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’.
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.
When I arrived in Airton 2 years ago complete with a brace of young Bramley apple grafts ready to plant where I could find space, doubt was expressed that they would ever produce much of a harvest this far north. Still waiting in their pots, it’ll certainly be a few years before they have the chance to prove their doubters wrong; but if the bumper crop from a neighbour’s Bramley after this year’s long hot summer is anything to judge by I’ll have nothing to worry about.
It’s definitely a mast year for fruit: apples, plums, berries of all kinds seem to be pouring out of the trees faster than their proprietors can sweep them up. I spent a day last week scrambling around in the branches of the aforementioned Bramley twisting handfuls of emerald spheres off drooping twigs, the boughs almost sighing in relief as perhaps a third of a tonne of weight was taken off them. (That’s an educated estimate – six large crates easily equivalent to most of a m3 dumpy-bag at a material density of around 830kg/m3 or allowing for air assuming apples are roughly spherical hence don’t tesselate, maybe 400-500kg/m3 stacked, times by say ¾m3 for the actual quantity picked gets you to about 350kg). So numerous was the crop I started to form the delirious impression that the branches were growing new fruit whenever I looked away…
It was a scene from my childhood. Growing up in a mid-size semi-detached with a garden of what used to be standard proportions (sadly rare to non-existent for newer housing estates) one of my favourite features – indeed as far as I was concerned the only interesting feature of the garden – was the apple tree: a remnant of some long-forgotten orchard supplying the kitchens of the long defunct estate, broken up and sold to the city early last century when the local gentry’s fortunes fizzled out. Neglected, the tree grew with a Bramley’s customary vigour till it filled the top end of the garden, stretching its boughs from fence to fence and thrusting branches skyward so that by the time we colonised the garden in the mid-70s it rivalled the house in the volume of space it occupied. When the old garden appears in my dreams from time to time it’s always with a version of this gnarled old bent-bottle tree stooping low over the lawn and seeming to offer the choice between climbing it or felling it.
Climbing as far into its upper reaches as I dared was the highlight of the year – usually somewhat later than the end of August, but this year’s extreme summer has brought everything on early – tossing the blushing green spheres to my dad on the ground, filling bag after bag, dropping the odd one or ten, so that half of them would end up bruised or cut by whatever broke their fall. It might go into a second day… and then was the sorting into best’ns for keeping, good’ns for using soon, damaged or moth-eaten for this week and no-hopers for the compost. After that the wrapping in newspaper, laying in shallow cardboard boxes and stashing in the attic. Then for the next several months it would be my job to fetch the next few for that week’s culinary creation till the supply finally ran dry early in the year. Sometimes in the dark of the attic my hand would rest on something softer than a healthy fruit – a ball of speckled brown mould where once was an apple. I didn’t mind: the promise of the crumble or apple sponge to come would make any such jeopardy worthwhile.
I took scions from the old tree before it finally gave out to heart-rot, grafting a handful of new offspring, giving them to family in various parts of the country. Then again a few years ago from the one I kept and had planted in my own garden. It’s these grandchildren of my old Bramley that now sit in air pots waiting for their chance to put roots down in our northern soil. They will be smaller – I used M26 rootstocks this time (the smallest I dare for this variety of apple) but after this year’s abundance I’m confident they will eventually produce a good crop between them.
At the time I was first hoiking myself up into that old tree I would have had no other thought than ‘this is fun’. But in retrospect the years of harvest in that garden gave so much more than arboreal adventure and apples – it was this urban kid’s first and most important connection with the abundance that can come from partnership with the natural world. Without that tree I mightn’t have half the passion for nature that I do now nor as a consequence, the same understanding of our role as components within ecosystems, interacting with all other components for better or worse. We don’t own the world; we don’t even own the trees in our gardens – but we do own the way we manage them, how we celebrate them and what we do with their abundance. So here’s to Bramleys, long summers and apple pies!
High summer and after several weeks with barely a spot of rain, the dales landscape is beginning to look like a garden party where the drinks are running out. Fields that would normally be a verdant green are as beige as the high chapperal, sheep gnawing at the tufty, unappetising sward. Hedgerows sport withered skirts of wilted wildflowers; even some of the trees – the first to the water table with their big root systems – are looking a bit nonplussed, new growth flopping like handkerchiefs off some of the twiggier stems.
A troupe of walkers stopping by at the Meeting House excitedly report that ‘Janet’s Fosse is bone dry’, so I decide to investigate, hoping to get a closer look than usual. Setting off mid-morning it’s already hot enough to have forced a fellow rambler into the shade, and an Australian to boot, sitting on the ground under a spreading sycamore (or something). Here to walk the length of the country for charity, they had packed for English weather and they ruefully tell me, have somewhat more to carry as a result than now seems reasonable. I wish them well and offer a donation – cash, not more clothes. Obviously.
Janet’s Fosse is dry, though not to the bone – a dribble tumbles reluctantly over the tufa, supplying a much diminished splash pool – but I can stand on dry ground in the centre of what is normally a substantial, turbulent pond, perhaps a metre below where its surface would have been the last time I was here.
Gordale is even drier, nothing but a school party clinging to the rock face. I’m able to scamper up rocks that are normally drenched in a thundering cataract without a second thought, and onwards towards Malham Moor.
On this walk, I want to explore the high ground behind Malham Tarn, so I divert along the bridleway to Arncliffe through Great Close just as far as Back Pasture Hill, from where there’s a stunning view back towards Gordale and beyond to the slopes above the lower Aire Valley. Getting off the beaten track is worthwhile on its own merits for the peace and quiet and the chance to see a different view but turning back towards the Tarn, this little diversion comes with the added bonus of the sight of the lake still as a millpond, reflecting the marbled clouds so perfectly that approaching from above, the water’s surface might be mistaken for the sky itself, filling the frame around the silhouettes of trees.
Into the woods around the Tarn, the temperature drops by at least 10 degrees and everything is green – except for a stand of sapphire-blue Aconites in full flush. It’s one of the things woodland does incredibly well: moderating extremes of temperature and humidity.
The contrast with the grazed moorland couldn’t be more stark and I’m led to wonder whether without our continued intervention along existing lines, these upland landscapes would ultimately revert to a patchwork of moors, meres, mosses and forest, and would be far more resilient as a result. Woods and wetlands intercept and retain vast quantities of moisture (reducing flooding in lowland areas), effortlessly support an incredible diversity of species, and – if managed forestry is also part of the mix – provide timber, fuel, fibre and food in variety. If only we had an opportunity to amend the systems of regulation, subsidy and cultural convention that define what we understand by the ‘Yorkshire Dales’ (other similar upland landscapes are available) I wonder what might be restored in these landscapes…
The furthest point of my walk before looping back towards Malhamdale is the Tarn Moss – a nature reserve within a nature reserve, comprising a peat bog on the fringes of the tarn, access to which is via a sinuous boardwalk path.
Flat and damp even after the drought, this intricate habitat sports a plethora of rare and common species and is currently bedecked in the emerging florets of Meadowsweet flowers and studded with Ragged Robin and Devil’s Bit Scabious flowers, each it seems being visited by its own personal fly.
It’s a long walk back to Airton but mostly downhill and I’m in no hurry. Passing by Malham Cove on the way feels like a happy obligation to an old friend – I don’t think I’ll ever tire of visiting it, whatever the weather.
Nine years ago today I nearly came a cropper in a freak accident on the road – freak mostly because of my extraordinary luck in escaping my upturned car with barely a scratch, considering the number of trees and roadsigns that might have brought the vehicle to a sudden and deadly stop instead of the relatively soft hedge that was the final resting point. I had bounced off a 4×4 that had pulled into the road too soon causing my small car to flip over against the kerb and send vehicle and driver spinning through the air in a state of shock and bewilderment.
These events are traumatic but can have meaning if we want them to. For me, my immediate realisation that I needn’t replace the car, since my living situation didn’t demand one was a huge relief. Over time, however – and quite a short space of time – something much more significant dawned on me. This event could be a turning point: a chance to reappraise my life, stop taking it for granted and above all stop waiting it out with no direction, no hopes and no sense of what I wanted to achieve.
It was then that I stumbled across my local Quaker Meeting. I had long since stopped attending churches through lack of interest in most of the ideas and traditions they appeared to represent (although I’ve a somewhat more rounded view now). In the silent hour’s meeting which I approached with some trepidation – not to say scepticism – I found an astonishing centredness that helped me both consider my own condition and turn outwards to the world. No longer did any particular belief system, rituals or traditions matter: only the unquestioning acceptance and openness of the circle of people in the room, whose individual ideas, longings and preferences could co-exist without hierarchy or favour. It was a revelation.
But the aspect of Quaker culture that spoke to me most profoundly and still speaks to me today was the idea that we should ‘live adventurously’. That I take to mean in its most complete sense – not the self-gratifying pursuit of exploration and thrills (though there’s nothing inherently wrong in a bit of that); instead owning the sense that if life has a purpose it is to be lived: to explore, yes, and to discover, but also to answer need, become vulnerable, build without knowing whether what you build will last, plant without knowing the tree will grow, express oneself creatively without needing the approbation of others, and to experience the marvellous in the colours, sounds, touch and smells of every day.
I often forget all of that. Fortunate then to live in a part of the world where I only need to step outside to be reminded of the glorious brilliance of being alive – and in the very spot that people have practised that consciousness for hundreds of years in the shape of the Quaker meeting and its predecessor dissident groups that first met here in the ‘barn in a field’ when that simple act was considered by the rest of society to be seditious and wrong.
So I thank that other driver – and the hundreds of people I’ve been inspired by to live adventurously over the intervening years – for giving me an entirely fresh perspective on life and above all, countless reasons to live it to the full.
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.