Barely rooted: on planting apple trees

'Discovery' by Cob Lands
‘Discovery’ by Cob Lands

It’s apple season again! No, I haven’t lost the seasonal plot – I’m refering to the brief window of winter for planting bare rooted trees, when the ground is no longer frost-hardened but before the spring growth kicks in.

This year, with a new garden staring needfully at me, I’m doing just that. Fruit trees are the perfect solution for a lazy gardener like me: low maintenance, hospitable to summer snoozers, and productive of food that can be stored through the winter. They’re also traditional to my corner of Wiltshire, a hamlet that used to be patchwork of orchards and now host to a community orchard that is part of the national orchard revival. I’ve been given three by the local community association, carefully grafted from parent trees in the surrounding gardens, so my saplings are truly local.

Traditional orchards have long been on the decline, with the National Trust estimating that at least 60% have been lost since the 1950s. The loss of the fruit trees that used to cover much of Britain’s southern lowlands are at the core – sorry – of our changed relationship to land, in which most people have lost the connection to the places around them that comes from growing and harvesting our own food.

Planting a fruit tree is an easy way to restore a bit of that connection, and can be done anywhere there’s a bit of green space, including cities. And apples are a most versatile food: portable and longlasting, ready-to-eat and a key ingredient for pies, cakes and tarts, juice and cider. (Confession: as an everyday hedonist, I’m not that keen on apples in their raw form, prefering them accompanied by sugar, carbs and creamy substances).

Apples, like so many other things, carry stories about time and place. This rather charming list tells of Gloucestershire varieties such as the ‘Gloucestershire Underleaf’, loved by locals for its versatility as an eater, cooker and cider-maker. Or see the ‘Green Underleaf’ which, ‘according to Pat Turner, in the old days .. would be “wurded” or ripened in heaps under “boltings” (big thrashed sheaves) of wheat straw.’

The great thing about planting your own tree is that you’re creating a story, as well as a fruit crop, for tomorrow. Choose one of the old varieties, and you’ll be planting a link that extends from the past into the future.

Imbolc, the festival of pre-Spring

The Secret Life of God
Hakan Dahkstrom

It’s pre-spring, the second half of winter, the season of nothing-happening, when it’s mostly grey and rainy or cold.

For me, this was always a blank time of the year until I discovered, through researching British neo-paganism, Imbolc, the festival that lies halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and is celebrated at the beginning of February.

Imbolc, which – depending on your etymology – means ‘in the
belly’, ‘to wash oneself’ (in the sense of ritual cleansing) or ‘ewes’ milk’, marks the beginning of the growing and breeding season. It comes at the time when the first lambs are born or gestating in the womb, prompting the flow of milk in the ewes.

One of the four Celtic seasonal festivals, it is traditionally celebrated with fire to represent the return of the sun to the northern half of the earth and – in the manner of many ancient religions – to symbolise purification.

Like all the old festivals, Imbolc is rich in myth and story. Celtic tradition tells of Brigid, multi-faceted goddess of healing, light, poetry and smithing – the ‘bright goddess’ associated with the element of fire. Contemporary Wicca and the modern goddess movement dramatise this as the transformation of the Hag or Crone into the Maiden or goddess of spring. It’s the personification of the epic struggle which had life-and-death implications for our ancestors – would Spring conquer Winter before the food ran out?

Some say that Brigid becomes Christianised as a saint, part of the wider appropriation of Imbolc as Candelmas which marks the ritual purification of Mary forty days after the birth of Jesus.

But, in a useful reminder of how little we know about the origins of religious festivals and what our ancestors did and thought, Jason Mankey denies this as Candlemas goes back to Ancient Greece, where Imbolc was not celebrated.

Personally I think that, while it’s important not to make false historical claims particularly if they form the basis for present theological arguments, the details of what and how the people of the past marked the transition of winter-into-spring don’t much matter. Amidst all the overlapping myths and customs of Imbolc, there’s one thing we can be sure of: until recently, life – and survival – was closely linked to the changing of the seasons, making the arrival of February significant.

And even for us modern humans, reassurance that winter is on its way out still comes as a blessed relief.


Wassailing from Crystal Palace to the West Country

Foxs Morris Wassail by Muffinn
An evil spirit fleeing from Foxs Morris Wassail. Captured by Muffinn

January 17th – the old Twelfth Night – is traditionally the time for wassailing, the Anglo-Saxon custom of visiting the local orchard to awaken the apple trees and scare away any evil spirits who might threaten the crop.

From ‘waes hael’ meaning ‘good health’, wassailing is basically a drinking ritual aimed at fostering fruitfulness in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Coming just as memories of midwinter feasting (Christmas, Solstice, Saturnalia) are starting to fade, it’s a reason to be cheerful at the coldest time of the year.

Half a dozen years ago, a drunken Advent gathering at my place in Crystal Palace decided to hold its own wassail in the nearby allotment, where one of the party had recently planted two tiny apple trees.

A few weeks later, a friend and I ventured into darkest Sussex to see how it was done. Another, seasoned pagan, friend drove us across the fields down a remote farm track. Suddenly we were among a couple of hundred expectant people. Someone handed me a flaming torch – they’re surprisingly heavy – and the crowd processed towards the orchard and encircled the king tree. Songs were sung, men pranced, and a child placed an offering of bread in the fork of the tree. Then, at the sound of a gunshot, we all made the ‘hullabaloo’ which would let the spirits know that, in this orchard, humans were in charge.

The order of service used by the Chanctonbury Ring Morris Men provided the model for the suburban wassail which continued for the next five years. On the middle Sunday of January, we would tank up from the wassail bowl – I like this simple recipe for mulled cider – gather some spoons and pan lids from my kitchen and make for the allotment, feeling simultaneously foolish and pleased with ourselves. It was usually raining but, fuelled by alcohol, we always got through the half-hour liturgy and usually wassailed a few other fruit trees and bushes for good measure as well.

The best bit was seeing the windows in the surrounding buildings fill with people wondering what on earth we were doing. As a result, the fruit crops on the allotment improved dramatically and our hostess would bring the results, in the form of raspberry gin, to next year’s wassail. You could say we had created a virtuous wassailing circle.

Until recently a quaint folk custom kept only in the most rural areas, wassailing now seems to be on the rise. Given that Britain is no longer an agricultural society, the modern wassail is probably more about forging our relation to place than assuring the crop.

Having recently moved to the West Country to an area traditionally made up of apple orchards, my own wassailing future looks good. The Friends of Woolley wassail takes place in the community orchard at Woolley Grange a little later this year on 30th January.

Waes Hail!

May the Yule be with you

Photo by PRODerek Σωκράτης Finch
Photo by PRODerek Σωκράτης Finch

Forget Star Wars; may the Yule be with you. People have been marking the winter solstice throughout history, the Romans with the revelry of Saturnalia, the early Scandinavians with the Feast of Yule.

I love the different and strange ways humans have of marking the fact that, once a year in the northern hemisphere, the sun reaches its most southernmost point. At this, the ‘high noon’ of winter, the sun is directly overhead the Tropic of Capricorn. From an earthling’s point of view, the ever-moving source of our planet’s light and heat appears to ‘stand still’ – ‘solstice’ comes from Latin for ‘sun’ and ‘to stand still’ – before continuing on its northward path.

Standing still or taking a pause – this is the astronomical truth behind some of the most vivid lines of our winter songs. The bleak midwinter is a time of darkness when nothing grows, a period that we in the western world translate into the Christmas holidays, a time when all normal activities cease.

But, but … the apparent stasis masks the sense that this is the moment, if one can be identified, that everything, in seasonal terms, changes. ‘In a poetic sense it is on this, the longest night of the winter, “the dark night of our souls”, that there springs the new spark of hope, the Sacred Fire, the Light of the World, the Coel Coeth,’ is how the website The White Goddess characterises the shift into the warm half of the year.

One strand of the Druidic tradition names midwinter ‘Alban Arthuan’, the Welsh for the ‘Light of Arthur’, part of a myth in which Arthur – the personifcation of the Sun – dies and is reborn, just as the mythical king sleeps inside a mountain, to awake when his people needs him.

A birth which will save us? I won’t point out the obvious.

Some cultures have seen the change in more Manichean terms. As Waverley Fitzgerald points out, the ancient Babylonians saw the twelve days beginning on the winter solstice as a time of struggle, in which chaos vied with order. And indeed many midwinter celebrations, from Saturnalia to Twelfth Night, give expression to this sense of chaos by enacting reversal and misrule: masters serve slaves, the humble reign for a day.

Personally, I feel the winter solstice is about both stillness and change. The year, in a real sense, is on the turn. But in order to appreciate that, you need to take the time to slow down and sniff the air.

The winter solstice – which takes place a bit before five am on Tuesday 22nd in southern England if you’re interested in precision – shouldn’t be consumed with shopping. Burn a log, enjoy a story, and notice your long, noontime shadow.

Confessions of a suburban naturalist

Photo by Jes (Flickr)
Photo by Jes (Flickr)

It’s ironic that, having grown up in the country, my love of nature has most recently been fostered by life in the city.

My suburban garden in Crystal Palace has brought me into greater proximity with wildlife than I ever thought possible. The back garden adjoins other gardens and allotments bordering a pocket of woodland, a residue of the Great North Wood that used to cover the hills south of the capital.

Part of a patchwork of semi-neglected gardens linked by a network of runs and entrance holes, it’s an area that the
local animals treat as their own, a place where they can pursue their interests relatively free of human interference. And yet they’re also there for what people can provide, seeking me out for food, protection and, it’s sometimes seemed, company.

As a result, birds follow me around, some even coming at my whistle. A couple of years ago,
a lone fox cub chose to do his growing up in the garden, joining me at lunchtimes, coming to watch me hang out the washing or cut back the ivy, giving me a rare opportunity to observe the habits and behaviour of a creature famously shy of humans.

Growing up in the country never yielded such experiences. There, the animals tend to keep their distance, presumably having learnt the lessons of millennia trying to co-exist with farming, hunting humans.

I’m a beneficiary of suburban naturalism, a modern phenomenon which is a product of the modern move to the cities. As more of the population gathers in urban settlements and the wild spaces around them shrink, the local animals have also changed their habitats and lifestyles. Foxes are perhaps the best example of this trend, establishing thriving populations in the cities from the mid-twentieth century onwards. And it’s easy to forget that garden birds, now taken as part of the fabric of everyday life, are a recent phenomenon, being essentially woodland and field birds attracted by the dense supply of resources available in back gardens.

To me, this kind of coexistence and relationship between animals and humans enabled by the city is as much a sign of our need for nature as nature’s exploitation of the resources provided by humans. As fewer people farm, more keep pets; while more of us live in the city, more than ever feed the birds.

Now, after nearly a decade in Crystal Palace, I’ve moved to the west country, a little south of where I grew up, impelled by a longing for more nature, more space. I am sure that the rolling hills and fields of the south Cotswolds will fulfill this longing for a bigger, greener landscape. But will it give me the same contact with its non-human inhabitants as my suburban idyll?

The jury’s out.

The dark side of the earth: the autumn equinox

Photo courtesy of NASA
Photo courtesy of NASA

I love the autumn equinox. It’s the only time of the year when, along with the spring equinox, day and night are of equal length (not quite true – it’s complicated … ) and the earth is straight on its axis! Catch the brilliant BBC documentary ‘Orbit’ to see scientists explaining this with globes next time it’s shown. Meanwhile, here’s some science.

Traditionally, the autumn equinox is significant because it’s the point at which we in the northern hemisphere enter the dark half of the year, and life changes. For ancient humans, successfully adapting to this change, with its greater challenges of finding food and warmth, was a matter of survival. For us modern humans, the onset of winter heralds a change in lifestyle which is as much cultural as physical: going to work in the dark, evenings round the fire/telly, hot chocolate, the run-up to Christmas.

For me personally, the shift into winter has gradually evolved from something to be dreaded to something to be accepted, even welcomed. Like many people, I suffer (mildly) from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a hormonal response to the lower levels of light which brings reduced energy levels and a craving for carbs. I’ve found that the solution to this is, rather than treating winter the same as the rest of the year, to adapt: I do less externally, stop making trips of any distance and tend to keep my socialising local. The dark half of the year is when I do most of my reading. The result? I now enjoy winter.

I owe this change in part to the neo-pagan movement, with its attentiveness to seasonal change and recognition that death and darkness are part of the cycle of life. And the research I did into contemporary Druidry went deeper than I anticipated, teaching me the importance of ritual as a way of marking the passage of the year. Or perhaps a better word is the effectiveness of ritual: I don’t know how much is psychological, how much communion with a trans-human reality, or even what you call that – nature? God? … I just know that ritual works, much of the time.

Ritual can take the form of a large pagan ceremony, gathering a few friends, or creating a small autumn altar featuring the fruits of the season – the equinox is also a harvest festival – I’ve done all of these things at various points in the pagan year. But it’s also important not to feel constrained do things too religiously, as it were, to feel free to do nothing in particular except to recognise that it’s that time of year again. In early autumn, that could involve going for a short walk, collecting some leaves or eating an apple. Or how about – uber-traditional, this – a spot of egg balancing? The point, as Francesca de Grandis says in this nice equinoctial blog, is to move ‘mindfully into the colder months’.

The great, half-forgotten festival of Lammas

By Bayer CropScience UK
By Bayer CropScience UK

Lammas – the festival of the first harvest, the bringing in of the grains from the fields – is here. From now into August, pagans
celebrate a season that our more agricultural ancestors would have marked with feasting, wheat sheafs and corn dollies. Largely now forgotten by the mainstream, it’s a festival redolent with the history and myth of Britain’s not-so-distant past.

‘Lammas’ – from the Anglo-Saxon hlaefmass – loaf mass – takes its name from the early Christian custom of placing loaves in churches by way of thanks. Also known as Lughnasadh, its origins are pre-Christian, stemming from the Celtic festival of Lugh, the Irish king of the sun and god of light. According to the accompanying myth, the sun god gives his power to the grain and is sacrificed when the crop is gathered in in order that food can be made and new seed planted. ‘So we have a dying, self-sacrificing and resurrecting god of the harvest, who dies for his people so that they may live. Sound familiar?’ asks the website The White Goddess.

The story lives on in the folk song ‘John Barleycorn’ which personifies the barley harvest as a man undergoing a horrible death at the hands of his fellow men, only to be reborn, triumphant, in another form. Check out this uptempo version by Damh the Bard. If you study the lyrics, you can’t help but hear overtones of the Christian resurrection story, with its elements of persecution and suffering. But the principal message of the song is that darkness and death are in the nature of things, conveying a truth that is as biological and agricultural as it is existential and spiritual: all things must die so that new life may grow.

I like pagan thinking for its courage in recognising that darkness and death are part of the whole, for its ability to hold opposites in balance without trying to cancel them out. At high summer, it is sanguine in the face of what most of us in the northern hemisphere can hardly bear to acknowledge – the nights are already drawing in; the dark half of the year is on its way. In pagan terms, this is all exactly as it should be, making for ‘the wonderful bittersweet of Lammas’, as the website The Goddess & The Green Man puts it.

I first came across Lammas while researching modern Druidry which, as part of a wider movement of neo-paganism, seems to be undergoing something of a resurgence in contemporary Britain. Attending Druid Camp one Lammas-tide a few years ago showed me a way of appreciating what had always been a special time of year but which had, in the course of an adult, largely urban life, somehow got lost, become unnamed (extract here.) Growing up in Gloucestershire, I used to wander the fields with my pals, sucking the germ out of wheat ears, affecting boredom but in fact revelling in the indolence of August.

I don’t think you need to be a pagan to appreciate the particular qualities of this time of year. While, for most modern Britons, this time of year is more about holidays and music festivals than harvesting cereals, it’s still possible to pause and give thanks for other kinds of harvest – academic years completed, jobs done or at least survived. If you’re out and about in parks, gardens or the countryside, you’ll see the first berries ripening and the flowers of the season gone by turning to seed.

And of course, Lammas can also be a time of thankfulness that most of us have, this year, as others, our daily bread (or a gluten-free option).

If you fancy attending a Lammas event, the excellent bad witch has a list here.

Phenology and the non-science of the in-between

By Thunderchild7 (Flickr)
By Thunderchild7 (Flickr)

High summer. During this, the hottest time of the year, when the birds have done their nesting and mammals keep to the shade, it’s easy to assume there’s little for the nature-lover to observe. Traditionally, the Dog Days are a period of stagnation when the heat hangs heavy over drooping seedheads, signalling the degeneration that inevitably follows the exuberance of spring.

Phenology teaches otherwise. From the Greek ‘phaino’, to appear, and ‘logos’, the study of, it is one of the oldest branches of science, an area of nature study devoted to the tracking of seasonal changes and their effects on plants and animals. The eighteenth-century naturalist Robert Marsham, a contemporary of Gilbert White, did much to establish it in Britain, popularising the spotting of the first signs of spring such as the arrival of the first cuckoo or the emergence of the first cherry blossom.

These days, phenology is increasingly hitched to the wider issue of climate change, with citizen scientists being called on to chroncle the signs of global warming.

Personally, I prefer to think of phenology more as a practice that puts the focus on the ‘immeasuables’ of the natural world, as Waverley Fitzgerald puts it. Students in her phenology class have noted drinking sounds from the trees and the way the light strikes the dining table. It’s an approach which encourages the observer to become more attuned to their surroundings, rather than getting entirely caught up with the goal of extracting information to be used as data. Rather than acting as the handmaiden of Big Science, this kind of phenology has time for the in-between moments and non-events of seasonal nature study.

It’s very an approach that connects the observer to the specificity of place as well as a particular moment in time. In my own patch of residual suburban woodland at the moment, I am observing the progress of the tiny acorns in bud and the gradually-reddening of the hawthorn berries, their hue depending on whether they line a shady path or face a sun-drenched field. Now, who says there’s nothing to see?

Wildlife gardening and British biophilia

Lunch at Fox Corner

So the blue tits finally fledged, having had many of us repeatedly checking the livecams when we should be getting on with our own, human lives. We’re in the season of Springwatch – the marathon outside broadcast that is testimony to the peculiarly British passion for nature. Over half the adults in the UK feed the birds, with a dedicated minority setting up their own webcams so they don’t miss a flutter of what’s going on out there.

It’s tempting to see this British biophilia, with which we see nature as intrinsically meaningful and regard it with love, reverence, respect, as a kind of secular religion. And recent years have seen the emergence of a new form of nature writing that is its discourse: I’m thinking of the work of Richard Mabey and Robert Macfarlane, along with a host of new books that celebrate very specific natural passions, such as Matthew Oates’ In Pursuit of Butterflies. This kind of writing is genre-bending, a blend of memoir and science with the sense of quest and discovery that traditionally belongs to travel writing.

I was unaware of this emerging literary movement when, a few years ago, nature started creeping into my own, subject-based, travel writing. The shift grew out of my attempts to cultivate my newly-acquired suburban garden, a rough patch of ground bordering other gardens and allotments that was overrun with brambles and heavily populated by local creatures. Annoyed at having my plants squashed and bulbs dug up, I tried at first to keep them out, blocking up their runways and putting out discouraging odours. But gradually my attempts to establish exactly the kind of garden Iwanted gave way to the realisation that things would go much better if I took into account what suited the local animals and plants.

My prime teacher in this respect was Little Fox, a cub who lived on the other side of the fence and seemed to be orphaned. Although I wasn’t feeding him daily, he would seek me out, coming to watch what I was doing in the garden or curling up for a nap among the plants. We got to the stage where he would come when I called and retrieve objects thrown to him. The garden had become a kind of nursery, a safe, hospitable place for wildlife and, as a result, I was rewarded with a rare friendship with a wild animal.

So now I leave the animals’ entrance holes unblocked, plant only open-faced flowers for the bees, and put out food and water for the birds and foxes. Heard of ‘conscious uncoupling’? I call it ‘conscious wilding’. Others call it wildlife gardening: once more, I’ve unwittingly joined a national movement that puts nature at the centre of things.
who's been sleeping in my flowerbed?
And Little Fox? He grew up successfully, patrolled his patch for a couple of years and then disappeared, as urban foxes tend to do. Although I rarely see them in my garden, his kind continue to use it as a safe place to eat, rest and play, and I’m delighted with this fresh evidence that someone the size of a fox has been sleeping in my flowerbed.

Morphic resonance and the new science of love

Photo by Kevin Bedell

It was a fitting setting for a thinker whose interests span evolution and angels. On a January evening in the Unitarian Church in Notting Hill. Maggie Stanway, chair of the Jung Club (which was hosting the event), lit a candle and introduced the renegade biologist Rupert Sheldrake.

Sheldrake, who is tall and has a posh accent, talked with an almost liquid fluency about the idea that has made him famous. Morphic resonance is the hypothesis that natural systems inherit a memory from their antecedents in ways that cannot be explained by genetics. Rather than obeying fixed laws of nature, the nature and behaviour of plants and animals are ‘habits’ formed by an evolving past and, as such, are not purely determined by the material.

It’s an idea that may account for instincts such as spiders knowing how to weave their webs and phenomena considered paranormal such as pets sensing when their owner is coming home. Challenging the scientific orthodoxies as it does, it has caused a lot of controversy.

As was appropriate for the audience, Sheldrake concentrated on the implications of the hypothesis for human life. For just as the collective unconscious is central to Jungian thinking, ‘morphic fields‘ apply to culture, creativity and learning. It follows then that skills and abilities, such as aptitude for languages, sport, or music inhabit certain people for reasons that seem mysterious.

He furnished us with a rather sweet anecdote from his family. When his son and friends were taking their GCSEs, they decided to apply the principles of morphic resonance to the exam. Instead of starting at question 1, they began at question 4 so that they would be about ten minutes behind the rest of the candidates. The idea was that, if morphic resonance was occuring, they would get a boost from the collective thinking that had just taken place. The group of friends got A*s although, Sheldrake conceded, they might well have done so without employing this ruse.

How morphic resonance happens is not understood. Sheldrake mooted various possibile explanations such as the existence of an implicative order that precedes the reality we know and the insights of string theory. About once a week, he said, a physicist sends him an hypothesis that consists of dense equations that he can’t understand: ‘I take the view that this is happening, but we don’t know how.’

The key implication is that the universe is inter-connected or – to put it another way – full of relationship. He cited the example of birds, with their nest-building, tireless feeding of their young and preparedness to defend their offspring to the death: ‘It’s the basis of the most fundamental kind of love,’ he said, adding: ‘I’m not sure how far we can take this – is gravity love?’

It was striking how comfortable he was moving onto spiritual and existential territory. A practising Christian who believes in the Holy Spirit and the existence of angels, Sheldrake, characterised the paths trodden by spiritual pioneers such as Jesus or Buddha as morphic fields which make it easier for those who come after to follow. Morphic fields, he went, on are ‘like what Aristotle and Aquinas called souls’, with the difference that they resemble memories rather than eternal templates.

I wanted to know what morphic resonance had to say about evil: if we learn so much from the past and others why is there so much trouble in the world? Sheldrake replied that morphic resonance had ‘no filter’, with the result that bad habits are passed on as well as the good. Then – moving from a dualistic worldview to a privative conception of good – he pointed out that even terrorists believe they are acting for the good. He added, somewhat tantalisingly, that what would be needed to overcome repeating patterns of evil would be ‘a more universalist morphic field’.

All this made me wish that Sheldrake, still in his prime, better equipped for intellectual syncretism than most of us could ever hope to be, and with a gift for popularising, would now produce some writing that is like his talking that ranges more freely over disciplines and is aimed at a wider audience. I understand that his vocation is, in a sense, to sing the Lord’s song in the strange land of scientific materialism, but it seems a shame to leave such valuable insights about the nature of consciousness, death and love to the New Agers.