January 24th 2021

We usually hear the jackdaws some ten minutes or so before sunrise: jack, jack, jack, jack, and then the great silence descends for a while. The rooks chuck the odd aark into the mix, but it tends to get lost amid the jackdaw vocals. Once they have completed their flypast, it is a while before you notice any other birdsong. Gradually it seems to return, and then you realise it was there all along, but it was lost beneath the chorus of cacophonous corvids and still sounds muted once they are gone.

Jackdaws and rooks commonly form mixed flocks. Small groups of them tend to flit through here throughout the day, although never so vocally as at sunrise or sunset. At times, I have watched them heading towards the open countryside away to the east a little before sunset – small groups coming from different directions to the area where they tend to congregate, and from where they will then all fly off in a single flock to their roost together in an area of woodland at dusk.

It was another thick frost this morning, and then a red, red sky as though it was all afire, the clouds like volcanic effusions drifting across, by which time the rooks and jackdaws had scattered to their trees and roofs. Then the sky yellowed with the promise of snow, or did it only look that way because I was aware that was the forecast? When I go out into the back garden to scatter the coffee grounds, the chill of the air in my nostrils makes me think I can smell snow.

On time, the snow arrives, although it has barely reached the ground before melting, and quickly turns to sleet. While it is snowing, there is a brightness outside, even under the dark clouds, but once it turns to sleet, it somehow darkens and just becomes a little more miserable. As I look out of the window now, I see the wind picking up, a little thin sleet falling, and a uniformly grey sky.

Isn’t it time for spring yet?

Sunday Supplement – 3

Last year I wrote a post about how the Christmas season made sense to me when I thought of it as the old festival of Yule and all that entails. About nature, renewal and hope. Of course, I also wrote about my own hopes for the coming year, and the less said about that, the better! But I also wrote a post a couple of weeks ago – Winter 4 – the last in a series, discussing how I thought the Solstice might have been marked in prehistoric times. Although here in the UK we are now in yet another Lockdown, the solstice is tomorrow – marking the turning of the year – and I cannot help but see that as a reason for hope; the days begin to lengthen, the darkness slowly retreats, and whether you view that as merely symbolic, or connect that with longer, warmer, days and the pleasure they bring, as well as conditions less covid-friendly, yes, it is a reason for hope.

I finished reading H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. I’ve been very poor at writing reviews this last year, and I must make a start again. This would be a great one to begin with; so much to write about it, and a definite five star recommendation. Superb.

I then read The Girl Who Forgets How To Walk, a poetry collection by Kate Davis, published by Penned in the Margins.

As the site describes it: ‘In this remarkable first collection, tarns, limekilns and abandoned pits become portals into a dark, interior world. A woman levitates above a building site; earth slips and fault-lines open up beneath the town; the sea hides ‘a gob of virus’. The moving title sequence tells the story of a young girl with polio who struggles to find her feet — and her voice — in an unforgiving landscape where ‘the ground cannot be trusted’.’ Again, thoroughly recommended and enjoyable. I finished it last night and am wavering between a couple of books, deciding what to read next. But, at the same time, I am working my way through a couple of excellent magazines:

An Antidote To Indifference is the perfect title for a magazine that showcases the best of the writing published on the Caught by the River website. It describes itself as: ‘an arts/nature/culture clash… It began as an idea, a vision and a daydream shared between friends one languid bankside spring afternoon. Conceived as an online meeting place for pursuits of a distinctly non-digital variety — walking, fishing, looking, thinking, birdsong and beer, adventure and poetry; life’s small pleasures, in all their many flavours — it was, and still is, about stepping out of daily routines to re-engage with nature. Finding new rhythms. Being.’ The website is updated daily and the magazine is published, on average, twice a year. I bought a couple of back issues as a bit of an experiment and, again, I highly recommend them to anyone who enjoys nature in any form.

My writing has taken a bit of a hit, though, this past week. I’ve felt utterly uninspired and fed up with the novel I’ve been editing, so I’ve tossed them aside for the moment and have been doing a little work on a short story – a folk horror / ghost story – and a little artwork. Amongst my daubings was this derivative painting which I intended to do for practice, but then thought would make a good birthday card for Sabina’s birthday last week. So that’s how it ended up.

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.

R. I. P. Winter

It’s beginning to feel both as though autumn has been with us forever, and that it is especially reluctant to leave us, this year.

This year has been a mast year; the trees and bushes have been laden with prodigious quantities of nuts and berries. The hawthorns, especially, seem to be weighed down with berries, and we have gathered large quantities of nuts from the hazel in our garden. There are so many acorns beneath the oaks nearby that there is a thick, continuous, crunchy, carpet of them underfoot. Traditionally, this has been said to indicate a harsh winter ahead, although how the trees and bushes are meant to work this out when we have no idea what the weather will be then, heaven only knows.

What it really indicates, of course, is that the climatic conditions have been such throughout the year that these trees and bushes have successfully produced their large crops. Nothing to do with what will come along later.

On the other hand, the leaves have held onto their greens for longer than usual and only turned late, and still seem most reluctant to fall. It has taken the determined efforts of a few strong winds just to remove about half of them. Certainly, around my part of Britain, anyway.

It is not cold. There are no signs of a proper winter chill approaching, with the long-range weather forecast contenting itself with predictions of the occasional cold spell in the next month, which takes us through to mid-December. In the garden the grass and many of our other plants are still engaged in that crazy autumn growth spurt.

Of course, it was never unusual for November to be wet and mild, and we may yet have a biting cold winter, although I wouldn’t bet on it. It is a long, long time since we have had a winter like that in these parts. In my lifetime, only the winters of 1963 and 1978/79 really stand out as being extremely harsh, although a few others have had shorter periods of cold and snow. The expectation for winter around here now is that it will just be chilly and wet. I think only once in the last six or seven years have we had more than just the odd flurry of snow; that was from the so-called ‘Beast from the East’ a couple of years ago, and even that only lasted a few days.

We seem to have lost winter somewhere along the way, which sounds very careless of us.

In fact, that is quite a good way of describing it.

You don’t need me to tell you we have been careless in the way we have interacted with nature, the result being our world is heating up dangerously. And in our part of the world, this has led to hotter, drier, summers and milder, wetter, winters. There has been a notable increase in destructive flooding events. Downpours are frequently very heavy and long-lasting. Rather than being spread out through the month, we may get an entire month’s worth of rain in less than a day. Summers, conversely, have become very dry.

This is absolutely nothing to the extreme climate conditions suffered by millions of others in other parts of the world, but it helps to bring it home to us that the Climate Emergency is real, and it is happening. With everything else happening in the world at the moment, this seems to have been conveniently ignored by the mainstream media for the last six months.

R. I. P. Winter.

A Yearning For Wilderness

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

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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?

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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…

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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!

Being Wistful: South Downs Way 1 – Eastbourne to Steyning

Some of my own response to the Covid-19 crisis and the restrictions we all find ourselves under is to revisit my favourite places, in books or thought, films or photographs, or even old blog posts. It is sobering and depressing to realise I may not be able to go more than a few miles from home over the coming months, but this does help a little.

The South Downs are a favourite, so I’m going to re-post this short series I put up a couple of years ago after our most recent walk along the South Downs Way:

 

Once upon a time, or five or six years ago, if you prefer, I thought I would start up my own outdoor adventure company. It never happened in the end, largely due to the cost of insurance. However, if I had gone through with it I have to admit it would have been largely so I could go on long distance trails both in the UK and overseas without having to pay for it.

Oh, well. It was a nice idea.

The South Downs Way is a long distance footpath of one hundred miles in length, running from Eastbourne to Winchester, or Winchester to Eastbourne, if you must, along the top of the South Downs.

Hence the name.

We walked it in May.

It is usual, when writing about a journey – especially a long distance walk – to write in some detail about the scenery and the route, in sequential order. I don’t think I’ll do that this time. Instead I’ll probably jump about all over the place writing about odd things we found particularly interesting.  And post one or two photos of the stunning scenery…

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Such as this one.

So, a few points of interest.

This, then, is a dew pond:

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Chalk is a porous rock, allowing any rainfall to rapidly soak away, so the only way of providing water on the top of the downs is by artificial means. Dew ponds have been made up there for hundreds of years; a hollow is dug and lined with clay, which then fills naturally when the rain falls. Dew is probably not a significant contributor, despite the name. The downside to this simple system is should the pond dry out, then the clay, too, will dry out. When this happens, it will shrink and crack, and subsequent rainfall will leak out.

And while on the subject of rainfall, we didn’t have glorious weather all the way:

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We were forced to seek refuge in a convenient pub at the Devil’s Dyke for a couple of hours, but we made the best of it. This was clearly A Good Move because although it was still pouring with rain when we eventually left the pub, it began to clear up in about an hour and then we had sunshine for the rest of the day.

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These are cowslips. The word comes from the Old English cuslyppe, which means cow dung, because, yes, that’s where they like to grow, apparently. Years ago, before the coming of intensive farming practices and industrial weedkillers, our fields were full of cowslips, but they seem to be met with now primarily in the more open landscapes – like downland. For the first few days of our walk, especially, we saw lots of cowslips.

We had a rest day at Steyning, although we stayed at nearby Bramber.

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Bramber Castle is a strange and mysterious place, which magically energises the over sixties and causes them to revert to their childhood.

Although not for long, sadly.

Myth, Science and Religion

Religion begins as science, as an attempt to make sense of the world. The birth of religion marked the dawn of humans as rational, analytical beings. This was humans moving beyond the worries of simply surviving from day to day, and reaching that point in evolution where they looked with wonder upon the world around them and asked: How did this come into existence? What is it that controls the weather and other variables? By observing the natural world around them, the cycles of day and night, the seasons, the migrations of the animals, they would have concluded that these patterns suggested a grand design and order.

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An assumption would probably be made that all this was controlled by benevolent beings, but beings who might need propitiating occasionally to keep them sweet; the odd ritual here, perhaps a sacrifice of some sort there.

And if that was so, perhaps they could be propitiated in a somewhat greater way, to grant other boons?

It would not be long before someone claimed a channel to the gods to relay their desires and instructions, and so the priestly class would be born. Self-interest? Quite likely. After all, we see that in most religions today, so why not?

Religions then, over the years, spawned new religions, the spark being reinterpretation rather than inspiration.

We think we see echoes of old religions in myths. Myths are the fragments of history we know, combined with assumptions about how our ancestors acted and thought, frequently combined with scarce written evidence, which may or may not be biased or wholly inaccurate. When our written sources include stories of monsters and miracles, we should probably be advised to treat them cautiously.

Myth-makers frequently come with an agenda, although depending upon your point of view that is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are looking for a scientific analysis of the lives of our ancestors, it’s probably best to give myth a wide berth. Or at least to be very, very, careful what you take from it. But in a way, it does provide an alternative world view that many find preferable to both the stark realities of day to day life, as well as the cold dead hand of religion. After all, if you’re using your imagination, it’s easy to plan your myth-world much the way you’d like it.

And perhaps myth does offer us a way of getting inside the heads of those people, at least superficially.

One assumption we can make is that there would be similarities in the thought processes of those people, with the thought processes of us today. It is perfectly reasonable to assume they would react in similar ways to us, to pain and fear, to pleasure, warmth and cold. Our reaction to the unknown tends to be to populate it with characters or situations based on our experiences, and they probably did the same.

Stonehenge is aligned with the solar calendar. This we know. It’s science. And we know a considerable amount about the geography of the area around Stonehenge at the time it was built, through archaeology and science.

What we don’t know is how it was used. Just because it was aligned with the rising sun at summer solstice and the setting sun at winter solstice, does not mean we know what took place at those times. We assume our ancestors worshipped or venerated the sun there, especially at the time of the solstices, but we do not know that. Were there sacrifices? Did they hold special ceremonies connected with fertility or birth or death? Was it perhaps just like a club where they turned up now and again and got drunk and held orgies? It could be, since there is no hard evidence for anything.

Believers in ley lines also claim it is at the centre of an intricate system of lines connecting natural (‘holy’) locations with important (‘holy’) sites such as churches, wells and crossroads. Pseudoscience? Coincidence?

Our assumptions, though, lead us to think that because of the immense effort required to build the structure, it must have been an incredibly important site, and we are surely justified in concluding important ceremonies were enacted there.

Whatever they were.

The Joy of Unknowing (1)

We have just returned from a few days away in Shropshire, which is one reason you haven’t heard from me recently.

We were incredibly lucky with the weather, and spent the time walking and reading and mooching around towns and villages. And finding time for the occasional meal and cold beer, of course.

Yes, we did some lovely walks. And I find it a natural thing to be constantly identifying and photographing whatever I see when out for a walk. I have always been interested in all aspects of the environment, be it the plants and animals, the geography and geology, the weather, or the historical impact of people on the environment in forms such as old trackways, deserted buildings, or ancient boundaries.

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And we have spent several fantastic days surrounded by an environment rich in all these things, as we have walked through woods, fields, and open hillsides, seen ancient settlements, butterflies, birds, and many wildflowers, and all this in an area of some of the most complex geology in the UK.

But sometimes I feel myself tiring of the constant need to identify and record everything; it is really a way of trying to own them.

And when you post on social media too, it can feel at times a little like a competition to put up the best pictures of this or that wildflower or bird or mountain, which naturally need to be identified and named. Especially on Twatter, whose format seems to encourage this.

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So, on our first morning away, as we walk up a track heading into the hills above Church Stretton, under early morning blue skies with the air crystal clear and beautifully cool, I decide that for now I am just going to exist in the moment.

Because by doing this, I am relieved of the constant necessity of deciding whether this bird is a rook or a crow, or whether that flower is greater stitchwort or lesser stitchwort.

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Because it doesn’t really matter.

And for now, instead of having to always know whether it is this or that bird singing, I can allow myself to simply think there is singing. There is birdsong.

Or, even better, there is a sound I find melodic, and it pleases me.

By doing this, I can relax and centre myself, which is something I feel has been badly lacking in my life recently. I have struggled with social media in any case, feeling a huge pressure to post new material and to read the many I follow, even when I don’t feel up to it.

It feels like a return to a much simpler time in my life. I can enjoy the views of the hills, the sounds of the streams and birds, and just concentrate on being.

This must have been part of the pleasure I felt as a child on every occasion when I could roam outdoors. Certainly, I was curious about what I saw, but since I knew so little about them, there was always an openness to the experience and the excitement of discovery. I would see butterflies I had not seen before, and I would just get the thrill of seeing them without having to know anything more about them. I would see wildflowers I didn’t recognise and just enjoy the shapes and colours.

Naturally, you cannot really unknow things in that way, just as you cannot really return to that point in your childhood, but it is possible, even if for only a short while, to let go of the need to identify and quantify (and therefore own) everything, and simply exist in the here and now.