Home & Shop Companion #0129
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
If there is one character trait that us Brits recognise in ourselves, it is our liking to complain about stuff; it is the other side of the stiff upper lip, the ‘never mind, let’s have a cup of tea’ mentality, and we particularly like complaining about the weather. This week we have had some weather to complain about, because last night was the warmest night on record, in some places not dropping below 25 degrees c [77F] and in some places later today it is due to top 104 in Fahrenheit, 40 degrees centigrade, a nice round number to make a headline and a temperature I have never experienced, nor has anyone else, ever in Britain.
For some readers I am sure this counts as normal summer heat, so what is there to complain about, ‘are you Brits all wimps?’ Well, maybe we are, but that is not the point.
To be sure, it was hot last night, but not as uncomfortable as when we were in Italy one August, nor as bad as my most uncomfortable night spent in a hotel near the Pennsylvania Horse Progress Days in 2011. When I got to my room on the first night, it was like an oven, and seeing this machine in the corner, I worked out it must be an air conditioning unit, never used one before, and turned it on. We went out to eat, and I came back to a refrigerator of a room, I turned off the noisy apparatus, not dissimilar in decibels to a generator, almost put on a jumper to keep warm, but turned in instead. Given the time difference, I fell asleep immediately and slept until about three thirty, the temperature unbearable. What else could I do but turn the blasted thing on again! I slept a little afterwards, but what with the noise and my body telling me it was time to get up, I got up and walked along some of the roads as the Amish farmers started their day’s work, and took this picture of Belgian mules. Later that week, I had the chance to stay in an Amish home. My room had windows on three sides, all open with fly screens, with a big deciduous tree to the south, so much cooler than the thrown-together hotel building reliant on electricity, and quiet too.
As a result of the weather, over the last day or two, people have been advised to stay out of the sun, especially those with health problems, and perhaps to stay at home because after running slow yesterday, some trains are not running at all today. All of which led to the next standard British complaint, repeated again by ‘your average Joe’ on the news yesterday, that ‘other countries keep on going in worse conditions, so why can’t we? Doesn’t that tell us something about our country?’ This is meant to convey the idea that we are second rate and inefficient. And that is possible too, but it is not the point.
The specific point about our railways is that they were designed to work between -10 and +35 degrees c [14 and 95 F], the high figure so high it was never anticipated it would be exceeded. Even if it did, it would be only once in a blue moon. So, out of interest, I just looked it up; in Shropshire, which is not the hottest part of the country, the highest temperature ever reached was 0 .1 degree below the 35 degree level, back in 1990. So the question about the trains is really whether the train lines should be redesigned, re-engineered and refinanced for higher temperatures, in which case the rails get more stressed at low temperatures, or we put up with a day or two every few years when the trains run slow.
In other items on yesterday’s news, reporters were sent round the country to see how people were taking it, interviews with primary school children nonchalantly saying they’ll keep their hats on, and ‘it’s too hot to play outside, anyway,’ and care home workers genuinely concerned how to keep their elderly residents cool. And then they went to a farm in Suffolk, a large arable farm, except for a herd of outdoor pigs. The pigs provided a background for the interview, enclosed on land dry and devoid of vegetation, with only the pig arks for shelter. ‘How were they coping?’ asked the reporter.
‘We make sure the pigs have enough water,’ came the reply.
‘And how are you doing on the farm?’
Not so good, it turned out. The wheat harvest had already started, two weeks early and with yields down a third, matching the decrease in rainfall, the lagoon for irrigation water for the potatoes was nearly dry and the maize crop had completely failed. To demonstrate the point, there was a view of three stunted maize plants surrounded by dust and nothingness, not even any weeds, but in the background, there stood a solitary tree in the remains of an old hedge, clipped tight at waist height, clipped to within an inch of its life, full of gaps where the plants had just given up. After all, with no livestock except for the pigs kept behind electric fence, what is the point in keeping a hedge? At the end of the interview, the farm manager was asked what needed to be done, and he had two answers. The first was to streamline the planning process so that some of the land could more easily be made into a solar farm, and secondly, that there should be a national infrastructure of pipework to move water all around the country to where it was needed.
From his point of view, I can see why he might say that; other places have lots of rain and Suffolk doesn’t, so why not invest in pumping it there? Wouldn’t it make sense, because water is the only thing lacking on his farm, isn’t it? So, get it from somewhere else, the two hundred miles or so from Wales or the Lake District? Problem solved! Isn’t that what investing in the future is all about? Isn’t that what creating a resilient society is all about?
Not to me, it ain’t. Because that is just the same thinking that got us to where we are today, energy intensive solutions to solve a problem caused by energy intensive actions. But on one level I do get it, I do get where he is coming from, I remember the internal resistance I experienced just to convince myself to plant rows of trees down the length of my field, north to south, to provide shelter for the horses and the plants, and to provide nutrients from deep down, because fields are supposed to be clear, and clean and bare, aren’t they? That is what a proper farm is like, isn’t it?
Except on days like this, we in Britain have a gentle climate, so we are yet to learn what so many American farmers learnt during the dust bowl era, when ‘proper’ farming was turned on its head. And perversely, it is often when we are hardest pressed and when the need is greatest that we throw up the greatest resistance to having a good think about the new realities, turning to the comfort of the old and familiar rather than the challenges of the new situation. It sort of reminds me of whenever I have had problems with the horses – nine times out of ten, I only need to look in the mirror to see the cause, though often it takes time to work out exactly what the problem is. Usually, with horses, the problem is how we are treating them, and it is the same with farms and with farming, the problem often lies in how we are treating the soil.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.