Something hot?

Habanero – the hottest one we grow!

Well, in the midst of this strangest of seasons we have managed to grow enough chillies to keep us going through the winter, although taking the extraordinary weather into account it looks as if ripening the last few stragglers is going to be a problem. For the first year since we’ve been on the plot, we managed to eat all our sweetcorn before the badgers/rats/squirrels and possibly deer got to them. We only managed this by planting them in the most inaccessible place and surrounding them with sheep netting barriers – it was, however, worth the hassle because home grown corn (like most veg) is so much better than the shop version. You wonder if they’ve been 3D printing them from cardboard.

The chillies seem to be a bit of a blokey enthusiasm, with fierce competition to grow a chilli hot enough to heat a small town for a week – a sort of vegetable willie waving, if that’s not too lively a metaphor for a Tuesday morning. We don’t even eat anything much hotter than a Jalapeño, so my Apache chillies are dutifully frozen, and the Habaneros respectfully avoided. The pleasure it seems is in the achievement of getting them to bear fruit and ripen – which in a season that’s swerved between the biblical extremes of flood, fire and storm is a bit of a problem. *Even the frogs have done exceptionally well this year but the boils have mercifully stayed away.

However the cherry tomatoes have suffered terribly from brown rot, and that’s down to the erratic rain and sunshine and exacerbated by water splash on the leaves. But we’ve gathered enough from the rather sad looking bushes to make a couple of litres of oven dried tomatoes in oil. It’s a skill to balance dryness with sheer toughness because once they’ve gone to far, no amount of olive oil will bring them back to life. I like to give these tomatoes twenty minutes in their oil at around 110C in the oven after drying them overnight at 65C because low acidity bottled fruits can, in exceptional circumstances, develop botulinus contamination.

The same problem happens with figs if you dry them in their skins. To be fair, nearly everything is better eaten fresh, straight out of the ground or off the tree. I’d make some fig compôte except we’re cutting out sugar at the moment and all of my favourite preserves are close to pure carbohydrate. As Oscar Wilde said – “I can withstand anything except temptation”, and DH Lawrence got positively aroused by them, but I think they’d both be quite safe with this year’s efforts in the Potwell Inn kitchen.

So this year has been pretty good. I love the fact that the old, unglamorous plants like savoy cabbages, brussels sprouts, and especially leeks are all loving it. The autumn leeks are stout and sweet and the succession ones are coming along far better than they have for the past four years, which – I guess – is what allotmenteering is all about. You have to embrace and enjoy success when it comes, but never get blown off course by failure. Once you’ve renounced the chemicals and given up the extractive attitude then you’re in a one on one relationship with the earth which has its own ways and is a far better teacher than any book. In many ways, ‘though I can’t claim any deep knowledge of the subject, the earth teaches a form of Tai Chi, or Taoist spirituality. I don’t mean all that stuff about being ‘closer to God in a garden’ which completely misunderstands what happens when merely looking at something miraculously becomes beholding. Forgive me, I’m digging deep here but it’s a crucial distinction.

There really is a huge difference between hard gardening that wants to bully and harry the earth into submission, and contemplative gardening that opens intangible channels through which we can ‘hear’ and even ‘understand’ what response is asked of us.

Don’t cling! Don’t strive! Abandon yourself! Look beneath your feet!

Ryōkan

* Biblical joke, sorry. Old habits die hard.

Hey – those sunflowers are mine!

Grey squirrel feeding on our sunflowers on the allotment today

Every now and again a proper conundrum comes along – usually because two ways of understanding collide. Here’s a version of it that came along today. We went out early for our walk to day and spotted some good things on our way around. Bath Deep Lock had our friend the heron and a family of two swans and their four cygnets. The house martins were nowhere to be seen on the first pond above the canal entrance but on our way back on the riverside we saw our first kingfisher from the riverside. Who’d have thought to see one alongside a busy building site in the centre of the city, but there it was like a jewel catching the light, flashing its prismatic colours. Opposite the railway station we saw a lesser black backed gull catch a fish from the river. Why that should be a surprise is a sign of the times! Then, to crown the morning, a professional hawker was back flying his Harris hawk on the Green; the gulls – highly alarmed – were circling and diving, mobbing the seemingly unconcerned hawk. I think, because we were standing and staring, the hawker flew the bird across to a tree just above our heads where we were able to see it more closely, and as the bird perched there a parent with a young child hurried past oblivious of the hawk sitting feet away above their heads. We would have pointed it out but the father was fiercely focused on hurrying the child somewhere and missed the moment.

So how does that lively morning’s experience interlock with mindfulness, or the Taoist discipline of non conceptual engagement. Is it OK for me to name the flowers? or should I put all those concepts to one side and simply contemplate them in that oddly detached way that I’ve occasionally encountered. Is it obsessive and dangerous to the spirit to care which species of ragwort is growing in the car park?

The Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao

Lao Tzu

I get it, I think, that the ‘thing in itself’ – the kestrel or the kingfisher, for instance, can never be contained within any words, concepts or pictures. The thing in itself is elusive, intangible, fleeting. We know this perfectly well when, for example, we gaze in wonder at a flower meadow knowing that it is always in a state of flux – growing, fading and dying and then regenerating. We know that we are like the flower of the field. Autumn whispers the ephemerality of our own lives to us, and so we know that it cannot be fully understood by just measuring its span or its rainfall and temperature

And then, this afternoon a kind of answer to the conundrum came during a visit to the allotment to pick herbs. As I came down the path I spotted the squirrel nonchalantly munching the sunflower seeds. If I put the sequence of my thoughts into slow motion they went something like this:

  • Hey those sunflowers are ours – we wanted to save them for the birds
  • Gosh how lovely to see a squirrel close-up
  • Squirrels are pests, I should drive it away
  • No I should take a photograph and leave the squirrel alone

I’m perfectly sure it was a lot more complicated than that but on reflection I could see how my Western dualistic mind had split the event into three – squirrel, sunflower, and me. In my instinctive response I’d set up a gap between the three of us, conceptualized a property relationship and a feudal hierarchy in which I was the Lord of the manor, the sunflower was my inalienable property which the squirrel was poaching. It’s when we react without thinking that we are most likely to expose our inner processes.

Water overflowing Bath Deep Lock

What non-dualistic thought does is to try to push to one side all those conceptualizations and reach into what cannot be spoken or understood, but is the thing in itself. It doesn’t mean that I won’t be miffed about getting seeds pinched but were they ever mine in any way that makes sense? How on earth does categorizing the squirrel as a pest mean anything? And who grew the seeds? Am I not dependent on the earth and the seasons without which there would be no sunflower and no seeds to anguish about? Of course it doesn’t suggest that I shouldn’t be seized with sufficient curiosity and wonder about a flower to want to understand it better, learn where it fits into the family of flowers and perhaps photograph or draw it. But when all that’s done I still haven’t captured or understood anything except an idol of the thing in itself which always exceeds and overflows it like a stream. The danger of too much focus on concepts is that they blind us to the extent of our unknowing. I can never imagine being a twitcher, or a botanical collector or a butterfly hunter completely focused on ticking every species on a list, but it’s just lovely to engage with a species I’ve never seen before, not because I derive any virtue from our encounter but because I found a friend I’d never previously met. Being mindful doesn’t mean struggling to empty your mind of everything, and non dualistic thinking doesn’t mean that I should search for my inner squirrel or sunflower seed; it just means that even botany has its place for wonder and we often learn more by standing in the stream without expectations.

It’s a common birdsfoot trefoil – Lotus corniculatus (but not an actual bird’s foot).

Staying positive

I promised I’d say something about Thomas Berry’s book “The dream of the earth” which I’ve been reading for a couple of days. It’s a bit dense but the idea that runs through it is very simple. We like to think of ourselves as rational and scientific creatures who have collectively transcended millennia of superstition and religion and emerged at last confident in our capacity to organise the earth far better than nature ever managed on her own. Industry and science have delivered (we believe) all the things that previous belief systems had bundled up into a kind of visionary future that will deliver peace, prosperity, food for all and universal happiness because we can all access the very things our unfortunate ancestors could only think of in religious terms.  The sick will be healed, the dead raised (cryogenics) and we shall all share in a great banquet of goods and services exactly tailored to our innermost and secret desires. It’s hard to fault it, and as Gandhi was reputed to have replied when asked about European civilisation – “it would be a good idea”.

But the thing about religious ideologies  – and Berry is suggesting that’s what we have got here – is that you can’t question them. The evidence that our present way of life is destructive and dangerous is everywhere to be seen and yet remains invisible to millions of people. Who knows why? All we do know is that presenting the evidence doesn’t seem to shake belief in the status quo at all. What we seem to need is not better evidence or better presentation of the old evidence but something which more closely resembles a religious conversion. The continuation of life on earth, he argues, depends on a universal and thoroughgoing change of perspective. We need to rediscover the sacred earth.  We need to embrace our creatureliness in order to rediscover our true creativity.

I hope you’ll read the book, but meanwhile here’s some scary background reading on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, written by Brendan Montague who is editor of the Ecologist magazine. And here’s a very good example of the aquarian fallacy that believes there is always an industrial solution to every problem. Here a commercial forestry expert advises the planting of more conifers to save the world because they grow more quickly.  Sadly he doesn’t seem to notice that even if they capture carbon for 25 years as they grow, immediately they’re felled they begin to release that stored carbon back into the atmosphere. There’s only one way, and that’s to end the way we consume the earth. That consumption is enabled and fuelled by the false ideology of never ending progress, the fantasy that there is no limit to growth

Which links nicely to today on the allotment because the absence of cars on the streets has made our plot more beautiful than ever – less polluted by the busy road, less noisy and quiet enough to hear a blackbird sing across the road. Call me an old romantic but I really like it.

After a few hours out in the sunshine while we sowed, planted and prepared the bed for the runner beans that will climb up their supports when they’re planted out in mid May, we took some photos and wandered home again. On a day like today this doesn’t feel too much like hardship. The hazel bean poles came from friends in Wales (thanks Nick and Kate) and always bring back memories of old gardens and older mentors from the past. We were able to talk to friends on the telephone and all our children keep in daily touch.  The food we eat has simplified because there’s no opportunity for impulse buys which has a knock-on effect on our waste.  Inside the flat the window tables are full and growing steadily.  We’ve tried to work to the point where – if the lockdown intensifies – the allotment can look after itself for a week or two.

Anger is a corrosive emotion, and I’ve lapsed into real anger more then once over the past few weeks, but today was too good to waste on recriminations. The time of reckoning will come soon enough, but meanwhile our biggest hope is that our economics and politics could escape from the hubristic prison of its false claims, the false choices that are presented as the only possible ways forward; the wolf of extractive capitalism disguised as a disturbingly green lamb, the kind that glows in the dark.  Several times today I’ve thought about the lines from Asinaria, written in 195 BC, by Titus Maccius Plautus –

One man to another is a wolf, not a man,

It’s not the full quotation which is rarely used, but the reason it’s almost always cropped is because it does seem to express something of a universal truth about our capacity for mutual harm.

Rediscovering the sacred earth isn’t about wandering through the bosky woods with your mind full of fluffy feelings. Creatureliness is vulnerable, fragile, ephemeral, capable of great love and great cruelty. Being a part of nature completely resets our relationship with the earth and with one another.  No spirituality that follows, (and any change of perspective as profound as this will involve a spiritual dimension), can be co opted and repackaged as just another product of Western materialism.

Our allotment isn’t a panacea, a free pass to a world suddenly put right again; it’s a shoulder to the wheel, that’s all. An invitation both to celebrate and to fear the seasons, but at least to be a part of the great cycle. A way of understanding our creatureliness through growing, tending, sharing and eating; through poetry, music and song, even building, and above all a way of understanding our dependence on the earth and on nature as the foundation of real wisdom.

Everyday sacred

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Writing about baking bread the other day I was casting around for a way of expressing just how important ordinary actions and objects can be. I’ve written in the past about the ‘ordinary’ and I’ve no doubt I’ll keep coming back to it. Ordinary is a word inflected by its use by the church to describe the authority of regularity, of obedience, of order, but in  institutional hands it came to mean repetitiveness, blind obedience and hierarchy. Sometimes it’s possible to blow the dust off an old word and restore it to its full meaning, but maybe ‘ordinary’ has been taken to the charity shop once too often and so it just means ‘a bit meh’.

So my loaf of bread, ordinary though it is to me, because it embodies a whole network of responsibilities and regularities – and great beauty too, aside from its utility as a shared food – ‘ordinary’ doesn’t quite stretch to it.  So I tried another word. ‘everyday’.   Everyday bread perhaps, for some people, conjures up a faint memory of ‘daily bread’. The word stuck in my mind and although I’ve tried writing on a number of other subjects I keep coming back to the idea of ‘everyday sacred’.

I’m really worried about using these kind of words because they’ve been so hijacked and starved by by their association with organised religion with which I’ve had a long relationship in the past.  But that leaves me with a problem because if ‘spirituality’, ‘sacred’, and all their associated concepts are put beyond reach by the institutions that hold the concession at the moment, we have to start from scratch in describing what for many of us is a deeply felt connection with the earth, and with one another, that transcends the ‘selfish gene’ nonsense peddled by Old Testament atheists like Richard Dawkins.

I no longer have a belief in the supernatural.  I dreamed about losing it and then it just happened one day as I stood watching the River Severn in flood, and I saw it float away in the fierce water.  It wasn’t at all dramatic; I wasn’t as much ‘losing my faith’ as being set free to find it again in another place, free of the rigidity and dogma. I’ve never spoken about this before and it may come as a bit of a shock to some of my friends so I’ll have to pace up and down  a bit before I press the ‘publish’ button, but there we are – it’s a relief to have written it.

So now I can write about everyday sacred without any ambiguity about my intentions. This blog isn’t about selling anything it’s about being human – delightfully, stupidly and increasingly decrepitly human.  When I’m in the kitchen making bread I feel connected.  When I’m on the allotment I feel it too.  On my way through the park today I stood face to face with a pair of long tailed tits in the hedge who seemed as curious about me as I was about them, and the urge to thank somebody, something, surged inside me.

Everyday sacred is that sense of gratitude because the earth provides so much that we need. The photo is of a sketch I made of a garlic bulb – this was a more successful one, I did dozens of others that turned out like schoolboy phallic graffiti – it’s hard to get it right. Knowing that it’s so good for us to eat and knowing something about the quite amazing molecular transformations that go on within garlic, within so many plants whose secondary metabolites can cure our diseases and put us back together again – that induces the same sense of the everyday sacred.  The hawthorn – we called it ‘bread and cheese’ as children and ate the leaves when they were new and not full of tannin – hawthorn has an outrageous array of natural gifts to offer.

So the Potwell Inn is for: dancing, singing, making music, eating together, telling jokes, falling in love, breaking the rules, growing our food and listening to each others troubles; healing, challenging and forgiving – these are the everyday sacred, and I say to the churches – “thank you for looking after the ball for so long,  but please can we have it back now.”