strange we’re becoming more and more familiar with the idea that among humans, poverty and stress diseases are greatly increased by cramped and substandard living conditions coupled with a calorie rich junk food diet. Intensive farming is based on the premise that we know better than the cattle what’s good for them.

Anyway, we also know that badgers love our sweetcorn and we were amused that the one we filmed last night is out researching the local corn already. Ours is in full flower and just touching the flowers releases clouds of pollen. There are three principal poachers – not counting the two legged ones – it’s not just the badgers. Rats are great climbers – and so are the squirrels – and they generally attack the cobs by gnawing through the sheaths without breaking the main stalks. Badgers blunder over the whole plant and smash it down to eat the cobs and all we can do to stop them is to protect the beds. It’s said that they don’t like soft netting because they get their claws caught in it and generally we use both hard and soft barriers to deter them. There is another ghostly thief but I’m not sure whether the rumour is true. Apparently deer have occasionally been spotted on the site and maybe one day they’ll show up on the trail cam. We also know that rats and squirrels also love the broad (fava) beans but again it’s fairly easy to sort out the offenders. Rats seem to gnaw at the lower, easy to reach pods; eating a small part of both the seed and the pod; but squirrels really go for them and we have often found little piles of empty pods next to the beds, left very tidy and bereft of their beans which may well have gone off for storage. We’ve got video of both a rat and a squirrel jumping up on to a bed of broad beans that had been cleared the previous day – they must have been disappointed.

So that’s foxes, badgers, domestic cats, squirrels, field mice and rats we’ve now videoed with deer as kind of ghostly reserves. Sadly there are no hedgehogs but that may be down to the badgers which are their big-time predators. The closer we look, the more we see the sheer complexity of the natural history of our urban allotment. At best we’re just (hopefully) considerate participants in the great cycle.

We’re not allowed to connect hoses to the mains supply on our allotments, but today we rigged up our 240V generator with an electric pump and gave the whole plot a good soaking from our own stored water – we’ve got 1500 litres, around 300 gallons of water stored around the place and with a promise of heavy storms on Sunday we thought we’d give the plants a good soak in anticipation of refilling the butts over the weekend. It’s still oppressively hot here but the plots are bursting with life.

The polytunnel tomatoes are ripening thick and fast now so today I’m making the first panzanella of the summer. I got the recipe from Anna Del Conte’s wonderful “Gastronomy of Italy” and it was love at first taste. She writes that recipes for panzanella are as numerous as the people the Nonnas – who pass them on down through the family – I guess that’s exactly what a food culture is all about. Patience Gray’s “Honey from a Weed”; Marcella Hazan’s “The Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking” and Anna Del Conte’s “Gastronomy of Italy” are some of my favourite and most indispensable cookery books because they turn the cooking and eating of vegetables into an adventure. In high summer we luxuriate in the sheer variety of food on the allotment. The best of Italian cooking completely sidesteps the endless debates between carnivores, vegetarians and vegans because absolutely everybody deserves the best of vegetables, cooked or prepared in such lovely ways that meat becomes a minor side issue in the midst of a feast. Sustainable living is so much easier to promote when it’s couched in terms of taking up rather than giving up. Our cultural obsession with rarity and expense has blinded us to the beauty of simple and slow; and if you want to know when to eat your sweetcorn at its absolute peak of perfection, just follow a badger – he’ll know!

Whadda you mean – what am I doing!

Digging down

Priddy Pool

As it happens this post isn’t, strictly speaking, about allotmenteering or gardening, but about interrogating a landscape – to borrow a phrase from Alan Rayner of the Bath Natural History Society – “It’s about walking in nature rather than through nature.”

Dunnock egg

Our favourite way of exploring is to get to know a new landscape by walking all its byways and footpaths really intensively. In this case it’s revisiting a landscape after a gap of many years which has added an extra dimension altogether. I don’t think there’s anything particularly deep or spiritual about this way of walking; it’s just about intense attention to detail. The dunnock egg, for instance, was in the wrong place; many yards from any possible nest. It’s impossible to know why it was there, but probably it had been stolen and then abandoned.

What triggered this line of thought was using the idea of silence in my last posting. Today we were walking a linked series of old droves and as we made our way towards the starting point I realised that I could hear the sound of a dried and dead leaf scuttering across the road in the brisk wind. That’s silence. I could describe it as the matrix that holds all the sounds of a particular place together; an ocean in which sounds are made and scattered. Its a great sadness that such moments are so rare these days.

But there’s more. Coming back to this high country after many years, farming seems to have changed. Walking through the village everything looks much the same – the local authority have done their job in preserving its appearance – but from the inner landscape – the droves and footpaths, another picture appears. Old buildings that were once useful are now abandoned. Behind the unchanged roadside buildings massive new barns have sprung up as farmers have been forced to intensify or go out of business. The rich diversity of wildlife has become increasingly confined to reserves and after three days of walking we’ve yet to see an unimproved meadow. This isn’t an attack on farmers at all. They’ve somewhat heroically tried to do everything they were asked to do – not least to increase production at the expense of the soil and the environment in general. Every cottage that hasn’t been sold to second homers has been pressed into service for holiday lets and – in a situation I know only too well, a local mixed farming culture that developed over centuries has been homogenised and all but destroyed. I was only bleakly amused to meet an electrician installing CCTV cameras on a remote house to deter off-roaders in four wheel drives who, totally illegally, noisily tear the ancient drove road to shreds in rain and snow. The balance of power between locals and incomers has been destroyed and the parish council has, by all accounts, endured hostility as the entrenched pro and anti offroaders battle it out. The local school survives but we looked in vain for a shop. It occurred to me that the silence I was enjoying would have been punctuated by the sounds of dozens, if not hundreds of farm labourers and horses. Some silences are more malign than you might think. An absence of life is not what I was looking for.

And the earth in some places looked exhausted.

The landscape, it seems – and sorry about the long word – to be a palimpsest. The newest message inscribed upon the poorly erased messages of the past. Walking through nature you might never notice the difference, but walking in it forces us to embrace its mystery. The story told by the plants that survive in the most surprising corners where they escaped the predation of plough, fertiliser and pesticide.

And yet our hearts are still lifted by discovering new plants. Tonight – so long as the sky stays clear we might get a glimpse of the lyrid meteor shower – first described over two millennia ago, which adds up to a lot of wonder. God forbid I become just another grumpy old man. When it comes to landscapes I’m more Edward Thomas than RS Thomas.

“Events, dear boy, events!”

Detergent foam on the river.

You know when you’re feeling a bit down when Harold Macmillan’s well known quip comes back to haunt you; but in the minor key. When events start floating past like the ghosts of things that once seemed more important, it’s a bit of a sign that it’s all getting too much: all this endless and aimless governmental button pressing to try and factory reset the country back to an imaginary default state. I read an interesting piece by a behavioural psychologist a few days ago describing the state of mind that, having invested heavily in a solution that’s evidently not working, idles in a catatonic state, hoping that something will turn up.

Here are three signs that it’s not working. One … there was (yet another) provocative op-ed in the Farmers Weekly in which their star winder-up writes that he doesn’t understand the point of regenerative farming. I have written to him in the past about his headline grabbing tendencies (there’s a lot of it about) and point out that the crisis facing intensive farming is well understood, well researched and roaring down the line with no brakes. At what point does not understanding something so important, become a sign of sheer stupidity? I shan’t write of course because last time I did he simply rolled over with a shrug and said ‘maybe I did exaggerate a bit”. The danger is that some of his readers might use his idiotic opinions to shore up their faith in the collapsing citadel of scientific progress and Bishop Bayer.

Next, I might mention the UK government’s announced intention to revisit the debate on what they are now calling “gene editing” which is, they suggest, quite different from “genetic modification”. They used the same trick when they renamed the explosive and leaky nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield, and called it Windscale. Anyway, gene editing sounds pretty much the same to me. I read somewhere that what they mean is that they won’t be inserting genes from a different species but merely mucking about with the ones that are already there. Science fictionally that’s a shame because I’d enjoy the thought of venus flytraps crossed with alligator genes so that they could take a poacher’s leg off. Imagine the kudos of 100% organic fencing. At the point where a species of – let’s say – wheat, is reduced to a complex sequence of genetic code, I have to wonder whether we are so down the reductive path that any talk of species is a rather romantic – what’s wheaty in a single gene? and in reality, it seems to me that interspecies genetic editings and borrowings have caused more than a little trouble at the pandemic level. The inventor of the Kalashnikov rifle always denied that he had done anything more morally culpable than save the Russian government a heap of money on the cost of killing people. You can’t argue with economics …. can you?

“Item the third” (is that Sam Weller in Pickwick papers?) Our Government has just lifted the ban on a neonicotinoid spray in order to save losses in sugar beet crops. Let’s take that one step at a time. The neonicotinoid has been banned because of its capacity to kill pollinating insects. The crop it has been licenced for is sugar beet which is used to make refined white sugar which kills people. So the government had the option of encouraging sugar beet farmers (through subsidy if necessary) to grow crops that we actually need, and which don’t cause diabetes while simultaneously protecting the environment and saving insects. But then, bees don’t give money to politicians but big refined sugar companies and agrochemical manufacturers do.

I could go on forever like this – Scottish fishermen say their income has dropped by 80% since brexit. Poor children are offered the kind of subsidised food parcels that could bring back rickets while our excess death toll due to covid is now in excess of the numbers for the Second World War.

The soil and with it our souls shrink and die a little more every day; Rachel Carson’s silent spring presses hard on us and I’m locked in introspection as the sad captains of industry and their scientific infantry process, wraith like past me, reciting their little fragments of management wisdom all the way down to the pit. In Dante’s “Inferno” the outer circle of hell is reserved for those who didn’t give a shit:

And I , who felt my head surrounded by horrors.

Said: ‘Master, what then is it that I am hearing?

And what people are these, so crushed by pain?’

He answered: ‘That is the manner of existence

Endured by the sad souls of those who lived

Without occasion for infamy or praise.

They are mixed with that abject squadron of angels

Who did not think it worth their while to rebel

Or to be faithful to God, but were for themselves’

Dante The Divine Comedy – Trans. C H Sisson

Who says literature is a waste of time? That last verse has sustained me through many challenging times.

“Enough already”, I say. There comes a point when it’s best to imitate rebellious Chinese scholars and take up fishing for a while. The Potwell Inn allotment has been an illumination and a salve during what they like to call “these difficult times“, when what they actually mean is “your difficult times”. The new season approaches and we’ve finally made the decision to buy a polytunnel; in fact we’ve ordered it and paid for it and watched the video about erecting it. What could possibly go wrong?

We are well and in good health, we have enough food; somewhere to live and yet …. Has brexit and covid distracted us that we’re so focused on the immediate – on the “events, dear boy,” of day to day politics, that we’ve lost the big picture.

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield

Is there a cunning plan?

It’s utterly depressing, but the answer is going to be no. At the present moment living in the UK feels as if we’ve strayed into an episode of Blackadder, except there are no jokes. I’d like to be writing warm, lyrical and encouraging posts about how wonderful life is at the Potwell Inn – except it’s not – and I don’t mean that I’m lying here on the floor with an axe embedded in my head, although the thought may have entered Madame’s mind. The reason it’s not wonderful is that we’ve spent eleven months in a suspended state; very largely on our own and separated in any meaningful sense from our family and friends. During the first lockdown and the first easing we enjoyed the fine weather on the allotment, where we almost lived for months; but now in the winter there’s hardly anything to do there because we used the autumn to prepare for next season. So we’re deprived of the exercise and the sense of engagement that kept us sane for the first five or six months. Hence the renewed interest in long distance walks and the renewed exploration of the Mendip Hills, of which a little more later.

Of course there are always books. Madame reads novels and biographies, and pretty much anything else she can lay her hands on but I’m firmly in the grip of the protestant work ethic and my reading tends to be highly directional and (dare I say) improving stuff with footnotes and references and centred on the green new deal, environment, natural history, food and that kind of thing. I wish I felt more improved than I do but for the most part it leaves me feeling sad, utterly depressed or screaming at the TV in anger at the incapacity of either interviewers or politicians to ask or answer the simplest (but most diligent) question – more Blackadder. I remember once talking to a depressed consultant oncologist who confessed he was so overworked his first thought on meeting a new patient was how am I going to get this person out of the room? I always felt that any culpability for his reaction was far more due to the distant political choices that put him in that terrible position, than to any deficiency in him.

I probably shouldn’t unload any of these personal anxieties except that I know that it can break through the isolation that leaves so many of us wondering if we’re the only ones who feel this way. Isn’t the first aim of gaslighting always to isolate your critics and convince them that it’s all their fault. But it’s not our fault that covid and brexit have been so badly managed. I look down the list of countries in which Potwell Inn readers live and I can see that many of us have been let down – in different ways – but still let down.

Not feeling safe; not knowing what to believe and what not to believe; not understanding what it is we’re meant to do; missing the everyday pleasures of chance encounters with neighbours and friends; missing the lectures and meetings that cement us as a cohort of like-minded individuals; missing the hugs and the smell of our grandchildren’s hair (OK that’s a bit out there, but you know what I mean). All these etch into us like frost and rain etch their way into rock, and leave us feeling empty and exhausted. I read too many articles about the benefits of nature for mental health, but the principal benefit may be to writers writing books about the benefits. I reckon I’m a pretty resilient person, and I know that Madame is too; and yet we both feel hollowed out by this experience, and sometimes the walking and even the cooking and gardening seem more like displacement activity than wholesome activity should. Staying sane seems to be an immense effort of will.

One question has been bothering me in particular because, in the light of the constellation of crises we’re facing, the issue of food security must surely come near the top. Do we really want to get back to normal if that involves the pollution, the destructive farming and the sickness that associates with bad economics, poverty and junk food. So I’ve spent quite a lot of time reading around the question of food security, trying to see if there’s an answer to the question – could the UK be more self sufficient in food without going deeper into the abyss of intensive chemical dependent farming; and the answer – I’m pleased to say – is “Yes – But”.

If there are any vegans and vegetarians out there who think we can save the world by eating processed non-animal gloop, then the answer is no. If there are intensive farmers who think the way forward is more of the same, the answer is no as well. It’s no to industrial organic farms and no if you think we can feed ourselves on mediterranean delights grown on the allotment or purchased in the supermarket. If there are any people sitting in 3 litre SUV’s prepared to embrace anything except changing the way they drive, it’s also no. And it’s no to airlines, and no to food miles and criminal waste. In fact the answer can only be yes if we’re all prepared to change – quite a bit. This isn’t just a personal view, it’s a summary of all the scientific evidence I’ve managed to get my hands on.

Number one – (two three and four as well!) – is we need to eat less meat, much less meat; preferably chicken because it has a much more efficient conversion ratio. We need to embrace a plainer more sustainable diet sourced as locally as possible – to quote Michael Pollan – ‘eat food, not too much, mostly veg‘. The over embracing plan is summarised by Tim Lang in his book “Feeding Britain – our food problems and how to fix them” * – and he describes it as “a great food transformation”. Crucially this isn’t a book about organic farming or vegetarian diet, it’s an important book about farming, diet, public health, social policy, politics and food culture. You would profit from reading it wherever you stand on the food and farming spectrum. Of course, the cynics will say that the population will never embrace such far reaching change, to which he would respond that in a crisis – let’s say the onset of war in 1939, for instance, there won’t be any alternative but to change. The storm clouds that are gathering on the horizon right now are coming our way and our political system is proving itself unfit to deal even with one challenge, let alone three or four existential crises at once.

They would say that wouldn’t they?

Mandy Rice Davies

But this is good news. We are categorically not all doomed – we can make the changes we need to make and what’s more important, we can create a far better, far less divided and infinitely safer world as we do it. We mustn’t allow the powerful to claim that nothing can be done except more of the same. They would say that wouldn’t they?

Well there we are, and just to prove it’s not all been eye strain these past couple of days, the long Mendip Way walk is being chipped off a few miles at a time. On Monday we walked from Tynings Farm down to Shipham; back through Rowberrow Warren and across Blackdown. Why would I bother with these obscure place names when many people who read this will never see them? and the answer is that place names are beautiful in and of themselves, like tiny topographical markers that set up home in your mind and remind you that the earth is made of places which, just like us, have names and histories and are often very beautiful. The walk took us down the most lovely valley, following a stream most of the way, and then back through a forestry plantation and out on to the open moorland of Blackdown. Barely five miles but offering three quite distinct landscapes. Best of all we found hazel catkins flowering in profusion in the sheltered valley. The photograph shows one such catkin, coated in melting ice formed in the overnight frost but demonstrating that spring will come – and it can’t come too soon.

  • I’ll make a proper booklist soon – most of the books have been mentioned but I’ll assemble a proper list in case anyone is interested.
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