landscape

Noisy Spring

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Song Thrush (photo Simon Chinnery, Creative Commons BY-SA)

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 one morning – sunrise over the burial ground

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!

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