environment

Frog days

cropped frogs

The frogs came this week. They are reclusive little things normally. Sometimes I hear them croaking from the crevices in our dry stone wall, or I might get a sudden jolt when I am weeding and one leaps unexpectedly from under a patch of damp foliage.

Once a year, though, they come into full view. For a day or two our tiny pond, less than a metre across, becomes a writhing, splashing melee of copulating amphibians. We counted fifteen on Tuesday, although I’m fairly sure that should be an even number.

Frog Day, as we call it, is the start of spring for our family, that and the wild garlic and celandines bursting into leaf down by the stream. Sometimes we manage to take photographs. Yesterday I was looking back through the albums from previous years and was amazed to see how regularly the frogs appear. The picture at the top was taken on Frog Day 2010 – it was 18 March, just like this year. Our other pictures are dated 13 March 2007 and 15 March 2009.

Frog Day 2009

Frog Day 2009

It thrills me, the thought of these shy, mysterious creatures responding to some inner prompting and arriving in the pond almost as though they had marked the day on the calendar. I wonder about the ponds in nearby gardens: are they also experiencing the same orgiastic celebration of the changing season?

I feel connected to these frogs, for we share a common territory; they are mating in a pond that we dug as a family, sheltering in a wall that Julian built one chilly Sunday afternoon a few years back. And yet I know so little about them and understand even less.

I am especially sensitive to this dissonance this year, this sense of being both connected to the garden and yet through my ignorance also alienated from it. I read a book called Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis, and it turned out to be one of those texts that moves into in your brain, unsettling old ways of thinking and forcing your mental furniture into new arrangements.

I knew the Hebrew Scriptures were permeated through and through with references to the land but if I ever thought about that at all, I assumed that was because they were written in a pre-industrial age. Davis exposed the superficiality of that.

Her book showed me that it goes far, far deeper and that the Bible speaks of God always intending there to be a kind of kinship between people and the land. She demonstrates how in Biblical thinking the relationships we have with one another, with God and with the soil are all interrelated: in the Biblical story, violation of the land leads to the destabilising of everything else we depend on.

Davis’s teaching made me see for the first time that our little garden is profoundly important: it is land and in substance it does not differ from the grandest scenery you can imagine. The frogs, along with the ladybirds, the woodlice and every other facet of this patch are part of a vast ecosystem that connects them and us to the rest of the created order and what we do with it really matters.

In Biblical terms, it is a gift and we have a responsibility to it. Gardening is not just a hobby, something I pick up and put down according to my whims, but an outworking of discipleship.

In practical terms, as industrial agriculture continues to swallow the countryside, suburban gardens are rapidly becoming one of the most important habitats we have. For example, a report by the charity Froglife in 2007 found that eighty per cent of ponds in the countryside were of poor or very poor quality, often because of nitrogen-run off from arable land.

frogs

Davis’s book has spurred me to take our garden more seriously this year than I have in the past.  I want to work our land properly, finding ways to make it as productive and eco-friendly as possible, pushing through my natural reluctance to go outside when it is cold or wet and facing down the the boredom that sometimes sweeps through me when the garden is yet again full of weeds and the vegetable plants failing to produce as I hoped they would.

I am not saying we will save the world just by cultivating our gardens. But I do think paying serious attention to the land on our doorsteps is foundational to responding to the environmental crisis. Another book I read recently, Norman Wirzba’s Food and Faith, puts it well:

Gardening work creates in us an indispensable ‘imaginary’ that enables us to think, feel, and act in the world with greater awareness for life’s complexity and depth. Gardens are the concentrated and focused places where people discover and learn about life’s creativity and interdependence.

I think a lot of us need to develop this ‘imaginary’. In her book, Davis asks why we in the industrialised world are not ‘stricken to the core’ by the way we are relentlessly despoiling the earth. I think part of the answer is that we have become so desensitised to the natural world that we simply do not appreciate the enormity of what is happening.

One way of recovering that sensitivity is, I think, simply to get outside and grow stuff. I am hopeful that by engaging more deeply with our garden I will grow too and be able to live more intelligently at this critical time.

I am worried about the frogs, by the way. For two days after they came the night frost was so hard that the pond froze over. Then it snowed for 36 hours solid. I have taken it for granted that we will have tadpoles in the pond every spring. Now I am not so sure.

a world on your doorstep

Last week I met a young man who is an expert in South American tree frogs. He used to take tourists around a remote part of the Ecuadorean rainforest, identifying all kinds of wildlife for them, but especially his beloved frogs.

I was a bit in awe of this guy, of his knowledge and of his experience of the world. He lived for six months in that isolated spot in Ecuador, an hour’s plane ride away from what you might call civilisation. He worked with tribal elders, helping them to work out how to make a living without damaging the forest.

But then he said something that changed everything for me. ‘I used to think that nature was far away and out there,’ he said. ‘I thought you had to travel for miles and get away from everything to find it. But then I realised it is on your doorstep.’

We were talking at his home in west Yorkshire, an apparently ordinary house in a seemingly average street. But when you look more closely you see that Mike’s home is anything but run of the mill. Instead of a hedge in the front garden, there’s a rustic fence made of the trunks and branches from the Leylandii he chopped down when he moved in. The rest of his plot is being slowly developed as a forest garden, a way of growing edible plants that imitates the ecosystems found in woodland. There’s a ground covering of strawberries, then a layer of bushes – in this case currants and gooseberries – then a planting of nut trees. This is just the beginning: eventually the whole plot will be a low maintenance, sustainable source of food for Mike’s family.

I was struck by the whole concept of gardening in this way, but even more by the richness that Mike was discovering simply by being attentive to the nature on his doorstep. When I got back to Sheffield it made me look at our lovely valley in a new way. As luck would have it, when I took one of my regular walks up to the top of the stream, it was just after one of the heaviest rainfalls of this incredibly wet summer.

Often in summer the water just trickles through this valley but on this day it was in full spate, fiercer and stronger than I have ever seen it. It was surging down towards the parks at the bottom, pleating and plaiting as it dropped more than three hundred metres through a series of weirs and millponds, relics of the days when it drove more than 20 mills used in the manufacture of cutlery and hand tools.

After rainfall like last week the iron deposits that have shaped this valley’s history churn up to the surface, shading the water through ochre and dark ginger to a kind of luminous rust colour. From a distance you could think it was flowing over a succession of underwater lights. As I made my way along a path made sticky with mud and sodden leaves I was thinking of our daughter currently hundreds of miles away, planting trees in a remote corner of Madagascar. I’d been a little envious of this trip of a lifetime, but today the unfamiliar roar of a stream in spate and the memory of Mike’s fascination with his garden were giving me a new perspective.

Here I was, a few hundred metres from our front door, surrounded by ancient woodland, torrential water and a long, rich history that I knew disgracefully little about. I know even less of the wildlife that inhabits this wonderful spot. Thanks to my parents’ fascination with ornithology I’m not too bad at identifying the birds – I’ve seen nuthatches, woodpeckers, dippers and even a kingfisher on my walks but I know almost nothing of the mammals that live round here and still less about the insects and reptiles, not to mention the fungi, the trees, the plants and what you can do with them.

The truth of what Mike said about nature being on our doorstep came home to me on this walk. I realised too that I didn’t even need to come this short way to find it. It’s in my tiny garden, too, a whole ecosystem that I am barely aware of.

The pond in our garden at frog-mating time

Back in the eighties, when AIDS was first identified, there was a health campaign with the slogan ‘don’t die of ignorance’. With the world now facing unprecedented food shortages, spiralling transport costs and weather patterns that are both unpredictable and potentially devastating, it seems our ignorance about the world in front of our noses may be at least as big a threat.

Mike is a walking encyclopaedia when it comes to the natural world. He knows what weeds you can eat, what to plant to fix nitrogen in your soil, how to manage ponds so that they sustain the widest possible range of beneficial wildlife. It’s a knowledge acquired over years and it flourishes within a deep appreciation and respect for the world on the doorstep.

I think it’s time to do something about my ignorance.

romancing the sprout

Some of my best days in 2011 were spent in the wonderful west Yorkshire town of Todmorden. I wrote here about my most recent visit and about the incredible edible project. You really can’t spend much time with Todmorden folk without becoming inspired to do more with vegetables and, more importantly, be honest about how your food choices affect the world around you.

Over the Christmas break I got to thinking about how our family could eat in a way that has less impact on the environment and is more sustainable in the long term. Growing more of our own food is an obvious first step and I have some plans in that direction, but for now it is January and there’s not much in the garden.

So I decided we should go back to having a weekly veg box, something we used to do but abandoned because I had an idea that it was too time consuming. I know organic parsnips with the mud still on them are much better all round than the anaemic, plastic-wrapped variety you get in the supermarket, but back when I had just started a degree and was juggling it with work and a teenager crisis, I felt I couldn’t cope with anything extra. If anything is worse than a shrink-wrapped courgette in Tesco, it’s a mouldy organic one looking at you accusingly from the bottom of the fridge. (Though I’ll admit it’s a close run thing.)

I hope to return to the issue of time in another post. I don’t think you can get away from the fact that doing things in a sustainable way often appears to gobble more time than the convenience option and may well actually do so. But speed can be overrated, I think. Just as I’d rather pay a few pence extra for fairly traded bananas, so I think I need to be wiser about how I spend my precious time.

Anyway, the first veg box arrived from the excellent Riverford. A stunningly beautiful red cabbage and some fabulous purple sprouting broccoli sat alongside more homely offerings such as carrots, potatoes, parsnips and leeks.

No problem deciding what to do with any of those, but I have to admit I was temporarily stumped by the bag of Brussels sprouts. The two teenagers who still live at home are definitely not picky eaters, but they really do not like sprouts. In their entire lives, they have never managed more than one at a time, and that is with the Christmas dinner. There was only one option – I would have to cook the sprouts for my Friday night ‘date’ with Julian.

This Friday tradition goes back to when our children were small and we couldn’t afford to go out and pay a babysitter too. It’s a great excuse to splash out a bit on posh food. Sometimes I get sea bass or tuna steaks from the fishmonger; sometimes we indulge in home made tortellini from the Italian deli. What we do not expect to eat is anything as homely as a Brussels sprout. But I love a challenge and what’s more I knew my amazing Leith’s Vegetarian Bible (now out of print, but there is a newer edition) was unlikely to let me down.

Enter the Brussels Sprouts Gratinée. Let me tell you, this did not look promising. But I put that down to the sprouts and all our prejudices about them. In fact – and as is usual with the Leith bible – the taste was excellent. Crunchy sprouts and a crispy, cheesy topping contrast perfectly with the creamy, paprika-spiked sauce and the smooth potatoes. Add candlelight and a glass or two of red wine and I promise you the humble sprout can be transformed into the food of romance.

Brussels Sprouts Gratinée

Sightly adapted from Leith’s Vegetarian Bible by Polly Tyrer

450g Brussels sprouts

350g unpeeled potatoes

1 teaspoon paprika

a pinch of cayenne pepper

200ml crème fraîche

50g wholemeal breadcrumbs

1 dessertspoon of butter, melted

15g Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Switch the oven to 200 degrees C and grease an ovenproof dish with butter. I used a round one; the base has a diameter of 21cm.

Trim the stalks and outer leaves from the sprouts. I didn’t bother making a little cross in the bottom, although I know some people say you should. Cook them in boiling salted water for just five minutes. Drain and allow to cool slightly.

Cut the potatoes into even sized shapes and cook in boiling salted water for about 10 minutes. They should be just tender. Drain and allow to cool slightly.

Cut the sprouts in half and slice the potatoes. Mix together gently and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Stir the paprika and cayenne into the crème fraîche and season.

Put half the sprouts and potatoes into the dish. Spread over half the crème fraîche. I found this a little tricky, but a bit of coaxing with a palette knife did the the trick. Top with the remaining vegetables, then the rest of the crème fraîche.

Mix the breadcrumbs with the melted butter. Stir in the cheese and parsley and spread on top.

Bake for about 20 minutes, by which time the vegetables will be hot and the crumbs crisp and brown.