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.

A weaponless archer on the green and frost imminent.

Of course there are compensations for living in a flat during the lockdown. Aside from the fact that we have the allotment, there are two quite different vistas from the windows on the north and south sides of the building. From my study window I look out on the backs of a row of Georgian buildings; they’re mostly flats but there are Airbnb lettings and a burger takeaway too. Down in the car park we can see who’s in and who’s out. On warm summer evenings there are often improvised shibeens among the students and hen parties; and standing down in the yard we can often pick up the aroma of Caribbean cooking from our neighbour’s house.  It’s a typical city kind of landscape; yesterday a pair of gulls were mating on the rooftop opposite – more noise to come no doubt. In more normal times a stream of cars and buses grind noisily down the road beyond.

IMG_20200413_141957We sleep at the back, and last night the shutters kept blowing open as the northeast wind  increased, moaning and snuffling at the gap in the window. The shutters have never done that before and the first time it happened was an eerie experience – they didn’t swing open with a crash, they creaked open – quite noisily – and light flooded into the bedroom. The security lights in the yard are so sensitive they’re triggered by the least mote of dust and so at night they’re on pretty much all the time. That doesn’t trouble me any more than the extractor fan on the burger bar that goes on until three – they’re the comforting sounds of being at home.  Very (very) occasionally a tawny owl joins in the fun, and gulls seem to do gullish murmerings at any hour of the night. But the unexpectedness of the shutters creaking open in the wind  did wake me up – it was all very ghost train.

Out at the front, on the green this morning it was quiet. Normally it would be populated by gossiping dog walkers, joggers and cyclists on their way to work but today it was quite empty apart from a lone young man in the centre doing what I initially thought was a variant of Tai Chi. I was fascinated by the way he seemed to take possession of the space – it’s a bit of an amphitheatre, which is why it’s so good for people-watching. The wind continued unabated and young leaves were straining at their attachments.  Even in the relatively short grass I could see ripples of energy travelling across in what seemed to be the opposite direction to the wind.

The young man’s practice was both gathered and fierce.   One lone dog walker appeared and seemed to be implicitly directed to take a distant loop around him, even the dog gave him a wide berth.  There were very slow movements as he seemed to rotate, taking in a 360 degree view of his position, and then there were positions that suggested drawing a bow, followed by a flicking of the wrists and fingers that projected a tangible energy outwards. Sometimes you get the feeling that there’s a degree of grandstanding going on with these outdoor exercisers, but not here.  I stood there watching him, pretty much transfixed, for half an hour before he walked slowly back to his building entrance leaving  me with a hundred unanswered questions. I must try to find out what he was up to.

Meanwhile the forecast is for frost over the next two nights and so we went up to the allotment to wrap in fleece anything that might be susceptible. Gardening is always something of a gamble and going for very early crops always runs the risk of a wipeout by a late frost – the rewards on the other hand are considerable and we usually take a risk but keep some reserves in the warm, just in case. The last recorded frost for our area is May 6th and on one occasion we were truly burned for a frivolous attempt to get the first runner beans on the site by a frost on that date. However, we were able to replace the brown and shrivelled ones with healthy replacements from the greenhouse (much to the amazement of our neighbours) and all was well in the end. I set the last two supports for the cordon tomatoes in place, but they won’t be needed for another month yet.  The allotment now looks like the setting for a zombie movie –

Back at the Potwell Inn I’ve been continuing with Patience Gray, and here’s a couple of quotations from the introduction to “Fasting and Feasting”  that may explain why I hold her writing in such high esteem.

Once we lose touch with the spendthrift aspect of nature’s provisions epitomized in the raising of a crop, we are in danger of losing touch with life itself.  When Providence supplies the means, the preparation and sharing of food takes on a sacred aspect.  The fact that every crop is of a short duration promotes a spirit of making the best of it while it lasts and conserving part of it for future use. It also leads to periods of fasting and periods of feasting, which represent the extremes of the artist’s situation as well as the Greek Orthodox approach to food and the Catholic insistence on fasting, now abandoned.

Patience Gray lived in Tuscany, Catalonia, Naxos and Puglia with the sculptor Norman Monnens who, rather like Madame, is never named in the book but referred to as “the sculptor.  She was herself an artist in jewellery as well as one of the finest food writers (and spiritual guides) of her generation.