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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

The peace for which we all struggle

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Artwork by Quaker artist Cath Riley

In this centenary year of remembrance I had intended to create an impressive display of poppies grown on a patch of recently disturbed ground in the Meeting House gardens but for whatever reason they failed to appear.  Perhaps the seeds I scattered in the summer’s dry earth fell prey to birds and beasts before they had the chance to germinate.  Still, a handful that had grown up in one border persisted later than expected, almost to remembrance day itself, still blooming in late October.

Earlier this year a request by the mayor of Skipton to permit the inclusion of white poppies in the remembrance wreath to be laid this week was rejected by the town council’s finance and policy committee.  Using words such as ‘shocking’, ‘disrespectful’ and ‘pseudo-populist rubbish’, the committee’s Councillors blocked the mayor’s proposed gesture, intended in his words to recall the celebration of peace rather than victory at the end of the first world war.

As controversies go, differences of opinion about which poppy is appropriate to wear seems both tiresomely regular and, in my view, wholly unnecessary.  Created respectively in 1921 and 1933, the red and white poppies simply symbolise different aspects of remembrance – the first, honouring the courage and sacrifice of combatants; the second recalling all victims of war and calling for a culture of peace.  Each achieve further practical goals, the sale of the British Legion’s red poppies funding support for injured veterans and the families of military casualties, whilst the white funds the Peace Pledge Union’s promotion of ‘non-violent approaches to conflict and challenging militarism’.

white poppies available in Airton Friends Meeting House

These goals need not be mutually exclusive.  Whilst it’s true that by the 1930’s the originators of the white poppy, the Women’s Co-operative Guild, felt that the red had become associated with a growing militarisation of Remembrance events rather than a symbol of peace, 80 years on the context in which we remember both the 1914-18 war and all subsequent conflicts has altered radically, calling for and de facto resulting in new understandings and perspectives on what remembrance can mean.  On the one hand, historic detachment from the events of a century ago makes it easy to forget the intentions of those who devised the first acts of remembrance – who constructed what they termed ‘peace memorials’, not war memorials as later re-expressed.  On the other, the diversity of our present-day society, the growing depth of experience in non-violence and peace-building and conversely the support for arms exports by governments as a key component of our economy, mean that there must be room for acts of remembrance challenging political orthodoxies that lead to bloodshed, whether suffered by combatants or civilians.

Many people, myself included, want to support both causes – help for those who have made bitter sacrifices on our behalf; and challenge to the validity of the political decisions that placed them in harm’s way.  But this is also not the only possible perspective.  Whether one or more poppies are worn is an act of individual conscience and the decision to wear the red in particular is a gesture of charity.  To make either a matter of uniform is to remove volition and ultimately the value of this gesture.  Further, a refusal to accept the validity of this choice undermines the very freedoms that those who struggle through war, in whatever capacity, believed they were fighting for.  Finally, to condemn another person’s means of honouring the dead of war as ‘disrespectful’, hence refusing to afford that person and any holding a different view to one’s own the same dignity claimed for another group, could itself be considered disrespectful in the extreme.

If we are unable to cope with the presentation of two colours of poppy in a wreath intended to express the response of our whole society to the losses incurred in war then the gesture is an impoverished one, sad, monochrome and unrepresentative of who we are and of what modern Britain has always been: democratic, politically diverse and above all a country in which alternative expressions are not only tolerated but celebrated.

photo: Matthias Süßen via Wikimedia Commons

Of Nettles, Cottongrass and Orchids

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I’ve been waiting for the right time to explore Pendle Hill – that charismatic whale-back commanding the western horizon in views from pretty much everywhere skirting the south-western foothills of the Dales.  An inspiration to George Fox  as it was (see my previous blog, November 27th 2016), perhaps climbing it will spark a few more modest thoughts of my own.

In the middle of a heat wave the outlook is likely to be hazy but with overnight rains I’m hopeful that the air will have cleared and I’ll have a good view back towards Settle Moor and the hills east of Malhamdale.  Starting from the cheerful village of Barley I soon pick up the well-signed Pendle Way and begin what becomes before long a relentless ascent.  The early stages are marked by appealing encounters with gnarled, hollowed out ash trees, well-kept cottage gardens and I even find a patch of Nettles in full flower attractive.  Well, if you ignore the stings it’s quite a pretty plant really – and useful!

at their peak – a pretty patch

Hills and the views from them are irresistible if hackneyed metaphors.  Nonetheless the logic works: amongst the many reasons for climbing a hill is to achieve a sense of more than physical distance from the humdrum tangle of everyday matters and their accompanying controversies; to see the bigger picture internally just as the external view unfolds in all its glory.  However, my hopes of a clear view soon dissipate: far from clearing the air, the rain was just the vanguard of a blanket of cloud washing out everything further than a couple miles away from sight.

Just as the weather foils my attempt to look back towards home it provides an equally significant metaphor to the hoped-for sense of clarity: although I might not be able to see the whole picture as clearly as I wished but I can at least see what it is that’s blocking the view; and to decide whether it’s possible to sweep it away, or whether there’s nothing for it but to sit it out and wait for the prevailing wind to disperse it.

no clearer for the rain – part way up Pendle

Up here on the summit of Pendle, it’s not only my own challenges that come to mind when I’m looking for clarity.  It seems to me the current state of the country is no less cloudy than this view.  It would be enough that we are faced with the biggest political, economic and legislative upheavals in several generations in the form of our exit from the EU, profound questions over how our role in world affairs should be played and fractious, wavering governance at home; but the terror and cyber-attacks of recent weeks, the deplorable tragedy of Grenfell Tower and the reports of failing public services all serve to disorientate and prevent objective assessment of how we should be as a society in 2017.  I’m reminded of a slogan deployed optimistically by a certain political party during the 2010 election: ‘We need to heal our broken society’.  I wonder how that’s going?

I have no answers of course; but about the current state of politics I do wonder what might happen if, given the divisive nature of the ideologies behind each party’s approach, instead of any one party attempting to represent the whole country’s aspirations in the uniquely challenging task of Brexit, the government were formed of ministers from every party in parliament?  Forced by the need to overcome differences in the national interest those involved might be led to search for a sense of how best to proceed rather than constantly fighting their predetermined corners in a rearguard action against hostile opposition at home and abroad.  I know this isn’t the cricket we’re used to in UK politics but Quakers can vouch for non-confrontational business methods to resolve the most controversial of subjects; and yes, we do occasionally encounter some very interesting controversies even within what is in essence a highly progressive movement.

Through a cotton-grass carpet

Such are my less than conclusive thoughts as I leave the summit, following by whim an inviting flagged path winding down the back of the hill between endless stretches of cotton-grass.   Now there’s one of my favourite things: for some reason, cotton-grass really cheers me up.  In fact it’s up there with halloumi cheese, Chopin’s piano concerto in E minor and Edinburgh.  And I might have gone on thinking that was the best result I could have hoped for from this walk on a dreach day until lower down in the valley I come across a swathe of exquisite orchids dotted about in a fabulous meadow.  It really was worth the trip just for that.  After all, looking closely at the details is just as valuable as seeing the bigger picture – there being, of course, a right time for both.

perfect clarity in miniature

A cry for Manchester: when words fail

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Sometimes there are simply no words.  Thoughts and sentiments beat the exits of the mind, jumbling together in an incoherent mess.  For the time being, no thought, no idea remotely helpful can be formed.  There is no response but shock and no help but silence.

Such is the reaction I find myself locked into this week.  Appalled and stunned along with the rest of the nation, I watched and listened in tears to the news as the awful experiences of ordinary people were described.  Innocent people caught up in the consequences of one of the most disgraceful acts of barbarity ever committed on these islands.  I’ve struggled to comprehend what could make it possible for any person, let alone one born into our own tolerant, multi-cultural society, to destroy the lives of dozens of people including children, wrecking their families, obliterating their potential.  I’ve rallied to the sight of thousands gathering in Manchester’s Albert Square determined to express their solidarity and strength, their willingness to come to each other’s aid and to fight hatred with the far more powerful common bonds of love.  And I’ve asked myself how it’s possible that these two extremes can so evidently co-exist amongst us; and which will ultimately shape our future most strongly.

In struggling with these questions I quickly realise that even if there are answers, I’m the least capable of finding them.  These events are far from not only my experience but mercifully, perhaps that of most people.  We who are spared exposure to this kind of suffering can only watch in sorrow, mourn with the bereaved, support those whose work it is to rescue and relieve, and calmly and rationally assist those whose responsibility is to prevent and protect.  But perhaps the most useful thing for the majority to do is to give space to real discussion about the things which threaten peace, educating ourselves about the whole society in which we live and move and in our public conversations and debates allowing all issues to be examined that might influence the decision of a person to commit unspeakable crimes.

For now, however, I return to silence: a space in which I can by feeling the mix of horror, pity, despair, solidarity and hope reaffirm the connection I have with the communities in Manchester and everywhere scarred by brutal acts of violence.  They it is who will rebuild their own cities but they can do so in the knowledge that people around the world stand with them, pray with them and will support them in peace and friendship as they strive to overcome their present darkness.

A ride around Malham Tarn

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not as mild as it looks - a snowless Malhamdale in January
not as mild as it looks – a snowless Malhamdale in January

It’s an unpromising looking morning of the sort that in many locations would inspire me to stay in and do precisely nothing; but in the Yorkshire Dales landscape there’s no such thing as a lack of promise, be the sky leaden and the prospect ever so bleak.  The late dankness has been replaced by a spell of dry weather, though the clouds still loom low over the hills.  So, with no pressing engagements I set off on a cycle ride, determined to reach Malham Tarn – amazingly for the first time.

The great wall of landscape centred on Malham Cove and stretching to either side taking in Pikedaw Hill to the left and Gordale Scar to the right is an imposing barrier approached on a bicycle in the best of weathers.  In the lowering cloud cover on this January Saturday it’s enough to make me contemplate turning this into a little jaunt to the Old Malham Café for a relaxing brew and a slice of their fabulous Yorkshire Curd.  However, dogged determination to make the most of a rare dry day spurs me on to tougher if not greater things.

I’m no sports cyclist by any means, normally using the bike to get from A to B with a maximum range of a few miles – so I have to grit my teeth to make the ascent out of the village along Malham Rakes – a climb almost as demanding as High Hill Lane out of Settle and at least as long.  Before long I realise I’m making slower progress than a very nonchalant looking hiker a few dozen yards ahead, especially as I keep stopping – to admire the view of course…  That view fades and bleakens gradually as I climb into cloud so that as the gradient finally flattens out the cycle ride and in fact whole landscape take on a completely different complexion.  Up here on the moor, the moist air is still, silent and bitterly cold.  Everything is either grey or a bleached brownish green.  Few trees and even fewer boundaries structure the landscape which seems to be framed only by low hilltops clothed in rough grass and sedges.  It may not sound convincing as a beauty spot but actually this eerie emptiness is one of the things the north of England does really well; and to the busy soul drunk on the bustle of urban life (as I suppose I used to be before moving to Airton), a bit of isolation goes down quite nicely.

Malham Water winding to oblivion
Malham Water winding to oblivion

I plan to circumnavigate the Tarn and choose the clockwise route, bearing left to stay on the tarmacked road past the watersinks car park.  Watersinks is a prosaic and aptly descriptive name for the spot where Malham Water peters out in the grass on its journey to the base of the cove where it re-emerges as Malham Beck – a strange surrender of a river to the ground which only adds to the mystery of this wild place.

Looping north along Cove Road I still haven’t caught sight of the Tarn, which as waterbodies go seems remarkably well concealed.  Not until passing through the edge of some woods along the Pennine Way bridleway does the shoreline appear between the trees.  It’s an entrance to beguile the most cynical of travellers (if there are such people…).  Having climbed a thousand feet up a seeming vertical highway, here in the clouds I find a lake of tranquil beauty surrounded not by peaks but gentle shores of an almost fenland character.  It’s as though the world has quietly reorganised itself while I was looking at the road, putting things the opposite way around to where they ought to be.  But it’s all real – as is the bird hide I take shelter in to drink in the amazing serenity of it all.

horizontal world
horizontal world

As for the birds, apart from a few tufted ducks and coots near the opposite shore, most of the many species of wildfowl that habituate the Tarn are keeping out of sight – possibly not very impressed by the temperature.  And were it not for the cold I could stay here all day with a good book and a pair of binoculars but there’s something else on this ride I’m quite looking forward to: freewheeling more or less all the way back down to Malham – about the most fun you can have on a bicycle, due deference to oncoming walkers & vehicles excepted.  And this being a bike ride rather than a walk, I’m back in Airton in time for a warming lunch of soup & home baked bread by an open fire.

Malham Tarn: a place out of time
Malham Tarn: a place out of time