What you might not see in winter

It’s like a bereavement, the state of our planet. Not just the fact of loss – I’ll get to that later – but the way it smacks you in the face when you’re not looking, or leaps up in the midst of the everyday, shocking you all over again when you thought you were safe.

I bought a nostalgic treat the other day, a copy of the Ladybird book What to Look for in Winter. I could justify it, almost, as ‘research’ for my MA but really I pressed the button on eBay because I had the book as a child and seeing the cover again made it irresistible.

cover

It’s a beautiful cover. What to Look for in Winter, published in 1959, is part of a series of Ladybird nature books illustrated by the renowned wildlife artist Charles Tunnicliffe. Muted greys and ochres evoke a wintry chill and the sparse beauty of a frozen landscape.

Most striking of all, though, is the sheer quantity of birds on the lake: herons, mallards, widgeon, tufted duck, and a snipe skulking where mud meets ice.  Above, a flock of whooper swans is coming in to land; you can almost hear the ‘wonderful whirring of their wings’, as the author E. L. Grant Watson puts it.

The abundance of birds and other wildlife is repeated throughout the book. Another lake picture shows at least fifteen pairs of coots and, in the bare-branched tree above, a flock of redpolls and siskins.

lake cropped

You can only see part of the thorn tree beside a Dutch barn, but there are seventeen birds in it: greenfinches, bramblings, yellowhammers and chaffinches.

barn cropped

On other pages, fieldfares crowd into a holly tree, golden plovers throng the bank of a lake and a huge flock of lapwings circles above a farmer ploughing a field.

My nostalgic indulgence suddenly turned into a sickening sense of loss.

Perhaps it’s because I live in quite a built-up area that empty or almost-empty, trees have become the norm for me. An occasional flock of long-tailed tits in the silver birch outside our house is something I treasure for days.

Things are a little better on the allotment, where there are often small flocks of goldfinches in the summer, and a colony of rooks in the nearby woods. Sometimes we see large gatherings of lapwings, geese and swifts around the nearby reservoirs.

But the blurb on the inside cover says this book will ‘add considerably to the pleasure of a winter walk’. There’s an implication that the kinds of wildlife pictured are accessible to ordinary readers, and that the abundance is normal. It doesn’t suggest you need to go to a special, out of the way place to experience it.

Was Tunnicliffe exaggerating? I doubt it: as a wildlife artist, his attention to detail was meticulous. What’s more, the book as a whole is instructional in tone: the point of it is to enable children to identify plants, birds and animals.

In 1959, children could learn, from one page of a pocket-money priced book, how to identify five different plants, including two types of fern

In 1959, children could learn, from one double-page spread in a small, affordable hardback, how to identify five different plants, including two types of fern

In any case, the evidence of loss is there in the statistics, if we can bear to look at them. In the last 40 years, humans have killed half of all the animals on earth. The current extinction rate may be 100 times higher than normal.

I don’t know how we reverse this but I do know we can’t care about things we have never seen. You can’t miss flocks of siskins, skeins of geese or a whirring whiteness of migrating swans if they have never been part of your life.

When I was writing the book about Incredible Edible Todmorden, I learnt that looking too hard at the big picture can be paralysing. Confronted with loss on this scale, it’s easy to despair.

Conversely, even very small actions can be energising and lead to bigger things. Going outside and paying attention would be a start. Trying to learn more, and in the learning to care more.

Why not go on a walk today and try to identify a new species? Take a Ladybird nature book with you if necessary. It’ll help you with the identification. It’ll also remind you what we’re up against.

When I was researching this post, I came across a lovely article by the award-winning author Helen Macdonald, on what this book meant to here as a nature-obsessed child. Well worth a read. 

We need to talk about Cathleen

cathleen

It’s an odd thing to do, deciding to call a tree ‘Cathleen’ and then pinning a name tag to its trunk. But we live in odd times, so out of joint with our surroundings that sometimes it takes strange tactics to get our attention.

‘Cathleen’ is a magnificent elm tree in my home city of Sheffield. Like all trees, Cathleen is a bearer of stories, not just her own but also those of the myriad tiny creatures who depend on her for life, and of the much larger human creatures living in the quiet suburb where Cathleen has stood for at least 150 years.

elm silhouette

elm up.JPG

Now, however, humans may be about to bring Cathleen’s story to a sudden end, felling her along with thousands of others in what has been called Sheffield’s ‘chainsaw massacre’, part of a massive, city-wide scheme to upgrade the city’s roads and pavements.

condemned

There’s no denying that many of the improvements to our streets are both welcome and overdue, but it’s only now that some of us are waking up to the fact that the work is scheduled to involve destroying up to 18,000 trees, many of which are completely healthy. More than 3,500 have already gone.

It’s horribly appropriate that elm trees like Cathleen are traditionally associated with death and the underworld. Elms were often planted in churchyards and their strong, durable wood has been a popular choice for coffins.

There’s also a darker and more recent link between elm trees and death: Dutch elm disease, which since the 1960s has destroyed more than 25 million elms in the UK alone.

Roger Deakin, in his glorious paean to trees, Wildwood, describes Suffolk in the 1970s as ‘a landscape of many elms … cumulus clouds of their canopies on every horizon, elms in the hedges and at the corners of fields, pollard elms like milestones in the green lanes’. But now only a few hundred remain in the entire country and any that live for more than about twenty years are likely to succumb to the disease.

the hay wain from national gallery

Elm trees in John Constable’s quintessentially English painting of 1821, The Hay Wain, which hangs in the National Gallery.

So ‘Cathleen’, reckoned to be between 150 and 200 years old, is a rare tree indeed. It’s still unclear why she and a few dozen more survived the outbreak when others didn’t and it’s possible that her DNA may help scientists develop disease-resistant elms in the future.

You would think, wouldn’t you, that such an extraordinary specimen would be a source of pride anywhere, and particularly in a place that is renowned for having more trees per inhabitant than any other in Europe and was recently rebranded as ‘the outdoor city’.

Yet, unbelievably, Cathleen is at risk of being felled as part of the ‘Streets Ahead’ project run jointly by Sheffield City Council and Amey plc, a company described on Wikipedia as an ‘infrastructure support provider’.

I won’t rehearse here the reasons why felling healthy trees is incredibly stupid, or highlight the appalling lack of transparency there is over the plans, or the council’s inexcusable failure to get the trees assessed by independent arboriculturists. It’s all powerfully summed up by Professor Ian Rotherham on his blog here.

I want to focus on two things that strike me as especially sad about this debacle. The first is that it underscores the extent to which we as humans have become divorced from the natural world, what has rightly been called ‘our common home’.

We are so numbed by our culture of mass production and easy consumption, for example, that Amey has been willing to gamble that it can quash protest by promising to plant a new tree for every one they cut down.

It’s as if trees were washing machines or car tyres, easily replaced and with only minor variations between different models.

They are not. Under the plans, a magnificent mature lime, for example, could be replaced by a different species just seven years old. It’s like knocking down someone’s family home and promising them a new-build in a different area – they both have four walls and a roof so what’s the problem?

As Cathleen’s story demonstrates, even trees of the same species have their own, distinctive stories. This, presumably, is why campaigners are choosing to name threatened trees – as a winsome and clearly necessary way of drawing attention to their individuality.

Each tree also represents a unique habitat. Cathleen, for example, is home to a colony of rare White-letter hairstreak butterflies which almost became extinct when Dutch elm disease destroyed most of their preferred food sources.

white letter hairstreak.jpg

The White-letter hairstreak, named for the scribble on its wings. Picture credit

The story of Cathleen demonstrates how ecologically illiterate most of us are, how blind to the wonders that surround us in the nonhuman world. It beggars belief that we can even contemplate destroying a tree of this stature, rather than doing all we can to protect it.

The second thing, which makes me more angry than sad, is that this is not a ‘Sheffield’ kind of thing to do. My adopted city is a wonderful place with a long and proud history of radical thought, full of poets and artists, and cyclists and runners, with two brilliant universities, and acres and acres of green space, much of it donated to us by our philanthropic forbears. Thoughtless, selfish, stupid actions like unnecessarily destroying trees do not belong here.

A number of local groups in Sheffield are campaigning hard to change the Streets Ahead policy on tree felling. If you would like to find out more, or express your support, visit their joint website here. Even if you don’t live in Sheffield, you could sign the petitions and add your voice: trees are a national treasure, not just a local one.

Remarkable Things: Billy Bob Buttons

‘If nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?’
Jon McGregor

An occasional series, in which I shine a spotlight on outstanding people, projects and places that deserve more attention

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I’m kicking off this new series with a big cheer for a man called Billy Bob Buttons.

That’s not his real name, of course. He’s actually Edward Trayer, a successful children’s author, and he’s remarkable because every year he undertakes a ridiculous amount of hard work simply to help fellow writers.

Edward organises the Wishing Shelf Independent Book Awards, a rare opportunity for self-published writers like myself to enter a competition (most don’t accept self-published books) and get honest feedback from real readers. And by ‘real readers’, I mean people who read for pleasure rather than people who get paid for it. Children’s books are judged by schoolchildren and adult books are judged by reading groups in London and Stockholm.

The awards are affordable and EVERY SINGLE ENTRANT, finalist or not, gets honest feedback from people who have read their books thoroughly, plus a catchy quote and the option of a review on Amazon and GoodReads.

At this point I have to get out my own trumpet and give it a little toot because I was thrilled that Incredible! won a bronze medal in this year’s awards!

Our Incredible Award! Read on for news of a special offer

Our Incredible Award! Read on for news of a special offer

But now let me sound a much bigger blast of the trumpet for Edward. I’ve never met a writer who said they had SPARE TIME; in fact I’ve only met writers who wish they had MORE TIME TO WRITE. So for me Edward is truly remarkable because he is prepared to give so much time and energy to promoting other authors, particularly ones who might be overlooked by the mainstream.

It means a great deal to get recognition and honest feedback in an area that can, frankly, be pretty lonely

So thank you, Edward and may your own books continue to garner the kind of success you so richly deserve!

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Sharing bed in Todmorden

Sharing bed in Todmorden

Some comments from the judges

‘What a sweet book. I loved every page. Fab cover and blurb too. Made me want to go out and plant carrots.’

‘This book offers a solution in a world of economic decline and climate change. Set in Todmorden, Yorkshire, the community there begins to plant vegetables in public spots. As a result, not only is the community spirit revived but it begins a world-wide, vegetable-growing REVOLUTION! I liked this book very much. It is well-written with a fun, witty undertone. There is help at the end of the book if you wish to get involved.’

‘A very inspiring read presented in an eye-catching cover. The tone is perfect for a book of this nature and the strong, environmental image is relevant to many of today’s problems.’

In celebration of our Bronze Award, we’re offering 25% off the cover price of Incredible! between now and Christmas Eve. Click here for the online shop. £1 from every book sold will go to Incredible Edible Todmorden Unlimited, which is run entirely by volunteers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

INHERITANCE RECIPES: FRUIT CRUMBLE

An occasional series in which I pass on recipes that have been important for our family. They’re mainly for my children, Miriam, Finn and Benjamin, but I like to think other people might stumble across them and enjoy them too.

smear

Ask me to remember your grandfather looking happy and I will tell you about crumble. If he knew it was on the menu, a little smile would play around his mouth all through the meal. The astonishing thing is that Ben does exactly the same thing: it’s funny how mannerisms can be inherited as well as looks.

Your grandmother is the doyenne of crumble making. Until very recently you would always find one in her kitchen, the buttery crust crumbling slowly and gently into a base of fruit she had often grown herself.

You can all argue about which one is best: it’s certainly what she and I were doing after Grandpa’s funeral (you will understand it was inevitable the conversation would turn to his favourite pudding). Your great uncle James said plum crumble is better than all the others; Grandma voted for apple, and I was torn between apple and blackberry, and rhubarb.

Since Ben continues to be disappointingly averse to rhubarb, I offer you the former but it’s only a guide: you can use whatever fruit you want. Possibly it’s the only pudding recipe you ever need.

Try and be precise about the quantities for the topping; for the fruit, just use what you’ve got and add however much sugar feels right. It’s hard to be more exact than that but I suppose if you want measurements, you could aim for about 450g of fruit and 30-50g of sugar, depending on how sharp the fruit is.

This is important: don’t muck around with the topping. Recipe books will try and make you add oats or ground almonds or goodness knows what else, but all you need is flour, butter and sugar. The only variation I’ve ever found helpful is sometimes swopping half the white flour for wholemeal: it gives a nice nutty flavour.

There’s just about time to pick some blackberries now, but be quick – they’ll be over in a matter of days.

Oh, and sorry about the imperial measurements. It wouldn’t feel like Grandma’s recipe if I converted it, but you can of course.

peel

APPLE AND BLACKBERRY CRUMBLE

Topping
10 ounces plain flour
5 ounces butter
4 ounces soft brown sugar

Filling
2-3 large Bramley apples
Several handfuls of blackberries
Demerara sugar

Method
Peel the apples, slice them thickly and put them in a sink full of water to stop them going brown.

Rub the butter into the flour, or whizz in a food processor

Stir in the sugar.

Now put the fruit into an ovenproof dish. Here’s a funny thing about your Grandma: she always made us dry the apples in a tea towel and then add two tablespoons of water once they were in the dish. You will probably see immediately that there is no need to dry the apples if you are going to add water to them. It took me years to spot this.

Now stir in some Demerara sugar and imagine your grandmother saying, as she did every time: ‘I like using Demerara because of the crunch.’

Pile the crumble over the fruit, smooth it out a bit with the back of a spoon, and cook at 180 degrees for 35-40 minutes. You want juices to be just bubbling over the top.

We always had it with single cream but a thick blanket of custard is pretty good too.

magical places

potato patch

It looks a bit scruffy, doesn’t it? This corner of our potato patch, the leaves yellowing and the stems flopping every which way. It doesn’t look like something you might love.

Hiding beneath the soil are Pink Fir Apple potatoes; that unpromising foliage is like the X on a treasure map. I will never get tired of pushing my hands into the soil, tugging cool, knobbly potatoes away from the roots of the plants and heaping them like bounty on the grass.

pink fir apples

I dug Pink Fir Apples from this patch to take to my parents the last time I visited them in their home. My dad was ill, dying in fact, and  potatoes from this earth were part of the last meal he ever ate. I steamed them until they were just tender and sliced them onto a side plate, tiny to match his appetite. I liked the way the knife resisted for a second before it slid through the potato flesh.

‘He doesn’t eat much now,’ my mum said. I cut half a salmon fillet into little cubes and set them beside a tiny heap of runner beans, also from the allotment. Dad wasn’t speaking much either by this time but he mumbled: ‘This is lovely,’ and asked for a second helping. I made it even tinier than the first. He ate it all and had two grapes for dessert. Hours later, his swallowing reflex packed up.

For as long as I live, this corner of our allotment will be inscribed with the memory of digging those last potatoes for Dad.

allotment viewIt isn’t the only memory that lives here. There’s the bed I weeded with a deeply distressed friend, who slowly relaxed as she cleared the ground of dandelion, bittercress and thistle. There’s the millpond at the bottom of the site where the herons nested this year; the Bramley apple tree our children gave us the first Christmas we had this plot, and all the beds that Julian and I have dug as we slowly learn how to make this land productive.

This is how it goes when you care for a patch of earth. You and the land become knitted together in a sharing of memory, the creation of what Helen Macdonald, in one of my favourite chapters of her book H is for Hawk, calls a ‘magical place’. Writing of the hill where she has been flying her goshawk she says, ‘I don’t own this land. I’ve only got permission to fly here. but in walking it over and over again and paying it the greatest attention I’ve made it mine.’

I don’t own this allotment. I’ve only got permission to grow food here. But in coming here day after day, learning how to manage weeds, save seed, care for the soil, I have made it mine.

If somebody should force me to give it up, it would be like having a part of myself ripped away. My friend Sara, grower and activist extraordinaire, has written movingly of this exact experience, the severe distress of having her allotment tarmacked over to make way for a bus route. It’s happening up and down the country as hard-pressed councils release more and more land for development.

Sometimes I wonder how different things would be if the people who make decisions for us, day in and day out, all knew what it meant to create magical places.

Life talk

I’ve been spending time lately with someone who is dying. The day I thought I might see him for the last time I went for a run beside the stream near our house. I was trying to work out what to say. Is it better to plan, or to wait and see what comes in the moment?

I was running past a bridge and the sun was falling through the trees and splashing on the path. You should talk to him about life, I thought. Tell him how grateful you are for his gift, the one that made it possible for you to live here. Tell him about the tomatoes slowly ripening in the allotment polytunnel, and the way the light is lying in a shaft across that millstone.

millefleur

I ran beside a stretch of water that is kept for wildfowl. The moorhens’ nest had gone, and the mallards dozing in the early morning sun didn’t even twitch as I went by. You should talk much more about life, I thought. You should talk about the heron flying across the reddening sky last night, and the earthworms that show that the allotment soil is getting healthier, and the fox that appeared out of nowhere after you had put manure around the raspberries and stared you straight in the eyes, as if daring you to try and scare it away.

chocolate cherry

I’m picking up the blog again because I’ve realised that the most important things in life only become visible when you pay proper attention. I’ve been trying to develop that habit of paying attention, especially on the allotment where there is so much to learn, not just about how to grow food but also about the myriad life forms that share the plot with us. It’s a hard habit to embed when so many things clamour for an instant response, when so much seems urgent, pressing, demanding of haste. I hope that  regular blogging will help.

When I saw my dying friend after the run last week, he asked me the usual things born of a lifetime of good manners. How are you, how are the children, did you have a good journey? I told him we were well, that the journey was long but OK. I told him about the red kite hovering over the M1. His eyes lit up.

Incroyable!

I am very, very excited to tell you that we have just signed a contract with the French publisher Actes Sud and our book Incredible! will be published in France in the spring.

The French edition will be called Incroyables Comestibles, the French name for the Incredible Edible movement, which now has more than 400 groups across France and more in other French-speaking countries, such as Morocco, Senegal and Mali.

The inimitable Mary Clear wrote a wonderful report of the recent Incroyables Comestibles conference in Cergy, which you can read on the Incredible Edible Todmorden website here.

To celebrate we’ll be putting the English book on special offer throughout December – more news on that very soon.

For now I’ll leave you with a picture of the amazing François Rouillay, founder of Incredible Edible France, taken at the book launch in July. He’s saying hello to Rufus at Incredible Farm.

Francois and Rufus