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The holiday is over

Who would have imagined, in December 2019, that we would witness the collapse of the holiday industry a few months later. In 2020 we can’t even go out for a day trip, let alone a holiday in another region or country.

Which prompted a ponder: why do people go on holiday? No other tribe on planet Earth does. Some creatures migrate, but none of them go away from their home environment for a few days or weeks, just for a change of scene. Historically speaking, it’s a recent phenomenon for humans, too:

“A wealthy man in ancient Egypt would never have dreamed of solving a relationship crisis by taking his wife on holiday to Babylon. Instead, he might have built for her the sumptuous tomb she had always wanted.” (‘Sapiens’ by Yuval Noah Harari, p130)

Wealthy young Englishmen of the 17th and 18th centuries didn’t build tombs. They took the Grand Tour. They boarded the ferry at Dover, crossed the Channel to France, made their way to Paris, then on to Italy, where Venice, Florence and Rome were popular destinations. Along the way they learned new skills such as fencing and dancing, looked at ancient ruins, studied works of art, fell in love. Then they travelled back home and redesigned their homes and gardens based on what they had seen and learned.

Tourists at the Pantheon in Rome

For them, the trip was ostensibly to round off their education before they settled down to the duties that awaited them back home. In the following century, the educational holiday became available to the less well-off too, through the work of entrepreneurs such as Thomas Cook.

Seaside holidays started for medicinal reasons. The Prince of Wales, who later became King George IV, suffered from gout. In 1783 his doctor recommended fresh air and seawater as a cure, so he rented a farmhouse by the south coast (which became the Brighton pavilion). As the prince was the style influencer of his time, the concept of trips to the seaside became popular.

As the fashion caught on, a problem became evident. How to change into one’s bathing suit without compromising one’s modesty? Enter the bathing machine. By 1800 there were about 30 bathing machines on the beach at Weymouth, the preferred seaside resort of the Prince of Wales’ father, King George III.

Then, during the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, the necessity of closing down the mills and factories once a year for maintenance was turned into an opportunity to send the workers for a refreshing and restorative week at the seaside. Each factory chose a different week, and laid on transport for the trip to Blackpool and other towns along the coast. ‘Wakes Week’ became ‘Factory Fortnight’ as the holiday period was extended from one week to two.

In the UK we talk of going away on our holidays. The word derives from ‘holy days’, the days in the calendar which were marked as religious festivals and the people were exempt from work so that they could go to church. The US word ‘vacation’ derives from the French ‘vacances’. The original meaning of this word was more like ‘vacancy’, as in job vacancy: something being unoccupied. Again, it meant that people were released from their usual chores. Both words, holiday and vacation, kept these meanings until those wealthy young men started travelling to Europe in the seventeenth century.

So far this tells us two things. First, that the idea of travelling for pleasure is just over three hundred years old, and second, that it resulted from searching for something that the home environment could not provide, be it education or healing.

Our holidays became a highlight of our lives. It was a major discussion topic at work, with questions like, ‘Are you going away this weekend?’ or ‘Have you booked your holidays yet?’. My childhood photos were mainly taken away on holiday. Almost the last thing an elderly family member said before he died was, ‘We had some good holidays, didn’t we.’

Then it all went exponential. Package holidays, cheap flights, cruises … the planet became a playground. Long-distance travel became affordable. It was cheaper for myself and my partner to fly to the south of Spain than take the train to many parts of the UK. People who did not have the means to buy a home could easily afford to spend a weekend in Barcelona or Amsterdam or Prague. For their grandparents it was the other way round: fifty years ago, putting down a deposit for a house was a priority but overseas travel was beyond the means of most. Within the last twenty years, ease of travel reached the point where many of us would fly to a beach on the other side of the world for a week or two. Some places became overloaded and had to restrict visitors. The Faeroe Islands decided to exclude visitors for a period each year, to let the place recover.

And in early 2020 the party was over. We all had to get used to being at home.

Where are we now? Is this time an opportunity to re-evaluate the place where we live, to find sustenance at home rather than waiting 50 weeks for the two weeks by the sea in Bali, or Turkey, or Spain? Will the skies again be crowded with contrails once the current restrictions are lifted? There is a part of me that hopes not, I confess. The part that looks with new eyes at the place where I live, that sees it changing each day as more spring flowers appear. The part that sees people smiling as they take a walk. The part that sees the walkers greeting each other across the road because the traffic no longer drowns out their words.

I suspect there is a restlessness that is hard-wired into the human. We are the species that galloped around the globe within a few millennia of leaving Africa. We settled on every available piece of land, every inhabitable island. One of the last was New Zealand, which the Maoris reached in the 14th century. Then the Europeans got there a few centuries later.

I wonder what we’re going to do with that restlessness now.

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Compost contemplations

Like many organic gardeners, I am fascinated by compost. I know – it’s a bit weird, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. I love to witness the alchemy as my kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, cardboard and other unwanted items are transformed into a rich, chocolate-brown growing medium. It’s extraordinary.

On the right is the compost bin which has just been closed off, and on the left the one which has rested over the winter. A delivery company gave us the wooden frames, which stack on top of each other.

But it does take time to get decent compost. My first attempts, several years ago, resulted in a soggy green mess. I suspect the microorganisms have to build up. So I try to pass on the connection from an old bin to the next one, by layering the base of the new bin with twigs that didn’t break down in the last one.

Into the new bin I put kitchen scraps (potato peelings, tops of leeks and any other vegetable matter), coffee grounds, eggshells, cardboard (with any plastic tape removed), wood ash, weeds and trimmings from the garden. And lawn clippings. I try to spread each layer over the whole of the bin so that it doesn’t form a lump – and that’s it. I leave it to work its wonders.

This bin has been resting over the winter. Yesterday, I took off the two top layers of the wooden frame, and with my Libra shovel, started to dig the compost out. It was a bit soggy, which was either because of the very wet winter or because the frames did not allow enough air in. Previously I have made the bins out of pallets, which look less tidy but let more air through. It was beautiful compost, though – rich, dark and crumbly.

Then I barrowed it to the raised bed, tipped it into the frame, then raked it out and firmed it down with my Perseus Rake. I’ll transplant seedlings into this bed, so I don’t mind the odd twig or lump. If it was for seeds I would use a riddle to get the soil to a finer tilth.

What magic!

The two frames I lifted off the old compost bin are already in position for the next one. Here it is, with a base layer of twigs and the first set of lawn clippings (which will be spread out over the whole bin).

Things I don’t put into the compost bin: teabags (they have nylon and don’t break down), cooked food or meat. Chicken poo or other animal manure is brilliant if you keep hens – but we have none. I tried to persuade my partner to wee on the heap (urine is a good compost activator) but he felt that was a request too far.

There are many variations to compost making. Some use the quick return method, developed by Maye Bruce. Others make hot bins, which heat up and also work fast. Biodynamic gardeners add preparations to aid the development of the compost. Then there is the question of whether or not to turn your compost. I confess that I don’t. I leave those microrganisms to get on with it. For a thorough overview of compost making, Charles Dowding’s website is a good place to start.

A bonus (for me, anyway) with my home-made compost is the weeds. Because I throw seed heads into the bin, aquilegia, Jacob’s Ladder and other garden flowers appear in my vegetable beds where the compost has been spread. When I see them, I transplant them to the flower beds. And American Land Cress pops up regularly, which pleases me a great deal, because it provides winter salad leaves when there is not much else around.

A final contemplation. One of the aspects of compost-making that appeals to me is the containment. The leek tops and other bits of vegetables discarded before cooking, the cuttings and clippings from the garden all go back into the cycle. Biodynamic gardeners have a concept of the garden (or piece of land you are working) as a single entity, an organism. That concept resonates with me. If it is right, then could it be that the return of organic matter helps the garden to know itself? Although the seasons come round every year, each time they are different. Everything moves on. After all, our home planet moves in a spiral, not a circle. Does this continuity add to the story your garden tells itself?

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What can a garden be?

This post is a ponder about what a garden can be – for us, and for the other inhabitants of planet Earth that live in the area. This is a big and sometimes controversial subject, so please take this writing as exploration rather than answers. All discussion that opens up the area further is welcome.

The word ‘garden’ originally meant ‘enclosure‘ and shares its origin with ‘yard’, ‘orchard’ and ‘garth’, among other words. The first recorded garden is probably the Garden of Eden, which from the description in the book of Genesis was just that: an enclosed space. Into such an enclosed space selected plants (and sometimes animals) were brought, maybe from the local area, maybe further afield. It puts me in mind of the images of Persian gardens one sees depicted in carpets and paintings.

Lightly skipping over 3000+ years of human history, it is clear we are in a different world now. Those original gardens were for a select few, the elite, and now most people have gardens to be in and engage with, including you and me. Our gardens, private and public, take up a lot of space. There are few wild places left. This means that our gardens have a new job to do.

There may be some clues as to a way forward in the rewilding movement. In several crowded and not-so-crowded countries, large tracts of land have been allowed to revert. A famous instance in the UK is the Knepp estate in Sussex. 3500 acres of marginal farmland have gone back to scrubland, with fascinating consequences. Birds, bats and insects, not heard or seen for a generation or more have come back of their own accord. Interactions and intricacies of interdependence in the ecosystem have been understood. It is an inspiring story, not least because the land is still productive, but in a way which does not involve eradicating whatever is deemed not to fit.

What is possible depends on the size of the piece of land. On a larger scale than Knepp, at Yellowstone Park in the US, wolves were reintroduced a few years ago. The effects rippled down through the whole ecosystem. The wolves ate the elk, which soon learned to avoid areas where they would be vulnerable. Those areas regenerated, as the vegetation was able to grow back. The willow trees came back and with them the beavers. The beavers’ dams provided more pools in the rivers: more space for the fish. And so the effects cascade through the system.

Can what has been learned in such large spaces be applied to our gardens? My suspicion is, yes in principle. One principle being that Mother Nature has a good track record of looking after her own affairs if we don’t get in the way too much. There is no need to plant native trees on reclaimed land, for example, at least in the UK. Don’t mow it for a few years and the trees will plant themselves. So, note to self: don’t micro-manage.

Another principle for me is that I am custodian of the garden, not its owner. Other species: birds, rodents, rabbits and insects also have their part to play. Leave them to get on with it. Again, don’t micro-manage. Leave the seed heads on the plants over the winter. Better than a birdfeeder!

Thirdly, my needs are valid too. I’ll still cut the hedges, for two reasons. First, the large herbivores that would browse on their leaves haven’t been around here for a long time. Our garden is not on the scale of Knepp or Yellowstone, so I will have to fill that gap, do the job those animals would do if they were here. The second reason for clipping the hedge is that I have my own notions of what is attractive. And a clipped hedge provides a great background for a small garden like ours. I’ll do it when the birds aren’t nesting in it, however.

So, because our world is so crowded, our gardens have become a valuable resource. This presents opportunities for new learning, new understandings of the delicate interactions that we have blithely blundered through for so long. I’m sure we’ll all get on fine in the new regime.

However, there are some adjustments to be made.

For example, there is a big discussion going on in the rewilding world about whether to eradicate non-native species. This is a complete about-turn from the views of gardeners a century, or even a few decades ago. For Victorian gardeners, a garden was a showcase for exotic species. Our garden centres and seed catalogues offer us plants from all over the world, descendants of those brought back by plant-hunters from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Tulips and snowdrops from Turkey, peonies from China, fuchsias from South America: the list is endless. And as for vegetables: potatoes, runner beans and tomatoes from south America, carrots and onions from Asia .. clearly some perspective is needed here.

Here is a comma butterfly feeding on the aster flowering in our garden a few weeks ago, in October. Aster is native to North America – but I don’t think the butterflies and the bees were concerned about that. So I won’t worry about it either. I won’t eradicate human-introduced species for the sake of it, because I have noticed that Nature is pretty robust and adaptable. Having said that, however, I’ll think carefully before introducing anything from outside into the garden from now on. I’ll try to check beforehand, in whatever way I can, with the non-human residents. I’ll also set aside spaces for the vegetable beds, cut most of the lawn and pull back whatever gets in the way. I live here too, after all.

In the end, for me what counts is the love. Do I love this space, do I want it to thrive? What does it call for?

For more about garden-scale rewilding, here is Mary Reynolds’ website: http://wearetheark.org/

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The statuette’s story

Bronze figurine, Ashmolean Museum

Yesterday we visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The Ancient Cyprus section was lovely – soft and gentle. I was drawn to a small figurine in a case in the corner. This is what it said to me.

“The men go into the ground, following the seams of green stone. With stone hammers they break up the seams to remove the lumps of rock. Sometimes they come across a nugget of pure copper: solidified strands of tangled pink metal. These they keep. They put the lumps of rock into baskets which they bring to the surface.

Back at the surface, the green stone is crushed and then heated over fires. The heat releases the liquid pink metal which is then poured into oxhide-shaped ingots. Oxhide-shaped in recognition of the time of Taurus, recently passed, when this activity began.

When the men have come out, it is the women’s turn. I do not know if the figurine was made by a man or a woman, but it is the women who take it back into the chambers recently cleared by the men. The women come with value and respect for what has been given by the Earth. They give back something of their own making, in order to reset the balance. A bronze figurine, standing on an oxhide ingot, naked, not hidden, her hair braided, her neck adorned with a precious necklace. They place the figurine in a safe place where the green stone has been removed. They bring food and have a party, a feast. Because of their genuine value and gratitude for the gift from the Earth, the rift is healed. All parties benefit.”

P.S. I have no idea if this is factually accurate. I am sure the humans living in Cyprus over 3000 years ago had their problems. However, I am also sure that living with the consequences of damage to the earth from industrialised extraction of minerals was not one of them. If they travelled to our time and saw the gaping holes that we have made in the ground, I have no doubt they would find such behaviour difficult to comprehend.

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Tamworth pigs, public footpaths and ploughing

Image from https://www.southeastfarmer.net/section/news/safaris-booming-on-farming-estate

The newly-released Tamworth pigs, two abreast, “unzipped the turf down the public footpaths, following the exact routes on the Ordnance Survey map, heading diagonally across the fields. We realized that what they were doing, with the undeviating propulsion of slow-motion torpedoes, was zeroing in on all areas of the park that had never been ploughed – margins rich in invertebrates, rhizomes and flora. In the first few days of their release the pigs drew an accurate blueprint of what modern farming had done to our soil.” ( page 110 of ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree, Picador 2018)

‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree is an inspiring account of an experiment to return marginal land, ill-suited to intensive agriculture, back to the rhythms of nature. As well as leaving the land to regenerate, they reintroduced grazing, browsing and rootling animals – the last being some Tamworth pigs.

The man who inspired our tools, Viktor Schauberger, had a horror of what modern ploughing was doing to the land. At the time, he could not imagine cultivation without ploughing, so he searched for an alternative, less destructive material to make the plough, and came up with copper. Subsequent field trials bore him out. The crops were healthier in areas cultivated with the copper-plated plough.

Times have moved on, and we are rethinking our relationship with the land. We know that the use of chemicals has long-term unintended consequences. Organic growing is becoming mainstream; it is hard to remember how it was seen as eccentric and unrealistic a generation ago. No-dig gardening does not disturb the life of the soil. No-till farming is proving its value. Bronze garden tools, the inheritors of Viktor Schauberger’s vision, share their sentiment of working with nature rather than against it.

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End of a chapter

Today, using my Mira Trowel, I harvested the onions from the new raised bed.

The frame of the bed was laid on the lawn last August, then the grass was covered with cardboard and the frame filled with about four inches of home-made compost. In September the onion set was planted.

The boiler room now has a decidedly oniony aroma. And I have transpanted some calabrese seedlings to where the onions were.

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Gravity assisted

Endorsement from customer David, a health professional. He uses the Atlas Pick, but the reasoning he gives is also valid for the Sirius Hoe, Pegasus Pick, Merak Drag Fork and Tuza Mattock.

If you have navigated to implementations then you are looking at purchasing high quality gardening hand tools. Each tool is manufactured and designed so that it is more efficient when working resulting in being able to do more but at the same time reduce the stresses placed on the body. This stress is often the cause of pain particularly lower back. Pain from gardening is something that takes the pleasure out of something that you take great pleasure from.

Why, because tools such as the Atlas Pick are ergonomically designed better for their particular purpose. They rely on a swing action with gravity to assist. The long shafts improve efficiency of the tool with added leverage whilst working in an upright posture. Next a pulling action using again the upper body. It is a natural fluid motion. The bronze heads and shaped ash handles are forgiving and absorb energy when working.

In contrast consider using a spade. One uses body weight to penetrate the soil, this places more loading of the spine on the left or right side which can expose back issues. Then one levers away from the body often lifting the soil at the same time. This motion is not fluid or natural and places greater strain on the lower back, this is made worse by the short shaft which necessitates one to bend the back. The back is vulnerable when  loading whilst bent but add a little rotation whilst bending over and one increases this vulnerability further.

One has to use the PKS bronze tool in a different way to the conventional British tools but when one has mastered its correct use you will wonder why the tools developed for gardening use in the UK ever became the standard. It does not make sense to continue using tools that take more energy to use and can cause pain and injury.

Why use tools that can reduce the pleasure you get out of something you love. Buying a gravity-assisted tool will not be a decision that you will regret.

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The Wood-Wide Web

From our latest newsletter:

In the last few years there has been a fundamental shift in how scientists view the way the plant kingdom works.

Take trees, for example. The old view was that woodland trees grow tall because they compete for light – and the strongest win. That view has been questioned. Researchers like Suzanne Simard have shown the level of co-operation, not only between species (she demonstrated how paper birch trees support douglas fir) but also between kingdoms. The fungi underground allow themselves to be used as a food bank. They store surplus nourishment for the trees in the good times and give it back in leaner periods. They also provide minerals which the trees can’t access for themselves, and they act as a woodland communication system. The world in a woodland has been shown to be a distributed network, with hubs (the ‘mother’ trees) and links.

This is the diagram Suzanne Simard used in her TED talk. The darkest circles are the ‘hub’ trees, the paler ones younger trees. It looks like a diagram of the internet. It has been called the wood-wide web.

That was the preamble to my ponder. My ponder is – if that is happening in woodland, what is going on in my house and garden? How can I best work with this intelligent, caring, interconnected world?

One immediate response from us was to think differently about potplants. For a single plant in a pot, life must be like solitary confinement. So, nowadays we put more than one plant in a pot, or we make sure that their leaves are touching other plants nearby. And we brush the leaves as we walk past them.

A lot of good gardening practice makes sense in the context of the wood-wide web. If you take something out, put something back, whether it is a bit of compost or a sprinkling of fish, blood and bone. Minimum-interference gardening practices like ‘no-dig’and permaculture are in tune with this view. The biodynamic approach sees the entire piece of land as a single entity, an ‘organism’. That also makes sense. And of course, our view is that the bronze tools help. Copper is a connector. Like the fungi in the forest floor, it links things up. It’s in our wiring. In our bodies, copper is to do with energy transfer. So at the very least, bronze tools should be less disruptive in the garden.