What do we teach the children?


Sometimes reading a single book can make me sit up and think seriously about one of my own taken for granted understandings, but sometimes it takes a combination of two or three, read almost simultaneously. This past couple of weeks I’ve been reading three together:

Suzanne Simard – “Finding the Mother Tree”
Merlin Sheldrake – “Entangled Life”
Robin Wall Kimmerer – “Braiding Sweetgrass”

It’s fair to say that my grasp of what goes on under our feet on the allotment was – until recently – pretty scant. We had made up our minds to do our best to grow more pollinating insect attractors and dig the pond, but this is the first year we’ve set out to associate plants with their companions and the first time we’ve made an informed effort to try the three sisters method. I couldn’t say it’s made our life any easier as we’ve had to do a great deal of rearrangement and grow dozens of companion plants from seed. The no-dig philosophy was already baked in from the time we finally got the beds sufficiently weed free and rich in organic matter. The pond has been a triumph for the wildlife, with a crop of fat tadpoles already, and, at the weekend, three Large Red Damselflies – Pyrrhosoma nymphula two of them mating and laying eggs (Still joined together) on one of the pond plants.

Suzanne Simard and Robin Wall Kimmerer begin their stories – as it were – from opposite positions; Simard is representative of the settler traditions and Kimmerer of the First Nation/ Native American. Each writer seems to move through her life and scientific work, towards a more sympathetic understanding of the other. Merlin Sheldrake (and I’m simplifying horribly) struggles with the tension between anthropomorphism and detached observational science but concedes in the end that so long as we understand that we’re using metaphor to describe things for which we have no adequate words and that metaphors can’t be swapped for facts; then referring to the invisible networks and affinities that enable plants and trees to communicate in ways we don’t fully understand can fairly be described as like a brain. All three books are wonderful contributions to a changing mindset.

In my case I came away understanding much better not just the terrible and bitter effects that follow the destruction of a whole culture, but also the grievous loss of wisdom and experience embodied in it. To lose a language is to lose a way of thinking, and to learn one is to open the door to thoughts and understandings that can only be spoken in their native tongue. In the end, the culture, languages and philosophies of settlers and Native Americans alike were crushed and destroyed by extractive profit seeking and industrialized farming. In a much milder way we were schooled out of our local dialect and fed a completely bizarre diet of altered history to convince us that we were the most fortunate and blessed nation in the entire world. As a child, when there were no adults around we would speak in dialect using archaic terms like thee and thou and understanding perfectly without the aid of Eng Lit and William Shakespeare, that calling someone “you” was a distinctly cool form of address. The highest aim of our education was to make us middling; loyal and obedient to the status quo; so creativity and leaps of the imagination were ruthlessly stamped out. Here I am aged 74 and only now are the dreadful facts of slavery and colonialism being examined as part of our national story.

But we too have seen an ancient culture erased, enclosures and clearances driving people off their ancestral land and into cities. We’ve seen famine, poverty and disease accompanying the slums of growing cities populated by displaced people. My grandmother died of tuberculosis caused through poverty and overcrowding, and one of my great aunts died in the workhouse. You can’t say that we lacked knowledge of traditional medicines but they were useless against the diseases caused by overcrowding, poverty and poor sanitation. Thank goodness for modern medicines, but wouldn’t it be better if we could return to healthier ways of living? Slavery in the colonies was the bedrock, supplier of raw cotton, and paymaster to hundreds of thousands of jobs in the mills of Northern Britain – many of them involving children in arduous dangerous labour. Charles Dickens’ novel “Hard Times” paints a bleak picture of the consequences for the other end of the Atlantic slave trade.

We stretched the family reunion to five days with the bank holiday and it was joyful. Some of the grown-ups had breakfast together outside Widcombe Deli, on the pavement; we had a barbeque on the green; lots of walks outside and yesterday we got together with the grandchildren and their mum at Dyrham Park – our first visit there in 15 months. I could put up the family snaps, but they look just like everyone else’s family snaps. Viewed through loving eyes, of course, three children sitting on a tree branch is a Leonardo and, like Madame, they deserve their privacy so you’ll have to take my word for it – they are the cleverest, most beautiful and talented children ever to walk the earth!

So yesterday as I walked across the field at Dyrham Park with our grandchildren; the tongues and welts of my boots bright with yellow grass pollen I started showing the oldest how you could judge the fertility of the soil, and therefore the likelihood of finding some really good wildflowers, by looking at the vegetation. Too much nitrogen is the great enemy of plant diversity.

There was nothing much there except for rank grasses, ryegrass, cocksfoot and buttercups. Then I spotted a patch of darker green and I sent him over to take a look. Sure enough he shouted that he’d found a fungus and we went to take a closer look. It was a St George’s mushroom; named on account of normally fruiting around St George’s day – 23rd April; which goes to show how late the season is this year. So I cut it in half and showed him the white gills; gave it to him to smell – it’s an unmistakable smell often described as mealy which is pretty useless since you’d need to be over 100 years old, probably, to know what a sack of meal smells like. Then later I spotted another dark patch of grass and sent him off again to find some more. Finally we fetched up on a large ring that I know will produce parasol mushrooms in the autumn. As we left he brought me a leaf from one of the avenue of limes dotted with Eriophyes tillaes – gall mites. I was so delighted he’d got his eye in I said to his mum “I’m going to make an ecologist of him” (he’s only eight) and she said “good” – so I guess that’s permission to continue.

Later I was talking to our allotment neighbour – always known as Flash – about our day at Dyrham Park. His mum was born in Jamaica and he was born here in Bath and we discovered that we had both, as young teenagers, regularly climbed the walls of the park and trespassed on the estate. I wondered what we would have thought of one another if we had ever met sixty years ago, as trespassers in the shadow of the great house, built on the proceeds of slavery. Racism would always have been, and still is the elephant in the room. That today we can gossip as equals about growing beans and killing slugs is a kind of grace.

My dog-eared I Ching brings some peace.

On the allotment there are signs that our attempt to draw in more wildlife is beginning to bear fruit. The pond is the most visible result of our decision and it’s already got tadpoles, snails and water boatmen and there are often hoverflies nearby – plus it’s being used by birds to take a drink. The bird feeders too have drawn in robins and blue tits, but the most remarkable visitors are jackdaws that can hover just long enough to peck a few seeds out. When we put fat balls out they disappeared overnight until we moved them into a double walled holder where the mesh is too small for them to get to the food. The bee in the photo is hard to identify but it’s probably one of the many species of miner bee – it was sunning itself on some fleece. The jackdaws, like the robins, are quite unafraid of us – rather like the female blackbird who scratches around on the edges of the wood chip paths extracting slugs and their eggs while keeping a comfortable couple of metres between us. There are also blue tits, jays, magpies, crows and pigeons which can be a thorough nuisance if you don’t protect your crops with nets.

St Francis in the corner is doing a good job with the local wildlife – except for the rats! Notice the robin on the trellis

A red letter day

Yesterday we took the plunge after checking out the weather forecasts which all said there would be no frosts for the next 14 days, which takes us beyond the latest ever frost date. So out went the potatoes in their containers, and several trays of young plants were moved to the next stage of their hardening off, this time outside, just under some insect netting and protected from the wind. Then we sorted the tomato plants into their various varieties and removed their protective hoops and fleece.

Over our heads the strawberries – Malling Centenary are showing the promise of a couple of delicious feeds at least this summer. We were supposed to be growing on a couple of dozen-year old plants but the nursery failed to deliver them and these were a consolation – on offer from another seed merchant. As soon as they’ve fruited we’ll be taking runners off them to increase numbers. The strawberry bed has already been repurposed, but they’re growing so well in the polytunnel we’ll probably just get some more hanging baskets which are very space efficient.

The big day will be next weekend when we plant up the tunnel with all its new seasonal occupants, some of which are hardening off at home under a window in the cool corridor outside. Meanwhile we conducted a bit of an experiment with large recycled milk containers to water the summer crops below the surface to minimise the risk of drying out. Small tunnels get very very hot- even with the doors open. Then we planted out a new variety of pot leek and covered all the seedling parsnips and leeks with fine insect mesh against carrot fly and allium leaf miner – we’re determined to overcome these formidable pests.

Sound advice from the first millennium BC

Overshadowing all this allotment activity was another round of disappointing election results. My usual defence is to turn off the radio and television and avoid reading any newspapers because frothing at the mouth and shouting is a waste of spiritual energy. Then for some reason I turned to my collection of books and translations of the i Ching, or Ji Ying if you prefer and in the introduction to the Ritsema and Sabbadini translation, which Jung had some connection with, on page two, I read this amazing quotation from the Shu Ying – the book of documents, written some time in the first millennium BC. I should add that the Chinese word yi refers to change, not so much as the evolutionary change we in the West are used to – moving gently towards some kind of final paradisiacal state (hmm; as if!) – but to unpredictable, disruptive change; the endless variety of unexpected change that both thwarts us and invites creativity.

When in years, months and days the season has no yi, the hundred cereals ripen, the administration is enlightened, talented men of the people are distinguished, the house is peaceful and at ease. When in days, months and years the season has yi, the hundred cereals do not ripen, the administration is dark and unenlightened, talented men of the people are in petty positions, the house is not at peace.

Bernhard Karlgren, The Book of Documents, Stockholm 1950 p33.

For reasons I can’t explain this small quotation gave me a tremendous sense of peace. Perhaps it’s because almost three thousand years ago a Chinese thinker was experiencing the same kind of dismay that we feel today, but concluded that change is at the deepest heart of the natural order and that the seeds of a new beginning are sown even under the darkest and most unenlightened administrations. There is no occasion for despair.