Sucking eggs with granny

Since the industrial revolution the processes of growth have been speeded up to produce the food and raw materials needed by the population and the factory. Nothing effective has been done to replace the loss of fertility involved in this vast increase in crop and animal production. The consequences have been disastrous. Agriculture has become unbalanced: the land is in revolt: diseases of all kinds are on the increase: in many parts of the world Nature is removing the worn out soil by means of erosion.

Sir Albert Howard: “An Agricultural Testament”.

Great stress has been laid on a hitherto undiscovered factor in nutrition – the mycorrhizal association – the living fungal bridge between humus in the soil and the sap of plants

Op cit: both passages from the preface.

To be frank, the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962 seems an age ago, but “An Agricultural Testament” was published in January 1940 – eighty (yes eighty!) years ago and in the intervening years very little seems to changed. It’s a useful, if chastening, exercise to read these books. We so easily slip into the lazy thought that the world began at the same time as we each first became aware of it; and worse still, we can lazily assume that any science of real significance has happened within our own lifetimes.

This thought bubbled up from the bottom of the pond today as I was reading and Madame read out a couple of passages from a newspaper article on communal living. It’s all the rage once again, apparently, but I’m not expecting anyone to write and ask how it was for us when we lived in a couple of communes in the early seventies. Living in a commune seems to be a bit like having your first baby; the last thing you want is to know how your ghastly and out of touch parents managed to bring you up. The newly born baby is your tabula rasa whose unfortunate joy will be to have every one of your random habits inscribed indelibly in their minds. The fact that your random habits were almost never acquired in the study of ancient religions or the poetry of Wordsworth but in the kitchen of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam is the living proof that culture eats strategy for breakfast as the management consultants like to say. Living in communes, like bringing up children can be marvellous and it can also drain you of the will to live especially when you live in the midst of a clash of giant egos.

Anyway, that excursus off my chest, reading Sir Albert Howard today reminded me that the identification of the earth’s problems wasn’t something that happened recently, but back before I was born and it’s not just been ignored, it’s been made worse and worse as these eight decades have passed; or to put it more personally, my entire life has been spent fruitlessly protesting about it while nothing much changes.

Partly, I think, it came from a misplaced faith in the ability of science and technology to solve all our problems because, of course, the problem isn’t just scientific and technical, it’s a moral problem; our greed. But, as I hope my little vignette of family life shows, we rarely examine or question our basic attitudes – the ones we inherited when we were children. As a school governor for thirty years I saw many generations of children who were mildly radicalised by being taught about the environment. Yoghurt cartons were collected, tins saved and crushed for recycling and gardens grown and yet this early exposure to the problem of our environment rarely seemed to make it into action later on in life. Perhaps we needed to believe the story we were told that everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds without realising that the phrase itself was a parody – but the system seemed to work and unless you looked under the bonnet (risking your faith), it was easier to believe that there was no alternative, and anyway – why would my one little plane journey actually damage the earth? And so, to use another well worn phrase, “we are where we are” and all those lovely holidays and fillet steaks were being paid for by quietly selling off the family silver; and now the final demands are beginning to land on the mat.

I find the reading of books on the environment by previous generations of writers enlightening and challenging. For them the challenge to grow food rested in experience and human labour not giant machines and clever chemicals. Ninety percent and more of their wisdom and knowhow is still directly applicable even on our little plot which is, for us, a kind of laboratory for a sustainable future.

Today we worked for four or five hours clearing posts off the site of the polytunnel and preparing the new bed for five more trees. As I was digging out the posts I salvaged every useable piece of timber, every vine eye and tensioner and I even rolled the straining wires carefully because it’s really hard to get them at the moment. Just as my grandfather had done, I was storing and recycling anything at all, no matter how rusty or bent, because it might come in handy one day. The beds were weeded on hands and knees and we relocated dormant soft fruit bushes and perennial herbs. Back in the flat we’ve taken hardwood cuttings of favourite bushes. The main room is littered with piles of seed catalogues and gardening books. This isn’t hair shirt for the sake of it. The truth is that we live royally on the fruits of our labour; the things we can’t afford we do without and if we eat seasonally we can put something we grew ourselves on the table 52 weeks of the year. It’s not perfect but it’s completely absorbing as the shape and scope of the allotment evolves. At last the water storage is working properly and we can draw modest amounts of rainwater whenever we need it with enough pressure to run the auto watering drips in the greenhouse.

I’d love to be able to say that passive involvement in nature gives no benefits but the science proves otherwise. However, getting dirt under your fingernails in the fresh air; cooking and eating your own produce puts it up a couple of gears. A pound of borlotti beans in the shops is a commodity – they cost pennies. But baked beans made with your own beans and your own tomato sauce is a feast. I like to think that each time we harvest and cook we share the wisdom and experience of Sir Albert Howard, of Rachel Carson, Lawrence Hills and countless other pioneers who dared to challenge the hegemony of agribusiness. All we need now is for those thirty years plus of schoolchildren who saved yoghurt pots and crushed tins and fished for newts in the pond – most of them are now in positions of real weight and responsibility – we need them (you) to say enough of this exploitative and dangerous culture – we want to explore being really deeply human again!

Be honest – would you buy this apple?

We have a friend – Harry -who’s a retired orthopaedic surgeon; and an all round good guy. On his 90th birthday he gave a truly witty after dinner speech in which he tried to account for his long life and 60 years of happy marriage by listing the virtues that he thought might have contributed. The virtue I remember most clearly was thrift, which he illustrated by telling a story about apples. Harry has a large garden and orchard and he said that he had the utmost difficulty in leaving windfalls on the ground – it just seemed wrong to waste them, he said – and the consequence, he noted, was ” …. of course you never eat a decent apple!”

  • canny.
  • careful.
  • meticulous.
  • prudent.
  • stingy.
  • thrifty.
  • abstemious.
  • spartan.

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that all these synonyms have a faintly negative air about them – but I know exactly what Harry meant. We’ve got a load of really nice, almost perfect, Lord Lambourne apples stored in the meter cupboard; but those aren’t the ones we’re eating because we like to finish up the windfalls and blemished ones first. And so every morning when I prepare our muesli I cut the bad bits out of yesterday’s windfalls and grate the rest – they still taste just as good and, pound for pound, they contain exactly as many nutrients as their smooth cheeked cousins in the cupboard. The point. though, is that we couldn’t even give them away. When we go (infrequently) to the fruit and veg stall in a supermarket, we see nothing but perfect examples of each variety, flying off the shelves complete with all the residue of the repeated sprays that have bestowed their cosmetic perfection on them. “Another slice of organophosphate and neonicotinoid pie?” is the one question we’re most unlikely to ask at the dinner table.

But simply by working the allotment our worldview has changed. Because we’ve planted and nurtured our own vegetables; tended and watered them through drought, storm and snowfall; pruned, fed and picked the fruits we’re a lot less inclined to discard them because they don’t look like the ones in the supermarket (or especially the seed catalogue). Yesterday I was writing about how pleased we were to have a small crop of Florence fennel and I forgot to take a picture to share – so here it is – and, as you can easily see, although I extolled the flavour and texture yesterday, it’s hardly a textbook example of the genre; on the very edge of bolting and not about to win any prizes at any flower and produce show I’ve ever been to. When you grow your own veg, you’ve got to learn to love them in rather the way you love your children – seeing nothing but sheer beauty and giftedness in them in spite of all the evidence to the contrary!

There’s an old saying that says “everyone should eat their peck of dirt”. and equally if you’ve never seen a slug or an earwig on your plate you’re probably part of the reason that our rivers are so heavily polluted by runoff from farms. It wasn’t for nothing that the Edwardian gardeners at the Lost Gardens of Heligan called their stirrup pump sprayer the widowmaker.

Isn’t it a supreme irony that we’re so scared of insects or a bit of dirt, or especially the idea of composting toilets and using urine as a fertilizer; while we are quite prepared to tolerate some of the most dangerous nerve-gas derived chemicals ever invented, all over our lettuce or fruit. How on earth did that happen? Well I guess it’s because we can’t see it, and a lot of money has been spent on persuading us it’s perfectly safe.

Allotmenteering teaches so much more than a few horticultural tricks. It teaches some of those virtues that Harry was praising on his 90th birthday. It teaches us to value diversity, stop dreaming about the perfect and above all to stop wasting the good things that the earth has given us. And, how could we leave this one out? – allotmenteering gives us a sense of awe and gratitude that’s so easily lost in this era of mendacity and stupidity. That’ll do for us.