Just feel like putting this picture up here.
June is the Thick Month. Trees and bushes and stands of wildflowers have acquired a lush density by now, branches and stems encased in full-sized leaves, rich and vividly green. Leaves massed and packed in swaying light-blocking swathes. Nothing has yet faded, although there is a gradual falling away of birdsong now mating is over and broods are being raised, although this is compensated for by what seems to be an increase in insect noise, especially bee hum – certainly in our garden. The flowers are beset by mason, carder and bumblebees, and large numbers of solitary bees which provide a delightful oxymoron for this recorder, at least.
Going out and about through the woods a mile from my home, I feel I could almost be walking indoors, such is the density of the tree canopy above me, and when it begins to rain I do indeed remain dry, other than from the occasional drip finding its way through. But it is muddy underfoot in places, the sheltering swathes also keeping the sun from drying out the ground. The thick wet dark humus-rich soil smells sweet and clean, reminding me of a ‘plum-pudding smell,’ as Kenneth Grahame described the river-bank in The Wind in the Willows.
The fields, too, are thick with wildflowers and grass, as are roadside borders where councils have refrained from scalping them. As much as I rejoice to find the occasional rarer species amongst them, I think my greatest pleasure is just to see masses of the commoner species; buttercups or ox eye daisies, vetches or speedwells.
I generally see nothing rare when I am walking my patch, but I could never think of any of this as ‘ordinary’.
I always enjoy listening to the dawn chorus. The cheerful, uplifting sounds of birdsong greeting the new day always put me in a good mood.
And I was delighted to take delivery yesterday of a whole raft of new computer programs – voice recognition software, a language pattern analyser, and an ornithological behavioural speech identifier to name just three. So I loaded them all up and recorded a few minutes of the dawn chorus in the garden this morning. I think you’ll find it illuminating:
‘Oi, what you staring at, big beak? You want some, eh?’
‘Who, me? Well, if you think you’re so hard, come over here and say that! If you dare stick your foot in my territory, that is.’
‘Your territory is it now? Since when? Don’t remember you being so beaky during mating season!’
‘No? Didn’t need to be. Well, I wouldn’t be after yours, anyway. I’m not that desperate. You should ask her where she’s been! She’d mate with anything in feathers, yours would! Wanna know why that scruffy feral pigeon’s been hanging around here, eh?
‘What are you suggesting?’
‘What do you think I’m suggesting? Weren’t you just the teeniest little bit suspicious at the colour of the eggs? We blackbirds are supposed to lay sort of bluey greeny eggs, not white ones!’
‘The colours vary, mate. You should know that. Diet and climate and all that stuff.’
‘Not that much, they don’t. Those eggs were a dead spit for…well, for pigeon eggs, basically. And what about your fledglings? Rather on the large side, your kids. Lot bigger than you are, already. Walk a bit funny, too…
‘I…oh, for goodness sake! Oi, shut it Red Tits! Can’t hear myself tweet around here!’
‘Here, you don’t want to antagonise that robin!’
‘He don’t scare me.’
‘He should. You know what they’re like – vicious little buggers! I saw that one take out a song thrush a couple of days ago.’
‘Yes. Straight up. Blood and feathers everywhere! I tell you, that thrush’ll be on soft food for a while after that.’
‘That’s mostly what they eat, anyway.’
‘Yeah, but they like their seeds as much as the next bird, too. That one won’t be back at the bird table for a while. Bit of minced earthworm and over-ripe blackcurrant is about all it’s got to look forward to at the moment.’
‘Yeah. Um…I’m getting a bit bored with all this, now. I know. See that cat down there?’
‘What about it?’
‘Bet you I can crap on its head!’
‘Bet you can’t!.’
‘Right, watch this…er…left a bit…there! Mwaah ha ha ha!’
‘Okay, yeah. Good one. Hah! That’s one pissed off cat, that is!’
‘Love it when that happens.’
‘Okay, that’s it, then. Sun’s up, now. I’m off to go and forage some brekky. Same time tomorrow, then?’
‘Nah, not tomorrow.’
‘No? Why ever not? Here, you having that problem with Avian Pox, again?’
‘No, no. It’s not that. Shh! Don’t let the whole neighbourhood know! No, to tell the truth, it’s just that I’m a bit fed up with all these early starts.’
‘But that’s what we freaking do! Why do you think it’s called the freaking dawn chorus?’
‘I know, I know. It’s just that sometimes I think I wouldn’t mind changing it to the slightly-later-preferably-just-after-coffee-chorus.’
‘We’re birds, you pillock! We don’t drink coffee!’
”Yeah, obviously. Of course not. Course we don’t. I’m just making a point. You know what I mean.’
‘Will you two shut up! Dawn chorus has finished!’
‘Who said that?’
‘That gull up there.’
‘What’s it to do with him? They don’t take part. And anyway, they never stop making a racket themselves. Nasty, loud, shouty buggers!’
‘Yeah. They’re called common gulls for a reason!’
‘How would they like it if we went and sat on their cliffs and shouted at them?’
‘Right! They’d hate it! Um…what’s a cliff?’
‘Eh? Er, I dunno. What they sit on, apparently.’
What, like a twig?’
‘Yeah, I expect that’s it. Some sort of a twig.’
‘Can’t think why they don’t call it a twig, then.’
‘Common and thick, then.’
‘Anyway, this isn’t getting breakfast eaten. I’m off to that feeder with the coconut shell and the fat balls.’
‘Fat balls? Is that some sort of crude joke?’
‘I’ve no idea. You coming?’
Today, the Guardian’s Review section carries a piece by Robert Macfarlane about a growing movement to grant rights to parts of the landscape, seen by some as one way to protect and preserve them. It opens by describing how in December 2018 the Ohio city of Toledo passed a ‘Bill of Rights’ for Lake Erie, which for years had been heavily polluted and reached a crisis point in 2014 when for three days, during the hottest part of the year, it had been impossible to extract drinkable water from the lake.
The piece goes on to discuss the pros and cons of these laws, especially the potential problems of recognising, say, a river or a forest as a ‘person’ in law, and how that might play out in legal disputes.
At the heart of the Extinction Crisis we are currently suffering, in what is now recognised as the Anthropocene – the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. – is the way that we, as a society, view the world we live in and those we share it with. And this has powerful consequences at a time when we are directly causing the extinction of so many plant and animal species, and thence the wholesale destruction of ecosystems and the consequent changes to the climate this triggers.
I have always thought of the Earth as consisting of two distinct layers; a rocky planet – a core – wrapped in a mantle of life, a mantle whole and made up of countless billions of organisms all influencing and influenced by each other; a true web of life that we are all part of, but no longer seem to recognise. And by the same token when we think of somewhere as a ‘place’, we commonly imagine it in isolation, as though it existed somehow despite its myriad neighbours. For example, if I ask you to imagine ‘London’ you may have an image of Central London with its familiar landmarks, filled with hurrying people and buses and cars. Or it might be the Docklands area, the West End – any one of thousands of parts of the city. But would you have an image of a city connected to the counties around it by roads, by streams and rivers, by areas of woodland and fields, the flight paths of birds, the daily migration of commuters or the dominant weather patterns, and then this greater area connected even further to the rest of the country, and then this country connected by seas filled with life to other countries and continents?
And this same lack of imagination frequently makes us see everything around us with the blinkered eyes of our own vested interests. Some will view a landscape as something to be exploited purely for financial gain, be it to extract oil, perhaps, or to maximise the yield of farmland by destroying woodland and hedgerow, infilling ponds and killing wildlife. Some may feel it imperative to build more and bigger roads, covering dozens more square kilometres with concrete and asphalt, as though it were so necessary that we should always be able to travel faster than we do already.
It is still quite controversial, but botanists are just beginning to understand the extent to which trees communicate with each other and the remarkable way their roots are all connected through networks of fungal threads – the Wood Wide Web, as it is sometimes called. It is supposed that trees communicate to each other through these threads about things such as insect attacks, which may trigger defence mechanisms in individuals before they are actually under attack. In that way alone, it is appropriate to think of a forest as a single living entity.
To return to the laws that might protect the natural world, what we really need are laws that recognise the importance of this mantle, and how every part of it relates to every other. And this includes our own part in this relationship, since we are very much part of it, and in the end we depend upon it for our own lives.
The life cycles of butterflies and moths really are an example of how utterly bizarre life can be.
As a child, I was always outdoors playing in the woods and fields and keenly interested in wildlife. I had an especial interest in butterflies for a long while, and I’m quite confident that as a ten year old I could have named every single British species, and told you a reasonable amount about their life cycles. I knew, for example, that every butterfly or moth started out as an egg, hatched into a caterpillar which ate like there was no tomorrow, and then turned into a chrysalis.
And as that child, I assumed that inside this chrysalis the caterpillar just grew a pair of wings, lengthened its legs, and made a couple of other adjustments too minor for me to worry about and then hatched out into whatever butterfly or moth it happened to be.
It is not quite like that, of course.
When it turns into that chrysalis, the caterpillar essentially ingests itself, so that its insides turn into a kind of organic soup (which makes me think of the so-called ‘Primeval Soup’ of amino acids out of which life supposedly first arose on Earth about two billion years ago, which is actually not a bad analogy). From this soup a completely new creature forms.
So, let me now introduce you all to Trevor.
Trevor has been living in our back garden for the last few weeks. He is the caterpillar stage of an Elephant Hawk Moth (probably – some of the hawk moth caterpillars not only resemble each other fairly closely, but may also have variations within the species). In that time he has been doing his best to eat a small tree.
You’ll excuse him if he doesn’t say hello, I’m sure, as he is much too busy eating at the moment. It’s what he does. It’s pretty well all he does.
Eventually, he will reach a stage when he stops eating, finds a handy spot to attach himself, and then turn into a chrysalis (or pupa) and will eventually hatch out into a moth – an Elephant hawk Moth, if I’ve identified him correctly, although I’m sure he won’t care in the slightest what I think.
You may be familiar with the Zen koan (essential a riddle that cannot be solved by pure logic) that asks ‘if you light one candle from the flame of another candle, is the new flame the same as the old one, or an entirely new one?’
Which brings me, rather neatly if I might say so, to today’s riddle. Bearing in mind all of the above, is the newly hatched butterfly or moth the same creature as the caterpillar that preceded it, or a new being entirely?
I think we should be told.
There is a huge disconnect between the human race and the natural world. This is nothing new, of course, it is something that has gradually been developing ever since man first discovered farming and began to live in settled communities rather than living a nomadic existence. But it has accelerated rapidly since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, until we passed the point where for the first time there were more people living in urban areas than in rural ones. That may seem an obvious fact to many in the Western World, but that statistic is a worldwide one. 55% of the population today is urban, but the spread is very uneven. In North America, for example, 82% of the population today are urban, whereas across Africa as a whole it is only 43%.
This creeping urbanisation has had many obvious consequences, such as the growth of villages into towns, and thence into cities and finally into super-sized metropolises covering hundreds of square kilometres with hardly a tree or a bird to be found in some parts. Such as whole villages being abandoned as the population move to towns to find work, partly due to the growing mechanisation of farming and the demise of traditional rural industries. Such as a rapidly shrinking amount of land that can be thought of as wilderness. Even those areas that are not now covered with an urban sprawl may well be covered with farmlands or plantations, or large areas devoted to leisure activities such as golf courses which as far as wildlife and plant diversity are concerned, are little better than deserts.
And such as a growing and deepening disconnect between humans and the natural world.
In small part, this is natural and necessary; it is a process that is inevitable as we evolve from a species indistinguishable from the other great apes in behaviour and purpose, into a species able to pursue activities unrelated to simple survival.
Of course, we have also become a species capable of wiping out our species and all other species, too.
But this trend seems to have accelerated at an alarming rate over the last thirty to fifty years. Of course, urbanisation continues to be a growing trend, the growth of technology continues to feed into areas such as farming, where we now have huge farms that can be operated by a couple of people alone, which might have required a labour force of maybe a hundred once, and we have social media and computers and gaming and thousands of on-demand TV stations.
This last phenomenon I think is mainly the cause of what appears to be an especially severe disconnect between the natural world and the younger generations.
Now before everyone rushes to tell me of wonderful younger folk who love the natural world and who actively fight to protect it citing, perhaps, the incredible people who make up Extinction Rebellion, obviously there are many exceptions to this. But it is a trend. Before I retired, my job was teaching outdoor activities such as climbing or navigating, and I worked with many children and young adults. The environment in which I worked, of course, was the natural world. And although many of the youngsters who came along lived in towns or cities, there were also many who lived nearby, in a more rural environment. And what shocked me, was that so many of them had no better understanding of that environment than those that lived in inner cities.
I met country children that couldn’t recognise an oak tree or knew what an acorn was. Country children who couldn’t recognise a kestrel. Country children who had no idea what wild garlic was.
As a kid, I lived on the edge of London. I don’t think I was in any way exceptional, but I would spend as much time as I could playing with friends in the woods and fields I could walk to or get to on my bike. We splashed around in streams and climbed trees, learned what different butterflies looked like, found stag beetles and slow-worms, caught minnows and sticklebacks, and absorbed a lot of knowledge about trees and birds and insects and mammals from books and TV programs and just being out in the country.
I assumed it was what all kids did.
But this seems to be no longer the case. I have already written about The Lost Words (here), the book written by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris as a response to learning that supposedly common words such as conker and kingfisher and acorn are words that the majority of children today are unfamiliar with – something that would once have been unthinkable. And this disconnect seems to me the saddest thing. So much of our very rich heritage has a rural background, be it music or literature, architecture, leisure activities, or traditional crafts. And the same is naturally true for most countries and societies.
But to return to the reasons for this, I feel the rise of social media and on-demand electronic entertainment has been the largest single influence on the younger generation, especially, to the point where to the majority of them, pretty well all their leisure time is taken up with these things and there is no desire to explore the natural world at all.
Sometimes I think the electronic world is more real to many of them than the real world is, anyway.
Sigh. I’m off to check the vegetable garden.