We’ve gone from housing hens to online supermarket dependency

Will Covid-19 begin a resurgence of the 1970s withdrawal from growth-driven capitalism?

Supermarkets emptied of eggs, Britons are seeking hens for their back gardens – such a bonanza for the UK’s urban foxes. Illustration: Michael Viney

Supermarkets emptied of eggs, Britons are seeking hens for their back gardens – such a bonanza for the UK’s urban foxes. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

The song thrush joins me half an hour before dawn, perching on the bare, topmost branch of the hawthorn outside my workroom window.

He sings steadily, facing the sea, the top notes a bit muffled by the double glazing, while I bring up the papers on desktop to see how much worse things have got.

As the sky lightens and goldfinches start squabbling at the nuts, the slope of fields sharpens to the sea. Electricity poles march away between the sheep, their rain-rinsed fleeces echoed in the white line of surf beyond the dunes.

To look at such distances is a luxury. Even a pallid, featureless ocean, its islands blurred in drizzle, is calming to the mind. And on the acre itself, so raw late into leaf, the primroses shine.

We share a privileged isolation, separately glued to broadband to follow the news and to carry our chronicles of the natural world

“If you’ve got enough land to grow potatoes for a year, there’s nothing they can do to you really.” I wrote that when I was still in my 40s and fresh to the challenge of “alternative” rural living.

Still here at 87 and somewhat slowed down by respiratory ills from a chain-smoking youth, I am blessed with a partner who, down on the floor for her morning exercises, insists on staying fit and able at 91. We share a privileged isolation, separately glued to broadband to follow the news and to carry our chronicles of the natural world.

Most of the acre that grew a year’s potatoes is now shaded with trees or tangled with a dense scrub of fuchsia and briars. All this shelters a polytunnel with a ridge of early potatoes, the first instalment of a quite re-energised urge to get things growing.

Wooden ark

I ventured past the tunnel in bright sunshine, armoured with prickle-proof welder’s gauntlets and the secateurs. The path leads on into the trees, but briars have arched their grapnels from the hedge bank to root at the other side.

These severed and yanked up, I pressed on to find, immured in shadows and brambles, the wooden ark I made for the hens in the days when I still could do anything. Disdained now even by owls or bats, its marine plywood stood darkly intact. Its intricate carpentry (six nest boxes, recycled windows, a sliding droppings tray) had put me at a pinnacle of DIY achievement, as if I had built a boat.

The ark had housed Rhode Island Red/ Light Sussex crosses, all of them brightly aware and fluffily warm to stir off their eggs: I still know the feel of their feathers.

Our own eggs now come from SuperValu, commendably delivering from Westport, 35km away

The first dozen were renewed after the inevitable fox, discovering the door still open at dusk, compulsively slew them all and carried some to cache in a hole up the hill. And the ducks, while I’m at it, were finally abandoned after visits by stoat and otter, and from my own dismay at having to “cull” the ducklings at 10 weeks, taffeta-crisp and pristine.

What took me back to the old henhouse was learning that, supermarkets emptied of eggs, Britons were seeking hens for their back gardens – such a bonanza for the UK’s urban foxes.

Our own eggs now come from SuperValu, commendably delivering from Westport, 35km away. Thus, long after years of a hectic self-reliance, through bees, goats, geese and fish from a spillet, we share the same grateful online dependency as the harried world beyond the hill.

The polytunnel is a treasured remnant of endeavour, like the seedlings on my warm workroom window-sill: peas, lettuce, courgettes, beetroot, cavalo nero kale. Tomatoes, sown far too soon, are planted in the tunnel, stoically surviving under fleece the chilly nights of spring.

Garden gossip

This is garden gossip to encourage citizens who are putting their daily exercise into skinning the lawn for instant raised vegetable beds (Quickcrop delivers them) or, starting from scratch, sowing online seeds at just the right time.

And after it all ends, whenever that is, what shape will things be in?

Back in the 1970s, “organic” was still a hippy word, like “self-sufficiency” and “saving nature”. All that flowed into the new recognition of ecology.

Since the 1970s the lure of a little land on which to try out new personal skills has taken many away from the city

The early intellectual drive came mainly from the US, from disciples of “deep ecology” and “Earth First!” That was reinforced by Lovelock’s theory of Gaia, the Earth as self-managing organism, and the mounting crisis of climate change.

Still passionate in defence of closer bonds with nature, its threads vibrate, for example, through the online journal Ecological Citizen, offering papers on “eco-anarchism” or a “Nietzschean land ethic”.

Since the 1970s the lure of a little land on which to try out new personal skills has taken many away from the city, repelled by corporate culture and consumerism. The social and economic turmoil of Covid-19 and its aftermath may well see a resurgence of individual and communal withdrawal from outworn and growth-driven forms of capitalism.

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