Of Mice And Then Some

“For nitrates are not the land…and…carbon is not the man…he is much, much more; and the land is much more than its analysis. The man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his ploughpoint for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch; that man who is more than his elements knows the land that is more than its elements”                                                                                                – John Steinbeck, the Grapes of Wrath

As Hawkwood reaches  the end of its Local Food Fund Sustaining Change Sustaining Impact grant, we can rest assured that it’s been a fairly high impact year. Our volunteering and training programmes go from strength to strength, supporting a close community of growers and grocers and seeding skilled-up community gardeners across the spires and shires and even over the high seas: we are playing a micro-role in a community food movement whose radical ideals are naturalising, and may soon become natural.

By contrast, in the garden here, the natural seems to have highest impact when it appears somehow manipulated; exotic; introduced. The plants that have most stood out this year have been the high-rise sunflowers; the range, volume and, it has to be conceded, size of our super squash crop; the sparkling frostedness of the ice lettuce; the Great Zing of the Green Zebra tomatoes; and, rivalling all of these, the cape gooseberries have captured, and held to ransom, the imaginations of most people that have glanced into the glasshouse this summer.

Even at plantlet stage, their unfamiliar shapes were drawing many a curious squint. Now, whilst the rest of the vertical veg lose their leaves, they form a dense green, three metre high, hedge that crowds out the glasshouse door and the propagation tables. Harvesting them has become a favoured pastime here: with their velvety foliage, going to pick them is venturing into a soft-play jungle to gather golden lamps.

Neither is the eating experience “normal”: a laced parchment of the calyx [or “cape” as I like to call it, though the cape of its forename refers to the South African land mass where it first achieved commercial renown. My Zimababwean grower friend Sara knows them simply as “gooseberries”, resulting in a hilarious misunderstanding involving us and the hard hairy ones] is peeled back to the round sweetie, a sugary melon flavour with the crunch of a pear and the Vitamin C punch of an orange. Most commonly seen as a garnish on “posh” cakes or in petits fours, our box scheme members have been having them as a regular treat in the fruit bags since August.

Physalis peruviana syn. edulis, to give it the name which reduces the risk of confusion, is a nightshade, so takes up space that might otherwise be occupied by tomatoes in the crop rotation. There are question marks as to whether it makes total commercial sense to grow them in preference, but these are entirely unnecessary given the economic miracle of our heavy cropping heritage tomatoes: obviously  it makes precious little, but the luxury and beauty of the community market garden is that it serves many senses. Our financial enterprise is part of a many elements, a bigger picture wherein social impact is a legitimate currency.

Visitors and harvesters are not the only ones to have been enjoying these edible Chinese Lanterns lately. Our farm mice have been too and, right now, after some difficult times with rodents of varying sizes and cuteness credits, we have struck a temporary entente cordiale. For one thing, they are consuming the entire, mouse family size, berries:  a welcome divergence from that infuriating habit pests have of taking small nibbles out of everything. As a result they are barely making a dent in the crop, and there’s plenty for all of us. Furthermore, the tomatoes and, most importantly, the early broad bean seed (something they destroyed in its entirety, inside and out, last year) have got away Scot free. A close inspection of one of their resting places, by the leaf mould sieve, reveals that they seem to be supplementing their fruitarian diet with little else but the kernels of calendula seeds. Happy days.

My worldview is not so utopian as to assume that we have reached a panacea in our relationship with the “wee sleekit cow’rin tim’rous beastie”. But whilst many of our “best laid schemes…Gang aft agley”, it’s also true that many a radical plan comes together. Through the storms; the broken branches; the flood years and the drought years; the wrath;  on the shores of Cape Gooseberry, mice and humans kneel on the earth.

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