A walk in this part of the world is a reminder of two apparently contradictory things: the extraordinary impact of human society in the spaces it occupies and the fragile thinness of the landscapes that result.
A ‘landscape’ has long been understood as something difficult to define – its character, quality and boundaries all dependent upon perception, hence inevitably read and experienced differently by each person who encounters it. What is common in definitions of the term is the truth that landscape in general is the result of interaction between natural and human forces. This is as clear in Malhamdale as anywhere.
Here the frenetic dance between nature’s will and human craft shapes everything. Here the very materials of human occupation seem to burst directly from the ground, while the spaces carved by ice, water and wind define the pattern of infrastructure and settlement. The resulting complexity experienced as ever-changing crazily segmented vistas is as bewildering as it is mesmerising.
The part of the picture that always moves me the most lies between the houses and roads nestled in the deep of the valley and the majestic crags and hilltops of its heights. In the ancient lynchets and stone walls we see the bones of a civilisation – our civilisation, apparently clinging by its fingernails to the surface of the earth.
In the past few years, the precariousness of the human-nature dance has become clear to most of us, as the human role in the dance becomes ever more dominant. The consuming fury of our civilisation is laying waste to ever greater areas, making life for all the other creatures in our interdependent web at best challenging, at worst impossible. Some have seen the Covid-19 pandemic itself as a direct result of that imbalance, arising as it did from the concentrated exploitation of wild animals for human gain – a sign of a broken relationship and an urgent call to healing. It is at very least a reminder that we scrape away the natural part of the landscape not only at its but our own peril.
The diagnosis may be clear but how should we respond? What new steps must we learn in the dance? Technological, practical ones yes, but I wonder if we are so entrenched in our ways and so addicted to gain that a far deeper change is required. To relearn how to relate to the rest of our natural family, we need to transform our whole selves. Instead of asking ourselves ‘how much can I get?’ we could ask ‘how much do I need?’ – and for this to be an authentic, critical analysis of need. Rather than saying ‘what do I have to give?’, we could say ‘how much can I share?’ – thinking not only of those around us but of all whose needs are not met. And where we’ve concentrated on satisfying the needs and desires of the day, however fairly we try to achieve that, it’s clear that we also need to pay forward from our present abundance into a future in which the pressures on resources may be even greater than they are today.
We can look to ideas and movements such as agroecology, permaculture, regenerative agriculture or transition towns to find practical responses to these questions – and the time is long overdue for those with power and influence to do so – but for really profound inner change I’ve found nothing more resonant and helpful than this mantra from the Jain faith, introduced in a talk I heard given by environmental teacher Satish Kumar:
I forgive all living beings on this earth
I beg forgiveness from all living beings
I cherish friendship with all living beings
I have animosity towards none.
A walk through any landscape with these words in the heart or on the lips is one that will transform at least one essential component of that landscape: yourself.
Nearly 60 years ago, biologist and journalist Rachel Carson expressed a growing unease about the deadening effects of the new artificial pesticides on wildlife and people in her seminal volume ‘Silent Spring’. The title of this book eloquently captured the tangible impact of the loss of bird life resulting from the use of these novel chemicals, the like of which the natural world was ill equipped to absorb. At the time, species after species in the US and Europe were suffering catastrophic declines – a fact whose cause she traced to the cocktail of chemicals being scattered across the landscape in the cause of productivity. The book faced huge opposition in the courts, funded by the agrochemical industry, but remained in publication and is still available today.
Were that the end of the story, we might be used by now to one silent spring after another. But the use of agrochemicals became regulated, DDT was banned and nature began to recover. Ironic then, that it’s the diversity, beauty and sheer volume of birdsong that has characterised one of the strangest springs in living memory, when it seems human activities, not nature’s sounds, have fallen silent, giving the floor to the birds for the first time in generations. Nature in her resilience, bounces back – our aptitude for destruction being partially effective but thankfully so far limited. Perhaps there’s as good a reason as any to stop whatever damage we’re doing now and turn our energies to finding ways of living as part of the natural world rather than enemies of it.
Early on an idyllic morning mid-May, I took my computer and microphone outdoors to capture what I could of the dawn chorus. At 4.30 I might have hoped to be in time to record the first chirrups of the day but I was late to the party. Sitting for half an hour against the wall of the Meeting House burial ground, I heard the chorus warm up and rise, song by song, to a crescendo of trilling, chirping and cawing – an orchestra eager to play out the drama of the morning.
It would be a travesty to waste time saying any more when nature has so much to say that has for so long been drowned by the mechanical noise of our day-to-day life. So at this point I’ll hand over to the players of the dawn chorus – the Robin and Wren, Song Thrush, Blackbird and Blue Tit, Crow, Jackdaw and Pheasant, along with a host of other soloists. If you can pick them out, drop us a line!
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.
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.
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.
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.