You have to look, but spring is there!

Here’s our Christmas tree – and ‘though you wouldn’t know it, even the shape has huge resonance for me because although it’s just a pruning from the fig tree it’s also the shape of the trees on the crest of Freezing Hill which was the distant horizon of my childhood. There was a line of trees there taking the full blast of the prevailing southwesterlies and therefore bent over with trunks facing the weather. So the shape is one thing and another is the fact that, being a fig, the fruits are already there. It’s an image that manages to embrace both summer and winter at the same time; an earnest – if you like – a promise of good things to come. The lights speak for themselves except for the fact that in much the same way that we especially love the black and the red wine gums in the packet, I love the lights when they’re all red – which only happens at the moment you turn them on and so, utterly childishly – I lie on the floor so I can reach the switch while watching the lights and for a moment there’s a sense of of bliss. I probably need professional help for that one.

Of course I’ve made no secret of the fact that this is the time of the year when the black dog visits and Madame, after decades of practice, finds the exact sweet spot between nagging and encouragement. Heaven knows why I find it so difficult to visit the allotment but I really do; and yet when I finally capitulate and get a project in my sights, the black dog seems to slink away defeated for another year.

So while Madame got on with clearing out the fruit cage and doing some winter pruning, earlier in the week, I wheelbarrowed the last five loads of leaves down to their bin to make leaf mould and then turned my attention to repairing the wood chip paths and mulching the apple trees and fruit bushes. You’d think that leaves are much of a muchness when it comes to composting, but in fact a bit of a browse around the storage bay, repays the time and effort because when it comes to leaf mould not all leaves are equal. For instance I find that large sycamore leaves tend to accumulate in dense mats which seem to resist rotting very well; whereas smaller leaves especially when they’re broken down by mowers. Sycamore, then, make the better mulch. As for the chemistry I know from my pottery days that wood ashes from different trees have radically different chemical profiles which can be exploited in the making of glazes. I have no idea whether the same applies to composted leaves, but in nature, variety is (so far as I understand it) a good thing; and so I try to get as many trees as possible represented in the leaf mould. Of course reductionist thinking tends to skate over the differences as if nature could be made to adhere to some kind of simplified formula – like NPK fertilizers for instance – and we know where that kind of thinking takes us!

This is most certainly not a self-help posting, but I would say that hard exercise in the cold weather is a great way of cheering yourself up. After art school I spent three years working as a groundsman at a large public school (I know my place), and the Christmas holidays were always a favourite time. With no rugby or football pitches to maintain and no mowing of the outfields, this was the time we maintained all the tractors and equipment and also did the fun jobs like laying hedges around the field edges. I absolutely loved it, and the frostier the better as far as I was concerned.

So notwithstanding the unseasonably mild weather this past week it was still good to be out there. I write about this time of the year as if it were all about preparation; but (the farmer’s boot being the best fertiliser), you can’t help noticing the subtle changes on the allotment even before astrological winter has begun. As the solstice approaches something stirs in the depths of the soil. The borage plants which died so spectacularly in the autumn that I thought we’d lost them, have put in an appearance already. In fact we planted loads of perennials last season and so angelica and lovage are in the beginnings of leaf and we’re expecting loads of self-seeders to pop up in the next two months. It comforts me to know that the ever reliable sweet cicely can only be just below the surface and, cheating slightly, we have an abundance of parsley and coriander in the polytunnel.

Suddenly, as Christmas comes closer and the solstice is only three days away, everything seems brighter. We know that some perennials are listed as “short lived” and maybe we should see ourselves in the same way; living – as the old saying goes – as if we might die tomorrow, and farming as if we will live forever – and that’s two farming proverbs in one post! Each plant that reappears we’ll greet as an old friend in a world of fugitive pleasures – marvellous!

As we left the allotment today it looked, well, cheerful. There was a wisp of smoke curling up from the incinerator as the last season’s bindweed met its maker. The residual ashes all go on to the compost heap to add a touch of I’ve no idea what, but it seems to work – to the process.

Later, over a glass of wine, I thanked Madame for her vigilant and healing nudges I think our children probably regard us as a couple of curmudgeonly old farts, but having seen seventy five seasons through; sixty of them as gardeners, we have come to understand that the greater pleasures come very slowly, and I say to them – you only find that out if you’re lucky enough to live a long time.

A moment of reflection in tunnel 2

I couldn’t resist photographing this lovely moment on the Kennet and Avon canal this afternoon, just a few yards from the iron bridge where we saw the heron which provided the opening paragraph for my post – “Hiding in Plain Sight” – a couple of days ago.

Tunnel 2 is just about the most unromantic name you could think of – perfect for a Soviet era love story involving two people and a shovel, possibly a broken shovel – come to think of it – but that’s one for another day. The reason for the existence of two tunnels and the deep cutting really is is profoundly unromantic. It came about because owner of the the Sidney Gardens – Regency pleasure gardens and knocking shop according to the historical accounts – refused to allow his patrons to be assailed by the nauseating smells and sounds of the same bargees who were day by day making many of them wealthier. The canal builders had to build two expensive tunnels to hide their work. Nowadays the biggest hazard on the canal is the lycra clad cyclists who race by looking intently at their instruments.

Our walk today was a long, almost eight mile loop through the allotment, past Royal Crescent, the Circus and the Assembly Rooms and past the top of Walcot Street down to Cleveland Bridge which is being repaired and is only open to walkers and cyclists, and therefore blissfully quiet aside from the raucous laughter of a gang of builders who were enjoying their lunch break by cracking jokes at each others’ expense; it sounded a lot of fun. Then we found a way through the housing estate bordering the river; rejoined the canal and the railway line next to the Cleveland Pool which is being restored and then on along the canal to Bathampton where we took the road towards the toll bridge and left it for the footpath back towards town and which runs alongside the river and continues under the monstrous concrete pillars of the bypass. It’s been a warm and occasionally sunny day – perfect for a walk and a catch up with the canal and riverside flora.

The changing seasons are a strong reminder that nothing hangs around for long in nature. The hedge parsley is long gone; replaced by the hogweed which is itself flowering and setting seed. The battered leaves are all that remains of the winter heliotropes that flowered in profusion during late winter. The spring flowers are gone and now the summer visitors are appearing and I could have clapped for sheer pleasure at finding a clump of white musk mallow on the towpath. It could be a garden escape, who knows? they’re more commonly purple like their cousins in the Malva family – but they were there and looking lovely – pristine even – a fleeting moment.

I had a few responses to my earlier post, an old school friend on Facebook, a helpful comment from Carolee a reader and virtual friend in the US and a phone call from another old friend to make sure I was still alive. My heart problem (Afib) seems to have got better on its own (I bet they all say that!) and with a couple of doses of filthy tasting valerian each day I’m feeling steadier; but the walk on the canal reminded me that the essence of the natural world is that its pleasures are both gifted and fugitive – not to be captured or pinned down – we simply have to accept – that’s the deal.

And if that sounds a bit glum it’s not meant to be. Life might be a helter skelter ride to oblivion but that’s no excuse for shutting my eyes and refusing to enjoy it while it lasts.

-4C then almost springlike sunshine

Henrietta Park this morning with patches of yesterday’s unmelted snow and young daffodils bursting through the ground. We’ve got a radio thermometer installed outside at the back of the flat and early this morning it was showing -4C some twenty feet above ground level. The sun shone brightly all day but even so it didn’t get much above 4C. I’ve said this before, but every season seems to bear signs of the next, and the daffodils – even just in leaf – were a cheering sight in the depth of winter. Given the temperature and the very light traffic outside, we decided to try our morning 9k walk along the river and canal and although there were one or two more crowded spots, by and large we walked alone. Tomorrow and for the next couple of weeks it looks like we’ll be back to south westerlies and showers – which isn’t going to be particularly good for erecting a polytunnel.

There’s really no room for doubt that we’re experiencing increasingly severe weather variations; certainly more storms are bringing ever larger falls of rain and we seem to have had a succession of wet winters followed by hot spells in the wrong (that’s to say early) part of summer with consequent effects on ripening crops. August was always a wetter month, but severe downpours and storms are a menace. The winter period since the new year began has seen a reversion to more typical cold weather but even so it’s felt odd – interspersed with storms that turn the river brown with topsoil. Of course we know, or at least we have every reason to know, that the cause of all this is global climate change; but there are very few signs that politicians are taking the threat seriously. My heart sinks when I read the latest and daftest ever techno-wheeze for sequestering carbon, and this week’s crop of suggestions should be nominated for the Darwin Award, not least because they promise that we’ll all be able to drive our 5 litre SUV’s around without feeling guilty.

I’ve been reading Vandana Shiva’s “Soil not Oil” and it breaks my heart to contemplate the missed targets since 2008. It’s like watching your mother drink herself to death; and the question that’s shouting at me is why? – why are we so powerless to effect political change the face of this addiction to endless growth and its consequent degradation of the environment and our quality of life? Why do politicians reward agro industrialists with the opportunity to write government policy through political gifts and lobbying, whilst describing peaceful environmental protesters as terrorists?

The tragedy is that we know what the danger is, and we also know what general shape the remedy will have to take, and we know that if no progress is made, very soon we will be facing an environmental catastrophe – no ifs, no buts and no more delays while they wait for a scaleable, saleable and monopolistic solution to turn up. What else is there to say?

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