Thursday, October 27, 2011

The New Digger

It has not been a great year for weather here in Powys, and as a self-sufficient grower, I can say that it has been an awful year for growing. Some crops have failed entirely whilst others have given a very low yield. It all started with the coldest winter for at least 150 years, followed by what is said to have been the driest spring since 1910. As for summer, it was not only dry but, in my particular ‘neck of the woods’ dry and very windy. Watering the crops was almost pointless as the wind just dried them up again. Some things have made it through, but it has taken more effort than normal. Even established trees needed watering – in Wales!!!  (For those of you who do not know Wales, it has a reputation for being wet.)
Question   ‘What do you call forty days and forty nights of rain?’
Answer      ‘ In Wales we call it  - ‘summer’.’

It’s not so bad. Having to dig in my shallot crop two months after planting, at least I have the option of buying some from the supermarket instead. In many parts of the world – once, it might have been in all parts of the world – crop failure results in hunger and even death. My grumblings, put in context, are trivial. A bad year of growing crops is, for me, nothing more than frustration and wasted labour. We will sit down to a good meal whatever the failures of the year have deprived us of. Our silent grace (we are Quakers) will give thanks for what we have, in the hope that others will ‘have’ too.

Time after time when working on the land, I think of what it must have been like in years long past. The village that we live in has existed, at least in some form, since the Iron Age and people have worked the soil continuously ever since then. The Iron Age people living in Wales were the ancient Celts and they saw a direct link between the forces of nature and their spiritual well being. Since becoming self-sufficient some eight years ago, this connection has not been lost on me; seasons, weather and the miracle of life are close to my work every day. Growing, gathering, harvesting, cooking and eating food are not only practical acts but spiritual acts as well. If modernity has divorced you from this simple connection then you need to find some way of reminding yourself about it in some way - and soon!

The poor weather has made this my least successful year of self-sufficiency and I will not be sorry when it is over.  I may not have to wait that long either  - the ancient Celts celebrated the New Year on the first of November (later Christianized to ‘All Saints Day’). Why start a new year in November? Well, the Celts, like the Jews, start each new day at sunset; so it makes sense to start the New Year at the annual equivalent of sunset, when the darkness of winter starts to fall upon us. It may be getting darker, but something is starting to happen. It’s not just a strange old Celtic custom -  it’s a pretty good idea!

 So what am I going to do at the start of the ‘New Year’, apart from putting the old year behind me. Working on the land means that the first job of the new growing-year can start - digging. I like to dig, it gives me time to think, and you can’t get any closer to nature than working the soil. I love the smell of the damp soil as I cut it and seeing the fast movement of tiny creatures that live in it. I feel an affinity with all of those that have worked this soil before me – I feel we are working together.  As we dig we are renewing the soil, and renewing ourselves in the process. The remains of what has been before can be dug into the soil and provide nutrients for what is to come. Digging is all about renewal and hope  - two things that are good any day of the year!  You may not be able to dig, but you can put things behind you by forgiving somebody. That is tending to your life as the grower tends the soil.

(C) Ray Lovegrove 2011

What's Hay Quaker up to this week?

  • Preparing new rhubarb bed
  • Planting blueberry plants
  • Harvesting tomatoes, chillies and aubergine (that's egg plants if you are American) from poly-tunnel
  • Harvesting lettuce, onions and mustard greens
  • Moving herbaceous plants
  • Pickling onions
  • Picking apples from the late harvesting trees
Poem by Edward Thomas about digging