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

 

Tanzania postcards 4: barbecue bridges

basketball

basketball1

nana swing

An ordinary Sunday in Mwanza. Hot, hot sun; kites wheeling overhead; deafening songs of praise belting out from the revival meeting in the centre of town.

Our friends held a barbecue. The guests were from seven countries across three continents. We were Christian, Muslim and ‘prefer not to say’. There was peri peri chicken, cardamom spiced rice, and pizza cooked from scratch by ten-year-old Caleb.

The young ones played football and basketball; a couple of the older ones injured themselves trying to keep up. The toddler worked out how to turn on the outside tap and shrieked with laughter each time he soaked himself with the sudden rush of cool water.

The sun sinks fast here. HALLELUJAH, screamed the revival preacher as the shadows lengthened and the kites flew in to roost on the treetops. Hallelujah, I whispered as the guests began to say their goodbyes. Kwaheri … Asante … See you again, I hope.

Tanzania postcards 3: death birds

marabou stork

We have nicknamed them the death birds. Properly known as Marabou storks, they are some of the ugliest creatures I have ever seen, with their scraggy bald necks and stick-like legs that bend in the middle as if hinged.

They gather wherever anything is festering. When we visited the markets in Mwanza, we found them congregated on heaps of rotting vegetables: the putrid smell complementing the birds’ funereal appearance.

But then someone suggested that they were probably a benefit to the area. Rubbish that is consumed cannot linger to spread infection and disease.

So they might look evil, but actually they are fulfilling a valuable service. There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere.

Picture credit

Postcards from Tanzania 2: load bearing

load1

Wherever you go in Mwanza, you see women carrying improbable loads on their heads. They make it look so easy, walking with straight backs and an easy grace.

When we visited a nearby village, we met a young woman who had been carrying a bowl of bricks on her head for half an hour.

Here’s what happened when our friend, a 6ft tall rugby player, tried to lift the same bowl above his shoulders.

mark bricks

 Appearances can be deceptive.

Delayed in the post

I was hoping to publish a whole series of ‘postcards’ from Tanzania, but there is so much here that is new and thought-provoking that it seems wiser to wait until we get home. It’s also quite hard to upload pictures. I’ve got some short posts that are nearly ready to go, and look forward to sharing them very soon.

Tanzania postcards 1: vegetable solidarity

One of the many things I love about growing food is that it is so easy to make connections with other gardeners. When we left Sheffield to stay with friends in Tanzania last week, we were just celebrating the first ripe plum from a tree we planted in 2012.

plum

When we arrived in Tanzania, our friends’ gardener Abu allowed me to photograph him harvesting their first paw paw.

paw paw

Then Abu took me all around the garden he and our friends have created by transforming what was a huge pile of rubble into a thriving, productive vegetable patch.

keyhole garden resized

I had heard about keyhole gardens before and it was fascinating to see them in action. The gardens have a central hole for water and compostable kitchen waste: they are a kind of recycling system that allows nutrients to spread throughout the soil and they have the added benefit of making maximum use of water in very dry areas.

bananas resized

Abu is also growing five different kinds of banana, along with spinach, rocket, tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, cassava, sweetcorn, sweet potatoes, chillies, onions, avocado, carrots, peppers – and probably more that I have forgotten.

Leaves from the banana trees are used to shade a special germination area, protecting the tender young seedlings from the strong Tanzanian sun.

shelter resized

I gave Abu some runner bean seeds from England and we talked about our favourite herbs. I promised to send him some basil seeds, which he loves but finds hard to get in Tanzania. It was a conversation that made me feel immediately connected in a country I have never visited before.

Thank you, Abu, for giving me such a great welcome.

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