Winter Solstice – I should go down to the canal

Winter Heliotrope on the Kennet and Avon Canal

Christmas brings out my inner Thomas Hardy. I’d really like life to be like “Under the Greenwood Tree” his only cheerful, not to say funny book; but reality turns out to be – in the main – “Jude the Obscure”.

I wake up early this morning at around 4.30am and lie in bed filled with the sense of a recurrent dream in which I am slowly becoming invisible; a wraith moving through remembered places and among people I loved and some who loathed me -evoking feelings inviolable to passing time but always there; a miasma.

Madame asks “can’t you sleep?“; “No”; “What’s up?”; “Dreams”. A pause. “Go and make a cup of tea”. And so I shuffle off to the kitchen and boil the kettle – searching for a packet of shortbread biscuits to cheer myself up. I give myself a stern talking to: “For crying out loud – do try to stop being so down!” – so I read for a bit, drinking tea and eating biscuits. I’ve just started “The Waste Land – Biography of a poem.” by Matthew Hollis. I’ve been spending far too much time reading in the past, and I quickly run out of concentration – it’s possibly a bad choice for a chronic melancholic. Then I remember that this evening at 21.47 we will celebrate the Winter Solstice. For some bizarre reason it feels like a personal achievement, although in truth it’s the beginning and not the end of winter. But seasons come sheathed inside one another like celestial music, and so today we celebrate a subtle change of key. The buds are on the trees. The long winter nights concede their dominion to the sun and from now until the summer solstice the light dominates and thistledown memories give way to new life.

We haven’t been down there yet, but the canalside will be showing the first flowers of Winter Heliotrope. When they’re in their full glory they have a strange perfume – like almonds possibly – but subtle – you have to search for it. There will be Coltsfoot – but in eight years we’ve not seen it here in Bath, and in fact the last time I saw it I was on my bicycle taking a turn around my parishes bordering the Severn and I spotted it peeping through snow. Of course there are many winter flowering garden plants but they never lift the heart as much as wildflowers. We greet them one by one in the spring like old friends with whom we’d lost touch.

The seasons aren’t just measured by day length but by events like this and – as my sister reminded me yesterday – some time in mid January we will suddenly notice that the brief snatches of the themes we overheard in the overture, have broadened out and asserted themselves. The woodwinds have been joined by the strings and by June it will have become a full Brahmsian orchestra. The saints pass in procession; the old Christian calendar which had the good sense to borrow extensively from the (so-called) pagans – is the liturgical song of the earth. Plough Monday – the first Monday after the Feast of the Epiphany – when the Young Farmers carried an old Ransomes Plough into the church to be blessed and it was so bitterly cold that the Archdeacon lost his voice as he preached at the beginning of the old farming year and his breath crystallized in the air. These are the furnishings of the memory; a form of defence against the enslavement of technology and greed.

And so I shall throw off my gloomy cloak and we will celebrate. The season that begins tonight and lasts around two weeks is often deprecated as a festival of overconsumption and indulgence. From 1644 until 1660 Christmas celebrations were officially banned in England by the Puritans and replaced by a period of solemn reflection on our sins! – In their dreams! Of course Christmas and its revelries were never suppressed and our reputation for surly disobedience remains untarnished – but the celebrations always ran deeper than the deepest roots of imposed religion. The fear of the dying of the light and the joy when it returns defies all logic. We know perfectly well that the sun will triumph – until next year – and yet – the return of green shoots leaves us shuddering with thankfulness and we celebrate. In this time of catastrophic climate change we know that the unthinkable may yet come to pass.

And so this week, as we all meet up again, I’m cooking; practicing and planning. The diary is marked up with the day we need to collect our meat from the farm, the exact time and day I need to start a sourdough loaf to be ready, fresh, on Christmas day. We’ve hunted down our best pickles and chutneys; I’ve taught myself to bone, stuff and roll a chicken; our groceries and a good deal of wine will arrive early on Christmas Eve and there is fresh stock in the fridge. I’ve learned how to make hollandaise reliably with a good deal of help from our youngest (chef) son and so Christmas breakfast will be eggs royale, or benedict according to taste. Madame – who likes neither – will probably have poached eggs on toast; either way we all get spoiled. We won’t be eating anything like a month’s calories in a day. We’ll be spending money we haven’t got on treats we can’t afford but the government hasn’t crushed our will to live yet. Christmas Eve will be Italian; a light salad of lambs lettuce, dried ham and burrata followed by pappardelle in a rich ragu of tomato and ox cheek and Christmas lunch will be utterly traditional by popular demand.

In the midst of Covid lockdown Madame and I had a Mexican and really enjoyed it. For the first time in decades I haven’t made a Christmas cake or Christmas puddings – all far too rich for us these days and then the festival of cold meat and lentil soup will take us up to New Year’s Eve when we’ll probably be in bed by 10.00pm. I see nothing much to celebrate from last year apart from its ending and short of an unexpected political earthquake nothing much to look forward to. The earth, though, has her own seasons and we’ll begin by looking for those Winter Heliotropes whose faint perfume will certainly overpower the stench of corruption and idiocy that surrounds us. Our celebrations are an act of resistance.

And if I don’t post again before the weekend – we wish you a very happy time this weekend. Whatever name and faith you give it, we hope it’s cheerful Hardy, not too Laurel and Hardy and not at all dark Hardy!

A breath of hope!

Winter Heliotropes

It’s been a testing few weeks for all of us, I know, and there’s something energy sapping about living in a country that’s pretty much falling apart under a corrupt and incompetent government. I could list the terrible consequences of government idiocy but there doesn’t seem much point – we all know how and why they’ve failed; it’s just kicking them out that seems so difficult.

But there’s been another psychological hurdle at the Potwell Inn, and that’s a birthday that seems to take me over a line. Six years ago, when we retired, a friend had a T shirt made for me with the slogan “I’m not old I’m experienced!” written on it. Madame wouldn’t let me wear it outside because she said it seemed aggressive – “tough!” – I thought; “I’m not ready to screw my life down into the box marked old man”. There are so many assumptions about us – that we’re slow and doddery; that we’re all right wing bigots; that we have no idea about technology or media and that we have nothing to say that a young person might find remotely interesting. Harrumph!

Anyway, walking along the canal yesterday, these winter heliotropes made my heart sing; flowering, as they do, when the rest of nature looks like a dog with worms. They have a curious and indescribable scent; flower for a couple of weeks and then revert to looking like coltsfoot: most confusing.

In Henrietta Park we found a priceless oyster mushroom growing on the side of a long dead tree. I photographed and left it and then a couple of days later we found it had been cut off, probably by an urban forager. I was slightly peeved because, had it been left in place, it could have inspired lots of people to try to identify it. Who knows ? a future president of the British Mycological Society could have been jolted into a lifelong passion by that single fungus. The same tree had some nice brackets, turkey tails and honey tuft on board. What a good idea to resist all thoughts of tidying the stump away in favour of teeming fungi, going about their business clearing up dead matter and storing carbon.

The robins seemed more than usually pugnacious on our walk, and we spotted the Widcombe heron, not to mention wagtails, mallard, moorhens and swans – which we now know how to sex: dead easy when you’ve been taught to examine (from a respectful distance) necks and beaks (well, noses I suppose). The river, meanwhile, was flecked with foam and the perfume of detergent filled the air near Pulteney weir. While the new omicron variant of Covid stalks the streets we instinctively avoid crowded places now and didn’t feel able to go to the last indoor meeting of the Bath Nats – which is a massive deprivation for us; a second winter with no lectures and no meeting up with friends. Anyway, dawn will come and the heliotropes were a lovely sight in a grey landscape.

Old Nog

“What’s your movie?”

Is a the title of a song written by Mose Allison; I’ve got a (possibly bootleg) recording of him singing it at Ronnie Scott’s and I only mention this because Henry Williamson cornered the anthropomorphic market in herons with Old Nog, (who came to life in Tarka the Otter), and I hesitated to name my first thought when we passed this heron on the canal today. Anyway, the song asks a question that’s often asked of literary portrayals of animal life. The worst of them – dare I suggest Watership Down – simply transposes human emotions and dispositions into more or less cuddly animals – which utterly diminishes both the reader and the subject.

“What’s your movie” asks what film character we most identify with or act out – I often listened to its merciless takedown of human weakness on my way to therapy sessions. It always served its purpose in getting me in the right frame of mind for lying on the couch (oh yes) waiting for a word in the silence. A bit like saying your prayers except God was sitting behind you.

What’s your movie?

Are you the artist that’s misunderstood?

The bad guy tryin’ to do good?

Or just the nicest fella in the neighborhood

Mose Allison

So I really enjoy(?) the song but at the risk of trespassing on Henry Williamson’s territory, sometimes another life form – a heron for instance – irresistibly brings someone human to mind. Snakes, donkeys, foxes and butterflies are two a penny but I confess that this bird instantly became a member of an extreme Baptist denomination known as “the strict and particular Baptists“. Heaven only knows what remote root of the luxuriant tree of heresy divided the already strict from the not particular enough members of the original congregation but it must have been fun. I passed what could easily be their only church, driving to Southend one day. But I can find no hope in this heron’s unsparing gaze. He sits absolutely motionless for hours on one or another of his fishing grounds and strikes mercilessly at some poor dace like Amos Starkadder spotting a sinner in the third row of the quivering brethren; gripping the edge of the pulpit and growling “you’re all damned”.

Some animals; dogs for instance but not cats; robins but not peregrines; tench but not pike, can almost convince me that some communication is happening – some thread of negotiable common ground; but not so the heron whose launch into flight seems to defy the possibility of lifting off and yet makes a far better job of it than a mute swan that needs to run on the water before launching. I guess I’ve got nothing that a heron needs enough to bother learning how to flatter me.

I’d have said the the octopus was another creature that failed the common ground test, until we saw recently the remarkable documentary “My Teacher the Octopus” (on Netflix) which seems to suggest that we’re not trying hard enough. If you haven’t seen it you should try, but be warned, you’ll probably never want to eat another octopus. Craig Foster, who made the film (and another equally disturbing/stirring one about tracking animals for food in the Kalahari desert) is apparently now a vegan.

If we’re ever going to find our proper place on this planet we’re going to have to learn a great deal more humility in the face of all its other occupants, from moulds to mountain lions. I don’t, by the way, go for the conventional graphic of evolutionary progress from protozoa to humans, we’re so inextricably part of one another that once you start to zoom in it’s hard to see where one life form begins and another one ends – just ask my gut bacteria! So the poor old heron would have every right to resent being compared to a human preacher.

The daily walk continues to challenge and delight us as the very earliest foliage begins to emerge, intensely green, like a promissory note from the future. More and more of the winter heliotrope are coming into flower and so their elusive fragrance often has you wondering whether it’s the plant or a passer by wearing a tiny trace of perfume. I should stop and watch which insects are visiting, but kneeling down on the towpath risks the danger of being flattened by runners and cyclists locked in their musical islands and breathlessly pursuing their 10K dreams. There are loads of other sturdy beggars of the plant world strutting their stuff in the cold and mist. We’re so lucky to have this all so close.

We were looking at some crime statistics this morning and it appears that 70% of the recorded crimes in Bath are committed in our district. If you include the area immediately across the river it goes closer to 80%. Obviously the figures don’t include undeclared taxable income on property, or white collar fraud. Strangely we feel perfectly safe here and it’s a wonderfully diverse community where you can hear a dozen languages being spoken just while walking into the centre. We’re what happens when you cut whole sections of society adrift. Today we passed Ken Loach – film maker – remember Kes? on our walk. Madame said hello and the poor man looked startled although he’s seen us at any number of meetings. If we lived in the posher parts of Bath we’d have nothing but bedding plants and weed free grass to remind us of nature, but here – down amongst the social housing we can tell a ragwort from a tulip – although you’re more likely to see a red kite than a house sparrow, sad to say.

I notice that the BSBI (Botanical Society of Great Britain and Ireland) at their virtual AGM had a session on a year of plants growing in the pavement. I think I caught a radio programme on the same theme a couple of months ago – absolutely fascinating. Sadly only 66 people had accessed the BSBI video on YouTube. Does that say something about our national priorities?

asparagus autumn chillies climate change climate emergency compost bins composting covid 19 deep ecology earth economic collapse environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis farmers markets field botany food security foraging Fungi global climate crisis global heating green spirituality herbal medicine intensive farming Lleyn locally sourcing lockdown marmalade meditation no-dig pickling and preserving polytunnels preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions technology urban ecology urban wildlife water storage weeds wildflower meadows

Oh yes there are!

IMG_20191228_141919

I’m not sure whether what we do here amounts to serious research of any kind, but when noticing plants or wildlife takes a step up and becomes systematic, the data that’s recorded takes on a life of its own, especially in unregarded areas where developers may try to push plans through without leaving time to do proper longitudinal surveys.  These kind of surveys are the lifeblood of natural history, and over time the gathered data becomes more and more significant, because what’s never been recorded can’t be counted as lost. For once it’s a great help to be old, because we know what we’ve lost – but it’s not a great experience.

We have a favourite walk into town which – if we walked the quickest route would take us right to the centre in ten minutes. But if we follow the river to the point where the canal enters it, and then follow the canal as far as Sidney Gardens, doubling back through the gardens and up Pulteney Street it’s about five times as far but a hundred times more interesting.

Spotting plants can sometimes be a race against the strimmers, for instance the Tansy I photographed only a few days ago had been strimmed off when I went back two days later. On the towpath, tidiness reigns – it’s an unnecessary pain, but the council seem unable to resist it.  The riverbank is a different matter, though, and all sorts of anarchy  breaks out there, offering a feast of weeds both rare and common as muck, growing through the supermarket trolleys.  Who cares? they’re all lovely.  Then there’s the park, where there’s always something unplanned happening in the borders and the long grass – (steady on, I’m talking about plants here) – and finally the streets which have a good deal more botanical interest than you’d ever imagine. What the long route takes in time it repays in interest and, over the years, you get to know where to look for old friends with the ever present possibility of spotting something new.

IMG_20191228_141232I wrote yesterday that I was just longing for some sunshine and a few flowers, and today I half hoped I might spot an early flowering Coltsfoot so I had my eyes firmly on the canal bankside when I spotted a plant in flower. I’d seen the leaves in a dense patch for a couple of years, and I’d guessed it might be Coltsfoot or Butterbur but I couldn’t be certain.  It was one of those plants that you know you need to identify properly but never get round to doing because you half know the answer. The fact that my mystery plant was in flower today – at the end of the year – meant it could only be Winter Heliotrope, a close relative of butterbur and, for that matter, Coltsfoot too.

I can’t tell you how happy I was to have named the plant.  It may be as common as could be, but suddenly a stranger became a friend, along with all the others I’ve identified along that length of the canal. The last time I spotted a large clump of Coltsfoot I was on my bike cycling around the Severnside villages after a snowstorm. They glowed at me from the verge and I could almost warm my hands on them. I knew those villages and their plants really well after 25 years, and after 4 years in Bath I’m just beginning to experience the same feelings. Finding a new plant can almost make you break out in a jig.

So today was a day in which at least one wish was granted, but there was another. I mentioned the other day that I was lusting after the 4th edition of Clive Stace’s “New Flora of the British Isles”. I was taking a secretive peep on the computer this morning and Madame said “why don’t you just buy it?” . “Because it’s £59”, I said, in an outbreak of inexplicable candour – I usually lie about these things and round them down a bit, well a lot. “You’ve got a book token and some loyalty card tokens – use them too” .  I needed no persuasion and so at the end of our walk we wandered into Waterstones and I ordered it. The shop assistant looked it up and said  – I guess trying to warn me – “It’s £59“. I raised myself to my full 5’8”, put on my most condescending smile and assured him that I did know – it was such a delight! I love books.  I even sniff them when I think no-one’s looking, because no Kindle ever came close to the smell of fresh printing ink and good paper.

So that’s two lovely things about today, and the third was the roastie tonight when I cooked our own potatoes, celeriac and parsnips. I boiled them for as long as I dared and then dumped them in olive oil in a horrendously hot oven, giving them a little crush about halfway through. They were the crispiest, fluffiest roasties I’ve ever done. Life is good.

 

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