It’s year two of the big biodiversity push in the burial ground, conceived as a strip of meadow grass around two edges. Advice about establishing meadows is as diverse as the list of flowers that you might find in a well-managed sward but the underlying principles are always the same, always based on what is going on ecologically speaking. Crucially, managing a meadow for diversity is all about reducing the dominance of coarse grasses and broadleaved weeds so that more tender herbaceous plants get a chance to shine. And possibly counter-intuitively, the more fertile the soil, the harder that is.
Last year, we planted plugs of Primroses, Red Campion and Ragged Robin – mainly because those were the wildflowers people had growing in their own gardens than for scientific reasons. After flowering I collected seed from the Campions and scattered it throughout the strip – to little effect, as only one campion flower was spotted this year. But the Primroses were out in force in the spring and more recently Ragged Robin has graced a number of areas. This year we’ve plug-planted Foxgloves and Teasels; come autumn I’ll sow Yellow Rattle to weaken the grasses and make space for more flowers.
This is all a bit of an experiment and one important variable is the timing and number of cuts. The time of the first cut of the year determines what plants can grow to maturity – earlier cuts meaning that spring flowers are promoted whilst summer flowering plants are excluded. We’re interested in establishing a diverse sward that peaks in mid-summer, so July is the earliest cut. The factor that governs the rest of the year is a deeply practical one: I’m using a scythe and as a novice am rather slow about it, so a couple of cuts per year is about all I can spare time for. The second cut, made at some point in late summer, is the last bit of attention the meadow will get before winter closes in.
It may not be scientific but what emerges over time will be of interest in and of itself. As things stand, the grasses are still thick and strong, mining what is clearly a richly fertile soil – so in the long run we may be on a hiding to not very much. However, this is an easy disappointment to bear, if indeed one at all. For the grasses themselves, now in full flower, make a beautiful backdrop of their own to the burial ground: a tapestry of stalks and fronds in all heights and textures. Quite unlike the lowly green carpet their neighbours in the lawn are kept to, their different personalities are expressed in all their glory. My particular favourite is the smallest – a delicate tracery of seed heads frothing through the border like a murmuration of tiny starlings, Common Bent (Agrostis capillaris) is much prettier than its name suggests.
Then there’s the soft, flouncy heads of the Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus) and the rough sawtoothed Ryegrass (Lolium perenne), the bottle brushes of Timothy (Phleum pratense) and the graceful arching heads of Hairgrass (Deschampsia sp.)
But for me it’s the action of scything itself that is its own reward. There’s something tranquilising, even peaceable, about the rhythmic swinging of the blade, as the weight of the snath (the main length of the scythe) draw it firmly and – with practice – evenly through the sward. The feel and sound of the stroke, combined with the sense of bodily rhythm and control are themselves a meditation; the gradual, transformative progress through space lends purpose and satisfaction to the task. This is not an activity to be carried out in haste or anger – rather, with patience, concentration and a still mind. Tiring it may be but no sooner have I put the scythe away I’m looking forward to the late summer cut, when it’s year’s work will be completed.
It’s the big ticket sights that mostly draw flocks of tourists to the Dales – the spectacle of Malham Cove or Gordale Scar, the aloof majesty of the three peaks, the grandeur of Wharfedale… But for me the real charms of the area lie in the rich diversity of its everyday landscapes and the extraordinary lesser known places that for the most part are bypassed by the crowds.
Around 10 miles west of Airton, between the villages of Austwick and Feizor a craggy hillock rises unobtrusively from the plains below Ingleborough. At this time of year its flanks blush greenish blue as that most English of springtime scenes, the bluebell wood, reaches its annual climax. So, having been tipped off that the display is a superb one this year I head to Oxenber Wood on a spare afternoon hoping I haven’t already missed the show.
Oxenber and Wharfe Woods now clothe the former Austwick township quarry – a sort of stone larder used by the people of the village in the 19th century – also historically managed as wood pasture with coppicing. The combination of the limestone formation (often breaching the surface in the form of limestone pavements), this historic pasture management and its elevation above the surrounding intensive pasture has created a unique, species rich ecology now designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Marvellously, it’s also one which the public can enjoy via a good network of waymarked paths.
Entering the wood by one of these narrow, steeply climbing dirt tracks is like crossing the threshold between two worlds, swapping the simplified ecology of the grazed field for a much more complex environment, full of niches and hollows filled with uncountable variants of plants and animals. It’s not quite wild – ongoing light management prevents that and for good reason, as occasional grazing and coppicing ensure there is sufficient year-round light for rare ground-flora to survive. But there’s enough wilderness about it for nature to function as nature does.
The wild is nature’s cauldron, where species mingle, adapt and evolve. In the fertile open spaces, variation flourishes whilst in the difficult marginal niches, differences are exploited and particular characteristics promoted. Cast a brief glance over this woodland, perched on a rocky hillside with stones breaching the surface everywhere, and you’ll see a reserve of biodiversity, not just of different species but within the same recognisable species – tall / short, deeply coloured / pale, robust / slender… Here are plants rarely seen elsewhere and new to my eyes; there a solitary bee in unfamiliar livery. Here a splendid orchid; there a crab apple in fabulous blossom. In short, this is a thrumming pool of genetic diversity, all too small on its own but potentially contributing ecological resilience to a wider network of similar places and between them to the landscape in general. For however sophisticated our technological approach to landscape and agriculture, its resilience still depends upon the ecosystems services provided by species found only in the natural world. Imperil them and we imperil ourselves.
In the world of ecology, distinctiveness matters, because the interrelationships that make a habitat tick are finely tuned to the special characteristics of the organisms that have co-adapted in it; and because introduced varieties of the same species found locally but with dominant habits both disrupt those interrelationships and reduce the overall genetic diversity of a species. That reduces the resilience of the species to pests and diseases, in turn undermining the resilience of the habitat and ultimately that of the bigger ecosystem in which we live known as planet Earth.
That’s one reason why these almost-wild places are so precious. Another is the sheer sensory delight and refreshment they give, free of charge, to anyone who seeks them out. This season’s special gift is the abundance of colour fizzing from the lush energetic new growth of the woodland floor. As I wander, my eye is caught by all kinds of spring flower – creamy primroses and sulphur cowslips, wild garlic, dog’s mercury, cow parsley, cuckoo flower and speedwell. But the monarch of the spring, sweeping all before its enveloping train is the bluebell. Their slender, graceful stalks and nodding, dark bells seem to cover every patch of ground. Here but for a moment, they paint the hillside in regal livery, commanding attention to some wordless ceremony and are gone. They and their admiring public will be back to relive the scene next year. Until then we must content ourselves with memory.
I don’t make new year resolutions just as I try not to make false promises… But a spectacular walk up Buckden Pike on Christmas Eve had me determining to get out onto the hills more, by foot or on bike, however full or empty the inbox is. Walking in particular isn’t just exercise for the body – some of my best ideas occur to me on a good walk, as though the rhythmic tread helps to straighten out the thoughts into usable strands, in a similar way perhaps to the effect of a good night’s sleep.
So this week I took the bike for its first spin of the year, heading up beyond the Cove to the bridleway across to Arncliffe. It’s a bright, cold day and the going is mostly dry except for a few muddy and frozen puddles around field gates, so all’s set for a modestly challenging, if more often leisurely, cross-country ride.
I’m less than a mile out from the Malham Tarn road when disaster strikes: a sharp click and suddenly I lose all traction and come to an ungainly stop. Looking down I see the chain trailing uselessly behind the bike, snapped clean into a single string. I knew I should have replaced it weeks ago…
There’s nothing for it but to trudge back along my route and ponder the perils of procrastination – but not before enjoying a chilly picnic lunch by the shore of the Tarn, which is looking decidedly plumper and blue than the last time I wandered this way (see this blog for 16th July). May as well, since I’m in the neighbourhood.
The incident calls to mind a similar occurrence from a few years ago.
When travelling in south-west China I once hired a bike for a day’s exploration around temples and villages. Towards the middle of the afternoon just as I was pulling up the first hill of the day the chain gave out and with only a couple of hours before needing to re-join my group I had 15k to cover with only my feet and gravity to keep the show on the road. I tried thumbing lifts from passing open-backed vans but to no avail. Still, gliding downhill at a leisurely pace without the turning of pedals or the background whirring of gear wheels is about the most relaxing way to travel I know.
I remember this as I roll over the undulating road from the Tarn back to Malham and feel a certain kinship with people getting around on bikes the other end of the continent and the rest of the world for that matter.
And I put aside my plans to ride the bridleway to Arncliffe for later in the year. After all, had the chain snapped nearer to the furthest point of the trip, I’d have been walking home well into the night – something that would be much more enjoyable on a summer’s evening. Now there’s a pleasant thought for a cold day in January…
Last week someone handed me a Christmas card whilst almost apologetically commenting that he didn’t know whether ‘your lot’ do Christmas but ‘here you go anyway’. My lot being Quakers. Well, yes and no…
It’s true that just as Quaker meetings in the don’t normally involve symbols or set prayers, they also generally don’t feature the marking of any festivals or saints days. Today this is justified by appeals to our ‘testimony’ of simplicity; but its origins lie in the rebellious nature of the Quaker movement in the context of the religious turbulence of 17th century England. One of many ‘diy’ congregational societies formed at the time, its members sought a means of exploring their faith away from the authoritarian oversight of ministers and the trappings and layers of church traditions. In doing so, groups like the Quakers saw themselves as ‘friends of the truth’ and set about forming an understanding of Christianity drawn from what they read in scripture enlightened by their own insights. When it came to the question of festivals and Christmas, seeing no basis for the annual celebration of Jesus’ birth on a particular day in winter, they simply abandoned the idea as a religious prospect.
So this sense of detachment from the significance of particular times and seasons is written into the DNA of Quaker worship and, for many Quakers over the years, interpreted strictly in their daily life as well. But it would be incorrect to characterise contemporary Quakers as puritan, and I’ve certainly never met any who are immune to the Christmas spirit, or the comings and goings of times and seasons throughout the year. Far from it: we might not decorate our Meeting Houses but you might find a ‘programmed’ Meeting for Worship here and there where the odd carol is sung, mince pies are enjoyed afterwards and yes, Christmas cards exchanged.
So what is the deal with Quakers and Christmas (and Easter, and any other national holidays)? I can’t speak for every Quaker but the way I see it is this. Festivals are a way for us all to unwind, celebrate each other, pause for breath, look back on our achievements and any number of other good and socially necessary things. It just so happens that our major winter festival got wound up with the celebration of the nativity and became a time when the church focusses on Jesus’ birth; and the fact that this still permeates the secular celebration of Christmas is testament to the power of the story at its heart.
I see no reason to turn away from the telling and retelling of that story at this time of year; but to be conscious of the distance between the way in which it is commonly told and the likely facts of its origins or the implications of its message. It doesn’t matter when Jesus was born. It does matter that the narratives we have in the gospels have him born into an ordinary family of no status or wealth, outsiders far from home, with the birth being announced first to shepherds – workers doing one of the least respectable jobs available at the time. It matters that the next people to notice were foreign travellers, looking for meaning in cultures beyond their own and seeking the common ground between those cultures. The inference is clear: what follows in the life of this remarkable human is a message for all people of whatever rank or background. Whether we’re interested in that message and what we make of it is up to us – and our conclusions are for life, not just for Christmas.