The Unladen Weight: A Soap-Box Moment.

All those planting seasons ago when I ventured to start this blog I had no real plan other than to have a bash at describing events, effects and reflections generated by renting a standard allotment plot in South Staffordshire; lazily thinking that, surely a lot of human life and the human condition might be reflected within the confines of those hawthorn hedges.

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The title is a nod of the head to a sage comment made at the time by my friend, co-gardener and wife (often referred to in the blog as the Plantation Owner’s Wife. You see, at the time allotments were nowhere near as popular as they are at present and the plots I was offered (“Take it or leave it!” were the exact words) was over shadowed by a monstrous, thick hedge over flowing with pernicious weeds (squitch (couch grass), mare’s tails, docks and nettles) and hadn’t been dug for at least a decade. A ramshackle ”greenhouse”, bodged together from window frames and plywood and held together by hope and gravity stood in a sea of comfrey, next to a three feet high pile of stones and scraps of industrial carpet. Now I knew that I could make something out of it, but my wife simply sighed and said:

“They saw you coming if you’ve said yes to that!”


Hook, line and sinker became Muck, Line and Thinker. I hope and apt description for some of my ramblings. And the overgrown mess became a very productive, inspirational plot alongside the beginnings and developments of friendships, banter and experimentation with new crops and techniques.

Image result for allotments images

But the blog is salted with asides from my other lives and connections and bits and pieces picked up (books read, radio programmes heard (or misheard) observations on life and – hopefully – an injection or two of humour).

Indeed only last week I heard a comment by a primary school teacher in passing.

“I think it was on telly …” she was saying as I overheard unintentionally “… they were saying every child ought to b taught to recognise every British bird. I though t what a great idea. I couldn’t do it; I don’t know ‘em all.”

There was a pause. Neither of the two people she was with passed comment.

“Then I thought,” she went on, “that’s not enough. Maybe they should also be taught to know every kind of tree …”

At this point they were walking out of earshot. I was intrigued. By her honesty (in admitting her lack of knowledge) and the concept. I can recognise a lot of our bird species. I began to learn them from my grandfather, then from field guides and by asking. Trees too.

I have often been accused of having a grasshopper mind (ever tried to catch a grasshopper?) and of divergent thinking. As if either of those things is in any way wrong!

On hearing this snippet I am thrilled (“what a great idea, I love it!” a tiny fraction of my (tiny, let me say it so you don’t need to eh?) brain is cheering. But another part is remembering, and applying, something I heard on radio some years ago;

“Why not do both … and more!”*

It sounded so liberating: teach the kids the names of the birds. But how to do it? Show ‘em pictures of a chaffinch, a snowy egret, a marsh harrier. Copy out the names underneath? Just not appropriate. In my opinion – and my experience – I learned the names of the birds that were in the garden, in the farmyard, in the fields, on long, rambling no-purpose walks. I don’t remember setting out to learn the names of every bird, or every tree. Such knowledge as I might have crept up on me. And I didn’t learn the names in isolation, but linked to their behaviours, their location, their habits and habitats.


Because I was curious. Because I am curious still.

I learned as a result of what I happened to be doing: chopping kindling, getting the cattle in to be milked, fishing for tadpoles in the local brook, collecting conkers. A kind of sympatico osmosis, because I wanted to.

Now it is true that if we want to conserve today’s wildlife and landscapes we have to engage youngsters, show them the delights of the countryside, the web of inter-relating causes and effects. “if it’s not important to them, if they don’t have knowledge and a perspective they won’t vote to save it in the future” argument is absolutely valid. And the schools starting to get involved in the Forest Schools Initiative are going some way towards it but there is a deeper role for parents and families to play. Because, it seems schools are straitjacketed and delivering a very narrow assessment-driven curriculum. So ..…

… and anyway:

What about species of flowers, breeds of farm livestock, models of cars … the unladen weight of an African swallow ?

* It was a question asked of a theatre director – what should drive theatre programmes: bums on seats or eyes on stalks?



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