Saturday, February 02, 2008

Crystals and past lives, unicorns and fluffy bunnies ... or perhaps just plain fluffiness. Gabrielle and I label ourselves “permaculturalists” but there are many things within the permaculture ambit that we don’t go for. And I think that’s OK, permaculture's an experiment, not a strict doctrine, an umbrella, a wide church. I remember describing my own permaculture design course to friends as 80% useful stuff and 20% fluffy hippieness. Maybe I’m too straight-laced, maybe some of the fluffy nonsense actually does work but can’t be explained scientifically, who’s to say?

In Permaculture Magazine we read of copper gardening tools and silver water stirrers and our brows crinkle with a benign mixture of amusement and disbelief (some of this stuff is quite expensive). These things live on a continuum, rather than there being a science / fluffiness dichotomy and so, in Permaculture Magazine, issue 51, we read an article on rock dust, entitled “Stone Age Science”. There’s lots of evangelical promise but it’s annoyingly short on detail. The idea is that soil is comprised of weathered rock (nearly 50%) air and water (40-50%) and organic matter (5%) and that, as soil ages, “essential trace elements are lost though weathering, intensive farming and plant growth.” With rock dust, apparently, you can re-mineralise your soil and so grow better and more nutritious fruit, nuts and vegetables.

I have to say that there was enough scientific logic to tickle my taste buds and so I wanted to acquire some rock dust, but at £8.50 for a 20 kg bag, it is far too expensive for us. And as I don’t know of any French stockists, importing something as heavy as ground up stone just wouldn’t meet any ecological principles, however good it is. One of my failings is that I can be like a dog with a bone when I get an idea in my head, and I wanted some rock dust.

With neighbour Alan’s trailer attached to my green van, (it’s green in colour, I’m not claiming any special ecological merits for it) I drove off to the nearest quarry. You know the difference between builders’ merchants and DIY stores? They sell a lot of similar stuff but you really need to be “in the know” to feel comfortable in the builders’ merchants: compare “gi’us ten metres of sawn four-be-two and a kilo of 2 inch galvanised clouts” with “excuse me, I’d like some wood and some nails please but I’m not entirely sure what exactly.” A French quarry is ten times worse. Huge lorries, huge digger and tractor things, a weighbridge, a portacabin office and not a sign giving any useful information about what one should do in site—something like a secret society in fact—incorporated with the specific aim of making outsiders feel incredibly small.

To be fair, I may have felt small but they were extremely accommodating and the secretary, her male colleague and a lorry driver who happened to be in the office got really involved in this crazy Englishman’s quest for rock dust. In the end, they pointed me in the direction of a granite quarry not too far away, which turned out to be more of the same. So I wandered about feeling incredibly self-conscious and eventually spoke to a guy driving a big digger, who directed me to the office. No one on reception, I poked my head into an office: (the following dialogue was in French)

I explained my quest for rock dust, which I assumed would be a by-product of their enterprise and could I possibly liberate some and pay for the privilege.
Over there, next to the white thing, by the flaming thing (I didn’t understand all).
And will there be someone to help me load it
A shovel
And where will I find a shovel
Over there
And where do I pay
Offhand shrug type of gesture meaning, as far as I could ascertain, help yourself, it’s free, mate and please now f**k off and let me do some work.
And who shall I say that I spoke to in the office?
Thank you, have a good afternoon and au revoir
The same to you, au revoir (the French are terribly polite, even when being impolite.

The tale ends simply: I shovelled up as much of this permaculture gold as I could. The guys working the stone inhabited a place that William Blake would have painted as Hell, with ear-splitting noise, flames and sparks and huge slabs of stone being dangerously moved around in slings as I loaded the trailer a shovel at a time. The machine operator either took pity on me or I won his respect, either way he helped me load up the trailer and I had to force a tip on him, a small gesture to enjoy a drink on a Friday evening, whilst I was thinking how much this would have cost if I’d bought it! The plan is to use it in half the polytunnel to see if we notice a difference. To read more, click here and here