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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Pathetic!

On the back of the climate change protesters in London this month, inspirational Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg yesterday addressed MPs at the UK Parliament. And she scathingly shredded our responses to the crisis.

The UK has, admittedly, done a little more to tackle the issue than many other countries, but compared to what is needed our response has been, quite frankly, pathetic.

There is still no political will to tackle climate change. Politicians would rather the protesters just disappeared and everything could go back to business as usual. But, no matter what they would like to think, unless there is drastic change, one day it won’t be business as usual any longer. Not for any of us. Their response to the protests? This is bad. People are being inconvenienced.

Inconvenienced?

I’ll tell you what the end of the world isn’t, it isn’t people tutting because their bus is a bit late because of protesters. It isn’t people getting angry because other people who care passionately about the world and its future are telling them uncomfortable truths. It isn’t people being ‘inconvenienced’. And it isn’t some already rich and privileged people having to pay themselves less to ensure that millions of ordinary people aren’t made homeless and destitute by rising sea levels, devastating weather patterns and disappearing farmland.

Inconvenienced?

I cannot tell you how angry that makes me!

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‘One day, my boy, all this will be yours’

As Greta Thunberg said, climate change is not a matter of opinion, it’s real. It’s a fact. It’s science.

And it’s not someone else’s problem – it’s your problem and it’s my problem. Every one of us needs to do more:

  • Turn down the heating. Maybe wear something warmer.
  • Switch off lights you aren’t using.
  • Don’t leave taps running.
  • Use recyclable bags rather than plastic. Re-use ones you already have.
  • Plant a tree in your garden. Two if you have space.
  • Refill containers rather than buy new ones.
  • DON’T buy bottled water!
  • Avoid plastics wherever possible.

And badger politicians and manufacturers to do more:

  • Go on protests such as Extinction Rebellion. Help to raise the profile of this issue.
  • Use public transport wherever possible. There are bonuses – here in the UK it’s often cheaper to buy long distance train tickets in advance than it is to drive, and you get the bonus of being able to relax and read or listen to music or whatever floats your boat rather than sit in a ten mile tailback on the M1.
  • Sign petitions – politicians are more likely to act when they know they are being scrutinised.
  • Fossil fuels will destroy the world. Let no politician tell you that renewables are not viable, because they are. And they are already economically viable, too. Only vested interests pretend otherwise.
  • Badger manufacturers to do the right thing – write to them and tell them you will no longer buy their products unless they are environmentally / ethically sound. If enough people do that, even those who really do not care will be forced to act.
  • And look at the Food Miles when you shop. Don’t buy food that has been transported halfway across the globe – buy a local alternative. And if that means you have to do without a particular food you fancy, well, is that so important? There are so many alternatives available.

Even if you don’t do this for yourself, do it for your children, and for their children.

Let nobody fool themselves. If we do not seriously tackle the issue now – as in NOW – then the consequences will be spreading deserts, rising sea levels flooding large areas of land, more devastating forest fires, wars over water and food supplies, and possibly other consequences too terrible to contemplate.

Now that’s what I call inconvenient.

A Little Village in Northern India…

Having bludgeoned all my readers with posts about Making Friends with the Crocodile recently, I thought it would be only fair to share a few pictures of villages in Northern India for the benefit of those who have not been there. It gives a flavour of the (fictitious) village I write about in the novel.

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Village street

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Pigs foraging on waste ground

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Morning

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Farm

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Hindu Temple

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Sunrise

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Village outskirts

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Hi jinks during the festival of Holi

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Goats at rest

Wordy Wednesday 5

Words.

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On World Book day I blogged about the wonderful collaboration between Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, The Lost Words, and in this I suggested that perhaps it grew out of Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks.

But Landmarks is a marvellous book in its own right, and has much the the same aim as The Lost Words, in that it introduces the reader to scores of words it is unlikely they will have come across before.

These are almost exclusively words from Britain used to describe objects and phenomena in the natural world, be it a word peculiar to East Anglia for a small stream (a currel, since you ask), a word from Sussex for a heap of dung (a maxon), or, from Suffolk, a measure of herrings or sprats (a cade).

Most of these are obscure because they are words in local dialect, and therefore only used in a small number of places, or have fallen into disuse and been virtually lost over the years, or are very specialised words that it is unlikely the majority of people would ever come across.

The book is filled with background stories by the author, either of his own experiences or those of other writers and scholars with a deep love and understanding of words and the natural world, which makes the whole book far more than simply a glossary of lost words.

The reader is introduced to a wealth of knowledge and experience on all aspects of the subject, from seas and rivers to woodlands and mountains, farmed land, the strange no-man’s land at the edge of settlements, and even deep underground.

Personally, I have been trying to drop the word smeuse into conversations since reading the book. It is a Sussex word, and so was / is in use fairly locally to me and means…well, read the book and find out what it means.

Oh, and maxon. Naturally.

Certainly a five star read.

Sometimes I sits and thinks…

On Sunday mornings I work. But since there are no buses on Sunday at the time I have to leave, it means I have to walk all the way.

I don’t mind, though.

After a couple of uninteresting miles along streets of houses and shops, my route goes across common land and thence through farmland and woodland for another three or four miles.

As I walk, I inevitably find myself thinking about what I’m busy writing at the moment, and just as inevitably ideas come.

This always happens when I walk, but on Sundays my thoughts tend to be about poems. I’ve got into the habit of that, although I’ve no idea why.

But it means I usually have another page or two of notes in a notebook by the time I reach my workplace – a long outcrop of rock at the edge of woodland, since you ask.

After I finish work, I can get a bus part of the way home if I choose to, but only if I wait for over an hour and a half. If I do, then I can spend a while in the pub by the bus stop and have a beer and contemplate life, or something like that.

Sometimes I does and sometimes I doesn’t.

Yesterday, the clocks went back, to officially tell us that summer is over and winter is well on the way. Inevitably, then, yesterday turned into a perfect autumn day. So I decided to walk home. After I had been walking for half an hour, I stopped and sat in a small drift of dry leaves, my back against a tree, eating my sandwiches.

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Overhead, a pair of buzzards were circling high up and calling to each other. The sun was out, and in my small area of beech woodland the leaves were turning orange and yellow. The sky was blue, and in the sunshine it was still warm. It was perfect, and I sat with my back against the tree for some while after I had finished eating, just thinking and enjoying life.

Soon, it will get much colder. There will be rain.

But yesterday was just as perfect as it could have been.