Nature as prophylactic?

Once again today, in the newspaper, an article spelling out how uplifting and mentally stabilising is a dose of nature. I’ve seen dozens of these pieces recently and I recall reading somewhere that John Seymour has expressed some regret that his book “Nature Cure” had been rather misunderstood as a self-help guide for the depressed – it isn’t at all, but that didn’t stop someone writing and expressing their disappointment that there were only a couple of pages in the whole book devoted to the subject. I’ve read loads of excellent books describing an author’s recovery or self-discovery through engagement with the natural world, but that engagement has always been much greater than a walk in the woods. My first thought was to make a list of all the books that I think fall into the category but it would have been huge, and the first one that came to mind – Helen Macdonald’s “H is for Hawk” – which I loved – has disappeared into the chaos of my bookshelves.

I’d be the last person to criticise outdoor exercise and I’m sure that a bit of fresh air and sunshine can lift the spirits in a way that almost nothing else can, but the natural world isn’t a one-a-day prophylactic for all the derangements of life in the lockdown when it’s passively consumed – especially by way of television programmes! What most people discover is that it’s deep engagement that triggers the endorphins and gets all of those crazy biochemical events going.

Four years ago I made a hubristic resolution not to walk past a plant I couldn’t identify without at least trying to give it a name. It was a bonkers idea and Madame nearly killed me from frustration that our brisk walks turned into 100 yard crawls as I dragged along a bagful of books and a hand lens – but pretty soon I could get quite a few yards without having to stop and walking became a deeper pleasure than it had ever been before. My suggestion is not to go for a walk without choosing a common plant as a target (make sure it actually grows in your area) and going to look for it. Dandelion – tick; hawkbit – tick; cat’s ear – umm – tick? I think natural history works because it takes you out of yourself which, strangely, is what the word ecstasy is derived from. It’s hard to be worrying about getting old and fat when you’re face to face with a water vole in a ditch (mind you I was pretty drunk that time!)

As for allotmenteering and gardening being good for your mental health, try telling our neighbour who had one of the pots stolen from outside his front door last night. My second contribution to the prophylactic qualities of gardening is that it teaches you resilience.

Overnight the rats, or maybe mice, raided our broad beans and ate maybe fifteen pods, scattering the remains all over the path. Merciless traps have been set but they seem to recognise them and use them as a kind of table. The slugs too have visited the strawberries – so no, allotments do give joy but it’s always well seasoned with disappointment.

Is there a third prophylactic quality? Well I think it links to my theme of the week, as it were because growing things is always a dialogue in a language you haven’t quite learned. We can dispense with Dorothy Frances Gurney’s awful doggerel about being ‘closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth‘ – and say that the best we can ever hope for in gardening is a successful relationship with nature. And finally, I really enjoy the mindless repetitions of gardening. Hand weeding, pricking out and planting out, tying in, taking out side shoots. It’s hard to brood when you’re fully occupied, even in a very simple task.

But I suspect that some of my friends are quietly concerned that I’ve been brooding – perhaps it’s something I wrote – because I’ve received two books by post in the last 24 hours. So thank you Rose for sending me Patrick Barkham’s book “Islander” and thank you Mags for F G Brabant’s 1920 pocket guide to Snowdonia – both now perched at the top of the bedside stack, although I couldn’t resist a look at Barkham’s chapter on Bardsey and Brabant’s photos of places we’ve been to often. I’m really not depressed or anything like it; I was born with a restless, questioning temperament and a complete inability to relax – ask Madame!

And there’s always something new to try – like, for example – the new WordPress block editor which is miles better than the old one, with many more features but is a bit of a step up. Things aren’t where they were and adding photos to the media directory is much harder than it was. Well actually, it was pretty much automatic before but now it demands planning. This was all prompted by a solemn warning that there would be a switchover in ten days time. This has happened to me before and bitter experience teaches that getting your head around the new software is best tackled in advance. But I like it very much and this posting is the first I’ve written and edited in the new software. I’m a writer and anything that gets in the way of the process of writing is a terrible nuisance so I’m feeling quite pleased with myself.

Outside it’s blissfully sunny with high gusting winds bending the trees so that, if you closed your eyes, you could hear a sound like the sea in Cornwall or on a beach on Lleyn. Yesterday we staked and tied in all the tomato plants and the sunflowers in anticipation of the wind today. We’ve had a couple of sharp showers too, enough just to wet the ground and prove that the revised guttering on the shed roof is finally sending the rainwater where it’s meant to go.

Clay pipe bowl – possibly Richard Tylee of Widcombe and made in the 1690’s

And finally, another piece of archaeology from the plot. We often dig up clay pipes. There was a factory in the centre of town and another across the river in Widcombe where we think – from the incomplete stamp – this one was made. There are apparently signs that the site was a vineyard in Roman times, and here’s evidence of workmen in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. It been a market garden too, but since the war – an allotment site. It gives us a sense of history, linking us into the past as well as into the future. Our little plot gives us history, spirituality, natural science, organic food, great neighbours, fresh air and exercise. Not bad for less than £100 a year.

Seasonal earthly delights

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It’s funny how other people see allotmenteering as a kind of gentle therapy in which you potter about the garden very ……. very ……..  slowly ……. and mindfully …… taking in the sights and scents and sounds whilst healing your mind with thoughts about the beauty of nature. In my experience you can only do that in other peoples’ gardens, and then only if they’re very good gardeners. It’s amazing how catching your silk meditation robes on a rusty nail can disrupt the pattern of good thoughts!

This is one of those times in the gardening year when meditation has to give way to the huge list of jobs to be done.  Plants can be very restful but at times they spend their time shouting at you – have you seen my leaves wilting? Will you please re-pot me immediately or I’ll expire and then you’ll be sorry ……!” And it’s hard to keep your zen composure when you’re pouring five litres of your own carefully saved urine on to the compost heap. Slugs can destroy a row of seedlings in a single night and so you have to deal with murderous thoughts of revenge.  One vegan allotmenteer on our site told us she was gathering slugs on her allotment and then roasting and grinding them up to make a deterrent powder.  Even I’d never thought of that one! The weather can turn on you like a banshee and confound the forecasters by shriveling the leaves on your beans  – oh my – it’s nature red in tooth and claw out there, and so I’m inclined to growl at people who insist that it must be therapeutic.  Really it’s up there with playing a musical instrument, writing a blog or painting landscapes – very hard work that occasionally offers intense rewards. 

So the delights of gardening could be over-egged if you focus entirely on the hard work aspect, but the real pleasure comes with harvesting. I never quite know whether to describe purple sprouting broccoli – which is effectively a biennial – as the final delight of last year or the first in the current year. It’s been there on the plot taking up space since it was sown in March or April of the previous year, and it really does take up space. Half a dozen plants is far more than we really need, but when it comes to planting out we usually put in a couple of spares – just in case – and that’s about thirty square feet taken up for a little over 12 months.  Every year around October we mutter about not growing it any more and then by the following March we’re urging it on, desperate to taste the first sweet florets. Then – and this is one of the great ironies of allotmenteering – after let’s say three weeks or a month of cropping, the pleasure begins to pale a little and we’re eyeing up the space. Seasonal foods are like holiday romances – intensity followed by – let’s be honest – boredom.  Who hasn’t looked at the 500th courgette and wondered what to do with it?

So this week the purple sprouting plants (trees) came out and the plot was immediately re-sown.  Once the flowers start to open it becomes a losing battle and so off they went to the compost heap complete with their intractable woody stems, smashed into fibres and pulp with the back of a small axe. Now the asparagus is gathering momentum and we have far more lettuces than we could possibly eat, will we ever get bored with them? The answer of course is yes, because seasonal food is – well – seasonal! Our tiny savoy cabbage seedlings wouldn’t cut the mustard in midsummer, but come the autumn they’ll be objects of desire. Time like an ever rolling stream bears all its fruits away – but they come back next years as fresh and beautiful as ever. Seasonal food, if I dare be serious for a moment – teaches us something about love and loss.  If there’s a therapeutic lesson in gardening it’s probably something to do with carpe diem – seizing the moment. Supermarket food is stale and dull; costly to the earth, fatal to the digestion and it’s unreliable as we now understand only too well as we (well, not me) stand in endless queues separated by an ocean of anxiety.

IMG_20200507_074922Last night, after a hard day gardening, I was baking and decided to try to imitate the old split tin loaves I went up the road to buy, as a child. It’s curious but just as everyone else seems to have turned to making sourdough, I’ve spent more time baking with yeast and trying to recapture the loaves of my childhood. I was particularly pleased with the results of the deep slash. To get that effect you need to prove the loaf under a tea towel rather than in a sealed and moist atmosphere so that the rapidly expanding loaf, when it goes into the hot oven, finds it easier to expand through the slash than by lifting the slightly toughened top. This was largely white flour with a handful of wholemeal spelt to liven up the flavour and texture. I’ve yet to produce one of those exuberant cottage loaves that resist rational slicing so have to be torn apart so everyone can get a piece of crust.

IMG_20200507_154625The closure of the garden centres has left us to improvise our own potting composts from whatever ingredients we can find. Today I wanted to fill some large planters to put on the patio area, and so I emptied all the spring window boxes on to a polythene sheet mainly to get access to the grit and sand in them and then mixed in new soil and compost with a few handfuls of chicken manure pellets, and filled lots of big pots.  It was great fun and represented another step towards the allotment as it was first imagined.

This is the time of year when inattention can cost us dearly. We scan the weather forecast morning and night to see what might catch us out. This weekend, for instance, we’re expecting high winds and a ten degree drop in temperature – enough to unsettle  and set back some of the plants we’ve already got in the ground. As I type this I’m looking across my study to a propagator full of replacement borlotti and runner bean seedlings – just in case. Earlier in the week I set up some improvised wind screens with some jute sacks and insect netting to protect the strawberries from the anticipated east wind. Later in the year I think we’ll invest in some hazel wattle fence panels because although our prevailing winds are south westerly; east and north easterlies are almost always bad news. Earlier I finally got the water storage organised but there’s no sign of rain for the next two weeks so as the temperature hits 23C we have to hand water.  Every morning  we unpack the greenhouse to give the plants some sunshine therapy and then we put them back at night.

There are brief seasons where an allotment can run away with you, and this is one of them. Bindweed, which is never truly vanquished, can grow two inches a day; and annual seedlings blown from neglected patches can germinate in green drifts overnight. I can almost hear our plot thinking – thank goodness for the lockdown, there’s no prospect of them going off in the campervan for a fortnight! I’m not entirely sure I agree.

 

 

Happiness is garden shaped

 

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Jonah Jones again. Beautiful!

People often say things like – ‘you’re so lucky to be able to paint/draw, it must be very therapeutic’  – and I smile and think to myself lucky me? it sometimes drives me completely round the bend!  The same idea of therapeutic activity is now being attributed to gardening and it surely can’t be long before the RHS is offering modules, if not courses, in garden therapy. Last night we watched a BBC programme called Gardeners’ World that was entirely devoted to the therapeutic benefits of gardening and of being in amongst nature.

We’re gardeners too and it’s impossible to disagree.  There’s nothing quite like a morning or a whole day on the allotment, out in the fresh air with some hard work and, with a bit of luck, some good company. Today we decided to defy the rain and we spent a couple of hours with Madame weeding and clearing beds and me moving  about 3/4 ton of leaf mould and compost next to the beds they’ll be feeding this coming week. I hasten to say that much of the compost was bought in advance of our getting our own heaps flowing. I now have a backache but we came away feeling – as ever –  that the allotment has been instrumental in our thriving over the last four years of adjustment. Of course we feel sad when we lose plants, and cross when our stuff gets stolen but I suspect that a significant part of the therapeutic effect of gardening is learning to cope with loss. Gardening is a perspective changing activity and it rewards our commitment in a manner quite out of proportion to our input. Putting food on the table has the power to transform a meal into a feast – every day. Anything that makes you thankful every day has just got to be good for you. It’s risky of course because an allotment can never be a fortress and you have to accept that all sorts of strangers have access to it for good or ill.  But if one person sees an opportunity to enrich themself at our expense, I’ll guarantee that there are a hundred who look across from the footpath and think it’s beautiful, and a handful might even decide to try an allotment for themselves.

So today was a good day.  My experiment to try reducing the cooking time of the sourdough bread by 15 minutes worked out really well, and the crust was crisp but not too thick. The oven is one of our extravagances, and it’s so highly efficient that we’ve had to recalibrate almost all our cooking times.

I woke early and for no particular reason felt completely energised. Although, as I wrote yesterday, I try to avoid writing too much about politics here, I do think that what I write is highly political.  I’m an inveterate fact checker, I listen and read and then I check. Today I was searching around the issue of carbon costs and I found that much of the received wisdom around which politicians and some journalists set out their green credentials are open to serious challenge. We’re so used (well, some of us are -) to challenging racism and sexism when we encounter it but we get very shy about challenging the way that data is used. What does nuclear energy really cost? What’s the most efficient form of renewable energy? Is bio-fuel a good or a bad idea, is it true that generating electricity from biomass is better than generating it from coal?  The truth is that many of the assumptions from which we work are the fruits of lobbyists with a vested interest in their particular industry.  At the very least we could demand to know ‘who said this’ , who paid for the research? and what does the independent research say?.

As it happens I think I know the answers to most of the questions I posed but I’m not stating them because it’s much more important that we each find out for ourselves. It’s a very radicalizing moment to discover that you been completely hoodwinked.  Just as it was very radicalizing to discover huge beds of samphire when we were on the seashore next to the western fells, but not dare to forage any of it because it was just a few miles downstream of the Windscale nuclear reprocessing plant which has a history of unacknowledged disharges. We test everything on the allotment.  So called biodegradable bin bags seem to be far more resistant to composting than the label suggests; ultra green coir modules  appear to be wrapped in plastic mesh. We have to cut the mesh off before composting the spent coir. Do we even know whether the big seed companies treat their seeds with insecticides?

I think the answer to negotiating our way around the challenges of the 21st century has got to be to take a much greater interest in the data that’s used to persuade us and to become proper nuisances when it comes to asking questions.  Let’s be confident about handling the data and get the environmental costs on to the bottom line of every big company. They’ll soon change when it hits them in the pocket.