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…
Having been away for two weeks, there’s a huge amount to do on the allotment. Mainly weeding, as the weeds have pretty much taken over. We discovered several enormous marrows had erupted, along with almost a dozen patty pan squash. However, as you can see from the top photo, we’re now able to cook full meals with allotment produce, which is just great. The flavours are so intense compared to supermarket produce – and the food looks real, not freakishly symmetrical.
Having handed in the second Drakenfeld novel before I got married, I can actually enjoy the allotment now without feeling too guilty for being away from the computer.
Well, I say haul, but it’s only a few things. The first lettuce is ready, though we’ve several others that can be dug up soon. The first pattypan squash are ready. We’ve had plenty of courgettes, too, but they’ll be a regular occurrence throughout the summer. And some more carrot thinnings – not the main crop, but they’ll keep us going.