Of course we talk to the allotment – how else would we know how to keep it happy?

It’s Good Friday today and English tradition demands that we plant potatoes. Of course traditions can be very local or just plain wrong. With Easter tied to the phases of the moon, Good Friday wanders about a fair bit because Easter Day is calculated by the first full moon after the equinox which – this year – falls on Sunday 17th April; making Good Friday the 15th. The obvious explanation underlying the tradition is that the Easter weekend has always constituted a four day public holiday in this country and so for working people it was the ideal opportunity to get the new season’s crops underway. Jetting off to Spain wasn’t even on the cultural horizon and so my childhood memories of Good Friday are always triggered by the smell of freshly turned earth – scientific name, petrichor; the queues at Palmers seed store and at Flook’s the fishmonger, the owner of which had been working with fish so long he closely resembled a tall cod in his wellingtons and oilskin apron.

Here at the Potwell Inn, the latest frost (since we’ve been living here) was on May 6th so it’s clear that although potatoes, being planted below the surface, would be OK; there are many frost tender plants that wouldn’t. In the real world of allotmenteering, potato planting demands warm earth, no sudden cold or frosty spells on the horizon and time to get the job done and, as far as we’re concerned that means tomorrow because the potatoes are all chitted and ready.

As we were busy setting up nets and prepping beds yesterday I was mulling over the perplexing reason that allotmenteering is so good for the soul, and I think the answer (if there is one) has changed greatly over time, for me. Our first allotments and gardens – if I’m honest – were a bit of a struggle. Weeds and pests demanded constant hand-to- hand combat and any successful crops were snatched from the jaws of death. I can remember once losing an entire crop of beautiful Marmande style beef tomatoes to blight and watching potatoes turn to black slime for the same reason. It was hard to feel any kinship with the earth when it seemed to push back so harshly. We were always opposed to using chemicals, and so our options seemed limited. Sometimes we just gave up and walked away; disappointed and resentful.

But yesterday I realized it all felt very different. We’ve learned the hard way that birds and caterpillars will decimate brassica crops if we don’t protect them with nets. Allium leaf miner and asparagus beetle too are endemic on the site but we use a lot of fine insect mesh to keep the bugs out. We grow blight resistant tomatoes and maincrop potatoes (Crimson Crush Sarpo Mira), and we clear up any dead leaves; minimise the places slugs like to lay eggs and let the blackbirds take the rest. We net the fruit trees until the buds have set and so-on. Finally we don’t plant out tiny fragile little slug takeaways but grow them on until they can take a nibble or two. Badgers need something approaching the Maginot line to keep them off the sweetcorn – and so it goes on.

We also do a lot of companion planting and in the last two years we’ve doubled the number of perennials; increasing hugely the number of insect attractors and pollinators. We don’t dig and we make over a ton of compost every year; the net result being that our allotment can look a bit scruffy but the food plants grow well and we just accept that in a sane world, we simply have to share with all the other creatures. Gardening has become a silent dialogue with the plants, small; mammals, birds and insects who share the space with us. There are no weeds and no pests because we all have a right to exist.

Of course the non-polarized world of the allotment comes up against the binary world of allotment bureaucracy pretty regularly. Recently we had an epistle from on high regarding “non fruiting shrubs” which the writer wanted us to other and promptly remove. What’s a non-fruiting shrub? I wondered. What about cotoneaster for instance? – much loved and needed by birds in the winter. What about our Achillea plants: they have no humanly useful food – although the stalks are useful for casting the I Ching – and they provide pollen for insects – isn’t that fruit in a broader sense? Does our Borage fail the food test? What about Good King Henry? which side of the friend/enemy dichotomy does that fall?

Perhaps the Bible really is to blame in this one respect; (it’s a wonderful collection of texts with some really duff bits!) -maybe the idea of sovereignty over the earth has been really bad for the human race and we’ve got ourselves addicted to smiting anything that’s not directly useful. My own view of the Kingdom was formed more by my Grandfather’s huge row of sheds where anything and everything that ‘might come in handy one day, boy’, was piled high. He was a great rescuer of broken things, and among the finest of the remains were two or three old paper roll pianos (nickelodeons). He would give me and my sister a few pennies and we could bring them to life again. Is that a resurrection story? It’s a bit late for me to be called a heretic now!

Growing things is the silent dialogue between the gardener and the earth and it has to be a life of constant thanksgiving. We learn the proper names of all our plants, including the invasive grasses and the bindweeds that pierce through the soil out of sight and where they’re becoming a nuisance we remove them by hand and say ‘thanks but not here‘. Many of them are very beautiful in any case and to divide the earth into good (food for humans) and bad (food for everything else) – is a corrosive state of mind. The little annuals that take their chances early in the year; the Dandelions, the Rosebay Willowherbs that drift in clouds, the chancers that drop by for a year and then disappear; all full partners in the earth.

So will we be spending any time in church this Easter – (Oestre – work it out) – weekend? Well no, thanks but no thanks. We’ll be planting potatoes and if it seems right I might even sing the exsultet to the apples.

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).
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