Snowdrops everywhere!

This blog is the unfolding story of Rush Farm and an exploration of life by its philosopher farmer.”

Another strange week, though not I assure you on the farm, except as regards the weather. So much about Ukraine, so much about Prince Andrew, and an even greater amount of hype from the media than usual. There was also the usual mandatory nonsense from the other side of the Atlantic.  

The image of ex-President Trump stuffing documents either into his mouth or down the lavatory must have caught the attention of many cartoonists, who have also no doubt enjoyed making the most of that noted intelligent republican congresswoman Ms Greene’s latest offering on the enquiry into the events of the 6th of January where she renamed the notorious ‘gestapo’ as the ‘Gazpacho police’. Always inspiring to see how effective modern education is!  

So, it was rather reassuring to hear our defence minister showing some knowledge when he referred to the annexation of Sudetenland in 1938. The Ukrainian government rather disliked the comment, for understandable reasons, but, how good to know there is at least one Minister who actually knows something relating to his position. In my mind, Sudetenland is very much associated with the words of a German woofer whose grandparents were among the 3,000,000 Germans evicted from their homes after the war, though their ancestors had lived there since medieval times, and she spoke of how, how even two generations later, she suffered from not being accepted as a real German.   

Otherwise, the words of the song ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’ who marched ten thousand men to the top of the hill and then all the way back again’ continually comes to mind over the situation in Ukraine.  

As one who still remembers the Cuban crisis very clearly – October 1962 for all young readers –   when we really expected Armageddon, the Ukrainian crisis feels relatively small beer, and I fear as a former card player, Putin’s bluff should have been called by NATO troops going into Ukraine days ago. Tom Tugendhat, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee seems to have moved to this view, as does Tobias Ellwood, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee.  

I have failed to comment on the move in the cabinet reshuffle of Lord Snooty aka Rees-Mogg. Many, many years ago a visit to our family in Shoeburyness on Sea had the added attraction of being able to leaf through children’s comics not allowed at home. Lord Snooty was in fact a rather more attractive character than Rees-Mogg, but the name feels so fitting. This year at Christmas I bought both the Beano and Dandy annuals for grandchildren and found them both little changed, and with a level of humour that defeated me. Feedback from the grandchildren has however been very positive.  

This came to mind because early in the week I heard from a past French Woofer who long ago introduced me to the fact that in France, in particular, the graphic novel was very popular. Aside from the series by Posy Simmonds, I had to confess I knew of no other author of this kind of book in English. The Posy Simmonds books skewered a particularly noxious subset of our society, probably best summed up by ‘PLU’ or ‘people like us’. Her sources all appear literary, but in time I wearied of her. I believe her books for children are regarded as first rate. Why the graphic novel is far less popular in this country I do not know, but for myself, and I think this holds true for me for films also, having pictures leaves less room for my imagination. 

Farm News  

On the farm this week, Storm Dudley did not expose us to the damaging winds that have affected northern areas, but we had enough rain to ensue ditches had running in. We had substantial standing water in the usual places in the fields, but that was inevitable given our clay subsoil. Interestingly the sheep, who now have their feeders in the barn and so could avoid the rain, choose not to go undercover.   

Friday’s storm was supposed to be quite another matter, but somehow, despite real damage nearby, we had strong winds and no more. However, we have at least learnt two new phrases – a ‘Shapiro-Keyser’ cyclone event and ‘sting jet’; the attached photo explains both.  

What is a sting jet and how could it make Storm Eunice deadly? 

However, the weather this weekend then gave us both more wind and heavy rain.  

Though I have no news about the cattle, I thought you might be interested in being reminded that the natural lifetime of a sheep, if free of disease, is determined by its teeth. Sheep have biting teeth on their lower jaw only, the consequences of which are obvious. Molars are rarely the problem, but the ability to bite off grass is crucial to longevity. Our eldest sheep are around eight years old, and most sheep farmers would not continue to keep animals of that age. But if they remain fit and productive, we keep our ewes until they can no longer eat – false teeth for sheep really are not an option.  

From previous notes you will know we have many conversations about our sheep – the size of the breeding flock; whether we should bring in new blood; or even move away from keeping Lleyns. The conversations concentrate as much on our animal’s health and condition, and on our management techniques – all this very much in awareness that so many factor or forces are outside our control.  

Language and untruths 

Staying with matters agricultural and passing over the media’s contempt for good English – ‘at this moment in time’, ‘have a listen to, ‘less strong rather than weaker’, using ‘amount’ and ‘number’ interchangeably; there were two upsetting items. Simon Kelner writing about Clarkson’s latest problem with Oxford County Council, and covering that reasonably fairly, spoilt it all for me in his conclusion: ‘So much hot air about hot air. While it is possible to feel sympathy for the plight of farmers today, meat production is responsible for nearly 60 per cent of all greenhouse gases, according to a major study in 2021, so why shouldn’t action be taken at a local level?’ 

This is journalism at its worst, lifting figures incorrectly, and without giving any distinction as to carbon and methane and their relative damage or change over time.  

As to the attitude of the County Council, I am reminded that while I worked at Brent, the council declared it a nuclear free zone – a similar absurdity. My office on the sixth floor of a block of flats was the fallback position if the Town Hall was destroyed! Mind you, to question this was heresy.  

Fungi 

This week a paper from the University of Birmingham reported on the importance of fungal activity in nature, particularly in woodland, and the importance of this when planting new trees. Some thirty years ago, asking an expert from the same department at the same university as to how I might safely move elderly and large rhododendrons from their home for the past 40 years, the advice he gave was simple and clear; ensure the mycorrhizal network is well transferred at the same time, in other words move plants each with a substantial ball of earth. Not a plant was lost.  

Twelve years ago, soil analysis from Laverstoke advised us to spray our fields with fungi from the wood because that would improve our soil. The government’s awareness of the importance of fungi, whether in planting a tree, or improving pastures, appears to be zero. At the same time, how come researchers at Birmingham University today seem to have forgotten work done in their own department all those years ago – does one laugh or cry? Actually, on a par with the egghead who informed us that carbon is not the only serious element of good soil. Well, that is exciting news!  

The garden

It would be remiss of me not to update you on the near arrival of spring here. There are snowdrops everywhere, and Paul would tell you that they are a mix of varieties. The first primroses are showing flowers, while bulbs of all kinds are thrusting their way into the light. The week has also seen the movement of half a dozen hydrangeas to a new home at the back of our long and wide herbaceous border where they will get the shelter from direct light they need. This variety produce an almost endless supply of big white blossoms on the year’s the new growth which means frost is less of a danger.   

At the end of the garden the Mirabel plum trees are showing the first signs of colour. As to these trees, I have wondered often why we keep them since only rarely do they have fruit and, aside from the short period when they are in flower, they fall into the category of the lilac – pretty briefly, then looking mundane until leaf fall.  

I would love to be able to say we have seen new varieties of birds in the garden, but apart from what seems to be the return of our resident collared doves, nothing new has been spotted. These doves once were migratory birds, but over the last fifty years they now seem to be sedentary, and rarely moving far away from their birthplace. Where they hide in the winter, I do not know, but their first sighting is always around this date. Our resident pair of buzzards seem undisturbed by close proximity to the house – the bird photographed was perched just outside the formal garden.  

Dangerous journeys 

Last week, as I wrote about slavery, the rhyme ‘Oh the bight of Benin, one may leave, twenty will remain’ was very much in my mind. Given space considerations I did not then seriously address the health dangers of the West coast of Africa for Europeans. Reading accounts of voyages to that area from the 16th century it was clear that venturing there was a very risky business. Reading an account of French experience suggested that over a period of twelve years, on average, officials had to be replaced every 12 months because of death or impending death. Statistics for vessels trading in slaves show death rates in the vessels for the crew were nearly as high as for the slaves. A terrible period.   

Indeed, it was not until quinine was discovered that Europeans, for better or worse, could spend prolonged periods in West Africa as mortality rates fell. Malaria was and is the real killer; though I had it more than once, in one episode, delirious and a with a temperature of 105+, Anne claims I reared up and tried to strangle her – worth saying that was despite taking prophylactic tablets, so imagine what might have been the case otherwise! At least I avoided blackwater fever which came close to killing Chris’s grandfather.  

Words 

I promised some time ago to explore the idea of republicanism, and I will when circumstances permit. In the meantime, I thought it worthwhile to remind ourselves of how many words we use on a very regular basis which in fact have no straightforward meaning. I am talking about words like republicanism, anarchism, communism, freedom, democracy, and monarchy. In fact, it is a struggle to think of many words which have a clear, indisputable meaning. For the majority of words, adjectives are needed as crucial additions for clarity. For others, many have particular meanings for the users, which may well clash with the views of others. After all we cannot collectively agree as to the meaning of democracy even in so-called democracies, and my real concern is that all this is not properly discussed or explored, and the result is too often potentially disastrous consequences.  

Africa

Reading Paul Theroux’s travel book “Dark Star Safari” is both deeply depressing while also, trigging happy memories, and leaving a trace of hope. Given that Paul is the father of a very popular TV presenter and has also been one of our greatest travel writers, many of you may well have read the book. Theroux, like us, first went to Central Africa in the early 1960’s, in his case, being American, as a Peace Corps volunteer. Indeed, his first year, 1963, was spent in Malawi. The book tells of his return to Africa forty years later.  

In 1965 we were located in Zambia, very close to the border with northern Malawi, as it had become. The country we used to evacuate to when supplies of drinking water were broken.  

Whatever we and the locals thought of the Peace Corps, its volunteers were like us in imagining we were there at the beginning of a bright new world for these newly ‘freed’ nations. 

Deliberately, we never returned, and reading this book – incidentally so far we are in Ethiopia – I suspect the journey thereon is even more depressing, reaffirmed for me that this was the right decision, all those aspirations turned out to be false. In any case, in my mind the past is for learning from – no more. ‘What if’ is not worth dwelling on though exploring counter factuals can be amusing.  

By the way, if you have never read a book by Richard P. Powell, his finest in my view is Don Quixote, U.S.A. As a satirical comic writer this is quite brilliant. It also gives an accurate inside into how volunteers from America were even more naïve and ignorant than we were. A great book but this is of course a digression.  

The conversion of former African colonies into independent states had to happen but was based on so many false beliefs and errors by both the leaders of ‘freedom’ movements and the ex-colonial powers. The watch word for the people was ‘freedom’, and their understanding of what this actually meant was no better than the understanding of those who voted for Brexit – and in both cases politicians either lied through their back teeth or had deluded themselves into believing their own rhetoric.  

Certainly, on the British side, giving independence to the colonial territories was absolutely necessary, both politically and financially. The colonisers wanted out, and in doing so, at the risk of being cynical, ignored obvious realities. Democracy in this country evolved over hundreds of years, to imagine it could just be slotted into societies where its concept was utterly alien is hard to see as merely naivety.   

Then there was the issue of tribal identity and loyalty.  The past history of bad blood between tribes could under the colonial power be managed but, once that power went, at the best, corruption was as inevitable as individuals seeking personal power, at the worst as in Zimbabwe, outright genocide of one tribal grouping. Bizarrely, the colonial office chose to forget that a number of territories had actually been taken in hand to protect and prevent inter-tribal strife. Bechuanaland Protectorate, now Botswana, came into being to actually protect that area. Do not get me wrong, there would have been pragmatic reasons attached to the ‘do-gooding’.  

Music & poetry

Given the word limit I try to work to, I shall end on a comment about my ‘lucky dip’ approach to listening to lesser-known composers. Essentially while it mostly works that is not always the case. With a new to me, composer, I will play the CD at least twice before determining a view. The CD I have been listening to most recently has been chamber music written by Max von Schillings – sadly, I came to the conclusion it was not for me. Indeed, I needed to turn to Amy Beach for comfort.  

I have selected poems by Emily Dickinson before, and always feel uncertain as to whether she is a poet that all will enjoy. However, some of her poetry strikes me as being very powerful so hence the poem below.  

How Human Nature dotes by Emily Dickinson

How Human Nature dotes  
On what it can’t detect. 
The moment that a Plot is plumbed  

Prospective is extinct —  
  
Prospective is the friend  
Reserved for us to know  
When Constancy is clarified  
Of Curiosity —  
  
Of subjects that resist  
Redoubtablest is this  
Where go we —  
Go we anywhere  
Creation after this?  

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