At Last!

Well, that’s it. I’ve done it. It’s finished. Somewhere around mid-morning yesterday, probably just before eleven o’clock. And in the end it wasn’t too difficult; not too painful, anyway. I thought I was going to have more problems than I did, actually. Fortunately, though, it all went quite smoothly in the end. In fact, I’m not sure what all the fuss was about.

Oh, I do beg your pardon. I was quite forgetting.

I’m referring to the book I’ve been working on for the last three or four years: A Good Place. Having thought I’d finished it around a year ago, I ended up binning the last third of the book and re-writing it. And although I’ve ended up with what I feel is a stronger narrative, and with more believable characters, there was one chapter towards the end that was just refusing to play ball.

Until yesterday.

So hopefully, I’ve now completed the final draft. I’ve sent it to my beta reader to go through, and as long as she thinks the story works I’ll put it to one side for six months and then begin what I hope will be the final edit. And if I’m still happy with it then, I’ll look to pass it to three more beta readers for their comments. If they think it worthwhile, I might then have a go at interesting a publisher in it.

Although I’ll probably just think Oh, to hell with it all and self-publish it, anyway.

And if she thinks it’s no good, I’ll hide it somewhere and sulk.

What’s it about? It is set in an Indian hill station in 1988. An English visitor arrives, bringing with him a mystery concerning his childhood, the key to which he suspects may lie with the remaining English inhabitants of the town. And like many expatriate communities around the world, these inhabitants have a complicated and, at times, difficult relationship with the other members of their community. As the visitor gets drawn further into the life of this community, he finds his own relationships with them becoming unexpectedly complicated and difficult, with tragic and unanticipated consequences for several of them.

Anyway, after all that palaver, I decided to go for a walk in the woods nearby. Up until that point, it had been a dry, if overcast, day. But as soon as I reached the woods, the rain began pelting down.

It was dark and gloomy beneath the trees, and the rain was soon drawing out the peculiarly woodland scents of autumn. There was a rich, thick, puddingy smell, as rich and thick as the deep and increasingly wet humus soil I was walking on. Soon my feet were squishing and squelching through the mud and dead leaves, the fungi and conker husks, the rotting wood and the mildewed berries.

The rain burst through the branches and leaves of the trees, hammering on my head and shoulders, running into my pockets, and down my legs. Although it was mid-afternoon, the light had the quality of a premature dusk, and the few other people I saw seemed to slip between the trees like unhappy ghosts.

It was a bloody good walk, I must say.

The Compleat Trespasser by John Bainbridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But also that we still have some way to go.

Stir Crazy – A Bit

We are not quite in lockdown, but for someone who likes to spend as much time outside as possible, it feels a little like it.

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We are more fortunate than many, in that we are a short walk away from woodland, and then a limited amount of open countryside. But I yearn to walk the hills, the truly open places like moorland and marshland. I wonder whether to take a bus or train the comparatively short journey to these places. I could be up on the South Downs in two hours, and their pull is almost painful at the moment.

And my reading and writing have been affected by all this, too. I was halfway through My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk, which I was enjoying then but suddenly I have lost all interest in it. It is set in Istanbul in the sixteenth century but my heart yearns for the English countryside. So much so, that I can no longer bear to read it. So I have set it aside for now and begun to read The Moor by William Atkins; stories of myth, history and literature connected with the moorland areas of England.

And likewise, my enthusiasm for my current writing projects has dried up, and for similar reasons. I am in the middle of re-writing one novel, and over halfway through writing another, but I cannot currently drum up any enthusiasm for either. One is set in sixteenth century Persia, the other in Northern India in the 1980’s and yes, I just want to be outside, here.

I have been writing notes, though, for another idea I had intended to start only after completing one or both of those novels, but I have now decided to allow myself to begin it. I need a project I can really enthuse over, and this one will be set in the wildness of Southern England at some point in the past (I know what it is, but I’m not telling you yet!). I hope this will both give me some sort of pleasurable focus for my writing and also allow me to wander, in my mind, in those places I yearn to be.

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.

A Little Piece Of Wilderness

I went for a walk yesterday, in search of wilderness.

Although we live on the edge of a small town, surrounded by gentle countryside, I still contrive to find some wilderness. It takes me about ten minutes to leave the streets and houses behind, and then I slow my pace and feel myself relax. Tensions drop away as soon as I am surrounded by trees.

There is little wilderness to be had where I walk, yet that does not mean there is none.

Hedgerows can be corridors of wilderness. Perhaps a transient wilderness, but a wilderness all the same. Many hedgerows in the British Isles are hundreds of years old, and although each individual one may be comparatively small, places within them may have been undisturbed for most of that time and during that time many species of plants have flourished there and smaller creatures made their homes.

My path goes through a thin belt of woodland, too open to be classed as a hedgerow and too open to have private, wild, places, but once I emerge into the daylight again, there is a hedgerow alongside the path. And for a short distance, the hedgerow widens several feet, and becomes a true wilderness.

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Here, a patch of elder, sycamore and ash trees are surrounded by a dense undergrowth of brambles, interspersed with patches of nettles, a couple of holly bushes, and a few smaller plants squeezing into the daylight where they can.

It is the home of flies and spiders and beetles, visited while I am there by blue tits, magpies and some smaller birds I cannot identify.

Deep within it, there will be mice and shrews, and very likely larger mammals making their homes.

It is impenetrable by anyone without hacking their way in, and fortunately there is no incentive for anyone to do that.

It is wild, and I love that it is there.

In Praise Of Trees

It has been mind-buggeringly hot and humid for most of the last week, breaking records for mind-buggeringly hot heat here in the UK. But now, with heavy rain and gloom and a delicious green light filling the kitchen from the trees and bushes outside in the garden, it not only feels refreshingly cooler but looks it, too.

During this last week, almost the only way I could bear to be outside at all, was sitting on our lawn in the shade of the gorgeous hazel tree that dominates the garden.

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In so many countries, trees are planted to provide shade whether it be for travellers, or for residents in towns and villages or city squares.

They understand the value of the shade the trees provide in hotter climates, but in the UK we, and by that I mean governments and entrepreneurs and business people, we seem to be obsessed with cutting down trees, almost for the sake of it.

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Yet we can no longer pretend we have no idea how vital trees are; for us, for the ecosystem, for the planet. We need them to remove the carbon from the air and to replenish oxygen. They are habitats for huge numbers of wildlife. Their roots help bind and provide stability to the soil, preventing erosion, landslides, and the spread of deserts. Where they exist in sufficiently large numbers the water vapour they give off helps to bring down local temperatures and increase rainfall.

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They are sources of food for animals and for people, and for thousands of years their wood has been used for building dwellings, making furniture and utensils, fencing, tools, boats and wagons, and as a beautiful raw material for artworks.

And they soothe the soul!

Used intelligently and sustainably, they will continue to perform this role for as long as we wish.

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Yet despite all we now know, we continue to cut down trees at a ridiculous rate. In Brazil, we are losing rainforest now the size of three football fields per minute! The rainforest in Indonesia is also being cut down at a rapid rate. The HS2 rail link planned for the UK will cost a stupid amount of money and destroy massive amounts of woodland, just to take a little time off rail journeys that already happen.

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Yet there are many smaller – petty – instances of trees being cut down that amount to official vandalism, no less. I feel particularly strongly that in many towns in the UK it has long been the policy that when trees planted along streets have become larger than the council thinks appropriate, they cut them down but rarely if ever replace them with new, younger, ones.

The call to re-wild areas of the UK is growing, and I feel we should now be devoting as much land as possible to the creation of new woodland, as well as re-planting hedgerows to replace fences, and individual trees in gardens and parks and along roads.

And stop cutting them down!

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.

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.

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal -1

In 1988 – thirty years ago! – I walked the Annapurna Circuit. This has long been regarded as one of the top ten walks in the world, and is certainly the walk I have enjoyed most. I put up a post about the circuit a year and a half ago (here) should you wish to read it, but as a celebration of that anniversary, I thought I would put up some more photographs over several posts.

Today, they are all from our second day’s walk.

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We camped the whole way, since there was virtually no accommodation on the route then. It was sometimes possible to sleep on the floor of a tea-house, but that usually meant an uncomfortable night in a very smoky atmosphere, and probably not a great deal warmer than a tent. It meant we were travelling with four guides, a couple of cooks, a couple of ‘kitchen boys’, and an average of fifteen to twenty porters (every so often one or two would leave, and others get hired from a village we were passing through).

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We began our walk from Gorkha, walking through the Terai – the sub-tropical forest region that stretches across most of Southern Nepal and much of the Himalayan Foothills of Northern India. This was a land of small rural villages, terraced fields carved painstakingly out of the hillsides, and, naturally, wooded hillsides.

Much of the woodland had already gone, cut both as clearance for fields and for fuel and fodder. It was already leading to much soil erosion and the degradation of the remaining soils. With the passage of thirty years, this can only have got worse.

On day 2 we walked from our campsite beside the Dharandi Khola to the settlement of Chepe Ghat.

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Transport in these areas was entirely by foot, usually in the form of porters who carried massive loads upon their backs. Occasionally by pony, or by bullock, but never by yak – they do not survive at these comparatively low altitudes. In 1988, walking the Annapurna Circuit was entirely on tracks and paths, since there were no roads of any description on our route. Today, there are motorable roads along part of it, but back then we did not see or hear a motorised vehicle for the duration of the trek.

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Building materials in these areas were, and predominantly still are, wood, thatch, and mud. Stone was used only in larger settlements.

The boy pictured above, incidentally, will now be in his late thirties.

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Wooded hillsides, with the terraced fields belonging to a nearby village encroaching.

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Rice paddy – terraced fields flooded for the planting of rice, the staple crop of the Nepal Lowlands.

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.