Creeping agoraphobia

Madame’s drawings of some globe artichokes from the allotment

It’s rapidly approaching a year since we first ‘closed the doors’ of the Potwell Inn and went into withdrawal mode, and I’ve noticed a change in my mood, over the past few weeks. We’ve occupied ourselves with piles of reading and planning for next season. I’ve written most days and Madame has been drawing; but suddenly I feel like one of those cartoon characters whose flight from threat is expressed by comically rotating legs whilst not moving at all. Treading water is for too stately a description of this weird feeling. In the past few weeks we’ve only done half a dozen river walks because it can be quite busy with others doing the same thing. As for the parks, well forget it. What with cyclists in groups and runners passing close with no masks on, going outside feels a bit threatening. The other day we drove up to the allotment with several bags of potential compost and we had our licence plate recorded by a policeman standing at the side of the road. My fear is that if this crisis goes on much longer a whole generation of older and vulnerable people are going to have to add agoraphobia to their list of challenges.

Before anyone tells me off for making light of a serious problem, it’s actually something I know a bit about, because my father – who probably had undiagnosed PTSD as a result of his experiences during the war – suffered from agoraphobia for many years. But in this instance I’ve been thinking about the literal meaning of the term which, from the Greek agora, or market place. has a whole bunch of rich and enlightening implications. The agora was more than a bunch of market stalls, it was a communal meeting space and also a place where ideas were exchanged and where speeches were made. If there was any temptation to label the covid driven fear of the crowd, the supermarket and such like, as ubiquitous these days, there may be more – more significant and more damaging changes – going on. During the first (and much tougher) lockdown, the allotment community was an absolute lifesaver. We were mostly pretty good at hailing one another across the plots, and that sense of belonging drove out the isolation. It was good. There were a few exceptions. Allotments that had been unlet for years were taken up by a younger generation of furloughed allotmenteers, and among them were a few that seemed to regard old age as contagious in some strange way – as if talking to us might induce the onset of grey hair. One of our newcomers took to asking her neighbour if she could have a few sticks of rhubarb for instance, and would then strip the plant bare. She and her partner would have barbecues three or four times a week and invite friends around regardless of the rules. In fact it became clear that there was a real link between attitudes in the workplace; extractive, exploitative attitudes towards the client base and attitudes towards the allotments. You could see how it’s come to be that for many people our culture is dangerously detached from the natural world.

We hear a great deal about the healing powers of nature and I’ve wondered here before, if that doesn’t overegg the pudding. If you took an industrial farmer to the wilderness it would be more likely that they’d tell you it needed farming properly (ie intensively). A miner might pick up the odd stone and you’d be praying he didn’t find anything too valuable there. In Cornwall there’s a huge conflict brewing about mining for lithium for batteries to make sure the car industry can go on expending ancient reserves for short term gain. No – I don’t believe for a moment that the occasional immersion in nature as spectacle will change our culture.

However, just now we need hope, and this week the polytunnel kit arrived, delivered by a delightful lorry driver who was so moved at the sight of the allotments that he told us all about his childhood and how his father had paid him pocket money for picking caterpillars off the cabbages. Then yesterday our appointments for our first covid vaccinations came through, and a brief glimmer of light appeared. But I was more surprised to realise that the thing that gave me most pleasure was to send off an order for a packet of heritage runner bean seeds and a kilo of baler twine for supporting the tomatoes that will be growing in the polytunnel in a couple of months . The tools for putting up the tunnel have all been gathered together; lines, pegs, hammers, drills, spanner, power tools and spirit level and now we’ll wait patiently for this southwesterly weather to moderate a bit and give us some dry days.

I wish I had some pixie dust to sprinkle around the world. I wish there were words I could write that would reverse the violence of our (un)civilization and bring us to our collective senses. I wish there was a proper, functioning agora where we earth citizens could listen to one another and where we could be heard – but at the moment there is no such place and there are no such words I think. The only contribution we can make seems woefully inadequate and yet maybe actions really do speak louder than words and the earth can be saved – as the website of World Organic News says – “one cabbage at a time”.

I love Madame’s drawings of our artichokes. They’re so beautiful both on the page and in the flesh, but they’re fiercely thorny, and by the time you’ve trimmed them back to the choke there’s hardly anything left to eat. Then, all great art is wasteful if you try to reduce it to a spreadsheet. Our dream is to live simply within our means and hand our allotment on to a stranger in better condition than we found it. Is there a column for wonder in the neoliberal profit and loss account?

Seasonal stocktake

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At last, with a supply of spring vegetables coming in we can make a seasonable vegetable stock with produce straight from the ground.  Obviously the stalwarts are there the year round, but as our youngest chef/son pointed out yesterday, there’s a sweetness in the early veg that you can’t easily find in winter. This one, aside from onion, carrots and celery – all the usual suspects – had spring onions, the very last of the overwintered leeks, Swiss chard, the runts of last year’s garlic crop, fennel and fresh herbs wherein lay a lesson. We’ve never used lovage before in a stock but we did yesterday and we discovered that, like nutmeg and saffron it’s a flavouring that needs using with discretion, because if it’s not it can be a bit overwhelming.  Yesterday’s stock had a single leaf the size of a hand in it and I’d say that’s about the limit.

The other early job, aside from cooking breakfast, was to put a slow braised piece of topside (a very occasional treat at the Potwell Inn)  in the oven for the whole day in a wine and stock sauce. It’ll do us for at least three meals but yesterday evening I cooked a proper ‘Sunday meal’ to replace the calories I’d burnt off earlier in the day. When Madame prepped the veg I protested that there were far too many for us to eat, but (I think to our joint amazement) we cleared the lot.

Earlier we went to the allotment to take a delivery of topsoil.  The bed system works very well most of the time, but when it comes to earthing up potatoes you need quite a lot of soil, and in any case we needed extra soil to top the beds up. I created a one metre cube store with pallets to keep it tidy but as it was brought down in barrow loads I had to extend the store twice and by the end I think I had around one and a half tons – which sounds a lot but doesn’t go that far in practice – enough to make a couple of deep beds, from scratch, that’s all.  I decided to spread the soil out before the rain arrives on Tuesday but it was a very hot day, and By the time I’d top dressed three beds I’d shifted the whole load and I ached.

This morning we went up to the allotment to clear up, feed and weed before the rain and also to test the new water butt pump to make sure it would be capable of raising stored water from the bottom to the top of the slope. Happily, apart from having to lug a heavy generator down to the plot, it worked seamlessly and with sufficient pressure to generate a decent spray after travelling about 60 feet along a pipe. Once I’ve finished the last bit of civil engineering there should be enough stored water to keep the plants alive for several months in an emergency. I keep asking myself if we’re being ridiculously pessimistic, but climate change brings flood and drought conditions – neither of which are conducive to good growth.

But all the while there’s a certain weariness with the lockdown. There’s the constant fear of being overwhelmed by a miasma which by now is as much psychological as it is physical, but none the less real for that. We seem to alternate days of vitality and optimism with days of gloom – living like lighthouse keepers with no relief crew in prospect.