Benign neglect makes the best sourdough

Isn’t that a trixie photo? – artisanal looking sourdough bathed in summer light with a geranium filled window box in the background. It has all the authentic marks of the dreaded Lifestyle Blog; aspirational; sensitive; Laura Ashley.

If this was a mind map there would be two lines emerging from the photo. The first would take you to a box that explained that this was the loaf that flew close to the wind. We were almost out of bread yesterday and I’d forgotten to start the batter the previous night – it’s a bedtime job at the Potwell Inn. So I started it early yesterday morning, wondering how the new timetable would work out. Around two in the afternoon I added the main body of flour with the salt and a little oil; left it for twenty minutes and kneaded it. Then, just before we went to bed, I knocked it back and put it in the banneton overnight, knowing that if it was too warm in the kitchen it would flow over the sides and ruin. But when I woke, the domed top had just risen a centimeter higher than the edge and the banneton was full. Nice one! So into the oven and in half an hour it was done – full steam, 240C for ten minutes and 180C for twenty minutes more.

I think we tend to overestimate the effectiveness of our input into breadmaking. I’ve been making bread for sixty years if you count my first teenage attempt with cake flour and dried yeast (not a show stopper). If I’ve emerged with one lesson it’s not to worry too much and to stop fiddling about. I know the magazines are full of arcane advice about making sourdough but really, it needs no leylinesand no magic incantations and you can make it with pretty well any flour that you can lay your hands on. Some work better than others – I’ve never successfully made 100% wholemeal sourdough – it’s always reminded me of the Grant Loaf that was fashionable in the sixties; heavy as lead and about as much fun as a Methodist prayer meeting. The choice of ingredients for bread is more of an ethical decision.

what’s the point of showing bits of your dull life in a blog?

Dave Pole, The Potwell Inn

But the second line on my mind-map would lead to the question – what’s the point of showing bits of your dull life in a blog? Well firstly, life is not a bowl of cherries, or indeed strawberries because we didn’t have any cherries on the allotment – and a certain degree of dullness is to be expected in life, so as Socrates might have said if he hadn’t been forced to drink hemlock for the crime of not being dull at all – suck it up, it’s good for you!

Climate change deniers like to claim that environmentalists want to return us to the Stone Age. The truth is that if we want to live within ecological limits we would need to return to a lifestyle similar to the one we had in the 1970’s, before consumption levels went crazy in the 1980’s

Naomi Klein – “This changes everything”

The other reason that it’s important to write about everyday life, as we try to live it at the Potwell Inn, is that it’s essential to oppose shroud waving politicians and their puppeteers with the truth that we can live rich and rewarding lives without neurotic consumption. We can live the very richest of lives, enjoy the best of food and remain sane, healthy, connected and spiritually alive with surprisingly little by way of material wealth. If I had any ambition at all for the Potwell Inn blog it would be to try to convey, through thinking aloud about our lives here, that saving the earth by changing our way of life, isn’t about deprivation and self-denial at all. It’s essential to explode the myth that we can only live fulfilled lives by becoming indentured slaves to consumption.

And I also think there’s an important distinction between showing off and inspiring others to give it a go too. The underlying reason for getting so evangelistic about it is that I’m not convinced that people will change their lives because we present them with any more, or any new, facts about the global ecological disaster that’s unfolding. The scene in the New York diner in “When Harry met Sally” when the woman on the next table says – ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ is a brilliantly funny way of expressing an important aspect of the human personality. We’re far more likely to adopt new behaviours when we’ve seen them modelled in some way. I know that growing vegetables hardly competes in terms of arousal, but my point is that the deepest ways of teaching and learning always focus on modelling the new behaviour – or to get slightly more philosophical about it, virtues are habits.

So let’s be honest about it, the Potwell Inn is a rather subversive school of virtues, the virtues that are being destroyed by our present way of life; and baking a loaf of bread or growing garlic (which I’m coming on to) has very little to do with nutritional values and everything to do with human thriving.

This is the row of garlic we planted in the autumn – it’s a variety of softneck garlic called Early Purple Wight – and it’s done well in this exceptional spring, although it needed a lot of watering. Garlic dislikes being waterlogged and being dry in equal measure, so finding the sweet spot in the middle is tricky. So far, so horticultural: but lifting the first bulb is a big moment, and when a crop does well, as this one did, there’s an unmatchable sense of occasion. Madame took the bulb and peeled back the first outer layer to see what we had and the most wonderful fragrance filled the air, and then,when we got it home we peeled it properly and the whole flat suddenly smelled like Southern France. It went straight into a red wine marinade, of course.

The first bowl of strawberries straight from the allotment, the crust of a sourdough loaf still warm from the oven and spread with butter and home made marmalade; a glass of the elderflower cordial we made last week; the first new potato – sweet and waxy; lettuce so crisp you can snap it; sugar snap peas straight from the vine and eaten raw; these are so much more than simply food – although they are simple food.

Our lives are all the richer when, rather than grabbing what we can from the earth like thieves, we live sacramentally; when growing and eating food becomes the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace to borrow a phrase from an old Christian catechism, and if that sounds a bit religious I’d say that my non-theistic borrowing is very far from heretical.

If the environmental movement is to achieve our aims, we have to move the game from endlessly rehearsing scary facts and data and stop shouting at people and start modelling great human lives. If rewilding the earth is to become an act rather than an aspiration we have to adopt another borrowing from faith language – the idea that virtuous lives are caught and not taught.

This is a cornflower – an almost extinct vagrant driven from its natural habitat by our agricultural greed and surviving on occasional handouts from local authorities who enjoy a bit of greenwashing as long as its cheap. It’s eking out an existence on the riverbank here in Bath until someone complains about the weeds and orders in the strimmers. Meanwhile we can exult in its quite unnecessary extravagance and perfection while they refill the mowers with petrol. That’s what’s got to change.

Cornflower

Can you eat it, drive it or rub it in your skin?

IMG_5455

I was tempted to add “can you smoke it?” but that would have been gilding the lily and, in any case, three’s work better than four’s in headers. I’m talking about virtue here, and it seems to me that a great deal of human effort has gone into the packaging of virtue, so that we can save ourselves the bother of making our own. Sadly it’s proved impossible over the millennia – notwithstanding fortunes, fame and power awarded to those who’ve successfully managed to convince large numbers of paying customers that eternal happiness lies just one standing order away.

A couple of days ago I wrote a piece mentioning my interest in the monastic life (in spite of my incapacity to actually follow it) and I left a small detail out.  The small detail was the fact that I was once a Franciscan tertiary, a member of the so-called “Third Order” a secular, i.e not ordained, order of lay-people who live under a simple rule of life inspired by Franciscan spirituality. My membership lapsed under the pressure of theological college and then parish work, but the idea of living a simple rule of life lingers on in my heart – like the Cheshire cat’s grin.  I was probably the worst member around.  The only rule I could keep properly was poverty (no choice!) , with chastity a complete minefield and obedience beyond reach.  I still treasure the paradox of making my vows in an army camp, that at least was truly Franciscan; but I couldn’t engage with the endless aspiration of some members to be allowed to wear the brown habit (robes) – obviously only at meetings. “We’re meant to be invisible – drrrrr” I’d say, thinking to myself that it was like wearing Friday night drag. Membership of the Society was quite secretive although no-one had been persecuted for many decades, and that, in itself, fostered a dangerous inwardness if you weren’t careful. I discovered early on that there was no genuine virtue in wearing sandals in the snow.

We were definitely doing something – faint, intangible but essential, struggling to live out our individual simple rules of life in the midst of the everyday – partners, children, jobs and neighbours. One of the commitments was regular prayer and that, I discovered, could mean anything from recitation of the daily offices to lying on the stone floor of an empty church in silence and darkness. I once tripped over a nun who was doing that and I don’t know which of us was most surprised.

Much of the time I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing.  There seemed to be some intangible spiritual ecology that could be damaged by people being angry, greedy, envious – you know, the whole seven deadly sins bit. The interesting thing was that this misbehaviour didn’t just affect the person who was doing it, it leaked out like an infection, so my anger made other people angry and my greed created a greedy ambiance that could spread. The underlying principle is that just as individuals can create disturbance and lack of balance in their immediate environment, and that the imbalance could spread through human networks all the way up to a whole society; then the religious houses, closed orders and even a few gormless Third Order members, living within their rule of life, could somehow repair at least a bit of that damage. Loving, forgiving and accepting was radical, dangerous and it worked. Why is this all bubbling up in my mind at the moment? – isn’t it obvious? how can we be a force for good in a delusional and dangerous society, without resorting to the same tactics of anger and division and trying to use even more force?

At the heart of the challenge is the way that even virtue has been monetised and marketised. High capitalism is a ponzi fraud that demands more and more subscribers to make it work. The ploy is to turn us all into consuming monads and so, alone and without real friends to show me that I’m beautiful just as I am, I have to buy my beauty off the shelf.  I have to buy my aura of success by driving the right car or eating the right food, in fact food instead of being a sacrament of human community (don’t worry, this isn’t a supernaturalist thought) becomes divisive.  When my virtue inheres in what I eat I have to defend my diet by redefining my neighbours as heretics.  When my skin is dry I owe it to society to anoint myself with almond milk (whose principal ingredient is drought and forest fires) in order not to cause offence.

So am I going to round this off with a religious flourish and an appeal to join some kind of organised religion? No way! The best way of catching norovirus is to sit in a doctor’s’ waiting room. What I am saying is that turning away from, refusing to buy synthesised virtue  by living reflectively, meditatively, using any spiritual tools to hand seems to me to be a radical form of resistance, maybe even a more powerful resistance than we expect. Just to take one obvious example from Tai Chi – to use the anger and force of the attacker against them by turning deftly. I remember my teacher (I was never really any good) telling me about his Master who was filmed in a park inviting people to attack him. It was hilarious, he said,  – they just seemed to fall over before they were close enough to land a blow.

Isn’t this all rather idealistic? In my view we’re only in this dark place because we’ve lost any sense of the ideal; any sense that it’s possible to resist the onward march of Moloch using nothing more than what St Paul – in one of his brighter moments – called the “armour of righteousness“. That doesn’t mean subscribing to the thirty nine articles, or whatever dogmatic local expression of religious oppression you’ve suffered from; so if I dare express it more colourfully with a phrase I overheard on a bus, in reference to a certain councillor – “That Jack B – he can’t tell shit from pudding!” Well yes, and nicely put. Ernest Hemingway wrote once to his daughter telling her that the purpose of an education was ‘to recognise bullshit’ – I too think that the ability to tell shit from pudding is the prerequisite of living under a simple rule of life that stands a chance of healing the earth and turning swords into ploughshares. The ponderous and faltering ideology of fear and greed is already looking a bit unsteady – the constant shouting and lies are a giveaway.  There’s a sense in which the darkest forces in our society are actually fed by our anger and disillusion – so let’s starve them of that. First sentence in a simple rule of life!

 

 

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