The Potwell Inn prepares for the winter solstice

From one of my old notebooks that I found in the garage when we moved to Bath.

According to the meteorologists winter started almost three weeks ago but here at the Potwell Inn we pay no attention to these unnatural dates. It’s always been the solstice for us because instead of simply looking backwards at the autumn and summer – always a bit depressing, especially this year, the solstice marks the shortest day. In fact it celebrates a particular moment because at 10.00am tomorrow the North Pole is tilted as far away from the sun as it will be this year. Mid morning tomorrow the earth slowly begins tilting the other way until mid march when (and I know earth coordinates are a bit meaningless in space terms) it’s ‘upright’ – and we celebrate the vernal equinox and, as the tilt continues, exposing more of the northern hemisphere to the direct rays of the sun we hit midsummer in mid June. And then the earth starts to tilt back again and the cycle begins anew. So the good news is that tomorrow marks both a beginning and an end.

In a more nature orientated culture than ours we’d be eagerly awaiting this moment. Historically, farm work slowed down during the winter because the soil was too heavy and cold for seed sowing. The farm year kicked off with the Epiphany celebrations around 6th January and often included Plough Monday celebrations where a plough would be brought into churches along with seed corn (usually wheat, rye and barley in the UK and not maize in those days). By Plough Monday it’s usually possible to see the lengthening days and the winter pursuits like hedging and ditching gave way on the farm to sowing once more.

But grass seems to grow more or less throughout the year. In fact I remember giving our vicarage lawn a light mow one Christmas Eve, and I was reminded yesterday that grass is by no means as simple as you might at first think. I was re-reading Michael Pollan’s 2006 book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. It’s an excellent read and today I noticed a 2016 piece in the Washington Times by Pollan that celebrated the fact that the US has seen a significant growth in food awareness accompanied by increasing numbers of artisanal food producers, organic and post-organic farms and farmers markets. But it wasn’t all good news because the dominance of corn had increased in the national diet.

However it was grass that caught my eye last night, because when I first read the book I knew next to nothing about it in spite of living and working in the countryside for 25 years. Then, when we moved here and joined the Bath Natural History Society we were on a field trip one day when I told one of the leading lights that I found grass identification hard. “Oh she said” pointedly, “grasses are easy” – which challenge was more than I could resist and so I’ve spent three or four years improving my grass skills. Then, earlier this year a friend lent me a microscope and a whole new world opened up and began a new romance for me.

Why is this important? Well, in his book Michael Pollan draws attention to one central criticism of intensive farming in a way that I found irresistible. Grass, he says, harnesses and stores the power of the sun and because of its properties of self regeneration and the sheer density of its coverage and capacity to photosynthesise even during autumn and winter, it represents the nearest thing to a free lunch in the natural world. When we see a meadow, especially a traditional meadow with all its wildflowers – we’re looking at a far more efficient solar energy store than any field covered in solar panels.

Intensive farming, on the other hand, replaces all that sustainable solar energy with unsustainable oil – for driving farm machinery, transporting animals and crops over huge distances, and for manufacturing the fertilizers and chemicals which then go on to promote global heating and cause pollution environmental damage and health problems. The problem is that we humans lack a rumen, the part of a grazing animal’s stomach than can digest grass. So the only way we can access all that stored solar energy for food is by feeding the grass to a ruminant animal like a cow, and then eating it. If you add in the concept of buying locally, he food and the consumer are in the same place.

Grass fed cattle do well although they fatten slower than cattle stuffed with corn and antibiotics, The grass and its herbs provide a still unknown number of micronutrients and healing properties to the cattle’s diet and so they are better able to thrive without the panoply of wormers, drenches and other chemicals that are essential in the feedlots which, incidentally, are becoming more and more common in the UK – this isn’t an American problem. Grass fed beef is lower in health damaging cholesterol and it’s said that it tastes better too. It’s very expensive because it’s slower and less intensively farmed, and the food – that’s to say the grass -doesn’t attract the same level of subsidy. The inescapable logic is that traditional mixed farms are better than intensive farms for a host of environmental reasons but we will have to eat far less meat because the low price of meat in the supermarkets reflects an unsustainable and environmentally destructive food culture.

The question of methane is always the first thing to come up and it’s true that cows produce methane. But intensive farming produces far more methane because cowpats dropped on a low intensity pasture generate far less methane than the lakes of cattle slurry that accumulate on intensive farms and, all too frequently leak into the surrounding watercourses. A second benefit of grassland is that grass is a prodigious carbon store. No dig and low tillage systems don’t release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere at anything like the same rate. So, as Wendell Berry memorably said, by abandoning mixed farming and grass pasturage, intensive farming has taken a solution (mixed farming) and turned it into two problems: soil erosion and nutrient depletion on the one hand and massive pollution on the other, The manure that cattle leave on the pasture and which improves both soil structure and fertility becomes a lethal poison when concentrated in slurry. The land taken from pasture to grow feed grain releases carbon back into the atmosphere and can only remain productive through the use of chemicals.

And so grass is perhaps as important as are trees when it comes to carbon sequestration – and that’s great because the one thing we can grow here in the southwest of the UK is grass. Anyway I woke up the morning with my botanical whiskers all of a quiver and as we did our customary walk along the river and the canal I did a very rough and ready count of the plants we could see in flower. It’s been an odd autumn and early winter and although we’ve had a couple of frosts they’ve not amounted to much. The rain has been a much bigger problem for us. I didn’t have a pen with me so I couldn’t write them all down but from memory there were Canadian and Mexican Fleabane, a single dead nettle, groundsel, yarrow,common ragwort, one dandelion, red valerian, nipplewort, perennial sowthistle, ivy and some ivy leaved toadflax, plus (and this is a long shot) on the flood prevention scheme on North Quays where there was a lot of inappropriate wildflower re-seeding and I’m pretty sure there was a single corn marigold flowering on the spot where a very out of place clump of them grew last summer. As ever, plants don’t read the textbooks and to reverse the ethical aphorism, in field botany you can’t make an is into an ought. There were also new shoots breaking through on an old man’s beard vine, and a clump of very lush green prickly lettuce leave emerging on the river bank. Fourteen plants in flower on December 20th isn’t bad, and you could smell the strange almond perfume of the winter heliotrope all up the canal. Spring is hiding behind the bushes!

Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the solstice with a roastie and I’m wondering whether I can risk embarrassing Madame with a little candle-lit ceremony at 10.00am and then we can enjoy a solitary Christmas with a mexican meal that the children would never have let us get away with: they’re far greater traditionalists than we are! Then we’ll go for a walk amidst the hordes of similarly stranded grandparents.

Happy solstice!

Another day, another heap of species

If you choose to see it that way, you might say that one of the upsides of the Covid 19 pandemic has been that it’s obliged us to cancel our usual travels and find places much nearer home. With all our favourite walking spots effectively out of bounds, we’ve responded by scouring the area around Bath for wildlife hotspots, the SSSI’s, reserves, and commons – often not much bigger than a few acres but which (we’ve discovered) are incredibly rich and full of things we’ve never seen before. All the while I’ve been lamenting the fact we can’t get into Wales or Cornwall to go plant hunting we’ve been neglecting the local riches. Today was no exception, and we found a few acres of calciferous grassland that hasn’t seen any fertilizer or chemical for best part of 300 years.

But first we had to go to the surgery for our annual MOT’s in which Madame fared better than me because for some reason I had an AF attack as I walked through the door and so – after three goes on one blood pressure monitor and a trip next door to see if a different type of machine would tell a better story, we agreed that the numbers on the dial didn’t look at all right and we would ignore them. That’s the first time I’ve ever suffered from white coat syndrome in my life, and within an hour my pulse and blood pressure were back to normal. I always suspected doctors made you ill and now I’m sure. The poor nurse got quite flustered and this meant her every attempt to calm me down made things much worse. I don’t know which of us felt most exhausted when I walked (carefully) out of the door. Anyway, enough of my cheating heart. Old age doesn’t come alone as my granny used to say, and she was right – there are thousands of us.

So after tea and Dundee cake, which is a sovereign cure for all ills, we drove about 4 miles to Bannerdown Common ostensibly for me to grab a few grass samples to sharpen up my I/D skills, and for Madame to seek out butterflies. Tonight I had to choose between writing and identifying my bag of grasses and I went for writing tonight and identifying tomorrow morning very early before Madame wakes up. There’s something so special about unimproved meadows that once I’d collected a dozen grass species we moved on to wildflowers, butterflies and just revelling in the beauty of it all. Madame came face to face with a roe deer stag and after exchanging surprised looks he darted back into the woodland – it was that kind of place, full of surprises.

I’m sure that there are ecologists who go about their work in methodical silence, but I’m a bit of a noisy so and so, and I’m inclined to do a little excited dance when I spot something interesting. Madame finds this dismaying as a cloud of departing butterflies sometimes accompanies my joyful exclamations. Botany is exciting – no argument! I’m ashamed to admit that I could have learned more plants three times as quickly if we’d taken our bicycles out instead of driving hundreds of miles in the campervan. On the other hand, although I’d kill for an hour at the seaside, I’m certainly not prepared to die for it so we’ll postpone murders and premature deaths until September at the earliest and stay local.

There are a long list of nature reserves within easy distance and with all our field trips cancelled at least until the autumn we’ll do it alone. Meanwhile the allotment has reached overproduction levels and we’ve realized that the intuition in April that three rows of runner beans was too many – was right, and we’re feeding anyone that can light a stove. I’ve made a shopping list of timber to repair and strengthen the water butt stands, and the temperatures look set to reach 30C later this week which will mean we’ll soon be processing tomatoes. Unfortunately a labelling mix-up has put several varieties into a glorious muddle, and today I noticed some wild aubergines growing amongst the cavolo nero. That’s what I love about allotments; for all the planning in the winter, by the time it gets to July the plot has its own momentum and we become followers, curious to know what will show up next.