“This blog is the unfolding story of Rush Farm and an exploration of life by its philosopher farmer.”
I have achieved remarkably little since I last wrote and have no ‘bon mots’ with which to start these notes. Sleep, family sociability, listening to music, reading and thinking, basically sums it all up but amongst all those, there have been many joyous times. Watching the fire in our log burner (specially designed to provide minimum pollution) also was so much more relaxing than watching some idiocy on the television screen.
Others have not been so idle, and I include Anne in that group; when you have livestock there can be no free days, but at least Ulula shut down for a few days, giving that team an opportunity to enjoy Christmas, the end of year, and our eldest granddaughter to celebrate becoming a teenager, while ensuring we all eat very well indeed.
Give me a gap of two weeks in writing notes and inevitably the list of thoughts to share lengthens dramatically, but let me reassure you here and now, self-discipline has prevailed, and after the farm notes I refer to only two issues.
Our climate over the past weeks has demonstrated that whatever the time of year, we can in a short period encounter almost the whole range of weather we love so much. The highlight was perhaps this past Thursday as we drove through a mini blizzard on yet another venture to ease my back. Of course, within two hours, the snow had gone, and the wind had gone likewise. The absurd warm period we had was good for the pastures, though we could have done with more than just two severe frosts.
Holidays it may have been, but the farm never shuts down. Animals have to be checked every day, as do the water troughs, new feed has to be put out every two days, whether it be for the cattle or the sheep, and field growth noted.
Animal numbers have also changed; 60 store lambs were taken to Fordhall farm, and we had a new calf. Happily, we had no emergencies, though the plentiful rain meant that the bridle path, the track to the field in which the ewes are, and the area around the stacked bales have become very muddy. Still, despite all this rain, which left puddles in some fields, the Brook never broke its banks, and we had no floods.
Sadly, we learnt that yet again French undergraduates would not be coming as their university decided for reasons not solely related to covid, but rather more to the paperwork consequences associated with Brexit, that no placements were allowed in this country. I was attempting to explain to a young person that before we entered the EU, aside from visiting Iron Curtain countries, movement between countries normally just required a valid passport – care coming back home was needed of course vis-a-vis customs and duty-free limits, but otherwise a ‘piece of cake’.
What we have had recently is slightly more information regarding future grants for farmers. What we know confirms our conviction that the Ministry has little idea of life outside London and, as bad, is well behind the knowledge curve.
Mind you it is just as bad in Wales and Scotland. The Welsh government is committed to planting 86,000,000 trees and covering 43,000 hectares with them over the next nine years “as a response to climate change”. We have no information about which trees are to be planted, or what land they are to be planted on – nor whether they even understand something Darwin first established nearly a century and a half ago and now has been ‘scientifically’ proven, that tree planting for best results requires mixing species. This is all absurd. Tree planting does have value but very little in terms of reducing CO2! Either politicians are genuinely ignorant, or such policies are a grubby attempt to gain political advantage.
As regards England we have had some positive news, and some seemingly as daft as the line the Welsh government is taking. On the positive side we have just received hard figures on the grants for Country Stewardship, and a first look at the figures, suggests our funding should rise slightly. On the much thornier question of how organic farming will fit in to this new world, the news, though not hard, suggests the government now sees organic farming practices as positive and a meaningful contribution to its concerns for the environment. Adrian Steele, a key figure leading the Soil Association negotiations with the government updated us on the 16th of December with a positive, if cautious, message to that effect. It remains a serious problem that the lead minister finds it impossible to actually use the word ‘organic’ preferring the word ‘holistic’.
Two new grants have been announced of which the most eye catching is that for ‘wilding’ or tree planting areas from 50 hectares upwards – I remind you we farm less than 80 hectares! So, this really is for the ‘Big boys’. You may recall a section I wrote on rewilding some time ago in which I reported the conclusions that the process takes many, many years and does require to be adjacent to ancient woodland.
A second relates to paying farmers not to leave ‘bare earth’ but to ensure ground cover is maintained at all times of year. Certainly, in this part of England you very rarely see farmers not adopting this practice. It is true that for years it was believed that leaving ploughed ground bare for winter frosts go break down clods of earth was good practice, but more and more farmers are turning their backs not only on this idea, but the idea of ploughing altogether, preferring as good practice to disturb the topsoil as little as possible. Finally, to keep you entirely up to date, I share with you the good news we must put all our cattle though the TB process in April!
Over the holiday period we all watched on Netflix a video called ‘Kiss the ground’. An off-putting title and rather alien in presentation, it is nonetheless a ‘must watch programme. I believe it is also available on DVD or Video.
A very different Christmas for us both, as for the first time we sat back and essentially did nothing but appear at appropriate moments. No presents to wrap at the last moment, no putting up decorations, no determining menus and then managing the kitchen. Both in bed by 9pm and no organising Christmas breakfast, and absolutely no regrets at the transference of responsibility.
For myself, the early morning was taken up by thoughts about missionaries. An issue I have always been shy of addressing as a result of close ties to Wesley and his evangelising in Cornwall centuries ago, to close relations living in Africa as missionaries, to close friends who once were missionaries, and because of a grandmother who always had a box by her front door to collect money for the BMS society. Two recent pieces of information however force me to comment.
Missionaries appear to fall into one of three groups. Those who feel the need to actively attempt to proselytise, those who hope to convert by example, and the charlatans.
The last group seem to be associated with American evangelical ideas, making vast sums of money for themselves rather than for good works, sadly these wretched people are now entrenched in parts of Africa aside from the southern American states.
The group that I particularly struggle to manage my negative feelings about are the first in the list. This is essentially for two reasons, both historical. It is easy to believe the British Empire expanded to support its traders, and that is in large part indisputable. But it is not the whole story, some military actions, but as often civilian tensions and racial tensions, were clearly brought about by missionaries – such as the attack on Abyssinia in 1855/56, or troubles in India and the Pacific islands. All arose from a sense of certainty based on a particular reading of the bible allied to contempt for ‘savage’ practices and ignorance. They were the worst products of the thinking of their times, and too often bound by notions of racial superiority and all that went with that. After all it was only in the 1870’s that attitudes to the poor began to change to a view that they should not automatically be written off as idle and ‘bad’ people.
Fortunately, other ‘missionaries’ sought to learn and make sense of customs and ensure that unknown languages were explored and transcribed into writing; to help communities learn to live healthier lives and give some, new beliefs and understanding.
And then it was Christmas Day, and for us, no stress, good food and good company, with all the weight taken on other’s shoulders. Shoulders incidentally that had made their way to the barn the previous night to sing Christmas carols to the cows. A day planned in such a way that an afternoon snooze could be enjoyed by some, while younger members enjoyed playing, or reading with their Christmas presents.
At the same time as all the above was going on, I was reflecting on the latest developments in archaeology having read a fascinating article in Nature. Given that from the age of 11 the family lived in Bournemouth with the Jurassic coast close to the west and Stonehenge and a multitude of barrows to be found thirty miles to the north, this interest was hardly surprising. Fossil hunting at Chapmans Cove to the west, and Barton on Sea to the east, provided many examples of fossils. Going further west to Lyme Regis, home to one of the earliest fossil hunters and a woman, revealed fossils from an earlier period.
To the north, apart from Wood henge and Stonehenge, was Avebury, while all over Salisbury Plain were a variety of barrows – round and long. And of course, not far from Dorchester were what was known as the Badbury rings, and the even more dramatic Maiden Castle. And while considering ancient nearby sites, Hengistbury Head, a sandstone outcrop was even closer, and was settled around 14,000 years ago, well before the breakthrough of the English Channel some 8,500 years ago.
Names such as Jacquetta Hawkes, Pitt-Williams and Sir Mortimer Wheeler were as familiar as to us as Humphrey Davy and Newton.
Access to bookshops in Zambia was limited so we were one of many who joined the Readers Union, one of a number of organisations that sold copies of books at affordable prices – once upon a time there was Recommended Retail Price maintenance on books and it was the ending of this that destroyed vast numbers of small bookshops – and in this new hard world, organisations such as ‘World Books’, the Companion Book club, and the Readers Union thrived. For us, both in Africa and Canada, the Readers Union was a godsend.
Among the books bought and which still grace my bookshelves are the first four in an UNESCO attempt to publish a history of mankind. The project, which was certainly noble, though assuming knowledge was static, started in 1953 but it was not until 1963 that the first books were published, taking the story up to 500 AD. This delay had much to do with the joining of Russia to the organisation, but some ‘credit’ is also due to the Vatican. Progress on the proposed six volume series thereafter was slow in the extreme since the writing needed to accommodate national and religious interpretations on the history post 500 AD.
Those volumes were, I know, eventually written and published, but I am not sure when and if, and indeed have never seen one of them in a bookshop. That they exist I know because they can be bought second hand at around £100 each.
Though it is many years since I last read the volumes I do have, it was in writing this that I remembered how much I owed to those books in ensuring interest both in the distant past and in understanding all parts of the world had, not just a present, but also a past. Dipping into the first huge volume on prehistory by J Hawkes and Wheeler I was reminded both of the work of those giants, and just how crude and out of date their approach was, but then they were among the greatest of the trailblazers, attempting a scientific approach after centuries of damage done by antiquarians. My thinking about this now seemed appropriate given the news of the death of Richard Leakey whose work in Kenya with his equally famous wife on the origins of our species was so outstanding.
Before I go further, I am sure you need not reminder that I am no more than an interested curious amateur and treat what you read accordingly. I make no absolute claims for accuracy in what follows, and I make no attempt to detail possible human occupation in the inter-glacial periods that will have occurred in the earlier 900,000 years.
Neanderthal peoples clearly came and went, and crucially these islands were in fact joined at several points to the continent. So, I am doing no more than attempt to understand the history of the humans that began to occupy these islands over the last 8,000 years as much for myself as any reader. Other necessary points to make are firstly that it seems rare for archaeologists to agree amongst themselves, and secondly new discoveries are being made very frequently.
Having acknowledged all that I need to confess I suspect that much that we were led to believe was from the imagination as from hard knowledge, indeed, much theory was built on sand as I suspect much still is. Dating rested on experts looking at bits of crockery, the level at which they were found, and the likely age of that deposit. The arrival of radiocarbon dating in 1949, when used alongside this other data was the first significant improvement in accuracy of dating. There are, apparently three isotypes of carbon of which only one, carbon 14 is radioactive. The significance of this is that over time there is decay and the half-life of carbon 14 was known. This, however, only takes dating so far since it relies on organic material being found. Developments in the understanding of DNA not only made the life of the police easier but importantly, if only a trace of DNA can be found in a piece of bone, a date can be determined.
British prehistory was hitherto defined in terms of cultural behaviour – in funeral habits, pottery and metal working. So, we had in our minds a sequence of hunter-gathers followed by the neolithic period or Stone Age, then the Beaker or Bronze Age and finally before the Romans came, a period sometimes defined as proto-Celtic – the iron age. Dating of these periods suggests that the Neolithic period began 8,000 years ago, that its numbers declined sharply for reasons unknown around 4,500 years ago when the first signs of the Beaker culture appeared. That culture lasted longer in these islands, but in due course new notions from the continent brought in the Iron age sometime around 3,500 years ago, and this was itself overtaken by further new ideas around 2,500 years ago. The rest is, so to speak, recorded history.
A key question still not fully answered even today was the degree to which the movement of cultures was associated with the movement of actual bodies. Information about this, unless evidence could be found of large numbers of mutilated bodies, can only come from DNA evidence, and though relatively large numbers of human skeletons from before the modern age have been found, the statistics are limited so speculation comes into play.
There now seems to be agreement that the neolithic people either died out or were eliminated by their successors in that few modern inhabitants of these Isles have any neolithic genes. Current evidence suggests a startling decline in their numbers before the DNA of the Beaker people all but eliminated other genes.
Having written the above, and thought and read further, the fact is that while these islands show a unique geological record together with associated fossils, two things stand out.
The first was that the bulk of these islands were covered in ice from the last ice age for at least 10,000 years, emerging finally some 12,000 years, and that consequently our relatively hard knowledge of human occupation is limited to that period. The second is that while Africa may have spawned what was to become homo sapiens, situated as we are on the western fringe of the Euro-Asian continent, as all movements of people and culture started in the far east, Britain was the end point of these movements.
From that essential fact may well come the way we look to the west and for many generations maintained the migration impulse.
Having reached this point it occurred to me that the notion of being an Aryan had not come up at all, but then I remembered a book that I had read some time ago with great interest. The book called ‘The crisis of German ideology’ attempted to set the scene for the growth of the Nazi party in the early 20th century, based on an apparently common belief among intellectuals that the Aryans (Germans) and Jews were the only two pure blooded racial groups, and of the two only the Aryans were fit to be regarded as Nietzsche’s Superman.
Aryan is a word I guess most of us recognise but, if like me, have never thought what it really might mean. To find out I turned to my trusted copy of the Shorter OED where all was revealed. The word comes from the Sanskrit and refers to a region of ancient Persia and is the root of the name of the country now called Iran. As an adjective, it refers to a group of languages commonly known as Indo-European.
How on earth German intellectuals could have allowed their society to describe themselves as Aryans is unimaginable. Of course, German is of the Aryan family of languages, but so too are a very wide range of languages including Sanskrit and Russian. Intelligence is no guarantee of sense, indeed how on earth can some 2,000 people turn out each year to attend the New Year’s Day concert of Viennese waltzes.
Somehow by some unkind spirit I am led to listen to this most years. This year however I rebelled and halfway through the programme turned it off thinking if I had to listen to a time warp, I would actually prefer ‘Music while you work’ or ’Worker’s playtime’. Bizarrely shortly afterwards I found myself listening to cello works by the composer familiar to all as the man who composed the music for the Can Can dance.
Though as German in origin as the Strauss brothers, and composing at the same time, the music of Offenbach, normally seen as a French composer, though as hedonistic, is so much less pretentious. Probably I ought to acknowledge he was a renowned cellist, and his cello music is very enjoyable though with a hint of light operatic music.
Though I have much more I would like to share, I suspect I have used my time allocation so in ending, can do no more than hope, as I am sure you do also, that matters in 2022, here, and in the rest of the world are better than in 2021.
I conclude with a New Year Carol, author unknown and much to ponder on.
Here we bring new water
from the well so clear,
For to worship God with,
this happy New year.
Sing levy, sing levy dew,
the water and the wine;
The seven bright gold wires
and the bugles that do shine.
Sing reign of Fair Maid,
with gold upon her toe,-
Open you the West door,
and turn the Old Year go.
Sing reign of Fair Maid
with gold upon her chin,-
Open you the East Door,
and let the New Year in.
Sing levy dew, sing levy dew,
the water and ;the wine
The seven bright gold wires
;and the bugles they do shine.