Led by the birds – adapting to the times

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You can learn a great deal just by observing nature; and my favourite classroom is the window by the bird feeder.  Watching the parade of songbirds, corvids and doves flit and flap their ways across the road then perch, peck and posture in their individual ways is endlessly entrancing – to say nothing of the psychological battles with squirrels who given half a chance would tear the peanut feeder apart and spoil it for everyone else.

Every creature, squirrel, bird or the vole that lives in the border under the feed station, has its own habits and seems equipped with the intelligence needed to make its living.  Today I watched a scruffy Coal Tit worry away at a few peanuts, deftly switching from upside-down to sideways on and back, before flitting across to the empty squirrel proof feeder to see what was for dessert.  Empty for a few days now – as I’m really not a good avian dinner host – but, it seemed, worth a try.  Finding nothing doing it just as quickly flitted off to look elsewhere.

Before trying its luck at the empty feeder, this tiny bird must have known that it was somewhere that food could often be found.  It was following a pattern – one that normally served it well.  Except this time the pattern was broken and there was no point hanging around in the hope that normal service would be resumed soon.  It adapted its plans and followed a new path.

Where do we look for nourishment and what do we do when the usually reliable sources are no longer serving?  We can ask the question about food (I’ve not been able to get hold of my usual type of yeast since the shelves were cleared of the last tubs of it in early March) but we can also ask it of the less tangible things that support us in life – culture, learning, closeness to others.  And it’s been a pressing question for the past four months for everyone on the planet, as the constraints imposed by the very real threat of disease have put a stop to countless events, social engagements and what used to be normal human interactions.

There have been partial solutions of course – heroes of the hour in the form of voice-over-internet software.  Some activities have found a new lease of life online.  Communities have pulled together to support the vulnerable.  Many people have found the solitude itself enriching.  What’s clear is that we’ve all needed to find new ways to meet, share stories, express ourselves creatively.  What is less clear is whether our institutions can be as adaptable, and therefore survive.

Today we held our first Meeting for Worship in person for the first time in over four months.  Carefully signposted, precautionary information provided, sitting 2m apart, many wearing face-masks, keeping our voices low, not sharing drinks afterwards.  It felt simultaneously a longed for rebirth and also something strange and unfamiliar.  We can hope that things will relax further in due course but for the time being this is the only way gatherings can take place.

In the coming weeks, adapting our expectations as individuals will make the difference between the survival of the organisations and networks to which we belong, and their demise.  It won’t be back to business as usual for a long time to come; but if we’re prepared to look for new ways to nourish ourselves and each other, our communities and culture will live to thrive again.

Now I think there’s a bird feeder that needs topping up…

Noisy Spring

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Song Thrush (photo Simon Chinnery, Creative Commons BY-SA)

Nearly 60 years ago, biologist and journalist Rachel Carson expressed a growing unease about the deadening effects of the new artificial pesticides on wildlife and people in her seminal volume ‘Silent Spring’.  The title of this book eloquently captured the tangible impact of the loss of bird life resulting from the use of these novel chemicals, the like of which the natural world was ill equipped to absorb.  At the time, species after species in the US and Europe were suffering catastrophic declines – a fact whose cause she traced to the cocktail of chemicals being scattered across the landscape in the cause of productivity.  The book faced huge opposition in the courts, funded by the agrochemical industry, but remained in publication and is still available today.

Were that the end of the story, we might be used by now to one silent spring after another.  But the use of agrochemicals became regulated, DDT was banned and nature began to recover.  Ironic then, that it’s the diversity, beauty and sheer volume of birdsong that has characterised one of the strangest springs in living memory, when it seems human activities, not nature’s sounds, have fallen silent, giving the floor to the birds for the first time in generations.  Nature in her resilience, bounces back – our aptitude for destruction being partially effective but thankfully so far limited.  Perhaps there’s as good a reason as any to stop whatever damage we’re doing now and turn our energies to finding ways of living as part of the natural world rather than enemies of it.

Early one morning – sunrise over the burial ground

Early on an idyllic morning mid-May, I took my computer and microphone outdoors to capture what I could of the dawn chorus.  At 4.30 I might have hoped to be in time to record the first chirrups of the day but I was late to the party.  Sitting for half an hour against the wall of the Meeting House burial ground, I heard the chorus warm up and rise, song by song, to a crescendo of trilling, chirping and cawing – an orchestra eager to play out the drama of the morning.

It would be a travesty to waste time saying any more when nature has so much to say that has for so long been drowned by the mechanical noise of our day-to-day life.  So at this point I’ll hand over to the players of the dawn chorus – the Robin and Wren, Song Thrush, Blackbird and Blue Tit, Crow, Jackdaw and Pheasant, along with a host of other soloists.  If you can pick them out, drop us a line!

Making these walls ring with music and silence

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Our latest speaking attender… helping to make more of the venue with music

Just over a year ago we acquired a piano with the help of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Sustainable Development Fund.  Perfectly normal for a venue of course but something of a departure for a Meeting House that has been host to silent gatherings for nearly 4 centuries.

Silence is a valued commodity for Quakers, so what was the appeal of a piano for the small group that regularly meets here?  After all, we don’t make much use of the instrument ourselves – a fine thing though it is.

In the past year we’ve been treated to a wide range of work – jazz, new compositions, spiritual songs and stories, solo and chamber choir recitals, as well as drama and monologue – some private, some public.  From the notes in the visitors’ book, the occasional tourist scratches a musical itch by playing the piano as well.

players from the Vacation Chamber Orchestra bringing old and new music to the Meeting House

For me, music is part of the fabric of living: woven into heartbeat and breath, available to help express instantly the desires, elations, traumas, rages and reliefs of the soul.  Growing up as a piano student, my piano quickly became confidante and mouthpiece: a prosthetic emotional sounding board.  The immense value of this particularly to young people can’t be overstated and it saddens me greatly that music has been one of the first casualties of cuts in education budgets.

The 19th century Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the verses which included words that would become the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ – somewhat ironically as it would turn out – as an entreaty to people to ditch elaborate ceremonies and noisy hymns in favour of the benefits of quiet reflection.  But the experience of listening to or participating in music is such a richly rewarding one, so why would anyone want to exclude it from the heart of community life?

I don’t have an answer either for Mr. Whittier or for anyone who finds Quakers’ aversion to music in worship odd.  But I do know what music can do and what at best it represents.  As with all the arts, music somehow expresses truth more eloquently than a whole library of words.  Melody, harmony, rhythm and texture all speak to the soul, giving voice to inner longings, joys and regrets, grounding the listener’s experience in the shared humanity of composer and performer.  A well-crafted piece of music appeals across cultures and throughout time, dissolving perceived boundaries of place or people; and when performers join together to create music, it demonstrates the heights to which people in co-operation can rise.

Music to set the heart racing – this gig played to a packed house!

And that would perhaps be all, except for one component of music that’s often forgotten.  The truly heart-stopping moments in music often come when the instruments stop playing, if only for an instant.  Every great performance is framed by silence, permeated by musical silences and in fact at its most translucent when silence is part of its texture.  Those silences are the canvas on which the piece is painted, the questions it attempts to answer and the material out of which it is carved.

Cello ensembles are particularly resonant in these walls…

So amidst all the beautiful, inspiring and uplifting music of religions from around the world, perhaps there is after all a place for a kind of faith that is expressed in silence: one which offers an uncrowded space, in which the music of the soul can flow unconstrained and in which we are all performers regardless of the instrumentation of our lives.

Tell your leader, this is the People’s Priority now

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The following open letter was sent to Julian Smith MP shortly after the election in December and subsequently published in the Craven Herald under the curious title ‘I have questions for our re-elected MP’.  These are not questions; they’re instructions – delivered from an electorate that has shown itself far ahead of the government in its concern about climate change.

Dear Mr. Smith

I note your success in securing re-election as the parliamentary member for Skipton and Ripon and write to offer some thoughts on the direction of the government of which you are now a part.

I’ve no doubt that you’re a hardworking, dedicated constituency MP and I’ve appreciated your willingness to engage with constituents’ concerns and respond to questions, often in some detail.  You clearly also have the political support of the majority in this constituency.

The same may not however be said of your party with respect to the national picture.  The vagaries of our system of democracy invariably deliver governments elected on a minority of the popular vote and the 2019 election is no exception.  Under normal circumstances, those of a different view can hope that balance will be maintained by a swing towards their preferred choice at the next opportunity.  Voters at least have the opportunity to participate in that uncertain and unequal process.

These are not, however, normal circumstances.  We’re facing a global crisis of unprecedented proportions, in the face of which action of unprecedented range and rapidity is required.  That challenge is the climate emergency, confirmed as a political priority for the UK in Theresa May’s last few days as Prime Minister.

photo Mat Fascione / More flooding / CC BY-SA 2.0 (creative commons)

The first duty of government is the security of the people, and climate instability threatens our security as surely as any other issue.  Whether through coastal erosion due to rising sea levels, increased intensity of flooding events, pressures on food and energy production, increased vulnerability of international food systems, social breakdown in regions of the world most affected and the resource-driven conflicts that ensue, the UK is by no means immune to this, humanity’s greatest challenge.

Conversely, our economy – the sixth largest in the world – has often demonstrated its capacity for rapid change in the face of shifting global realities.  We possess the capacity both to develop and benefit from new technologies, best practices and creative ideas in ways not always available to less developed economies.  Our history as the cradle of the industrial revolution that seeded climate change is clear.  It is our responsibility to lead the world in the creation of a carbon-free economy, supporting international efforts by disseminating these technologies and practices wherever they are relevant.  The opportunities at home for a rejuvenated carbon-free economy and radically improved environment are immense.  We may be already committed to achieving that by 2050; but the global target is unlikely to be met by all nations.  Since we can act and change more rapidly, then we should.

Your party’s manifesto was notably light on ambition concerning the climate emergency, as evidenced in the analysis carried out by Friends of the Earth.  Your leader showed his disinterest in the subject by refusing to attend the leaders’ debate focussed on the issue.  Yet the majority of electors voted for parties with substantially more radical approaches to climate change.

shrinking country – coastal erosion in East Anglia will intensify with rising sea levels

There is no time to wait till the next election.  The emergency is now.  Tentative, baby steps will not do.  Your government must lead – first by engaging with all positive ideas, including those put forward by your opponents, then by implementing a radical, holistic plan with as much urgency as is governmentally possible, testing every policy with respect to its climate impact.

Finally, although I disagree with your politics I wish you well in this term of office as MP and in whatever role the Prime Minister chooses to give you.  I recognise your good intent and trust that intent will help you listen, reflect, challenge where needed and act in good faith.  Your leader is patently fallible, appears utterly ill-equipped for his office and in need of guidance from wiser heads.  If he wishes to speak credibly about ‘healing’, he must put aside mocking language, disrespect to minorities and derision towards those sections of the public whose commitment to social and environmental justice he finds inconvenient.  Above all, he must speak truthfully.  The government he leads and in which you serve must be the servant of the whole country, not just the minority which elected it.  In the face of the urgent issues of our time, that is truer than it has ever been.

Yours sincerely,

Simon Watkins

Landscape Architect, Quaker

Further information and resources

the science…

https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/reports.shtml

IPCC report warns of a bleak future for oceans and frozen regions under climate change

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/09/ipcc-report-climate-change-affecting-ocean-ice/

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2217611-ipcc-report-sea-levels-could-be-a-metre-higher-by-2100/

IPCC Special Report Calls for Urgent, Ambitious, and Coordinated Action

the UK’s response…

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-48596775

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/18/uk-climate-plan-unclear-says-european-commission

In-depth: How the UK plans to adapt to climate change

UK told to close climate policy gap or ‘be embarrassed’ in 2020

https://friendsoftheearth.uk/general-election/general-election-our-take-party-manifestos

what we can do…

https://friendsoftheearth.uk/climate-change/what-can-I-do-to-stop-climate-change

https://www.activesustainability.com/climate-change/6-actions-to-fight-climate-change/

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20181102-what-can-i-do-about-climate-change

https://davidsuzuki.org/what-you-can-do/top-10-ways-can-stop-climate-change/

https://en.reset.org/act/12-things-you-can-do-climate-change-0

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/climate-change-global-warming-chad-frischmann-project-drawdown-carbon-dioxide-a8574461.html

https://www.52climateactions.com/

‘Don’t just pass by – stop and look inside!’

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So sang the children in the nativity play I enjoyed this week, having been drafted to accompany the renditions of ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘A Merry Christmas’ on the keyboard to book-end the performance.  Not having children of my own, witnessing a school nativity from the outside (as opposed to being a tea-towel wearing shepherd the last time I had anything to do with one…) was a delightful first.  The children sang, shouted their lines and gesticulated with gusto, all in splendid costumes that rivalled the attire of anyone on a big-time stage.  A production worth stopping and looking in for sure (assuming you were a parent or had something to do with the school of course).

The line that stuck out brought to mind the dozens of times this year I’ve noticed walkers and visitors to Airton stop by at the Meeting House, accepting the implicit welcome of the open gate, and step inside our remarkable building.  Intentionally simple both inside and out, this humble pile of stones nonetheless seems to appeal, offering perhaps a moment of rest on a long walk, a fascinating peak into history or just shelter from the rain.  It’s meant much more to thousands of people over the centuries of course and to us who know it now, as a living Meeting House, a cultural venue, polling station (all too often of late…) and community facility.

But without the people, familiar or strangers, it is just a pile of stones – the contents page of a lost history perhaps.  It’s those who built, expanded, maintained and cared for these buildings whose story they tell; and principally, that story revolves around the obvious question of ‘why?’

The answer to that question lies in the 17th century beginnings of Quakerism: a coalition of dissenting voices gathered from various parts of this country, particularly here in the north-west of Yorkshire and northern Lancashire, many of whose lives are documented in some of the older books on our library’s shelves.  Their spiritual journey had brought them to a point where they no longer wished to be bystanders in faith, receiving titbits of wisdom from priests and people in authority, being told what to find significant and finding that that included little about their daily lives.  For these dissidents, it was no longer enough to attend services, perform rituals, take instruction from above.  They believed they could be authors of their own journey, both as individuals and as communities.  So they gathered in simple, out of the way places, waited on the wisdom they found within themselves, shared their thoughts with each other and grew in confidence and faith.

Today’s Quakers might individually follow a variety of religious faiths and even none but that story of seeking one’s own wisdom and listening to the wisdom of those around you regardless of status or personal history unites them with the forbears who occupied this meeting place and the hundreds of similar places that quickly sprang up around the country in the latter half of the 1600s.

Taking the time to engage both with the world and one’s own thoughts in company is no indulgence.  It’s no less than an opportunity to stop and look inside.  And when that opportunity is taken, sometimes what is found inside is precious – no less than one’s own contribution to the peace and wholeness of the world.  Not just something to be passed by, whether in the busy-ness of Christmas or at any time.

Have a peaceful Christmas and come to visit us in the new year!