The other day I received an envoy from nature. Small and mostly blue, the diminutive bird caught my attention as I sat at breakfast looking out over the patch of weedy garden in front of the Nook. Normally a Blue Tit would disappear at the first sign of anything moving in the shadows; but this one was hopping about on the windowsill, practically pecking the glass in what looked very much like an attempt to get noticed.
It’s not the first time this has happened. A few years ago, at my previous home, a Blackbird raised my attention at the kitchen window in much the same way. Different species, different place; but in both cases the bird feeder that I normally filled regularly was empty. Although I resist the human tendency to anthropomorphise everything, in both cases it was tempting to conclude that I was being instructed to rectify the omission, and promptly…
Amusing as that thought is, there’s something deeper worth examining in what the apparent demands of a couple of wild birds might say about our relationship with nature. We’re increasingly aware (I hope) of the toll that industrialised human activity is taking on the natural world – not least through the issue of plastic in the oceans so eloquently exposed in the BBC’s Blue Planet II but also in deforestation, species loss and of course, the spectre of climate change to name a few pressing matters. But these are only the latest manifestations of the impact that human society has had on the world. In fact, many thinkers draw clear lines between human advances from pre-history onwards and the loss at each stage of some of nature’s richness. The industrial revolution is perhaps the first time these impacts become blatantly obvious but the message is, the rot set in right from the start of humanity’s long walk over the planet.
Of course, to leave it at that would be an over-simplistic analysis of human conduct, not least because it’s impossible to identify a ‘starting’ point in any species’ evolution. However, somewhere along the line, the dominant cultures of the world first detached themselves from, then set themselves above the natural world, defining roles for themselves at best as ‘stewards’, at worst as exploiting conquerors, with representatives of every gradation in between. The result is that everything about the contemporary industrialised way of life takes far more from the natural world than it can possibly return – in land, in water, minerals, clean air and even life itself.
There is another way to look at nature. We can start by deconstructing the idea that we should be in relationship to it en masse, as though humankind and nature were two categories of equivalent weight in some kind of equation. Instead, the reality is that the one entirely encompasses the other: humanity is a product of the natural world, entirely dependent upon it and in relationship, not with ‘it’ as a whole but with the hundreds of thousands of other species involved as well as the physical parameters of this spinning rock on which we all find ourselves. Ecological author and activist Tony Juniper puts it succinctly: ‘Economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of ecology’. In other words, everything we do (economy) is a subset of and relies upon the health of everything else that happens beyond the borders of human intervention (ecology).
The shift in thinking we need is one which enables us to act as though we are participators in that interdependent ecology rather than either exploiters or paternalistic supporters of it. Instead of attempting to create a zero sum gain of inputs and outputs – an impossibly complex equation – our aim can be to find pathways that reinforce rather than diminish the intricate relationships between ourselves and other components in nature’s web. We can start by asking ourselves what we really need to consume in order to thrive; then identifying where we can source those things in a way that supports rather than parasitises the relationships between other components of the natural world. Next we might fruitfully consider what makes for real wealth (as opposed to money and things). Finally, we could find ways to reuse and recycle materials essential to that ideal but which can’t be returned to nature at the end of their useful life.
Tossing a few seeds to feed a handful of garden birds might seem like a great gift but really it is nothing in comparison with what we cost the earth in every conceivable way every day of our lives. So when the Blackbird and Blue Tit come knocking on my window, the message isn’t just ‘please feed us’; it’s much stronger. What they are saying is ‘You owe us this and much more – don’t forget it.’ And I’m fine with that.
Some amazing reading…
Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari
What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? – Tony Juniper
The Great Work – Thomas Berry
Silent Spring – Rachel Carson
Agri-culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature – Jules Pretty
The Earth Care Manual – Patrick Whitefield
It’s said that the farther north you travel, the greater the quality of the light. Yorkshire may not be as far north as the regions to which that might normally be thought to apply but there are days when the slopes of Malhamdale seem washed in transparency, a cool light picking out every detail of the terrain and making a personality out of every hillside.
Catch a sunrise at Malham Cove and you’ll see the epitome of nature’s dance between sunlight and landscape, fire and earth. One morning, approaching the Cove just as the sun appeared I was treated to the spectacle of its great limestone face lit up like gold foil by near horizontal beams of light that also seemed to burnish the pastures on either side to a reddish yellow ochre.
The transformative power of light is a cultural constant, understood by people of every age and place both as something to be mimicked whilst at the same intangible, impossible to pin down. Faced with charges of blasphemy and sedition, early Quakers modified their talk of God being present in everyone, turning instead to light as a metaphor for the good they strove to identify in each other and in anyone with whom they interacted. More recently, it may be the generality of this concept of light as opposed to the adherence to specific religious terms that makes Quaker meetings comfortable places for people of any religion and none – in its liberal European manifestation at least.
But can the light concept be more than merely a cosy and convenient metaphor for good? For anyone attending a Quaker meeting for the first time (or even the hundredth!) the idea might seem a little abstract and ungrounded. Every now and then, however, I’m reminded of the power of an idea to transform the lived reality of people and the societies in which they live.
A few years ago, some work by Quaker Peace and Social Witness’ (QPSW) East Africa programme brought together the life stories of individuals who after undergoing unimaginably difficult experiences in conflict zones chose reconciliation over violence and reached out to their erstwhile enemies. Publishing the stories in exhibition and book form, QPSW titled the project after a description by one of the participants of what motivated her. ‘This light that pushes me’ is more than moving – reading the words of real people who have engaged in peace building under the most extreme of circumstances is itself transformative. The contributors’ portraits look straight out at the reader, ordinary people every one of them, willing us to identify the same capacity for courage and hope in ourselves as they were led to find in themselves.
In my own travels I’ve come across similar extremes of human reactions to conflict – most clearly for me in the West Bank, where from amongst people being systematically disempowered and dispossessed of their land I’ve met individuals who out of faith in the humanity they share with their enemies continually reach out across the gulf of competing interests and misunderstandings, making friendships and challenging the order imposed by the occupying authorities. We don’t hear these stories in the media, because by and large the media isn’t interested in light; but it’s not only in the factual sense that lack of positive narrative keeps us in the dark – it also tends to underscore natural pessimistic tendencies and lead us into a sense of hopelessness.
This is where I believe Quaker worship can help. I was reminded of this recently on a visit to the Woodbrooke Study Centre in Birmingham. In the large meeting room a stunning triptych hangs – an abstract by Adam Boulter, Anglican priest, titled ‘Dawn of Creation’. Not knowing that title I might have guessed the general theme but also might have kept guessing: the canvas is alive and fluid with almost tangible forms to which any number of meanings could be attributed. On that visit, during a period of silent worship I became so engrossed in the piece that it seemed to pulse with life. On the left is a darkish column – the sea perhaps – in which the dim image of a red circle floats under a pale sky. In the central, main panel, streaks of red and gold swirl across the ‘sky’ and mingle with the ‘sea’, churning it into a boiling mass of colour. The right-hand panel contains another circle, this time of white and from which strands of light trail across the view against a background of yellow and orange. Not knowing the title my musings on this extraordinary imagery were free to roam. What I saw was a kind of restitution: from stillness to movement; from entrapment to liberty; from despair to joy. And in every such interpretation the central panel was essential – far from moving straight from one state to its opposite, the transformation, wrought by light itself, was the location in which the viewer is poised, just as throughout life every person is in a state of continual transformation. The question of what kind of transformation we aspire to is the one we ask ourselves in the silence of a Quaker meeting; and what we’re seeking in that same space is a transformation of ourselves and society wrought by light.
Read more about ‘This Light that Pushes me’ here.
A better image of Adam Boulter’s original painting as well as more of his work can be seen at www.adamboulter.co.uk.
Drive, cycle or even take a leisurely walk through Airton and you could be under the impression this little settlement is no more than an extended hamlet, with just a few streets and occupied by houses more often than not with their backs to open fields. But small as it is, it was at some point considered large enough to have a place called ‘Town End’ attached to it; and although there’s never been a pub in the village and the post office closed a decade ago, the Town End Farm Shop and Café more than makes up for this by providing something of a local destination for residents and visitors alike.
Stocking both staples and artisan products, as well as local crafts and gifts, the farm shop is a destination of choice for discerning tourists staying in or passing through Airton – and is set to become better known still with the airing of ‘Best in Shop’ on BBC2 later this year: a documentary competition celebrating artisan food producers from Yorkshire and the North West. Chris Wildman, fifth generation Malhamdale butcher and owner of the farm shop and café, has been here before: a few years ago the venue appeared on Julia Bradbury’s ITV show Best Walks with a View.
Chris is passionate about promoting the local economy and protecting environment. The majority of products stocked at Town End are locally sourced and many others are artisan produced. Produce is sold in paper bags, not plastic carriers and wherever possible he looks for alternatives to palm oil in products on his shelves. The two key words are ‘story’ and ‘provenance’. For every product in the shop, the ideal is that there is a tangible narrative that can be traced back to its source. His own specialities, salumi and charcuterie, are derived from the family farm in upper Malhamdale, where Craven Longhorn cattle graze in a ‘pasture for life’ system designed to benefit both their health and that of the natural landscape.
For me visiting the café on a lazy afternoon is a treat; and it’s the view that steals the show. Everyone’s favourite spot is the couch in the corner with windows on two sides offering a panoramic view of the dale, finessed by the arching sweep of Malham Cove at its centre. And on a sunny day, the view from the terrace is even better. Any road, there’s no better way to appreciate the sight than over a hot drink and one of the freshly baked treats made on the premises and always served with a smile.
Looking back over the entries to this journal there’s a definite bias towards winter themes and more than a touch of appreciation for snowy scenery. If a reader had never visited Malhamdale they might have the impression that it’s by and large an icy wilderness populated by shivering sheep. Nothing could be further from the truth… in fact during a recent snowfall one long term resident told me it had be several years since snow had lain as thickly – although it used to be more of an annual event, the rules of climate change applying here in Airton as in the rest of the country…
There’s a simple explanation to my blogging more in the winter. It’s a time more than ever when the landscape I love to explore and write about seems to change faces from day to day with varying light levels, low sun angles, atmospheric moisture, and yes, the comings and goings of the snow. On the other hand, at this time of year the Barn is less busy, so whilst I enjoy the outdoors throughout the year, there’s more time in winter to write about it. Perhaps I hope to tempt a few more visitors to experience the magic of a Malhamdale winter! (Though unfortunately the daily changes in weather that make it so interesting for me mean that snow and frost can’t be guaranteed to ice the cake of a stay in Airton at any time of year.)
However, there’s more to my penchant for wintry walks and snowy tales than aesthetic appreciation or convenient timing. Winter might be the dog end of the year, with its gloomy, short days and brown, muddy fields but the annual stasis of the natural world is also a prompt to slow down and be a little less preoccupied myself. Just as the best ideas often come to people during sleep, the energies needed for the coming months can be gathered during winter. Deliberately taking the foot off the throttle a little can allow the germ of new things to emerge from the compost of what has gone before – interests, projects, even at times an entirely new direction. Of course, this doesn’t have to happen in winter, but the analogy is both convenient and resonant.
Here’s a new thing: with every winter’s day looking different here in the Dales, it’s not hard to understand the legendary proliferation of Innuit words for snow. I’ve counted at least 3 types only today… So I’ve looked a bit into whether ‘the Yorkshire Dialect’ (of which I know there are many variants) can make any similar claims. The result? The only word I can find for snow is ‘snah’. Now that seems remiss to me, so I’ve made an entirely unauthorised executive decision and would like to propose the following completely made up pseudo-dialetical words for the stuff in at least some of its forms:
frickle snow falling as light, dryish flecks
snarush snow falling in thick wet clumps of snowflakes
snamush the same but already half way to melting by the time they reach the ground
snawhit a blizzard – a proper white-out
frish snow like a grainy powder showing up the crevices in stone walls
frawp a dusting of snow on wet grass
frash a thin layer of wettish snow laying on top of partly thawed ice
freck a thin layer of cold, dry snow laying on top of an even colder layer of ice
squaff snow that squeaks under foot
flurrm* an impending snowfall that makes the sky look pinkish
flerrm* an impending snowfall that makes the sky look yellow
slurrm* an impending snowfall under a damp grey sky
drish snow that’s been chopped about and got riddled o’ dirt
snud compacted snow that’s been driven on
snadding a full blanket of snow on a damp overcast day
snidding a full blanket of snow lit up by sunshine (the best sort)
*In these examples, the double ‘r’ should be pronounced as a separate syllable.
[If ever any of these words get into regular use I’ll deny all knowledge. And just in case one person’s snow is another person’s rotten cabbage, the same goes if they just happen to coincide with obscenities in any existing language or dialect.]
Well, I’m glad I’ve got that out there. Now what were my jobs for the rest of January..?
It can be difficult to connect with situations outside of our immediate experience; more so to those in the past. But over the past six weeks, nine eloquent people have shared with four audiences their insights into one of the modern era’s most persistent yet poorly understood evils – that of slavery – and in doing so, have brought that connection within the grasp of everyone present.
When slavery first comes to my mind it’s often in the form of mental images of grotesque, overtly cruel masters issuing beatings to people wearing chains. A caricature based half on truth, half conjecture. However, disturbing as those images are, what’s more disturbing is that the perpetrators of this most extreme form of human exploitation were, and are, no less respectable than you or I. For much of modern history, until a frighteningly few generations ago, slave-owning was quite normal and acceptable within polite society; and the fact that it isn’t generally acceptable today simply means that the slavery that occurs does so in secret, or wrapped in layer upon layer of convenient complicity.
As I watched and listened to our contributors during our series ‘Abolishing Slavery – Then and Now’, it’s this question of complicity to which I kept returning. What was it that makes it possible for people within any available moral framework to agree that one person’s life should be circumscribed by another’s whims? That their origins, family and culture should be erased, to be replaced with the structures of control imposed by their ‘owner’? What in particular, enabled the Quaker movement to ignore this vicious crime for generations, even sanctioning participation in slave-owning until finally outlawing it within the Society in 1776? What, two centuries after the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, makes it possible for people to be trafficked, trapped and exploited within households and commonplace industries right under our noses in this country today?
We have much to acknowledge in our history that has been forgotten, perhaps wilfully. As Professor Marcus Rediker narrated in the fourth of our events, Quakers both in the UK and the American colonies of the mid-eighteenth century fought with one of their own – Benjamin Lay – for decades, barring and disowning him as a revolutionary troublemaker because of his tireless campaigning against slave-owning. Alone in society and amongst Friends, he and his wife Mary were perhaps the first abolitionists. Without their efforts there would have been no Clarkson, no Wilberforce; perhaps no abolition at all.
It was to Thomas Clarkson we turned in our second event, on 1st October, when Mike Casey and Arthur Pritchard, the duo known as Plain Quakers, dramatized his life and work in the abolition cause. Inspired by his research for his prize-winning Cambridge University essay on the slave-trade, he devoted his life to forensically uncovering the truth of the treatment of slaves, risking life and limb from hostile opposition in the process; and using his findings to galvanise public support for abolition.
But abolition was not all down to members of the slave-owning societies. Sometimes slaves themselves were instrumental in winning their own freedom. Our series was kicked off in style by a performance of ‘Meet the Crafts’: the dramatic retelling of William and Ellen Craft’s escape from slavery in Georgia in 1848, which was made possible because Ellen’s mixed heritage meant her light skin enabled her to disguise herself as William’s master. Joe Williams and Leah Francis of Heritage Corner Leeds breathed life into these largely forgotten heroes of their time: ordinary people facing the most difficult of circumstances yet proving the great courage and dignity of the human spirit.
That courage is no less needed today than at any time. 40 million people are bound in one or other form of modern slavery: from indentured labour to sexual exploitation; from forced marriage to organ harvesting. Here in the UK, exploitation of migrant labour by gangmasters operating in agriculture, the ‘beauty’ industry and car valeting. In 2016, nearly 4,000 potential victims were alerted to the UK’s National Referral Mechanism – an increase of 17% on the previous year. But because of slavery’s hidden nature, the actual numbers are likely to be far higher – estimates place the real figure around 13,000.
On 15th October we heard one person’s harrowing story of domestic servitude and narrow escape. We heard from Andrew Clark how Anti-Slavery International are highlighting and tackling modern slavery in all its forms. Cristina Talens of the Wilberforce Institute explained the scenarios she encounters when trying to help businesses identify and monitor how their activities and supply chains rely upon modern slavery. Sheila Mosley of Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network drew the connection between the absence of safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to Europe and their vulnerability to enslavement during the trafficking process.
It left me shocked and saddened but not surprised. Just as slavery in many forms is a constant blight on all societies, so are the worst facets of human nature. But just as legalised slavery was abolished, so can our society work to abolish the slavery of our time. If this seems too big a problem for individuals to deal with, we can take heart from the fact that numerous competent organisations are committed to bringing about change. So the question is not ‘what on earth we can do about slavery?’; it is ‘what will it take to make us act?’
Some organisations addressing modern slavery through campaigns and victim support:
Government guidance and data on modern slavery:
Quaker organisations concerned with slavery or related issues:
Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network – http://www.qarn.org.uk/homepage/about/
Quaker Peace and Social Witness – https://www.quaker.org.uk/our-work/social-justice/migration
About Marcus Rediker’s book:
To view or pick up information and resources about modern slavery, get in touch with the Friend in Residence to arrange a time to drop in.
Our thanks to all our contributors during the series.
On four Sunday afternoons from mid-September to late October this year, Airton Friends will be hosting a series of moving and informative events exploring the lives both of people experiencing slavery and those who worked towards it abolition, sometimes in spectacular fashion. However, whilst abolition may have been a great historic achievement, it’s work is far from finished, as we will hear from speakers later in the series.
The events begin on September 17th with a performance by Leeds Heritage Corner (http://heritagecornerleeds.wixsite.com/heritage-corner) of Meet the Crafts – a two handed play based on the biographical work Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom by escaped slave William Craft, published in 1860 by William Tweedie of London. This harrowing story charts the flight of William and Ellen from slavery in the southern US, passage across the Atlantic and their reception in this country. 150 years after publication, the written narrative, available online at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/craft/craft.html, is as gripping as any contemporary adventure, all the more intense through its being the real story of a man and woman struggling for freedom. Meet the Crafts brings this story back to life as well as giving voice to other transatlantic voices of the time.
On October 1st, we explore the life of Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) in a dramatised reading by Arthur Pritchard and Mike Casey of Plain Quakers Theatre Projects (PQTP). In Nine Parts a Quaker – Unfinished Business, the duo ask ‘If slavery was abolished in the nineteenth century, why are more than 20 million people enslaved today?’ The title refers to the fact that Clarkson was a sympathiser to Quaker values but was not himself a Quaker – an apt reminder that movements for change are most effective as coalitions rather than as single interest groups. Follow PQTP on twitter @PlainQuakers.
The third event is part answer to the question posed by Nine Parts a Quaker. Returning to the present day, in Here and Now, we will hear short talks and engage in discussion about contemporary slavery with contributions from someone who has experienced the sharp end of trafficking and domestic servitude; a former chair of Anti-Slavery International Andrew Clark; Cristina Talens of the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation (University of Hull); and Sheila Mosley of Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network. Between them, these four speakers will shed light on the continued persistence of slavery both internationally and within the UK. Abolitionists faced the challenges of their time with courage and determination; facing present reality is the beginning of change – so if you can only make one event in this series, this is the one to attend.
In the final event of the series, on October 29th, we travel back three centuries to explore the life and times of abolitionist Benjamin Lay (1682-1759). Despite his small stature, he worked as a sailor, travelling to Barbados, where he was appalled by slavery. Arriving in Philadelphia – where many of his fellow Quakers owned slaves – he provoked and annoyed them with incessant and sometimes extravagant campaigning, eventually being disowned by the Quaker meeting. Yet his protests inspired subsequent Quaker abolitionists Anthony Benezet and John Woolman, helping to turn the movement wholesale against slavery. This story will be unfolded for us by historian Marcus Rediker of the University of Pittsburgh, with an illustrated talk based on his book The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist (Beacon Press/Verso, 2017).
We warmly invite you to join us at any or all of these events. Each begins at 3.30pm. Entrance will be free and a collection will be taken to cover costs, with the surplus donated to a relevant charity by Airton Friends Meeting.
Keep updated over the next few weeks by visiting this site, including our news page.
Simon Watkins and Laurel Phillipson, 17th July 2017.