Here’s one that the devil got to.

Succisa pratensis – Devils Bit

Sorry, it’s not the best photo ever but today the blog is held together, if it holds at all, by the photos. We were out walking the clifftop today. The sky was a colour I’ve always thought of as ‘china blue’ and I’ve never known until very recently why that name fitted this particular sky so perfectly but it came to me – as these things do – that it’s very like the pale blue of some Chinese blue and white pottery. I have to say ‘some’ because although all ceramic blues come from cobalt, the colour was sourced from different minerals that contained other elements, for instance manganese, which subtly affects the colour. For most potters since the 19th century, blue meant – well, darkish cobalt blue; but for thousands of years the Chinese had valued this colour for its almost spiritual quality and equally valued the various hues to be got from minutely different sources. Manganese, for the sake of an illustration, when mixed with cobalt might well yield a colour not unlike the devils bit at the top of the page. Goodness what glorious ceramic piece it was that took up residence in my mind; and neither do I recall where I might have seen it but it lodged there as the colour of the autumn sky; faintly milky but infinitely deep, and which is a feature of the sea sky and big wide estuaries. China Blue it will always be, so I’ve capitalised it to nail the point.

Anyway, there it is – autumn, the Irish sea stirred up by a blustery South Easterly and more birds than you could shake a stick at – greater black backed gulls, herring gulls, black headed gulls, common tern (I’m pretty sure), shag, kestrel, swallows, turnstone, oystercatcher, meadow pipit, rock pipit. We sat and watched them, especially the tern which – now we’ve got them in our heads – are more and more interesting to watch; diving like gannets but delicately and acrobatically, aborting a dive at the last moment and turning in the air to resume their patrol.

But everywhere along this northern coast of the peninsula are signs of abandonment: collapsing corrugated iron sheds flapping noisily in the wind, rusting gear and capstans half buried in the sand at the head of abandoned slipways. All landscapes have this capacity to hold their histories written in heaps and mounds, or walls and chimneys. This particular landscape is rich in earthworks that could be ancient but more likely are the leavings of attempts to drain the marshy ground inland from the sea. An abandoned customs lookout reminds us that this area was once frequented by sail-coasters crossing from Ireland, which is so close here that our mobiles have, once or twice, tried to connect to Irish phone masts. Roaming here can be costly.

The largest farms are replete with the latest technology – one in particular with hostile warnings about entering what looked like a small industrial site. Others – the ones that haven’t converted all their outbuildings to holiday cottages – look careworn and shabby; needing a lot more than a lick of paint. This is traditional farming practised under the constant threat of the bailiffs – you can smell it in the air – fishing, shipbuilding, coastal trade and farming all slowly sinking. A late boom in tourists might not be enough to mitigate the effects of coronavirus and a hard brexit.

But to get back to the beginning, the devils bit has a good back story. Until the nineteenth century it had a big reputation for its healing qualities, and the tale goes that it was so good that the devil intervened and bit off part of its root to prevent the people being healed – you can see where this is going. So here’s another photograph – same walk, same sky and this time it’s a large roofless and abandoned enclosure.

Cofiwch dryweryn – again!

Of course, with one door gone, you wouldn’t necessarily recognise it but there it is again; the same militant slogan and probably the same graffiti artist but this time half of the door has been battered off by the storms and now the gateway to nowhere is blocked by a huge pile of plastic jetsam awaiting collection. The fruits of another unfolding tragedy.

I wrote a couple of days ago that if I were a Welsh voter I’d be thinking hard about independence and after I’d pressed the ‘send’ button I wondered if I’d thought this through clearly. Trust me, readers punish me if I overstep the mark and for 24 hours I waited for some kind of reaction. With this blog it’s as clear as a bell; the numbers drop – I can almost hear the screens being slammed shut. But – on the other hand – we’ve got to think about these difficult issues, and this blog is about being human and not necessarily being perfect. If I thought there was a solution to our current multifaceted crisis – the collapse of species diversity, uncontrolled global heating, gross pollution, poverty and unemployment, homelessness, the disappearance of whole cultures (it’s not just the Amazon we need to worry about) and the relentless gathering of wealth into fewer and fewer hands – if I thought there was any way of addressing this without speaking out and making people feel uncomfortable – then I’d give up and do field botany.

Being fully human isn’t a part-time job and it involves some agonising dilemmas. Looking at the lonely nationalist slogan and the accompanying pile of rubbish today forced me to realise that the only way we’ll ever save the earth from our own behaviour is to draw together, not split apart. The present governance of the Western world is kept alive by division. Common goods are all too easily destroyed – like the roots of devils bit in the telling story. Where our few leftover treasures and cultural possessions, languages, memories and stories stand in the way of profit, they are excised, and the more we can be persuaded that the cause of all our problems is those Welsh, or those Scots or those English or those refugees or those Europeans or whatever other separated scapegoat for the disastrously wrong turn the human race took after the 1950’s; the easier it is for them to pick us off one group at a time. So to answer my own question in an epically convoluted way – no I wouldn’t be campaigning for devolution I’d be campaigning for change, for a functioning democracy that gives us all representation.

One flower I haven’t mentioned is yarrow – there’s lots of it in flower on the cliff tops here. Traditionally yarrow stalks were used in the casting of the I Ching. I’ve got a set at home, gathered for that purpose decades ago and as I passed a plant today with all this swirling around in my mind I remembered that the whole ethos of this ancient art – it’s called divination pejoratively as if it were like reading tea leaves- is to seek the path of balance. Good government doesn’t comprise conning everyone into thinking they can have what they want. When balance is achieved, when we work in harmony with the Tao that calls the ‘ten thousand things’ -including the ‘hawkish’ plant below, the hair grass bending to the wind, and the chamomile – into being, then we thrive.

Back on the allotment

Meanwhile, and notwithstanding the darker tone of the recent posts; things are going well on the allotment, although this year it’s become ever more evident than ever that the stately procession of the seasons has been one of the early casualties of global heating. We’ve moved into an era of ‘all or nothing’ weather which means that unseasonably hot and dry weather is punctuated by fierce storms that need a rather different sort of rain harvesting.

In the past the steady drip of rain running down the greenhouse panes into tiny gutters and thence through small pipes into the water butts, was rarely enough to overwhelm the system. This year we’ve had to modify the gutters and downpipes to cope with the short bursts of very heavy rain which, otherwise, would overtop them and overflow on to the ground beneath. Even then it takes a lot of rain to replenish 1250 litres (250 gallons) of rainwater. Luckily we have access to a couple of water troughs connected to the mains water supply. We also have several underground streams running through the site and flowing out across the pavement below us. In a perfect world we’d dig a massive tank at the bottom to capture the water and then pump it up the hill to another tank at the top, but in the present economic climate, anything beyond two days is long-term planning. That’s to say it goes on to a long list and stays there, even though the payback through saved water bills would be pretty quick.

So today’s job, yesterday’s job and likely tomorrow’s too is to water. In order to get the maximum benefit from the land area we made wood chip paths and beds, but at this time of the year the paths are populated with large pots and any other temporary containers we can press into service. These need watering every day when the temperature is in the 30’s, and the inside of the tiny greenhouse can be like a furnace – good news for the hot chillies as long as they don’t dry out completely. Anything else needs a lot of TLC.

And so just at the time the allotment is absorbing a great deal of energy, the produce is demanding more by way of cookery and preparation and with added ingenuity since ingredients rarely come off the allotment in recipe form. We have courgettes but no tomatoes or aubergines yet so ‘rat’ is off the menu. At the same time much of the soft fruit is ripening and so the question of what to do with it arises, as it does every year.

One useful discipline is to check the cupboard before we make any more of anything. We have a surplus of redcurrant jelly already so there doesn’t seem much point in making more. On the other hand we eat shed-loads of blackcurrant jam so that’s worth replenishing, but much of the other soft fruit is going to be processed into multi purpose fruit compote for summer puddings and ice cream. This year we made a generic “allotment jam” which was very good, but freezer space is limited so the gooseberries are going to be bottled. The biggest overproduction offenders are chutneys and pickles which need to be made circumspectly if you’re not to land up with a garage full of chutney because you didn’t know what else to do with an impulse buy of plums at the roadside. We find that jams last longer than a year, and chutneys can easily last three if they’re properly stored – but eventually they deteriorate and although they probably won’t kill you they won’t enhance your table either.

So we’re very busy but not too busy to keep an eye open for new plants. Today I spotted a common blue sowthistle on the site. It wasn’t too hard to identify but it uncovered the subtle distinction that most floras make between natives and incomers. Plants and flowers escape from gardens and railway lines, even on the wheels of cars and quarry lorries, and if they find a suitable spot they can settle down and grow. This one is a 19th century escapee that’s doing well but – because it’s not a genuine native – isn’t featured in most of my wildflower floras. Even the Book of Stace refuses to acknowledge it, although he will often give a line or two to my seventh cousin from Devon .

Identifying wildflowers can become a bit of an obsession, but it’s harmless and gets me out. I’ve been pacing the allotment and the canal recently trying to sort out the ragworts and, trust me, it can be a challenge. But!- there is a book and a method that’s immensely useful and it’s just been published in a revised second edition. It’s called “The vegetative key to the British flora” by John Poland and Eric Clement and it does exactly what it says on the tin – it helps you to identify plants that aren’t in flower – and even better, different plants whose flowers all look the same but which can be sorted out by closely examining the shape, disposition and minute details of the lower parts, the leaves and stems.

A massively useful tool, you might say, unless I’m trying to identify an escapee like a blue sow thistle, when the Google app on my android phone at least gets me most of the way home. I suppose if it (the sow thistle, that is), continues to do well – and it probably will – a massively suntanned botanist with a gigantic souwester for storms will give it a grudging mention in the 2050 appendix to a slim volume of all the plants that are left. Anyway, thanks to a good magnifier, a copy of Poland and Clement, and a tolerant partner I now know what a hydathode is, and consequently what is definitely an Oxford Ragwort; but the common ragwort which I have known all my botanical life as Senecio jacobaea has changed its name in the hope of escaping detection and is now known as Jacobaea vulgaris. Taxonomists can be very snotty.

Last night there was a massive party on the green. The police have been out in force on Royal Crescent, and so those in the know have come down to the Green which, being in a much less salubrious area, is less likely to generate complaints from important people. Aside from feeling a bit left-out because we’re still self isolating and ignoring the government, whom we wouldn’t believe if they told us the date; it was lovely to hear the young people having so much fun and this morning – contrary to stereotypes – there wasn’t as much as a sweet paper left on the grass because they tidied up so well. I do so hope their optimism won’t be crushed by a second wave of the Covid 19 virus.

Sweet Cicely again.

Here at the Potwell Inn we’re beginning the sixth week of our lockdown because we started a little earlier than the Government. There have been many moments of doubt, but on the whole it’s been a positive experience because it’s affirmed the choices we’ve already  made over the years about the way we live. So baking, for instance hasn’t come as a new skill, nor has gardening or cooking. We hardly ever ate out; we gave up going abroad when we retired because we couldn’t really afford it any more. The biggest changes due to the lockdown have been the clean plates. We’ve eaten well but carefully and because we’re cooking smaller portions we finish it all. That’s it really.  The cleaner air, the absence of traffic and noise have been an absolute bonus. The biggest loss has been the fact that we can’t use the campervan and so a whole missing season of walking, botanising, mountains and seaside  therapy  has left a huge gap in our lives and we’ll never stop yearning for France. So far as I’m concerned that really doesn’t add up to saintly renunciation.

My biggest concern – it’s becoming an obsession – is that the covid 19 pandemic has displaced almost every other issue in public life.  I feel like the cartoon character with a billboard that proclaims the end is nigh! – people laugh, dismiss my concerns and take a wide berth; but the smallest glimpse at history teaches that civilisations and cultures really do come to an end when they are overwhelmed by their contradictions and overreach themselves. When Thomas Cromwell appropriated the wealth of the monasteries they were already well on their way to collapsing. The supply of peasant labour that kept the farms going was beginning to dry up and many of the monks were far from home, collecting rents.  The fabulous wealth of the church was ripe for the picking, it had become spiritually bankrupt and far too interested in projecting political power. It was Cromwell who had the cunning plan.

But when the prevailing ideology of a civilisation or culture is exposed as bankrupt, unworkable, fraudulent or downright dangerous it’s only a matter of time before it collapses.  That’s a fact of history, not a prediction for the future. This isn’t a long holiday paid for by the state, but it may be a moment in an historical earthquake. Climate change, economic collapse and species extinctions are not going to take a furlough while the politicians get the old, damaged economy back on its feet. The only question is – do we want to do survival the hard way or the catastrophic way? 

All of which gloomy thoughts have provoked me to write about Sweet Cicely because whatever the future, these precious weeds will have a part in it. Welcome to the Potwell Inn windowsill which is pressed into service as a greenhouse, a source of free light and heat and an entertainment centre through which we can watch the world even though we’re confined – aside from daily trips to the allotment. I’d long wanted to grow it because it’s an early riser like rhubarb and its natural sweetness and faintly aniseed flavour make the perfect companion to it. The best culinary herbs are often not the ones that shout at you like a trumpet in a Sicilian marching band. They’re more subtle – so much so that you only notice their absence and not their presence. So yesterday we gathered both and cooked them, and the addition of a few Sweet Cicely leaves makes an indefinable but profound difference, adding depth. Home grown rhubarb straight out of the ground is marvellous anyway, but this way it’s even better.

I spoke of it, just then, as a weed – and, in Yorkshire for instance, that’s what it is – as common as Cow Parsley is down here in the South West. Our plants had a difficult beginning. I actually bought some seeds three years ago, shoved them into some seed compost and waited – nothing happened. Did I ever write about the RTFM notice? Years ago I worked in a satellite radio station where there was a large notice written over the desk.  “In the event of equipment failure RTFM” I asked an engineer one day what it meant. “Read the manual” he replied tartly.

So after the Sweet Cicely had sulked for a very long time I read the manual and it appeared that they were tricky little devils to germinate because they needed a period of cold (vernalization).  So into the fridge they went, pots and all, in a plastic bag where I forgot all about them. Later we went to see friends in Yorkshire and there were plants growing absolutely everywhere – like weeds – in Nidderdale, where we were. So I grabbed a handful of the interestingly large seeds, shoved them in my pocket until we got home and then I put them into pots and left them outside without much hope. Up they sprang and I planted them into a corner where I thought they couldn’t do too much harm and that was that. Eventually I remembered the ones in the fridge and sunk the little pots into a bigger one and left them outside on the allotment where they too germinated. I can definitely confirm that once they’ve got their roots down they are completely worthy of their weedy reputation just as they are worthy of a place on any allotment – just for the rhubarb, although the green seeds are also delicious and have a lot of potential for cooking.

The other two plants on the windowsill were Dill and Lovage – also early risers on the allotment. Dill is just wonderful (in small amounts) added to parsley in a fish pie; and Lovage is a marvellous addition to any vegetable stock (oh and in Pimms too). In the trug yesterday was another cutting of Purple Sprouting Broccoli which is at its peak at the moment. The important point about it is that although it’s in the ground for almost two years, the sprouts themselves grow and ripen in days and so they are immensely tender – stalk and all. I suspect that’s the reason why commercial growers have adopted the term “tenderstem” – because non gardeners might cut the stalks off (oh horror!).  They’re as good as asparagus and a lot more prolific. At the moment our 12′ X 5′ asparagus bed is yielding a small feed every two days.  The Purple Sprouting (5 plants) would yield a trug full in the same time.

The other seasonal blessing is Spinach – it doesn’t care for midsummer and wants to bolt, so now is the time to harvest, and you can sow more in late summer for the winter months.  Meanwhile  the chards will take over.

 

 

 

 

The meadow that’s around us

 

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A fox strolling across our site in broad daylight

I’d just finished writing a piece for the allotment society about taking on an overgrown allotment when I turned to writing this post. I’ve been really impressed with Simon Fairlie’s book “Meat – a benign extravagance” which was published in 2010 and today when I was flicking through a digest of the day’s news I came across a story about leaked emails written by a government advisor which had revealed that he thought neither fishing nor agriculture were really worth preserving in the UK.  The chain of idiocy that this attitude reveals is examined forensically in the Fairlie book, but as for the emails, I have no doubt that the author is a fully paid up advocate of and probably a shareholder in industrialized intensive farming.  My guess is that neither the environment nor unemployment, and certainly not public health figure in his analysis. Coincidentally another article – this time in the Farmers Weekly – suggested that there’s a rosy future for British agriculture freed from the petty rules and regulations of the EU.

This constellation of  dangerous thinking made me wonder whether Simon Fairlie had changed his mind in the last 10 years.  Maybe he’s recanted, I thought, and bought shares in Bayer – and so I looked him up and no, he’s now making a living (probably not a generous one) selling Austrian forged (as in hammers and anvils not fake) scythes and editing a magazine called The Land and even a quick glance will reveal that he’s lost none of his incisive way of dealing with unsupported claims by either friends or enemies.

So there was the chain of thought that led to the image of a scythe.  The fox on our site that has killed more allotment chickens than you’d believe and yet still brings a thrill when he strolls insouciantly across the site; the kind of neoliberal economist who would empty your bank account and sell your granny without a hint of compassion; the trials of taking on an overgrown allotment and the memory of a traditional farm implement, all dancing around in my head at the same time. I should probably increase my medication.

If there is a crisis in agriculture it’s probably being cynically manipulated by the people who would rather throw agriculture, fishing and wildlife under a bus than give up driving their big cars and burning fossil fuels. The agrochemical industry simply loves the idea of sequestering carbon by planting trees because it will mean intensive chemically supported farming will be the only show in town once all that land is taken out of production, and as Simon Fairlie remarked ten years ago, there’s a real danger that the more extreme fringes of the vegan movement will forge an unholy alliance with them.  There’s a crisis in agriculture, and fishing too, because for decades the subsidy system has been used to encourage people to do exactly the wrong things, and there’s a cultural crisis in the West resulting from our disconnection from nature. When we lost the dirt under our fingernails we began to lose the sense of connectedness with the earth and her rhythms. As a matter of fact I think that watching cosy natural history programmes on the television (though I do it myself) is positively dangerous. It’s a voyeuristic substitute for the real food of connectedness – a kind of synthesised vitamin pill rather than the feast that’s everywhere around us.

The fox is an awesome predator but its capacity to do real harm is limited. Even apex wild predators are incapable of completely eliminating their prey species, they’re just not organised enough – but we are; homo non-sapiens, the creatures who’ve lost their wisdom. The economist probably doesn’t even know how to grow mustard and cress on a piece of tissue paper, but with a little help from industrial lobbyists still has the capacity to destroy the environment in an unprecedented fashion.

So there I was, yesterday evening, sitting at my laptop with this depressing sentence nagging me, when an alarm went off on my phone.  How could I have forgotten? We’d done two very long days on the allotment building the new rainwater storage and sowing some early seeds so we’d warmed up some clanger pudding (a Potwell Inn stalwart, comprising whatever’s left in the fridge), and were looking forward to an evening doing not much.  Twenty minutes later we were around at BRLSI – (Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution) for George Peterken’s talk on the cultural ecology of meadows. The place was packed with some awesomely qualified people – County Recorders, ex presidents of this and that national bodies, wardens, botanists, ecologists and mycologists – you really should join Bath Natural History Society if you live anywhere near here, these aren’t just clever people they’re really friendly too, and they can turn a field trip into a seminar.

And blow me if he didn’t talk about scythes!  Now there’s an example of synchronicity worth savouring. I used to have a scythe, but I never really mastered it. In the early 70’s we were drinking at the Cross Keys in Corsham when we met an very elderly man who’d been a gardener at Corsham court and who told us that they had cut the lawns there with scythes. He offered to give me a lesson – which I gladly accepted – and so later that week we met outside the pub on the verge, and he demonstrated how to do it.  My inelegant slashings were completely wrong, it seems.  When he used the scythe it looked more like a slow, deliberate dance.  Even for an old man with arthritis, he made it look beautiful – a kind of circular motion, step and sweep, step and sweep.  Even the short grass of the verge fell tidily beneath his razor sharp scythe. He showed me how to sharpen my scythe too and I wish I’d paid more attention but when you’re twenty something there’s always infinite time for learning stretching out before you. As a child I’d been roped in to rake the hay on my grandfather’s smallholding and I’d seen stooks and ricks being built; it was a grand day out and I could feel the heat of the sun on my back..

So last night’s talk on meadows was so much more than a technical exercise. In his opening remarks, George Petersen said he’s been surprised at how emotionally connected people are to these relics of an ancient agricultural system. I can vouch for that.  As he showed slides of fields, gloriously filled with wildflowers and orchids, plants I’d never seen and many that I know well, I was experiencing the kind of feelings you might reasonably expect in a concert hall. My guess is that there were more than a few tears lurking in the corners of our eyes as we contemplated the beauty and the loss of what we’ve collectively allowed to die in the delusional pursuit of ‘progress’. He spoke of the way that the ‘catastrophe’ of haymaking each year had led birds, butterflies and insects to make a living in the field margins.  He advanced an idea of ‘meadow’ that embraced a much more eclectic definition – field margins, woodland rides, roadsides and clifftops.  But he also spoke of the culture that created these environments and which sounded so much more appealing than the industrialised concrete canyons we now inhabit; fed on industrialised junk-food and entertained with industrialised natural history television.

We walked home knackered and excited in equal measure – in the words that once featured on the front of the Whole Earth Catalogue –

“We can’t put it together – it is together”.

 

No hiding place

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Well not for this group of overwintering snails in Cornwall. The ivy, behind which they had been dry and cosy, was stripped off by estate workers and they were oblivious to the danger they were in from the local birds – just a matter of time before they became a lucky break for a hungry predator. Our camping pitch was home for abundant numbers of very tame rooks and it was amazing to hear what a wide range of vocalisations they had – perched, as they were, only feet away from the campervan. I guess it’s just a matter of standing still for as long as it takes to fully engage with the natural world. I always feel a bit sorry for the runners and cyclists who treat the bridle paths as speedway tracks – they don’t know what they’re missing.

But not knowing what you’re missing has a darker side because when we depopulate our minds of the the ordinary everyday wildlife; or when we’ve never experienced the sheer fun of naming the plants and trees, we’re less likely to miss them when they’re not there any more, and in an age like our own, getting to know what’s there becomes a moral issue.

These days I seem to be reading more and more angry words, and I’m constantly being exhorted to give something or other up for the sake of the planet – and almost  always it’s couched in emotional terms. If I eat meat at all I must be in favour of animal suffering – but if I talk about veganism I’m a lentil headed moron.  Plastic ? no plastic? dig? no-dig? What to wear, where to take my holidays and how to get there, shop local  …… and so it goes on. And all this effort is towards saving the planet about which most of us know next to nothing. Is it any surprise that talk of a climate emergency or an ecological disaster has almost no impact on our behaviour. We don’t feel scared because we don’t quite know what it is we’re about to lose and in our (ideologically trained) hearts we still believe that we can all get richer and more productive because we’re the cleverest species who’ve ever lived on the earth and we always come out on top – don’t we?

So here’s a suggestion. Take a walk – it’s almost spring now so there are lots of plants about to burst into life – and name as many as you can.  This isn’t about spotting ghost orchids, it’s about the most ordinary things you’ve probably walked past thousands of times without paying attention. If you can’t walk far, check out a few pavement cracks and stone walls.  The most important part of this exercise is not to show off but to understand just how little we know about ordinary plants, living heroic lives against the onslaught of strimmers, chemicals, dogs pee, drought and storm. Spend a season discovering that coltsfoot, cats ear, hawkweed, hawkbit and all their relatives are not dandelions after all. Do some bird watching but don’t buy a fancy pair of binoculars, a bird book and drive to a reserve somewhere; stand and listen very quietly – what’s that bird outside the flat? – does it care about the noise of the traffic? Find a moth that looks exactly like a twig.  Let’s be even more contentious – what breed are those sheep? those cattle?

I promise that once you’ve made the resolution not to pass up on things you don’t recognise and can’t name, your life will change completely. You’ll never be lonely again because the plants you pass will be friends; you laboured to get to know their names and so they really matter.  You know pretty much where they live and when you’ll be able to catch up again next season – this is all about ordinary everyday things, not national rarities. The thing is, species disappear when we don’t know they’re there. Our grandchildren may never hear a cuckoo, and they’ll almost certainly never hear a nightingale – ordinary everyday birds that disappeared because of what we’re doing to the environment. Last summer we were driving along an absurdly exposed and narrow road in the Yorkshire Dales, almost on the border with Cumbria. We were accompanied for best part of half a mile by half a dozen lapwing flying directly in front of us like a red arrows display team. You don’t forget moments like that, and you’re far more likely to get involved when their very existence is threatened.

So don’t get despondent or confused about what we’re supposed to do in this unrecognised crisis – there’s plenty of advice out there and some of it is even sensible! Be cautious of evangelically inclined interest groups, lobbyists, commercial interests and all the rest but also give then a fair hearing, especially if you don’t agree with them.  The best way to conduct a campaign is to know your enemy better than they know themselves. Shouting drives people into their comfort zones but quiet persistence and empathy really can change peoples minds.  But above all, know what it is we’re trying to save – name it, treasure it – because it’s not an abstract concept we’re trying to defend, it’s family and household to us  – the only family and the only household we have. Love and hold the ordinary and everyday close to your heart, and the survival of the earth can be achievable.

When push comes to shove it’s all about parsnips (and other unglamorous stuff).

IMG_20191207_164441I know I can get very intense about all the politics and philosophy that swirl around us at the moment. I can even get cross with myself, and worry that I’m alienating the readers who’d rather be reading about cooking or the allotment; but I’ve also set my face against turning this journal – because that’s what it is – into a one dimensional thread focused on one particular aspect of our life at the (imaginary) Potwell Inn. There’s a Chinese saying, or is it a curse? -about living in interesting times and, like it or not – these are interesting times and I don’t much care for them.

And when we live in such interesting times, even the growing of parsnips can become a political statement or an act of defiance, and so the politics and the philosophy and joining some kind of counter culture are all entwined. Which means that although I could probably give some sensible advice about growing parsnips – like being patient while they germinate; only using new seed; making sure the soil is deep enough and so-on, the fact is, they get affected by carrot fly and other pests and the question of what to do about it is only simple if you’re happy with indiscriminately poisoning anything that might pose a remote threat. Allotmenteering is only simple if you go with the flow. If you don’t, you land up playing chess with a thousand pieces and  rules that can change overnight. I’m not trying to be off putting here, just noticing that without the comfort of what therapists call “splitting off”, the bowl of soup on your table can become a microcosm of the crisis.

I made parsnip soup today, for a friend who was dropping by to see us.  I made it a few weeks ago for another friend because I like parsnip soup – we grow them so  it’s ridiculously cheap and  easy to make and  (I think) people enjoy it. In the course of our conversation we got to talking about what our children were up to and it turns out that one of her children is doing very well working for one of the agrichemical giants, helping to sell insecticide delivery systems in the developing world. Curiously – or – as the Jungians would say ‘synchronously’ the last friend I made the soup for has spent so much time demonstrating outside one of their sites that she was invited in for a “conversation” with the managers. “Oh for goodness sake!” – I thought …… “this soup is getting too contentious”.

The fact is – there is no escape from the cultural, the philosophical and the ethical issues that beset us and so I’ve taken up the challenge of studying them and, because I’m a bit lost myself, I write about it and share my thoughts with you because (I assume) you must be interested in the same difficult questions. At the moment I’ve got loads of ideas swarming around in my mind. I don’t want (or need) to preach to the converted but I am very seriously committed to finding ways of communicating the positive things that would accompany a new green deal, to those who (have been encouraged to) bury their heads in the sand and who believe that nothing can be done.

What I’d like to do is sleep soundly without worrying, grow vegetables, search for plants and live in a culture rooted in the sense of community  with one another and with the whole of creation. In order to achieve that we need to make a huge cultural change. I was watching  a TV interview with Naomi Klein today and she put the central issue very concisely. We can’t choose between radical change and a quiet life.  If we do nothing there will be a catastrophe – and that surely is radical change; or – we can take charge of a radical agenda that will rescue the earth while preserving us from the menace of resurgent fascism. 

Better a dish of herbs where there is love, than a fattened ox where there is hatred.

If a tree falls in the wood and no-one hears it, does it make a sound?

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Tansy – Tanacetum vulgare, flowering out of season in December, on the towpath.

Many years ago I spent a week on a silent retreat in a Franciscan convent in Compton Durville in Somerset.  Sadly the sisters eventually had to move because they were unable to cope with managing such a large house, but it was a very beautiful place to spend a week in silence. I was the only man there, and so they gave me a small cottage all to myself. There was a mostly rather solitary silence except, that is, for 1.00pm, after lunch, when the radio was turned on for the BBC news headlines and off again immediately they were over. It was during the reign of Margaret Thatcher and one day there was a particularly tendentious headline (they were troubled times) and one of the more radical sisters snorted in word-free despair,  a snort in which we were probably all complicit, and we went back into what you might describe as a newly established communal silence. You have no idea how intensely a silence can communicate.

This last few days the memory of that week came back to me. After the disastrous results of the election were announced, as I’ve already written, I had to deal with a whole pile of anger and despair and among the things I did in response, more instinctively than deliberately, I gave up listening to the broadcast news or buying any newspapers at all. I didn’t even cheat by reading the papers online. It seemed to me that the cacophony of opinions, stupidities and anger were echoing around in my head and it was like being trapped on a bus with a drunk, powerless to stop the fetid tide, and I thought to myself –

“if this were happening in the room I’d get up and walk away”,

So I’ve walked away and you’ve no idea what a difference it’s made. One way and another I’ve spent quite a bit of time around and close to monastic communities. Aside from being extremely married, I completely lack the strength of character it takes to live in community, but I’ve pressed my nose against the window many times.  We’ve lived in several communes and I promise that they can bring you closer to murder than any other way of life! In some Benedictine houses the doorway into the chapel is inscribed “To pray is to work” as you go in, and as you leave the inscription reads “To work is to pray”. Any which way, life is better when it’s prayerful and even having such a liminal faith as mine, it never seemed truer.

After days of awful weather we got on to the allotment this morning and, after a rotten week, we began to feel human again.  We often work in silence, completely absorbed with the task in hand.  It’s quite prosaic – I was turning the compost and spoiling our resident rat’s day again; Madame was planting out broad beans, and I thought fondly of the monastic gardens I’ve been in.

I can almost hear some of my friends gnashing their teeth at my proposal to withdraw for a while, but there are many noble precedents.  In China, monks who were odds with the emperor would take themselves off ‘fishing’. But disengaging from what Heidegger called “das gerede” – the endless torrent of gossip that destroys our authentic life, is essential for us if we are to discover what it means truly to be ourselves, however painful that process might be. At a less philosophical level, getting out of that stream of ideological noise that constantly tells us who and what we are, and how we should behave and what we should believe, is the only way we’ll survive with our souls intact.  For a few days I’ve lived a monastic silence right in the middle of the world and I can breathe again. To walk and weed and to turn compost and plant beans is to pray, just as to meditate is hard work.

So the tansy we found yesterday as we walked down the towpath alongside the swollen river is out of season, it shouldn’t be there – none of the books think it should be there – and yet it is; vibrantly alive in mid December in complete defiance of expert opinion. Can this be true?  Can a plant defy all-powerful human research? If a tree falls in the wood and no-one hears it, does it make a sound? There’s the coming extinction in a sentence. Does something only truly happen when it happens for us, and for our benefit? The tansy flowers, cast a glow amongst the rough grasses on the towpath. I thought of all the long history of using the plant, the women it helped discreetly, the wisdom of  its use and its dangers.  This was a plant that once befriended the truly desperate – no moral judgement here, and as I touched the blossoms and smelt them it felt as if I was being invited to share a secret – as indeed it was, when knowing the plants could be a sign of witchcraft and cost you your life.

But if my tansy had been growing unobserved in the depths of the forest, and without a name it would still have been there, blissfully unconcerned about our fear filled lives. The earth doesn’t need us: we’re probably the most useless and destructive species that ever lived, and if we should disappear altogether through our own greed and stupidity the tree would still fall unheard in the forest and the tansy would still flower whenever it saw fit.

But meanwhile, in the intervening years we would do well prayerfully to consider our situation. Years ago I stood at the top of a ladder lopping a long and heavy branch off a horse chestnut tree. As the branch fell away, the part of it that was supporting the ladder jumped upwards and the ladder fell with me on it.  I threw the chainsaw as far away as I could and landed in an embarrassed heap. That day, work turned into prayer in the blink of an eye. My only worry with my quiet regime is that when I get really old and the doctor asks me what day it is and what the prime minister’s name might be, I won’t know the answer!

 

I know it’s a mess but it’s my mess

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My son will feel faint when he sees this mess, but I find it comforting. The little tin of Leonardt pen nibs just to the left of the laptop, the Rite in the Rain notebook with so many botanising adventures written inside, the red cabbage leaf patiently waiting to be painted.  He’ll laugh out loud at the early morning espresso that will shortly make me feel faint and – knowing him – he’ll be looking at the book to see what I’m reading. He’s a philosopher so his life and mine are both made from books which we eat up eagerly and then after an interval of indigestion, wait for our minds to turn into food.

Digesting a book is a slow process. The good ones are often very expensive and so they need to be prepared for. Fifty quid for the new, fourth, edition of Stace will need a long period of deliberation followed by a reckless moment of ordering (it’s not the sort of book you can get from the local Waterstones), anxious days of waiting for the post to arrive from Summerfields and then ….. first anxious look …… plants have mysteriously uprooted themselves from their familiar page and re-homed themselves with another family. Looking up the simplest thing is agonisingly slow and so back to the old familiar.  This can take months! Finally (I haven’t even dared to order it yet) we shall become friends.

Most books need a period of resting before I can read them – let’s call it shelf life for the sake of an easy joke. I need to get over the extravagance and remember what the exact impulse was for buying them in the first place. Sometimes, no – often – the original impulse was associated with a particular vein of thought which has become a worked out lode.  The roof collapsed, or got too low to follow. Sometimes I consume them hungrily but either the book’s not ready for me or I’m not ready for the book, and it goes on to the shelf again until I’ve caught up – maybe years later.  The best books are the ones I read when I was nineteen and understood perfectly – until I read them again at thirty, or fifty or even seventy and each time discovered I’d never understood them at all. I have the clearest memory of a boring summer afternoon in a library where I pulled down a copy of Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” and read it standing up as only a hungry teenager can. I didn’t understand a fraction of it; I only discovered that Leach was a Sufi many years later – hence the profound spirituality of a book about pots  – and even today my first impulse on handling a pot is to turn it upside down to see the base, touch the bare, unglazed rim to my lips and ping it.  Everyone I know except my son’s partner, who was born in Stoke on Trent, thinks this is a bit weird. The best books are long affaires, kept secret from any chance of mockery.

Sometimes me and the book need a period away from each other while we both catch up.  I read them once, put them back on the shelf and then come back years later with an older mind. The book on my desk took 25 years, or rather it took me 25 years to catch up. I probably bought “This Sacred Earth” – Roger Gottlieb’s compendium of writing from around the earth in 1996, the year it was published. At that time I would have been deeply involved in parish life, and I’ve no recollection of reading it the first time.  It’s still in print in a second edition, along with a number of other books on green and deep ecology and radical political thought. It came off the shelf yesterday and I was transfixed by the relevance of the essays and extracts.

Yesterday I was talking about the Extinction Rebellion movement with my son. He told me he’d been shocked to see an old edition of “Spitting Image” (TV show) in which may of the ER issues were aired, more than a decade before many of its members were born. Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published before most of their parents were born! Species extinctions and climate catastrophe aren’t new ideas, they’ve been around for more than half a century and, by and large, we did nothing about them. If the young have a charge against the old it’s our inaction in the face of the incontrovertible facts that were staring us in the face.  We turned away – and that was a sin against the earth.

Now, wherever I look, I see the voices of the unheard shouting across the years. Did it only become a ‘proper’ problem when the dominating culture of the west appropriated it? Did we only take it seriously when it became an ‘ology’? – to borrow a phrase from an elderly friend who would say (disparagingly) “Oh he’s very clever, he’s got an ‘ology!'”.

Gosh I can’t remember the last sentence I wrote with four consecutive punctuation marks.

So there it is.  My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of slowly composting ideas that will, in the fullness of time, be returned to the earth. To borrow an idea from another book I needed to put aside, because I didn’t know if anyone was listening any more, may we be granted time for repentance and the amendment of our lives – not just for ourselves but for our children and their children down the years.

 

Still crazy after all these years

IMG_20191118_162125I’m a little younger than Richard Mabey – I checked – and the courses of our respective lives have been very different, but there are bits that coincided too. I was reading the first of the short pieces in his book – “A Brush with Nature” last night.  Yesterday we were feeling a bit stir crazy after a morning in the flat so we went around to Toppings to check out their natural history section and then, because there was nothing that caught my eye, we wandered down to Waterstones where I found the book amongst an entire case of ‘nature writing’. I bought it because he’s never written a dud book.

The first of his concerns – about the (then) dearth of nature writing has, I think, been more than abundantly  addressed. There are shelves full of the stuff, some of them proper old potboilers of course, but some real and distinctive voices who have changed the way I see things.  I’m sure that if Richard Mabey and me could lay our lifetime bibliographies side by side we’d find they overlapped in many cases.  Yes I read Henry Williamson voraciously when I was young.  In fact I ploughed my way through all 15 volumes of  “A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight” and many of his other novels and books before an increasing sense of creepiness led me to the disturbing discovery of his right wing politics – and that was that, the affair was over. Yes, I’ll bet, to Richard Jefferies, Gilbert White, JA Baker, DH Lawrence, and all the others. I bought J W White’s “Bristol Flora”  although I couldn’t afford it, and I’m glad I did because I’ve spent many hours poring over it and remembering places, let alone plants, that no longer exist. Too many books to list – I’m a magpie – and could never say no to a second hand book that just might be useful one day

After we left art school we both found ‘temporary’ jobs in horticulture, Madame at Long Ashton Research Station where she assisted the Trials Officer, and me as a groundsman and bus driver at Clifton College. Working outdoors gave me the chance to look for plants, and even then I kept notebooks – I found one of them when we were moving house.  It was badly affected by wet, and the ink had run but there were sketches and even a couple of spore prints as well as yards of notes. It seemed, at the time, as if the natural world was static – what didn’t get done today could wait until tomorrow. I was loose in a library of botanical temptations that I could return to later, and so I could peep into a room, make a note of the location and vow to come back later when there was more time, many plants I didn’t have time to identify went on to the  back burner and now they’ve gone.

Because something’s changed and there is no more time – and of course we all know what it is. Environmental degradation, extinctions and the rapid onset of climate change have eaten through my to-do list, and because of it my whole mindset has changed. What might once have been presumed as the permanent features of nature have become fugitive pleasures. Each cuckoo might be the last I’ll ever hear, and the flash of iridescent blue flying low ahead of us on the canal might be the last kingfisher. The major key of reliable joys has modulated into the minor key of loss.  There are days when a walk feels like a day in a wartime clearing station, a sad search for survivors. Yes of course I can go and find some of them marooned in a reserve, complete with paths and fences and informative displays, a kind of zoo for threatened species, but I don’t care for zoos and where’s the fun if you already know it’s there?

Walking one day in Cornwall fifty years ago a heron took off from a pond just close to where we were.  My heart froze as this ancient looking creature cranked itself into the air and wheeled away. I’m not a twitcher.  I can’t imagine the mindset of one bridegroom whose wedding I took, and who I had to order not to bring his pager to church – “just one day off – please”  He once drove overnight to Scotland to join a throng of fellow twitchers watching some rare migrant.  Not my scene. My haunt is the ordinary, the everyday and my sadness is that it’s thinning out. I probably wouldn’t drive to Cornwall just to see a heron, but life without herons altogether would be immeasurably poorer.

We are less confident and  more strident because we’re losing the lyrical sense and it’s eating away at some immaterial part of our being. And yet there is room to hope because  those shelves of books in Waterstones are, in their own way, deeply subversive; for an attentive reader they’re just a step towards the resistance. The holy grail of nature writing today is not to bathe the reader in a glow of purposeless sentiment – not to provide stunning but ultimately sterile pictures of lovely things, but to challenge – to take the reader to the casualty clearing station and invite them to join the battle.