Country Matters: Adding little secrets to the soil
SEVERAL 'volunteer' potato stalks had defeated digging in a tough patch where their appearance had been reminders of a crop of two years before.
Those tubers had been excellent, the seed being a surplus from a friend. who this year, sadly, won't be planting a garden. Now the tough patch, being finally dug over, has thrown up a handful of 'soldiers', whose rounded faces had remained unblemished beneath the soil.
It is digging time after rain that has "lorded over the beaten plain, and to the crusted boots cling brown, stubborn clods of the native earth". That's the Russian Joseph Brodsky, Nobel laureate and late pal of our own great Seamus, remembering his youth in the fields with wind clanging the upturned buckets, and when "the horses, inflated casks of ribs trapped between the shafts, snap at the rusted harrows with gnashing profiles". Mother Russia!
Closer to home, a man named John Seymour was a fervent advocate of digging. He was impatient about people who talked of self-sufficiency and were loath to bend their backs. Seymour, who was English, was a philosopher and author and an indefatigable worker of land and husbander of animals. He used to have a smallholding near New Ross and died at an advanced age some years back.
He was an advertisement for self-sufficiency, working the soil, teaching, talking and ballad-singing. But he shrugged off any reverential obeisance as the father of self-sufficiency (his seminal book The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency was translated into 20 languages). Self-sufficiency was not going back into the past seeking some idealised lifestyle, he wrote, but rather going forward to a new and better sort of life for fresh food "in pleasant surroundings, for health of body and peace of mind which come from varied and hard work in the open air ... and from the satisfaction of doing intricate jobs well".
He extolled the wonders of tomatoes growing in window boxes on high-rise apartments and urged every inch of garden be productive with planned crop rotation.
Growers of all shades of ambition have been plundering compost bins to add secrets to the soil. Treatises have been written about the composition of the brown crumble that adds a spiritual dimension to the humble potato and the purple of sprouting broccoli. Some paths trace back to a curious Austrian named Rudolf Steiner who, early in the last century, advanced theories such as biodynamic farming along with a spiritual movement called anthroposophy (if one eats food from unhealthy soil "the spirit will lack the stamina to free itself from the prison of the body").
He was a compost enthusiast with a difference. Some of his suggestions would present a challenge – stags' bladders filled with yarrow flowers; cattle intestines stuffed with dandelion leaves; sheep heads filled with oak bark.
His premise was that a farm was an organism and should be viewed holistically, integrating crops, livestock, soil and the relationship between farmer and land. This biodynamism grew into an organic certification programme called Demeter, of which there is a group in this country. Some people would say the vegetables they produce are out of this world.