We won’t get the answer on a bumper sticker!

Another day another book – blame the weather, the lockdown and the new covid strain; but sometimes a moment of boredom can bear fruit. I was sitting looking at a bit of leftover everyday sourdough in the kitchen (OK I’m a bit of a slob) when I noticed a fine mist of white mould growing on it, and so I took it to the microscope to have a closer look and the mould emerged from the blur as a delightfully sculptural mass of ovoid/spherical and translucent fungus. Then I wondered what would happen if I photographed the image with my mobile and above left is my very first attempt at a microphotograph, from which I learn that I need decent clamp to hold the phone still over the microscope eyepiece so I can focus more accurately. Nonetheless I was pleased with the idea that low budget microphotography is at least possible – if only for note taking. So aside from creative doodling and flashes of inspiration I’ve been reading a newly published book entitled “Green Meat” – subtitled “sustaining eaters, animals and the planet” Edited by Ryan M. Katz-Rosene and Sarah J. Martin and published by McGill-Queens University Press.

Some books are good because they give reliable, verifiable information on their topics. This book certainly scores on the verifiable side with each of the eleven essays fully supported by footnotes and extensive references. But I’d say its greatest strength is to frame the ethical and environmental problems facing meat production and meat eating in such a way as to articulate the difficulties with searching questions. In the words of their own formulation, to “problematize the problem”; to question the many bumper sticker simplifications that obscure a hugely complex challenge that can only be addressed in appropriately complex ways. As they say in the introduction”

For any hardline carnivores or vegans out there seeking to find material that bolsters their claims of superior dietary practices -look elsewhere!

Preface

What the book does is give space to nine writers, all specialists or practitioners experienced in meat production and farming from holistic planned grazing – (think Joe Salatin, for instance) through First Nation hunting and trapping, to intensive industrial farms and CAFOs – concentrated animal feeding operations. All of them look critically at the data that circulates widely and is often used selectively by partisans of one view or another; by agroindustry looking to ‘greenwash’ its activities and by groups promoting extreme dietary change – universal veganism, for instance – in order to save the planet. I won’t rehearse the many arguments here but if you’re interested in engaging more thoughtfully with your food purchasing I’d certainly recommend you read this book; but what I will do is focus on one or two ways which were particularly illuminating for me.

In our five years on the present allotments, we’ve always borne in mind the need to build up the soil from its original rather neglected state but I don’t think we’ve ever fully articulated the notion that we have been growing two crops all along – the crop which we eat and the crop within the soil itself, the invisible crop of carbon and other minerals, of humus, mould, micro-organisms, fungi, nematodes, worms and insects; the billions of living things that constitute the invisible, or perhaps generally overlooked crop. It’s almost impossible to design a calculus that includes a value for all that accumulated wealth but it’s at the heart of our project and “Green Meat”brought that home to me.

At first sight the essay “A feminist Multi-Species approach to Green Meat” looked a bit off-putting and yet it turned out to be one of the most thought provoking essays in the book and led me to understand that the reductionist approach to climate change – simplifying the problem down to a minimum of variables – methane, greenhouse gases, national food statistics and so forth, is in itself a symptom of industrialised framing. What about the animals and the suffering they endure by not being allowed to express themselves ‘animally’? What about the other stakeholders beyond the shareholders? – those whose lives are affected whether negatively or positively by the system. What about the societal structures that make some rich and some poor? What about the poorest consumers who, instead of being adequately fed are made sick by processed food? What about whole ecosystems and their associated wildlife?

What about localised cultures? – and this was what made me think long and hard about our fishing communities. Arguments about fish quotas obscure whole human cultures because they are framed exclusively in terms of catch. Complex ecological and social relationships are thrust to the margins of discussion. By complete coincidence we watched the multi award winning film “Bait” (poster shot above) – this evening and it flawlessly documented the destruction of the local fishing culture by tourism. The culture that sustains fishing in this country also sustains the Royal National Lifeboat Institution whose volunteers include many professional fishermen. The network of local food relationships which would be essential within a rethinking of our food sustainability is rendered invisible when an industry is reduced to considerations of efficiency. Too many discussions of sustainability want to start from scratch; reinventing the wheel. Why build it again when it was there already?

Another essay examines the catastrophic effects on First Nation sustainable hunting and fishing by mining and mineral extraction in Canada – shades of Cornish fishing once again. Apparently the fishing industry generates less than 1% of the GNP in this country, but does that justify the destruction of an ancient way of life? And then, difficult thoughts flow about, for instance, mining communities. However much we may accept the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and the extractive economy , the fact is – as the old joke says – at the bottom of every mine in the world there’s a Welshman or a Cornishman, and those communities embodied community values like solidarity and a passion for education that our individualistic culture has lost at great cost. The remedy for these difficult questions won’t be reduced to a slogan. Perhaps the real enemy is the one powerful tool that has transformed the world – the reductive industrialised way of thinking has become the new common sense thinking. Gramsci’s warning that common sense isn’t always sensible gets quoted in one of the essays.

Let me give an example from this week’s Farmers Weekly. There is in development a new way of treating cattle slurry with plasma (whatever that may be) which reduces its methane releasing properties by 90%. Bravo you might say, but “Green Meat” suggests that our industrialised mindset is always taking one micro-problem at a time and attempting to solve it technologically rather than stepping back and reflecting on the whole. By all means bombard the shit tanks with high energy death rays, but that still leaves another thousand problematic areas of intensive farming untouched. Industrial farming is constantly playing catch up with the next side effect of its intensity. In medicine they’ve got a name for it – “iatrogenic illness” – which means illness caused as a side effect of treatment, and it kills tens of thousands every year.

I should end this here, except I want to raise one other issue that will raise great difficulties. In every probability, meat consumption will continue to be a part – we hope a much smaller part – of the national diet. The conversion of vast areas of pasture to arable land would bring in its wake huge losses of biodiversity and without access to animal manure, even greater consumption of artificial fertilizers and yet more chemicals. The most likely answer is to allow the shrinkage of the existing meat industry while increasing the quality of food through holistic planned grazing or similar restorative schemes. The other aspect of the policy must be to decrease food miles by building new or restoring old local food networks. The tricky question then will be – “where do we site the new, small slaughterhouses”? – and I fear the answer will be “anywhere except here!” A second tricky question – and one which is greatly troubling the farmers in national parks is -“if we’re going to step back from industrialised machine supported farming, we will need to find and train many thousands of new agricultural and horticultural workers. Where are we going to house them?” – and here the nimbyism of the incomers will chorus once again – “anywhere except here!”.

If you’re looking for the cause of the success of right wing populist politics here and elsewhere, you have to include the anger of communities in the countryside – not least hill farmers; but also miners, steelworkers, fishing communities and the many others who correctly believe that the political structure of our country has excluded and silenced them. Could it be that we have our own dispossessed people here, and they look just like us!

Returning to a visitation at Damery Lake

My religious upbringing began in a Primitive Methodist Sunday school – don’t get hung up on the primitive word, it was anything but that, but it’s been a long road to escape the pervading sense of imminent punishment for inadvertently breaking one of the many and mostly unwritten rules. It didn’t seem to trouble some of the members much that they broke the rules themselves when it suited them. One of the leaders was outed in the local papers for selling flick knives in his shop (his defence was that if he didn’t sell them someone else would). Among the close families of the devout faithful were more black sheep than you could shake a stick at. Jack, the local baker, was OK as long as he drove a horse and cart after he stopped off at the Foresters at lunch time for a few (no, a lot of) rough ciders because the horse would take him home. In an electric float he was a menace. In fact alcohol was the principal demon that needed exorcising. I even once saw Gilbert the grave digger sitting swigging from a bottle with his feet dangling in a half-dug grave.

The Sunday School was tucked in, up an alley and next door to a small slaughterhouse behind the church and so we could hear the sheep being driven up the lane and then listen to an endless sermon that always involved a lot of smiting and the sacrifice of lambs. There was even a very large image of a lamb – more of a tup, I’d say, waving a flag and with a rather smug face that regarded us from the big window with a superior glint in its eye. The smiting often had a surprisingly modern set of references; mostly outing everyday sins which, although we were children, made us understand that an infinitude of suffering in the fiery furnace was all there was to look forward to. Amongst the eternally damned, it seemed, were any number of local people who’d pissed off the minister. Later I discovered that many of the congregation were predestinarians who believed themselves to be saved whatever they did. I never had that confidence. Once, when one of the local shopkeepers died in the night I just thought he must have had it coming.

Then there were the worms that would surely consume us; although I was never sure whether we would be eaten alive before or after the fiery furnace bit. I’ve spent much of my life trying to find a kinder way of understanding God. This post isn’t entirely off piste even for me. If I need to find an explanation for my occasional silences, one reason is that the Calvinistic silt at the bottom of my subconscious occasionally breaks out in a debilitating fog. Well furnished dystopian visions come easily to me, so be warned about what follows.

“Hell is full of amateur musicians: music isĀ the brandy of the damned.

George Bernard Shaw

I think Shaw was being a bit unfair there. We might remember that one of the stories told about Robert Johnson was that he’d sold his soul to the devil in return for his prodigious talent as a guitar player. Music gets a bad press but we only get really good at it by going through the really bad stage first – like gardening and cooking; but what sets it apart is that at any level it has such power to move and inspire that it almost invites occult explanations.

After thirty years of complete immersion I gave up making and listening to music when I retired, because at some unconscious level I thought I could purge myself of it. It scared me; opened doors I wanted to keep firmly closed. Bach felt like the mind of God and – to level the metaphor just a bit – so did Patti Smith and countless others. A falling cadence in the Paolo Conte song “Max” felt so good it was like pressing the button on the excessive pleasure machine. So after five years of abstinence I decided it was time to risk it once again, and so – once again – the Potwell Inn is full of music.

Which is how I found myself listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams 3rd, aka Pastoral – symphony. It was as if I’d never heard it before – so full of darkness, loss and foreboding; enough properly to stir the mud in my pond. I did a quick search and discovered that even the composer had thought its presumed association with lambs gambolling in the fields was truly off the mark. What it did for me was to remind me of a strange visitation I’d once experienced in Gloucestershire. I was standing on a narrow packbridge and looking up through the woods towards Damery Lake when I became aware of an invisible presence. Specific as these visitations always are, it was an army officer – a captain – who was both in the midst of a first world war battle somewhere in Northern France, and simultaneously standing next to me. These were his woods and in particular this was his lake, and his remembrance of them in the hell of the battle had imprinted themselves upon the place and revealed themselves to me almost a hundred years later. By an almost Jungian coincidence, Ralph Vaughan Williams had first conceived of the music that was to become the Third Symphony – serving as a medical orderly in Northern France in 1916.

In this past week, waiting for the results of the US elections that sense of foreboding was everywhere. Thank goodness there’s been a chink of light at last, but in darkest Sunday School mode as I was by then, I have been fighting off the feeling that we’re not taking this crisis seriously enough. Yes of course we’ve been busy on the allotment but it somehow feels that our frantic horticultural activism is a form of displacement activity. Writing about the seed order or making stock seems such an inadequate response to what’s happening.

Populism as it’s become known is like bindweed – it can’t be eradicated by covering it with a bit of plastic or an old carpet. There are no nostrums, no easy ways or short cuts because the only thing that will remove the infestation is the slow careful removal of every fragment of root. Empty blowhard patriotism needs to be called out for the dangerous fraud it’s become, because the bridge back to any sort of imaginary golden age has been blown up for ever. Even Elgar hated the way that ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ had been hijacked and pressed into service as a jingoistic anthem to British superiority. There’s no point in pretending that with a few minimal alterations and a couple of byelaws we can go back to our old comfortable ways. It’s over.

Suddenly it feels like the autumn of 1939 all over again. I’ve mentioned here before that I’ve been reading Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal and that seems like a poetic reprise on the theme of Ralph Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony. Then yesterday I listened to a recording of Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl”. Even as I write this the radio is trumpeting a successful Covid vaccine and I can hear the cheer going up across the world.

Let’s get back to the good old days and buy some Pfizer shares. Let’s crack open another bottle of champagne and do some deals; fill our barns with chlorinated chicken and soya beans and build more walls – walls against disease, against migrants, against starvation, against rising tides, and let’s throw that communist Jeremiah into the pit again.

But it won’t do. The awful fruits of our greed and – let’s be honest – stupidity are slouching towards Jerusalem once more and the sky is dark with (organic) chickens, coming home to roost. Years ago, late one evening just before Christmas I went to Temple Meads railway station to collect one of the waifs and strays that occasionally crossed our path (she still owes me the twenty quid I loaned her to buy a ticket back to Ireland). I was standing alone on the empty platform, when a drunk man approached out of nowhere (I must have that kind of face) and ranted at me for fully half an hour about his perfidious and about to be ex wife and her unreasonable behaviour. Every few minutes he would interrupt his torrent of hatred and ask the time. I would tell him and he would rejoin his bilious monologue. Eventually he said – “How come you always know the time without looking at your watch?” I replied that if he looked up, he would see that the station clock was immediately above his head.

The facts of our dangerous situation are directly in front of us – we just need to pause and look.