And Another Spring

“Daniels and Morgan [two Forest of Dean free miners] reminded me of the hill farmers up on the moor where I live, clinging to an economically marginal way of life, because they experience physically its dignity and tradition. It is their heritage and their right, and they, perhaps unconsciously, create a deep and ancient freedom”
Sara Maitland, Gossip From the Forest
Blessed are the land workers, for they inherit the earth. And nothing but the earth. In the UK we scrape a living, or just drift into debt, pursuing a vocation which, though vital, is rendered barely viable by international capital. Those who turn their hands to the garden, the field and the forest, are fuelled only by the sense that this isn’t the daftest thing we could be doing with our short spell on the planet; that, and the solidarity of those who share this sense.
This was brought home powerfully at the recent Land Workers’ Alliance Farm Walks in Devon. Chagfood CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is a five acre, horse-powered market garden on the edge of Dartmoor, whilst Shillingford Organics is a well-capitalised, forty-three acre holding employing eight people, bathed in the English Riviera sun. Both balance the books thanks to the voluntary time put in by CSA members and WWOOFers respectively. At OrganicLea, this gifting of time and effort is at the foundation and heart of what we do. The gardens at Hawkwood are largely managed by volunteers: their design and layout geared to this input. Thus, in town and country alike, the “action of a few thoughtful citizens” on the site of production as well as in the market place, keeps organic vegetable growers growing, just as the mega-farms and super-markets rely on their subsidies and tax breaks from the powers that be.
This was one of the points made, alongside that time-honoured point that the point is to change it, on Thursday, as the same LWA marked International Peasants Day [a day which itself marks the anniversary of the 1996 massacre of nineteen landless peasants in Brazil] with a demonstration outside the offices of the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). As demonstrations go, it was very much a pagan-festival-meets-Saturday-fruit-and-veg-market-meets-larger-than-life-scarecrows-dressed-as-government-ministers-meets-international-peasant-chants-and-flags sort of affair. Between the lines of the songs and speeches, you could spot a certain swelling.
Periodically, Springs break out. In recent times, we’ve had the Arab Spring, before that the Prague Spring of 1968, back to the “Springtime of the Peoples” revolutions of 1848. Often, the liberating openings of a Spring dries; always a Fall. But to say, as I’ve heard it said, “it ends badly” is like drawing a full stop on the seasons: there is no ending, happy or bad: we have to keep going.
An English Spring is an outpouring to behold, worth all the withering, false starts and split ends that precede and follow it. At Hawkwood, the whole scene runs green, a naïve backdrop to the riot of colour, from the fruit blossom, ancient bluebells and ended kale; all giving their everything to the love of worker bees. Asparagus and rhubarb grow before our eyes, drawn up by some higher calling. Here, and every elsewhere, we – land workers all – weed and mow, redefine the Old Ways; and reunite sweat and soil. That “deep and ancient freedom” rises again.








Dust To Dust

“We are stardust. We are golden. And we’ve got to get ourselves. Back to the garden”                                                            – Joni Mitchell, Woodstock

The wind blew in from Africa last week, just as the windflowers – as wood anenomes are prosaically known – arrived shyly in the wedge of ancient woodland here at Hawkwood. And the country was bathed in Saharan dust.

It wasn’t the dust per se, but its mixing in with local petrochemical fumes, that led to the hazy days and air pollution warnings. And, whilst this may be a cry from London’s latter day “pea soupers”, it doesn’t represent a sunny outlook for our atmosphere.

Yet there is something appealing about being able to place your hand on a fragment of iconic desert: a tangible, in your face reminder that we inhabit a joined-up planet; a reminder whistled, to the initiated, by the immigrant swallows and house martins that will not long be returning here on the crest of a current.

Prayers and praises to the wind. These weeks it blows hot then cold, wet and dry, changeably yet irresistibly carrying us into the growing season. Winter’s perm-washed fields have been blow-dried, allowing us to set foot amongst them for essential weeding and sowings, and it seems likely we’ll have some seed potato in the ground by the traditional Good Friday date, always a smashing feeling.

Spring salad planting is well underway, with sorrel, lettuce, rocket, beet leaf and wild rocket all hitting the ground running, and this seasons’ Production team has been assembled: Vi, me, Gary, Aimee, Sofia, Rob and Brandon, all of us backed up by the ranks of trainees, volunteers, learners and project workers that make this place grow. There are thrilling times ahead, though not without challenges: the mild winter’s failure to knock pests back is already showing in the slug levels on the beds of emerging asparagus.

It’s even dried out enough to dig the rotavator out. “The cut worm forgives the plough”, said William Blake, and I still believe that the benefits, for soil and aerial biodiversity, of green manure leys outweighs the damage caused by having to turn them into the earth. But any cultivation, especially one as aggressive as rotavating, loses soil carbon and nitrogen to the atmosphere. Up there, dust to dust, to a land who knows where. As I followed the machine up and back, pass after pass, I could only hope and trust that they carry with them specks of the Hawkwood spirit of solidarity, like a message in a bottle, like a glow in a smog.

Letting Go and Coming Back

“If you want to keep a plant, give it away!” Brian Holden rejoiced. We were in the Growing Communities’ Springfield garden, about ten years ago, where for some time sithe, a kind of perennial scallion, had been cultivated in the alium round of the rotation. Brian had cultivated these from a few bulbs gifted to him a further few years previous by Sari, whose partner had cradled them over the ocean from his – and its – native Caribbean island of St.Kitts. We’ve picked up the story at the point where Sari enters the garden for the first time, and is thrilled to find a whole bed of sithe growing, having lost her original stock to some disease or pestilence.

My mind has returned to this moment, and Brian’s profound utterance as, a year on from our planting out the wee rhizomes of the endangered Walthamstow Yellow Cress (see May 6, 2013 entry), it has established well enough for us to propagate, and send it out into the wide world. As we reach the end of the Waltham Forest Cultivate Festival, there are now five guardians of this freak East End watercress, making its survival in this part of the world more certain, just as its original sole habitat on the Walthamstow reservoirs appears less so. Furthermore, I’m proud to report that Slow Food UK have ushered this shy leaf into the hallowed ranks of “Forgotten Foods”, one of only nine vegetable foods to achieve the distinction. Forgotten but not gone, if our release strategy works.

Such selling or gifting of plants and seeds, the letting go in order to keep, is a common practice that might be variously seen as generosity or enlightened self-interest. Or, to use the term popularised by Peter Kropotkin, “mutual aid”. In his 1902 book of the same name, he presented extensive examples of how nature cooperates, within and across species, for shared benefit. Written shortly after Darwin, the concept provides a sane, rational and rich response to the tendency to reduce the notion of “survival of the fittest” to “every man for himself, and devil take the hindmost”.

Today as in Kropotkin’s time, this tendency has a powerful lobby. That’s why the EU is seeking ways to outlaw the distribution of “unregistered” plants like sithe and the yellow cress. That’s why genetic modification technology continues to be pushed, though it is failing in its own supposed objectives of reducing pesticide use and increasing yields; and it is driving small farmers into extinction; setting brother against sister and children against Mother Earth.

The garden in spring speaks of different possibilities, of working together for sensual and material abundance. In the glasshouse afternoon, the broad bean flowers emit a heaven-scent perfume better than any bottle. The bumble bees bumble about them, as bumble bees do, feeding themselves and performing the vital act of pollination. So we can eat, the beans can reproduce to fight another day, and, going underground, bacteria at the roots fix nitrogen for the following crop, whilst worm casts its dark magic. “The earth is made a common treasury for all”, the Diggers proclaimed as they set about establishing their outlaw agricultural communities as the English Revolution reached its climax. They may have been naïve, still they weren’t wrong.