Rural rides – going north

“All my life I have been in and around wild nature, working – exploring, studying and even living in cities. Yet I realized a few years ago that I had never made myself into as good a botanist or zoologist or ornithologist as so many of the outdoor people I admire have done. Recalling where I had put my intellectual energies over the years it came to me that I had made my fellow human beings my study – that I had been a naturalist of my own species. That I had been my own object-of-study too.”

Gary Snyder – in ‘Blue mountains constantly walking’ from his collection “The practice of the wild”.

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Two books were very much at the top of my mind as I was writing this post. First, as the title suggests, I was remembering William Cobbett’s book describing rural poverty in 1830,  (and incidentally, citing a book doesn’t mean I agree with all the writer’s sentiments. Cobbet was probably a very unpleasant man who, in this instance, had his finger on the pulse because he went and saw for himself). But secondly I was reading Gary Snyder’s book “The Practice of the Wild” while I was writing it and I’m sure it’s leaking through every line. This is a truly important and inspiring book for our times although it was published in 1990, and I can’t recommend it too highly.

The net result of this reading and the reason for the quotation from Gary Snyder was that I found myself putting aside my hand lens and county lists in favour of pondering just what we’re doing to ourselves and how and where we allowed our humanity to be so diminished.  I had to become “a naturalist of my own species”.

Holidaying together on the border between Cumbria and Yorkshire, we are one of those temporary communities that forms and re-forms from time to time in different places. Our extended family flows like a busy stream around the large kitchen table in this eighteenth century farmhouse. Noise and conversations are continuous – everyone talking at once and nobody listening, children tugging at me and racing about with swords and shields enacting a fight I hope they never see for real. I play the elder, and I am straining to understand who is cross with whom today, who had too much to drink last night, where are the cracks in the family brickwork. The big range at the end of the kitchen is in constant use as we take it in turns to cook according to the rota and so the whole symphony is punctuated by cries of “hot!” and “watch out!” as we swirl like advancing and retreating waves, occasionally pausing to eat and clear and wash up once again. The children have their own cycle between excited chatter in the mornings as they visit us all in our bedrooms to steal biscuits and cuddles, and howls of anguish and rage as they are put to bed in the evening and the first bottles are opened. Yesterday it was announced that the government intended to suspend parliamentary democracy in order to force through the plan to leave the European Community. Here in the depths of the Yorkshire Dales the news was filtered through a shaky and ancient portable radio.

MVIMG_20190825_102312When the news came on Madame’s little radio I lost it completely and hurled bad tempered abuse at the radio. I’m truly scared by what’s happening. Fear and powerlessness are nasty and unproductive emotions and I was reproached for my outburst for frightening the children. There was nothing for it but to retreat to the river and sit there on a rock watching the peat stained water for half an hour imagining terrible acts of violence and revenge and struggling to allow the river to take the unwelcome thoughts away.  It worked, as it always does, and so, sufficiently shriven, and after a supper of bacon, cheese and potatoes accompanied by anxious looks from my family, I consoled myself with Gary Sneider’s book for a while before rejoining the throng.

I never see myself as being particularly patriotic. I think I love this country as I love my family, mindful of all its faults but leaning on the assumption that ultimately we are one. It is only when it is threatened that I become fierce and defensive.

Outside the conservatory window we’ve been watching three brown hares, one much larger and two of them smaller – possibly a doe and her leverets as they relax in the sun and occasionally eat. Up on the hill we found a dead and half rotten raptor beyond identification – possibly shot – this is grouse country. While we followed the river down to a bridge that has been damaged for the umpteenth time by a passing lorry, we heard the thrilling liquid song of  curlew and watched lapwing flying across. These remote places are the breeding grounds for many threatened species of bird. Down by the river we watched a yellowhammer, a bird I haven’t seen in ages. Here the landscape and its inhabitants look familiar enough from a distance but when I get my eyes down to ground level I discover that my knowledge of natural history is more appropriate to the western coastal regions. There are strangers here among the flowers and wildlife, just as there are among the “larger than wolf, smaller than elk” humans who work this landscape and speak in a totally unfamiliar dialect that can speak Slaithwaite as ‘Slough’it’ which makes me feel like a stranger.

This could read rather like a Cobbettian travelogue in the bad-tempered mould of Rural Rides, because much as I’d like to bathe in the silent beauty and rustic charm of it all, it’s impossible not to be alarmed at the fragility of both communities and landscapes. To drive from the West Country to Huddersfield, and thence across this huge county to the Yorkshire Dales is to experience all the contradictions that are throwing this country into a civil war whose deadliest weapon is passive aggression. We fear the climate crisis and yet we cannot manage without the cars and lorries that turn traffic jams into toxic clouds. Just to get here we queued for miles on slow moving motorways that turned our journey time on both of the first two stops from four hours to six. Last year it took us longer to drive from Cornwall To Bristol than it used to do 50 years ago before the A38 was relegated to history by the M5 and extensive dual carriageways.

IMG_5960Our friends in Huddersfield share a great part of our history and values. They are highly active in the community, avid gardeners  and implacable in their opposition to destructive chemical use by farmers, even going so far as to engage with one of the largest producers face to face. They describe the efforts of these companies to justify their noxious products as “greenwashing” and it’s hard not to agree when you read the notes taken at the meetings. IMG_5967.jpg‘S’ has made several poncho’s by ironing together plastic supermarket bags, an operation which she says is best carried out carefully and outside because of the smell.

There are many signs of hope and they have helped the MASTT build a lovely community orchard complete with its own complement of bees. The bees were the idea of a Syrian asylum seeker who has now moved on to run a community beekeeping project close by. Why this delightful man and his family with so many gifts to offer should be regarded as a threat, escapes me altogether. We never needed writers so much as we need heirs to Cobbett and Dickens to lead the charge against the mendacity of the politicians who are leading the country into catastrophe.

As if to drive home the point we spent part of a day walking on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, built in the heat of the last industrial revolution, and which never really turned a profit. These days its principal use is for tourism, and even that is limited by narrow width, daunting sequences of locks and the longest, deepest and highest canal tunnel in the UK. IMG_5976We drank tea outside the entrance to Standedge tunnel and talked to a man with an intimate knowledge of the feeder lakes and reservoirs, who told us that the recent collapse of Whateley Bridge dam, a canal feeder reservoir in Derbyshire, was the direct result of the management failure to respond to weather forecasts by lowering the reservoir level. We were told that they are absolutely paranoid about running the reservoirs low for fear of negative publicity if a prolongued drought should increase the demand for water in the canals. We were also told that this was not the only nineteenth century dam liable to collapse after sudden floods, and that other centres of population are equally under threat from old dams being subjected to excessive loads by keeping them full. Whether any of this will emerge during the enquiry is doubtful as the more senior levels fight to cover their arses and blame the weather as if it were a surprise. No doubt “lessons will be learned” but there is no hope that among those lessons the government will put any extra money into averting a disaster. One day, perhaps, dozens or even hundreds of people will be killed, and a minister will visit for a photo opportunity in a hi-viz jacket, but the facts on the ground will not change – nature is not there to be controlled and farmed for our own benefit.

After an equally testing drive westwards to the other side of the county (it was a bank holiday weekend) we came into the Yorkshire Dales. We had rented a cottage right alongside the upper reaches of the River Swale, miles from anywhere and entirely without phone signal or internet, which made it so much easier to unwind. But the news every day is so awful that even in this peaceful setting I woke in the night with the horrors after dreaming about the situation. Driving through the much diminished places that were once centres of industry, mill and mining towns where houses can be bought for next to nothing because there is no work is so obviously depressing that it hardly warrants attention any more. We’ve got used to poverty, food banks and Pound Stores.

MVIMG_20190826_115716But anyone who comes to the Dales, which still seem the same as ever, and thinks the landscape – which really does take your breath away – is ‘natural’ in any way at all, is deluded. These dales are the product of not one but many forms of agriculture over the millennia. The ancient landscape was not so long ago buried under hundreds of metres of ice and with no flora at all; there’s nothing immemorial about it, and it could change again in the blink of an eye or the stroke of a pen far away in London. The farmers here rely on public subsidy for 80% of their income and, trust me, they are not rich. Were it not for the support they get, the land – which is marginal and unproductive – would be left ungrazed and would swiftly become scrub. Woodland and forest, desirable though they may be in the right place, are not ‘free’. In historical terms the whole landscape was intensively managed and if it is to remain in the form that we love, open and available to us with its biodiverse communities, and able to achieve the balance between sustainable food production and intensive farming leading to ecological breakdown, we will need to invest money, and farmers will still have to do the work. When a whole farming community disappears we lose the skills that have been honed over centuries and built into common life. The media like to fret about disappearing tribes in the Amazon, but don’t get sufficiently excited about the prospect of losing the hill farming communities in our own country.

Here the becks and rivers seem eternal. The landscape is sculpted by forces we can barely conceive of, and at the human level everything seems uncompromising. When it rains, it rains with a scale and intensity that sends hack journalists towards words like ‘biblical’, except it isn’t. It could never be tamed and put in a box with Jesus and the others. What the journalists never want to mention is that in the Genesis myth, the flood was a punishment for the over-reaching greed and promiscuity of the human race. But rain is rain, that’s it – fierce, driving, scarifying, clarifying rain gathered from the oceans and hurled back at the hills that gout it back at us. Hills that float on water, notwithstanding their great age and mass. The wind searches at the doors of the farmhouse and rattles the doors at night as if seeking entry to level us to dirt again.

But stuff happens and things do change. The circus has moved on and it’s appallingly obvious why people here voted as they did to leave the EU. The collapse of heavy industry was no less predictable than the onslaught of unpredictable weather that presages the climate catastrophe. But the politicians, safe and well-rewarded inside their closed communities had no inclination to think ahead while they profited from strip mining human communities of every shred of extractable wealth: of housing, education, health care and self-respect but more wickedly they destroyed whole cultures.

It’s almost too late as the farmers contemplate the cost to their livelihood, but one thing is sure. We need to reinstate democracy from the ground up. From citizens’ assemblies to parish and district councils, to county councils, regional assemblies, constituencies and only finally government, we must learn to engage democracy for the good of all – and that includes the earth that sustains us. It’s philosophical dualism that’s led us to this – me and ‘it’, the worthy and the unworthy, the future and the past, human and nature, God and servants, rich and poor, clever and stupid.

For the first three days we had almost continual sunshine, and then the weather closed in and reverted to its stereotype, but nothing kept us indoors, and several of the nights were clear enough for stargazing. There are no artificial lights for many miles and so old and familiar constellations and planets (well, Saturn at least) were surrounded by multitudes of stars we’d never seen before. One of our party had brought a telescope and after an abortive attempt when we forgot to put in one of the lenses(?) the boys finally found Saturn’s rings. There’s a huge difference between knowing things in your head and knowing them with your senses. They were completely energized when they told us at breakfast the next day.MVIMG_20190824_213430

As we left after a week, we struggled to get the van up the steep and narrow track leading to an equally precipitous and narrow road. I had to reverse the whole 3 ton truck back down and around a sharp corner and then take it at a run with only a tap on a wing mirror as I roared through the first set of gates. As we turned towards civilization we were accompanied by a small flock of half a dozen lapwing who could easily have flown to the left or right on to the fell, but flew in front like a miniature honour guard or possibly they were fighter planes escorting us away from their territory. We all went our separate ways, and with the benefit of a phone signal, photos were exchanged and progress reported. Our journey took us north and west, looping around the Lakes to the coast at Ravenglass past Bassenthwaite Lake where we once almost went to live save for the rainfall – which has subsequently proved to be monumental.

The journey, once again, took us past several depressed mining towns and villages that demonstrate all too painfully that tourist money only sticks in a few places in the Lakes. This was once a great centre for the mining of coal and iron ore and which supported a prosperous and skilled workforce. There had been fitful attempts to build industrial estates and business parks on the abandoned sites but it all seemed too much like sticking plaster. As we approached the coast the looming buildings of the Windscale nuclear reprocessing plant hogged the landscape.  Was this where the politicians learned to lie on an industrial scale.  Was this where the idea that it was morally acceptable to lie to the population “for the good of the country” was conceived? A large sign on the roadside proclaims “The Energy Coast” without a trace of irony or self-awareness. The radioactive beaches tell a different story.

I want to stop looking and worrying.  What I’d really like to do is go back to botanising and growing plants on the allotment and forget all this, but I can’t. The union jacks and crosses of St George flying in the gardens of so many run-down homes and businesses give testimony to the lie – the great lie – that we can have it all. The mainstream political parties still don’t get it – they each peddle the snake oil remedy that they alone possess, to run the country better without changing anything. Best stop here, I think, before I start ranting on (like Cobbett) about turnips. We’re in Ravenglass now on the third leg of the journey and at the point where the Cumbrian fells of the Western Lake District drop from the heights of Scafell down to the sea.  It’s mournfully beautiful, a melancholic’s pick-me-up.IMG_6015

“Not Bath any more?”

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Most posts begin with an idea, even a title, or a photograph. I took this photo through the kitchen window three days ago, but I could have, just as easily taken it today because the scene outside is not much different.  We’re in a spell of fairly typical south -westerly weather with alternating hours, of heavy showers and (if we’re lucky) days of sunshine. Photographs work hard for us, capturing in a fraction of a second an image that bears a huge amount of information.  Here, the empty green, the trees in full leaf, the Georgian terrace and the moody sky combine to suggest a time and place. As everyone says when they see the flat – “you’re so lucky to have the view”, and we are very fortunate – the photo shows it.

There are things the photo doesn’t show, like for instance the fact that we’re here, and and not somewhere else far less attractive, because when I retired we became technically homeless. The flat is owned by the Church of England and we got it for no better reason than the fact that it became vacant just as we were looking desperately for somewhere to live. If I called it ‘social housing’ it would slot us into a far less desirable milieu, placing us with all the other displaced, ephemeral, faintly dodgy and occasionally deranged people of a dozen or more nationalities who also live here. But we, and all the others happily populate this area which mostly comprises social housing.  There are students, singles, nurses, retired university professors, artists, refugees, rugby players, teachers, designers  and retired clergy – the list goes on. It’s a splendidly diverse culture that demonstrates Plato’s notion that the city is a work of art.

And there in a nutshell is an awkward and difficult problem with nature, described using human actors and environments. Is an environment best described by its appearance and history? – ‘the view’?  Much of Bath is a World Heritage Site, for instance,  and Royal Crescent illuminated by the setting sun is astoundingly beautiful.  Or is it better described scientifically, with the heavy lifting done by sociologists, anthropologists and economists? Bath makes millions from tourism, notwithstanding the difficulty of crossing the city at the height of the tourist season and especially the Christmas Market. Or is the essence of Bath embedded in its human ecology, its sheer diversity, the mixture from ostentatious wealth to grinding poverty, the novelists and the drug dealers. How do you weigh neighbourliness and human community?  If it’s a work of art, in essence, how much of Bath would you have to destroy for it to become another place – “notbathanymore”?

I’ve written about this challenge a lot in the past few days.  Yesterday we walked across the river to the Gulag to see the new park.  It was officially opened the week before last and I felt I owed it a chance, having slagged it off.  You’ll remember this very large and ‘prestigious’ (aren’t they all?) development was built on what’s known as a ‘brownfield site’ which was really very green indeed and housed a regionally important population of invertebrates – bugs in English. My initial impression was of surprise – our entrance coincided with a large border of weeds that ran the northern edge of the riverside park and was maybe fifteen feet wide. I was even happier that it had been seeded with a well thought out mixture of largely native grassland plants.  Full marks to the person who passed up on pan-european seed mixes and paid a few quid extra to get the real deal. How long the border will last in the face of opposition from the owners of the £1million+ flats who think they’re messy is another matter, but in trade-off terms, this patch is a sop. a salve to the conscience, a token.  Fifty well-meaning Knapweeds is not enough when the area of Gillette shaved ryegrass is twenty times greater and dully limited by notices that forbid almost anything human beings like to do. The original environmental survey was done by reputable ecologists – I’ve heard one of them speak, loyally and regretfully on the subject.  The seed mixture was obviously chosen by someone well-trained enough to do the right thing.  Here’s Murray Bookchin, quoted in “Deep Ecology” – and well worth reading –

…. The choice must be made now before the ecology movement becomes institutionalized into a mere appendage of the very system whose structure and methods it professes to oppose. (p4)

How long until we get to “Not bath any more”?  How long until we get to “Not nature any more.”

The one approach that’s not much spoken of because it has a very high ‘cringe factor’ for our materialistic culture, might be called the spirituality of nature. I know instantly that this will be dismissed as hippy dippy tree-hugging, but those sorts of responses speak more loudly of fear than they do of confident atheism; fear that the baby has gone down the plughole with the bathwater.  Here’s the Potwell Inn kitchen early this morning –

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Messy ain’t it! First thing we have tea in bed (made by me).  Then I knead the sourdough (top left bowl) and go back to bed for another hour’s reading, we try to limit “busywork” at the Potwell Inn. Then, when the mood takes me I get up again and strain the kefir ready for breakfast. We didn’t grow the tea but we’re profoundly grateful to those who did. The sourdough starter is nothing whatever to do with me.  I can claim no credit for what is a gift of the earth, and neither can I claim any virtue for the kefir grains on the same grounds. I didn’t buy either of them, they were given to me by my son and the air we breathe.

On the allotment yesterday we harvested the first batch of potatoes along with all the usual seasonal suspects. Supper last night came entirely out of our own bit of earth, aside from some cheese.  It is quite impossible to harvest from the allotment without a deep sense of thanksgiving directed at who knows what? Harvesting has a profoundly non-sectarian and non-theistic spirituality. Feast and famine alike are the gifts among which we live, and so too is the natural world.

We have a Blackbird outside the flat – he’s gone quiet at the moment, but on spring days he sings in a way that weaves my entire past and present into a single song.  Even in the depths of our miserable basement among the rubbish bins, we hear his song.  How should I respond to it?  Should I photograph him? make a written record for the Natural History Society? Count the syllables of each phrase? Fight to create a site of special scientific interest? write to UNESCO and ask if they knew we’ve got blackbirds as well as Roman baths? Or should I rather fall into the arms of it and allow myself to be held by him and healed of all my melancholy? The first time I really looked at a Forget me not, I thought that I was seeing through the portal of the blue petals into some kind of unreachable heaven beyond.

Nature needs recording and counting of course, and it needs scientific understanding.  We need what nature offers by way of sustenance and medicines. We’re part of the same ungraspable unity – “the Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao”  Blackbirds and Forget me nots are not rare, and neither are potatoes and courgetttes or the micro-organisms that feed the soil and ferment wine and beer, sourdough and kefir. They’re not rare, that is, until we take them for granted and they disappear. And who will heal us then?

 

Fallow day

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Terrible pun, I know, but I just couldn’t help myself.  I didn’t post yesterday because we spent a day with the grandchildren and their mum at Dyrham Park. By the time we’d got them (the children that is) bathed and into their pyjamas, we were totally wiped out.  But they had the unusual opportunity of seeing these Fallow deer close up.  The does are in a separate enclosure at the moment, away from the bucks and the tourists and able to devote their whole time to their fawns without being molested by either,  I was chatting to one of the rangers last year and they told me that it became necessary to provide a safe area for pregnant does when they spotted a family of visitors encircling a lone deer in order to get a photograph with their daughter! There’s one entirely separate enclosure off the beaten track, and another with unusual gates that allow a doe to bolt to safety but have a narrowed entrance at the top so the bucks’ antlers prevent them from following. At many times of the year the mixed herd roams freely – hence the distinctive tree grazing pattern on the banner for this blog. The trees are grazed off in a flat plane at exactly the height of a hungry deer’s reach – absolutely classic park landscape. During the rut the does can escape into the safe enclosure, and during the period when the does are giving birth the bucks roam in ‘bachelor herds’ It was a meltingly hot day and even the presence of three excited children didn’t seem to phase them.

But there’s something else that came up yesterday that began with a not very good cup of chamomile tea and ended this morning with a re-reading of a favourite book, I hesitate to call it a cookery book, and if you’re a fan of Patience Gray you’ll understand exactly what I mean. So first the tea.

We’ve grown chamomile for a couple of years now and for some reason we’ve never yet made chamomile tea, but yesterday we picked a small quantity of flowers, fetched an infuser out of the cupboard and before the grandchildren arrived I brewed a small pot. The first thing was that I didn’t add any mint because I was interested in comparing the pure infusion with the dried teabags we’ve always used in the past. Neither did I sweeten it in any way. The resulting infusion was both a revelation anda disappointment. The revelation was the sheer intensity of the floral perfume – taste and smell united in a flavour I’ve never experienced before.  The downside was a slight bitterness which I suppose could have been masked by a little honey but didn’t seem the right thing to do.

So where did I go wrong? Most recipes include mint but none mentioned bitterness. Then, this morning in a burst of Jungian synchronicity and without any discussion we both rushed to the bookcases looking for exactly the same book.  Madame, having spotted the courgettes and a squash/courgette called Tromba d’Albegna in a trug on the kitchen table, remembered a Patience Gray recipe for Zucchini al forno which I cooked a lot last year because we both love it. I was after the exact same book – “Honey from a Weed” in search of an answer to the chamomile tea problem.  After a preliminary skirmish I gave in and waited until the book became free.

If you love cooking you’ll love this book.  It’s the complete antidote to the supermarket sponsored recipes that demand forty ingredients from the four corners of the earth. Patience Gray – who initially outsold Elizabeth David – was a fine cook who moved with her husband, always known as ‘The Sculptor”, but whose name was Norman Mommens, to Carrera to be near the marble quarries there, and then on to Puglia. They lived in what most people would describe as poverty (if not squalor) and she wrote this classic book which is more of an anthropology of the region and its people although it does contain more than a few recipes as well.

The critical chapter for me, today, was – “Edible Weeds”. I thought if anyone would know the optimal times for gathering and using herbs it would be Patience Gray, and I was right – but –  there was far more there and I’d forgotten it.  You know how it is when you read a really good book more than once, your unfolding and deepening experience of your own life in the meanwhile can make it seem like an altogether different book – just as inspiring, but highlighting the new interests.

So it was with “Honey from a Weed”. Here in Bath, more than three decades after it was first published we live in an utterly different culture.  The link between food and medicine has become a giant business model, feeding off our anxieties and absolute lack of cooking skills. Ordinary food has been pathologised, even clean tap water – one of the great achievments of our history – is rejected for millions of plastic bottles filled with who knows what? In the book there’s a charming story of a peasant woman who had piped water installed for the first time and just left the tap running continuously because she thought of it as a modern form of spring.

In Puglia they ate the herbs – so simple.  Here we eat the burgers, feel/get ill, mistrust ‘big pharma’ so we try herbal remedies and if we’re really well heeled we can go on a foraging course for £250 a day and learn how to pick our own. Or, if we decide to take the easy route, we buy the coffee table herbals and forget the whole thing.

We have lost the very skills that could sustain us

Why is writing your CV and getting a bank loan thought of as a ‘life skill’, when knowing your plants and how to grow and prepare them is thought of as a kind of eccentric ‘hobby’? To take us back to the beginning, Fallow deer know exactly how to do it.  The does teach teach their young by leading them to the good plants (they’re herbivores) and steering them away from the bad. In Puglia they did exactly the same thing, it was (maybe still is in remote areas) an intensely parented skill. Isn’t the popularity of “cucina povera’ the ultimate irony in a culture that can barely peel a potato? In Pembrokeshire last week I was looking at a field where horses were grazing and dotted around the whole area were “poisonous” ragwort plants and fierce looking thistles. The horses just left them alone – somehow without the benefit of MAFF or any other directives – they knew what was bad for them and didn’t eat it. Now I’m beginning to sound like William Cobbett – another favourite writer, although he would have pointed out that eating potatoes made you effeminate and lazy (honestly) and the only diet for a working man was bread, bacon and home brewed beer!

No we can’t go back and I really wouldn’t want to, but there’s nothing blissful about our food culture, it’s dangerous, wasteful and unsustainable. If we want to save the world we’re going to have to change our whole food culture and teach our children how to thrive in it.

It’s more like music now

IMG_5138This is the time of year when there’s a sudden rush of new allotmenteers on to the site. Some are experienced gardeners and some absolute beginners.  With the newcomers it pays to be circumspect because we all come to the ground with a set of expectations, and it’s no use blundering around or bashing them on the head with your pet enthusiasms which – in my case at least – were first formed in a very different era. My gardening heros were neighbours like Mr King, Mr Monks; my grandfather and the Mr Digwell cartoons in the Daily Mirror. The first book on gardening we bought together was an RHS publication called “The Vegetable Garden Displayed” in which – apart from the gardeners who all appeared to be from BBC Central Casting – vegetables were grown in straight lines surrounded by acres of weed free space. In fact, space never seemed to be a problem and allotments in monochrome photos and of gardens too, stretched into the blue mists of aerial perspective.  A small garden was something less than an acre without a permanent staff.  I wish I was joking …

Nowadays, I think anyone beginning an allotment comes with an entirely different set of objectives than – say – someone in the 1930’s whose main aim would have been to put food on the table.  There’s always been a recognised recreational element in allotmenteering too but now we have a gathering ecological crisis, uncontrolled climate change and a widespread feeling that the industrialised food we’re eating is doing us harm. So allotmeneering (and gardening too), has become more radical in its outlook and we’ve taken a long inner journey towards the way we do things at the Potwell Inn.

I’ve still got those old gardening books and when I read them I shudder to think how those imaculate weed-free plots were preserved. In all innocence, gardeners and farmers too were pouring dangerous chemicals and concentrated fertilisers on to the land and the soil was degrading as fast as the natural world above it. Only yesterday we were planting out young lettuces when Madame suddenly wrinkled her nose as said – “Simazine, I can smell Simazine!” – and true enough we looked up and saw one of our neighbours merrily spraying his allotment from a bottle.  It wasn’t Simazine because that’s banned for domestic gardeners, but the chemical smell was utterly distinctive.

So that gives a whole new load of priorities for allotmenteers but there’s another too. More and more of us now live in tiny houses with no more than a gloomy patio, or in flats. We’re more disconnected from the natural world than ever before and it’s bad for our minds and souls just as industrial farming is bad for our bodies.  That’s a lot of new priorities to honour on half a plot, say 100 square metres of ground.

And it all plays out when we plan what to grow and how to grow it. We don’t just have to worry about getting food to the table, we need to think about a wider constituency of new neighbours. Humans, smaller mammals like foxes and badgers and even rats, amphibians and birds and especially insects.

My grandfather would have planned for crop rotations and that was it. His smallholding in the Chilterns was immersed in an unbelievably rich natural world. When our Mother died, my sister and I wondered if we might scatter her ashes in the beechwoods behind the cottage she was brought up in.  It was too late, though. The whole area had been built over and the land has become an industrial estate.

These days crop rotations aren’t enough because on a tiny plot there simply isn’t room to do it in the traditional way, and we need to fit in a whole world of new plants and flowers to care for the pollinators and other insects and I’m coming to think of crop planning in almost musical terms. A garden without any planning is a meaningless and incoherent jumble that will only deliver gluts, shortages and damaged crops. Let’s say the traditional garden is like a song in strict meter, with equal verses, often dull and always predicable. But the new approach is more like Baroque or Gospel music. There has to be a strong structure for it to work at all, but it’s full of decoration, little grace notes and filigrees – they’re the companion plants, the interplantings, the insect and pollinator plants. And so the Potwell Inn allotment is slowly evolving from that dream of order and control towards something more akin to a performace.  Yesterday I was planting out Nasturtiums and Calendula under the apples. The carrot family, the Apiaceae, are great for insects – when did you last see hedge parsley or cow parsley without a crowd of insects and hoverflies? So angelica, lovage, dill and fennel get squeezed in wherever we think they’ll thrive. Any rows of plants vulnerable to slugs and snails get their companions of French marigolds. There are wallflowers, and yesterday they were finding bees, and here and there in odd corners there are other unexpected plants – sweet cicily in a corner by the shed.

In a way, Madame and me are opposites, and the allotment is the expression of the way we resolve our different approaches – I do the structure and Madame delights in shoving things here there and everywhere and so the result is a performance full of the unexpected.  All our favourite gardens have moments that stop us our tracks and even make us laugh out loud, like when we found a parsnip growing from a dropped seed, in one of the woodchip paths. Realistically it’s not going to save the world, at least on its own, it can’t.  But allotmentering is a kind of hedge school for radical ideas that might, just might make a big difference.

 

 

 

Natural – Wild – Ordinary

I photographed these lovely spring wildflowers today, all within a few yards of one another in the bottom of a hedgerow. So clockwise from the top there are Red Campion, Alexanders, Daisies and a Dandelion, a Lesser Celandine most of whose leaves are obscured by young shoots of Cleavers and probably Hedge Parsley, and finally some flowering Gorse. It seems a bit daft to talk about plants being happy, but these are definitely very happy indeed. Through long naturalisation in a setting and climate that suits them perfectly, they thrive in a way that most of us gardeners can ony dream of for our own produce.  Further up the same lane and outside a house there were Daffodils that stood out- I should say shouted out  as unnatural additions to the landscape.

Of the plants I photographed, Red Campion doesn’t seem to be edible but was once used to cure snake bites, and the roots contain saponin which has soap like qualities. Alexanders really is edible, especially when young, but I’ve never eaten it so I couldn’t say whether it tastes good. Daisies – not really, Dandelions make good salad leaves and the flowers make really good wine but I’d beware of collecting any flowers at dog level for obvious reasons, and I should point out that the local name from my part of the world used to be “pissabeds” – you can draw your own conclusions.  Dandelion roots were dried and toasted and used as a coffee subsitute during times of hardship and they’re probably best when only used in desperation. Lesser Celandine is also known as Pilewort due to the acrid sap which was used to shrink hemorrhoids and although I did read somewhere that the leaves are edible I think they look prettier and safer in the ground. Gorse smells heavenly, especially when it’s got the sun on it and the flower buds are reputely good to eat. So I guess if I had been foraging today I could easily have picked a few leaves and flowers and enjoyed eating them, but I’m pretty sure I’d have still been hungry when I got home.  Nature is not our servant and does not exist completely to furnish our needs and so it has always been a basic aim of agriculture and horticulture to improve, encourage and refine those essentials offered to us by the truly wild.

It’s hardly a pearl of wisdom to say that the farming landscape is far from  natural. Here in the UK – excluding the National Parks and wilderness areas – there is hardly any natural landscape left.  The total overuse of the word in advertising gives a clue to its power through appealing to our emotions. My usual retort to those who abuse it is to say foxgloves and arsenic are natural, as is oil and coal, but that doesn’t give them a free pass into general use. The word “wild” isn’t used nearly as much in advertising because its connotations are not so good at shifting product, and shifting product is what our greedy culture is all about.  The only exception to that is when the word can inflate the value of the product beyond measure.  One of my sons – a chef – once had to deal with a whole box of Pignuts, probably dug up from a pristine site and sold at ludicrous prices. Wild sells truffles but probably not dogs or cats; salmon and Ramsons but not Blackberries (unless you’re a highly specialized plant hunter who can distinguish between over 250 hybrids.

In fact farming, horticulture, and even allotmenteering are all attempts to improve on the natural and, in the case of extractive farming, to bludgeon nature into conforming to our greedy desires. The Potwell Inn and the allotment have heated propagators under electric daylight lamps. We have a greenhouse, a hotbed, cloches and fleece – all of which we use to persuade tender plants that the weather is better and the days are longer than they really are – and so we are able to grow tropical and subtropical crops, the like of which you would never encounter in any wild setting in this country. Some we win and some we lose, but I don’t think anyone would argue that aubergines, chillies, peppers, even the humble potato and runner bean, belong in the Flora Britannica.

Organic gardening (and farming) are a wise and timely attempt to mitigate the worst effects of industral farming – and I’m bound to say, of industrial overeating as well.  Permaculture goes a step further and tries to rely more heavily on perennials and, in essence, returning to a foraging lifestyle. Vegetarianism and veganism focus on achieving something of the same ends by focusing on and changing what we consume. Even the most traditional farmers are beginning to see the benefits and opportunities of locally sourced and sustainably produced foods. It’s crazy for those of us who care about the natural world to pick fights with one another and – rather like Brexit – spend our lives in pointless posturing and squabbling about minor doctrinal differences while industrial farming, environmental degradation and climate change go unchallenged.

A friend of mine was in a hospital visiting her uncle when she heard a commotion on the opposite side of the ward. A fierce family row had broken out across the bed, and my friend noticed to her dismay that the occupant had actually died. It was she who called for a nurse to attend to the deceased person, not the squabbling family.

I don’t need to labour the point of telling that story here, the parallels are all too painfully clear. But to finish on a brighter note, I know that many natural historians love to go after the rare specimens, but I want to put in a word for the ordinary. The ordinary is the bit we don’t notice because it’s there all the time – at least it used to be there all the time but now it’s disappearing because of our abusive relationship with the environment. So I want to campaign for the ordinary because that way it can’t disappear without anyone noticing. Recognising, naming and treasuring our wildflowers and native fauna is the most powerful way of energising the fightback against extinctions. The ordinary is special.

 

On resilience

IMG_4931No prizes for guessing that this was our local Sainsbury’s the day after the snow fell. To be fair it was a combination of equipment failure and panic buying but the same thing happens every time we get a period of severe weather.  The system collapses, people get angry and we realize that there is no slack, no resilience in it at all. I had a quick look on Google and I could see that there were people complaining everywhere – broken by the fact that they’d been forced to buy brown bread instead of white! This kind of event is almost designed into the system. Some time in the 20th century the notion of public good was set aside by the food industry in favour of profit. One kilo of asparagus is flown from Peru at the cost of 8 kilos of carbon released into the atmosphere Our passion for fresh, out of season vegetables and fruits may not (like meat production) be releasing methane into the atmosphere but it’s making up for that with all the other greenhouse gases  involved in transporting it a thousand miles overland, and even if you buy local produce, when the infrastructure collapses because it’s not properly maintained, the milk, the fresh seasonal veg and everything else that needs to be brought to market stays put and sometimes even rots in the ground.

I had a hilarious conversation with someone at the Lost Gardens of Heligan harvest meal last autumn.  He was a Cornishman, and he said he’d asked at the local Tesco if they were selling locally caught fish.  “Oh yes” he was told, “It all comes from Newlyn [about five miles away] but it has to go to the distribution depot first”. This isn’t the fault of the producers, it’s the result of a ‘designed for profit’ but completely sclerotic distribution system, designed in such a way that it has no resilience at all.  There’s nothing in storage,  and we’re only saved from serious disorder by the fact that the events that cause breakdown don’t usually last very long. Yet.

The alarming fact is that we’re not facing a number of separate  problems – climate change, ecological destruction, food security, poverty, migration, social breakdown, artificial intelligence and war.  They’re one big one!

You’d  have to be pretty old to remember this, but some of us may recall the cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue back along, as we say in the West Country.  The cover was one of the first pictures taken of  Earth from space, with the slogan “We can’t put it together, it is together” .

Here we are, all looking for ways to save the earth by eating a tub of Ben and Jerry’s vegan ice cream once a week, when what we really need to be doing is thinking in a different way altogether. When the big man in the shiny suit comes around offering to take the load off us we need to consider his (or her) offer carefully. It comes with strings attached – read the small print!

Lets take a look at the Potwell Inn store cupboard:

Last night was one of the coldest I can remember. Our first floor window ledge went down to -3C. That poses a problem for us because we live in a 1970’s concrete building that grows black mould on the interior walls as soon as it gets cold. Yesterday we tried to go out but the pavements were covered with sheet ice and lethal and in any case the shelves in the shops would probably be stripped bare.  But here in the Potwell Inn – this is what resilience looks like. We have food – not exotic by any means, but plenty.  We have oats and bread flour and I suppose we could even broach the barrel of wine we made in the autum.  We could walk a quarter of a mile to the allotment and pick fresh vegetables, even winter lettuce. We’re not self-sufficient, in fact I think that whole idea is a dangerous myth.  If there’s a way forward out of this mess then it’s not going to happen if we separate from our neighbours, it’s ‘dog eat dog’ economics that has brought us to this place. The way forward will involve more trust, more dependency on neighbours and a lot more generosity of spirit. As the American cartoonist Walt Kelly said in his second Earth Day poster back in 1971 – “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Thinking globally and acting locally is the only way we can make this work. There’s nothing we can ‘pass a law’ about that will work faster or more powerfully than our local choices.

  • Would it be hard work? – yes
  • Would we have to do without some stuff we enjoy? – yes
  • Would it change the way we need to live? – yes
  • Would it be difficult to understand?  See Michael Pollan’s rule – “eat food, not too much, mostly veg”
  • Wouldn’t it be going backwards? – no –  going forwards into a sustainable future rather than one blighted by hardship and starvation.

Is this a nag? Well let’s say this kind of stuff keeps me awake at night. But I’m an optimist and there’s a crocus in flower right next to where I’m writing and I’m driven by the thought that we don’t own the earth, we just borrow it from our children and grandchildren.