The stars dispose but do not compel

It was Beth Chatto, whose motto – “right plant, right place” – came to mind as we walked past the Bath Quays development yesterday. Some years ago the river bank was reshaped into terraces in advance of new building on the north side of the river, The terraces were rather expensively covered with wildflower matting – coir impregnated with seeds, I imagine to honour the fashionable spirit of the wild. The earth; much disturbed and turned over by archaeologists and heavy machinery and then covered with topsoil yielded a single fine crop of wildflowers last seen growing together on a film set before the thugs moved back and put the newcomers in their place. True, a few have survived but the dreams of the planners would surely have taken a dive if they ever came back to look at their creation. There used to be a building company in Swindon, from memory, ironically named “Bodgit and Scram” – you get the picture. Creative landscape designers are rarely confronted with the difference between glossy brochures and living earth.

Some of the plants, however, didn’t disappear; they just took a walk down the road and found somewhere more suited to their natural habitat. The Vipers Bugloss in the picture is one of the more attractive ones which, while not normally seen in this part of the world outside gardens, has set up a squatters’ camp alongside the road amongst the rubble and clutter of an earlier utopian dream.

If you want to make a nature reserve you can either buy some expensive land and spend shed loads of money on it or – as this little paradise suggests – put up a temporary fence around a bit of unloved and rubble filled earth awaiting “development” and go away for a couple of years. In this case the inevitable Buddleias came along, with bindweed and all the other early risers; and with them came butterflies – who’d have thought it? – and then some of the other escapees from the designed wild like yarrow and campions; some nice vetches, oxeye daisies, poppies and so forth.

It should (but probably won’t) remind us that just as you can’t create a community by building a community centre, so you can’t rewild the city centre with a coir mat and seeds from somewhere in Europe. Beth Chatto’s “right plant right place” applies as much to rewilding as it does to gardens and allotments. The Potwell Inn allotment has had many areas enriched by mountains of leaf mould, manure and compost. But the places where we’ve planted the lavenders and mediterranean herbs had to have their rich clay/loam topsoil removed and replaced with something more akin to stone soup to borrow a metaphor from the kitchen. And, of course the harsher environment suits them very well.

The “weeds” that were expensively doused in weedkiller back along the river walk are now recovering slowly, and happily the patch of greater celandine seems to have been missed altogether. Within a few weeks, I hope, the ragwort, herb Robert, nipplewort and dandelions will shake themselves and get back into the business of being wild in the city. Rewilding doesn’t so much require committees and designers as it needs nurturing what’s already found its place on the pavement. The real challenge is to teach more people to love weeds and nurture their vital role in the great scheme of things.

But that was last year!

Now we’re three weeks behind

With the prospect of a loosening of the lockdown tomorrow – which, to be honest, is a lousy idea – it would be lovely to pretend that we could get back to normal on the allotment. However, these photos taken in May last year prove beyond all reasonable doubt that this year we’re at least three weeks behind. Looking out across the green just now there’s not a sign of our elderflowers blossoming although the purple variety shown, from which we made the bottles also featured above, is at least in full leaf. The window boxes are waiting for the petunias to go in so they can be moved down to the flat, but even in the hotbed and the polytunnel the beetroots are nowhere near as well developed. Today we found the first tiny broad (fava) bean pods and we’re still at the carrot thinning stage. The asparagus bed is just grumbling into life like a teenager on a school morning, and we’ve had a couple of tasters but hardly a feed.

In other respects we’ve done well inside the tunnel, with salad greens, radishes, turnips, container potatoes looking well in their new position outside, and the ever patient tomatoes hardening off in pots; taller and healthier than they were last May. The slugs have been busy during this week of rain, and managed to fell all our dill seedlings and half of our sunflowers. What’s particularly infuriating is the way they climb up the plants and saw off the growing tip. The runner beans, planted out two days ago, were spared by leaving a sacrificial tray of failures to attract them away but we’ve been fighting a losing battle and today I ordered some nematode treatment which is expensive but marginally less so than losing crops. Even the aubergines, chillies and peppers have been locked down with us, clogging up the propagators and windows. Our first ever attempt at melons suffered a mere 25% germination rate and of the survivors there’s only one healthy looking plant but that could just as easily be lack of experience on our part.

A couple of weeks ago we were given an old freezer which has relieved our storage problems enormously, and so for the first time aside from eating inordinate amounts of freshly cooked rhubarb, we’ve been able to freeze enough to make jam later on when things calm down. There’s enough rhubarb on the whole allotment site to start a jam factory – it’s one of the few plants that it’s almost impossible to kill – along with horseradish of course! But some of the less experienced allotmenteers don’t seem to know that they should cut off the flowering spikes as soon as they appear, and keep pulling sticks regularly to preserve a supply of fresh and tender stalks. The old ones – the thickness of your arm are tough and full of oxalic acid.

The bird feeders have been a tremendous success, attracting great tits, blue tits and today a couple of coal tits that were quite unafraid of me standing quietly no more than three feet away. We’ve also had robins and magpies with blackbirds helping out on the path edges digging out slugs and snails. It’s difficult not to associate their arrival with the pond as well and our tadpoles are growing slowly although they must be being predated by something because the numbers have dropped significantly. So it’s not all bad news, and scanning the blogs today Madame said that everyone seems to be suffering from the cold and wet weather so the problem isn’t local.

To go to a theme I return to often, it’s not the bird rarities or the heaviest, tallest or fattest vegetables in the world, but the ordinary that animates us. Of course I wouldn’t shoo a willow tit or a goldcrest away, but I’m not the least bit disappointed if our allotment highlights are no better or worse than thousands of other equally ordinary people have, and a dandelion is a cheerful flower to have around when nothing much else is happening. In fact weeds are what most urban botanical apprentices like me cut our teeth on and the closer you look the more wonderful they seem to be. Dandelion seeds – when looked at through a low magnification microscope – are an absolute wonder!

Going back to the picture on the top left of the group; that’s the green I write about. It’s an incredibly popular spot for trysts, catch ups, picnics, getting drunk, kicking a ball around, dealing drugs, exercising dogs, once (memorably) dogging, (and behind every curtain in the square was a shameless pair of eyes!) tai chi, gymnastics and all the rich tapestry of city life. Recently we discovered that after installing the bases for a couple of seats on the green, the council were dissuaded from installing them after receiving a petition – signed (it is claimed) by 70 local residents. In a long life of community based work I’ve grown suspicious of being told the everyone is against an idea. Usually it amounts to a small but articulate and organised subset of the community. The alleged grounds for the objection were that seats might encourage antisocial behaviour – really? How on earth have we managed until now?

However, nature spared us a battle when a large tree was blown down during one of the many storms in early spring. Within a couple of weeks the brash was all sawn off and taken away as firewood by a rough sleeper who’s been living on the river bank for over a year. People soon congregated around the dead tree and used it as a seat but it was really in the wrong place. So one day someone dragged the trunk laboriously across the green to a new spot under the canopy of our largest tree. He spent two evenings attempting to use it as a springboard to climb the big tree and eventually succeeded in getting way up into the canopy, whereupon he lost interest and went away – probably to write a book about climbing trees. Now the fallen tree was in shadow under the big one so another group hauled it out into the sunshine where it’s been ever since. Children painted it with bright and cheerful graffiti and played on it and it’s hardly ever empty. This morning a couple of young women sat on it in the rain on a plastic bag and with an umbrella while they drank their coffee. Frank Lake – now hardly remembered but a pioneer of what he called “clinical theology” used a memorable phrase that perfectly describes the bureaucratic mind . He said “you can die from hardening of the oughteries!” My philosophy and ethics lecturer put it another way in his first lecture: “you can’t make an ought into an is”. Indeed you can’t but it doesn’t stop people in power from trying.

That tree ought to be a message of hope and a warning to anyone who thinks they have the right to dictate how communities use their spaces. The empty plinths are now used to protect the grass from barbeques and it’s a constant pleasure to see, and hear people playing games, getting together and enjoying life – even if it’s a little anarchic and occasionally gets out of hand.

– in the end what’s more antisocial?

Street life and street theatre is free; doesn’t need a policy statement or any funding; committee meetings and minutes, or risk assessments – and in the end what’s more antisocial? Is it a bit of noise and fun on the green? or is it warehousing all your fragile and vulnerable people in one place? (on the edge of the green), driving up rents and house prices through speculation? polluting the air we breathe with privately owned 3 litre diesel engined vanity vehicles? and putting a route for 45 tonne lorries through the middle of a densely populated but unfashionable part of town? oh and building nothing but old peoples’ homes and student flats because that’s where the money is? Answers on a postage stamp please!

Washes all your sins away

The temporarily increased tempo of our morning walks to implement our fitness binge precludes any detailed botanising, and so I’ve resorted to noticing a new plant on the first morning and, if necessary, returning to it the next day. That way I can do two or three new i/d’s a day without slowing down too much and annoying Madame. This works really well – for instance I’ve got my eye on a tiny grass which has emerged from the ruins of a recent strimming and set seed at no more than a couple of inches high near the edge of the canal, and I’ll gather a sample tomorrow. Today, however, the soapwort – Saponaria officinalis – in full flower didn’t need much more than a quick photo. This one, like most of them is almost certainly a garden escape because there’s a well tended cottage style garden close by. The name is a bit of a giveaway and apparently (I’ve never tried it) the macerated leaves contain sufficient saponin to make a froth and wash clothes or whatever. Nowadays, soap nuts claim to do much the same thing and are gilded with virtue. I know they’re natural but so are arsenic, foxgloves and (dare I say) syphilis; which brings me back to soapwort because Nicholas Culpeper and Mrs Grieve swear by it for that complaint. I can hardly imagine anyone asking their teenage children to “pop out to the garden and pick some soapwort for you father’s syphilis – the mercury hasn’t worked at all this time!” But I can imagine the unflappable Mrs Grieve striding into the garden in tweeds and brogues and sweeping the herb into her basket for application to the dishonourable member.

So with that thought provoking start to the day, and a trip to the Farmers’ Market to get some onions – because our small crop is already used up. Then a few press ups and squats on the landing reminded me that I’m not thirty any more, and the main work of the day began. The first pickings of the tomatoes have begun and today we brought out the passata machine, cleaned down the kitchen and set up our respective workstations so we could plunge, peel, chop and puree the first six kilos of tomatoes. This lot were to be made into a rich tomato sauce – hence the onions and a rather large quantity of butter. We’re a good team and these days we can knock off six kilos in half an hour. The random quantity is because the pulp fills our biggest pan to exactly the right height to prevent too much splashing as it bubbles down for hours. We make it without any further flavourings or seasoning so that it can be used as a base for any number of more complicated sauces. Thankfully we’re pretty much self sufficient in tomatoes which we preserve and bottle rather than freeze, because our freezer is so small. We also make a good deal of straight passata which bottles very successfully.

During the lockdown tomatoes and all the subsidiary products became almost unavailable here, so it was just as well we were well stocked. I’d definitely recommend getting a cheap, manual passata machine, though, because once you’ve put six kilos of pulp through a chinois you’ll never want to do it again. By all means – if you can afford it – get a fancy stainless steel and electric one, but quite honestly cranking it through is fun and the cleaning takes as long whether it’s a manual or an electric machine.

The Farmers’ Market is gradually coming back to life but it’s much smaller than it once was, and it’s organised for maximum safety so it’s a one-way browsing experience. There are a couple of non organic veg stalls there, and often the organic group make an appearance as well. We were queuing for the onions when a man in a loden coat and a tweed cap pushed directly in front of us, quite oblivious of his lack of manners. I thought I dealt with it pretty well, and bit my lip and waited until our turn came up again. But then the two press-ganged teenage helpers on the stall worked in extraordinarily slow motion, clearly wishing they were anywhere but where they were. We loaded the rucksack and left but as we went down the ramp to Green Park I noticed that my heart was beating furiously. I’m in no position to criticise anyone else for allowing themselves to get so stressed, and I imagine it’s almost ubiquitous in this post lockdown phase when anyone could be a threat.

And it’s been getting busier on the Green, with homelessness and drug dealing more apparent every day. A couple of days ago we tried to help an unconscious young man lying in front of the flat. He was completely lifeless to all intents, but a couple of off duty nurses came out to help and they found a pulse. However the moment an ambulance was mentioned he got up and stumbled off into the woods – we’ve seen him several times since, alive but very unwell. Then, to crown an inglorious week, a young man was killed on the towpath about a mile down river and two people have been arrested.

All the businesses here are desperate to get back to normal, but if this is the new normal then there’s no way we want to live normally any more. The dam holding back all that pent-up anger and aggression is leaking through a crack already and it’s deeply concerning. Thank goodness for the Potwell Inn kitchen.

Surviving in a hostile environment

I realized a while ago that I was going to have to get much closer to some of my botanical subjects in order to identify them properly and study them in more depth, and I’ve invested in a very useful 20x LED hand lens. Then a friend – out of the blue – offered to lend me a microscope, which will be a tremendous help. My desk is getting pretty full at the moment, not least because I’ve been experimenting with my Panasonic camera with a Leica 45mm macro lens photographing against a lightbox background.

I was casting around for something to practice with yesterday, and I spotted a piece of stonecrop – Sedum acre – that I’d collected while I was doing the plant survey of the car park. My desk is a mess at the best of times, and at the moment it’s also dotted with bits of drying and dying plant material that I seem to have a resistance to throwing away. So amongst the dead and dying this piece of stonecrop caught my eye and I set up the camera on a tripod (it’s almost impossible to take macro photos without one) got the flash unit going and after a few duds, got the picture.

The contrast between set-ups and the phone camera is absolute. I’ve said before that they each have their place and I wouldn’t be without either, but there’s nothing spontaneous about the set-up photograph. You’re forced to think what do I really want to see in this shot? and so I can use a small lab clamp, studio lamp, wireless flash and anything else that helps to capture the principal details. On a good day the aesthetic and the observational combine and you get a cracker, but most of the time they’re reference material for the future. I only wish my cataloguing skills could keep up but my tiggerish instincts are always racing on to the next excitement.

Anyway, enough of the technical stuff because what blew me away when I looked at this sample was that it is clearly alive and waiting patiently for the good times to roll again. They don’t put Sedums on wildflower roofs for nothing. Plants have their survival strategies and these can seem very smart indeed. The rue leaved saxifrage that lives on the wilderness of the fire escape survives by flowering and setting seed before the summer sun bakes its remains to a crisp. One of the abiding challenges of amateur botany is the brief lives of many species. Finding some plants is like getting six numbers up in the National Lottery – right place, right time, right weather ….. and so it goes on.

This gift of resilience is a marvellous thing, but I don’t at all underestimate our capacity to chemically outstrip the most resourceful life form – ourselves included. I’m reading Mark Avery’s book “Fighting for Birds” at the moment and he shows the way that extinctions are brought about so often by changes in farming practices which are not just to do with chemicals but also times of harvesting and sowing. But when the going gets tough …. and the real survivors are the kind of plant species – now totalling 26 – that can survive in the hostile environment of our car park.

But is that the kind of world we want to live in? Although I sing the praises of the sturdy beggars below my window, is that all I want? Of course not, but desperation drives us all. Yesterday as I looked out on the Green I saw a previous Director of the National Botanical Garden of Wales kneeling down with his phone to photograph some wall barley. Good for him – perhaps I’ve won him over at last, or perhaps he’s doing a survey of the Green where we’re making small progress on preserving an un-mown strip around the edge.

And if this was simply about preserving some hobby examples for grumpy old botanists and birdwatchers then you could maybe concede the point that it’s an unbalanced and unsustainable view of the world. But if we regard the reduction of our ecosystems to a few super resilient survivors, if we treat the symptoms like the canary in the mine – then it’s horribly clear that we may be the next species to disappear.

I’ve spent the greater part of my life thinking that our self-destructive way of life would end with a bomb and a nuclear winter. In many ways a sudden end to everything would be a more comforting vision than the possibility of a relentless decline into anarchy with terrible flooding, mass migrations from areas no longer capable of sustaining life and the desperate search for food, water, and ultimately air to breathe. I don’t want my grandchildren or their descendants to end impoverished lives like fish writhing on the deck of a boat, gasping for air.

I’ve written before about denial being one of Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s symptoms of grieving. But there has to come a moment when denial is overcome and a new life – with all its difficulties and disappointments – has to begin; and this is the moment. Right now.

Please welcome Eric – he needs your help.

Admittedly this is a pretty terrible photograph, but since I lost my telephoto lens when it fell out of my camera bag and into a bog somewhere up on the Mendip Hills, I haven’t had much luck with long shots. The macro lens on my camera helps a bit, being dual purpose, but in my efforts to get a picture of my dear friend Eric the herring gull I managed to knock over a jam jar full of parsley that was perched on the window and by the time I’d cleared up the mess there wasn’t time to find the camera, change the lens and blah blah blah – so there was just the phone.

Gulls are not, by their nature, the kind of creatures you can normally feel an attachment to. If you’ve ever looked into the cold eye of a greater black backed gull, you’ll know what I mean. I think it was Adam Nicholson who most accurately described these birds as being from a different world. Theirs was the ocean and ours was the land; or at least that was the way of it until plastic rubbish bags and fast food came along at which point they moved in. Noisy, garrulous, thieving creatures as they are, their principal virtue in cities was that at least they cleared up some of our mess before the rats moved in – although in our neighbourhood the sight of the ripped open bags with their contents strewn across the streets on a Thursday morning became the kind of issue that gets councillors elected.

In years past, the council removed nests and eggs, and recently they’ve taken to using a falconer who annoys the nesting birds with a beautiful Harris hawk. Most recently the absence of tourists has led to the quietest breeding season in many years. Where there were once dozens of gulls strutting their stuff on the roofs and parapets, now there are no more than a handful and – of course Eric.

I won’t bother with the whole sorry story of my interest in gulls except to say that it started in St Ives one January morning when I realized to my shame that there were any number of seabirds out there and I hadn’t the faintest clue what any of them were. There’s a link to it here, if you’re interested. Maybe it would have been quicker, easier and far far cheaper to have categorised them all as “seagulls” and moved on to something more obviously important, but I didn’t and – as a result of my resolution that day, I am able to say with confidence that Eric is a herring gull. If he were a lesser or great black backed, a black headed or anything else in that line I’d also be reasonably certain of not making a fool of myself. I should qualify that by saying that I have give him a gender but my knowledge of gull sexing is sparse to non existent so he/she could be an Eric or an Erica. But in my long history of accidental pastoral work it was usually angry men who, spotting my dog collar, would approach me on bus stops and railway stations and harangue me as if it was my fault that their partners had seen the light and dumped them. So on that entirely circumstantial evidence, I think Eric is a male

So – gull schmull – you might think; Eric is a solitary. Something terrible has happened and he wanders disconsolately around the green every day being mobbed occasionally by jays and sidling up to young rooks who really aren’t interested.

Back in the day, Hercules would have dealt with him. Hercules was an enormous tabby cat who kind-of belonged to the whole street. He had an owner, but when she moved to Greece she left the flat, and Hercules, in the care of her son who appeared not to care whether the cat lived or died. Maybe he just got fed up with clearing up the remains of Hercules’ last hunting adventure. Hercules was streetwise, independent and fierce and could probably take down a bull terrier, god willing and a fair wind. And so he took to patrolling our street and living on handouts from just about everyone. Every doorstep had empty tins of tuna (this is an upcoming area) and someone even made him a comfortable bed on the step. Then his owner returned from Greece, by which time the cat weighed about three stone, and she posted angry signs all down the street forbidding us to feed him and so we stopped. Shortly afterwards our beloved piratical moggie disappeared forever – he probably died taking on an otter for a laugh.

At least Eric the herring gull is safe – but not in a nice way. These most sociable of creatures have excluded him for some unimaginable breach of gullish etiquette. Sans partner, sans flock, sans everything – he wanders about on the green alone and my pastoral heart goes out to him. People feed robins and blue tits, but random gulls never get a look in. I wondered for a brief conspiratorial moment if the council has set up a top secret experiment to try to stop them breeding and Eric is the first graduate – I really hope not.

In these months of lockdown I can occasionally lean out of the window when the other gulls are circling and playing; shut my eyes and imagine we’re back in St Ives on holiday. Then I open them again and it’s the same old grey world. The Brazilian woman working out with her collection of rubber bungees, the dealers hanging about on the corner, the couple who meet up secretly everyday in an earnest huddle, the smokers, the drinkers and the sturdy beggars in from town because the tourists have gone, the couple practising their strange martial arts routine, the deranged, the homeless and the affluent; the cyclists whizzing past on their way to somewhere they can be important. They’re all part of the natural history of being human. And there’s Eric. What can we do to make him happy!