Finally some rain

If there’s a quieter, more beautiful or more remote place than this, I want to be there.

Bearing in mind that this photo was taken a year ago in the Yorkshire Dales, a couple of miles away from the border with Cumbria; the storm here, was very similar but the setting a million miles away. It was a long time coming, and after days at 36C there was a false start in the early evening when the clouds gathered so densely that a party on the Green began packing up. But at around 11.00pm the rain started properly and you can choose your own metaphor – biblical, if you must; stair rods? – but who knows what a stair rod is these days? – or cats and dogs? none of the usual clichés comes close. On the television yesterday we saw a derailed train, cars floating down rivers and I don’t doubt there will be crops beaten to the ground and ruined. Mercifully, the allotment is made of sterner stuff and seems unscathed after an urgent inspection in the morning. Yes, the rain was welcome but the intensity of weather events this year is an ominous sign of what’s coming and there’s little sign yet that our wretched government, which failed to prepare for Covid even after months of warnings, is prepared to listen to the fifty years of warnings since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, and species began to disappear under the onslaught of oil, chemicals and extractive agriculture.

So being human, which is – and always has been – the principal area of interest for the Potwell Inn, is getting harder but more important with every breath. The environmental catastrophe which is bearing down on us, is a result of losing our sense of what it means to be human in nature. Even the Shooting Times, for goodness sake, forty years ago, used to acknowledge that our responsibility towards nature was one of stewardship. It may have been down to self interest in preserving habitat for animals to be killed in for sport, (and I’d have that ethical discussion with them any day), but we might be better off thinking that at least some of the assumed enemies of change, are halfway towards us already. Now’s not the time for division and name calling. I remember once spending a day at an army camp in Wiltshire talking to the chaplaincy team and to some of the young soldiers who were training there, and being astonished at their moral maturity. During the run up to the Gulf war I noticed that the number of service personnel attending church suddenly increased dramatically as they approached deployment. I didn’t meet a single one who thought that it was a just war in any sense at all.

I don’t want this to be gloomy, and so I’ll stop there with the thought that being human is a desperately difficult road to walk, and to do it well we need to be aware of ourselves and our deepest needs. As you get older (and I’ve got a lot of experience in that subject) you can take a longer view, freed from timetables, busyness, childcare and then parent care; and things begin to become more clear.

I’ve been pondering for ages whether to take the blog down this track, but I fear that without the underlying philosophy, without a spirituality which is so essential to being human; all my talk of the allotment, of field botany and cooking and making bread, the junkies on the street, the environmental crisis and our beloved grandchildren might be taken as a number of separate disconnected interests that I happen to pursue. That’s not the case, and it’s essentially not the case. What I’m trying to tease out, because I don’t know the answer myself, are the threads, the warp and weft of being fully human. What are the essential aspects of a fulfilling and fruitful life, lived well?

I’ve tried religion (and I mean tried! thirty years of intense work is a bit more than a dalliance!), but as time went on I found myself more drawn towards Taoism and Buddhism. I was exhausted by trying to fit myself into a system that pretended it could make everything fit, but only by excluding so much of my whole being that I felt I hardly existed. Let’s not go there except to say that somewhere near the top of my list of crucial qualities is a thoroughgoing scepticism. Scepticism is a greatly underestimated strength.

Personal well being depends on relatively well understood factors. The problem is that resisting the spirit of the age can make you sound like a gimlet eyed extremist. A good diet, physical exercise, strength, heart health and time to stand and stare, contact with nature, love and friendship – human community, dreams and projects, curiosity, the love of science and creative art and some kind of spirituality that grows our ability for all these threads to work in harmony – this is what being human is all about.

Today I turned up an ebook of class notes by my old Tai Chi teacher Alan Peck. I was a pretty useless student, too busy to practice properly; endlessly missing sessions because of meetings and yet I always, without exception, felt better after a session and found some peace in the midst of all the demands being made on me. I opened the book on my laptop today and in a strange way I heard his voice as I read the familiar phrases from his sessions and I noticed an idea that positively jumped off the page at me. He was saying that it didn’t much matter which form you were learning, or how advanced you had become. All that really mattered was letting go into the practice and only then would you be able to receive. No amount of straining and grabbing would ever get you there. I can’t think of a better description of being fully human.

To “let go of everything” refers to an experience of understanding beyond concepts. Usually we label everything either consciously or unconsciously and experience very little that is fresh to our mind without previous conditioning. “To let go of everything” refers to a level of experiencing that does not rely on previously formed patterns of response. In this case, there is less judgement and more potential for creative response. It is an act of surrender.

Alan Peck teacher of Natural Way Tai Chi who died in 2010.

Rescued by Patience Gray!

Good Friday is supposed to be the traditional day for planting potatoes in the UK – which is a slightly dodgy proposition because the date can vary by about five weeks between March 20th and April 23rd if I’ve got my golden numbers right (you’ll have to look that one up!). Ours have been in for a couple of weeks but we cover them in fleece because the emerging leaves are liable to be nipped by a late frost. A short frost doesn’t necessarily kill them but it certainly sets them back. Early potatoes are a treat and they’re a better bet than main crops because they’re out of the ground before the blight season.

I have tremendously warm memories of childhood Good Fridays. It was a bank holiday – one important reason why the long Easter weekend was, for many people, the beginning of the new season’s gardening. The earth is starting to warm up, the days are getting longer and there’s a four day long weekend. All the best religious festivals relate in some way or another to seasons or big life events and Easter is no exception; the fundamentalists will deny it, of course but that’s the general way of it. And in any case planting a potato is, from my point of view, a spiritual act; an act of trust in the power of nature to produce food out of dirt. Dust you are and to dust you shall return. Your handful of Good Friday earth was present at the beginning of the universe;  its smallest particles have shared in the inventory of all created things since then and will continue in their vagrant journeys until the end of time.

But this isn’t an ordinary Easter – for a start the churches are closed because there’s a pandemic, or is it a plague? I woke up thinking of my brother in law who became one of the statistics a few days ago, another number on a spreadsheet.  I woke up knowing that there will be no proper funeral, no prayers, no gathering or best clothes or meeting people we haven’t seen for years.  No nervous laughter outside the crematorium, no stories and catch-ups, no space where tears are allowed and impossible dreams of meeting again are permitted. No compassion; just disease control. social distancing and efficiency. Somehow it feels all wrong, it leaves our grieving rudderless and incomplete, we need a proper goodbye.

There’s a name for all this but I don’t know whether I dare type it. Idolatry sounds like such a religious word as if were owned by a Strict and Particular Baptist sect (yes they really do exist!) – but it’s a perfectly simple and non religious idea.  If you worship (and that means not much more than if you make it your highest guiding priority) – so if you worship something that’s only a part of the whole you’re committing the sin of idolatry, and bad things always follow.

Idolatry isn’t something that exists only within religion then. I’d say that the worship of money, power, profit, technology, even of nature or human beauty is dangerous and wrong because it takes a tiny part of what it means to be human, sets it up on a pedestal and demands that we all worship it. All too soon the world we live in becomes distorted and things start to go wrong. Species extinctions, genocides, climate catastrophe are the symptoms of idolatry because they measure life and diversity through a powerful but very narrow ideology.

“Without worship you shrink” – that’s a quotation from Peter Schaffer’s play “Equus”  and it’s true.  But we need to situate our principal human values within the whole and not the partial. We need to ditch the partial gods altogether and build a belief in the interrelatedness of all living and material things because we are all made of the same stuff. Of course it will be culturally inflected worship, but we surely can list some of its general qualities  –  there are loads of lists out there. Our basic problem began at the moment we evolved the belief that our human selves are somehow separate from the rest of the created world –  the grand-daddy of all idolatries – and that’s the point at which this post shouted at me – give me some space won’t you!

IMG_20200410_170856I started writing it on Thursday and hit a brick wall, but now I’ve deleted a great chunk of what I initially wrote because I think I got lost in the memory of my old friend Eddie’s dad. It was his garden I was thinking of when I wrote about planting potatoes on Good Friday. It was the smell of his garden, the murmuring of his pigeons in the loft at the top of the steep slope and seeing him, in my memory, bent over his spade and puffing on his pipe as he dug. And in the way that these things work, there was the perfume of wallflowers in there somewhere too.

I was cross; so cross at what’s going on that I wanted someone to shout at; to blame them, to accuse them for the situation we’re in. But I also wanted a way out of my sense of paralysis. I suspect I’m far from unusual in the progression of my moods  during this crisis.  At the start, I was all action; gathering up all that we needed and putting our survival plans into operation. That was almost the fun bit; but then after a month of lock in (we were early adopters) next there was an awful ennui – a great yawning what’s the point? – and that’s where I was all weekend until Patience Gray came to my rescue with “Honey from a weed”.

IMG_20200412_171609It’s not a cookery book it’s a peculiar, almost spiritual, classic about being human.  In particular it’s a book about being human with very few material possessions but within the rich culture of the southern mediterranean. We’ve worked hard all weekend – I was driving vine supports nearly a metre into the ground in the hot sun.  We watered, sowed and transplanted and magically, Madame said this evening as we ate our supper – “Do you know. I think we’ve eaten better than ever since the lockdown began”.  Our supper was a flan made with our own broccoli spears picked this morning, our own asparagus, radishes and salad leaves.  There was fresh bread cooling down, made with the new sack of flour. We’ve feasted on what we had around us and it’s been a revelation. Of course there are staples we rely on – we’re absolutely not self-sufficient – but every day we have eaten food we’ve grown, cooked, preserved and stored.  I reckon we’ve got through 13 litres of home cooked tomato sauce, for instance, over the winter months.

The governance of this country may be shambolic but there’s no point in driving myself half mad with recriminations.  We survive – that’s all that matters, and if I never saw another newspaper or listened to another news broadcast I’d survive – probably happier than ever. There will always be cheats, liars and chancers and in the way of things some of them will probably be running the country.  As long as we’ve got some dirt to tend we’ll be OK.