Winter – 4

Mid-winter is the nadir of the year, and although winter does not ease its grip on the land for several months yet, at least the long, slow, lengthening of the days begins.

I have no idea how arbitrary the date of 25th December is for our celebration of Christmas day (Orthodox Christians celebrate it on January 7th, due to the difference between the Julian (old) calendar and the Gregorian (new)), but it seems to equate well to the winter solstice on 21st December, in that by the 25th it would be apparent to observers that the days were just beginning to lengthen. Is that when our ancestors celebrated? Did they all collectively hold their breath until the priests could confirm the days were getting longer again? Or did they just work on the basis of ‘it’s the Solstice today. Let’s go for it!’? I’m inclined to think it would be more the latter, with the priests declaring ‘It’s today! Time for excessive eating, drinking and unbridled sex!’

Or perhaps a bit of chanting and a sacrifice or two. Who knows?

Would our Neolithic ancestors have kept a calendar in the sense of checking off every day the way we do? I suspect not. Tools such as aligned stones would have done the job for them, confirming it was now the shortest day or the longest one. I don’t suppose there would have been any need for more refined measurements – it would be obvious to them when fruit or nuts or grain were available to be gathered. Obvious when they would need to slaughter livestock. And for that reason, I think points in time such as the solstices would be marked purely by ritual and / or celebration.

We don’t really know how they marked it, of course. We know a lot about how the Victorian writers supposed it was marked – the sacrifices, the wild dances, the bacchanalia, (and it is curious how many of their illustrations seemed to include young maidens dancing wildly in flimsy shifts) – and there is more than enough written about variations on this theme by those who see themselves today as druids, as followers of the old religion. What this old religion is, though, is a somewhat hazy and fluid animal, dragging in everything and anything from ley lines and animist gods through to Morris dancing, via witchcraft, mind-enhancing drugs, depending on who you speak to. Again, we don’t know.

In many ways, it drops comfortably into the melange of New Age beliefs, essentially being whatever the believer wants it to be…although that is something most of us could also plead guilty to, no matter what religion, if any, we follow.

It may well have been marked differently in different parts of the country (I’m really just thinking of Britain, at the moment) – different rituals in the much milder climate of the south west than in the far harsher one of the north, for example. And over the millennia they probably will have changed, being influenced by both outside factors (contact with others who did things differently, perhaps the slow change of climate) and inner ones (changing ideas about gods, relationships to ancestors, size of population).

But when Christianity came along, it substituted its own story of hope and celebration for what was there before, which is why we have it then rather than around March, which is when the internal evidence of that particular Bible story would place it. As the followers of every new religion always do, they found it impossible to prevent an old festival taking place, so instead they usurped it for their own ends.

Sunday Supplement – 1

This arrived at the beginning of the week: the new CD from Belbury Poly on Ghost Box Records. I listened to the podcast of Uncanny Landscapes #5 interviewing Jim Jupp (The Belbury Poly) back in September, and had been meaning to buy this since then. Inspired by British myth and legend, The Gone Away is essentially ambient electronic music. One review has it: …this haunting, immersive album that it feels like a nod to Ghost Box’s roots: where Jupp, working alone this time, is a channel for ancient, rustic strangeness, passed through the filter of some long-forgotten children’s TV series. I think it’s brilliant, and I’ve been listening to it for much of the week.

I finished re-reading Beowulf, the version translated by Seamus Heaney who is a poet I much admire. Most people know the story, or at least know that Beowulf is a great warrior who fights and kills the monster Grendel in what we think of as Anglo-Saxon times, although the story is somewhat more complex than that. I have read a lot of Anglo-Saxon poetry over the years, and I’ve frequently been disappointed by it. There is very little of it surviving – if it was ever written down at all, it has been largely lost – and what there is dates from the end of that period, when the Saxons had been converted to Christianity. This means it is frequently a strange and jarring combination of bloodthirsty adventure and po-faced sermonising. Fortunately, Beowulf largely escapes the latter, and Seamus Heaney’s translation is both beautiful and dark.

And, by strange coincidence, on my previous post (Winter – 3) Greg posted a comment mentioning Beowulf, although he could not know I had finished reading it the previous day.

But now I’m reading My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. This is the second time I’ve read it, and the first time I read it quickly and enjoyed it, but knew I needed to immerse myself in it more slowly. This time around, I began it in the spring and only got halfway through, for some reason really struggling with it. But I’ve picked it up again and now I’m finding it much easier going. Set in Istanbul in the sixteenth century, it is a murder mystery, love story and discussion on the power of art, with religion and intrigue chucked in for good measure.

It’s been a bit of a grey week, weather-wise, although we’ve had the odd spell of sunny weather. Yesterday we had a dodging-the-showers walk over the nearby common, and spent a while mulling over the age of this oak. I reckoned it might be three hundred to three hundred and fifty years old, while Sabina plumped for five hundred.

In the summer, I measured its girth at head height, and made it approximately six metres. The various ‘ready reckoners’ one comes across would suggest from this the age is around four hundred years, making allowances for factors such as the climate around here and its position in relation to the rest of the geography of the area, but this tree seems in unusually good condition for one that age. It’s possible, of course. Whatever age it is, though, it’s a mighty bugger.

My creative writing this week, what there was of it, was all revision of A Good Place. I’m getting there slowly, even if it does seem to be taking an age. How do some writers manage to dash off a couple of books a year, for heaven’s sake? Do they not have lives?

And my next post? My final post on winter. We’re approaching Christmas, are we not? So a little something seasonal. In a sort of Neolithic way…

Winter – 3

Winter would have brought a period of enforced leisure for our ancestors. Their days would have become shorter with the increasing hours of darkness, until in midwinter the daylight hours would make up only one third of the time.

All outdoor activities would effectively cease in the darkness, and even during the day the worsening weather would limit what could be achieved outdoors. But other than those tasks that could be carried out, what did they do in these times? how did they pass those long hours?

At times, no doubt, there would have been feasting and merry-making because they would have required some cheer and a sense of well-being to help them get through the winter. But they must also have been mindful of husbanding scarce food resources through those long barren months.

it may be that they played games. Although archaeology hasn’t furnished us with evidence of board games or dice or variations on these, it is still possible they would scratch, perhaps, some form of grid into the beaten soil of the floor and play games of skill or chance. It is not beyond possibility that some flat rocks with strange scorings and lines on them were used for that purpose.

With no TVs or books or computers, it might seem to us that time would have weighed heavily on their hands. But you are used to what you are used to, and they would have seen things differently. They may have looked forward to a period of relative inactivity; long hours of no talk, sitting or lying down, the mind slowing down until hours were passed in no thought. Did they then also pass unusually long hours in sleep? A kind of semi-hibernation as a way of conserving energy?

But long hours also, of talking. They must have talked: of daily life and plans and past disasters and glories, of gossip, and told stories both new and handed down from previous generations. These stories would have been incredibly powerful tools for the preservation of the tribe. With no written word, the spoken word becomes the only way knowledge is transmitted. And thus it has to be memorised, both for use and also to transmit in the future. As aids to memorising, powerful tools are repetition, rhyme and rhythm. We cannot know exactly how this was utilised, but it cannot have been long before poetry and song evolved.

It can be no coincidence, but in all the early societies we know of who had no written records, those of which we know about through records left by others – such as the Romans writing of the Britons – it is clear that poetry and song were important, and the bard a highly valued member of that society. Indeed, the writings left by Romans, who tended to denigrate anyone not Roman as barbarian and primitive, violent, and uncultured, still make it clear these ‘barbarian’ tribes valued poetry and song highly. Partly, this must have been for educational purposes, but they seem also to have been valued for themselves, for their beauty. It is taking things too far to suggest this proves the same would have applied in Neolithic times, but it is certainly possible. At some point, there would have been music. I imagine this developed out of ritual, perhaps through repetitive chanting and the beat of drums…

And so, I can imagine this at first being perhaps the preserve of the shaman, until becoming a specialised ‘post’ – that of the bard – and acquiring the value of entertainment, as well as instruction.

Winter – 2

Nature dies down in winter. Certainly, at those latitudes where the days become much shorter and the temperatures plummet. Both wind and rain seem to become more frequent. Snow. It is a period of rest and renewal after autumn has put on a final glorious display of colour. Animals adapt to this in one of three ways: some will eat and eat of the autumn bounty of, especially, fruit, putting on large fat reserves and surviving the winter in a state of hibernation, their heart-rates dropping to a scarcely believable one or two beats a minute, their bodies slowly using these fat reserves for the little energy required to maintain a flickering life through those months. Some migrate, seeking a warmer climate until spring returns. These animals are, due to the obvious logistics required to travel hundreds of miles to reach those more hospitable climes, the larger animals and many of the birds. Travel over those kinds of distances would be out of the question for the smaller ones. Others stay put and, in the case of the plant eaters, scratch out a meagre living on whatever leaves and grasses survive through the winter. The carnivores, of course, stay and try to catch them.

Our Neolithic ancestors’ life cycles would be attuned to this pattern too. Autumn must have been lived fast and furiously. In the same way our medieval ancestors worked long hours to bring in the harvests, Neolithic man and woman must have used all the dwindling daylight to bring in as much food and fuel and dry bedding as possible before the winter period. Then by the end of autumn gathering would have largely ceased and they would have moved into a winter rhythm of life.

But how did they get through winter? What of the food they had gathered? Presumably, they had no way of storing fruit – could any of it be dried? Was it fermented for drink? Or was it all eaten as soon as it was gathered, as though they were all so many dormice seeking to build up their reserves? And could this, in fact, have been a part of their strategy to get through those months? To eat and eat until the perishable foods were all gone, and then to stop all but the most essential activities. To expend as little energy as possible and stay as warm as they could. Spending as much time as possible asleep.

And yet, they would still need to eat, and so with dwindling food reserves they would slaughter any beasts kept for that purpose, possibly smoking the meat to enable it to keep for as long as possible. Hunting would continue and might, in some ways, become a little easier. With less vegetation around, there would be less cover for their prey, and in snow there would be clear tracks to follow. But presumably this prey would still need to be pursued, and this would use precious energy, unless they relied more upon pits and snares.

Winter – 1

The long-range weather forecast is predicting generally mild, wet weather in the run-up to Christmas. So still no sign of ‘winter’ yet.

Although there is a lot to be said for mild weather, we need the cold of winter to help to break up the soil for the following year and kill off many pests. But our climate is changing.

There are some swallows still around, apparently. Presumably because there are still plenty of insects for them to eat. They should have left ages ago. What does this mean for them in the coming months? If the weather remains mild and the insects persist, will they be able to survive the winter here? And will they still be able to successfully migrate if the expected colder weather kills off these insects, or will they have left it too late? I suspect it will not end well for them.

There have always been a few of these days at the turn of the seasons, although probably nowhere near as many as now, and I wonder how our ancestors would deal with these days; the days I am sometimes tempted to call the Nothing Days. Those days which are grey and cold, but not severely so. The leaves are continuing to fall but seem in no hurry to complete the job. Nothing seems to be contributing to the change of the seasons. If any plants or animals are responding to anything, it can only be to the shortening of the daylight hours. There are still plenty of nuts and berries for the wildlife to forage – the birds are largely ignoring our bird feeders at the moment – although little for the human forager; the blackberries have finished, the chestnuts and hazelnuts all gone.

I suspect our ancestors would have moved into their own winter routines anyway, and got on with the jobs in hand, largely mending and making. With the onset of rains and wind and snow, rooves and walls would be repaired and strengthened, leaks caulked, trenches dug out to drain water away from dwellings. Tools and weapons would be fashioned and repaired. Measures taken for comfort and warmth – perhaps grasses and rushes and bracken collected and heaped up inside, likewise firewood, and fodder for animals.

Although I’m only guessing, but a fire in the middle of a hut filled with heaps of dried grasses might have required a Neolithic risk assessment following a visit by a fire and safety officer.

On Windover Hill and The Oddness of Time

Yesterday, we joined a walk to the Long Man of Wilmington, on the South Downs in Sussex. The walk was led by composer Nathan James, and Justin Hopper, the author of The Old Weird Albion.

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The Long Man is a chalk figure etched through the grass into the hillside, below the summit of Windover Hill, revealing the chalk that lies beneath. When and why it was first cut is the subject of myth and speculation – and that brings us neatly to Nathan’s new composition.

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On 7th March, Nathan will premier his fantastic new choral work On Windover Hill at Boxgrove Priory, Chichester, Sussex. This has been inspired by the Long Man, its mythology, and the art that has arisen around it, as well as the written history and the geography of the surrounding land. It has a very English feel to it, in the tradition of Vaughan Williams or Holst.

Full details of the work and the performance can be found here. Tickets can also be bought by clicking ‘The Premier’ link in the sidebar there. We have ours, and it would be great to see it sold out!

This walk was by way of a taster for the concert, with a mixture of history and mythology imparted along the way, a poem from Peter Martin, read by himself, and extracts from stories read out by Justin, all of which referenced the Long Man. Also  Anna Tabbush sang two folk songs, one of which was the only song known about the Long Man, appropriately enough called The Long Man and written by the late Maria Cunningham.

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I’m not sure How many people I expected to see, but we were around forty, with a surprisingly large number being artists of one sort or another.

The weather was so much better than we had a right to expect – the forecast had been for clouds and rain, but the clouds cleared during the morning, and we had plenty of sunshine as we ascended, although it rather lived up to its name at the top, with more than enough wind for everyone.

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Here, the remains of prehistoric burial mounds sit overlooking the Long Man, and the rest of the surrounding countryside.

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Some landscapes seem to muck around with your perception of time, and Downland seems especially prone to this. I’m not entirely sure why this should be, but suspect it is a combination of factors.

It is a very open landscape, and other than the contours of the land and a few trees, frequently the only features that stand out are prehistoric ones, such as barrows and chalk figures. Due to the uncertainty around their origins, these have a timelessness about them, a fluidity when it comes to grasping their history. We see the long view, which perhaps works on our sense of time as well as space. The more recent additions to the landscape are usually in the form of fences, which can easily seem invisible as we look around for something less ephemeral than the open sky to fix our eyes on.

The Downs are an ancient landscape, in any case. When human beings recolonised what is now Britain after the last Ice Age, at first they kept to the higher ground which gave less impediment to travel and settlement than the marshy and thickly wooded lowlands. Most standing stones and burial mounds from the Neolithic or earlier are found on these higher areas.

I do not get these feelings in more recent landscapes. At a medieval castle or manor house, it is easy to imagine the inhabitants baking bread or sweeping corridors; activities as natural to us today as they were then. I feel a comfortable mixture of the old and the new, a recognisable timeline connecting the past with me.

But barrows, standing stones and hillside figures have a purpose alien and unknown to us. Step on the ground near these remains and you can feel the presence of the unknown. No wonder the belief in the past in faeries and elves who inhabited the underground, and who lived essentially out of time.

They offend our carefully erected sense of order and belonging and, perhaps, still pose a barely acknowledged threat to us today.

I might be imagining it, of course, but listening to the extracts from On Windover Hill on the website, I think I recognise that feeling in places, an unexpected musical response to my own feelings. And then Nathan’s description of his creative process on the website echoes some of this too.

I’m hooked!

Review of Wilding by Isabella Tree

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

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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.

Those Old Paths

We seem to be in the middle of a spell of warm, sunny weather. It seems Spring really has arrived, although things could always change quickly, of course. But it’s the sort of weather that tempts me out to go walking as much as I can. We are extremely fortunate in the UK to have such a wonderful network of footpaths, open to the public.

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Dartmoor footpath

Many of the ancient tracks are still just that; just trackways that have never been turned into roads over the years. Often, this is due to their locations in the landscapes they traverse. Neolithic or Bronze Age man lived in a landscape that frequently comprised dense, almost impenetrable, forest, with networks of streams meandering through marshy lowlands, and wherever possible they would utilise the higher ground to move around, and hence we have long-distance footpaths today still following these same routes such as the Ridgeway, while modern roads tend to utilise the lower, flatter land where possible. Walking these Old Ways (and it is impossible to even mention them without referencing Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful book, The Old Ways!) always gives me goosebumps, as I feel I’m following in the steps of these prehistoric travellers.

And yes, we are lucky. Not only do we have so many of these paths, but we have the right to walk them whenever we please. But this has not always been the case. Up until comparatively recently, huge areas of the British countryside were owned by the landed gentry who denied the public any access. In 1932, the first mass trespass by five hundred men and women at Kinder Scout, in the Peak District, led to the imprisonment of five of the trespassers but this led to a second, three weeks later at nearby Castleton, involving ten thousand trespassers.

This growing movement, demanding the right to roam, led eventually to the creation of the first of the national parks in 1951, and to the Countryside Right Of Way act in 2000. So today it is possible to walk plentiful footpaths pretty well anywhere in the country, thanks to this incredibly successful movement of direct action.

My header picture at the very top of the page, incidentally, is a view of the Peak District looking towards Kinder Scout.

And it’s another gorgeous day today, so we’re off for a walk to make the most of it. I’ll catch up with everyone later.