Blight On The Landscape

At first glance, it might seem that vegetable growing serves as a detachment from the grand narratives of humanity, compared with, say, commuting through London’s labyrinth of iconic streets; or working as a new part amongst the original engines of industrialisation: mills, mines or railways. In fact, plant biographies chronicle social history as well as any architecture or museum, and what’s more are living and breathing.
Last week I was in the Entrance Field, mowing green manures. Perched above the clover sat the plump beetroot, who contributed to the abolition of slavery when Europeans found they could process them into sucrose, thus reducing the dependency on slave-dependent cane sugar. Down the hill stood the evergreen cabbages and kales, which have served us well as the “paupers’ medicine” for millennia, from the pickled cabbage of the Far East across to the “kale yards” of the Scottish crofters. My blade slicing through clover, that fertility-building legume which formed the cornerstone of “Turnip” Townsend’s rotation, a prerequisite of the “Agricultural Revolution”. It is on clover and its Fabiaceae relatives that hopes for abundance in a post-oil future rest heavily.
And towering above these fresh mowings in the adjacent bed was the larger-than-life Solanum tuberosum: the potato; the Andean tuber that revolutionised diet and culture in Europe and beyond.
Spuds are, economically, the most important vegetable in the world, and the third most important plant crop. Their virtues are many, but in leaner times, impoverished peoples in temperate climates turned to them chiefly because: a) they are a complete food, containing all the major and minor nutrients in sufficient quantities to sustain human existence (bar the elusive vitamin B12);  and b) they produce more calorific energy per given area than any other crop.
Thus, for example, the Irish people, forced onto marginal land by the British colonists, were able to survive (or, perhaps, were able to be further exploited) thanks to their total conversion to the “earth apple”. Which brings us, terribly neatly, to what else I saw whilst scything: Phytophthora infestans, the dreaded potato blight. It’s a very small fungus, but can also lay claim to changing the course of global events: for it caused the Irish Potato Famine, 1845-47, and subsequent emigration of the Irish peoples across the Anglophone world.
Catching the blight early enough to save the spuds is, like so much, all about observation: this year I was slow off the mark, and whether we’ve stopped the disease reaching the tubers remains to be seen. It is an ugly mould that will cause some nervousness in these parts over the next few weeks. But this is as nothing when set against the plight of those Irish peasants, whose shadow loomed large as we went about our blight management work. During which I reflected on how the disease was brought to Europe in a crate of infected potatoes from the Americas, and how once great blight resistant cultivars like “Lady Eve Balfour” are now succumbing to it, as new strains of the fungus are moved efficiently around the world, in another symptom of the sicknesses caused by excessive  global food and plant supply chains. But that’s another story, perhaps one day another history.

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