from Louis in Johannesburg: Organic Gardening, churches and world leadership

September 14.

The spring has sprung and the crops are in the fertile ground nourished organically by compost from last year’s leaf drop, irrigated from our granite-based spring water.

Spinach in the foreground, cabbage in the RHS distance, onions peeping over the palisade in the LHS, radishes and more. Growing vigorously in the early morning spring sunlight under bird-proof netting. We can’t wait for the harvest in a couple of weeks. Morogo, cole slaw, radishes in the salads, onion relish etc.

Returning to the description of the various places of worship in the vicinity of our small farm and vegetable garden.

I was struck recently by a comment by one of the political commentariat about South Africa being “Russia with a good climate.” A couple of years ago I was visited by Slawa, a Russian friend. His father translated the ship’s log of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama from the Arabic – they were written into Russian. How I wished I could read Russian to trace the early days of discovery of this part of the world. Da Gama is one of the first visitors to Southern Africa in the 1490s.

Slawa wished to attend the celebratory service of St Stephen at the local Russian Orthodox. St Stephen, who’s feast day falls on April 26, is one of the most successful and dynamic missionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church. I duly transported him to the exquisite church a few kilometres away across the valley. This beautiful church was built by the Russian community living in Midrand.

The Russian community consists of approximately seven thousand souls living in close proximity to our home in Midrand. Midrand provides equal access to Pretoria and Johannesburg as it is situated approximately halfway between the two cities. Slawa reported in a hushed voice that he had identified a number of KGB agents attending the service as well. Apparently they are easy to spot. I wondered what they pray for?

https://www.st-sergius.info/en/

St Saviour’s church, literally two doors up the road we live in, has a more interesting history. Its building was part of the property developer’s strategy when he developed Randjesfontein in 1980. I moved in in August 1980. St Saviour’s used to be a local church in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Natal Province now called Kwazulu-Natal (KZN). The St Saviour’s building was acquired for R1 and moved to our suburb where it was rebuilt to its original design. The link below provides easy access to it. One of the annual events I used to arrange during my fifteen year corporate tenure at Eskom was a reception held on our property. One particular year we hired the African Jazz Pioneers to provide music while we celebrated another successful year. There are a number of dams on the property.

On that occasion, we were sitting on the lawns approximately where the vegetable garden in the above pic is now situated. The St Saviour’s church was visible from where we were partying. During one of the breaks in the music flow the trombone player signalled to me to approach him to talk privately.

He said. “I used to live in Pietermaritzburg and walked daily past a church that looked very much like that church up the road on my way to school.”  But, he continued, “I know churches do not move from one city to another.”

I replied hastily, “Well, this one did!”

St Saviour’s has a lovely acoustic amongst the vaulted, yellowwood beams and open ceilings. Many an operatic recital was held in it and art exhibitions in the cloisters adjoining the church with a magical herb garden in its centre. It has become a popular venue for weddings. The graveyard opposite its entrance silently bears witness to its past. The patriarchs of the Erasmus family were laid to rest here in the 1880s. Many generations later the Chaukes and Sitholes also were accommodated in the small cemetery.  The Erasmus family owned vast tracts of land and gave their name to many developments and suburbs in the vicinity such as Erasmusrand, Erasmia and so on. The property now called Randjesfontein Country Estate (RCE) is where we have lived since August 1980. More than 400 families call it home. See link below for details and visuals.

https://www.midchurch.co.za/cp/7243/st-saviours-church

Yesterday, was a red letter day for me marking the 150 anniversary of the passing of Jan Smuts. My family were ardent supporters of Jan Smuts and Louis Botha. We visited the “Big House” he and his family lived in Irene, a twenty minute drive from here. Once again I was awestruck by the colossus of Smuts the polymath. He overshadowed and struck fear into the hearts of the apartheid government who voted him out in 1948 to begin the path to becoming the polecat of the world. South Africa is one of the few countries where Smuts’ contributions to the establishment of the United Nations and other international contributions does not form part of the school curriculum.

The National Party and its adherents systematically continue to erode his legacy in South Africa. He remains relatively unknown in South Africa, his home, to which he regularly returned from abroad. Christ College, Cambridge ranks Smuts with Charles Darwin and John Milton as the three brightest alumni in their history. He later became Chancellor of Cambridge. A new curator to the Smuts House Museum has reorganised exhibitions in the house around the theme of “a boer family and their life at home”. Gratefully Isie his spouse or “Ouma Isie” as she has become affectionately known has been featured prominently. Smuts coined words such as holism (in his writing, “Holism and Evolution” completed in 1927), “commonwealth” to replace “Empire” in a more meaningful way capturing the essence of a post-colonial era.

In the context of the era he lived in, Isie Krige Smuts matched Smuts intellectually and emotionally. She spoke Afrikaans, English, French, German, Spanish, Greek and quoted biblical passages in classical Greek to which Jan Smuts would reply also in classical Greek.

The “Big House” as it is known has been superbly curated and improved. The two centres of the house are Smuts’ library and the kitchen where “Ouma Isie” would cater for a constant flow of guests including royalty from Great Britain and Greece. Reigning King George’s family including a young future Queen Elizabeth visited in 1947.

Smuts did not suffer fools easily. However, he indulged children. One of his feats he would engage them with was to invite them to pick any book from his library of approximately six thousand copies. They were requested to read any two pages from the selected book. He would then tell them the title of the book and recite the two pages back to them word perfect.

Social distancing was absent during the two lectures we attended on Jan Smuts and Ouma Isie. However the passionate curator painted a picture of a modern partnership, even by today’s standards between Isie Krige-Smuts and Jan Smuts. Ouma Isie often stood side by side with Smuts and delivered campaign speeches, translated his writing into other languages and provided support where needed.(see link below for more information)

https://www.smutshouse.co.za/   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Smuts

from Louis in Johannesburg, South Africa: Small holder organic farming, bartering and trading within suburbia. Thanks Covid19!

August 30. I have been awestruck by the rapid digitally enabled transformation of learning. Rachel is not looking forward to returning to class based schooling which is scheduled to resume soon. She is dreading the exam season which does not suite her learning style and persona. 

Thanks, David for your helpful observations about the shortcomings of exams as they are now structured. The links you provided have also proved insightful and rich, thank you. The beneficial application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be welcomed by Rachel. Hopefully it arrives within the next four years. Klaus Shwab, founder of the WEF, reminds us that 4IR is not value free. There are constructive as well as destructive applications of the disruptive technologies contained in the so-called Fourth Industrial revolution (4IR). The application of AI in examination of knowledge would be constructive application. Smart cities which are rapidly evolving in The People’s Republic of China (PRC) seem to be reinforcing coercion and control by intruding into the private space of its citizens. In due course I expect 4IR technologies will also be used to enhance informed economic choices thus catalysing wealth-creation and democratic processes.

COVID19 has compelled me to stay out of its path – by all accounts I am in its kill zone. That has been a mixed blessing as it has enabled me to not only self-isolate but also turn inward to writing and gardening/farming. A recent visitor commented, once he had seen the various facets of self-isolation on our small holding, that we had prepared for the apocalyptic moment where SA as we know it has collapsed.

In the meantime, back on the ranch (on our self-isolated small holding) in our agriculturally oriented suburb life is changing for the better COVID19 notwithstanding. It is returning to life as I imagine it once existed. This lifestyle is becoming the new normal on our suburb of more than 400 families. Yes, it’s a gated suburb. Ow else could it be crime-free in the current version of SA?

Small businesses developed out of necessity are truly the mother of invention. COVID19 has all but wiped out small businesses. Most restaurant chains have closed many outlets and some franchises have been declared bankrupt. Giant synfuel corporations SASOL reported a R90bn loss last week.  In the meantime Sean, just up the road we live in, has become a supplier of packaged meat products and supplies our needs. He delivers to our front gate, complete with face masks and sanitised bags, thinly sliced smoked bacon, smoked pork-neck, rump and T-bone steaks and topside mince and more.

Other suppliers add Salmon and other fish delicacies to their offerings. All of it at prices well below what the retail chains ask. We have redirected all our purchases to support these businesses. Sarah, also close by, supplies us with fresh farm eggs by the dozen, untouched and virus-free delivered weekly from a farm more than 400 kilometres away. The farmer now has sufficient business from the surrounding suburbs obviating the need to subject herself to the vagaries of the large chains and their unethical manipulation of quality and price of the little supplier. I expect if these initiatives survive beyond COVID19 they will become the new normal.

A WhatsApp group has sprung up amongst the 400 families to put buyers in touch with local suppliers. Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ at work! Sarah our egg supplier also supplied us with Spekboom cuttings. The Spekboom, an indigenous succulent from the Eastern Cape, is interesting as it grows easily from slips. It is a very good carbon dioxide sink. It is edible to both browsers as staple feed and humans as a delicious salad ingredient. I have planted a row of these useful plants and intend supplying our kitchen from the growing hedge it will form in our dry garden. More about the broader Midrand context and churches in a future entry.

This morning at dawn, I received a tour of the crops that are growing in the cultivated area of our property by Malawian gardener, Victor Magonja. Onions, Radishes, Spinach, Cabbages, Hubbard Squash thriving as the season turns to spring and summer. Gem Squash planting from seeds harvested selectively from last season’s crop to follow as staggered planting limits the feast and famine cycle of glut and shortage. We tithe our crops with anyone who participates in their cultivation. Spinach is a great favourite, for making traditional African Morogo, amongst our friends and colleagues.

We also make Morogo as a dinner staple in season and freeze surplus for out of season consumption. I can see in my mind’s eye the welcoming, broad smiles from friends and colleagues which greet an armful gift of freshly picked Spinach.

http://globaltableadventure.com/recipe/stewed-spinach-greens/

Delani Mthembu, Myelani Holeni and Alex Mabunda and neighbours are the primary beneficiaries. Our pecan nut trees are also harvested delivering 30-40 kgs of nuts per fully grown tree. All crops are organically cultivated, with nutritional compost also from our garden.  

Thanks to Monsanto and others which practice shareholder capitalism (which is in decline and probably failing) seed harvesting is not possible as the GM crops have been modified so that seeds are sterile and cannot be replanted. We found this out with the corn we planted. Unethical capitalists compelled us to buy new seeds instead of harvesting and replanting. We are finding out by trail and error which seeds can be replanted and which can not. We avoid buying GM seeds where we can. Historically, Monsanto registered seed banks in the USA as their intellectual property. One of these seed banks contained 11,000 seeds! Access to these seeds now carry a royalty to Monsanto.(‘Future of Food’ documentary available on DVD made by Garcia’s widow). In Holland we were able to attend public activist citizen gatherings including the Dutch Minister of Agriculture to talk about these matters.

Winter evenings are spent in front of a roaring fire fuelled by recycled invasive Eucalyptus hardwood. Namibian charcoal, made from invasive species, fuels our outdoor cooking when Eskom fails to meet demand and we experience blackouts. Rolling blackouts are now quite common.

from Louis in Johannesburg: life under lockdown …

June 29. Life under lockdown in South Africa has settled into a routine. These routines have been stripped of the jarring interruptions from another way of life where the clock and the time it keeps rules. Electric lights still extend the day beyond what is a healthy cycle. I prefer this rhythm. The rooster’s crow as the sun rises is one signal of dawn breaking. The playful bark of our small dogs starts their announcement of a new day. No better, non-violent alarm system, self-adjusting to solar time. Going into Southern Hemisphere winter in May, nights are lengthening and days shorter. Our little natural system is geared to track this shift. I am the beneficiary of that shift for now. Time to feed the dogs, and the chickens and also to collect any eggs for breakfast. Enjoying an egg this fresh tends to make one judgemental about the so-called fresh eggs from the local supermarket

Then into my workspace to continue working on the writing and other matters of developing an income in this time of lock-down. I am committed to converting a thesis to a readable piece of writing for practitioners interested in rebuilding towns and cities as the next phase of my so-called career. This diary has recently taken second place to my plan to leverage my modest process-consulting business of scenario-based strategy and executive education (aka capacity-building) during and after this lock-down. I appreciate the privilege we enjoy working from a home office. Commuting to the office is a one minute stroll down the corridor gets me into my “office.” From there Zoom and Google meeting connects me to a scenario session in New Hampshire and a family friend’s funeral in Dublin in the same day.

Since 1990 when I left the corporate world, I have enjoyed the benefit of knowledge work. Long may it continue. In the early 2000s an Irish Life assurance company engaged us to develop scenarios for a viral attack and its consequences. That’s where I learnt that a viral attack similar to the 1918 so-called Spanish Flu was inevitable. The timing was unknowable. Since the Spanish Flu we have seen a succession of viral attacks on the human species. A number of other “inevitable surprises” spurred me to consider what a sustainable, robust plan for our home in Midrand would look like.

We live in a community of 450 families. Together we have pooled our resources to ensure that criminal elements cannot enter to make or lives a misery. Our security manager, an ex-cop with sound relationships with the South African Police Services (SAPS), understands that criminals are not deterred by the consequences of their actions but by being tracked around and within our community. In these days of extended lock-down our community support grows by the day. Sean from Homestead Meats delivers bacon, sausage and steaks later today. His meat processing is down the road from our home. Sara brought in eggs by the dozen a couple of days ago. She is down the road as well. We support both these home-based entrepreneurs in their efforts to sustain their families in these times. Back to creating a sustainable home, we installed solar water-heating and grid tied, generator-assisted electricity, which hedges us against our faltering national electricity supplier and its predatory pricing. We have been off the water grid for years but receive regular “accounts” from Joburg water. The so-called accounts seem to be based on some poor soul extending last month’s reading and rendering an account based on that estimate.

Our organic garden delivers, spinach, pumpkins, gem squashes, basil, rosemary and other herbs for kitchen cooking. “Flattening the curve” between growing your own veggies and the demand in the kitchen takes on a whole new meaning. Suddenly the importance of curried beans, frozen veggies and surplus pesto to absorb an overproduction of basil highlights the complexity of farming where supply and demand must be matched to avoid wastage.  We are constantly and painfully aware of our privileged life and remain engaged in assisting in the broader community at an interpersonal and project levels.

A local car guard, from the DRC whom we have befriended, receives a monthly stipend to sustain his six children and spouse. Another person, a Malawian, receives food parcels and monthly payment regularly as he stays in isolation. During the hurricane/typhoon last year in Mozambique, Marie moved 32 tons of clothing and food into Mozambique via the Charitas faith-based network to help the needy there. Currently she is again coordinating the Charitas efforts to assist people in need as result of the Covid19 pandemic. 

Over the past four years, I have coordinated a blanket-fund as part of a men’s group. We raised funds, acquired and distributed more than 4,000 blankets to the poorest of the poor. My engagement in various poorer communities has indelibly changed my perspective on township life in our province and how to support the needy. For instance, balancing the quality of blankets purchased and distributed, with the context of the recipients is critical. Too high quality and they are sold to buy food. Too low quality and they are discarded on the refuse dump where I understood they are harvested by other people lower down the needs chain. Zero wastage in poorer communities. This, besides raising money for numerous other donations to orphans in distress in an underfunded orphanage and a mission station for abused women and their families to name a few. In these ways we ensure that as a family we maintain an ethical balance between our relative comfort and those in need in this country fraught by the greatest inequality anywhere. Dwelling on how corrupt politicians blatantly steal food parcels destined for the poor or use their power over the starving to extort votes for food seems “just how it is here” for now.

My hope is that as the Covid19 exposes the political opportunists and fracture lines in the SA society opportunities for policy improvement will open up. The imminent entry by the IMF to fund the national deficit will eliminate short-sighted ideology-based decisions and encourage pragmatism in terms of evidence-based economic policy. According to the Institute of Race Relations’ surveys, the average South African simply wants government to create jobs, reduce criminality, provide education for their children and medical care for the sick. Expropriation of property without compensation is ranked last in a list of ten top priorities. The ideological blinkers worn by the socialist/Marxist national political leadership of the ANC prevent them from seeing the priorities of the average person in the street. Never were Prime Minster Thatcher’s words more prescient; socialists are politicians that run out of other people’s money.  Every Rand paid by the taxpayer devotes 58 cents to servicing foreign debt. Many of the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are technically insolvent. Eskom now owes R500 Bn which is state guaranteed. Ministers are trying to recover South African Airways (SAA) which is also technically insolvent. This in a climate where airlines in general are struggling to survive.

For the first time in memory, government is turning to the much maligned private sector vilified as “white monopoly capital” (WMC) as a potential source of further borrowings. LOL. Attention is gradually shifting towards unlocking the economy and restarting organisations which have been dormant during lockdown. The extent to which society has adapted to social distancing, and other behaviour required to keep safe, is astounding. Many now prefer this mode. School children in high school now prefer what they call home-schooling via computer link. Teachers have made the investment in digitally delivered provision. The adjustment may be permanent, with typically the higher grades preferring this mode while the lower grades, which need careful supervision by parents at home prefer a back to school choice.

Many of the private schools have been accused of racism amidst the global wave of Black Lives Matter (BLM). In South Africa its history predisposes this society to ingrained racist practice which is often invisible to itself. Transformation usually begins with non-racial policy and due process to deal with behaviour that violates policy and agreements between parents, pupils and schools. However, behaviour of pupils is shaped by the attitudes and values formed in the family context. Prejudice and stereotyping persists in families long after the need for societal transformation is seen to be essential. Schools as institutions are also being called out for individual racist behaviour under the current our cry for BLM.    

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Intrinsic and Extrinsic

June 18.  I recently had a discussion with a Dean at a university I am reviewing, about intrinsic versus extrinsic reward.

She was arguing that in her faculty, staff found such satsifaction in their teaching and research that external validation was not important. 

There is a truth in this view.  One of the great privileges of a career in higher education is that it is full of people who found a passion in life, and a form of employment that enabled them to pursue it.  Most academic staff pay little attention to the exact length of a working week, or indeed very often to their maximum holiday entitlement.  They work long hours because of their commitment to the progress of their students, and their desire to push back the boundaries of knowledge in their chosen field.  A smart or lucky institution will align the enthusiasm of staff with the interests of the organisation without imposing a formal regime of mission statements and coercive strategies.

And yet, from a PhD onwards, every move is subject to peer review.  Projects are initiated and completed as part of a conversation with fellow researchers, and their response will range from the supportive to the terminally destructive.  And however much an academic’s labour is driven by personal enthusiasm, mortgages have to be paid.  Everyone in the trade has either experienced or witnessed the colossal demotivation a failed or delayed promotion can cause. 

There is a contrast with the passions that get you out of bed in this lockdown world.   Where there is no remunerative labour to undertake, what is the purpose of the day’s activities? 

Take for instance gardening.  My village takes part in a national open gardens scheme, where on a given summer Sunday, people can visit private gardens for a small fee which this year is donated to a nursing charity.  We have always refused absolutely to take part, however worthy the cause.  This is partly because in normal years we lack the time to arrive at a point of weedless perfection, but more fundamentally because what we grow is no-one else’s business.  We are happy to show it to visiting family and friends, but our pleasure in our achievement is, in management speak, entirely intrinsic.  Even between the two of us, each has their own programme of work, and we choose whether to tell the other what we are doing and how well it is going.

There are, of course, those who treat gardening, or some other recreation, as a form of work or competition.  Targets are set, outcomes are measured.  A brother-in-law runs every Sunday, recording his performance on an app that allows him to compare his times with runners of the same age around the world.  Gardeners have been forming themselves into societies and awarding prizes for fruit and vegetables for more than two centuries in Britain.  This was not just the practice of the well-heeled.  A survey of working-class gardeners in the industrial north in 1826, identified fifty auricular and polyanthus shows annually, together with twenty-seven tulip, nine ranunculus, nineteen pink and forty-eight carnation competitions.  The committee of the society would meet for a leisurely, alcohol-fuelled judging dinner, and then award prizes.

It is, nonetheless, one of the reasons why the pandemic lockdown has been bearable for those lucky enough not to be struggling with working and child-teaching at home.  We have always pursued our recreations for our own satisfaction, and it is a minor matter that, in my case, the best of my garden will be over this year before anyone else gets to see it.

That said, were I to win a prize for my sweet peas at the Shrewsbury Flower Show, all my promotions and all my books would be set at nought.

from Steph in London: transport or teleporting?

June 15. So, the shops can open tomorrow – it will be interesting to see how successful it will be and who will venture forth.

It made me think how we will get into London when it’s time to go – public transport being off limits for the foreseeable future. We made a conscious decision to run a small car several years ago. It is great for city living, can be parked in the smallest spaces and suits us…. Or it did suit us. Faced with no trains, UK holidays and car travel to Holland to see the children do we need to think about a different option – slightly larger, more powerful and more comfortable for long journeys? It goes against our environmental philosophy to think about it but we are all being pushed onto the road again. I’m not sure how that will play out.

We moved a huge pot containing a Cornus Kousa (dogwood) up to the top of the garden today to finish off the design in that area. Having time to get the whole garden replanted and organised has been a joy and for the first time since we moved in, we feel as if the garden is now ours. All we have to do now is keep everything alive.

Relationships with lockdown and Covid appears to have changed considerably. Is it fatigue or a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to get us out of this mess? They certainly have lost the confidence of many- to the point that we no longer believe almost anything we are told. How could it have been handled better and why on earth wasn’t it?

 Answers on a postcard …

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: the classics, a baptism and a survivor

Diotima

June 14. I am steeped in the classics, the Greek classics. Every day I study at least one of the philosophers or the great plays and today my subject was Diotima because I’m working on a small project on the women philosophers of Ancient Greece. Diotima scores a mention today not only because she is part of what is probably the most famous teacher – student chain in history, Diotima taught Socrates, Socrates taught Plato, Plato taught Aristotle and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great – but because, according to Socrates, she delayed the onset of the plague to Athens by ten years. It’s not made clear how, other than by appeasing the gods, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if a woman first taught the principles of care, isolation, hygiene and so on over two and a half thousand years ago.

baptism of Hektor

My study had to be put aside. The garden required serious attention. I scraped back my hair, put on my daggiest, least flattering work gear and worked hard digging and weeding. Any makeup had sweated off and my damp with sweat hair stuck to my head when my little neighbour, Artemis, called out for me to come out of my garden and onto the road.
She had a puppy with her.
‘I want to baptise him,’ she said.
Now, it must be made known, each and every one of Artemis’ dolls has been baptised in our tiny chapel, plus there have been some doll weddings, so it makes sense she’d want her first pet baptised too.
She asked me to be the Nouna, the godmother. So, in the height of my sweaty gardening non-glamour, puppy was baptised in my shiny new red bucket as the baptismal font. He was given the name, Hektor.

the goats arrive

After the baptism I returned to work and soon heard the jingle of goat bells. The shepherds were guiding their herds back from the day’s grazing. It’s such a common sight I didn’t stop to look. I had too much work to do but I caught a glimpse of the shepherd. It was Christo, the snake bite victim of a few weeks ago.
I yelled out to him. ‘Perastika sou.’ The traditional phrase one says to someone who has been through trauma. It means, May it pass.
‘Thank you. Thank you. I’m not well yet but I thought I should start going out again.’

Christo, the snake-bite survivor

He re-enacted the event showing me how his kerchief slipped from his neck and how he bent to retrieve it when the snake struck to bite him on the hand. His hand is still bandaged. ‘I might only lose this finger,’ he says, wiggling it at me before he herded his goats away.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Aaron’s walnut tree

The walnut tree

June 5.  Back in early April, I wrote a piece lamenting my barren walnut tree.

A metre-long stick had arrived from a garden centre, and despite the most careful planting, had refused utterly to grow.  All around it, Spring burst into life.  The forsythias, lilacs and wisteria bloomed, the fruit trees blossomed, the daffodils, tulips and roses flowered, the lawn grew, even the adjacent beech hedge, always the last to move, had become a shiny green wall.  Still, every morning when I went glumly to inspect its corner of the garden, nothing had moved.  Then one day, a definite swelling of the buds, and, earlier this week, finally shoots and leaves (see photo).

Readers will recall the Biblical story of Aaron’s rod during the plagues of Egypt:

Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds. (Numbers 17: 8).

Thus with my rod.  ‘Almonds’ may have been a translation error for walnuts.  At a time when rational, quantifiable evidence about our present circumstances and future prospects is in such short supply (see ‘Miscounting’ on June 2) foundation myths, metaphors, parables, have a particular attraction.  Insight and comfort can be afforded by such verbal constructions, particularly when they are enshrined in authoritative documents.

So what does my walnut tree mean?

Clearly there are opposing interpretations.  On the positive side, the tree represents the triumph of persistence over doubt (my life-partner was heard to pass discouraging comments about the entire enterprise of walnut trees during the barren weeks).  It represents the unshakeable rhythms of nature in the face of man-made misfortune.  It represents an investment in the future, however uncertain our present times.

On the negative side, look more closely at Aaron’s achievement.  His rod produced blossom and fruit.  Mine has grown only leaves, late in the season.  No walnuts until at least next year, no serious crop for some years beyond that.  We’re not there yet.  So also, most probably, with defeating the coronavirus.  Even in those countries which appear to have suppressed death and infection, there is no security that the plague will not return, whether as a small upturn or a full-blown second wave.  It will be around next Spring, and could well be a permanent presence in all the future that we can see.

But that is the point of such stories.  They can contain opposing meanings.  As also, when it comes to it, most current statements from the Government.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Flowers…

May 29. Flowers!  On May 19 I discussed the very high level of domestic gardens in this lock-downed country.  It is a practice with a long and much-described history.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, specialised plant-rearing spread out from country houses to the mass of the population.  By the beginning of the Victorian period there was a large industry of specialised nurseries, supported by a burgeoning literature which in its way supplied as much useful and timely information as Monty Don’s Gardener’s World.  The 1803 edition of John Abercrombie’s Every Man His Own Gardener, for instance, ran to 646 pages of monthly tasks, followed by another hundred pages cataloguing plants and then a thorough index.  Artisans joined together in associations which offered annual prizes.  A survey of the industrial north in 1826, identified fifty auricular and polyanthus shows annually, together with twenty-seven tulip, nine ranunculus, nineteen pink and forty-eight carnation competitions. 

I have on past Fridays, supplied stay-at-home food from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of 1861Here now, for those who like me still cannot get to garden centres, is the London trade in plants as sold in the Covent Garden and Farringdon wholesale markets.  In this case the volumes are not the point; there were numerous nurseries on the edge of the capital also supplying a substantial market.  But Mayhew’s table does describe the basic tastes of Londoners in garden flowers:

Primroses         1,000                                     Polyanthus                         1440

Cowslips           1200                                       Daisies                                  1400

Wallflowers     1920                                       Candytufts                          1200

Daffodils          1200                                       Violets                                  2400

Mignonette      3800                                       Stocks                                   2880

Pinks & and Carnations   800                      Lilies of the Valley            288

Pansies              1080                                      Lilies and Tulips                 280

Balsam               640                                       Calceolarii                            600

Musk Plants       10560                                   London Pride                     720

Lupins                 1600                                     China-Asters                      850

Marigolds           10560                                    Dahlias                                  160

Heliotropes        1280                                      Michaelmas Daisies         432        (p.131)

Most of these plants, in one form or another, are the staple of modern nurseries.  It could be argued that gardens constitute one of the strongest links between the present and the past.  In most other areas – diet, clothing, occupation, health, mortality, warfare, politics, religious belief (in particular) there is a void between our own times and a period even as recent as the Victorian era.  But less so in the practice of growing flowers (and vegetables).

Rose Cecile Brunner

John Clare (1793-1864), the great peasant poet of nature, owned half a dozen gardening books, including Abercrombie, and had a deep interest in the latest developments in horticulture.  Were he to find his way into my garden, he would recognise many of the plants as versions of those that he grew, and would take an informed interest in later imports and introductions.

Above all he would understand why I spend so much time between my hedges, and what pleasure it gives me, with or without the current inconvenience.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Of Sheds and birds.

May  20th

Our allotment came with a shed.  We acquired it in bygone days (about twelve years ago) when there wasn’t a waiting-list list of 50 to 100 aspirant fruit and vegetable growers anxious to get their hands on a piece of earth to till.  We even had a choice of allotments, whereas now people are lucky if, when they get to the top of the list, there is a vacant quarter of an allotment for them.  There is an element of lottery to what one finds. If you are very lucky your allotment will come with a greenhouse, or established raspberries, or apple, plum or pear trees.  One of the ones we were shown had three knarled apple trees at the far end, but was some way up the hill from both the main path and the nearest tap; another was an impenetrable bramble jungle.  The one we chose was on the main path and, in addition to a world-beating crop of couch grass, it had a shed, inherited from many generations of allotmenteers who have tilled that piece of land before us.

This isn’t the kind of shed David Cameron bought to lick his wounds and write his memoirs in after the Brexit referendum, nor is it a Roald Dahl bottom-of-the-garden, cosy book-writing type shed.   Our shed looks as if it was somewhere on the fringes, rather too close to the trenches, during the Battle of the Somme.   The vintage looks about right, and, while it doesn’t appear to have sustained a direct hit from which it has been resurrected, it gives every evidence of having had its now rusting corrugated-iron sides pierced by a variety of shrapnel and the occasional stray bullet.  This is surprisingly helpful in a number of ways.  We were able to have a choice of allotments partly because there had been a spate of vandalism at the time and a number of the tenants had given up in despair.  Our shed looked as if it had already been so severely vandalized that there wasn’t any point in setting it on fire.  It appears never to have had a door and looks so decrepit that nobody in their right mind would dream of keeping anything valuable in it.   So through all these years I’ve kept all my garden tools there quite safely, using a motorcycle lock to secure the wheelbarrow, spade and fork to one of the still very solid uprights.  

Best of all, the shed allows free passage to any intrepid bird interested in exploring it, and right now it boasts three blackbird chicks in an appropriately dilapidated nest on a high shelf in the far corner from where the door isn’t.   The nest, like the shed, has clearly been inherited from a venerable lineage of previous tenants.

The morning’s jobs being done, we sat down to have tea in the only significant shade on the allotment at present, which happens to be beside the shed, to the evident consternation of the two adult blackbirds who were intent on feeding the chicks.  The male had tried a couple of intimidatory fly-pasts quite close to me during the course of the morning to let me know I wasn’t welcome and, deciding there was no mileage in that tactic, concluded that stealth was the answer.  As the female sat at a safe distance waiting her turn with a beak-full of grubs, the male flitted nearer and nearer from cover to cover:  from behind the cordon apples, to the rhubarb, from there to a clump of lupins, getting closer and closer to the shed with each flit.  If either of us looked directly at it, it suddenly remembered that it had urgent business elsewhere and headed off back to the cordon apples to start again. When we pretended not to be watching it, once it had stalked close enough it would make a couple of feints to see what we might do, which was obviously precisely nothing, and than take a giant leap for blackbird-kind by flying in through one of the shrapnel holes and depositing its worm into one of the eagerly waiting mouths.  As soon as the female saw that her pioneering mate had made it past us, she flew straight in herself.   He, however, still didn’t share her newly acquired confidence and, once he had collected his next mouthful, which he did surprisingly quickly, he started the whole routine all over again.   So our tea took much longer than usual. TV and Netflix have their uses under lockdown, but there is a greater immediacy to live entertainment, and one gets it where one can. 

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: pickled eggs

May 19.  Last week the invaluable Office for National Statistics published a survey of gardens in the UK.  The headline news was that one in eight homes lacked a garden, another measure of the wide-ranging inequality of experience in this crisis.

It is possible, however, to take a glass half-full, or seven-eighths-full, view of this finding.  It seems to me astonishing that on this over-crowded island, so long after the invention of high-rise living, the great majority of people in Britain want to live in property with a fenced fragment of nature attached to it, and are able to do so.  For the locked-in elderly the proportion of those with access to private outdoor space is even higher at 92%.

The size of the patch of land is not really the point.  Obviously, half an acre is a luxury to be enjoyed if it can be afforded.  But each of my children, living in their first houses in London, take immense pleasure in the small rectangles of grass and surrounding borders beyond their back doors.  The two that have young offspring have room for a sandpit, a paddling pool on hot days, a portable wigwam to play in.  It’s been kind of rite of passage for them to start acquiring the horticultural knowledge and skills that they saw their parents possess and practice when they were themselves growing up.

Possession and use of a garden are matters of private choice.  It is a measure of the relative transience of the coronavirus pandemic is that we have not been instructed to ‘dig for victory’ as was the case in the Second World War (although today Prince Charles has launched a ‘pick for victory’ campaign to help the commercial fruit growers).  Despite occasional gloomy forecasts, we have not been told to grow our own food to survive.  In the First World War the pressures of urban slums were relieved by the provision of over half a million allotments following the Smallholdings and Allotment Act of 1908, which required local authorities to purchase or lease land upon which their communities could grow flowers and food.

Gardening is a necessary pleasure.  As we begin to reduce the lockdown, garden centres have been amongst the first to be allowed to re-open, albeit with appropriate distancing measures.  That much of their retail space is out of doors makes them a safer proposition than, say, clothing shops, but the queues that immediately formed once the relaxation was announced were testament to the pent-up demand.  As I noted in a previous entry, the fact that in the northern hemisphere the pandemic has coincided with Spring not Autumn has helped to make the crisis bearable, but it has also created a lively market for plants, fertilizer and other sundries.

As with any recreation, gardening also performs the function of providing substitute dramas and anxieties, to distract from the larger problems.  Last week the major misfortune in my life was not some coronavirus-related event, but a sharp May frost which decimated fifty cosmos plants that I had grown in my greenhouse and just planted out in the garden.  Then there is the mole which has started digging up a lately sown patch of grass.  In a Zoom session with my home-schooling seven-year old granddaughter, I asked her to research humane remedies for moles.  She came back later in the day with information that putting pickled eggs down their holes should keep them at bay.

But where, in the midst of a lock-down, am I going to obtain pickled eggs?

https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/articles/oneineightbritishhouseholdshasnogarden/2020-05-14