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Stabbing slugs and conscience

01 May 2015

John Austen sees the laws of cause and effect brought to life on his allotment  


Slimy hierarchy: Land slugs from The collector's manual of British land and freshwater shells by L. E. Adams (second edition, Taylor, Leeds; 1896)

Slimy hierarchy: Land slugs from The collector's manual of British land and freshwater shells by L. E. Adams (second edition, Taylor, Leeds; 1896)

Lo, the fair beauty of earth,
from the death of the winter arising,
Every good gift of the year,
now with its Master returns.

THE Easter season has transformed countryside and garden - and allotments, too. Everything seems to be on the move. But there is the usual dilemma: at what point shall I plant out or sow vegetables that are susceptible to late frosts? I am still learning: I read what it says on the packets or labels, but there are huge variations between north and south.

I rely on the wisdom of more experienced neighbours, who know what the patterns of late frost have been on our particular plots.

The sudden burgeoning of growth will bring the burgeoning of pests too, as we embark on another season of turf wars to discover who is in charge of this allotment - them, or me. It isn't a new problem: in the Old Testament, we glimpse the same situation. Jeremiah scoffs at the carved images some people worship: "They can no more speak than a scarecrow in a plot of cucumbers".

Just as Jeremiah looked around and saw what people were doing to try to keep the birds away, I can look around today and see scarecrows on our allotments. One wears a hi-vis jacket; others are decked in glittering silver foil. Shiny CDs are popular bird-scarers, suspended on wires or lengths of string. I wonder what scarecrows looked like in Jeremiah's day.

Joel wrote about the plague of locusts: "What the cutter-worms left, the locusts ate; what the locusts left, the grasshoppers ate; what the grasshoppers left, the shearer-worms ate".

Plagues like that were utterly disastrous. On the allotment, in a bad year, we have our own litany of woe: what the pigeons left, the slugs ate, what the slugs left, the caterpillars ate; what the caterpillars left, the aphids devoured.

LIVING in a city, the day-to-day experience of being dependent on harvest is absent. We can see on television the consequences of famine and pestilence, and hear about it from our partners in link dioceses. But the words of Joel and others have a sharp ring about them when you go down to the allotment and find that, because you forgot to cover the young brassicas, you are left with a row of stalks; or what was a bush bright with soft fruit one day has been stripped bare by the next.

Responses to all this can vary. One friend, an experienced grower and a faithful Christian, is philosophical and generous. He says that we are all God's creatures, and we all have to find a way of living - including the pigeons. Another friend has a rather different attitude, and can sometimes be seen stuffing the pigeon he has just caught into a bag, for cooking later. Someone else says "Plant four of everything - one for the birds, one for the slugs, one for a friend, and one for yourself." It's a pity pigeons and slugs can't count. . .

AND what to do about those slugs? Let them drown in beer? Discourage them with eggshells? Use "safe" slug pellets, i.e. with no peripheral fatalities? I still get slight twinges of conscience when I affirm the sanctity of God's whole creation on Sunday morning, and stab the slugs with a fork a couple of hours later.

The balance between our needs and the needs of God's creatures is rightly now recognised as a theological and moral issue. We see it in miniature in our gardening. I have really enjoyed watching thrushes on my allotment, knowing too that they deal efficiently with snails. But, last year, when I mounted one of my regular attacks on the Japanese knotweed that is too close for comfort, I realised that the thrush whose song I enjoy so much had a nest at the base of the knotweed, in thick cover by the stream. I delayed my attack until the young had fledged.

I have always been moved by the plight of farmers who lose their crops, whether in other countries or here in the UK. But it is on the allotment that I encounter some of this at a personal level, and thus the plight of those whose livelihood or survival is under threat becomes more real to this city-dweller.

Canon John Austen is a spiritual director living in Birmingham.

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