The Wood Wide Web and a Bill of Rights

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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.

Of Caterpillars And Philosophy

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.

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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.

The Climate Emergency

Yesterday, history was made in the UK with Parliament passing a motion declaring we are facing a climate emergency, although if you look at news websites this morning you might be forgiven for thinking nothing had happened. Is that an omen?

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Are we going to see some meaningful action, now? I’d love to think so, but I strongly doubt it. The Political Right is in thrall to Big Business and vested interests, while the Left is more inclined to measure things by employment. As usual, there will be hand-wringing and lip-service paid to the ideals of cleaning up the mind-blowing mess we have made of this planet, and then all sorts of excuses why we can’t actually do anything that makes a difference.

The usual reasons are that it will impact upon economic growth and that it will cost jobs.

Not that there will be any of either of those when Earth begins to resemble Mars or Venus.

Yes, there has been some progress in some areas, but it all seems to be driven by activism and protest. This is why we need them more than ever. Without the School Climate Strikers, without Extinction Rebellion, last night’s debate in parliament would not have happened. It did so only because M.P.s were pushed into it.

All of the impetus so far for companies to change their policies with regard to the likes of excess packaging, changing plastic straws to paper, removing plastic from cotton buds and the like has come from activists, not from the government. From public pressure.

And so we must not only keep up that pressure, but ramp it up further.

If the government were really serious about tackling Climate Change, the first thing they should do now – do today – is to cancel the Heathrow airport expansion.

But they won’t. They will argue we need it for economic reasons, and therefore that earning money is more important than halting climate change.

In short, they will demonstrate an absolute disregard for the planet. I’d love to be proved wrong, but I won’t be.

Monsoon

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Monsoon – 18ins x 24ins , Acrylic on board.

I painted this a long time ago.

Although I have been caught up in a few very heavy downpours in India, I have never been there during the monsoon. And I was reminded of that a day or two ago while having an online conversation with another blogger.

It is something that I would like to experience, sometime. In India, it is an exciting, a very welcome time – after the temperature has been steadily climbing for months, and everywhere is dry and parched, the rains finally arrive to cool the air, and the earth bursts into life.

Everyone rejoices!

But westerners avoid it. Why go to India during the monsoon, just to get wet? is the general feeling.

Yet I have a yearning to witness it, and to use it in my writing, too. To write…take photos…paint…

And just to experience it!