A Yearning For Wilderness

Inhospitable deserts. High mountain passes. Hills or moorland in thick, blanketing fog or sudden treacherous snowfall.

IMG_0035

A situation in which I test my skills and resilience to the limit, aware of the consequences of a miscalculation or of taking my eye off the ball for too long. Certainly not a case of me fighting against the desert, or the mountain, because it’s not a battle. I have no need to ‘conquer’ anything, merely to respectfully request safe passage.

deserty-desert

At the moment I have to accept second best, walking in woodlands near my home. At least there are fewer people around while it is raining, although those who are include a posse of shrieking children – honestly, where are the wolves and bears when you need them? Two hundred years ago in Britain children would either have avoided all but the lightest of woodland, or passed through as silently as possible. Although the bears and wolves were long gone by then, the children would have been raised on a diet of nursery stories that taught them the dangers of venturing into wild places, the remnants of very necessary advice from those earlier times when careless children frequently got eaten.

Happy days!

P1060456

Don’t misunderstand me, I love these woodlands, and am very grateful I can get to them easily. Within them, for example, is this wonderful grove of oak trees. The oaks are not particularly old, probably around two hundred years I would imagine, but are stunningly beautiful. Some have branches thick with moss, all have wonderfully sculpted bark and all are home to huge numbers of creatures.

P1060458

P1060459

Already one or two have a limb dropping to the ground for extra stability. And the grove as an ecosystem within the wider woodland is perfect – each tree is around twenty five meters from its neighbours, which appears perfect when I look at the size of the canopy of each tree: its branches just about meet the branches of its neighbours, but there is no sense of their growth being restricted. I wonder whether this is chance, the result of long centuries of naturally evolving woodland – when one tree dies and eventually falls, that newly-opened space exploited by another seedling, or perhaps intelligent planting by a long-forgotten landowner?

P1060466

Where the woods are managed, especially the cutting in those areas where the holly is spreading in dense swathes crowding out all other growth, there are stacks of cut logs and branches exploited by children (shrieking or otherwise) to make dens. None of them would keep out the weather, but that’s not really their point. What I particularly like about them, other than it’s good to find children who want to play in this environment, rather than just sit in front of a screen, is most of these dens end up resembling the skeleton of some fantastic monster. And although that hardly turns these woods into a wilderness, it does give them just the faintest frisson of excitement, especially in the gloom.

And reminds me I want to be in the wilderness…

img20190318_12020089

As is basic human nature, of course, the longer the restrictions (either imposed or of my own choosing) go on, the more I yearn for that wilderness.

Patience!

The Compleat Trespasser by John Bainbridge

This time, the review without any distracting rants. Probably.

51pfb0Ihk8L._AC_UY218_

Sub-titled Journeys into Forbidden Britain, it immediately sets out its agenda: it is both a potted history of how the land was stolen from the inhabitants of Britain, and the long struggles to regain access to much of it, with numerous anecdotes of the author’s own escapades trespassing.

The story of how the inhabitants of Britain came to lose their access to the majority of the land is a story that has been repeated throughout most of Europe and beyond. Land forcibly taken by invading armies and distributed partly to their soldiers, but mainly their officials or nobility. Land enclosed by lords and kings for hunting purposes, burning villages and evicting their inhabitants from the land. Land taken by acts of Parliament to further enrich the gentry. Land given by kings to the established church, so that peasants might labour only to feed the rich and corrupt clergy.

Land that has been kept private and jealously guarded both by strict and cruel laws, and by equally cruel methods by the landowners themselves. Thus laws that deemed the starving and dispossessed villager might be executed for taking a rabbit from land he once lived on, to feed his family. Thus the mantrap that would cut a mans leg off. Thus countless thousands beaten and sometimes killed by gamekeepers and owners.

When I attempted to review this a week ago, it ended up turning into a full-blown rant against grouse moors (I do rants so well, these days!), but even today it is not just grouse moors that are fenced off just so the idle rich can enjoy slaughtering wildlife – there is plenty of woodland and more open land enclosed around the country and dedicated to pheasant shooting, for example. There are country houses with huge estates. Land taken by the MOD for training purposes, and never returned. There are many landowners determined to block access to legal rights of way. Although the Countryside Rights of Way act of 2000 was supposed to restore access to most of the countryside, there is still much that is off-limits.

Yet there are good landowners, too. The tales of John’s own trespassing include several encounters with sympathetic landowners happy to see walkers on their land, with the obvious proviso that they cause no damage.

The improved access rights we do have today were earned the hard way. Since Victorian times there have been mass trespasses intended to both bring the issue into the public forum, and to try to force change. The Kinder Trespass of 1932 is probably the most famous, yet many preceded that. It is thanks to the countless trespassers and campaigners of those days that we have improved access rights today.

The book finishes, though, with a plea. Firstly to campaign for further land reform, for better access rights – rights that are enjoyed in Scotland, but not England, Wales or Ireland. And secondly with a warning – the current government campaigned at the last election on a promise to criminalise trespass, so that anyone who deliberately or inadvertently strays from a public footpath onto private land might find themselves on a charge in a criminal court.

Anyone who enjoys the countryside in any form, enjoys spending time there, and walking in it, should read this book. It provides a very good, clear, account of where we are, how we got here, and what has been done to get us someplace better.

But also that we still have some way to go.

Rant Inspired by The Compleat Trespasser by John Bainbridge

Ooh, I liked this book.

51pfb0Ihk8L._AC_UY218_

My intention was to review it today, but as I was writing the review it gradually turned into a polemic against grouse moors and the people who own them. So I’m going to run with that and write the review (properly) next week instead.

So, why is this about grouse moors? Well, in The Compleat Trespasser, grouse moors are one of the habitats John mentions in relation to trespassing.

There’s so much to detest about grouse moors.

Firstly, the fact that they tend to be very large areas of land owned by one rich person who wants to keep everyone else off that land; land that is, to use the hackneyed but nonetheless accurate phrase, the birthright of everyone in this country. Land that has, like much other land, been stolen from us originally by force and then passed around from one rich and powerful person to another. Land that, at one time, people would have depended upon for their livelihoods in a multitude of forms, whether it was growing food, gathering wood for shelter or for fire, fodder for their livestock, or somewhere to live.

Secondly, that same owner does everything in their power to destroy all wildlife other than the grouse they protect, so those grouse can then be killed either by their rich chums, or by others who can afford to pay for the pleasure of killing other creatures. Foxes, rats, rabbits, badgers, crows, hawks…the list is pretty well endless. Trapped, poisoned, shot…the result being a landscape as devoid of life as any desert. And I hate that arrogance that says ‘all these wild animals are my property.’

Thirdly, the drab uniformity of the landscape. Nothing but heather growing, and that burned in ten year cycles to maintain that barren uniformity. And this in turn contributes to accelerated run off and flooding in periods of heavy rainfall, affecting land lower down – often villages or small towns.

And, I daresay, the lack of cover makes it easier for the gamekeepers to watch for intruders.

But, at last opinions are beginning to slowly, but surely, turn against these dreadful habitats and their dreadful owners. I’m sure it will take a while yet, but I’m hopeful that in my lifetime we will see a ban on commercial grouse moors and the beginning of their re-wilding.

The Great Sandwich Schism – Again

Well, I don’t know about you, but what with you-know-what and the lockdown I feel a bit bleurgh at the moment, so to try to inject a little cheer – or whimsy, anyway – I thought I’d re-post an old one:

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, God created the world. And he looked upon the world and said ‘Well, so far so good’.

And the world was full of beautiful things and good things and a great bounty of useful things that humans would later ransack and destroy in the name of greed, although that is a story for another day.

But when the people whom God had created looked upon his great works, they said unto Him ‘How might we thank you, oh God? How might we show our gratitude for your benevolence?’

And God replied ‘Oh, I don’t know. I really wish you wouldn’t bother. But if you must, just make me a sandwich, or something. I’m feeling a bit peckish after all that creating.’

013

And so the people made haste to slice bread and find Good Things to become a tasty and delicious filling for the sandwich they had made for their God. And there arose minor disputes such as whether ham and cheese really went together in a sandwich, or whether mayonnaise actually counted as food, but the people settled their quarrel in an amicable fashion and so the sandwich was created and placed upon a golden plate that was decorated with the names of angels and archangels, and set about with small mountains of salad and just a little dash of mustard in case God should fancy some.

And then one among them rose up and said ‘Wait, for we must cut this sandwich before we present it to our God, unless it be a bit too large for him to handle and he drop pieces of cheese from the sides or drip mayonnaise in his holy lap.’

And all at once there arose discord, for some were found who would cut the sandwich in a diagonal fashion, and yet others who declared that would be an affront to His holiness and that the only Right Way would be to cut the sandwich into equal rectangles.

And lo, the factions took up weapons and fought, yea, even in the Holy Kitchen, and they did massacre one another and each declared that the other faction was a worshipper of Satan, who was completely bemused by all this, since he had no followers (not even on Facebook), and they did create rival churches and rival nations and declared undying enmity against each other, spending the next few thousand years thinking up new and more imaginative ways to hate and kill and destroy each other.

And God groaned and held his head in his hands and said ‘Oh verily, what a cock-up this has become. I think I shall destroy the lot of them.’

Review of Wilding by Isabella Tree

I wrote this just over a month ago, and never got around to posting it, for some reason.

91wfR0v1kNL._AC_UY218_ML3_

I have just finished reading Wilding, and I am almost overwhelmed with several feelings. The first is that I need to come back to this book after a month or two and re-read it, since there is just so much to take in. The second is that this book presents so much information that appears new to us in the twenty first century, yet was common knowledge some fifty to a hundred years ago and was hiding all the while in plain sight, as well as some new conclusions that were also, really, hiding in plain sight. And third, a feeling this might just be one of the most important books I have ever read.

This means I am attempting what appears to be ridiculous, and that is to review a book I don’t think I am yet ready to fully appreciate. But first impressions count for a lot, so here goes, although to keep this brief enough for one blog post, I can hardly even skim the surface.

Knepp is an estate in Sussex, England, which the author and her husband farmed for many years the way most farming is done nowadays – intensively. But as returns gradually diminished and the soil became more and more degraded despite the application of the usual chemical cocktails, they decided in desperation to take a leap of faith and re-wild part of the farm. The reasoning was they were going broke farming traditionally, so something new was needed – perhaps something revolutionary. What had they got to lose?

It was a huge learning curve for them, and many of the steps they took had unforeseen consequences. By allowing the land to revert to the condition it would have been in thousands of years ago, they discovered that many of our birds and insects, for example, actually favour environments and foods different to those we have assumed they do. Interestingly, on reading books written a hundred years or so ago about, for example, birds, they were simply rediscovering what was known then, but overlooked since. Just one example – pigeons do not actually prefer the seeds of cereal crops, but wild grass seed. The fact that they eat so much cereal seed today is due to the destruction of the areas of wild grass they would gave grazed before.

Probably the most important conclusion to take from this book is that a return to a more traditional, environmentally-friendly form of farming is not only better for the environment, but in the long term is even better for farmers who might be initially worried about losing out financially. It’s a win-win situation in that it would enable much wildlife to recover from its precarious, endangered, situation, it would reduce the risk of flooding during periods of heavy rainfall, restore soil fertility without pumping massive loads of chemicals onto the land and, consequently, into the water systems, and reward farmers with not only a better environment but healthier crops and stock which, in turn, would be healthier and more nutritious for the consumer.

Along with most others, I have always understood that back in the Neolithic period, when man was first making his mark upon the landscape in what would become Britain, most of the land was covered in thick, dense, woodland. I also understood that the large wildlife here – the megafauna – consisted of the likes of elk, cattle (aurochs), wild horse, mammoth and the such-like. Basically the kind of large animals that graze and browse the open, lightly wooded, grasslands of the African savanna today. Could we really not see the contradiction in this? This strongly suggests that the natural post-glacial vegetation of the British Isles was an open woodland, rich in undergrowth and grass, maintained by the regular grazing and browsing of this megafauna.

And from that, we understand that much of the habitat association we make today with our native wildlife is just plain wrong – we see birds and animals favouring a particular habitat and assume that is their preference, rather than understanding we have forced them into this by removing their real preferred ones.

There is so much to take in and think about in the this book, as I said at the beginning of this post, that a single review can only begin to hint at the mass of information to take in.

If you have any interest at all in our environment and what we have done to it, this book is an essential read.

David Nash and Impermanence

A few days ago we went to the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, Sussex, specifically to see the Eric Ravilious paintings and prints on permanent exhibition there. There was also a large exhibition by the sculptor David Nash, who works with wood on a large scale. The fact that the whole exhibition, which also included a gallery of paintings, prints and a couple of small installations, and was intended to highlight the effects of the Climate Crisis, was the first one ever curated by Caroline Lucas M.P. of the Green Party was an added bonus for me.

007a

 

002a

As much as I enjoyed the Ravilious, I was blown away by Nash’s sculptures. To see wooden sculptures on that scale is unusual in itself – usually that would be the preserve of stone or metal – but that very scale plays tricks with the mind and the eye. Boxes and bowls many times larger than one would expect meet the eye as you walk around the galleries, and many of the pieces also deceive where perhaps one looks to be made from several separate pieces of wood, but on closer inspection are carved from a single block like the boat shapes in the top picture, or the ‘stack’ in the one below that.

Much of the work is left rough-hewn, but even this can be deceptive. Some pieces have been carefully finished to give that appearance.

Sculpture is the art form that seems to exist to interact with the natural world. A number of the works here are based on natural forms, but there are also stories of projects Nash has undertaken where his sculpture is either living, in the form of carefully planted and managed groves of trees, or interact in other ways.

004a

‘Boulder’ is one such project. One of the first large-scale pieces Nash made was to cut a boulder-shaped chunk from a tree (illustrated at the top of Nash’s charcoal drawing above) in 1978. This was then transported to a stream near to where he lives and works, in the Welsh hills, and rolled into the water. Since then, it has slowly made its way downstream until it reached the estuaries and inlets of the sea, where it finally disappeared in 2015. Nash documented its travels in a series of photographs and films made regularly all the while, and presented in the exhibition as a film.

006a

 

003a

 

003b

Nash’s sketch of a Larch trunk

It feels as though there is something of this meeting of art and the natural world in old ruins overrun with scrub and grass. They frequently seem to have a sculptural quality that complements the landscape around them, in a way that more pristine buildings do not.

And I like the sense that an artwork, like a ruined building, is not permanent and that eventually the natural world will absorb it back into itself. That it will reclaim it. Perhaps the artist and the environmentalist in me merge here.

My own sculptures are in wood, and some of them are set out in our garden where they gradually degrade over the years through the action of sun and rain, until they appear strangely like some weird plants that have sprouted unexpectedly there.

How To Solve The Climate Crisis

What we need are machines that remove the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, cost nothing to produce, are made entirely from natural products available worldwide, produce no harmful waste materials, fit into the landscape harmoniously and also provide countless other benefits to us, wildlife and the environment.

030a

We already have them.

They are called trees.

We need to plant them in their millions and to stop cutting down those we already have.

The Wood Wide Web and a Bill of Rights

012a

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.

Suffer the Little Children…

 

011a

The other night there was a piece on the TV news in which a child psychologist bemoaned the fact that children were being frightened by news about the Climate Emergency, suggesting that we should tone it down and perhaps not mention it in schools – I don’t remember the precise details – to which I said ‘Good! Children need to be frightened by it!’

That didn’t go down too well with my wife, who naturally felt that children shouldn’t be frightened.

And usually I would agree with that, but as unfeeling as it might sound I think it is right that they should be frightened by what is happening. It is their future which is inevitably going to be impacted by the actions we do or do not take in the next few years. Their future which our inaction will damage or destroy. And at the moment, that future looks none too promising.

If they are frightened they are likely to raise the issue with their parents, and the resulting conversation may result in more adults learning how imperative it is we take action, and perhaps beginning to add their voices to the demands for action.

And they will be far more frightened if their homes and schools are flooded, or their neighbourhood catches fire, or armed conflict breaks out, all of which look increasingly likely unless we really DO SOMETHING!

It is the actions taken by concerned and frightened children which have become school strikes, and which have led to the formation of Extinction Rebellion, and which may ultimately lead to a people-led drive to finally take meaningful action to try to prevent catastrophe.

So, sad as it seems, they need to be frightened.

We all need to be frightened.

The Great Disconnect

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.

037a

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.

050a

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.

034a

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, 037bfound 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 conkerlost words 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.

057

Sigh. I’m off to check the vegetable garden.