landscape

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

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

 

High and dry – a walk on Malham Moor

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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.

All out – not a drop in this pond…
…as compared to the norm!

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.

Sky lake

 

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.

Wolf’s Bane, Monkshood or Aconite – the bluest flower in the July forest

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…

Unique wetland – a quiet jewel

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.

Devil’s Bit Scabious

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.

Feed the birds? That’s just the start…

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©Francis C. Franklin, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37675470

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.

Space for nature – leaving wildflowers to flourish in the burial ground

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