Something’s broken and it’s not just the weather

Common red soldier beetle – AKA hogweed bonking beetle!

The more times we set the trail cam, the smaller any sense of ownership or control we feel we have over the allotment. Last night the weather finally broke. We could feel it coming during the day as the temperature fell very slowly and an easterly breeze picked up. We spent the morning feeding the tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, squashes and courgettes; watered anything that was languishing in the heat and then sowed seeds for the autumn and winter. The weather front came up gradually and the sky filled with clouds – not the immense thunder clouds we’d half expected – but low and dense. Madame has a nose for the smell of rain on the way – it’s called petrichor – the smell, not her nose! -but there was nothing there. After we’d driven posts and ties in to support the taller plants in case of strong winds, we cleared up; ate our breakfast at lunchtime and then went on our accustomed walk eastwards along the river and back along the canal. The evening was still stifling, even with all our windows opened wide. Bath sits in a basin, surrounded by hills and in a prolonged period of high pressure the air gets more and more fetid. The much publicised clean air zone has reduced traffic by only one percent but repairs to the Cleveland bridge have diverted even more traffic through our neighbourhood so it’s worse than ever.

Consequently we’ve slept badly during the heatwave and last night there was the added distraction of imminent thunderstorms which we couldn’t wait to welcome – preferably without too much destructive power but plentiful rain to soak the earth and refill the water butts. We were up every hour during the night, peering through the shutters – our gardening lives are dominated by the weather – and around two in the morning we heard the first sounds of thunder some miles away; grumbling like a convoy of heavy lorries. At four the lightning came close and the rain began. With the wind in the northeast a cool draught woke us up again and we watched the rain gratefully through the window.

The rain didn’t last nearly long enough but at six I gave up and made tea and then kneaded a batch of sourdough bread for its second rise – which is when I decided to go up to the allotment to check for any casualties of the weather (there were none) and to extract and replace the SD card in the trail cam. It seems that we weren’t the only ones up and awake last night. There were video clips of a badger, a fox and later on, a ginger cat all out hunting on our plot. I love the way the fox hunts. He sits bolt upright and stock still with his ears almost flared; scoping the ground by slowly turning his head from side to side and rotating his ears independently. There were other clips of him coming and going along the paths so he spent some time on the plot. The badger hunts with his nose and the cat with all its senses primed. Fox and cat stalk their prey silently and then pounce, but it’s hard to imagine the badger doing anything of the kind. He’s a digger and a browser with a prodigious memory for the places he can find treats. Yesterday one of our human neighbours found a number of her bulb fennel plants dug up.

So how much sway do we actually hold on the allotment? Of course we can sow and tend our crops; but if we consider our work from a more detached perspective it’s clear that the major parameters, within which we garden, are largely beyond our control. Seasons; weather; pests; diseases, birds and larger animals are all part of the process, and if we try to interfere we often do more harm than good. Two days ago I found a dead rat on the patch. By the next day it was gone. The most likely culprit was the cat; but the remains could have been taken by either fox or badger after it had been feasted on by a multitude of flies and insects. Why tidy things up when that means depriving our neighbourly creatures of a meal? Wild gardening necessarily means stepping back from tidiness and control but it doesn’t follow that we have less food from the allotment. We expect to lose some crop, but that’s because the ground never belonged to us in the first place. It is we who borrow it from the teeming multitude of macro and micro life-forms who have been managing rather better without our help for countless thousands of years. The best we can hope to be is good tenants during our temporary lease of the land and so rather than just feeding ourselves we need to be mindful of the needs of all our neighbours. The thing about the earth is that when we treat it properly it brings abundance, but we are the first victims when we treat her carelessly and badly.

The trail cam just brings our larger neighbours to our attention. We’ve loved having so many bees, butterflies, hoverflies, dragon and damselflies as well as tadpoles and froglets in the pond. We do no more than provide a habitat for them and they pay us back tenfold by clearing up after us on the compost heaps, pollinating our plants and feasting on pests like greenfly and blackfly. To try to argue that these creatures lower the productivity of the allotment is crazy. The allotment produces abundance – more than enough to meet our need for food but also feeds our inner, spiritual needs as well; maintaining a huge community of which we are just one part. Even more significantly there’s evidence that the humble allotment is far more productive acre for acre, than many intensive farms; providing much more opportunity for engaging and creative labour. Farmers all over the country are going out of business, unable to make a profit. Local authorities, who used to be major holders of land for smallholdings, have sold off these resources but if they would lease new land from unprofitable farms it could be used to produce new allotments and smallholdings close to towns and cities that could produce good food locally and reduce food miles while improving biodiversity and creating many new jobs. Objections to this such a scheme can surely only be motivated by an ideological commitment to more chemicals, more false productivity and more growth.

The weather is a mess of our own making; the air we breathe is polluted by our addiction to oil, and we are sick from extremes of poverty and wealth; eating industrial junk; and stricken by loneliness and separation from nature. We’re governed by a bunch of clodhopping clowns with no vision and no plan except more of what’s killing us and it’s high time we pushed back and demanded something better. End of rant – but I hope you like the video clip.

The stars dispose but do not compel

It was Beth Chatto, whose motto – “right plant, right place” – came to mind as we walked past the Bath Quays development yesterday. Some years ago the river bank was reshaped into terraces in advance of new building on the north side of the river, The terraces were rather expensively covered with wildflower matting – coir impregnated with seeds, I imagine to honour the fashionable spirit of the wild. The earth; much disturbed and turned over by archaeologists and heavy machinery and then covered with topsoil yielded a single fine crop of wildflowers last seen growing together on a film set before the thugs moved back and put the newcomers in their place. True, a few have survived but the dreams of the planners would surely have taken a dive if they ever came back to look at their creation. There used to be a building company in Swindon, from memory, ironically named “Bodgit and Scram” – you get the picture. Creative landscape designers are rarely confronted with the difference between glossy brochures and living earth.

Some of the plants, however, didn’t disappear; they just took a walk down the road and found somewhere more suited to their natural habitat. The Vipers Bugloss in the picture is one of the more attractive ones which, while not normally seen in this part of the world outside gardens, has set up a squatters’ camp alongside the road amongst the rubble and clutter of an earlier utopian dream.

If you want to make a nature reserve you can either buy some expensive land and spend shed loads of money on it or – as this little paradise suggests – put up a temporary fence around a bit of unloved and rubble filled earth awaiting “development” and go away for a couple of years. In this case the inevitable Buddleias came along, with bindweed and all the other early risers; and with them came butterflies – who’d have thought it? – and then some of the other escapees from the designed wild like yarrow and campions; some nice vetches, oxeye daisies, poppies and so forth.

It should (but probably won’t) remind us that just as you can’t create a community by building a community centre, so you can’t rewild the city centre with a coir mat and seeds from somewhere in Europe. Beth Chatto’s “right plant right place” applies as much to rewilding as it does to gardens and allotments. The Potwell Inn allotment has had many areas enriched by mountains of leaf mould, manure and compost. But the places where we’ve planted the lavenders and mediterranean herbs had to have their rich clay/loam topsoil removed and replaced with something more akin to stone soup to borrow a metaphor from the kitchen. And, of course the harsher environment suits them very well.

The “weeds” that were expensively doused in weedkiller back along the river walk are now recovering slowly, and happily the patch of greater celandine seems to have been missed altogether. Within a few weeks, I hope, the ragwort, herb Robert, nipplewort and dandelions will shake themselves and get back into the business of being wild in the city. Rewilding doesn’t so much require committees and designers as it needs nurturing what’s already found its place on the pavement. The real challenge is to teach more people to love weeds and nurture their vital role in the great scheme of things.

Whatever it takes, please – please read this book!

I don’t normally do straight book reviews and neither do I promote anything; I’ve no desire at all to be an ‘influencer’ whatever that might mean, but I will mention books when they’re good, or important; and so over the last couple of years I’ve worried and written a lot about the ecological crisis we’re in, and some of the books that have guided my thoughts. One day I’ll make a bibliography and put it up as a purely personal and probably idiosyncratic list that might help someone to make a start. Back at the Potwell Inn there are shelves full of them but it wouldn’t be difficult to rank them. Some are academic and hard to grasp – that doesn’t make them bad but I’d hesitate to recommend a book that might put anyone off the trail. Some are so partisan and angry that I could only read them a few pages at a time for fear of being overwhelmed. We’re not farmers or a horticulturalists here, and so people like us sometimes figure in the shadowy world of the consumer in these books, the apparently dimwitted customers who, by demanding ever cheaper food, helped to create the crisis we’re now in.

I don’t like being hectored or finger-wagged at. I don’t like being treated as an idiot or being held personally responsible for the way things are – and neither do farmers or ‘newt counting’ ecologists. We really are – (after carefully wiping the politicians’ snake oil off the phrase) – ‘in this together’ and the only workable solution will come from working together. The system is broke.

So who better than someone right inside the mess to show us what it feels like from the inside. I ordered James Rebank’s latest book “English Pastoral’ on a whim. Madame had read his previous book ‘A Shepherd’s Life’ previously and been quite lyrical about it but being an old stick in the mud I resisted. So when I ordered the new book I made sure I’d read the earlier book first. It’s good – patchy but good. There was a touch too much of the caricature blunt Yorkshireman I thought, and I also thought the tales of youthful rebellion, ‘drinking and shagging’ as he puts it, and the ferocious arguments with his father were a bit over-egged until, that is, the little voice in my head reminded me that we always dislike in others what we most dislike about ourselves and my own school career ended when I was escorted from the school (by the collar) by the headmaster for being a disruptive and disobedient pain; beginning three years of sombre reflection in dead end labouring jobs. It was Madame who got me into college and back on course. There were more parallels than you’d find in a school geometry set.

So ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ was always a better book than my grudging soul would admit and I’m glad I read it. ‘English Pastoral’ is even better. I really couldn’t put it down. He’s apparently friends with Wendell Berry, and has read Henry Williamson and somehow manages to weave together the lyrical voice with downright practical wisdom, occasionally shocking earthiness and a better grasp of the big picture than anyone else I’ve read. But the big sell, for me, was that I felt I was being embraced as part of the grand plan. The occasional snarky remarks in the first book about tourists’ collective ignorance of what fell farming is really like, have disappeared. The narrowness and suspicion of outsiders and experts, ecologists and economists and interfering incomers in the younger farmer, have all gone and what’s left is a conversation being led by a farmer who commands and deserves respect; a mea culpa in places for going with the flow against his better instincts and a luminous vision of the way forward. Any fierceness is reserved for the agrochemical industry and their accomplices and lobbyists; the manufacturers of ever more destructive machinery; the greedy banks, and the economic orthodoxy that turned land and crops into commodities.

It’s a desperately needed working paper in a world of conflicting demands; offering a model that takes seriously the need for farmers to make a living, that addresses some of the key faults of the extreme end of the rewilding movement, and which dismisses any idea of a one size fits all policy. It addresses the need for food security and completely smashes any idea that what we need is another technological fix so we can carry on the way we are.

Read it, please, if you’re a farmer or a naturalist, or an ecologist or walker, and especially if you live, like me, in a city – and ponder what and where to buy sustainable food. Read it if you’re an allotmenteer because there’s a lot about soil there. Read it if you’re a banker or an economist because this movement is not going away.

When I was a child we used to catch the train up to Reading to see our grandparents who lived a country bus ride away in the Chilterns. The journey involved a change at Didcot, and what was most thrilling (and terrifying) about it was that the train didn’t actually stop at Didcot at all, but just slowed down so that the ‘slip coach’ could glide, engineless, into the station controlled by the guard who presumably operated the brakes.

This morning as I finished the book I remembered that childish adventure and pondered whether, when the great neoliberal train finally crashes the buffers at Oxford, they might discover that the rest of us got off at Didcot and that the banks and the hedge funds and the agrochemical complex have finally reached the catastrophic end of their triumphant journey. Alone.

Less is more

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A friend once told us how isolated his parents were becoming when he noticed that they began to have conversations like – (looking out of the window) – “that green car isn’t there again!”

Well it isn’t there again today and we’re fully occupied finding strategies for staying sane that fall short of car spotting. There’s dogs and drug dealers of course but they don’t change much. British summer time has also thrown a bit of a spanner in the works and we stay up much later than usual but then my inner clock seems not to know that I don’t need to get up at 6.00am. Today I got up early, made tea, read for a bit, made coffee, went to sleep, woke up and read for a bit more – got up at 10.00am. It’s no life, honestly – if it weren’t for the allotment we’d probably be playing ‘I spy something beginning with W’, and the answer would always be ‘window’; – ‘wall’ being disallowed as unpatriotic.

Our other favourite diversion is trying to figure out how to observe the government advice to stay indoors and get shopping delivered when there are no delivery slots to be had at all and every website we go to is shut down due to overload.  Ah well … However just to prove that life goes on outside the bubble, a tractor showed up this morning to give the Green its first cut of the year.  Last year, if you remember, it was agreed to leave an unmown strip around the edge to let wild vegetation grow up – I think ‘wildflowers’ is a bit overheated in our instance, but I like weeds, and more to the point, so do loads of insects. My word, these are powerful machines they use these days. Last year by the second cut the rewilding project lay in shreds because the message about the wild strip failed to get through to the tractor drivers. Today, though, the tractor drove underneath our window and stopped and then the driver consulted some kind of plan in a ring binder and then slowly and deliberately left a wide border all around the green. Early days yet, I know, but there’s elder, burdock and wall barley in them there borders, and a new generation of children might just learn about ‘itchy coos’ and darts.

IMG_20200401_132638Then, among the excitements, a brilliant idea occurred to me this morning regarding the pigs’ cheek surplus. Madame had turned her nose up when I presented them in their unadorned form – too much information I suspect – and so I minced them up, added herbs, sweet pimenton, some softened onions, a little egg and breadcrumbs; rolled them in flour, fried them and then baked them in our own stored tomato sauce et Voila! – as you might say if you were French – they were transformed into meatballs and became today’s meal. Every little triumph adorns the day.

But the pandemic is never far away, and yesterday we were texted by one of Madame’s nieces to say that their father, our brother-in-law, is in intensive care with confirmed coronavirus. Is this it? Is this the spirit of the blitz that people who’ve never even experienced food rationing, let alone bombing – like to evoke. We plough on in spite of the dangers, we dare to make small plans for ‘when it’s over’, we say silent prayers for our loved ones because we don’t like a fuss. There’s nothing inspiring or admirable in any of this and true compassion isn’t ever a public act.

And then just I was about to press the send button on this post I heard the sound of a machine outside, and when I looked, there was a smaller mower removing the violets and celandines outside the house.  Morons!!! – we’re lions led by donkeys.

 

 

 

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”

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This is the new view from my desk – OK it’s not brilliant but it’s outside; I can see the sky and the clouds and I can watch the comings and goings of our neighbours in the car park. The view from the front of the flat is far nicer, but this is sufficiently mundane not to distract me too much. It’s only possible because my piano has gone to Birmingham.  I don’t mind because I wasn’t able to play it in this building – but as if by magic, Madame has put on one of our Mose Allison albums just as the piano has joined the long list of ‘might have beens’ in my life.

If you dislike my seriously political deliberations you should probably skip the next two paragraphs – it gets slightly more rhapsodic after that!

Meanwhile the lock-in continues. The equinox passed by the Potwell Inn without being noticed  – we were all too preoccupied with the weather, the weather of events, that is. Huffing and puffing about the failures of others, or our lamentably deficient government takes away the pain for a bit but the black dog comes back, sniffing around the bins of our lives and lifting his leg against our certainties. We’ve tunneled so far into the mountain of greed that the entrance has collapsed and there’s no way out any more.

The media have decided that what we need more than ventilators and nurses is – a metaphor. ‘The blitz’ is winning hands down at the moment; it’s cheap and cheerful but there are no supply problems and it focuses all our attention away from the real problem and on to our personal response. In fact, they hint without spelling it out, that this is an opportunity – an opportunity to show what we Brits are made of and so the miracle of diversion is accomplished so effectively that public opprobrium falls more heavily on those who refuse to celebrate this opportunity for self-transcendence than it does on those who disregard the distancing measures – not least cabinet ministers.

Today marks the beginning of British Summer Time.  I’ve no idea why I find that as exciting as I do, but I guess I like sunshine a lot more than I like fog and rain and the odds are on the summer providing more of my favourite days. I will contradict this statement later in the year when I declare the autumn to be the finest season by far, just before I settle ‘finally’ on the joy of frosty mornings. The only safe approach to anything I write is to say accept that change is inevitable and variety is a jolly good thing.  However (and you knew that was coming) there are some unexpectedly lovely things, even in the midst of a pandemic, that can wake you up with a smile. So today we lay in bed and heard a church clock chime seven.  It wasn’t even a very nice church clock, in fact the bell was a bit of an old boiler, but it filled me with joy and reminded me of my childhood when I would listen to the clock in Page Park (similarly washboiler tuned) chiming out the hours at night when I couldn’t sleep.

The rationalist in me points out immediately that it’s Sunday morning (i.e. less traffic) and there’s a north easterly wind carrying the sound across from Julian Road or wherever the church is.  But there’s more to it.  We’ve had Sundays and north easterly winds before and only once heard the clock in over four years. But this crisis has resulted in a dramatic fall in traffic through Bath.  The constant ambulances which, in order to negotiate the jams, always used their sirens now cruise silently and unhindered to the hospital a mile away. We can hear birds singing again and the moaning of the wind in our leaky windows, and our neighbours in their flats. The cloud of polluted air over the city has lifted and the streets are empty.  The tourists have all gone, and the holiday rentals are empty – it’s a disaster by all the conventional measures, and yet I wonder whether anyone is anxious to return to the status quo ante bellum at the end of all this.

It only takes a few empty shelves to demonstrate what we’ve all known in our hearts for a very long time, that our present way of life offers a huge diversity of things to buy, but at the expense of almost everything else we say we value. What’s the value of a line of identical tasting breakfast cereals to ‘choose’ from when the wildlife on the earth they were grown in has been poisoned out of existence?

So back to believing impossible things because I’ve always been deeply interested in the mechanisms through which we are able to ignore the evidence that contradicts our presuppositions. We once lived on a farm in Wiltshire and our walk to art school every day took us down Middlewick Lane, in which there was a cottage with the most beautiful garden you’ve ever seen. In three years we’d watched it through the seasons; we knew that the owner was an elderly man called Mr Monks who lived alone.  We even knew that he liked a pinch or three of snuff from the handkerchiefs drying on the washing line, stained yellow from his useage. I can’t, after all this time, say exactly what the garden contained but it remains in my memory a pure Gertrude Jekyll cottage garden with the addition of the most wonderful vegetable plot to one side.  After an age of scurrying past and trying not to stare, we graduated through nod to friendly nod and eventually we spoke.  He even gave me a pinch of snuff once but it blew the back of my head off and made my eyes water. Just before he died we finally plucked up the courage to ask the question that had been hovering in our minds for several years – how did he grow such a magnificent garden, so free of pests? He answered without hesitation or any embarrassment  “DDT” he said. Suddenly the garden crumbled in our minds like the picture of Dorian Gray in the Dickens novel. There were still many years to pass before we saw our first raptors in the sky again.

We seem to persist in our belief that our culture – the way we do things round here – is all for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and nothing seems to shake us from that belief – except when we are overtaken by a major breakdown, and we see the promises of everlasting growth, plenty for all, more choice, more power, more leisure, more everything, as the false prospectus it has become.  Leibnitz’s kindly God whose benign hand was thought to be behind all that was good in the world was put out to grass, and a smart new manager called “the economy” was drafted in to conduct the affairs of the earth with more efficiency ‘going forward’. Statisticians say that football clubs who change their managers in the hope of better results are misguided. When you actually look at the statistics a change of manager is no more successful than leaving the old ones in post. The point is, we want it to be true, and we’re quite prepared to add it to the list of impossible things before breakfast in the hope that it might become true. 

There is an exception to the football manager statistics, though. When the season ticket holders are sitting on their wallets, the fans on the terrace have stopped cheering, the team are all looking for other jobs and the grandstand collapses for lack of maintenance it might be a good time to take a look around.

The earth managed herself successfully for millions of years  – let’s get her back in charge!

I know my place!

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Looking west from Dyrham Park on the Cotswold escarpment towards Wales

OK so – if you examine that statement from every angle it  might look smarter than I  intend. I do know my place, after all I’ve lived in it for most of 73 years, my speech is inflected with its dialect and there’s not much of it I haven’t walked, cycled, driven  or tried to grow things in at some time or another. I recognise a respectable amount of its wildlife in a thoroughly non-professional way, and I know most of its history. So I know my place; I’m hefted to the area around two rivers, the Avon and the Severn, and to the land west of the Cotswolds and north of the Mendips.

And so by extension I know a lot less about many other areas that I love just as passionately, especially the far western parts of England and Wales, but they’ve been holiday romances rather than family. I make lists of plants, watch birds and animals and always come back refreshed and inspired. I’m an amateur, a bit of a peasant, an autodidact, living an inch from the edge of a howler, an intruder into the VIP lounge of proper (whatever that’s supposed to mean!) experts. And so reading George Monbiot’s book “Feral” has been a big struggle because I know, even with my street wisdom, that there’s something wrong with his argument – I just don’t quite know what it is. There’s porridge in the radiator, gear oil in the sump and quite a bit of well disguised filler in the bodywork and notwithstanding the good looks on the forecourt I know it’s a wrong ‘un.

I’ve been reading it restlessly, on and off. I shout at it, slam it shut, double check the data. I managed to struggle through the first couple of chapters, although I found some of the tales of superhuman derring do  – paddling six miles out to sea in a kayak – running twenty miles before breakfast with a young Masai man, dodging bullets in a Brazilian mining settlement – well, a bit desperate. The beatific visions and revelations of true nature were a touch too Ignatian for me, and I was just waiting for the wrestling with bears bit so I could just accept it as a fictional ‘coming of middle age’ narrative . The picture of Vladimir Putin on a horse kept floating into my mind.

But when he kicked off on the so-called Cambrian desert I had to race to the laptop.  Where is this scene of dereliction and abandonment overrun by malignant sheep and even more malignant Welsh hill farmers? A quick check on the BSBI website turned out  to be difficult because reorganised boundaries have rendered the vice county list a bit impenetrable. Powys, for instance, includes bits of Montgomeryshire *(VC47), Radnorshire (VC43), Brecknockshire – Breconshire if you’re English – (VC42) and a bit of Denbighshire (VC50) and the Cambrian Mountains also embrace some of Ceredigion(VC46) and Carmarthenshire(VC44). That’s a lot of lists, but checking them all I couldn’t see even one of them with a significantly lower number of plant species; but I could see that there were quite a few rarities in amongst them.  Even from my own scant knowledge I know  that there are irreplaceable habitats there, bogs, mires and wetland areas.  The road between Tregaron and Abergwesyn seemed to me, when I first drove it, a paradise. And what on earth is he suggesting when he writes in the same chapter that there were no birds? He seems to have set out with a self imposed vision of a despoiled land, and exercised iron discipline on himself to exclude any evidence to the contrary. The red kite, thank goodness, is now as common as medieval hill towns in Provence – who’d have thought it? I stopped reading when the book started to make me feel fearful.

But I know my place, and I can’t offer anything approaching a sensible review of the book from a more experienced perspective.  I know it’s a contested area of thought and I’m slowly trying to catch up after decades of the more (dare I say) piles and varicose veins side of spirituality that is the life of an almost extinct species of country parson. So I searched through the original reviews, found some hiding behind paywalls, but  some more that shared at least a few of my misgivings and then I stumbled on this blog by Miles King which has a review written with far more authority and expertise than I’ll ever have, and which I’ve found invaluable. I realize I’ve been rather harsh, but we’re in a crisis and what we need, more than anything else, is to follow the facts on the ground even if they contradict (especially if they contradict) our presuppositions and prejudices. Making up ‘facts’ to advance an opinion is morally wrong and – at the moment – dangerous because it hands ammunition to the enemy who will use exactly the sort of logical contradictions that abound in “Feral” to attack the whole project.

So I’m going to put the book back on the shelf now because I’ve just got hold of “Meadows” by George Peterken whose lecture we went to a while ago at Bath Nats. In the midst of a crisis there’s no time for a canonical literature to emerge, no place yet for the final word or the revealed truth, but there are enough half-baked ideas out there to furnish a lifetime of village flower and produce shows. “Meadows” looks to me to be a better bet if I want to find out what’s really going on and what we might have to do about it. There are plenty of elephants in the room already without parachuting them into Powys.

  • these are all vice-county lists of plants found in the designated areas and maintained by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland

 

A brief break in the rain

So this is a very brief video of Pulteney Weir, here in Bath, taken this afternoon. Looking at it now it doesn’t look all that exceptional, or at least it doesn’t if you’ve never seen it under normal conditions, when there are four steps and seagulls paddle safely on the top of the first. The river is exceptionally high, and that reflects the saturated soil conditions upstream, and that’s giving farmers (and allotmenteers too) massive problems.  Even where the ground is not actually flooded it’s impossible to get machinery on to it – a pair of size 10 wellies is too much. I’ve mentioned the three underground springs that run beneath our allotment site, and they keep the water table worryingly high. Some vegetables will tolerate wet conditions, but many won’t. We’ve got garlic, onions and shallots (we’ve given up altogether on the leeks), and we should be cutting asparagus in about six or eight weeks. Rain is best in small regular amounts because the roots actually need air as much as they do water.  Sadly we don’t get to choose, and so the best thing we can do at every level – from the whole sweep of Welsh hill country, for instance, down to the smallest veg patch is to improve water retention by tree planting, by changing agricultural practices and by reinstating marshes and bogs. Good soil can store much more water without becoming waterlogged – that’s a fact.  Our instincts are to increase downstream dredging and build bigger rhynes and ditches to try to speed up the run-off but that’s a daft way to go.  What we know we need to do is to hold the rain for longer and release it more slowly; and we know how to do this. Building up thick topsoils rich in organic matter, nice winding streams and beaver dams, local flood plains (without houses!) can all help.

We need to try to reduce overall rainfall – and that means addressing the climate crisis because as the Atlantic heats up, more and more moisture laden air is going to head our way. This is a political , economic and cultural challenge – just about the biggest we’ve faced in generations. We need to develop crops and seeds better suited to our new climate, because this can’t happen overnight.  We need to turn away from the fantasy that technology can solve all our problems because it can’t. We need to eat less meat, drive much less, give up flying whenever it suits us, and that means we need to structure our economy in an entirely different way.  It would be a tragedy if most of the world had to accept vastly worse lives in order to keep a few wealthy people living in extravagance.

Does this sound like a revolution? Well, of course it does but the alternatives are much worse. However we can’t expect to be congratulated for our far-sighted views because it’s such a massive change.  I’ve always taught my children to avoid revolution at all cost, because violent revolutions rarely bring anything but unhappiness and worse conditions than ever. We do have a choice and a vision and we can do our best to realize it however much we’re impeded.  We need to have the more powerful vision of hope for the future and not focus exclusively on calling out the villains because that just gives them the chance to demonize us as ‘extremists’ – as if wanting to be able to breathe clean air and eat healthy food, free from chemicals, to drink safe tap water and to walk and cycle safely on uncongested roads and in a living biodiverse countryside was somehow threatening to life. We need to be able to say to people “taste and see” by opening our gardens and allotments for anyone to come along and experience for themselves what’s possible.  We need to work with, and not against farmers, especially small farmers, because being a critical friend is so much more positive than being an implacable enemy, and finally we need to be better consumers.  Mindfulness can be a lot more than just a meditational discipline – especially when we’re buying food and clothes.

Why am I writing all this today?  Well, because I can get a bad dose of the ‘black dog’ when things seem to go as badly as they are at the moment and so, forgive me, I’m reminding myself that we’re not entirely powerless in the face of government incompetence and indifference. But secondly a new follower signed up today – a new allotmenteer as it happens – and I wanted to write something that sets our shared interest within a broader and much more significant context. The personal really is political.

On the allotment (“at last” you may well be saying), a veggie traffic jam is beginning to happen.  Keeping to our usual dates we’ve trays of germinated and germinating seeds that move through the warm propagator to the cooler one, to tables under the windows and then to the unheated greenhouse. But the soil is cold and wet and we just need a secure break in this weather to plant things out ready for spring. You need to be a bit of an optimist in this game. Tomorrow we’ll be sowing into the hotbed which is working really well. We could still be pulling some really early carrots with a bit of luck.

 

 

As we say in Bristol – “where’s that to?”

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– and the answer is in our son’s next door neighbour’s garden in the middle of Birmingham.  In fact herons are almost a pest in suburban gardens these days and almost any little pond is likely to be raided. Last time we were up in Birmingham we saw a large heronry alongside a reservoir near Winterbourne House, and a few years back our son saw a peregrine kill a pigeon and eat it on the path outside his kitchen window in the middle of Harbourne.  On our allotment in Bath we see foxes and badgers and one allotmenteer has seen deer there.  The birds are pretty prolific as well, we’ve got one established peregrine nest in the centre of town and if I were a better entomologist  I reckon we’ve a rich collection of insects on the allotments too, not to mention the smaller mammals I wrote about yesterday. In fact Ken Thompson’s work at the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, some of which comes up in his book “The Sceptical Gardener” – well worth reading –  and Dave Goulson’s books on bees suggest that suburban gardens are both a resource and a hotspot for depleted wildlife.

So while urban and suburban gardeners (and farmers) pit themselves and their gardens against environmental catastrophe, what’s happening out there in the “real” countryside?  I think we pretty much know the answer to that one – it’s a story of crisis.  I would have said it was a story of decline if I’d been writing this a few years ago, but there are signs of hope, typified by the rewilding project at Knebb but replicated on a much more modest scale in many other places. While we all wish that change could come faster but there’s a lot of inertia and a whole culture to overcome before that can happen, and I know we need action right now,  but with a climate change denying government, banks and multinational pharmaceutical companies still in control, the  responsibility for change, for the time being, has to be on us and our behaviour.

At the AGM of the Bath Natural History Society this afternoon, (Prof) David Goode – in his President’s address – said that he felt that public attitudes towards climate change had changed for the better over the past year, and gave credit to Greta  Thunberg for inspiring the Extinction Rebellion movement and catalysing the sense of urgency.  He also said that he had authored some reports in the late 1970’s in a book trying to predict what was coming during the next decades.  He told us that the editor of the publication had refused to accept the phrase “greenhouse effect” but that every one of his predictions had come to pass before the end of the decade. In my view, with Australia on fire, California in the grip of a prolonged drought and multiple species extinctions across the world it’s become ever more clear that climate change, species extinction and neoliberal politics are all part of the same problem and we can’t choose to fix just one of them.  Having worked in the countryside for 25 years I know only too well the cost to the environment of soil degradation, monoculture, eutrophication of the rhynes (ditches) and the continual application of powerful chemicals, and it’s a cost to the farmers too because as their income is squeezed by falling farm gate prices deliberately forced on them by supermarkets (ask any dairy farmer) they feel they’re being blamed for the state of the environment while the real architects of agribusiness are living high on the hog.

It’s shaming rather than ironic, that suburban and urban green spaces have become places of refuge for wildlife, harried from the countryside by the destruction of habitat and driven by an economics that has no column for the environment in the profit and loss accounts. If you add in the ludicrous farm subsidy system and the lobbying power of the agrochemical industry and it looks like a perfect storm. Ironically I won a signed hardback copy of Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” in the raffle.  I bought the paperback last summer at Heligan, so I’ll pass that copy on to a friend. IMG_20200104_154026One of the greatest advantages of  living in the centre of Bath is the proximity of the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution which is only 5 minutes walk away and accommodates  most of the Bath Nats indoor meetings. The view through the first floor window was lovely this afternoon. January is the quietest month in Bath, with far fewer visitors and space to walk around the city unhampered.

Up at the allotment this morning we planted out the last batch of overwintering broad beans. The first feed of broad beans and new potatoes is a landmark meal, marking the end of the hungry gap and the hope of good things to come, but the soil is very wet at the moment and the water table is so close to the surface that we’re a bit concerned about the effect on the overwintering plants, so it may be necessary to deepen the soakaways or to raise the beds even more, adding plenty of grit to the soil to improve drainage. Whichever we choose it’s going to be hard work, that’s for sure.

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Luckily we’ve got a second string to our bow because  we started a second batch of garlic in large pots, filled with a free-draining mix of soil, compost and horticultural grit, with a few handfuls of vermiculite thrown in. It’s a similar mix to the one we’ve evolved for growing basil indoors under the horticultural lights and that’s absolutely thrived this winter giving us a year-round supply of full flavoured basil. This variety is called Neapolitan and I like it even more than the Classico.

  • This post was amended on Sunday to restore a displaced paragraph to its proper position.

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“Not now George?”

With thanks to Joyce Grenfell.

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I’ve a lot of time for George Monbiot and I often find myself agreeing with almost every word he’s just written while contrarily wishing that he’d found a different way of writing it. It concerns me that I feel this way, because it forces me to examine that part of my history that makes me averse to harsh words.  My friends will breathe a sigh of relief that there is at least someone in the brake-van, and the people I’ve sparred with over the years will continue to think what they do.  There is a place for indignation and anger about our present conjoined crises of mass extinction and global heating and to hold back on that anger might feel like tacit support for the guilty.  Do we really have time for the niceties of civilised debate and a coming together of minds towards agreed collective action. Well we’ve had over fifty years of debating time since Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was published, and my entire adult life has been punctuated by warnings about our abuse of the environment. From the terrible post-war smogs in London and other industrial cities during my childhood onwards, the power of legislation and enforcement has been thwarted and emasculated by powerful vested interests. Surely they’ve had their chance.

And I think that sense of urgency is a powerful defence of the language that’s sometimes used in the debate. George Monbiot is just one among the many powerful voices who’ve spoken out and challenged the culture, and if by shouting loudly about the dangers they’ve brought it to the top of the political agenda then we’ve a lot to thank them for.  If our political system (and this is – ultimately – a political and economic issue) is so tin-eared, or wilfully deaf to the mounting scientific evidence, then our leaders can hardly complain when the debate is taken into the streets, because it us who have to breathe the polluted air and our children whose lungs are invaded by diesel particulates and will never hear a nightingale or a curlew.

The problem is that if it comes to a slanging match, the powerful vested interests have by far the loudest voice, and they have not been above using dirty tricks and deliberate lies to prolongue their hegemony. Stupidly, though, they don’t seem to be able to understand that we all breathe this air, we all drink the water (when there is any) we all eat the chemically compromised food. The rise in sea-level will drive millions of people away from their vulnerable homes, including those who can afford to own tropical islands. The problem is that there isn’t a column for the environment on a profit and loss statement, and so the polluters don’t pay. They’d soon stop if it hit their profits.

So yes there’s a bit of me that would like to make them suffer for the damage they’ve done, but if they were all locked up for eternity it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to the crisis. George’s article above particularly takes aim at farmers and the big environmental NGO’s, and reserves special hatred for grouse moors – there’s a picture of one the I took a few weeks ago at the top of this post.

IMG_5321We know the whole environmental culture has to change, and so let’s take the example of tree planting. Should we plant a million trees, say? Well yes, but where should we plant them? – and what trees should we plant? whose land shall we plant them on? who will pay for them, maintain them and keep them healthy? Can we tackle the climate crisis and the extinction crisis at the same time with the same plan – or will the two sides of the larger crisis require a plan modulated to meet both? This is where I part company with some of Monbiot’s comments because one obvious solution is to use the presently indefensible agricultural subsidy system to change the farming culture. To say to farmers “you can do what you like (within the law) with your own land, but we won’t pay you to do it if it doesn’t bring about any public good.”  I’m pretty sure that most farmers would be only too pleased to stop damaging their land so long as it didn’t bankrupt them in the process. Most hill-farms get 80% of their income from subsidies. Monbiot is quite right to say that the hill-country landscape has been turned into a wildlife desert by overgrazing sheep, but whose fault is that when, until recent years, farmers were paid according to the size of their flocks so, of course, they overstocked the sheep. Millions, if not hundreds of millions of trees could be planted on some of that unproductive land but the best possible workforce and custodians of the new forests would be the farmers who presently farm sheep. They’re in place already and they know their land as only farmers do. Calling for an end to sheep farming only makes a dangerous situation worse.  Do we even know what numbers of sheep might constitute a sustainable national flock? Aren’t there economic and ecological benefits to maintainin a much smaller national flock thereby retaining the best of the hill farming culture and reducing overproduction to the point where the market for sheep and wool improves. Would a revival in woollen cloth be a sustainable alternative to more plastics?   I don’t see the point in alienating and threatening farmers with the expropriation of their livelihoods when we know we’re going to need them onside. The grouse moors are much harder to defend, especially when the cost of shooting is so great that only the wealthy can participate, and amid the costs to wildlife by heather burning are the sinister statistics around the shooting and poisoning of birds of prey by gamekeepers who know when to keep their mouths shut.

But this too is where we’ve seen that not all big landowners are capitalizing on their land by running shoots. Neither do they all allow hunting and stalking.   Inevitably some will argue that any change will amount to an attack on their whole “way of life”. Well yes, so was the abolition of slavery and the end of public executions – we can’t go on excusing the destruction of our ecosystem because someone might get upset about not being able to wear their plus fours. I think the majority of landowners, if they are faced with the prospect of losing millions of pounds of revenue unless they change their ways, will grumble a lot and comply, because deep down they do understand. The biggest obstacle to change will be those industries that can’t adapt. The ones that will really go bust if farmers stop using chemicals! The manufacturers of the behemoths that straddle the fields and crush the life out of the soil will find ways of serving a less extractive agriculture, and no-one’s attacking the principle of using farmland productively and efficiently. It might be that instead of half-million pound machines, human beings could do more.  Some of my happiest winter mornings were spent laying hedges on a playing field that didn’t possess or want to flail the hell out of them.

I’m arguing two things simultaneously – firstly that the crisis is so severe that we must take immediate action and secondly that the best strategy for achieving that end is to use both carrot and stick to change farming culture. Aggression, rudeness and threats of expropriation will just make it harder.  I spent 25 years working in farming parishes and I always felt able to question why things were done in the way they were. Apart from one instance where I was shouted at by a (non farming) local councillor who’d got completely the wrong end of the stick, I found the farmers overwhelmingly open to new ideas. They loved their land and they neither wanted to poison it or lose it altogether by going out of business.

George Monbiot’s next targets in the article are the large NGO’s like the National Trust, the RSPB and the other powerful charities.  Again, it’s always better to change what you’ve got than abolish it all and start again. With the National Trust, Monbiot’s main target is the policy of allowing even drag hunting on its land. If this crisis is ever going to be resolved, then dog whistle tactics will have to be set aside.  The very word hunting carries a whole complex of polarizing imagery that makes resolution almost impossible, and lines the opposing views up with an angry chasm between them.  Better let the whole practice die of disgust, like bear baiting and cockfighting did in their day. Where the National Trust can help is in the management of its huge land holdings, and there it’s not heped by it’s foundational ethos of preservation and conservation. It’s not good enough to use huge sums of public subscription to preserve some notional bucolic landscape for sightseers.

The same problem on a larger scale happens within the National Park authorities who can be a positive nuisance when it comes to changing farming practices. Many of these charities and NGO’s encourage a narrow (especially in terms of diversity) view of passive participation in the scenery. Charities supporting single issues like birds, butterflies or  whatever else are not known for their collaboration, and can be positively hostile when other groups with different interests impinge on their “territory”.

So my plea to George Monbiot is to deal with his understanable anger and pursue the goal we all share by reaching out rather than acting out. It really does work better. To use a useful cliché once again, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’  but it’s not invincible. We can’t save the earth by making vote-winning policy announcements, but it can be saved by implacable determination, never losing sight of the goal and never accepting second best delaying tactics from vested interests. The farmers aren’t the enemy, it’s us with our insatiable appetites.

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Farewell Mynydd Rhiw

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First off, why do I use the difficult Welsh names for places? Because that’s what they’re called and everybody speaks Welsh up here. Secondly, Welsh is a completely phonetic language as I learned many years ago trying to catch buses up and down the South Wales valleys running writers groups. Learning the basics of pronunciation made catching buses easier and me seem less of an amusing floor show! So how do you pronounce Mynydd Rhiw? Try Munith (with the u as in pun rather than mule) and then rheeoo – like the sound of a buzzard but lower. so

Couldn’t resist a last stroll up Mynydd Rhiw for this year.  It’s been such a beautiful spell of warm weather and the flowering gorse and heather had brought out a few late butterflies not to mention all the other insects.  As we left the road we watched a kestrel hovering over the fields below us.  For many years I’d only ever seen kestrel from a distance or from below, sillhouetted aganst the sky. The key identifying feature came to be its unique fluttering style of hovering – head down, maybe thirty feet above its prey. Then in Cornwall last year we saw one very close up on a cliff path and saw for the first time its stunning chestnut colour – so surprising that I had to go and double check that it was, in fact, a kestrel and not some other bird of prey. Today we were able to watch for some minutes from above and again, in the bright sunshine, the chestnut colour glowed once more. The kestrel never looked more beautiful than it did today. As for buzzards, they’ve become so common these days that seeing three flying together on the other side of the hill seemed unexceptional.

With the hills taking on their autumn colours, we looked across and could see Snowdon more clearly than we’ve ever seen it before.  The last time we were here in April it was still capped with snow but today the great rills below the summit ridge stood out in the hard light. My camera, missing a UV filter hardly managed to capture the scene, but I suspect this would have been one of the rare days when, from the summit, you could see both Cardigan Bay and the Irish Sea._1080865

As befits this day of protest about climate change, we could see an oil platform out at sea and as we arrived at the trig point we found one of those enormous pickup trucks at the top with its occupants and their dog eating a picnic and taking in the view, having presumably driven up the access track to the radar and communications mast. It’s full of paradox, this place, with the peace regularly shattered by military jets flying low overhead. RS Thomas, who fought so hard with the Keating sisters, against nuclear power stations and the industrial development of campsites on the coast, lived just below here and I can just imagine that he – as an inveterate walker and birdwatcher – must have shaken his fist at more than a few of them.

I imagine too that local beekeepers must take advantage of the heather to produce its distinctive honey – so thick and gel-like that it’s almost impossible to extract in a spinner, but makes superb comb honey: however we saw no hives today on our walk.

Several of the local farms have bought into government schemes that subsidise environmental outcomes rather than being paid by acreage or subsidised crops. This scheme is scheduled in Wales to replace all farm subsidies in a couple of years but in these uncertain times it’s not clear what’s going to happen.  Instinctively I’ve always felt most sympathy for the small farmers, and there’s no doubt that many of them will go out of business without subsidies.  But the real subsidy junkies are on the other side of the country.  The system is so rigged that the biggest and wealthiest landowners collect the vast majority of the cash, but if you’ve read Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm” you’ll know that intensive extractive agriculture can hardly survive with subsidy let alone without it. Dieter Helm’s book “Green and prosperous Land” explores the unintended consequences of subsidy for the environment and is well worth a read.

But too much reflection can turn a walk into a lament and today, ‘though it may well be the last but one day before the tail end of an expired hurricane rattles through, is all the more beautiful for its fugitive nature. Autumn has its own rewards and I can’t wait to get back to the allotment to carry on with some winter projects.

On our way down the track I stopped to photograph this Soft Puffball – Lycoperdon umbrinium. There were three or four lying on the ground having been uprooted or kicked aside by some mycophobic walker – I had to type that last word twice, Freudian slip!

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