Thursday, October 30, 2014

Off Travelling Again

Yes, I have been neglecting this blog for several months. And that, of course, is because we have been 'on the road' once more.

Here's my latest trip report - once again from Italy.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Harvest Then and Now and ...Again?

It is September and the green fields around here are interspersed with gold, just as they have been for generations. Not that there is much arable farming in this area as the culm grassland is mostly sheep and cattle country. But our local farmers do grow a little wheat and barley and this has been a wonderful year for it as the weather has been so warm and dry. Over recent weeks, on my daily walks around the countryside, I've had to keep a lookout for clanking, looming, lumbering farm machines pulled by tractors whose wheels, in some of the narrower lanes, reach from hedge to hedge.

The other day, two passed me in quick succession. The first was an ordinary, small baler—the sort that turns out neat little rectangular cubes of straw. The sight of it took me right back to the summer I turned 11, when we lived on a farm and my friend Edwin and I rode on an empty cart to the wheat field where the sheaves were piled in stooks. Talking and teasing and chewing on wheat grains, we watched the farm workers with their pitchforks, deftly slinging the sheaves on to the cart until it was full. And then we rode back clinging on to the back of the cart, with straw ticking our noses. The first big machine in the farmyard  processed the wheat, pouring a river of seed into a sack. The remaining straw went, all free and unruly, into the other machine and came out the other end as a disciplined bale, all neat and rectangular, tightly compressed and bound with wire. The bales got piled up in a big, cubist-style stack and until the process was finished the stack was multi-levelled, so it was fun to climb to the top and jump from level to level (until they shooed us away).

Unlike the straw,  hay was rarely baled back then. It just got tossed by pitchfork on to an ordinary, free-standing stack in the corner of the field—the traditional haystack that you'd have trouble finding a needle in. I didn't even notice the gradual disappearance of haystacks in the countryside until one day I realized that they were all gone.

The second machine that passed me in the lane the other day was a different one—sleeker, and more modern-looking. I had no idea what its function was until I caught up with it ten minutes later in a field and watched in fascination as it churned its way through some hay, with  its rear section slowly revolving, and then stopped to poop out one of those huge, round bales that you see everywhere these days, neatly bound in plastic.

And that just about describes the evolutionary path of the harvest during my lifetime. From men with sun-browned arms slinging hay and wheat sheaves with pitchforks in 1947 to modern machines creating giant, plastic-coated parcels too heavy to heft except with a machine. In my grandmother's day and maybe into my mother's lifetime also they would have used shire horses instead of tractors. The tractors of my childhood were small, noisy, smelly things with bouncy metal drivers' seats. No doubt the tractor seats of today still bounce but the drivers sit high up, aloof, in air-conditioned comfort, shielded from the weather and deaf to birdsong, talking on their phones.

What I am wondering now, is whether I shall live long enough to see it all come full circle. When this unsustainable, head-in-the-sand culture that has been overreaching itself for so long finally has to face up to the devastating effects of its failure to honour the Earth's natural limits shall I still be here to bear witness ? When the oil is so scarce that the tractors can't run and things are falling apart and the process that blogger/author John Michael Greer calls 'The Long Descent' leaves us no alternative but to roll our sleeves up and harness up the shire horses (if we can find any to harness, that is), shall I still be around to watch the guys who used to build up their muscles at the gym do it with pitchforks instead? Probably not. Though if I manage to live to a hundred and the changes happen fast, well, you never know…
Picture © Andrew Smith

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Summer Ending (in haiku)

Nights are lengthening.
Leaves hang heavy, all that's left
one fluttering fall.

Swallows gathering:
"Mum, why must we wait on wires?
—and what's 'africa?' "

Shall I burrow down
here into my home soil, or
follow the sun south?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Sunshine, Sweat and Purple Flowers

Lately, the days are warm—so wonderfully warm that if feels like a miracle after the cool, wet summers we’ve had here in England in recent years. There are butterflies everywhere. The grasses are high, the meadowsweet is fading into seed and there are small green berries forming on the brambles.

The colour palette for these late July days is deep pink to purple, ranging from willowherb and loosestrife through to thistles, knapweed, betony and purple vetch.

I am still taking a long, brisk walk in the early afternoons, but today, as the hot sun beat down out of a cloudless sky I found myself slowing down a little and even wondering if I should change my timetable and walk in the cool of evening instead.

Not that I am a stranger to the heat. I have lived in the tropics and in California and in rural Texas and the only times when I ever found it too hot to go for walks were those searing summer days in Melbourne when the temperatures soared above the century and every gust of the merciless north wind was like opening the door of a hot oven. To take any vigorous exercise in those conditions would have been to court heatstroke and even I am not that silly.

But today, as I paused in the shade to touch the bark of my favourite oak tree and felt the salty sweat trickling down my face, I thought about the evolutionary gift of homeostasis that Nature has bestowed on all warm-blooded organisms like us. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it—a precious gift, in fact. From arctic cold to equatorial heat, we can adjust our lives accordingly and keep our body temperatures pretty much constant at all times. And that is something to feel very grateful about.

It is also salutary, I believe, to reflect that the principle of homeostasis applies to many, many other things in the universe. It’s another case of ‘as above, so below.’ As James Lovelock demonstrated, with his famous Daisyworld experiment, Earth herself operates that way. Like any other living organism, she has to keep her temperature within a certain range and she has a number of ways to achieve that but her ways are not limitless. Like us, her adaptability has limits. Gaia’s temperature regulation  is a mechanism that has worked for billions of years—until human beings came along and started messing with the system. And now we have anthropogenic climate change. If our precious planet ends up dying of heatstroke because we were too silly to change our ways, we can’t say we were never warned.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Greenie's Not (For) Dozing

One day, back in the early 1990s when we were homesteading in the Australian bush, we went to town for supplies. Just before we headed into the hardware store for our latest unglamorous purchase of whatever it was we currently needed in our build-your-own-self-sufficient-mudbrick-house project, I noticed that we had parked immediately behind a very large and very full logging truck, to the back of which was affixed a sticker that said: "Fertilize the bush: 'doze in a greenie."

I remember hoping the cowardly hope that when the logger came back to his truck he would walk around the front of it rather than around the back of ours where the Greenpeace sticker was, in all its rainbow glory. Both vehicles were on a very steep hill, after all, and ours was an awful lot smaller than his.

I made light of it at the time but I do remember well the frisson of fear that I felt when I saw that sticker. Australia is a land of rough humour, to be sure, but there was some real hostility in that message. In fact even more of it than I had suspected, and steadily growing – as witness this blog post from a decade later:

Fortunately for us, the morning passed without incident. But I found myself remembering it  again today, when several friends posted a story on Facebook about ‘coal rolling’—a particularly unpleasant tactic the Neanderthal inhabitants of some nether regions of the USA are now using to intimidate anyone they suspect of being a ‘greenie,’ which they seem to think includes anyone whose politics might be significantly to the left of theirs.

Back then, when our dreams were new and shiny and we really did believe we could head off total environmental disaster by reducing the size of our own eco-footprint and encouraging others to do likewise, an incident like that one with the log truck caused only a small, temporary shadow over the day. Once we had driven out of town again we could even enjoy the humour of it. For deep down we still believed that commonsense and eco-awareness would eventually triumph over small-minded self-interest. After all, we could empathize with the plight of the loggers who felt their livelihood being threatened. Many of them had families, some with young children. We realized how hard it must be for them to see beyond that to the bigger picture and to understand that the health and welfare of any individual life form in an ecosystem, whether it be a logger’s newborn son or a newly-hatched sparrow, is only ever as good as the health and welfare of the whole ecosystem.

But back then we still believed that governments would see sense eventually, even if it took a while longer than we would have liked. In our naïveté we still believed they had the power to change things and that once the truth dawned on them and the laws of the land starting coming into line with the inexorable laws of Nature, as they surely would, everyone would rally round and work for the wellbeing of our planet and all would be well.


I wish I could still believe that. But the shadows that fall over my mornings nowadays –like this morning’s coal-rolling story—are darker and gloomier and last longer.

My way of dealing with them is no longer to rely on a bright dream of a revolution in human consciousness but to face firmly into a future that is adapted to deal with—and somehow to survive—a collapsing economy, a collapsing civilization. And to help save seeds for whatever post-industrial future there might be. And meanwhile, to keep loving and honouring this beautiful Earth. Because we don’t stop loving those we love, even when they are ailing. In fact, when they are ailing, our hearts open to them even wider than before. That can only ever be a Good Thing.

Even an elderly greenie is not willing to be 'dozed in. Neither is this one dozing. Her eyes are wide open and so is her heart. Her sleeves are still rolled up. Whatever the future is—and however much or little of it is left to her—she intends to be fully there for it.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Spring in Time

It takes a chest infection and a week of sitting around indoors to appreciate fully how quickly the spring is moving. Even before I got sick, the world around here was golden, with primroses dotting the banks and vast drifts of daffodils and celandines everywhere I looked. The marsh marigold beside our back door was bursting with thick buds, the first violets were appearing and the first few white flowers of stitchwort were starting to emerge in the rapidly-greening hedgerows.

Just one week later and the marsh marigold is now a mass of glorious flowers. Stitchwort numbers have doubled, the violets have trebled, there are already wild strawberry flowers appearing. Scurvy grass is suddenly flowering where last week there were just glossy green leaves: the wild garlic leaves are well and truly up and the dog’s mercury now has its sprays of flowers—those humble little things too tiny for the naked eye to register as such but flowers, nonetheless.

Ten days ago there were no chiffchaffs; on today’s walk I encountered eight of them, singing lustily from eight different trees spread evenly across my three-mile route. I fancied, in my anthropomorphic way, that they might be singing about how glad they are to be back: glad to have left the south before it hots up too much: glad to have made the journey safely back from the macchia to these English woods of oak and ash, beech and sycamore. There are other warblers again too now, singing from the about-to-leaf-out branches of the goat willows. And the robins, who never venture far but spend their winters quietly alongside us, are well into their glorious annual songfest now.

Soon there will be bluebells—their leaves are now well up. And today I searched for a hint of the wild orchids. No leaves yet except in that certain place in a nearby bank where I knew one would have already emerged. Why that plant is so far ahead of the others I’ll never know but it always is. And when I parted the ferns and peered down into the tangle of undergrowth there it was, sure enough, its exotic-looking spotted leaves already in position, patiently awaiting the flower spike that always comes.

In the worldview of many indigenous people, such as Native Americans and Australian aborigines, time is perceived not as a linear progression but as cyclical, with patterns that appear, disappear, reappear. Living with that worldview also involves living with a sense of responsibility for maintaining balance and harmony. It comes with a feeling of deep embeddedness, a knowing that we humans, as one species among millions, are part of the very fabric of the Earth. As part of the Earth, we can never be separated from it. Thus it behoves us to take care of whatever other parts of it we come into contact with, whether directly or indirectly. For if we harm the Earth in any way at all, we are harming ourselves. 

Being outside, walking these green lanes in the fullness of spring, I find myself remembering other springs, just like this one. As I walk, springs past present and future merge together seamlessly and just for a few precious moments I know what it is to live in cyclical time. These celandines, as they fade and reappear, shining golden again in the sun, year after year, are eternal celandines. They are the celandines of my English Dreamtime. There is only one timeless spring, a pattern that appears, disappears, reappears in endless celebration of the life force. There is just one chiffchaff, a bird who was and is and always will be, singing those two joyful notes again and again from the top of the tallest tree.

(Chiffchaff photo by Andreas Trepte (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Behind the Scenes

A few years ago, Big Pharma’s push to have everyone taking cholesterol-lowering statins was starting to make news all over the place. See for example this article in the New York Times from 2008.

More recently, there has been more and more news emerging about the downside of ingesting these drugs. More and more warnings against starting on them. More research into the dangers. I was reading about this, often, in the ‘natural health’ magazines. But following the recent publication of two scholarly articles about the dangers of statins in the hallowed columns of the British Medical Journal, the pushback has started in earnest.

A report in the BBC today says that: “A leading researcher on cholesterol-lowering statin drugs has accused critics of misleading the public about the dangers of taking them.
Prof Sir Rory Collins said two critical articles published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) were flawed. But BMJ editor Dr Fiona Godlee said they were well researched. The drugs are already offered to about seven million people in the UK who have a one-in-five chance of heart disease in the next decade. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) says the scope for offering this treatment should be widened to people with as low as a one in 10 or 10% risk to save more lives. Its recommendation follows a study which was overseen by Professor Collins' team at Oxford University. Prof Collins criticised articles in the BMJ by John Abramson from Harvard medical school, and Aseem Malhotra, a UK cardiologist, who both claimed statins caused harmful side effects and did not reduce mortality.”

Professor Rory Collins is the lead investigator of the Heart Protection Study - the largest trial in the world of cholesterol-lowering therapy. According to the official press release, the funding of £21 million for the study was provided by the UK's Medical Research Council (MRC), the British Heart Foundation (BHF), and the pharmaceutical companies Merck & Co. Inc. and Roche Vitamins Ltd.

The Medical Research Council website tells me that: “Alignment with industry remains at the heart of the MRC's strategy and delivery plans and there is continued commitment to develop and sustain close and productive collaborations with companies in the UK. …The MRC has promoted partnerships with more than 500 companies, ranging from the large pharmaceutical companies to small and medium sized healthcare companies. To date, collaborative efforts have resulted in the development of 518 products and interventions, with 23 of these currently in wide-scale adoption.”

Oh yes, the Heart Protection Study press release is at great pains to point out that “The study was, however, designed, conducted and analysed entirely independently of all funding sources by the Clinical Trial Service Unit (CTSU) of Oxford University.” Independently? One of the co-directors of the CTSU is Prof Sir Rory Collins. And the CTSU also gets some of its core funding from the Medical Research Council, (and some from Cancer Research UK, which also goes in for ‘corporate partnerships’)

And you still think Big Pharma isn’t pulling the strings?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

My New Copper Trowel

My new copper trowel arrived in the mail this morning.
It is truly a thing of beauty. When I unwrapped the parcel and took it out, it positively glowed. As I held it in my hand and admired it, it seemed almost a shame to put it into the ground.

We already had a trowel like this that we bought several years ago. But since we have two gardens—the one next to our cottage and an ‘allotment’ down the lane, in our neighbour’s field—only one of us at a time could use it. So last week, we made the big decision to buy a second one. At £30 for a small trowel, this was no small decision. These trowels are guaranteed for 25 years and in 25 years from now I shall be 102. It would be nice to think that I shall still be out there messing about in the garden at 102, but I think it is a fair bet that this trowel is going to outlast me by decades. But, as the poet said, ‘a thing of beauty is a joy for ever.’ And now we are a two copper trowel family.
The Austrian engineer, forester and wise elder Viktor Schauberger, best known for his discoveries of the energetic properties of water and his design of beautiful, functional flowforms, also did research into the use of copper in gardening tools. He came to the conclusion that cultivating the soil with copper implements rather than steel ones would be more beneficial to the Earth and lead to healthier plants. In his writings, he listed several reasons for this.
§                Minute amounts of copper create the conditions for beneficial micro-organisms
§                Copper tools penetrate the soil easily. Copper has a low coefficient of friction, therefore there is less tendency for clay to cling to the tool
§                Copper is not magnetic so it does not disrupt the electrical fields in the soil
§                Copper tools be kept sharp with a whetstone, file or by peening (hammering the edge against a steel anvil)
You can read a whole lot more about this concept—and about Schaubergerhere
The other thing about the use of copper tools in the garden is that it is said to deter slugs. And here in our damp corner of south-west England, that is certainly a plus.

I carried my shiny new trowel up to the garden and I knelt down and stuck it in the soil. Kind of reverently. But isn't that how gardening should always be? Reverent?