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!
The following open letter was sent to Julian Smith MP shortly after the election in December and subsequently published in the Craven Herald under the curious title ‘I have questions for our re-elected MP’. These are not questions; they’re instructions – delivered from an electorate that has shown itself far ahead of the government in its concern about climate change.
Dear Mr. Smith
I note your success in securing re-election as the parliamentary member for Skipton and Ripon and write to offer some thoughts on the direction of the government of which you are now a part.
I’ve no doubt that you’re a hardworking, dedicated constituency MP and I’ve appreciated your willingness to engage with constituents’ concerns and respond to questions, often in some detail. You clearly also have the political support of the majority in this constituency.
The same may not however be said of your party with respect to the national picture. The vagaries of our system of democracy invariably deliver governments elected on a minority of the popular vote and the 2019 election is no exception. Under normal circumstances, those of a different view can hope that balance will be maintained by a swing towards their preferred choice at the next opportunity. Voters at least have the opportunity to participate in that uncertain and unequal process.
These are not, however, normal circumstances. We’re facing a global crisis of unprecedented proportions, in the face of which action of unprecedented range and rapidity is required. That challenge is the climate emergency, confirmed as a political priority for the UK in Theresa May’s last few days as Prime Minister.
The first duty of government is the security of the people, and climate instability threatens our security as surely as any other issue. Whether through coastal erosion due to rising sea levels, increased intensity of flooding events, pressures on food and energy production, increased vulnerability of international food systems, social breakdown in regions of the world most affected and the resource-driven conflicts that ensue, the UK is by no means immune to this, humanity’s greatest challenge.
Conversely, our economy – the sixth largest in the world – has often demonstrated its capacity for rapid change in the face of shifting global realities. We possess the capacity both to develop and benefit from new technologies, best practices and creative ideas in ways not always available to less developed economies. Our history as the cradle of the industrial revolution that seeded climate change is clear. It is our responsibility to lead the world in the creation of a carbon-free economy, supporting international efforts by disseminating these technologies and practices wherever they are relevant. The opportunities at home for a rejuvenated carbon-free economy and radically improved environment are immense. We may be already committed to achieving that by 2050; but the global target is unlikely to be met by all nations. Since we can act and change more rapidly, then we should.
Your party’s manifesto was notably light on ambition concerning the climate emergency, as evidenced in the analysis carried out by Friends of the Earth. Your leader showed his disinterest in the subject by refusing to attend the leaders’ debate focussed on the issue. Yet the majority of electors voted for parties with substantially more radical approaches to climate change.
There is no time to wait till the next election. The emergency is now. Tentative, baby steps will not do. Your government must lead – first by engaging with all positive ideas, including those put forward by your opponents, then by implementing a radical, holistic plan with as much urgency as is governmentally possible, testing every policy with respect to its climate impact.
Finally, although I disagree with your politics I wish you well in this term of office as MP and in whatever role the Prime Minister chooses to give you. I recognise your good intent and trust that intent will help you listen, reflect, challenge where needed and act in good faith. Your leader is patently fallible, appears utterly ill-equipped for his office and in need of guidance from wiser heads. If he wishes to speak credibly about ‘healing’, he must put aside mocking language, disrespect to minorities and derision towards those sections of the public whose commitment to social and environmental justice he finds inconvenient. Above all, he must speak truthfully. The government he leads and in which you serve must be the servant of the whole country, not just the minority which elected it. In the face of the urgent issues of our time, that is truer than it has ever been.
Landscape Architect, Quaker
Further information and resources
the UK’s response…
what we can do…