Returning to Hawkwood after midwinter’s Long Pause, I’m relieved to find little wind damage despite the Christmas and Boxing Day Gales. The crop covers had blown clean off the naked brassicas in the Entrance Field (I say “brassicas” as if we grow an extended family of greens, when actually they’re all minor variants on the kale theme, such is the present popularity of this ancient superfood), yet no bird damage evident. This serves as a reminder that wood pigeons are like the rest of us, featheriness and bulging eyes aside: they’re creatures of habit, and once they’ve established their feeding stations it can be surprising for how long they will overlook better dining options right under their beaks.
This was just one theme addressed at the Oxford Real Farming Conference last week, attended by a dozen-strong OrganicLea delegation. Not that of pigeon protection (or not in the sessions I attended at any stretch) but of human habitual behaviour. When asked, a large slice of the population pie want their diet to be more local, organic, community-led, yet when offered this at reasonably competitive prices, many of us manage to switch our shopping habits as swiftly as the proverbial oil tanker.
Which is one of a number of factors coming together to whip up climate change, which is one of a number of factors coming together to prise open the floodgates, alongside soil management, increased hard landscape and loss of flood plains. It’s not just winter – nowadays it seems like a week doesn’t go by in Britain without some poor village somewhere getting flushed out of their homes – but in another example of human limitations, I tend to consider things more when they are right in my face. The Thames had burst into Oxford city centre as the Real Farming Conference, and its “business as usual” counterpart, the Oxford Farming Conference, proceeded; and back at Hawkwood every bit of ground is thoroughly waterlogged, and new springs spring forth.
Maybe it comes from approaching middle age, but lately I find the most uplifting moments come in weather-beaten. In a field blistered with puddles, the resilience of the red radicchio is fortifying. The small supergreen shoots of overwintering garlic, and the swelling rose buds of rhubarb, are enough to bring a tear to the eye. Yet even these purest of gifts, the ability to gaze on harbingers of spring, are not always without conflict. It’s been a very wet, very mild winter, and I’d sooner see a decent cold snap to knock back pest and disease and make the temperate plants feel more at home. If the last decade is anything to go by, winter and summer tend to mirror eachother: bright cold winter followed by bright warm summer, mild damp leading to mild damp. Time will tell its own tale.
On reflection, “natural purity”, untainted by worries such as climate change and flooding, is an ideal we can never realise. The Earth is awesome, wonderful, terrifying, messy, dirty and gorgeous, and humans are of her and crawl over her. Perfection is beyond us, but still, there is scope to behave in ways, and push for social institutions, that facilitate a more kindly, sharing, lighter presence on the planet. As we are still in the time of resolutions, let’s plump for some of these.