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.

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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.

World Book Day

World Book Day, celebrated today, 7th March, has the declared aim: Our mission is to give every child and young person a book of their own.

It is celebrated in the UK, although I have no idea whether this is an idea that has been taken up elsewhere, and would be interested to find out.

Schools, in particular, seem to have embraced the idea, with children encouraged to attend classes dressed as their favourite book or literary character. Thus hundreds of Harry Potters and Willy Wonkas and Very Hungry Caterpillars march into schools across the country once each year.

A splendid thought!

Which brings me to a marvellous project aimed at schools across the country.

Growing, in a way, out of Robert Macfarlane’s brilliant book Landmarks is The Lost Words, a collaboration between Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris. I can do no better than to quote Jackie Morris on the reasons: It had come to the attention of some who work in the world of words that certain words were slipping out of common usage. As a result when it came to amend the junior dictionary for a new edition these words were gone… These words included bluebell, conker, heron, acorn and perhaps the one that cut the deepest for me, kingfisher.

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So The Lost Words is aimed towards children, to encourage them, through the words and paintings of the book, to discover the natural world that so many of them know nothing of.

So many grow up today without any meaningful contact with the natural world, and this book aims to encourage them to know and to love and protect it.

And the project – the campaign, really, in a very ad hoc way, is to raise money where necessary to place a copy of the book in every school in Britain. It has already been achieved in Scotland, I understand, and hopefully, it will soon be achieved in every other school in Britain.

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.

South Downs Way 2 – Steyning up to Chanctonbury Ring

Mouse Lane begins in Steyning and runs along the foot of the scarp slope of the Downs, until it climbs a little towards Chanctonbury Ring, an old hill fort. It is a delightful route, as delightful as its name; a sunken lane full of flowers and bees and butterflies (and, no doubt, mice), cool under the overhanging trees in the hot morning’s sun. It would be pleasant to follow it the whole way, but our route takes us along the ridge, and so we leave the lane to take a footpath up the steep scarp slope.

But where we leave the lane, there is a poem inscribed on a stone block. It was written in 1915 during WWI, by a British soldier poet stationed in the Somme. We pause to read it then stand for a while in silence, each of us alone with our thoughts.

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I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring

In summertime, and on the downs how larks and linnets sing

High in the sun. The wind comes off the sea, and, oh, the air!

I never knew till now that life in old days was so fair.

But now I know it in this filthy rat-infested ditch,

Where every shell must kill or spare, and God alone knows which.

And I am made a beast of prey, and this trench is my lair,

My God, I never knew till now that those days were so fair.

And we assault in half-an-hour, and it’s a silly thing:

I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring.

Chance memory – John Stanley Purvis 1890 – 1968

Our footpath, ironically, then takes us past an old rifle range. So old, in fact, that according to a walker we stopped to talk with it is still possible to dig musket balls out of the bank behind the range.

On top of the ridge, there is a slight breeze, but it is already very hot and we are clearly in for a hard day’s walking.

Robert Macfarlane, writing in The Old Ways, records sleeping in the Ring one night, and being woken at 2 a.m. by blood-chilling screams that seemed to come from above him, and then proceeded to circle the Ring for a quarter of an hour, although he could see nothing that might account for the sounds – he rules out the possibility of a screech owl – until they finally disappeared and he fell asleep again.

I would never have shut my eyes there again, if that were me.

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The Ring has a reputation as the most haunted place in Sussex, with tales of hapless benighted travellers being scared witless for centuries. In 1966, apparently, a group of bikers decided to stay the night there and were forced to flee in terror.

We’ve been to Chanctonbury Ring before and it certainly has an atmosphere. I would have liked to have lingered for a while longer, but the downside of the journey is that we had still to cover quite a few miles in the heat to get to Amberley that afternoon.

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Three years ago when we visited the Ring, the weather was gloomy and somewhat more atmospheric, although we were mercifully left alone by whatever might be lurking around there on the astral plane.

Thankfully, it seems they only come out at night.

 

Desert Island Books

There is a weekly program on BBC radio that has been running for almost seventy five years now, called Desert Island Discs. The format is that a well-known, or not so well-known, person is interviewed for forty five minutes on the premise that they are to be stranded on a desert island, and that they can take eight pieces of music with them, so which ones would they choose and why? They are also asked to select a favourite book and a luxury item, and are given the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. This, then, is my take on it, substituting books for pieces of music. The obvious advantage of this is that I don’t have to rescue a gramophone from the shipwreck as I crawl through the surf towards safety. The disadvantage becomes obvious just as soon as I look at our bookshelves or glance through my Goodreads lists. What not to take?

So, I bite the bullet. I think that I’ll do this in a kind of chronological order, and the first choice actually proves to be an easy one; it is The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. I still have the copy that my father bought for me when I was seven, and this book was probably the first one that I read that had real substance. The story can still captivate me and although there is some surprisingly deep writing for a children’s book of the time (The chapter ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, especially), there is an enchanting innocence flowing through the book, too.

The second book would be The Journey to the East, by Hermann Hesse. I discovered Hesse when I was eighteen and, having ploughed through the mountain of crime novels that we had in our household, this was the first modern ‘serious’ or ‘literary’ work that I had read by choice. At that time I had, of course, been introduced to works such as ‘Sons and Lovers’ and Shakespeare and Dickens, at school, but this was the first time that I had read a book that really seemed to resonate with my life. There are other works by Hesse that are better, and which I enjoy more, but this was probably the single work that changed the way that I read as an adult. A very short, but deceptively deep and complex book, the Journey to the East is ostensibly the story of a movement in Germany in the early years of the last century, based on spirituality and not a few drugs, and charting the spiritual progress of the narrator within this movement. It still has the power to speak to people today, and not just to old hippies!

The third book would be SeleFeatured imagected Poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. I picked up a copy of this second hand when I was really beginning to discover poetry, and was captivated by the long poem Zima Junction, in which he describes  a visit that he makes as an adult to his family home in the small Siberian town of the same name.  Descriptions of eccentric family, strawberry picking, meals and drinking, cart rides in rainstorms…by the end of the poem you feel that you know and understand the countryside and the society there. It is a poem that I continually go back to re-read.

The fourth book would be The Lord of the Rings, by J R R Tolkien. This is another book that I discovered in my late teens. All of my friends and acquaintances at that time were either devouring this book, or Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, and this happened to be the one that I picked up. And, having picked it up, I really did sit up reading it through the night, taking a short nap the following morning and then reading through to the end that evening. I don’t suppose I need to describe it to anyone, since the plot is known to most, either through the book or through the Peter Jackson movies. There is a tendency to denigrate the story in many quarters, yet I feel that this has a lot to do with the fact that elves and dragons are not to everyone’s grown up tastes. The story, though, is well constructed and true to its author’s created world. It is just a damned good page-turner, really.

I have to include a travel book in my list, since I read so many of them, and this is the hardest choice that I would have to make. However, the fifth book would be The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane. When it was released, there was so much praise for it from almost every reviewer who read it, that it seemed impossible that it could ever live up to the hype. But it does. It is a beautiful evocation of all sorts of ancient paths around the world, from Neolithic footprints in the sea to desert trails. It is also a book that should be embraced by anyone with sympathies for the slow book movement.

The sixth book is Devices and Desires by P D James. Although it is not the best murder mystery that I have ever read, or even, perhaps, her best, it was a surprise when I discovered it to find that there were more exciting ways to write in that genre than the ones that I had read before; Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers and others. I read the first chapter and suddenly literary murder seemed dark and terrible, whereas before it always seemed a bit of a jolly game and an intellectual puzzle.

The seventh book is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. One of those books that is technically written for young adults, it is a powerful, emotional rollercoaster of a read. As the Second World War looms, Liesel arrives at her foster home in a suburb of Munich. She has seen her brother die, and been left by her mother who can no longer care for her. Now she has a new family; the foul-mouthed Rosa and her husband Hans. As the family and their neighbours try to survive amidst the increasing horrors of the war, an unexpected visitor comes to stay – Max, a Jew fleeing the slaughter. Funny, sad, devastating and hopeful, often all at once, with a cast of characters you will fall in love with, the book builds to a very powerful climax.

The eighth book is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. My choice has nothing whatsoever to do with the hype and hysteria currently surrounding the release of Go Set a Watchman, but is because I only got around to reading it this year, and found it to be far better than I had imagined it could ever be. And, talking of that hype, in Atticus Finch I discovered a literary hero.

My luxury would be unlimited reams of writing paper and pens. And the book? Uh, I think we’ve covered that one. Perhaps, since I’ve changed the pieces of music to books, I should substitute the choice of a piece of music for the book that the BBC guests choose, but then I’d be back to dragging that gramophone through the surf, and so I really can’t be bothered. It would only spoil the peace and quiet of the island.

‘Thank you, Mick.’

‘No, thank you, Kirsty.’