I find these last few days before the solstice almost unbearable, especially when the weather is as gloomy as it’s been here. As the earth drops down and tilts away from the sun, the darkness dominates and it doesn’t take a (so called) primitive consciousness to feel it. Of course we know – or rather scientists have calculated – that the slow tilting descent will pause at 4.19am on Sunday 22nd December, just four days from now and the northern hemisphere will begin to tilt back again, gathering more sunlight each day until mid-June. But on the allotment it’s as if some of the plants at least have anticipated the changing season. Garlic, broad beans, shallots and winter lettuce are all stretching their wings, and when, as we did on Monday, we get clear skies and sunshine you can almost taste the spring, it’s a real joy.
We agonise about our compost bins because this is the time of year when the rats tend to turn to an easy source of food, and almost every time I open the bay that takes most of our green kitchen waste, I’m greeted by a sleek and well fed rat, an agile jumper who always manages to miss me as it runs off. The answer of course is not to put kitchen waste into the heap – but in the winter, apart from a few dead cabbage leaves, there’s not enough to keep the heap going. The number of worms living in there is quite staggering and I suppose one way to solve the problem would be to start an enclosed wormery, but then I’m sure the rats would soon get wind of it and move their attention to chewing through it. I’ve read that you can bury the waste direct into the ground in a bean trench but a little bit of research shows that rats are able burrowers. I suspect that people don’t see the rats because they’re more active at night, and so they assume they haven’t got them. It only affects me because I keep turning their cosy home upside down. Even the most canny rat is going to bale out at the sight and sound of a dirty great yard fork slicing into its nest.
There’s bokashi, but that’s an expensive method which only pickles the waste, and still needs to be rotted down afterwards. Its proponents claim that rats don’t like the smell, but the evidence is more anecdotal than scientific. My only experience of deliberate anaerobic rotting was a barrel full of comfrey. It smelt dreadful and perhaps more importantly, anaerobic rotting releases methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Some people claim the rats don’t like the smell of humans, and especially human urine – but they thrive in sewers which must mean something! We activate the heap in summer with urine, and so I gave it 5 litres of human activator yesterday, but I’m not hopeful. If we let the heap get waterlogged the rats will leave it but so will the worms, and then it’s liable to go anaerobic. That leaves only one alternative – trapping. I don’t like killing anything unless it’s absolutely necessary, but we’ve already seen rat poo on the garlic, and the thought of getting Weils disease from our summer lettuces is a bit of a turn off. We don’t use poison because of the impact on our foxes (also a nuisance), hedgehogs owls and anything else that might fancy poisoned rat for supper. So it’s traps – big, powerful (ie ‘humane’), and encased in a box so that cats, foxes, hedgehogs, and other larger beasts can’t get into them. One of our neighbours keeps parakeets on his allotment and says that he’s been battling the rats for twenty years – they’re brilliant climbers and can scale a shed wall or a nearby tree quite easily.
So that’s rats. I’ll bait but not set the traps for a week and leave them in or near the heap – crunchy peanut butter is recommended – and then arm them all until I’ve thinned them out, and then stop. When spring comes they’ll move off to easier pickings when the green kitchen waste is diluted with much more garden waste. It would be lovely to live in a perfect world but allotmenteering is all about understanding your competitors and staying ahead. In our previous garden we had our cats to do the business, but they were also very partial to the birds.
I’ve stayed away altogether from newspapers and broadcast news and I feel all the better for it. No more shouting at the telly. I felt so utterly betrayed by the media during the election campaign that I’d started channelling the darkest parts of my mind. On the bookshelf in front of my desk is a copy of the 1965 Faber Book of Modern Verse. I suddenly remembered a poem by Hugh MacDiarmid – called “Perfect” –
I found a pigeon’s skull on the machair,
All the bones white and dry, and chalky,
Without a crack or a flaw anywhere.
At the back, rising out of the beak,
Were domes like bubbles of thin bone,
Almost transparent, where the brain had been
That fixed the tilt of the wings.
I love the sense of fragility that the poem captures so well, and the killer line is the way that MacDiarmid uses the tiny skull to reference the brain that ‘fixed the tilt of the wings.’ Our minds and brains too will, one day, no longer be here to fix the tilt of our wing, and if our living minds are full of falsity, then we shall not be able to fix the tilt of our wings while we are still alive.
Plants at least don’t tell lies, and the White Dead Nettle at the top of the page reminded me that there was a time when every child would have recognised it and plucked the flowers to suck out the nectar. It’s a lovely plant to find at this time of the year and I had to photograph it, in all it’s commonplace ubiquity. I just think it might help me to fly straight.