Wednesday 28 October 2009

Sea Beet, Sugar Beet

We are swimming out to sea, out towards the sandbanks where the waves are breaking. We are strangers to one another on the beach but kin in the sea. There is an edge in these waters we feel as we near the bank, a nervousness we hide with our occasional shouts to one another and laughter. Something in us knows, that even though the sea is shallow at low tide, the currents are fickle here.

Standing on the island I can feel the presence of the wild shore behind us. It ia the last day of summer. Tomorrow the holidaymakers will go home and the beach will empty. Already you can feel the turn in the air. Soon the barnacle geese will arrive from Siberia, the sand martins depart to Africa and an East wind will come and erase all our footsteps.

The children who swam alongside me have become bored with the phenomena of sandbanks and are now chasing each other back to shore, the lovers drift shyly sideways into a watery embrace. I am left looking out towards the empty horizon, the cross currents shifting urgently about my feet, sun pouring down on my head. I am looking where millions have gazed before me, across the wrinkled North Sea, into the vastness of space and air. Everyone wants to come here to the land's edge and gaze outwards into this space. I spent years of my life wanting to come here. What were we looking for in all that blue?

I wanted to know the texture of the wild land that lies behind me, the tastes of it, smoky and salt, the bitterness of the centaury flower that shines on the cliff, the sound of the lone cry of the curlew wheeling downriver, the rough feel of alder bark, the way the light shines on the reed beds. I can look now down the coast with all its estuaries, across mud flat and fen, and map all my stopping places – Southwold, Aldeburgh, Felixstowe, Sandwich Bay – I can chart my life as I came slowly northwards, slow as a red-sailed barge that once made its way up the eastern rivers, stacked with salt and barley.

In the sandy dunes and shingle banks there is a front line of wild plants, our first food plants, the ancestors of allotment and field - wild carrot, wild cabbage, sea beet, sea pea, sea kale, sea rocket, oraches and sorrel – and many traditional medicines - wormwood and eyebright, sea buckthorn berries, sea holly root, scurvy grasses. Of all these ancient companions, the sea beet is still highly prized by modern foragers for its rich leaves. It’s a handsome plant, large and sturdy, with long green spiky flowers and tough stems that turn streaky red as autumn comes. The kind of plant that can weather a storm.

Last winter the sea rose up as far as the plant-line of this shore. The wind ran against the tide and the estuaries flooded their banks. Along the coast people began speaking about how to protect the land. Small bands collected together, stacked sandbags against the river wall, spoke out for the birds and the spirit of the place.

Just a few cows, we were told by the greysuited men in the village hall, refusing to mend the broken banks of the rivers and the harbours in the sea beet’s territory – the Blyth, the Ore, the Alde, the Deben, as the government announced its retreat back to the metropolis. What about the fishermen? I asked. It’s not economic, one replied. What about the tourism? They will go elsewhere, said another. The cows in the watermeadows didn’t count. The birds didn’t count. The land didn’t count. The people in the coastal seatowns didn’t count. Only the populations in the industrial towns would be secured. The oil prices began to rise. Suddenly I realised I was living in a different time. A time I did not know.

I want to keep this last day of summer, to stand on this sandbank forever. But already the water is growing chilly. I know, like everyone else, that something wasn’t quite real about this life by the seaside, this endless gazing towards the horizon: it was a holiday. A holiday that lasted for a hundred years, a get-what-you-want, go-where-you-please, eat-cake-every-day holiday. Like parties and love affairs, it wasn’t all fun. It rained, you got bored and read too many books. The family quarrelled. The show on the pier was a shabby affair. And sometimes as you stood as I do now on the most beautiful afternoon of the year, with the tang of wild beet in my mouth, the light playing on the sea, you felt something vital was missing.

Beyond the beach and this line of wild duneland plants, this golden edge of reeds, the swimmers in the sea, the elegant lines of silver birch and sanderling oak, lies the hinterland of East Anglia. In these heavy clay spaces lives the wild beet’s domesticated cousin, Beta vulgaris, sugar beet, that dwells in its millions in hundreds and hundreds of identical acres of agricultural land. The sea beet is distinguished by its leaves, thick shiny leaves that cook up well as a salty wild chard or spinach. Its relation, the sugar beet, is distinguished by its root, which when it is harvested in the bitterness of January you can find piled in great pale yellow mounds, left by grinding machines that churn the soil and slash its leaves, or storming down the dark lanes in trucks en route to the refinery at Cantley. You don’t want to look there, beyond this wild and sandy edge of light at all that mud and mangel-wurzel. At all that desolation and winter. But at some point you have to look at this land. Because you know, whether you like it or not, that the holiday is over.

* * * *

Of all the addictive substances that we seek out on the food shelves, fat, salt and sugar, sugar is perhaps the most pernicious. Natural sweetness is stored sunlight in plants, most deliciously manifested in fruit. In search of natural sweetness men will, as they have for thousands of years, climb cliffs and trees and brave swarms of angry honey bees. In the manufacture of artificial sweetness they will destroy the world and each other.

Many plants are grown commercially for their sugar content - rice, maize, sugar cane - but in England sugar is made from beet, principally in East Anglia. It is commonly sold as white table sugar, the stuff we spoon into tea and coffee, our home-made cakes and jam. Not that we think about this sugar very much, or the thousands of processed foods we eat that contain it. We like to taste sugar, but we don’t like to look at it. Sugar beet fields are ugly, the factories at Cantley and outside Bury St Edmunds are ugly. The facts of sugar slavery are ugly.

We don’t look at our dependence on sugar because its presence makes our working existence bearable. Sugar rewards every action performed in the name of progress and industry. It fuels its teatimes and lunch breaks, its endless cups of tea. In Ronald Blyth’s peerless documentary of Suffolk rural life, Akenfield, everyone lives for cake. In a labourer’s diet of bread and turnips, the sweetness of cake appeared like a fairy godmother. Still now in the bakeries and tea-rooms and church halls of Southwold, people’s eyes flash as they view stacks of iced cakes, fruit slices, chocolate eclairs, scones, biscuits and buns. Oh, the treats that are in store!

Sugar seeps into everything, into our dreams, fuelling our cravings and desires, eating the enamel on our teeth, adulterating our blood, diverting us from looking at the hardship and difficulty before us.

For years when he came home, Josiah would smell the sweet smell of the sugar refinery mixed with the malt of the brewers. Sugar beet was in his blood. When Josiah was seventeen he and his friend Stuart secured the contract to weed four hundred acres of sugar beet. The farmer was offering £1000 and gave a month to complete the job. It sounded like the easiest money they’d earn that summer.

Normally the farmer would have given the contract to a local woman. She would then put together a team of 5 or 6 who’d take the full month to do the job. This year she was on holiday. Josiah and Stuart talked it over: they were young, they could do it on our own, we could do it in two weeks.

The farm manager took them out to the fields on the first day, he gave us a map of the farm showing where the sugar beet was being grown and then he told us what was expected. The weeds in question were, in fact, sugar beet plants.

Sugar beet is a biennial plant, putting on leafy growth in the first summer and storing sugars in its large tap root. In the second year it uses this stored energy to grow a three or four foot flower spike and produce thousands of seeds. The beet plant’s growth is controlled by hormones, the release of these is stimulated by environmental conditions - temperature variations and day length are particularly important, and for the plant to flower it must be photo-thermally induced. The winter and spring that year had been warm, the soil in that part of Suffolk is light and doesn’t hold water well and the beet were panicking: the boys were confronted by a huge field bristling with thick woody stems capped with green flowers.

It was explained that these stems would blunt the blades of the harvester that cut the top off the beet before it was lifted from the soil, that the roots of these plants would have a lower sugar content and that if the seed set it would be scattered by the harvester and so-called volunteer plants would grow in next years crop acting as a reservoir for yellowing virus which causes Rhizomania, a wonderfully named but devastating disease of the beet family.

Josiah hadn’t really considered what 400 acres would look like, or how long it might really take to walk up and down a field thick with beet plants or even how hard it might be to pull up a sugar beet plant cleanly. The field the farm manager had taken them to was huge, it had a small wood in the middle of it making it hard to judge its full extent. It was bounded on three sides by scrappy hedges and on the third by a high barbed-wire topped chain-link fence. Over the fence we could see the hangars and runways of the local R.A.F base. The fiekd turned out to be about 50 acres, there were six others to weed.

We began the work in high spirits spreading out to cover ten rows each we could sweep across the field quite quickly. We had thick gardening gloves to protect our hands and, along with bottled water and a packed lunch, planned a trip to the village pub at lunch time. By the end of the first few sweeps across the field my gloves had given up, torn by the beet stems. Their hands were green with chlorophyl my back was stiffening and it became clear that conversation across the rows was difficult if they were to maintain a reasonable pace.

He thought about the pub.

Josiah started to calcualte, began to get drawn into complicated mental arithmetic. How much sugar in a sugar beet? How much in a field? The first real science experiment he’d done at school, that is to say one that involved bunsen burners, had been the extraction of sugar from sugar beet roots. He remembered that farmers aimed for between 15 and 20 percent sugar. Each sugar beet they walked past must have weighed more than half a kilo so every 8 or 9 plants represented a half kilo bag of sugar. The farm manager had told us that they might expect 8000 tonnes of beet from the 400 acres. Combining this information with my vague memories of that school experiment I worked out that the the sugar yield from just this farm could be well over 1300 tonnes - that would be 2,600,000 half kilo bags of Silver Spoon sugar.

He needed a pint.

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