So I’ve finally finished building all of the beds, about 14 months after we took on the plot. Here’s how it looked back then, by the way. Currently there are loads of seeds doing what seeds do, fruit bushes developing nicely, potatoes beginning to surface, and onions roaring away (well, where pheasants haven’t rooted them up out of curiousity). It’s been a much more gentle pace to the start of the growing year, so I’ve enjoyed the strike-force of robins that scour the earth for worms, the sparrow-hawk that scour the hedgerows for robins, and the field mouse that scampers along the hedgerow doing who-knows what. And the skylark song filling the air.
It’s all go now. Manure has broken down nicely into the soil. I’ve dug over a couple more beds, but the gist of it is, the ground is already much better than at this stage last year. I repaired a broken greenhouse panel, which blew down in the bad weather in February, and we’ve been potting seeds in there. Outside we’ve planted the first phase of carrots – we’re planting in phases so we don’t get gluts – and root parsley. The second photo up above is of the random corner bath, which now contains strawberries at the front and onions planted at the back.
The grassy area behind the shed is in full swing as well, with our two new trees showing life. Last year that was full of glass, which I think came from a former broken greenhouse; and bits of slate which, cleaned, have proven quite useful. This is the thing with some city allotments – it’s not a perfect world, and they’re occasionally used as dumping grounds. People move on from their plot, leaving things in a right state. It’s technically against their contract, but the council tend not to chase the matter up. This is the sad side to allotment sites in Nottingham. Whereas some of the more prestigious sites in the centre of the city get a lot of funding, ours, which lies at the periphery of the city, is rather forgotten about…
We are now, pretty much, in full swing. The grass seed, which was planted last autumn, has come up really well – giving much needed colour, as well as a sitting area for hot days. First early potatoes are now in the ground, as well as a few more onions. The manure has been dug in properly, so that should hopefully get the soil improving. It was also a tremendous afternoon to be working there. I remember this time last year, we spent most of the early months building beds and so forth. It’s been much more enjoyable in the second year.
Certainly we’re in a better position than last year. All the beds have already been built, paths marked out and so forth. But the soil was still of pretty poor quality – whoever had the plot before us never put any muck down. Which is precisely what we did today – a truckload of manure has been chucked on top of the beds, ready to be dug in when the time comes. But for now, all of that juicy poop is a shot-in-the-arm for these beds. Suffice to say my back now really, really aches…
We got our allotment last winter (January, I think) and we’ve pretty much done a full year of it. The above photo is a before and after collage. It’s good to see that we made a lot of progress – there’s still loads to be done, but we got it into good shape and ate some decent food, all in a busy year of getting married.
This was personal therapy, too. I spend a lot of time behind a computer screen, and working on an allotment shook all that artificial stuff out of me. Things were real and tactile on the allotment. Senses were stimulated – not just sight and sound, but smelling, feeling. During this year, I started taking online arguments far less seriously than I used to. I won’t say I withdrew from digital communities much, but the allotment certainly helped put things into perspective. It allowed some proper thinking time – or sometimes just not thinking at all. That made writing far more liberating and enjoyable than it had been. I think I started using the internet differently as a result: without being so immersed in stuff, it just seemed like one huge culture of mock-outrage to generate hits and advertising revenue. Anyway, suffice to say, this has done my mind some good. Doing Real Stuff – in whatever form that may take – is probably the best writing advice I can give now. It keeps your head pretty much in the right place.
I loved this book. I think it’s one of the best pieces of British nature writing I’ve come across in a good couple of years. Certainly the best I’ve come across since Roger Deakin’s work. What makes it even more unusual as a piece of nature writing, is that it’s explicitly about taking things from nature – but with utter dependence upon nature.
The concept is pretty simple: Lewis-Stempel, who has access to a bit of land (though who is by no means wealthy), plans to live entirely off that land. No home-grown vegetables are to be found here, though. Lewis-Stempel aims to forage for his greens and shoot for his meat – for an entire year. Anything else is cheating.
There’s plenty to say on foraging, though it’s mostly nuggets of useful information and recipes. As you might expect, it’s actually quite an ethical book when it comes to the subject of killing animals, though. Lewis-Stempel has some very interesting reflections on the meat trade: that wild game has lived a far more pleasant life than anything led to slaughter, which is how the rest of us get our meat. And that killing is not – and ought not to be – a pleasant experience. It highlights a clear disconnect in the modern world, though: food is packaged up, kept well away from our conscience. We are desensitised to meat production. This unwillingness to accept and to face that we must kill to eat meat is, I think, not a good place to be. Yet in this book, we are dealing with wild meat, and Lewis-Stempel engages with the natural world on a far deeper scale. So much so that he can taste the difference between food caught in the wild and that which is slaughtered, an impressive feat. (It’s a remarkable transformation of taste, too, and by the end of the experience Lewis-Stempel can no longer get on with starchy carbs and sugars.)
To be a human is to take from nature, though some take more than others. It’s unavoidable. We’re not even really a part of nature as, able to control mechanisms of selection such as our access to food and the environment we can endure. We sit outside of natural systems. But Lewis-Stempel’s efforts to jump back in shows us just how removed we are from the natural process, but also how much everyday humans take in comparison. Hunting and foraging for wild food is minimalistic. Probably as minimalistic as it gets. No vast tracts of land are handed over for monoculture. There are no pesticides. It’s not insensitively reared food. Could you feed the world like this? Probably not. This is one man, with access to land, but even so it’s a heck of a lot more sustainable (in the non-greenwashed sense) for more people to attempt to live this way.
Throughout the reading, my feelings moved on from one of huge respect to one of envy. I actually became jealous of his experiences, the fact that he became tuned-in to the natural world in a way that we were designed to be. This is far beyond growing one’s own food. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a good bit of free wi-fi and a Macbook Pro, but in this book I was shown something deeper, something truly authentic. It spoke to my current personal quest to connect with genuine things, to find satisfaction in the authentic rather than some abstract quest for happiness (or what we’re sold as happiness). Clearly, living off the land has its ups and downs, and moments of desperation, but Lewis-Stempel reveals a rugged realness that I’m sure would appeal to us all in some way.
Aside from the content, I do want to mention that the prose is bloody good. It’s written from an intimate, friendly perspective, with vivid descriptions of the natural world and some occasional, very hilarious references and anecdotes. Lewis-Stempel’s use of language was a joy, and was an example of nature writing that lacks whimsical pretension. It was as invigorating as a storm.
We’re not quite, but very nearly done for the year. The weekend was spent clearing away for the winter, and preparing some of the beds for spring. We planted garlic and onions for the winter, but that’s about it. I was amazed at how, even in mid-November, this still felt like early autumn. But there was an amazing light, complemented by the faint tang of woodsmoke nearby. This is the time for burning cuttings. At this point in the year I just want to spend all my time outdoors rather than behind a computer.
We interrupt all this shameless self-publicity about the new novel to bring you a chutney update. This was made with a glut of green tomatoes that hadn’t ripened – mostly from the garden, rather than the allotment. It’s always a leap of faith with chutney – tasting it warm never quite gives you a picture of what it’s going to be like when cool. But it was very nice in the end. And it was a lovely thing to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
I’ve not bored you all with allotment stuff for a while, but things are progressing nicely. It’s mainly weeding and harvesting at the moment – we’re almost at the end of the courgettes and onions, but the runner beans are still going, and the first wave of carrots are just waiting to be eaten. We’ve still got some potatoes waiting in the ground as well. The big patch near the greenhouse has been planted with overwintering seeds. I’ve also ordered some more onion sets for us to plant soon. I’ve got plans to make a more formal raspberry system as well, with posts and wires. Now we’ve got a good foundation, next year things can start to look a bit more professional…