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.