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.
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.
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..?
Spring is at last well under way as Malhamdale glistens like a many faceted jewel. Is it me or is the sunlight somehow cleaner than it’s been for months; cleaner here than anywhere else I’ve lived?
I say ‘at last’ as it seems to me in my impatience that my sowings and plantings are taking their time this year. Moving north by 150 miles last autumn I should of course expect things to wake up more cautiously in this part of the world although weren’t those crocuses on display just as soon as in my home in the midlands? The ‘early’ potatoes are particularly slow; in spite of weeks chitting followed by weeks in the soil, pre-enriched and pre-warmed under black cover, not a single shoot is emerging. Broad beans are almost as shy. I’ve all but given up on some shrubs and herbaceous perennials completely; but at least the Hostas in the bog garden I made after Christmas are sending up determined spears and will soon make a great show of leaves – if the slugs don’t stop them.
I shouldn’t be so impatient but that’s the kind of gardener I am: I want to be out making things happen to my timetable, testing nature’s boundaries with schemes to warm things up, catch the light, beat the pests, put on a show. Nature, on the other hand, is quite happy with its own plan. The scattering of flowers growing around the Meeting House without any intervention from me is proof of that. Best be guided by its schedule rather than trying to control everything; grow what wants to grow when it wants to grow and not what doesn’t even if it’s feasible with large amounts of energy and inputs to force it. That doesn’t stop tinkering of course. In fact, it’s almost the first thing to do in a new place – otherwise how do you find out what will work?
One of the most useful pieces of advice from the world of permaculture is to ‘observe and interact’. Both are crucial to discovering how to work with any particular environment. We need to watch what happens naturally, then watch what happens if we move a pebble to know if moving pebbles is a good idea. All very scientific and all quite challenging for impatient types like me.
It doesn’t just go for gardens either. Leaders of any description do well to wait a while before suggesting any changes to the way their teams, groups or movements go about things. And in everyday life, moving to a new place prompts a great deal of finding out about how things tick, the better to find one’s place in the community.
What’s more, observing and interacting don’t need to stop; in fact they should never stop if we’re to be successful gardeners, group members, creatives, people. Why? Because like it or not, things evolve. We only need to look at the state of the world in 2017 to verify that.