Hen’s Eggs and Manure

Today we’ve been collecting more manure from Phil for our pumpkins, and came away with eggs from their small flock of hens. A fox got into the coop late last year & wrought havoc, as they do; these are a new flock just beginning to lay, producing beautiful pale blue eggs. Time spent collecting manure is also time to catch up with Phil and Anne, & play with Mutley, their young collie. He demands attention as usual, so time at the stables is divided between throwing a battered ball for him, and filling manure bags, then drinking tea.

During the last few days we’ve been preparing beds, lifting the last of the leeks, dividing bunching onions, re-planting some, harvesting most. One of our neighbours has sycamores growing on her boundary; we cut down the smaller trees for her and used the timber for terracing. There’s sycamore and ash, apple trees too, on the unassigned land bordering the lower entrance to our site. The sycamore needs removing as we’re planting the area with native species (mainly Ash & Hazel); the allotment association is managing the area as a long term project for the production of Hazel & Ash poles, an attempt to cut down on the amount of bamboo we buy in each year.

Using the felled sycamore, we’ve created another bed near the top of our hilly plot, dug out of the chalk & filled with the manure we’d collected, plus seaweed – we plan to try sweetcorn & courgettes here; we have also cleared land for a second greenhouse. It has to be constructed by May as the tomato seeds have germinated & are growing strongly. At the moment we have a frame and several panes of glass, so in the coming weeks we’ll be skip hunting, looking on Freecycle to source polycarbonate to complete it. For now we will concentrate on getting the frame rebuilt.

 

eggs_1

 

 

A Fox Wanders By

We often see lone foxes drifting across this landscape, following familiar trails; ours is a large site situated in a valley, bounded by a wood on its western side. At the head of the valley there is a golf course and beyond that fields, stretching off towards Ditchling Beacon. And we’re happy for fox to take on the role of pest control. One of our neighbours further down the valley told us about a fox family living under an old shed on the plot bordering theirs. They didn’t have any problems with rats in their compost bins. Fox is welcome.

Yesterday was different; three foxes. The first, a dog fox, disturbed while collecting wood chip to cover paths; the second, a vixen, encountered while filling the kettle for tea; and the third, another vixen, sitting by the gate at the top of our plot. We’d walked up to the back of the plot to get bags of seaweed for the potato beds. Fox was sitting by the gate, watching; only when we got too close did she turn away along the top path.

Fox wanders through our lives, elusive, disruptive, its classification problematic. Although its behaviour patterns and anatomical features identify fox as a member of the family Canidae, it also shares several features with cats, creating difficulties for the naturalist, the red fox’s long, very thin canine teeth and its ventrally slit pupils with their well developed tapetum lucidum are extremely obvious cat-like features. […] One other cat-like behavior, though, that is not so easily explained is the lateral threat display used by foxes in aggressive displays (stand sideways, back arched, fur erect etc). This very classic “cat pose” seems out of place in the behavioral display of a canine. David J. Henry suggests that fox’s fluid nature can be accounted for in evolutionary terms.

This ambiguity, that vexes scientific certainty, is also central to the fictional fox. The European tradition begins in antiquity via writings of natural history by the Elder Pliny, Aristotle, and Claudius Aelianus, and through writers of comedies such as Aristophanes, or historians like Herodotus (Uther, 2006: 134). For Martin Wallen, the problem begins with Aristotle:
For a systematic observer like Aristotle, an animal that conceals itself from plain view is wicked, since it represents the limit beyond which empirical observation cannot reach. […] The identification of the fox as wicked and belonging to some primordial chthonic order reverberates throughout descriptions and stories of all centuries and cultures (Wallen, 2006: 11-12).

A creature of the earth, fox is associated with primordial chthonic forces. Aesop’s fables developed and focused these powers into fox’s defining characteristics: intelligence and cunning, it’s ability to work outside the norms of society. Early Christian and Medieval thought condemned fox’s fluid nature, associating it with the Devil; an association transmitted in part, through Bestiaries, allegorical texts that articulated a world view with God at its centre. These often lavishly illustrated books, attributing moral and symbolic qualities to animals, exerted a profound influence on Medieval art and literature. The Physiologus stands at the beginning of this tradition. As Hans-Jorg Uther points out: The equation fox = heretic, as it is transmitted through the Physiologus (a work of the fourth century CE), for example, has had a particularly long term effect.

But, then there is Reynard, who, for almost 800 years […] provided a distinct mythos for literature, drama and ecclesiastical allegory depending on whether the poet, scribe or woodcarver saw the fox as entertainer or as allegory of Satan (Wollen, 2006: 52). Reynard’s subtle nature has proved extremely durable, but the negative associations persist, the crude equation still has currency, the heretic still a disruptive anti social element, a creature to be hunted.
The relationship is curious; wild creature, adversary, vermin, a pest to be controlled, not exterminated. Intimately enmeshed in the rural economy, fox is managed & bred to maintain its presence for the hunt. Viewed through this lens, it’s not too difficult to imagine the significance of the ritual role attributed to fox hunting, by the ‘custodians of the countryside’, in symbolically maintaining the social hierarchy of the rural environment. And when the hunting lobby points out that hounds, not humans, kill foxes, they deny the obvious, humans train fox hounds to pursue and kill foxes.

So, fox remains an outsider, populating our imagination as much as the environment we often share with it. It therefore seems fitting that fox should be a welcome transient, drifting across an allotment landscape characterised as marginal, under the constant threat of development.

On a Wintry Day

 

Wintry showers spreading south during the morning…

There’s never a moment of inactivity on this allotment site, even on the bleakest of days. Yesterday was sunshine, wind and rain, sleet too, but still there were people working their plots; our neighbours across the valley stacking boards to replace rotten ones they’re using as terracing. We’ve continued to use felled sycamore to repair our beds through the winter; the results, a softening of outlines, an irregularity after the severe regimentation of scaffolding boards. The beds meander rather than sit grid-like across our plot, but then again we were never ones for squaring off, so the felled logs continue an arrangement that has evolved over time.

We often find the seaweed mulch scattered across the paths bordering the fruit beds. Sitting quietly by the shed drinking tea, we watch a blackbird root through, then select a strand of seaweed from a pile ringing a gooseberry bush. The seaweed is pulled away and the blackbird methodically picks at the strand. A Robin scratches and pecks at the wood chip on the path.
Then the rain sets in again & we decide to take shelter in our ‘new’ greenhouse. The frame was given by a neighbour on our site, the glazing we acquired through Freecycle, and where it didn’t fit we cut and patched with scavenged polycarbonate, securing it in place with gaffer tape where necessary. It withstood the wind yesterday, which is a good sign. Now it just needs plants.

Between showers we managed to weed and began to prune the sage bushes, but then we were engulfed by a hail storm and decided that we’d done enough for the day.

hail storm_allotment

It’s in the Soil

…attempts to define a landscape necessitate judgements of cultural value, and throw up issues of power, authority and pleasure…[1]

The sun shone briefly, before clouds gathered, and rain set in again. We seek shelter in the shed, but not for long; the forecast is for heavy showers and that’s what we’re getting. The site appears deserted, maybe a little neglected, but it’s the season, the time of year. Standing on this hillside, or sitting drinking tea by the fire pit, we seem to have the valley to ourselves. But look again, there’s a scattering of people working their plots between the showers. Someone walks along the track though the valley, a small group passes by on their way to one of the allotments run collectively; during any day there will be people moving about this valley.

New plot holders, above us, have been clearing the skeletal remnants of a polytunnel Joe erected years ago, the plastic sheeting long since disintegrated. Other people moved on after he died, stayed a short time, then left, and with each successive leaving the plot became more neglected, abandoned to bindweed and nettle; it’s now being slowly cleared. Joe’s long since gone, but his presence is felt in the tap he installed by diverting water from the mains, or so he told us during one of our many disputes over access to water. He’d leave a pipe permanently attached to water his tomatoes in the polytunnel. An arson attack leveled his shed, left the Sycamore badly damaged and dangerous.

From the outside, maybe to someone walking the perimeter path, this site probably looks ramshackle, but what they don’t see is a process of constant change and renewal that this common ground undergoes, nor the histories that this land holds. Thinking about Joe, Arthur, talking to Gladys, who’ll soon be 92 and still working her plot; from the outside these lives, and the memories they carry with them of this landscape, remain invisible.

We are all temporary occupants; some will last a season, others, like Gladys and Georgina, stay for years, working, shaping the ground, but always in the knowledge that this land is not ours, doesn’t belong to us, isn’t our private property. The longer we stay, working, shaping, improving the soil, the more we hope the next occupants, strangers to us, will appreciate the work we’ve done over the years, and build on it, but maybe not. Looking at the photograph one of the site reps gave us when we first took on our plot, it has changed beyond recognition; perhaps those who follow us will do the same, and make it theirs for however long they choose to stay. For Crouch & Ward how we relate collectively through the unselfconscious landscape that [we] create […] is part of [our] individual and collective identity. It is and should remain public land, ground that we have responsibility for, land held collectively.

winter allotment view

 [1] Matless, D. (1998) Landscape and Englishness. London: Reaktion Books, p 13

Winter mulching

Non-gardeners treat late autumn & winter as ‘dead’ garden time, while growers see it as possibly the busiest part of the gardening calendar. We’ve been clearing old crops, trying not to over-tidy our perennials so insects have somewhere to overwinter & birds can still harvest seeds, whilst mulching beds in preparation for spring planting.

It’s also a time to strengthen social ties; we were recently over to see Phil & Anne, to collect horse manure from their stables. We could buy it by the wheelbarrow load via our allotment society, which we do when we run out, but we don’t mind shovelling horse manure, playing with Mutley, their Collie, and catching up with Phil and Anne. We gain from our connection with people we’ve developed a relationship with despite, or possibly because, our outlooks can often be quite different.

The allotment society manages the woodlands on the allotment perimeter and we’ve been using some of the felled timber to edge our raised beds where the old scaffolding boards have rotted. Years ago, scaffolding boards were free, not any longer. Scaffolders are cutting up older boards to reuse or selling them to recycling yards that then re-sell them at eye-watering prices. Aesthetically, the uneven nature of the felled timber softens the outlines of our beds; not so regimented, but then, we were never ones for plumb lines and straight edges, with meandering lines across our plot changing over time & use.

Local arboriculturalists provide the allotment site with a regular supply of wood chip, in season. It’s getting low at the moment but dig into the remnants and there’s a good load of older rotted wood chip turned compost we’ve begun using to mulch the potato and garlic beds. A top layer of this rotted woody compost over seaweed, green waste from last year’s crops, and manure on the potato beds should rejuvenate them after intense cultivation & make for wonderfully rich soil.

 

late light allotment

Roedale Valley

This is the first in a series of four short films we are making across the seasons on Roedale Valley, our allotment site, on the edge of Brighton, UK.
Its spring and Gladys and Georgina reflect on the changes that have happened since they first took on tenancies over 30 years ago.

Craven Vale (Jane’s Plot)

This is the 3rd. in our series of short films about Craven Vale allotment site, on the eastern edge of Brighton, UK.
We continue our exploration of the value of these green spaces, in a densely populated urban environment, in the context of the ongoing threat posed by potential development for housing.