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…
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.
Last week someone handed me a Christmas card whilst almost apologetically commenting that he didn’t know whether ‘your lot’ do Christmas but ‘here you go anyway’. My lot being Quakers. Well, yes and no…
It’s true that just as Quaker meetings in the don’t normally involve symbols or set prayers, they also generally don’t feature the marking of any festivals or saints days. Today this is justified by appeals to our ‘testimony’ of simplicity; but its origins lie in the rebellious nature of the Quaker movement in the context of the religious turbulence of 17th century England. One of many ‘diy’ congregational societies formed at the time, its members sought a means of exploring their faith away from the authoritarian oversight of ministers and the trappings and layers of church traditions. In doing so, groups like the Quakers saw themselves as ‘friends of the truth’ and set about forming an understanding of Christianity drawn from what they read in scripture enlightened by their own insights. When it came to the question of festivals and Christmas, seeing no basis for the annual celebration of Jesus’ birth on a particular day in winter, they simply abandoned the idea as a religious prospect.
So this sense of detachment from the significance of particular times and seasons is written into the DNA of Quaker worship and, for many Quakers over the years, interpreted strictly in their daily life as well. But it would be incorrect to characterise contemporary Quakers as puritan, and I’ve certainly never met any who are immune to the Christmas spirit, or the comings and goings of times and seasons throughout the year. Far from it: we might not decorate our Meeting Houses but you might find a ‘programmed’ Meeting for Worship here and there where the odd carol is sung, mince pies are enjoyed afterwards and yes, Christmas cards exchanged.
So what is the deal with Quakers and Christmas (and Easter, and any other national holidays)? I can’t speak for every Quaker but the way I see it is this. Festivals are a way for us all to unwind, celebrate each other, pause for breath, look back on our achievements and any number of other good and socially necessary things. It just so happens that our major winter festival got wound up with the celebration of the nativity and became a time when the church focusses on Jesus’ birth; and the fact that this still permeates the secular celebration of Christmas is testament to the power of the story at its heart.
I see no reason to turn away from the telling and retelling of that story at this time of year; but to be conscious of the distance between the way in which it is commonly told and the likely facts of its origins or the implications of its message. It doesn’t matter when Jesus was born. It does matter that the narratives we have in the gospels have him born into an ordinary family of no status or wealth, outsiders far from home, with the birth being announced first to shepherds – workers doing one of the least respectable jobs available at the time. It matters that the next people to notice were foreign travellers, looking for meaning in cultures beyond their own and seeking the common ground between those cultures. The inference is clear: what follows in the life of this remarkable human is a message for all people of whatever rank or background. Whether we’re interested in that message and what we make of it is up to us – and our conclusions are for life, not just for Christmas.