Whiter Shade of Kale

Last week I strode up the Entrance Field to Poets Corner: the scene had changed utterly. The earth had grown a snow-crust, pinked by the low red sun’s minor rise in the south east. London lay down, cold and desolated, its thin air sharp as a blade. As the herbaceous world and the animal kingdom shrink away, what’s left is washed into stark relief: daily desire lines of rook and muntjac get a publishing deal in pages of snow; Yates’ Meadow, the green hill far away that spends its whole time peeping over at our naked veg, is finally exposed by the raising of the hornbeam curtain; the evergreen kales and Brussels stay static under fine-woven crop covers, yet loom more than ever.

The kales are at their best now. The freeze has put a freeze on slug attack, brought some sugars out to balance the bitterness, and as we pick our way up the stem, the leaves get ever younger and tender, with reduced stalk and, in the case of Pentland Brig, more frills. Yesterday Adam and I picked it, frost-decorated: a picture greetings card from the distant North.

For over two thousand years, kale has been cultivated to be picked in weather like this, and much more brutal. It’s extreme hardiness made it the winter green choice of, amongst others, the Scottish crofters, who spent their winters kale yards from sickness. The kale yards were areas close to the homestead, where dry stone walls sheltered the leaves from the arctic winds just enough to provide for humans and their sheep and cattle: an early example of “protected cropping” on these isles.

By the time protected cropping reached its zenith in the high-tech “Sea of Glass” across our Lea Valley, the low-tech crofters had been all but wiped out. First, they brought the Enclosures, steadily driving the English peasant from the land; then, they came for the crofters, in a much quicker, more violent chain of events called the Highland Clearances, in the 18th/ 19th century.  Now, but traces of the kale yards and tatty fields can be made out in the eery quiet of the glens: the heather, it is said, grows lusher on these enriched patches.

No final defeats. A few crofters managed to hang on to their patch of ground: still more retained some of their culture and history. And “what they could not kill, went on to organise”: at the end of the 20th century, crofters and their allies began taking on the power of the lairds, winning back land and rights for their communities, eventually forcing land reform legislation through the new Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish Crofting Federation are a bit of a beacon, then, for communities taking back control of their food system, and its mode of production – the earth. They are the only UK Members of Via Campesina, the global organisation of peasants and small farmers.

Whisper it in the wind: the crofters may soon be joined in Via Campesina by another UK group: an alliance of human-scale producers currently plotting behind garden sheds. If Via Campesina UK needs an emblem, they could do worse than the fluttering leaf of a certain winter brassica. When the going gets tough…

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