A time to weep

I had an allotment post planned for today but although I believe with all my heart that growing food well is one of the most important, life-giving and even holy things we can do, now is not the time for me to write about gardening.

Of all the images that have filled our screens during this summer of horrors – and I do not remember a summer like this for horror – the ones that haunt me continually are from Ferguson, Missouri, where black teenager Michael Brown was gunned down by a policeman and his body left untended in the street for four hours.

Michael Brown was unarmed and he was shot at least six times, Eyewitnesses say he had his hands in the air. He was due to start college two days later.

I have a son just one year older than Michael Brown. I am writing this late at night and I know that soon he will be emerging onto the streets of Edinburgh, elated if his show at the Fringe has gone well, perhaps more subdued if it hasn’t.

Either way, he and his university friends may be a bit loud. There’s a lot of tension to release after a show. But they won’t attract attention from the police. (And even if they did, we in the UK do not, thank God, routinely give our police officers firearms.)

How is that one teenager can walk down the street freely with his friends, while another ends up dead in the road?

How is it that I can be rejoicing in my son’s achievements while a mother in Missouri has been robbed of the chance ever again to hug hers and tell him: ‘Well done: I’m so proud of you’?

I have read some powerful posts about Ferguson this week. Two that stood out were Black Bodies, White Souls by Austin Channing and  The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail by Christena Cleveland (links at the bottom of this post).

Both are strongly worded, disturbing challenges to people like me, white people who claim to follow Jesus.

These women – and the pain and anger I have seen in the news from Ferguson – have made me face up to what I know in theory but mostly try not to accept as reality: there are structural injustices built into Western society (let’s not kid ourselves this is just about the US) that work in favour of people like me and my son.

I can’t write about the allotment today  – not because the allotment is unimportant but because to ignore what I have seen these past days would be a form of walking by on the other side, pretending that the people who are bleeding at the edge of the road are somehow nothing to do with me.

In fact it would be worse than that because what I need to think about today is not just that the mother of a boy the same age as my son is grieving, but also my own complicity in the structures that are compounding that grief.

I need to think about how my life might shore up those injustices, and what I am going to do about it.

I highly recommend these posts: Black Bodies, White Souls by Austin Channing; The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail by Christena Cleveland.

There is a very full and thoroughly referenced timeline of the events in Ferguson here.

 

Tree following: August

windy

We have had high winds this week and the pavement beneath my tree is strewn with snapped twigs. I thought perhaps, after our early spring and long, sunny summer, that autumn might be coming early but the leaves on this silver birch are still resolutely green. It may be there is just the faintest tinge of gold.

leaves
I’ve been away from Sheffield a fair bit this month and have realised how much this tree speaks to me of home. It stands right outside our house; its familiar, graceful shape is the first thing I notice when I turn the corner into our street.

shape

The tree affects the interior of our home too. On breezy mornings when the sun is out, the branches cast huge, swaying shadows on the inside of our bedroom curtains. I can sit in bed and watch them as I sip my tea and it feels a little bit like being rocked.

This month we mark twelve years in our Sheffield house. The tree, I have realised, is a huge part of what makes that house our home.

Tree following is a wonderful project run by Lucy at Loose and Leafy. Her post this month is wrenching: all along her street, trees are being felled.

If they try that here, I might have to chain myself to the trunk.

ESTHER IN THE GARDEN  -  AFTER THE SUMMER  -  NEW ERA  -  NODULES ON ROOTS OF PLUTONIAN TREE

In which naming the bees is like worship

nasturtiums

vinegar

It’s the season for hot colours. I am making nasturtium vinegar and it sits on the windowsill as lurid as Lucozade. In the garden, the helenium is out, a variety called ‘Moerheim Beauty’. I have read that helenium is commonly called ‘sneezeweed’ because its leaves used to be dried for snuff.

helenium

It’s the season for exam papers too and I have spent entire days marking scripts, but with the sun so bright outside it’s impossible not to wander out from time to time, and sometimes to linger over lunch in the garden. That’s when I realise that the helenium is a magnet for bees.

honeybee

honeybee on yellow

Last week I was watching the honeybees come and go; it’s like a form of hypnosis. Then a bumblebee arrived and began to crawl over the flower centres. It was my daughter who said: ‘Look at the pollen sacs.’

cropped bumblebee

They are huge in proportion to the pin-thin legs, like growths, or the saddlebags of an overloaded packhorse.

bumblebee cropped

Something happens when you pay attention to the natural world. You find your curiosity awakened. It’s like recovering the endlessly wondering mindset of childhood. One question predominates: what’s it called?

Trying to answer that is a humbling thing. I dive into Google, wanting to identify the bees that have come to our helenium. I am fairly sure about the honeybee: there is only one species of honeybee in the UK, and although I may have confused it with a solitary bee (225 species).

The bumblebee is more challenging. I discover that it’s definitely a female because only they have the pollen sacs. Beyond that, it could be one of 250 different species found in this country, but the Bumblebee Conservation Trust recommends starting with the eight most common ones. I used their excellent, free chart here to decide it was either a buff-tailed or a white-tailed bumblebee. I’m not sure how you could be more certain without having the two species side by side.

climbing bumblebee with sacs

I planted this garden eight years ago. A succession of blindsiding life events had left me paralysed with depression: forget trying to take one day at a time; my target was to navigate the next ten minutes. Most everyday tasks became impossible but I found that if I could only get myself outside, I could garden for a couple of hours and not think about the time at all. Gradually, with help from all kinds of sources, but always against the backdrop of planting and growing, the depression receded

Depression kills your prayer life, or at least it did mine. I am recovering it slowly, along with the sense of wonder that is necessary for worship. I did not expect learning about nature to help but sometimes it feels almost sacramental, a resonance with the story of Adam in the first garden, naming the animals in response to God’s invitation to intimacy and co-operation.(Genesis 2:19).

Staying still long enough to really observe the bee, then taking the time to work on identification works a bit like contemplation for me. It opens up stillness and silence; it decentres my anxieties, my selfish preoccupations; it is a repeated, necessary reminder that humans are not the only creatures that matter on this planet.

On the allotment: July 17

teaselsWhen we took on the allotment we promised ourselves one thing: we would not allow it to become a source of stress.

Easier said than done.

Last week we needed to propagate the strawberries, there was sowing to do for autumn planting and a third of the plot still consisted of nose-high grass.

overgrown

I had a brief moment of head-clenching tension and then thought: enough.

We are privileged enough not to depend on this land for food. The crops will become an increasingly important part of our diet but one of the main reasons we love this plot is that as well as helping us learn to grow vegetables, it is enriching our lives and refreshing our spirits, forcing us to move away from the computer screens that dominate the rest of our time.

So we took the decision to focus only on clearing the rest of the ground and digging out new beds. That will allow us to have a proper planting plan next year.

There is still plenty to do.

brambles

weed heap

I’m a bit sad that this means we might not have our own strawberries next year, but that’s another thing about growing food: it forces you to take a longer perspective. We might have to buy them from the greengrocer for a season, but we can hope for a crop in 2016.

It’s a difficult mental adjustment when you are used to daily, even hourly, deadlines. But it feels like a healthy kind of discipline.

This has been a good fortnight for flowers …

courgette flower

Courgette

French bean

French bean

Tomato

Tomato

… and a very bad one for rhubarb.

rhubarb

Things are even worse now than in this picture: almost all the leaves have dropped off and the stems have turned a nasty shade of brown. I’ve been Googling away to try and identify the problem and was a bit ashamed to turn up site after site proclaiming that rhubarb is a very easy crop to grow and poses virtually no problems.

But I fear we may have crown rot. Does anyone else have experience of this, or suggestions for a different diagnosis? I’m tempted to spread a thick layer of manure all around and hope for the best, but I don’t want to waste the stuff if the rhubarb is really a lost cause.

Linking up with Soulemama, who is doing interesting things with a bumper bean crop.

Launched

view of Tod

Did ever a book launch have a lovelier view? This is Todmorden, as seen from outside the Unitarian church, where we had a beautiful afternoon of celebrations for Incredible! on Saturday.

It’s one of only three photos I managed to take but I appointed our daughter Finn as Unofficial Launch Photographer, so here’s a little insight into the day, courtesy of her excellent pictures.

The first part of the launch was one of the ‘rewards’ for some of our top Kickstarter backers, although sadly not all of them were able to come. My co-author Pam Warhurst welcomed them in her usual dynamic and inspiring way.

pam welcome

Then Estelle Brown, Incredible Edible’s full time, unpaid webmaster and tour guide, took everyone off to look at the town. Here she is outside Mary Clear’s front garden, where everything is edible and anyone can help themselves.

Estelle

Thanks to Estelle, our guests saw all the sharing beds around town, from the police station to the pre-school, and also enjoyed the edible walking route that features not just food for humans but lots of plants that are good for bees too. To avoid overkill on the pictures I haven’t put many of the town on here – if you want to see more of the wonder that is Todmorden, take a look at Incredible Edible’s website.

children's bed
blackcurrants
pollination street

Meanwhile, back at the church, it was all hands on deck to get the lunch ready. Here’s Pam in a pinny with lovely helper Alison.

food setting up

The food! What can I say about the food? It was stupendous.

food marigold

dip

food and lavender

stuffed tomatoes

sprouts

 

sushi cropped

And lots of the ingredients came from around the town.

IMG_9323

If you didn’t know, you’d never guess it was completely free of meat, dairy and other animal products. Volunteer Hilary Wilson, who is a passionate vegan and outstanding cook, had spent the whole week planning and prepping. I managed to snap this picture of her during a rare moment away from the kitchen.

hilary

It stayed dry all day (never a given in Todmorden) so we ate outside. Don’t worry about the policemen – they weren’t there to keep order but to represent the local force, whose station plot is one of the most photographed in the town.

lunch

Lunch over, it was off to Incredible Farm, the project that never stops evolving. It’s almost impossible to believe this was once a piece of waterlogged, rubbish-filled scrubland.

polytunnels

Some of the new developments this year are a solar powered pumping system …

solar pump

… and Rufus the cow, seen here with François Rouillay, founder of Incroyables Comestibles, the French manifestation of Incredible Edible.

Francois and Rufus

Back at the church, lots more people were arriving for afternoon tea. All the cakes were vegan too, and they tasted even better than they looked.

cakestand

cake

chocolate buns

And what about these for some Incredible tea cosies? Somehow, town centre grower Jenny Coleman manages to find time to knit them.

carrot cosy

tea

Over the time I’ve been writing about Todmorden I’ve learned to expect the unexpected. This time it was a magnificent peal of bells that rang out just as we were coming to the end of our tea, part of the celebrations to mark the volunteer-funded restoration of the belfry.

Some of the hardy Incredibles were staying on for the second party but for us it was time for one last photograph and then to set off back to Sheffield through the beautiful Calder valley.

pam and jo1

Thank you, Incredible Edible Todmorden, for an unforgettable afternoon.

Tree following: July

DSC_0014

This month I’ve been thinking about what it means for my tree to be part of an urban street. Looking back at my previous ‘tree following’ posts I realise I tend to separate out the life of the tree – and of the ‘natural’ creatures that interact with it, such as birds and plants – from the lives of the humans who live here.

DSC_0017

When I took the photographs for last month’s post I was even annoyed that the neighbours had some work going on and there was an open van ‘intruding’ on the pictures.

Then I put the link to that post on Facebook and a couple of former neighbours who have since moved away commented on how much they missed the tree, and other silver birches in the gardens around here. One said how pleased she was that she could just see ‘the bird’.

DSC_0012

Obviously this isn’t a real bird. It’s a model woodpecker that was stuck up there a few years ago and was something to do with number 6, who were playing some kind of game with the people who then lived at number 1. The game involved placing plastic gnomes in each others’ gardens and finished soon after number 1 put an eight-foot high fibreglass model of Father Christmas in a flowerbed at number 6. (Things are not always this exciting in our street.)

The comments on Facebook made me realise this tree cannot be understood apart from its setting. I was wrong to be annoyed about the van in last month’s picture. Yes it would be nice if there were fewer vehicles in our road – and everywhere else! – but to want to airbrush them out is to be guilty of the kind of thinking that separates humans from ‘nature’, and that approach is rarely helpful.

Instead we need to be much more aware of where the overlaps and shared stories are, and of the important ways in which all the life in this street, from the human to the microscopic, is connected.

This post is part of Lucy Corrander’s excellent tree following project on her blog Loose and Leafy. I especially liked her post this month. Be sure to listen to the tree ‘talking’ at the end.

 

tree following

 

on the allotment :: July 3

Crafty shot that does not show the nose-high grass which still covers about half the plot.

Crafty shot that does not show the nose-high grass which still covers about half the plot.

 harvest

shallots

shallots1

There are two types of harvest on our allotment: ones we have worked for and ones that are an astonishing free gift. The shallots fall in to the former category – they were the first things we planted here when we only had two workable beds in the autumn. Right now they are hanging in the greenhouse to dry out, and I am frantically Googling recipes. Knowing how much of something to plant seems to be one of the hardest things for an allotment newbie to grasp.

All the fruit was here when we took over the plot and apart from a bit of weeding I have done virtually nothing to care for the plants. It feels like cheating.

The gooseberries have become jam, a crumble, and, most deliciously, some gooseberry and elderflower sorbet using a recipe from Sarah Raven’s excellent Garden Cookbook. Possibly my favourite frozen dessert ever.

digging

roots

There has been digging this past fortnight, too. It’s a bit like marking out territory for me: every time we move, and now on this allotment, I heft out the soil in a trench one spit* deep, shovel in a layer of manure, cover with soil by digging a parallel trench, and so on to the end of the bed.

Along the way you get the satisfaction of extracting weeds right down to their roots, even the most tenacious customers like bindweed and dandelions.

I never disrupt the soil again. Every spring and autumn I cover the beds with manure or home-made compost that the worms can draw down to enrich the earth. Tip: I have recently discovered that our city farm sells fantastic manure for a smallish sum of money that goes straight back into their educational programmes.

slates

The latest bed is edged with slates from our neighbours who were having a new roof installed. I’m enjoying using only found materials for the allotment: we have a tiny budget so it’s a necessity, but I actually prefer the effect to something more uniform.

blackcurrants

redcurrantsFinally our son, helpfully just back from university, has been hacking away some of the comfrey, bindweed and thistles that were rampaging through the currant bushes. I don’t think the harvest will be huge this year, but surely something good must result from berries as magical as these.

Joining with Soulemama and others around the world to share news about growing.

*spit: a layer of earth whose depth is equal to the length of the blade of a spade