Monday, 20 July 2015

Thistles And Other Stuff I've Eaten Recently

A few years ago, when I first decided to go vegetarian, the consensus seemed to be that what I'd miss, above anything else, was bacon. "Ooh, you're going to struggle, especially on hungover mornings, if you smell someone else cooking it - it's unbearable," people warned me, but this has turned out to be untrue. I've never craved bacon as a vegetarian. What I craved at first as a vegetarian was salt. For my initial, failed attempt at being a herbivore in 2012, I did pretty much nothing else for eight months save for walk around the house shouting "I need salt!" I became very one-dimensional, my wider ambitions in the world set aside in favour of one overriding repeat mission: to find the nearest, most inexpensive packet of crisps. This has thankfully abated somewhat, but the desire is still on a low heat, combined with another underreported side effect of a meat-free diet: a barely suppressible love of spice.
   I sometimes manage to combine these two needs very successfully, such as the other day when I bought some billiard ball-sized olives stuffed with red chillies from a shop in Totnes. You're supposed to eat olives in a sophisticated way prior to a fancy meal, preferably using cocktail sticks, but, being neither sophisticated or in possession of self control, this remains nothing but a far-off dream for me. If I'm walking the couple of miles home from town and I've got a tub of them in my bag, I've invariably chomped the lot by the time I get back. I was a bit unprepared for the strength of the chillies in these particular olives, though, which caused me to wink suggestively at a fellow pedestrian. 
   This perhaps might not have been a bad thing in the right situation, as I'm newly single, not vastly outgoing and could perhaps use some artificial boldness in instigating conversations with attractive strangers, but this guy was well into his seventies and not my type. The hiccuping fit which subsequently began to reverberate violently through my entire body was also unwelcome. Fortunately, I was passing my local doctor's surgery at the time. I lingered near the doorway for a few minutes, in case I required assistance. My doctor is a really nice man, and even talked me through his youtube favourites list last time I went to see him, and I like to think he'd help me out at short notice if I was in a jam. Fortunately, though, within five minutes the convulsions had stopped and I was breathing well again and able to re-open almost an entire quarter of both of my eyes.
   I moved on, past one of the edible community gardens on the edge of town. I've never eaten anything from these gardens, as I'm slightly worried about the multitude of passing dogs who could potentially do a slash on their contents, but I know I should. My lovely hippie friend Jay walks around the peripheries of Totnes, sampling all manner of leaves and flowers like a mystic ground level giraffe, but I tend to prefer my plants pre-curried or seasoned. It's at times like this that make me realise I'm not what many might describe as a "proper" vegetarian. I don't experiment enough, rely too heavily on snacks, was actually eating seafood until very recently, and don't have a clear, vehement argument rehearsed to justify my dietary choices when speaking to hardline carnivores. On the plus side, I tend to steer away from meat substitutes and have given foraging a go a couple of times. Most recent of these was a few weeks ago on a day's course at the beautiful Sharpham estate, high above one of the river Dart's most attractive elbows. Here, amongst other culinary firsts, I boldly bit into a large thistle.
   There can be a tendency to force your mind open when you eat a thistle, prepare yourself for it tasting surprisingly different to your preconceptions, but what it actually tastes like is a thistle. At best, you might say it tasted like a fibrous, angry cucumber, which doesn't really work for me as someone who's always believed cucumber to be redolent of many of the most disappointing parts of British life. I did eat some nice things whilst foraging, though, including wood sorrel, mustard leaf and hart's tongue. My guide for foraging, Anna McNeill, told me that ancient wisdom claims that hart's tongue - also known as Asplenium scolopendrium - prevents people from having impure thoughts. I was sceptical, but, amazingly, found that after eating it I didn't have any impure thoughts for a whole three hours, although it's possible that this could have been just down to the fact I had a headache. I also really enjoyed Anna's nettle tea. "I have three cups of it a day and it's completely cured my hay fever," she said. "I also don't mind the stings, either. They're actually quite good for you, once you accept them. I kind of embrace them now."

   Soon afterwards, we found some lady's mantle - also known as Alchemilla - which Anna informed us helps regulate the female menstrual cycle. I noticed that at this point the men in the group hung back slightly, as if concerned by the prospect of having their own cycles regulated. Notable characters from the day included Louis, a blonde, floppy haired giant who knew everything you could possibly need to know about mushrooms and reminded me of Erno, the hunky rebel leader Diane Keaton falls for in the futuristic 1973 Woody Allen comedy, Sleeper. More memorable still was Rainbow, a compact, barefooted man in a body warmer and shorts, and his equally industrious young son, River. Looking at Rainbow and River, I found it hard not to imagine them climbing trees, even on the occasions in the afternoon when they weren't. Later, a baby arrived on Anna's partner's back. The baby was nowhere near old enough to walk or talk, but it looked amazingly healthy and enthusiastic and I got the sense that, at any moment, it might crawl off into the woods, grab a fern and start munching on it.

   After only a few hours in a tucked away corner of the Devon countryside like this with a group of strangers, a strong sense of community sets in: a possibility in the air of being part of a new underground society. Or maybe that was just me thinking about the rebels in Sleeper again. Whatever the case, new ways of communication emerge and become normalised very quickly. Here, the statement "Look - Rainbow is making a spit poultice!" seems no less surprising than the statement "Look - Darren is sniffing some Copydex!" would have seemed in the woods behind my old house on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border in 1988. I felt my inexperience keenly alongside most of the foragers and didn't personally make any spit poultices but was pleased when Anna said "You look like a man who's good at lighting fires!" and allowed me to start the blaze on which we later cooked some of our findings. There was just enough bannock, forager's stir fry and wild salad to go around but I have to admit that afterwards I drove straight to the petrol station a few miles away and bought a massive fuck off grab bag of samosas and pakoras from their hot shelf. 

   I'm not sure I'm going to be putting a huge amount of the knowledge I picked up from Anna's course to culinary use but, even with that in mind, there's another useful skill to be gained from what's taught on a course like hers: the ability to see through what she calls "the wall of green" that is a west country hedgerow in spring or summer. Since my visit to Sharpham I've started picking more out in that wall, seeing through its muddle of shapes, even in and near my own garden - whether I have the intention of eating some of them or not. A huge teasel growing behind my back fence is no longer just a nondescript weed in the wallpaper of the countryside but a masterpiece of natural bee-friendly architecture with leaves that curve to collect rainwater and provide an organic drinking bowl for blue tits (see above). Strimming in a previously unexplored patch at the far end of my garden the other day and catching a familiar odour, I stopped just in time to rescue a previously undiscovered patch of verbascum and mint, then picked a few leaves of the latter. In the process I was stung by a nettle. Remembering what I'd learned, I did my best to accept the sting. I wouldn't go as far as saying I embraced it, but at the very least I tried to see its point of view. I'd stepped on its patch. It didn't know I was an unthreatening person who liked folk music, badgers and teasels. I could have been Donald Trump, for all it was aware. It was just using what it had available to it, and doing its thing. Just as, a few minutes later, by grabbing some secateurs, ruthlessly ending its life, adding it to some of the mint I'd picked, putting the mixture in a mug and pouring some boiling water over it, I was using what I had available to me, and doing my thing too.

Thistle illustration by Sophie Gilmore. See more of her artwork here. Email me via my website if you're interested in getting your artwork featured on this blog.

Find out more about Sharpham's foraging and mindfulness courses here.

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Thursday, 2 July 2015

A Weasel I Briefly Met

It's been several years since I've been abroad. I could put this down to a couple of very obvious reasons - a certain reluctance to plan that can become ingrained after many years of stubbornly self-employed life, my fear of flying, following lightning striking a plane I was on several years ago - but I'd perhaps be ignoring a more significant one, which is that I don't really yearn to be away. I've got an endless list of wild places in Britain I want to visit, all of which I can happily place ahead of overseas equivalents in the queue, but it's not even that. I am more and more interested in the part of the outdoors that immediately surrounds me. Obviously, this is partly because I'm lucky enough to live in an extremely beautiful and (still, for the time being) relative unspoilt part of the Deep South West (Devon and Cornwall are the Deep South West in my view - anyone who lumps them in with "The South" doesn't properly know them), but I was the same in the place where I lived before, on the opposite side of the country, and think I'd bring a similar attitude to any rural location. 

   This is a feeling that has grown in me over the last decade: a realisation I spent my teens and twenties walking around in a cloud of misguided, suggestible ambition, missing a lot of interesting stuff right under my nose, coupled with the worry that The Internet is making the universe smaller in a not always entirely beneficial way, prompting us to spread our experience more thinly, to be "worldly" in the most distracted and inverted comma of fashions. The two square miles around my house alone loom increasingly huge and colourful in my mind, dotted with fauna and plantlife I could study for years and still not truly know. It's when I'm in a supposedly bigger world that I often feel stymied, cooped up. As Rob Cowen says in Common Ground, his brilliant book about exploring what he calls "the edgeland" near his house in Yorkshire: "Ours is a world growing yet shrinking, connected yet isolated, all-knowing but without knowledge. It is one of breadth, shallowness, and endless swimming through cyberspace. All is speed and surface. Digging down deeper into an overlooked patch of ground, one that (in a global sense, at least) few people will ever know about and even fewer visit, felt like the antithesis to all this."

   I walked the lings, water meadows and bridleways around my house in Norfolk very extensively from 2008 to 2013, but it's the noticing part that I've got a little better at since moving to Devon early last year. At one point not so long ago, for example, I might not have picked up on the minuscule anguished squeak I heard behind me in some bushes half a mile from my house on Monday: it might have been lost in the small din of a summer day in a wildflower meadow near a river. I'd have charged on, eager for more fresh air, instead of slowing down and listening, as I did, and I'd have missed the amazing and somewhat horrifying sight that occurred just under a minute later: two furry animals, each no bigger than my foot, locked together, spinning onto the path, at least one of them in extreme pain.

   One of these animals was a young rabbit and the other was a weasel, but it took me a few moments to realise this. I watched rabbits suffer a few times in the jaws of my cats Ralph and Shipley, before I attached large double bells to Ralph and Shipley's collars last year, but this was another level of vicious: seeing the burning darkness in its eyes and the shrieking rabbit in its jaws, I momentarily became the rabbit and the weasel became the headlights. 

   What happened next astonished me further still: a larger rabbit, bouncing out of the undergrowth and hurling itself at the weasel. This, though almost comically ineffectual, was just enough to break up the original ball of weasel and rabbit, and as they separated, all three creatures noticed me for the first time in my static, mesmerised position, not more than four feet away. The grown rabbit hopped into the bushes, its offspring flopped and writhed behind it, clearly badly injured. The weasel scuttled in the other direction, pausing and getting on its hind legs for a second to peer at me in a "Can I take him?" sort of way. I sat and waited and five minutes later the weasel re-emerged, scuttling across the path like a cackling comedy villain in a Hanna Barbera cartoon, confirming everything we know about weasel etymology. I heard nothing more. I wondered about looking for the young rabbit and putting it out of its misery. I knew I wouldn't.

   I'd had a lot on my mind that morning, was probably in a slightly more fragile state than usual, and I felt simultaneously shaken and awed by what I'd seen. Initially I had the thought "I wish I'd filmed that" but I quickly banished it: it was an impulse fostered by the modern condition of going everywhere with a phone, of sharing above experiencing. I already do too much of this, like most people, and I want to cut down on it, if not stop altogether, as it's ultimately just another way of skimming across the world's surface. I didn't actually wish I'd filmed it at all. The Internet just made me briefly think I did. But I felt a little alone with the visceral knowledge of what had happened and needed to offload it. I looked around, but all I could see were some jersey cows. They probably wouldn't have thought it a particularly big deal if I'd told them. As I walked back home through the trees, I got the sense that the Devon countryside's June party had reached its crescendo: the nature equivalent of that moment where you stay out, thinking things will get wilder, and they do, but in a slightly dark way you regret. Blood-caked bird wings and gristle lay on the path ahead of me. Towering bullyboy nettles stung my bare legs: thistles that weren't bold enough to slag me off to my face. I didn't notice until later. As a forager told me recently, "the stings do you good: you should embrace them" but that wasn't why: the only thing I was embracing was my dazed and preoccupied state. 

   What has stayed with me most is the image of that larger rabbit, bouncing so determinedly to its offspring's defence, despite its non-existent artillery. It was impossibly touching and deeply sad, and another illustration of what I've learned about rabbits, living near so many of them for the last year. That they're nature's ultimate hippies, wanting nothing more out of life than to live in peace and eat their greens and have lots of unfaithful sex. In the weasel's eyes I thought I saw pure evil: that look briefly became a metaphor for other lamentations about injustice, greed and selfishness that were whirring in my mind. But naturally this was bollocks. There was no evil here, because this wasn't about choice. A weasel didn't choose to kill a rabbit, not like, say, a local council chooses to destroy the habitats of countless weasels and rabbits when they approve a planning application for some wanksome executive housing estate. It is just surviving, playing a part in the churning maelstrom of the countryside where I live: providing a (albeit especially predatory) part of the death that's an intrinsic part of a great, ever-changing, maelstrom rainbow of life. I am not angry with it. You can't be angry with a weasel for being a weasel*. But three days on, I'm still feeling a little bit shaken from it, and a little bit more alive as a result.

* Rule does not apply to Michael Gove.

Illustrations by Sophie Gilmore. See more of her artwork here. Email me via my website if you're interested in getting your artwork featured on this blog.

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WEASEL FACT: The collective noun for weasels is "boogle".

Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Dozy Gene

My late paternal granddad Ted was an almost constantly grinning man with a moustache, glasses, and a scar running across the entirely bald dome of his head. Right from when I was very small, I’d known that he’d been injured in World War II, but it wasn't until later that I asked about the scar’s exact origin. “NO," my very loud dad told me. “HE DIDN’T GET IT WHILE FIGHTING. ACTUALLY, HE DIDN’T DO ANY FIGHTING. HE WAS MENDING A PLANE AND FORGOT TO MOVE OUT OF THE WAY WHEN THE PROPELLER STARTED GOING, AND IT FOOKIN' CLONKED HIM ONE.”
   My dad never addressed his dad as “dad” but as “TED” or “TEDWARD”. To me this says as much about Ted's extreme Tedness as it does about their relationship. In my memory, he is preserved as a human teddy bear: cheerful, circle-faced, cuddly, and often found in the woods. But teddy bears cannot survive alone in the world and in my grandma Joyce my granddad had found a complimentary opposite: stern and fearful, a woman who once called the police on her own son for messing about on a train track close to their council house in Nottingham. Joyce’s role was to remind Ted not to post his house keys in the letterbox at the end of their road or leave loaves of bread on the roof of the car prior to long journeys, and, during visits to heavily mirrored buildings, stop him from spending too much time apologising profusely to other moustachioed men with scarred bald heads for blocking their path. Ted’s – arguably more significant - role was to shake Joyce out of her naturally pessimistic state with a succession of dancing classes, neighbourhood bonfires, fancy dress balls, caravan holidays and Derbyshire walking expeditions.
   For most of his adult life, Ted worked on the floor of a factory that made women’s stockings. This was somehow apt, given his penchant for gently bawdy humour, but in view of his relationship with his cars, it now seems slightly surprising to me that, both here and in the war, he was entrusted with jobs that involved handling heavy machinery. In the 1960s, he drove all the way to Devon from Nottinghamshire in an Austin Wolseley that lacked a reverse gear. Once there, he somehow survived a week driving the county's narrow, high-banked lanes, repeatedly getting out of the car to knock on the window of befuddled oncoming drivers and tell them of the vehicle's fault so they could move backwards and let him pass. It was a rare journey in Ted's car that went by without him running a red light, although this was always due to absent-mindedness, not haste. "Oh, I think it might be time for me to give up driving," I remember him announcing after various fraught journeys through the Nottingham suburbs in the early and mid-90s but it wasn't until a few months before his death, in 2002, that he actually did. One winter, after a visit to our house in the north Nottinghamshire countryside, a passing group of six sinewy cyclists were enlisted to push his Toyota out of a snowdrift and back onto the road: a task that, even bearing in mind the snow, necessitated an unusually Geoff Capesian amount of grunting. It was only later that it dawned on Ted - thankfully in a way that he neglected to voice until later, when the cyclists were gone - that he’d forgotten to take the handbrake off. One other occasions he had been known to park the Toyota in the dead centre of the country lane we lived on, and once left a small Paraffin stove burning inside its footwell to “keep it defrosted”.
   My mum remembers that on her first visit to my grandparents’ house, Ted was wearing a paper party hat. Since it wasn’t Christmas or anybody’s birthday, this confused her, until she found out that making Ted wear the hat was my grandma’s scheme to help him remember that he had to turn their immersion heater off. My own initial firsthand encounter of my granddad’s legendary doziness came when he caddied for me in a junior golf tournament and, arriving on the second tee and reaching for my driver, I found the flag from the first green in my bag. This occurred during the same year that he and Joyce sent a Christmas card to my parents – whose names are Mick and Jo - reading “To Joyce and Ted. Happy Christmas! Love from Joyce and Ted.”

  Nobody can remember the exact moment my granddad’s scatterbrain gene kicked in, but a poll of those who knew him puts it at around the age of 36: four years younger than I am now, and four years before Ted set fire to a stranger’s coat by putting his still-lit pipe in his pocket during a coach trip from Ilkeston to Mablethorpe. I was always closer to my nan on my mum’s side than I was to Ted and Joyce, and have often been told that my personality and looks are closer to hers and those of her husband Tom, who died before my birth. But recently, particularly as my hair on my head has become slightly less thick and the hair on my face thicker, I’ve started to see a hint of Ted in the mirror. This effect will no doubt become more extreme if I finally start wearing my glasses as often as I should. It also has got me thinking about my genetic destiny, especially on the days when I put the coffee beans straight into the mug or a bottle of unused shampoo directly into my green recycling bin.
   I kidded myself for a few years that my increased doziness might be down to a overfilled mind and the pace of modern life but I'm now facing up to the fact that my Ted gene has now fully kicked in. I suppose a big signpost was the moment in 2013 when I got a bit too involved in a folk album I'd just bought, forgot to check on my bonfire, and accidentally set a fairly large portion of my next-door neighbour's garden alight. Increasingly, friends and strangers chase after me as I exit pubs and shops, waving my clothes and valuables in the air. But that's ok. Ageing is often about facing up to your flaws and admitting your mistakes. For example, the other day I put my wallet in the fridge, and I now realise that was a mistake.

   I mentioned some of these incidents to my dad, seeking reassurance. I knew that he, at least, hadn’t inherited the doofus gene: he was always double-checking that he’d switched appliances off, was, for all his eccentricities, a rigorously organised person. He sat me down and replied in, what was for him, an unusually hushed voice: “WHY DO YOU THINK I’M SO NEUROTIC? IT’S NOT JUST BECAUSE I GOT IT FROM YOUR GRANDMA. I HAVE TO BE LIKE THAT, OR I’LL WALK AROUND DOING STUPID THINGS ALL THE TIME.” He too had first experienced the phenomenon during his mid-30s, he said, during a holiday when he broke an up-and-over garage door off its hinges by pulling it the wrong way. “IT’S A LATENT COX TRAIT. I WAS GOING TO WARN YOU ABOUT IT THE OTHER SUMMER WHEN YOU DROVE INTO THAT PARKING BARRIER AND SNAPPED IT, BUT I THOUGHT I’D GIVE IT A WHILE JUST TO MAKE SURE.”
   It felt comforting to know there was a cure for my condition, but I also felt hard done by. My dad had had great fun playing practical jokes on his dad – convincing him, say, that he'd received a call from my grandma on an unattached, analogue telephone many yards from any building - but because of his pesky compensating for his condition, I’d been robbed of the chance to do the same thing with him. Instead, I had been doomed to a life of being told “REMEMBER TO PUT YOUR HEADLIGHTS ON” and “DON’T SAW INTO YOUR HAND WHILE YOU’RE CUTTING THAT WOOD." Now my illness had been confirmed, I could no longer even claim he was fussing unduly.

   Not long before he died, my parents took Ted on a visit to a large country house that was open to the public. “Ah. If I could do it all over again, and got luckier, who knows?” he sighed. “I could have been the gardener here.” Ted worked hard all his life, but he never got ideas above his station, which perhaps meant his doziness was easier to manage. I, on the other hand, have always had many ideas above my station. With this in mind, I should probably start thinking about winding it all up now, for safety’s sake: spend more time pottering about the garden, perhaps keep the car on the road for a few more years, but limit it to small trips to local tea rooms, hardware firms and dinner dances. Occasionally, I’ll need to go shopping for slippers, and I might fall foul of the odd full-length mirror in the process, but I’ll cope. It won’t be a bad life, and if I live it a quarter as nobly as Ted did, I’ll have no complaints.

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Wednesday, 17 June 2015

My Week In Badgers

Sound travels in a curious way on the hillside where I live here in Devon. The sudden dips and rises in the land and the dense canopies of the area’s countless trees can create deceptive pockets of noise. What you think is, say, your girlfriend or your cat talking to you might not even be something vaguely similar to your girlfriend or your cat, and might not be talking to you at all. My first big lesson about this arrived last summer, when I mistakenly attempted to call an elderly Spanish tourist into the kitchen for some mass-produced trout chunks coated in gravy. Armed with experience, I’m more sceptical now, so last Wednesday when, just as I was falling asleep, I heard a warthog slaughtering a chicken behind my garden hedge, I responded relatively calmly. At the same time, the sound was quite loud and alarming enough to draw me to the bedroom window. I watched the spot where it came from until a short, squat man emerged on all fours through the leaves and began to crawl across the lawn.  

   My house is in quite a rural spot, but in summer the fields around it can be popular hang-out spots for teenagers from the local town, who like to use them to experiment with alcohol and drugs and self-consciously demo some of the new loud adult voices they’re working on. A few even turned up and did some rapping behind my garden last summer, although this clearly needed some work and resulted in the female members of their party making an early exit. It’s still a bit early for south Devon’s posh DIY hip-hop season to fully kick in and I have little experience with warthogs so I was glad, peering more closely at my lawn through the dark, to discover that the intruder on my lawn on this occasion was in fact a large badger. Seeing its form gradually unblur, I felt like I’d just watched something walk through a partition in reality. Grabbing my camera and the nearest pair of trousers, I tripped my way hurriedly to the back door. The badger was nowhere to be seen when I arrived outside but, alerted by a grumbly rustling, I found it a couple of minutes later behind the garden gate and managed to snap a quick grainy photo before it scuttled off, with a “just been victimised at an unfair disciplinary meeting at work” air about it. 
Front end of big intruder badger behind my garden

   If you see one badger a year in Britain, you feel pretty good about yourself. If you see several in the space of twenty four hours, you feel like you’re walking on a magic cloud cushion. Until last year, I’d never seen a live badger up close at all. It wasn’t until 1977 that one was first shown on TV (on the now legendary Badgerwatch). Being on such a high from seeing my first badger of 2015 - and a bit too engrossed in a Garrison Keillor podcast - accounted for the fact that, walking over the crest of a hill a few hundred yards from my house on the way to the shops the next day, I didn’t even notice until the last minute that I’d almost stood on another, much smaller badger. 

   As I continued through the woods towards town a mixture of feelings set in: annoyance at my absent-mindedness, elation, and the special, rare kind of remorse that comes from almost treading on a very young badger. I remembered the golf club I was a member of in Norfolk a decade or so ago, which would devote several pages of its year-end AGM report to the ongoing “badger problem” on the seventh fairway. I laughed at the time and mentally urged the badgers on in their scraping away of the fairway’s finely mown turf, despite the difficult lies it would give me for iron shots in future tournaments, but now I realised my urging had been insufficient. If I had the courage of my convictions, I shouldn’t have been a member of a golf club at all. I should have been on the fairway at night, with a bag of worms, staging a badger sit in. 

   Determined to make amends, armed with a party bowl of peanuts and cat biscuits, I set off at dusk back up to the hilltop where I’d almost trod on the young badger. A further surprise greeted me when I arrived: not just the original young badger from earlier, snuffling about on the mown turf, but a shyer, smaller sibling, in the longer grass and weeds a few feet away. Neither seemed hugely aware of me and I crouched in the grass and watched them for quarter of an hour or so, then scattered the peanuts and cat biscuits, which they duly chomped. It wasn’t until I’d got within about two feet of the bolder badger that it scuttled away. I was reminded of something I’d noticed last year, when I’d got my first close up of a badger: that they don’t run in quite the same way you see the other four-legged furry animals of Britain run. The way badgers run is a bit like a garish 1960s fur footstool might run if it suddenly realised it had the power of functioning limbs. 

Young badger (and shyer sibling) in the field near my house

   A couple of days later, I noticed the beginning of a sett in a rough patch of ground beside my garden fence. Walking around in my post-badger cotton wool dream world, I found myself twisting the conversation repeatedly back around to my badger sightings when I spoke to strangers: a woman I bought a stilton pasty from, a walker who asked me directions to the river. This proved to be less of a non-sequitur on Sunday, when I visited The West Country Scythe Festival at Thorney Lakes in Somerset and spoke to Leslie from the Dorset For Badger & Bovine Welfare Group. As well as feeding the badgers near her garden peanuts and grapes, Leslie regularly makes peanut butter sandwiches for them. She also recently fed them some leftover ratatouille from her freezer. “They loved it,” she explained. “But they ran off with the dish. It was a nice dish, too.” 

    Leslie talked to me about the ongoing badger cull, its insubstantial supportive scientific evidence and astronomical cost, and the new plans which will almost certainly see it moving from Somerset into Dorset, and subsequently to Devon. I don’t want to write in detail about the cull here, as you’ll find plenty of far more serious and informed writing about it elsewhere online, but I urge everyone to read Rob Cowen’s wonderful new book Common Ground, which features a rigorous explanation of the nebulous facts and Tory power lust directly behind the cull. 

   It’s perhaps no coincidence that the badger chapter coincides with the amazingly powerful, optimistic crescendo of Cowen’s book: a rousing argument for sensitivity over cynicism when approaching the complex issues surrounding the future of the British countryside. Humans interfering with nature is part of nature itself. But how far the interference should go  - how much it’s about our own greed and pride - is the big question. I’d been feeling a little glum in the early part of last week, thinking about another five years of a government which, at least in part, actively supports bloodsports, looking at the scars that two large new executive housing developments had put in beautiful, wild hillsides in my neighbourhood, readying myself for the cold mockery of street names commemorating the very things they’d destroyed (interesting how rarely you get a “Dead Weasel Close” or “Evicted Hawk Moth Avenue” on such developments). It is easy to get bogged down in such thoughts right now, feeling like something precious and pure is ending, in a far bigger and more significant way than the way that something precious and pure has always been ending, throughout history. But badgers are still here - small snouty folk rock bears, quietly yet magically outside the humdrum - and there are people out there willing to devote huge amounts of their free time to their protection. I’ve not done anything nearly so selfless, but I have been up to feed mine peanuts, chick peas and cat biscuits every night since I first met them. Sitting in the long grass, in the divine, heavy stillness of a mid-summer dusk, looking into a small, fresh stripy face, it’s been hard to feel anything but hope. 

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Tuesday, 9 June 2015

A Truly Utopian Radio Station

Those of you who follow me on Twitter might be aware I've been hosting a fortnightly radio show recently. It's called Message From The Country and features music of a rural nature (acid folk, country funk, magical boondocks classic rock, agri-psych, mystic Americana), me rambling on about stuff like hares, folklore and walking up tors, a little bit of dead air due to my habit of fading up the wrong channel, and the odd robin or jackdaw joining in when I leave the studio doors open, which is often. Like the rest of Soundart's junk shop army of DJs, I don't get paid for this - actually, I'm unfair to say that, as I did once receive a large floret of broccoli and two courgettes after a particularly good show - because Soundart is a station run entirely by volunteers, which survives on donations and the amazing, infectious energy and enthusiasm of its founders, Chris and Lucinda. The breadth of programming is astounding, from the electro sexton Morecambe and Wise that are Ru and Claire (otherwise known as directors of The Green Funeral Company), to Dick Everett's beekeeping show, to the rural soundscapes of Tony Whitehead and Andy Dickinson, to Eccentric Voices (featuring Robert Davidson, who took the famous photograph of Frank Zappa sitting naked on the toilet), to Jared and Matthew's Random Radio, with its outdoor broadcasts and bold scotch egg eating challenges. There are frequent times, sitting in the studio, which is situated on the beautiful Dartington Estate and overlooks the Dart valley, when you find yourself blinking in disbelief that something so wild and wonderful exists in such a place, in the metropolitan-orientated, financially-squeezed artistic world of 2015. It can feel like living inside a small, hopeful, beautifully flawed dream, and it could be argued that right now there exists no greater and truer community-minded continuation of the egalitarian, philanthropic vision of Dartington's former owners, The Elmhirsts. That so many bright, imaginative, talented people work for Soundart for nothing is not just a testament to the experimental, loose approach Chris and Lucinda encourage but to a positivity that radiates from everything they do.
   It's unlikely that everything on Soundart will be for you, but I can guarantee that within its eclectic mix you will find something to fall in love with. If there is a braver and more interesting radio station in Britain right now, I haven't heard it.

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Check out my previous Soundart shows.

Dartington College alumni broadcasting on Soundart

Cowboy, the Soundart cat