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    PloughCast 76: Restoring a Farm

    By Adam Nicolson and Susannah Black Roberts

    February 7, 2024

    About This Episode

    Adam Nicolson has been rehabilitating his farm in Sussex for many years now, and he discusses the difficulties and rewards of this, and the piece that he wrote about it for Plough’s issue on repair.

    They go on to discuss the topics of some of Nicolson’s books: Sissinghurst, the farm and garden owned by Nicolson’s grandmother, Vita Sackville-West; Homer; the pre-Socratic philosophers; and sailing. 

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast! I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. I’m speaking today with Adam Nicolson. Adam is an author and journalist who has written for the Sunday Times, the Sunday Telegraph, National Geographic, and Granta, where he is a contributing editor. He is the author of numerous books on landscape, literature, history, and the sea, most recently How to Be: Life Lessons from the Early Greeks. He is married to the writer and gardener Sarah Raven and lives at Perch Hill Farm in Sussex. Well, Adam, thank you so much for coming on.

    Adam Nicolson: I wanted to say thank you for having me in Plough. It’s very enjoyable writing things for you. It’s a very nice magazine. We like it.

    I think it’s absolutely brilliant to have had an issue about repair. Yeah. I haven’t seen a magazine do that before. It’s such a great subject of the moment, you know. Really well done.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m really happy with the way it came out. There’s sort of two official things that the podcast ought to be about, I suppose, which is one of which is your piece in the magazine and then the other of which is it could be a bit of a book talk from the new book, but mainly the piece in the magazine. But I also have all kinds of other related questions.

    Well, the original way that I got to know your work was because I was doing this ridiculous 13,000 word piece on sort of Homer and the gospel and Nietzsche and so on. And I read your Homer book for it and just absolutely loved it. And then I started reading … I forget. Do you mention sailing in that?

    Adam Nicolson: I do that every book, unfortunately.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And then after pitching you as a contributor, there was like this long silence and Pete was like, you know, that he has a piece coming up in the next issue anyway. So you’ve had long and somewhat frustrating experience attempting to repair farms and repair bits of landscape. And the piece that you’ve written for our repair issue is about your Perch Hill Farm. Can you describe what the history of that is? And also your earlier attempts to do a similar thing?

    Adam Nicolson: Well, in something like … I think it was 1994. So what is that, thirty years ago? My wife and I decided that we’d had enough of life in London and really kind of ran for the hills. And the nearest bit of hills that we could run to was in Sussex, about maybe I think it’s about two hours south of London. And Sarah, my wife found this this wonderful incredibly decrepit place, a failed dairy farm, oceans of concrete and corrugated asbestos and a sort of absolute horror story of half built, half collapsed barns and and all of that. And she rang me, and she said, you’ve got to come and see this place. It’s absolutely incredible. So I came down and thought, yeah, OK, interesting. Absolutely incredible. And she said, no, no, no, wait, wait. Come, come out here. Come and look at the fields. And so we walked out into the fields and it was completely entrancing, enveloping a handmade network of what I now realize is essentially a medieval landscape. You know, surrounded this rubbish house, which was – actually the rooms were too low for me to stand up.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh, no!

    Adam Nicolson: Yes! So, but the place, the place was just completely entrancing. That kind of sense of containment and enclosure. But it had been very badly messed about with by a couple of generations of farmers who had been driven by, you know, modern economics of farming, which are essentially based on very large scale, very empty landscapes. To denude it, to take out hedges, take out woods, to, quote, “improve” the grassland with, you know, modern Italian ryegrasses and high nitrogen systems and all the rest of it. And so this wonderful place in its bones had experienced a kind of awful degradation in those times.

    There’s a marvelous English landscape historian, Oliver Rackham, who wrote about all these things long, long before anyone else, in the ’70s and ’80s of the last century. And his term for the kind of mid to late twentieth century was “the years of the locust,” as though somehow a terrible plague had swept across the land and denuded and diminished and hurt it. And so it’s very, very apparent in these abused places that repair and making good is what it’s kind of crying out for.

    And it’s shamefully it’s now thirty years on, and I’ve hardly nibbled at the edges of doing this. I mean, you know, we have put in a good, I think, probably a mile of new hedges on the old lines. We’ve restored much of the grazing. It’s much more flowering than it ever was. No poisons or stimulants have been applied to the place. And so gradually, gradually it is embarking on a kind of career of renewal. And the form of renewal is extremely conservative with a small c is – it’s absolutely thinking that this place has embedded in it a wonderful, ancient, medieval wisdom, really, that understood that human affairs and human thriving could be interleaved, you could say, with the natural. The two could be almost mutually stimulating.

    And that the way of doing that is to, you know, they’re very, very modern things that the modern grazing systems you move cattle or sheep on every few days to a new enclosure. Well, the old enclosures were all only two or three acres, tiny things, and so designed for the moving on. The old hedges were these very, very thick old things that not only provided timber for warmth in the house, as they still do for us now, but were wonderful corridors for wildlife between the woods and so on. So there is an absolute model there really, of how you don’t need to rewild to make a place good for nature. And the term I use to myself really is to re-culture. To re-find that understanding that we can live very happily, very well in a place that is completely good for the natural world, too. And this sort of multi-species ideal is the one we should aim for. And so that’s really what I’m about, at Perch Hill.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And that comes through very strongly in your book about Sissinghurst. The sense that I get from that is that the human aspect is a totally crucial aspect of that re-culturing, and that’s why it’s not rewilding.

    Adam Nicolson: Yes, it’s absolutely central. I mean, my friends always tease me about when I was trying to get up to with that scheme at Sissinghurst … I should explain that my family house is just only I think fifteen miles away from Perch Hill. And it too is a house in the middle of the farm. And it too had been severely degraded in the late twentieth century. And for it, too, I had an idea of restoration along the lines we were just talking about.

    But unfortunately, that place, because my grandparents were absolutely feckless in spending every last penny they had. And when my grandmother died, this whopping great tax bill was payable and my father couldn’t pay it. So he had to give it to the National Trust, you know, the British charity that looks after land and houses and so on.

    I mean, largely, I should say, because in that house at Sissinghurst, my grandparents had made this one wonderful garden. And that was the great draw there. But the relationship to the land was oddly enough very much the same. But the problem was that the National Trust owned it. And so all of my ideas, Sarah’s ideas, it was very much a shared enterprise between us, came up against a kind of large scale bureaucratic reluctance.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh, it was so painful! It also reminded me of Yes, Minister a bit.

    Adam Nicolson: Well, yeah, I was very rude, very rude to the National Trust. I said to them, I remember standing up to some meeting and saying, because this garden is immensely famous, a world-famous garden, I said, “What you’ve done is instead of a place, with all the rich implications that that term has, what you’ve made is a Titian with a car park attached.” There were some very, very, very, very long faces round the room when I said that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: One of the things that I’d thought when, as you were describing that work, and also as I was reading your piece on Perch Hill, is that we have this instinct for the good of a complex ecosystem – even saying “ecosystem” seems a bit clinical, but a complex landscape and the horror in a way of the denuded and the high extract, high input agriculture of the late twentieth century. And there’s something that’s almost a blessing, I think, in the fact that we now realize that that can’t go on. It’s not just an aesthetic preference. It’s actually a necessity that we figure out – that we have to be clever again. Basically, we can’t just throw chemicals at the soil. We thought we could for a long time and we thought we could just do it by force and not have to be clever and not have to be detailed.

    But, you know, the natural world is pushed back and we’re forced back into a kind of intelligent and small scale and like lots of little projects version of agriculture purely in order to, you know, not have the soil completely degrade and blow away. And then we all die. And there’s something of a blessing in that. And is that something that you’ve experienced at all?

    Adam Nicolson: Yes, yes, I absolutely – No, no, I completely get that. And it’s certainly a kind of – There is a need for humility in it, and a kind of summoning of humility in it. You know that you really don’t know what you’re doing. As a human being, you know you actually need to submit to these disciplines that the world knows more profoundly in every element of soil and vegetable life and bird life and vertebrate life and all the rest of it. And it kind of knows that. And I think that that kind of engagement with the knowledge of the other is a blessing. I think it really kind of is a blessing. It’s an amazing education, you could say, that it actually teaches you this sort of the need for submission. I think, yes, actually before submission – I was just reading about some – I’m writing a book about birds at the moment, and I was reading about the relationship of Paleolithic, deep, old stone age people in Europe to nature about 30, 35, 30,000 years ago. And the absolutely extraordinary thing is that in Paleolithic Europe, there were probably across the whole of Europe, it’s thought, about 3,000 people.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Good grief.

    Adam Nicolson: Scattered in these settlements, you know, quite large settlements, maybe 100, 150 people in each, but a total of 3,000 people in a continent entirely populated by other creatures. We human beings are far fewer than the bears, wolves, birds, everything else.

    And what a kind of transforming bit of mathematics that is– really to kind of recognize that dominance is just the very last thing you could imagine having. Yeah. That in fact, the only virtue can be fittedness and an allowing of the other.

    I mean, of course, you can go hunting mammoths and racking ravens, which is the thing I was reading about. But the idea that you’re – that we are in any way able to be dominant is absent when you’re one of just one among many, many, many other creatures.

    And I think that that is that is I felt when I read that, gosh, that is that is – that’s a form of education. If only we could reabsorb that understanding that, of course, we’re fewer in the end than all invertebrate life, for example. Or the mycorrhizal universe under our feet. You know, we’re far fewer. We’re small. And I think you could describe that recognition as a blessing. Yeah, that the end of dominance is a blessing.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I keep trying to sort of stitch together your various interests. And in hearing you talk about that, that’s actually one of the things that I love about sailing, which is that you can’t fight the wind and you can’t fight the water – like, they will win. You have to figure out what they’re doing. And then you have to decide what you want to do. And then you have to figure out what to do in order to basically cooperate with them. And that’s so different than going on a ferry where it’s just blasting you across.

    Adam Nicolson: That is right. And the thing I think I always love about sailing is that every element in play is mobile. So every sheet, halyard, sail, spar, hull, you are necessarily kind of, you know, you’re not creating a great fixed monument in that sailing world. You’re needing to become as fluid as the world actually is. And I think that that fluidity and liquidity – sort of fluency, you could say, or liquidity of a being that that sailing imposes on you is also a fantastic education.

    You know, so if you are going to restore a farmed landscape, you can’t kind of build it like a concrete bunker because it’s not fixed. It’s a wonderfully mobile world. And so it’s like kind of stream engineering. You just have to provide channels in which life can run. I mean, which is the landscape. Yeah, almost. Yeah. Make the farm a sailboat. Yeah. That’s a crazy idea, isn’t it?

    Susannah Black Roberts: But I get it. I mean, a sailboat as well. I mean, you’re thinking about the physical form of it. Like, obviously, there’s the ship of Theseus logic puzzle or whatever it is. But in reality, a sailboat, especially a wooden boat, is just perpetually kind of breaking down you’re constantly having to refurbish its physical self and also it’s getting disgusting, so you have to clean it.

    And there is that that sense of, yeah, you’re in a relationship with this object. If you just left it, it would rot fast and it would get, you know – or rust. And, you know, it’s slightly less true of fiberglass boats, but not a whole lot less.

    But there is this kind of fluidity of the physical object of the boat itself as well. Which usually manifests itself in being very expensive.

    Adam Nicolson: Yeah, I mean, it is true that these things do connect. You know, chemical agriculture, for example, does not imagine the future. Chemical agriculture only imagines, well, the next harvest, maybe. But it doesn’t imagine any long term return.

    And I think that that relationship to time is really central to this, too. I mean, it’s very interesting. I haven’t really thought about time, but I think there is something very, very intimate between time and real being. So the unended nature of it is a kind of an illumination, I think, rather than the kind of solidity of material stuff, which doesn’t, you know, for all that you say about the sailboat, material stuff doesn’t like the idea of decay. But time loves decay.

    I wrote a book about the pre-Socratic philosophers and all of them are interested in this, that idea that if you take if you take the nature of being and boil it down to its absolute essence, well, all of them end up with fluids of different kinds. So Thales says there’s water and Anaximander says it’s this sort of very undefined, “the undefined,” the apeiron, and Anaximenes says that it’s air, essentially. And so that anything that is alive simply kind of breathing a moment of the world’s breath and when it dies, it breathe out again and it returns to the cosmic air.

    And I think that the – talking about a deep ecology, which also loves the idea of things losing their current form. You know, materialism, do this would love the idea of stuff being stuff. This way of looking at things loves the idea of stuff stopping being stuff and moving on into other forms, so that when a tree collapses in the wood and rots, you know, that’s good.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And also, if you’re sort of putting that together with the human desire for permanence, which we can talk about a bit later, there is this – I forget which college in Oxford it was, but there’s some college that when the original college hall was built, they figured that the beams would last for around 500 years. And so they had to plant, you know, a stand of oaks that could be harvested in a couple of hundred years, 500 years to replace those beams because they would need to be replaced. And that seems to me to be the kind of perfect human working with decay, but also kind of like you’re you’re not being – you know, you’re not trying to stop the tide. You’re actually loving the tide, but working with it.

    Adam Nicolson: Yes, I’ve read about that. I’ve also read that story is untrue. Tragically.

    Susannah Black Roberts: No! I love it too much! It has to be true.

    Adam Nicolson: If only it were true. There’s a thing that reminds me of – that after the French Revolution, some French banker or financier of some kind, when he died said, I’m going to leave all my property to the French state on the condition that the French state does not touch my inheritance for another 200 years. So in 1989. By the time of 1989, his inheritance would have grown by such an enormous amount in value that the French would never have to pay any taxes again. And it would entirely fund all French life. And it’s a lovely idea, isn’t it? You know, it’s like planting the oak wood in Herefordshire.

    Sadly, of course, the French state started plundering it about a week and a half after he died. So it didn’t work.

    But the Norwegians are doing it. The Norwegians have this incredible fund that they’ve put all that oil proceeds into.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, but that’s oil! That doesn’t count! It’s oil.

    Adam Nicolson: It is. But it’s the same notion, the same notion of, if you allow the world to grow in whatever form, either as a, you know, financial thing or as a forest, then some marvelous return occurs in the end. And it is about understanding the value of the length of time.

    Susannah Black Roberts: All right. Well, let’s try it. Let’s try to do this. In your book on Homer, which was the first of your books that I read, you describe Epic as that which seeks to bind the wounds that time inflicts. Is there a way that we can think about Epic as being a similar thing? like it’s trying to help us sail through history, essentially. It’s trying to help us, you know, bridge the gap between memory and history. Is that a reach? I mean, it’s definitely a reach.

    Adam Nicolson: I mean, it’s a kind of it’s a kind of lovely middle term, Epic, like that, isn’t it? We all have this memory of our lives, our parents lives and maybe of our grandparents lives. But we certainly don’t have any sort of visceral, emotional understanding of our great grandparents. Well, maybe exceptionally, but nearly never. And so we live, we live in the kind of emotional now. And history is a kind of very cut and dried thing, isn’t it? That removes that emotional connection from any account of the passing of time. And so Epic – Epic wants to want to know about the deep past, the heroic past, even, but wants to know it in terms that are like memory, so that it hurts and moves and even horrifies.

    Even historically, memory, obviously, we have memory and we have extraordinary memory. And memory was invented first. Memory comes with being alive. And history is invented very late. You know, Thucydides and Herodotus, in around in 500 BC or whatever, 450 BC and Epic occupies that middle ground between those things.

    And it wants to, I think, in my mind, it actually wants to redeem time. It doesn’t celebrate time. Homer is grief stricken, really, at the transience of things.

    And, you know, the Greek idea or Homeric idea – it is not true later on, but the Homeric idea of the soul of the person is only– the soul only exists at when the person is alive, and when the person dies, and goes to Hades, they have no soul in Hades, or at least the soul, when Odysseus goes down to Hades and sees all the souls, he sees the souls in Hades blowing across that dark landscape, the fields of Asphodel, like autumn leaves rustling, like dry, withered autumn leaves. And there’s nothing to it. And so, you know, the great grief for Homer is that death happens and that the only thing that survives death is actually honor. You know, that’s what the Iliad is about, that the good heroic life is the only thing that outlasts the disappearance of the body. And so I think in many ways, Epic is trying to redeem that hurt. It doesn’t celebrate time, unlike, you know, those slightly later philosophers who love the passing of time as the essence of what is in a very modern way, I think.

    You can be very entranced … I mean, I was very entranced for a long time by this Homeric idea of the kind of grief of existence. I wrote that book, well, I don’t know, fifteen years ago. And I don’t think I think that anymore. I don’t want to celebrate the kind of poignant, plangent grief of existence. I want to love going on.

    And I don’t think that I don’t think this is necessarily grievous. The existence can be really full of amazing, fertile, productive sort of seed-filled delight.

    Looking out the window now in Spain, one of these wonderful jasmines is flowering in the sunlight outside – thank goodness for that. Thank goodness for that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, there does seem to be a thing that it still remains even after you begin to love – like you realize that you can’t do the Tower of Babel and you can’t sort of like stop history and, you know, nail yourself to eternity through technology, in some way that kind of solves the problem of Hades through your own efforts. There is something that remains of the desire for like an ongoing personal identity that nevertheless isn’t fixed or doesn’t stop growing or isn’t, you know, is still kind of related to the becoming of the world.

    Adam Nicholson: Yeah, I don’t agree with that. I mean, I think that to cling on or – cling on is obviously a prejudicial term, but to imagine the soul as an eternal, my soul as an eternal being is really delusional, and also dangerous, actually. Because one looks for that in the structure of things, then one looks for perfectibility. And a kind of moral arrogance comes in the wake of that and that it is exactly like making the beautiful building which is not how things are. And that has led our culture down terrible paths.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, I see your point. And I think what you’re describing is the sort of Tower of Babel version, where it’s like the sort of technological fix or the transhumanist urge to upload your brain or something. But I don’t think that’s the only – I mean, we’re just going to disagree about this. But I don’t think that’s the only way – that kind of grasping, technologizing, willful refusal to let go, I don’t think is the only way. But we might just, OK, we can disagree. I’m just …

    Adam Nicolson: Let’s just stick with it for a minute, though. So I mean, the problem for me is thinking of the soul as everlasting. If it’s everlasting, then you can’t attend really to the present, and to the beauty of transience, you can really only attend to the to the final everlasting nature of it. And if you attend to the final everlasting nature, then you are led down non – I would even say non-ecological paths.

    Do you know, because there’s a rigidity, there’s a rigidity – there’s a non-sailing aspect to that, isn’t there?

    Susannah Black Roberts: This is the completely fascinating piece. This is what your book on the pre-Socratics is about. If you compare them to Plato, for example. Can you describe that book and how you came to write it and just give our listeners a sense of what you were doing there?

    Adam Nicolson: Yeah, I was very – There’s a great question about when Homer was, and the book I wrote about Homer claimed that the essence of Homer is very, very deep in Bronze Age history, sort of two thousand or something BC, and really marked the arrival of the Greeks in the Aegean and the Mediterranean, and was all about what happens when a steppe based essentially Asian or North Asian culture comes to the Aegean and meets the great urban cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia and so on.

    And that is extremely controversial and very much got up the nose of all the old professors. They didn’t they didn’t like that idea because the conventional idea about Homer is that Homer is much, much later. At the beginning of the Iron Age in about 700, maybe even 650 BC, you know, 15, 13, 14, 1500 years later than that.

    And so I was always very intrigued by actually the world that it is conventionally said that Homer comes from. And it’s a miraculous moment in our history – that all the Bronze Age cultures had collapsed like dominoes in the neighborhood of 1100 BC. And the whole of the Mediterranean entered a kind of dark age in which everything came to an end or nearly everything came to an end. All urban civilization and literacy and trade and metalworking and all the rest of it. And then quite suddenly in about 700, 650 BC, something happened in the eastern Aegean. Cities sprang up. They had temples, coinage. They invented the Olympic Games. They start, you know, maybe started to write down Homer. They acquired writing from the Near East. And a whole range of different things happened. The beginnings of Greek sculpture.

    And in that thing, that moment called the Greek Renaissance, philosophy began, or what is called philosophy began. And these very, very early thinkers all sprang up in a series of Greek cities on what is now the western shore of Turkey on the Aegean, in the eastern Aegean.

    And these Greek thinkers who are very connected to Egyptian, Babylonian, Mesopotamian ways of thought, and maybe also to Indian and even Chinese ways of thought, coming across Asia towards them, started to think about the world and the soul and the city, our social beings, in the new way.

    It was really a giant rejection of monarchy, a monarchy on Earth of a grand instituted bureaucratic state of the kind you would have had in Egypt or Mesopotamia previously, in which all thinkers and intellectuals were effectively servants of temple or palace, rejecting that idea both socially and intellectually.

    And instead, in these small cities, these small trading cities, run by merchant oligarchies, thinking about – the need to think about what it was to be alive, not to be subjected to an all powerful deity or an all powerful monarch, but to think, you know, what is the world actually made of? or what is it to be me? or what makes the good city? What is law? What is justice? And so all the grand questions of what we now consider to be philosophy emerge in very strange and rather unapproachable ways, and often in gnomic sort of paradoxical and often opaque statements, but which nevertheless are hugely appealing to me as a kind of crossover between philosophy and poetry and religion.

    I think that the philosophers of these cities are in many ways like prophets. There are – many of them were poets, many of the philosophy, much of the philosophy is expressed in poetry and I was very drawn to them for their pre-Platonic conceptions, you know, they do not, until later on with Pythagoras, think of an eternal soul. They do not think that the duty of man is to be kind of good and how to cultivate goodness. They do not think that, you know, in the Platonic way of a kind of very ferociously and strictly regulated, hierarchical social system.

    But I’m very, very interested in the idea of the essential tension of life being about how to be with an identity in an entirely conceptually fluid world. I think that really is the core of what that book is about. Sort of if, you know, I said, to a friend of mine the other day, it’s just the idea of completely dissolving oneself in the fluid world is so beautiful. And he said, no, not at all, because there’s nothing more beautiful than identity.

    And I think that that is a kind of that is an incredibly difficult, unresolvable question that you have to attend to everything we’ve been talking about here today. But you also have to attend to the opposite. You have to attend to the reality of self and all that. So I think that’s what drew me to it.

    Also it’s an incredibly beautiful part of the world where I’ve been sailing with Sarah. And that’s a magical thing – that you sail a day sail between the cities, and it is a day sail between different ideas of being. You know, that’s, if you had to kind of make a dream recipe for me, that is it. Get in the boat and you sail from Miletus to Ephesus, and you sail between, you know, one set of philosophers and another. It was a magical thing to do. I loved doing it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I cannot tell you what catnip that book was for me. It was sailing plus competing philosophical systems.

    Adam Nicolson: I mean, I think I think we probably live in quite a small niche there. I mean, I think there may be many sailors who like philosophy and many philosophers who like sailing. But I think it’s quite a quite a specialist little nook.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, the thing is, I really – they were kind of separate in my life for a long time. Like when I got hardcore into sailing, I basically for about two years forgot that I cared about anything else. And then I sort of gradually emerged from that. I was sort of like remembering, oh, I care about G. K. Chesterton, too. I don’t only care about tall ship sailing. And so there was a kind – of there had like mending of identity there. I also was realizing I couldn’t actually make a living as a deckhand. Anyway …

    Adam Nicolson: Yeah, sailors often end up – sailors do often end up incredibly depressed. They do. Do you find that? Well, I mean, if they’ve given their life to sailing. Yeah, there was something deeply unsatisfying.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, because there is – it is the perpetually …

    Adam Nicolson: I don’t know why that should be.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s the giving your life to transience. The very great appeal of being able to sort of pick up sticks and go somewhere else. But it also means that you’re not you’re not putting down roots. And, you know, the guy who mostly taught me to sail, who was the first mate on the ship that I sailed on, which is called the Clipper City in New York Harbor, he was, you know, from Vancouver, Canada, and was just this kind of like Jimmy Buffett, but not as successful guy. And he was absolutely a romantic figure, but kind of miserable and ended up, you know, periodically unemployed and living on a boat.

    Adam Nicolson: You know, and that is kind of stereotype – sad and drunk, sad and drunk. And boring someone in some dark cafe.

    Susannah Black Roberts: But he was so good. He was so good at teaching and he was so good at sailing. And so there is …

    Adam Nicolson: Such an interesting thing – it’s not that different, I think, because everything you were saying earlier, everything you were saying earlier, but it’s so funny that phrase you used, “put down roots.” Well, putting down roots is not pouring a concrete foundation, is it?

    Susannah Black Roberts: No …

    Adam Nicolson: And you know, and so that actually it – there is some transfer between those kind of sailing desires, that that they see in longing for movement. But Odysseus, you know, Odysseus longs to be home, doesn’t he? The whole the whole motor of the Odyssey is to be home. And think of it, the proof!

    That vouches for him, the proof when he gets home. You remember this? It’s extraordinary …

    Susannah Black Roberts: The bed, the bed!

    Adam Nicolson: You remember, the bed! OK, Penelope, she’s the queen, as you know, says to him, “I think we should just move the bed out into the hall. It’s so much more convenient.” Right. And she knows and he knows and we know that the corner of the bed that this is himself made twenty years before is a living olive tree. And the bed is immovable.

    The bed is immovable because it’s alive. And isn’t this incredible, this kind of fusing of categories that goes on in that story: Of fixity and transience and livingness and home. And, you know, the traveler returns to a place that is fixed because something is growing in it. You know, that is astonishing, I think that the wisdom embedded in that story – I feel I don’t know, but I feel that story must be hugely old. I feels like right at the beginning of human understanding.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It does. Well, thank you so much, Adam. This was just absolutely wonderful.

    Adam Nicolson: Thank you for asking me. I loved it. Cheerio.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Contributed By AdamNicolson Adam Nicolson

    Adam Nicolson is an author and journalist who has written for the Sunday Times, the Sunday Telegraph, National Geographic, and Granta, where he is a contributing editor.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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