A feast – this time for the birds

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When we lived in South Gloucestershire, occasionally – during the autumn – we would get flocks of Redwing gorging themselves on the fallen apples in our small orchard.  One year we even photographed half a dozen roe deer which must have walked brazenly up the drive past the churchyard unless they jumped over the wall. Our chickens too, before they became foxy takeaways, absolutely loved them; and apart from larger birds and mammals the windfalls fed countless insects for weeks. But apples don’t persist, unless – that is – they’re crab apples like these I photographed on the river bank this morning. In recent days I’ve focused on winter looking forward to spring, but this tree – still bearing a significant amount of fruit – is some kind of Malus sylvestris – probably an ornamental cultivar and takes me back to the warm days of autumn. Stripped of all its leaves this tree is two seasons in one and makes a decent food-bank for the local wildlife.

IMG_20191231_133254While thinking of food-banks, yesterday I mentioned the sorry state of some of the boats being pressed into service on the canal.  This one is actually on the river just downstream of the weir and terribly vulnerable to flooding. The sheeting is all that seems to be sheltering a human being in this cold weather. The combination of public holidays and sales reductions in the shops has brought an unprecedented number of apparently homeless people into the city centre where they beg for money from crowds of visitors.  The police claim they they do very well out of it but it doesn’t take a genius to recognise that many of them have intractable mental health problems. The Julian Trust – a local homeless charity – have weighed in against another charity which has distributed temporary shelters, claiming that there is plenty of  emergency shelter already available and if people can be persuaded to attend they can receive all sorts of support and healthcare including help with addiction problems. Homeless people can be very difficult to help.

Years ago I opened the vicarage door, late one winter evening, to see a young woman – clearly a rough sleeper – who announced “my waters have broken”. I have to admit it crossed my mind that this was a spoof but she was very pregnant so I yelled for Madame and we took her in, shoved her in a warm bath and called the maternity hospital. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to persuade them even to send out a midwife to check her over but eventually, at about 2.00am a midwife turned up and confirmed that she was about to have the baby but not that night. The girl’s partner was very hostile and refused to come into the house and she too refused a bed but insisted on sleeping in the bus shelter on the A38.  It turned out that they had met while they were residents in a psychiatric unit. We gave them some blankets and some food, and I managed to wring a promise out of her that she would come back in the morning, but it became clear that the reason for her fear of the authorities was that she had already had one child taken away and so she had decided to have this one “in a hedge somewhere”.

I spent half the next day trying to find emergency accommodation and when eventually I found somewhere in Bath I even offered to drive them over to see it, but they refused all offers of help, and the last time I saw them that afternoon they were walking off in the direction of the Severn Bridge. I never heard of them again, and there aren’t many months when I don’t think about them.  The line of my pastoral failures is longer than I care to think! The earth in all its fullness can be a cruel place, and any transect of my little geographical area of concern has to include the culture, the people, the dependencies and cruelties as well as pretty pictures of apple trees and my endless lists of wildlife. The same malign economic and political forces that are killing the environment and heating the climate are also destroying human lives, and not just in faraway places.

So where do we snatch joy from in the midst of all this?

Well, I think we need to take and celebrate joy wherever we find it. I had a real moment of joy in the bookshop today. I was waiting to collect my new edition of Stace and I had a browse in the poetry section  and picked up a copy of Louis MacNeice Collected Poems. Although I was only killing time (what a dreadful expression) I got so excited about the beginning of Autumn Journal – written in 1939 (there’s ominous!) – that I started to whisper the words aloud so I could feel them in my mouth. I was getting some funny looks  from other customers and so my only real recourse was to add the book to my already extravagant copy of “New Flora of the British Isles” Ed 4. When a book makes me hungry I have to have it, and this one started to blow me away in the shop! So there it is; on the last day of the year I mange to bind up every contradiction in my life into a mare’s nest of conflicting demands, and conclude 2019 with a flourish of extravagance.

Stuff it anyway – that’s what being human seems to be all about. Love, art, laughter and tears too – we can’t make it up, we have to live it. Happy New Year!

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How to turn anger into food

Last night turned into a bit of a lost cause, I’m afraid. I was angry at the unfolding election results, the people in the flat upstairs had their television turned up loud so I couldn’t get away from the mindless excitement of the commentators who seemed emotionally detached from the harm being caused, because they had framed the election as a heavyweight boxing match. So I got up and made bread – an everyday sourdough and some soft rolls for the morning.

I can’t sleep when I’m angry and one strategy is to get dressed and wander the streets – it was easy in our previous place, but much dodgier here – the burger bar at the back is open until 3.00am and has more than its share of angry confrontations. The other is to cook, which in many ways is more successful because it’s active and there’s always something positive at the end. So a sourdough loaf proving on the stove and ten morning rolls represented the positive transformation of venom into breakfast – an almost alchemical feat which left me a lot calmer.

But we were both very tired and needed some fresh air in the morning and so we drove over Dyrham Park for a walk around the boundary. The wind was roaring in from the west but it felt as if it had come straight off the Russian steppes. Within minutes we were shriven with the cold and we walked quickly to keep warm. A large flock of roe deer kept a wary eye on us as we walked the ridge in the full force of the wind but then we dropped down into the more sheltered valley and thereafter we had the wind in our backs. An occasional breach in the clouds allowed the sun to drench the bare beech trees in intense light , illuminating this year’s new wood and next year’s buds as a reddish brown halo around them. Underfoot many of the perennials were pushing out rosettes of leaves – winter is anything but static. Overhead the rooks and crows were making the most of the wind, tumbling down like black leaves and rising again in the wind, playing,  like the buzzard cruising the fields below. Immediately overhead two gliders found the updraught and circled in complete silence. There were a few other walkers around but apart from a brief greeting there was no will to stand and talk. Yesterday’s rain had drenched the ground and there were deep puddles to be negotiated.

The walk did its own healing and we drove home in a reflective mood.  I’d been fascinated by the fallen tree and its surprisingly shallow and small root ball.  The park seems to have a policy of leaving a good deal of dead timber lying around – which must be a boon to the invertebrates.  Later the boys phoned, one by one, having gone through exactly the same emotional journey as we had.  Our teacher son said that these days when angry parents ask why their child is being taught by a supply teacher he replies – “didn’t you know there’s been a recruitment crisis in schools for the past ten years?” But these middle class parents often have no contact with the real world.  They’re young and fit and well paid and so they never come into contact with the world of frozen benefits and deprivation and don’t yet need social care or the NHS. It’s a failure of the imagination compounded with complacency that provides ideological cover for the government. What people don’t seem to fully appreciate is that the air we breathe and the water we drink; the food and the environmental matrix of our wellbeing is not defined by wealth and social class it’s something we all depend upon and which should bind us together in concern.

What can we do?  Well it’s nothing like sufficient, but paying attention to our own use of the earth is a vital first step towards changing perspectives. Just putting a sign over the taps marked “To the earth” would be a salutary reminder that the chemicals we dump down the sink will be back in our drinking water before very long. So paying attention to our own lifestyle, doing a bit of volunteering for a charity and not instinctively interpreting our neighbour’s new six litre pickup truck as a classy move would all make a contribution.  When winter comes and the future looks bleak, it’s best to wrap up warm, keep busy and look for the signs of spring – because the personal really is political.

 

A smelly discovery at the botanical gardens

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Maidenhair Tree – Ginkgo biloba

But first, writing this is pure heaven because – thanks to a surprise gift from our son – I’ve finally migrated out of the Apple empire into the equally dubious but far more joined-up empire of Android. It was a tremendous gift because I was expecting a small tablet and when I opened the box it turned out to be a full-on laptop, all of which meant that with a bit of jiggery pokery, a few face to face tutorials from him, and a whole lot of automatic stuff the whole system works brilliantly. Just to recap I’d already inherited his previous Google Pixel phone a couple of weeks ago and this weekend, with the new laptop, I moved the last few files across and I no longer had to wait 25 minutes for my ancient MacBook to boot up and wheeze its way to some kind of functionality. I’m overjoyed at the knowledge that I can just get on with writing and not have to spend hours cleaning the system because the 4Gb RAM filled up with junk. I can even look at all the photos in the library without having to stop for a coffee in the middle of  a session. My ancient dread at changing operating systems turned out to be a folk tale put about by Apple. A couple of days offline was all it took. The Potwell Inn carrier pigeons and the old smoke signal machine have been retired to the outdoor privvy.

But back to today and, system up and running, we all went for  a walk up to the Botanical Gardens. The gardens have lots of good stuff in them but with constant budget cutbacks it’s a largely voluntary effort these days, and bits of the gardens are a bit rough round the edges.  However we had great fun using the Google Lens features on our phones to identify some of the plants and bushes in flower – it’s surprisingly accurate, quite as fast as some of the paid-for apps I’ve used in the past and well worth trying out, if only to narrow down the choices before making a formal ID using a key. We didn’t need to look for the Ginkgo because there was a nice big label on the tree.

There was no problem, then, in identifying the tree but the most interesting thing was the smell of the fruits rotting on the ground. I really didn’t know that they smelt so bad until we walked through the gate and T said “ugh – what’s that smell?” What indeed? A  quick check and we were offered rancid butter and vomit as possible descriptions.  I’d say dog poo and dead sheep came into it as well. For a plant with such powerful healing qualities it certainly does its bit to repel visitors. Fortunately the leaves were well beyond being worth saving and we’ve no means of extracting oil from the single seed inside the fruits, and so we escaped with a little more knowledge but no further need for dealing with the stink. The tree was right next to the entrance and it wasn’t hard to see other visitors taking surreptitious looks at the rest of us to see who’d stepped in something.

Late autumn and winter’s a funny time.  Everything feels as if it’s shutting down, but if you have a hunt around there are lovely things to be found.  The purple berries of the Callicarpa bodinieri were lovely, and the Verbena brasiliensis too was showing off just a bit. But I’m a sucker even for drifts of dead plants, and the birds in the area must be able to take advantage of the seed heads as a food source. 

As the solstice gets closer I get just an occasional insight into the significance of this season. As a sunshine loving activist I’m inclined to get fretful if I can’t get out on to the ground, and yet dealing with dearth and plenty, feast and famine, is fundamental to our human-ness. The earth is a complex, dynamic and interrelated system that has its own idea of what constitutes good practice. An annual season of reflection and contemplation is essential for our welfare. Screaming at an empty supermarket shelf because something we want isn’t there, is a sign that we need to get out more – not find a way of squeezing another crop out of the exhausted earth. So bring it on – the solstice will soon be here.

Mexican fleabane bids for world domination

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I am absolutely full of admiration for this little plant. Three years ago someone further up the street planted some in a container and ever since then it’s made a slow march towards us, colonising every spare crack in the pavement. It’s tough, that’s for sure – forget anything the books say – it’s enjoyed relentless heat during the summer on the south facing terrace outside, and after the first hard frost I popped downstairs to see how it was and, as you can see, it’s still going strong. Every summer our caretaker, in her relentless pursuit of a sterile landscape, douses it in Roundup despite our protestations.  The man from the council – if he’s got a minute – hoes it off too and the dear old fleabane shrugs its shoulders in a planty sort of way and gets on with its long march to the western seas. Interestingly, its cousin the Canadian fleabane keeled over after the frost – which seemed counterintuitive, but then, plants don’t read textbooks.

Meanwhile the allotment is in winter mode.  Apart from the turnips, celery, celeriac,  beetroot, spinach  – actually I’ll take back what I just wrote – what I should have said was that much of the allotment is in winter mode. In truth the early purple sprouting is just beginning to push out little buds where the crop will soon appear. Every year we say it’s a waste of space because they take so long to grow, and every year we change our minds when we eat the spears.

We’re well into the winter truce, and while the allotment takes a deep breath and digests all the compost we’ve put on, Madame and me negotiate next year’s ideas. We’ve agreed (without rancour) that we’ll grow more cut flowers and increase the number and quantity of culinary herbs because they’re so expensive to buy. Whether I’ll get away with any more medicinal herbs remains to be seen but Calendula, lavender, thyme and hyssop will be there with many others in any case and most of the ‘wilder’ ones are great pollinators  – plus they’re beautiful.

Many of the typical ‘medicine chest’ herbs grow wild locally and could be foraged carefully without any adverse impact. I’m not entirely sure why I’m doing this – it’s not as if I’m a great consumer of herbal remedies, in fact I’m a bit scared of some of them, but they’re a part of the ‘gift’ of nature; deeply entrenched in our culture – especially our literary culture – and to know some of the properties of plants helps to foster a non-dualistic, non religious worldview.  That sound much grander than it’s meant to – when  looking at a plant becomes a kind of beholding, something happens at a level much deeper than the rational.  I suppose I could resort to that overused term spiritual, but I’d rather think of it as a deeper level of being human – no supernatural concepts are needed.

Anyway, the advantage of a bit more time is that it means a bit more time in the kitchen and the beginning of the annual war on black mould.  Living in a concrete building means learning some new skills and avoiding using the filthy smelling chemicals used for combating mould has been a priority.  But we’ve been experimenting with white vinegar which must work by changing the pH of the plaster.  Initial results look good and diluted vinegar is brilliant for cleaning the windows as well. Meanwhile it’s been bread, cakes, and pancake experiments for me.  The winter is a real change of gear, with abundant lectures, talks and exhibitions here in Bath.  Tonight we’re off to a book signing by Celia Paul, who has an exhibition on at the same time as her book is published and was  Lucian Freud’s muse.  I’m wondering how she’ll handle it because she’s reputed to be rather shy and not given to small talk. Her sister, Jane Williams, was my tutor for a while.

 

Orion’s dog nights

I can’t say that these days between the solstice and twelfth night are dog days because that description is reserved to the early weeks of August when everything is hot, sweaty and lethargic.  But the dog’s in there up to his shining teeth, on clear nights when you can see Orion’s belt and track to the left and there’s Sirius in all his shining brightness.

Orion was the first constellation I learned to identify for the entirely unworthy reason that my birthday being in December, my younger self took that as an invitation to party until term restarted in January – which meant that I spent a lot of excited and drunken nights wondering at the stars and what they might mean. Sirius was Orion’s hunting dog and so I feel bold to claim that these dog nights in December and January are the counterparts of their warm equivalents in summer; a time when not much work but a lot of wondering gets done.

However, work we must, whenever the weather clears for a few hours because when spring arrives in maybe three months, there will be no time for pondering and bed building. Neither will there be time to wonder what we should be growing and where the new compost bins need to go: we need to be ready.  We’ve more plants overwintering than ever this year, and today Madame planted out the last of the early broad beans while I got on with building another path and the base for the compost bins.  The first batch we planted last week have almost doubled in size already.  They’re Aquadulce Claudia so they’re perfectly capable of surviving the winter, and when we took them out of the greenhouse the roots were searching beyond the ends of the long Root-Trainers so they were more than ready to go. The peas too (Douce Provence) are doing well under their protective fleece, and the garlic, shallots and onions are well away, although it’s winter now. The allotment feels positive – as if it’s having a good time too.

I’m loathe to use any growing space for what might be thought of as a utility area, but I’ve become more conviced than ever that we need to up our game and we finally decided on three 4’X4′ bays in the middle of the plot and with a wide path beside it. We’ll treat compost just like any other crop and give it the best conditions and constituents we can so that our production will increase to meet our demand – less buying in and expense all round.

We also moved a rhubarb plant and two fennels that suddenly seemed as if they were in the wrong place.  This is a great time of the year for moving the furniture around – a couple of weeks ago we moved another rhubarb (Timperly early) and it’s already rewarded us with some new buds.

But these short days still feel like a holiday.  The seeds have all arrived, the heated propagators are cleaned and ready to go with the earliest sowings of chillies and with working time so limited we also need to take stock, take a big breath and prepare for next season. There’s much to celebrate and we’ve learned so much this season.  Every garden or allotment we’ve ever grown has had its own personality.  There are things it does easily and others it needs help with. Soil is as various as the people that till it, and our relationship with it grows and deepens like our relationship with each other.  On days like today the Potwell Inn merges imperceptibly with our real everyday lives and it feels good. The earth is very forgiving.