Finding the blue monarch of Spring

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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.

 

What has silence ever done for us?

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If people in general know anything about Quakers it’s that we tend to sit quietly a lot.  I mean, really quietly.  The recent, hilarious depiction of a Quaker Meeting on the BBC’s ‘Fleabag’ by genius comic writer-actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge sort of celebrates whilst gently teasing this quirk of Quaker worship, brilliantly showing how counter-cultural it is to sit in a room together not talking.

Silence heralds spring on a foggy Grimwith Reservoir in March

Silence is something in abundance in this part of the world – in the evenings, anyway – so much that sometimes the whole place can feel like one extended Quaker Meeting.  But listen hard and there are plenty of conversations going on: bird to bird, fox to fox; planes transmitting souls across the sky; climate and soil in the endless dance of life.  All players making themselves known, all asking questions, some receiving answers.  But apart from the ticking clock and the scuttle of fingers over a keyboard, my world is silent this evening.

For most people in our society, silence is in far shorter supply.  We’re bombarded with information, data, opinions, noise.  Things we must know, ideas we should follow.  The world says ‘Listen to me!  I know what you need, even if you don’t, and I have the answers!’  Except mostly it doesn’t.  Then it gets demanding: ‘Like me!  Decide what you think!  Make a choice!’  The only way to shut it out is to confront the wall of sound constantly bearing down on us by turning up our own volume – of speech, noise or music – making our own definitive statements, finding better arguments than the ones that are trying to win us over, or just bore us with their noisy irrelevance.

There would be more than enough of this noise if it only came from politics, work, fashion and entertainment; but into this cacophony steps religion – another voice, insisting on another set of beliefs, practices and choices.  So with the world in a state of confusion, as soon as someone enters a service of worship, they’re given yet another position to agree or disagree with above and beyond any ethical standpoint they might have formed on their own.  Lines are drawn and the question is asked ‘are you in or out – with us or not?’  Whilst valuable for some, for many people this extra layer of certainty is the turn off that stops them questioning at all.

Which is why I’ve come to appreciate the silence of Quaker Meetings more than any other aspect of Quaker life.  A natural fidget, it takes me a good while to get settled but once I’m in the space so to speak, I find the noise of my thoughts start to diminish, my petty concerns one by one unravel and my sense of appreciation increase – for the good things of life, for the hopes I carry and crucially, for the people in the room with me.

Occasionally, someone will share a thought they think might be useful for the others (something a bit more profound than ‘I think I’ll go home in November’ – funny as that was Phoebe!) and then the disturbance to one’s own thought processes becomes valuable in its own way; but often the silence continues for the whole hour.  And afterwards, calmer, happier, stronger I’m better able to articulate the things that need to be said, take part in the discussions that need to be had, act on what needs to be done.

So that’s why in my view, in times of social tension, political challenges, economic turmoil and ecological breakdown, the silence of Quaker Meetings might just be a radically important offering that Quakerism can make to society in general.  No doctrinal demands, no complex ritual practices, no hierarchical powerplay – just a space in time when everyone is equally valued, equally significant and equally eloquent.  A space into which all are welcome and from which all can exit equipped by silence to participate in the work that reconnects people with people and people with the universe we inhabit.

after the crowds – evening in lower Malhamdale

When walls need to fall

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The Yorkshire Dales wouldn’t be the same without its rustic drystone walls, winding alongside roads and trackways, zig-zagging precariously up improbable slopes, patchworking the landscape in patterns often indecipherable to the amateur eye.  Stone on stone, carefully placed and replaced generation after generation, until for some the need for the wall disappears and time undoes the years of labour, leaving a slowly dissolving trace on a hillside reclaiming its substance for itself.

Walls give us definition and function, within an otherwise unscripted landscape.  In the presence of walls we know where we stand and whether we’ve the right to stand there.  Before the enclosure acts of the 18th century, walls and hedges were less common; according to the late Oliver Rackham, historian of the British countryside, as many field boundaries being created between 1750 and 1850 as in the previous 500 years*.  Then the 20th century fell out of love with them, with hundreds of thousands of kilometres of hedgerow being grubbed up between the 1980s and the present day.

We may be less enamoured with the old materials for boundary-marking but the urge to define and defend boundaries seems stronger than ever in the present age.  And the walls and fences being erected around the world in the name of that definition are higher, less bridgeable and more aggressively defended than ever before.  From the convoluted security barrier winding through the Occupied Palestinian Territory of the West Bank cutting communities off from their farmland, neighbours and key transport routes; to the barbed wire migrant fences erected along the national borders of European countries in 2016; and the proposed wall-that-must-be-built for the United States to cower behind in apparent fear of the neighbouring states to the south – our love affair with national definition and protection from the other seems to grow in intensity the more we discover that in human terms there actually is no such thing as the ‘other’.

We’ve been here before of course – Berlin, Hadrian, the Great Wall of China: monuments to fear, control and yes to some extent the necessity of security.  But the reasons behind all historic walls have proved as transient as the people whose movement they sought to prevent.

I will always remember the reply of my Berliner host family in 1987 when, too young to know how little I knew, I asserted that all empires and governments fall, so the wall would eventually come down.  ‘No, this will never happen,’ they said.  Two years later I stood transfixed in front of the TV, tears streaming down my face as I watched a human wave break over the hideous structure, carve chunks from it and roar in triumph as they deprived it of all meaning.

 

And so we can again with the walls of our time – if we remember that the people on the other side of them are as perplexed, anxious, hopeful, loving, creative, determined and ordinary as we are. That starts with hearing their stories. When Leeds based Sound Company Choir visit us on Saturday 23rd February we’ve a chance to do just that. Come and listen at the walls – you might be surprised what you hear.

*The Illustrated History of the Countryside, Oliver Rackham / Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd 1994, p.81

The best laid plans…

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The three peaks from Buckden Pike

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…

it’s a no-chainer… nothing for it but to walk and roll home

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…

A blue day above the Tarn

 

Christmas every day

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This year’s Christmas tree (a Cob nut) and natural decorations from the garden…

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.

Room for more: let’s not turn inward

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Spend any time walking in the Dales and the frequently vaunted claim that ‘Britain is full’ can start to look faintly absurd.  Of course, it’s not as simple as that but even a cursory analysis of a map of these islands reveals that only a tiny proportion is built over, the rest being taken up with agricultural land and semi-natural wilderness.

The other side of the coin is of course that for the vast majority of people in the UK, their everyday experience is lived out in densely populated urban areas, using what seems increasingly creaky transport infrastructure to move between cheek-by-jowl homes, bustling workplaces and crowded shopping centres.

Then there’s the economic challenges preoccupying both government and households – skyrocketing house prices, high education fees, under-investment in public services.  It all seems like we’re barely coping as a nation.  Just about managing perhaps.

Yet the UK still boasts the fifth largest nominal GDP index in the world; and per head of population we have more financial resources than just about any medium sized country on the planet.  They’re a long way from being evenly distributed but that alone ought to give pause for thought about what ought to be possible for us to achieve as a nation.  It should surely be a matter of choice.

But something is wrong, and not just with the country’s economics.  While we’ve been mesmerised by government efforts to fix the deficit and arrange an orderly exit from the EU, a change of political culture has slipped by almost unnoticed: one which lays the responsibility for economic failings not at the door of those who manage the economy but at the poorest and most vulnerable in society.  One which identifies an idealised corpus of acceptable hardworking Brits around whose aspirations everything should be designed whilst casting the unemployed, homeless, long-term sick and immigrant as feckless and deserving of little or no support.

I want to tell you about someone I recently met.  Born in a Commonwealth country, she arrived in the UK legitimately with her parents fourteen years ago when her father was invited into a mid-management position by a UK employer.  The family established their life here, her and her siblings attended university (she took both an undergraduate degree and a masters) and she began to work.

After such a long time in this country, the UK is to all intents and purposes her home.  She has no ties to her country of origin, little understanding of how to get by there and no prospects of employment.  Yet recently owing to a technical change to her father’s visa, all of his children were served notice to quit the country and their right to work was rescinded.  Naturally they each appealed but with mixed success.  In the case of my friend, she was told earlier this year by the presiding judge that although he agreed that she ought to be allowed to stay, he had no choice but to refuse her leave to remain.

A few weeks later, on a routine visit to a reporting centre, she was detained, her mobile phone removed from her and she was locked in a cold room for several hours with no access to food or drink.  She was searched, bullied and threatened with immediate deportation.  Mercifully, she had been quick-thinking enough to send a panicked text to her parents before her phone was taken, so they contacted her lawyer and were able to put a stop on proceedings.  But the incident left her terrified, convinced that she will be plucked from her home and sent to a country of which she no longer has any meaningful understanding.

This is the outworking of the ‘hostile environment’: a brutal, inhumane system designed to purge the country of anyone who doesn’t fit the precise criteria that the Home Office see fit to impose on our national hospitality.  It is cruel, mean and scandalous.

This is not the Britain I recognise, care for or am proud of.  My country is one – has always been one – that welcomes guests, celebrates diversity and enables meaningful integration between cultures.  It’s a nation that stands up for, not persecutes the weak.  It’s a country that knows how much there is to gain from engaging the skills, energies and aspirations of people from all around the world.  Finally, it could be one that takes responsibility for its past misdemeanours in the form of empire to offer mutually supportive relationships with parts of the world that need assistance with their economic development.

Could be, but as things stand, the UK seems to be disappearing in a hall of mirrors of its own making, turning inward, jealously guarding its borders and baring its teeth to neighbours and friends, like a wounded, cornered beast.

The question is, how do we break our collective conscious out of this spiral of erosion and restore a more constructive, positive mindset?  I suggest by looking to the most vulnerable members of society – the homeless, long-term sick, elderly and yes, immigrants – and designing our administrative responses to their needs as humane, compassionate and adaptable to individual circumstance.  Not easy, and not without contradiction.  But please let’s dispense with nastiness, treat people with respect and never, ever, attempt to strip them of dignity just because they haven’t yet received their official welcome from the state.

The peace for which we all struggle

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Artwork by Quaker artist Cath Riley

In this centenary year of remembrance I had intended to create an impressive display of poppies grown on a patch of recently disturbed ground in the Meeting House gardens but for whatever reason they failed to appear.  Perhaps the seeds I scattered in the summer’s dry earth fell prey to birds and beasts before they had the chance to germinate.  Still, a handful that had grown up in one border persisted later than expected, almost to remembrance day itself, still blooming in late October.

Earlier this year a request by the mayor of Skipton to permit the inclusion of white poppies in the remembrance wreath to be laid this week was rejected by the town council’s finance and policy committee.  Using words such as ‘shocking’, ‘disrespectful’ and ‘pseudo-populist rubbish’, the committee’s Councillors blocked the mayor’s proposed gesture, intended in his words to recall the celebration of peace rather than victory at the end of the first world war.

As controversies go, differences of opinion about which poppy is appropriate to wear seems both tiresomely regular and, in my view, wholly unnecessary.  Created respectively in 1921 and 1933, the red and white poppies simply symbolise different aspects of remembrance – the first, honouring the courage and sacrifice of combatants; the second recalling all victims of war and calling for a culture of peace.  Each achieve further practical goals, the sale of the British Legion’s red poppies funding support for injured veterans and the families of military casualties, whilst the white funds the Peace Pledge Union’s promotion of ‘non-violent approaches to conflict and challenging militarism’.

white poppies available in Airton Friends Meeting House

These goals need not be mutually exclusive.  Whilst it’s true that by the 1930’s the originators of the white poppy, the Women’s Co-operative Guild, felt that the red had become associated with a growing militarisation of Remembrance events rather than a symbol of peace, 80 years on the context in which we remember both the 1914-18 war and all subsequent conflicts has altered radically, calling for and de facto resulting in new understandings and perspectives on what remembrance can mean.  On the one hand, historic detachment from the events of a century ago makes it easy to forget the intentions of those who devised the first acts of remembrance – who constructed what they termed ‘peace memorials’, not war memorials as later re-expressed.  On the other, the diversity of our present-day society, the growing depth of experience in non-violence and peace-building and conversely the support for arms exports by governments as a key component of our economy, mean that there must be room for acts of remembrance challenging political orthodoxies that lead to bloodshed, whether suffered by combatants or civilians.

Many people, myself included, want to support both causes – help for those who have made bitter sacrifices on our behalf; and challenge to the validity of the political decisions that placed them in harm’s way.  But this is also not the only possible perspective.  Whether one or more poppies are worn is an act of individual conscience and the decision to wear the red in particular is a gesture of charity.  To make either a matter of uniform is to remove volition and ultimately the value of this gesture.  Further, a refusal to accept the validity of this choice undermines the very freedoms that those who struggle through war, in whatever capacity, believed they were fighting for.  Finally, to condemn another person’s means of honouring the dead of war as ‘disrespectful’, hence refusing to afford that person and any holding a different view to one’s own the same dignity claimed for another group, could itself be considered disrespectful in the extreme.

If we are unable to cope with the presentation of two colours of poppy in a wreath intended to express the response of our whole society to the losses incurred in war then the gesture is an impoverished one, sad, monochrome and unrepresentative of who we are and of what modern Britain has always been: democratic, politically diverse and above all a country in which alternative expressions are not only tolerated but celebrated.

photo: Matthias Süßen via Wikimedia Commons