‘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!

Memories recalled – Airton’s welcome then and now

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Saturday 28th September was a day of memories and reflection.  Our ‘Young Friends’ reunion brought together former guests who had spent many a magical weekend at Airton Friends Meeting House and Barn from the 1950s onwards.  Laying out fascinating old photos, they shared their stories of games by the river, muddy walks and evenings of camaraderie.
John Gilham recalls ‘…between 1995 and 2004 the young persons’ Link Group had an annual mountain-biking weekend at the Quaker “bunk barn” attached to Airton Meeting House. Conditions were Spartan, if not primitive, the cycling exhausting, exhilarating and incredibly muddy, yet many participated multiple times.

The barn had been stayed in by groups of, particularly, Young Friends since the 1950s but by 2005 was almost unusable, failing to comply with standards of health, hygiene and fire safety.  It was totally renovated and enlarged thanks to the efforts of local and regional Friends and re-opened in 2011.  On 28 September this year, Bone Jones and I attended a re-union of some of the people who had used the barn from the 1960s on.  What a contrast!  Clean, warm and spacious with modern kitchens well kitted out, comfortable-looking bunk beds and places to relax.  It can sleep up to 18 people in dormitory accommodation but also welcomes families to stay…

Of course, even more wonderful is the adjoining historic Meeting House, used for Quaker worship continuously since the early 1650s, always open.  Meeting for Worship on 2nd and 4th Sundays at 3pm.  And if that’s not enough there’s some of the most beautiful scenery in Yorkshire right on the doorstep!’

The evening gave a different take on recollection in the form of Debbie Cook’s wonderful rendition of two monologues from Alan Bennett’s canon of ‘Talking Heads’.  A feat of memory in itself, the performance brought two beautifully scripted characters to life and reminded a rapt audience why these pieces and their author are so warmly and widely loved.

Meadow making the low-tech way

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sward in need of a shave
Sward in need of a shave

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.

Agrostis capillaris
Common Bent – a constellation of seeds

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.

Holcus lanatus
All in a fog – a Yorkshire Fog

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.

job half done

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