The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk – Hegel
Which is, at one level, a posh way of saying that it’s easy to be wise after the event, but taken differently might suggest that the end of an historical epoch is the best time truly to understand it – and which, in the case of our present economic, ecological and climate crisis, is no bad thing because we’re not choosing between two sorts of cornflakes but trying to figure out how we can even continue to exist. Or in Joni Mitchell’s words:
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
So we’re talking 53 years ago for Joni Mitchell’s song, 57 years since Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring” and 62 years ago Vance Packard published “The Hidden Persuaders”. I ask myself the question that I fear my grandchildren will ask me one day – “What on earth were you doing all that time?” because I know that any response which suggests that my personal behaviour didn’t cause the problem, or that I was one of the good guys, an avid recycler and all the rest misses out the crucial fact that I was there the whole time. Of course there must be degrees of complicity in the unfolding disaster but the bitter fact is that in a thousand tiny ways I looked away, grumbled about the plastic tide but carried on buying, drove around more than I strictly should have done and never took my protests beyond grumbling to a few trusted friends when I knew something was wrong; and so – just as it happens in a human body – the damage slowly accumulated and we said “we must stop all this one day soon or it will go badly for us”: and now it has.
The question – “What shall we do?” comes easily and steals the best parking place in the argument, but it’s not the best question. Doing things is lovely, it suits our activist, technology driven culture because as long as we’re doing things we don’t need to think about them. Someone; the experts, the people in the know, will sort things out and in ten years time we’ll be wondering what the fuss was all about. Except the owl of Minerva has taken flight and suddenly we dimly understand that the clock can’t be rewound to the time when the party was going well and no-one had fallen out, started a fight or puked on the carpet. If I was going to the place I want to get to, I wouldn’t start from here.
So let’s ask a different question, like – for instance – “what shall we be?” What kind, what shape, what measure of humanity will serve us best. This, by the way, is the beauty of Philip Pullman’s recent books, because they examine the same question. For him the Magisterium seems to be modelling some kind of religious organisation like the church, but the real church has nothing but the rags and shreds of its former power. The Magisterium is the corporation, surely?
But something is stirring and the Magisterium is putting up a fight that, for the moment, it is winning. Those who can see the clouds gathering feel as if they are being slowly squeezed out of the argument. But the old era is coming to an end, and for the rest of us it should be both encouraging and galvanising. Hand wringing won’t do it.
The climate and the environment aren’t the only things that can reach a tipping point. Whole cultures can reach them too. Our strategy shouldn’t be confined to shouting facts and data at people and hoping they’ll understand and change. We need to change perspectives, embody a new vision and live it out.
The easier way is to walk to the window or, better still stand outside, (anywhere will do), look at the sky, watch the clouds – today, here, they’re scudding across from the Atlantic, full of rain gathered up across an eternity of open sea – and watch a bird (any bird will do, it doesn’t have to be a peregrine) – wheeling in the sky, enfolding the wind, and say “hello sky, hello wind, hello clouds, hello bird, my name is ***** and I don’t think we’ve ever been properly introduced”.
* Read Allen Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl”
* Listen to Patti Smith incanting it on “Land” (But never play this album at the gym wearing headphones in case you inadvertently join in and sing along, because this will surely get you barred.
If you are disturbed by strong language, option 1 is recommended.
Last summer we made our first trip to Cumbria, driving from East to West across the country, very roughly following the route of the Coast to Coast Path. We stayed for a week in Ravenseat in a cottage that was actually on the path and then we moved on West, picking up on the A5086 at Cockermouth, through Frizington, Cleaton Moor, Egremont, Calder Bridge, Gosforth and finally Ravenglass, within sight of Seascale nuclear reprocessing plant. Although we’d never been to the area before, somehow the names of these villages seemed familiar and after a while I remembered why. They were, or rather had been, mining villages. Both coal and iron were mined there – the perfect combination for driving the industrial revolution. But not any more. It was quite depressing, in truth; there was a terrible air of dereliction hanging over the villages. They looked sad, run down and depressed. There were many posters demanding brexit, St George flags – big ones – mounted on aluminium flagpoles at no little expense. Even a large sign outside Seascale announcing that we were on the “Energy Coast” seemed more ironic than triumphant.
If ever there was a living example of the coming crisis it was here, and I haven’t been able to shake it out of my mind since the summer. The results of the general election have only brought it back more strongly because this is where the paradoxes that caused the collapse of our present economics are obvious to anyone who comes. Just as William Cobbett witnessed in his (1822 – 1826) Rural Rides –
The stack-yards down this valley are beautiful to behold. They contain from five to fifteen banging wheat-ricks, besides barley-ricks and hay-ricks, and also besides the contents of the barns, many of which exceed a hundred, some two hundred, and I saw one at Pewsey another at Fittleton, each of which exceeded two hundred and fifty feet in length. At a farm which, in the old maps; is called Chissenbury Priory, I think I counted twenty-seven ricks of one sort and another, and sixteen or eighteen of them wheat-ricks. I could not conveniently get to the yard without longer delay than I wished to make; but I could not be much out in my counting. A very fine sight this was, and it could not meet the eye without making one look round (and in vain) to see the people who were to eat all this food ; and without making one reflect on the horrible, the unnatural, the base and infamous state in which we must be, when projects are on foot, and are openly avowed, for transporting those who raise this food, because they want to eat enough of it to keep them alive; and when no project is on foot for transporting the idlers who live in luxury upon this same food; when no project is on foot for transporting pensioners, parsons, or dead-weight people!
The ‘pensioners’ that Cobbett mentions, by the way, are not senior citizens but recipients of government generosity for indefinable contributions to their continuance in power.
I was reading today that there is a proposal for a new deep mine in Whitehaven producing 2.5 million tonnes of coking coal a year and offering 500 new jobs. The proposal was supported by Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians in the face of strong criticism from environmental groups.
So there’s the paradox. How can we deny these post industrial areas of high poverty the jobs that could put them back on their feet? “The coal is in the ground, why not take it out and sell it?” they say. Are you weeping and gnashing your teeth yet? Are there no other less destructive occupations than releasing carbon into the atmosphere that could be encouraged? The challenge before us is to change a whole culture, and it’s no use coming up with endless strategies because – as any business consultant will tell you for a large fee – culture eats strategy for breakfast! The culture in question has centuries of entrenchment under its belt – so much so that it’s become commonsensical to regard the earth’s resources as if they were created entirely for the enrichment of humans, and without any value intrinsic to itself. To suggest that we might have to treat the earth as a partner smacks of tree hugging madness.
For years the evidence has piled up, and no-one took much notice, but now it’s the experience we’re getting. The rainwater that floods into valley towns and flood plains, ruining land and houses is not a theory. The forest fires aren’t theories and the extreme weather isn’t a theory either. It’s not an academic exercise to encounter the diminishment of the soil and the declining yields that can only be propped up by more and more of the very chemicals that are causing the problem. Massive increases in stress and diet related diseases aren’t theoretical and asthma resulting from atmospheric pollution isn’t a figment of some doom-monger’s imagination, neither is the mass extinction of insects, and it breaks my heart to see mainstream politicians waving through policies that will make things worse for the sake of a few votes in a run-down area. They should hang their heads in shame.
Meanwhile the very same interests who have conceived, promoted and benefited from the violation and destruction of the earth have taken complete control by driving their juggernaut through the ranks of the opposition because the opposition had no plans for anything except managing the destruction a little more ‘fairly’. There was no teaching, no vision, no genuine conversation with these depressed areas, just the odd hospital and road thrown their way in the hope it would be enough to stave off change. Our politics has shown itself to be no longer fit for purpose. Workington men and women, and millions of other disillusioned people voted from despair because no-one ever listened, nothing ever happened and no-one was offering a coherent picture of a way forward, the only show in town was a regression to the imaginary glory days. I can’t get that line of mining towns out of my head. I took a school trip down Big Pit once, and I got chatting to a retired mine electrician at the pithead. “you must miss it” – I said. “Miss it?” he snorted – “I hated every bloody minute of it!”
Driving across Yorkshire to Cumbria we passed some of the prettiest and some of the most derelict areas in the UK. It’s collapsing, the whole political and economic structure is falling apart and the earth on which we depend utterly is screaming its distress at us. The threads of a new culture are there. They lack all sorts of detail, but I think we now understand that our relationship with the earth has to be understood as a spiritual “I -Thou” relationship and not the “I- it” relationship of modernism. I think we understand that people really matter, and that strong human community is as essential to us as air and water. I think we understand too that our politicians need to stop speaking and start listening more. I’m not the only person who gets exasperated by being told what I believe by a person who’s never spoken to me. And I think that we understand that the fruits of the earth and of our labours must be more equitably shared. It would be a crime of the highest order to export the crisis to the poorest people on earth in order to preserve our wasteful way of life. And finally we have to change ‘the way we do things round here’ – the way we grow and harvest, the way we eat and the way we enjoy our leisure. The people of Whitehaven deserve better – just not that kind of better.
So I’ll finish with some words from Roger Gottlieb from an essay entitled “Spiritual deep ecology and the Left: an attempt at reconciliation” – I found it in the first edition of “This Sacred Earth” and I’m quoting it because I think we need to talk.
“A fruitful exchange between deep ecology and the left, however, requires that adherents of both perspectives suspend some entrenched prejudices. Leftists need to open themselves to the possibility that a spiritually oriented perspective might actually have something to teach them: in this case, something about the ultimate source of value in our lives and about limitations in our conventional sense of self. Deep ecologists, on the other hand, would do well to suspend their ahistorical arrogance about their own wisdom, their pretensions to being above or beyond political struggles and their too facile dismissal of left movements as unremitting agents of the exploitation of nature.
Although committed to ending unjust systems and ending oppression, leftist or progressive political movements have often reproduced, rather than opposed, the conventional ego. Classic liberalism emphasised personal rights, enshrined individual economic activity at the heart of its system, and believed the central purpose of society was to protect and further ownership and consumption. Surely this will not help us face the environmental crisis.
Sadly, more “radical” political movements of the West – despite their emphasis on community, class or racial experience, and their attempt to generate an ethic of collective solidarity and struggle – have also too often presupposed an individualistic consumerist ego. The practical politics of the left have frequently aimed to provide more things, money, and prestige. They have too often represented the interests of one segment of the oppressed while claiming to represent all, and they have repeatedly failed to challenge the individualist premise that a higher standard of living will make for greater happiness. It has been a rare progressive party that called for less, not more, consumption – at least until the Green Parties of Europe came into being; and there has been little assertion that human fulfillment may be directly opposed to high -consumption lifestyles.”
My son will feel faint when he sees this mess, but I find it comforting. The little tin of Leonardt pen nibs just to the left of the laptop, the Rite in the Rain notebook with so many botanising adventures written inside, the red cabbage leaf patiently waiting to be painted. He’ll laugh out loud at the early morning espresso that will shortly make me feel faint and – knowing him – he’ll be looking at the book to see what I’m reading. He’s a philosopher so his life and mine are both made from books which we eat up eagerly and then after an interval of indigestion, wait for our minds to turn into food.
Digesting a book is a slow process. The good ones are often very expensive and so they need to be prepared for. Fifty quid for the new, fourth, edition of Stace will need a long period of deliberation followed by a reckless moment of ordering (it’s not the sort of book you can get from the local Waterstones), anxious days of waiting for the post to arrive from Summerfields and then ….. first anxious look …… plants have mysteriously uprooted themselves from their familiar page and re-homed themselves with another family. Looking up the simplest thing is agonisingly slow and so back to the old familiar. This can take months! Finally (I haven’t even dared to order it yet) we shall become friends.
Most books need a period of resting before I can read them – let’s call it shelf life for the sake of an easy joke. I need to get over the extravagance and remember what the exact impulse was for buying them in the first place. Sometimes, no – often – the original impulse was associated with a particular vein of thought which has become a worked out lode. The roof collapsed, or got too low to follow. Sometimes I consume them hungrily but either the book’s not ready for me or I’m not ready for the book, and it goes on to the shelf again until I’ve caught up – maybe years later. The best books are the ones I read when I was nineteen and understood perfectly – until I read them again at thirty, or fifty or even seventy and each time discovered I’d never understood them at all. I have the clearest memory of a boring summer afternoon in a library where I pulled down a copy of Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” and read it standing up as only a hungry teenager can. I didn’t understand a fraction of it; I only discovered that Leach was a Sufi many years later – hence the profound spirituality of a book about pots – and even today my first impulse on handling a pot is to turn it upside down to see the base, touch the bare, unglazed rim to my lips and ping it. Everyone I know except my son’s partner, who was born in Stoke on Trent, thinks this is a bit weird. The best books are long affaires, kept secret from any chance of mockery.
Sometimes me and the book need a period away from each other while we both catch up. I read them once, put them back on the shelf and then come back years later with an older mind. The book on my desk took 25 years, or rather it took me 25 years to catch up. I probably bought “This Sacred Earth” – Roger Gottlieb’s compendium of writing from around the earth in 1996, the year it was published. At that time I would have been deeply involved in parish life, and I’ve no recollection of reading it the first time. It’s still in print in a second edition, along with a number of other books on green and deep ecology and radical political thought. It came off the shelf yesterday and I was transfixed by the relevance of the essays and extracts.
Yesterday I was talking about the Extinction Rebellion movement with my son. He told me he’d been shocked to see an old edition of “Spitting Image” (TV show) in which may of the ER issues were aired, more than a decade before many of its members were born. Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published before most of their parents were born! Species extinctions and climate catastrophe aren’t new ideas, they’ve been around for more than half a century and, by and large, we did nothing about them. If the young have a charge against the old it’s our inaction in the face of the incontrovertible facts that were staring us in the face. We turned away – and that was a sin against the earth.
Now, wherever I look, I see the voices of the unheard shouting across the years. Did it only become a ‘proper’ problem when the dominating culture of the west appropriated it? Did we only take it seriously when it became an ‘ology’? – to borrow a phrase from an elderly friend who would say (disparagingly) “Oh he’s very clever, he’s got an ‘ology!'”.
Gosh I can’t remember the last sentence I wrote with four consecutive punctuation marks.
So there it is. My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of slowly composting ideas that will, in the fullness of time, be returned to the earth. To borrow an idea from another book I needed to put aside, because I didn’t know if anyone was listening any more, may we be granted time for repentance and the amendment of our lives – not just for ourselves but for our children and their children down the years.
I think I’ve been reading too much – and it’s all the fault of the southwesterly winds. We did at least manage 3 hours on the allotment yesterday, but today, after setting out on a fruitless (yes) mission to pick damsons, it hammered down so much we turned around and came home again whereupon I spent the rest of the day watching 2 films about Arne Naess and reading his book “Ecology of Wisdom”. I had to check him out because his name, and the concept of ‘deep ecology’ have come up quite a lot in my reading recently and I always find it better to go back to the source and make my own mind up..
The introduction was a bit repetitive, whereas the initial chapter on place was really intriguing. But I came away from the first three essays thinking that, after looking at his CV, I felt more disabled than enabled by his mountaintop vision. There was something a shade too muscular, too charismatic, for me. I’ll never build a primitive hut on the side of a mountain, or read Spinoza in Latin, or learn Ghandian boxing. So does that mean that the Potwell Inn is forever condemned to the sidelines? Does it mean that my proposed ecology of Muckyannydinny Lane, the rubbish filled alley connecting two estates, will never see the light of day because it’s too ordinary?
I liked the man and some at least of his writing, but it seems to me as if his disciples (where have I heard this story before?) have added whole chunks of metaphysics and rather extreme conclusions to his initial words. Isn’t it always the same? The moment we canonize someone, the followers feel free to claim pretty much anything they like and then stamp it with the saint’s imprimatur to put it beyond debate.
So here I am with a seed catalogue in one hand and the disabling thought in my mind that I really don’t know what we should be doing for the best. Is the bib and brace overall and the Tilly hat more of a deferential tug of the forelock to the past? (see postbox). Is there some complete system for the ethically perfect life that I haven’t stumbled across yet or am I condemned to stumble around in the dark? I know there are people who’ve found the answer because you can sense by their absolute certainty and their gimlet eyes that they have the truth – I’m not being smart and ironical here, I’m both envious of and repelled by their purity.
Loving the earth and the natural world is easy, and counting ourselves among the creatures surely involves loving one another as well as the birds, bees and wolves, and yet the most forceful expositions of rewilding seem almost Malthusian – discarding human lives as if they (we) are a form of infection. The most common exposition of the technological dream, of carbon capture and fusion power et al seem to me to be putting your trust into the power of the unicorn, and somewhere in the middle you land up being despised by almost everyone. All I can think of is to try to live ethically as best I can, reduce my impact on the earth and keep the Potwell Inn going so we, the bewildered, can spent our twilight years with shaking hands and rheumy eyes discussing the price of onions over a pint of Ushers cider.
Today I baked another sourdough and took 15 minutes off the baking time to try to create a less daunting crust. Madame cooked ratatouille – possibly the last of the season from our own produce.
My son asked me at the weekend why I don’t blog about politics. It’s for the same reason I don’t go around bludgeoning people who steal our coldframes, it’s all got a bit too poisonous and I think it’s bad for me. One of my ex parishioners facebooked to say I was being very stoic. OK Chris – you’ve found me out!
I’m inclined to think that we bloggers are better at talking than listening, and having banged on for a year at some (130,000 words) length on any subject that interested me, I realized this morning that if this blog is to be any more significant than a bunch of egotistical blah blah blah it needs to offer the opportunity for more engagement and more feedback.
I’ve long wanted the site to have its own email address so that readers could respond privately without having to use public comments or likes, but I’ve been wary of compromising our privacy by handing out my own addresses and being swamped. I realize that this could be risky but I’ve taken every precaution to keep the ‘email@example.com’ channel separate, and I hope and anticipate that this will add something to the whole experience of the Potwell Inn. After all, whoever heard of a pub where you had to listen to the landlord without being able to join in a conversation. So now there will be two ways of joining in, the ‘comment’ button for stuff you don’t mind sharing with everyone, and the ‘contact’ button for anything else. I can’t promise anything more than a slow response, but I will try and respond and I’m always pleased to receive constructive ideas, criticism and further thoughts.
That, at least, was the intention when I woke ‘on a mission‘ this morning. “It’s time” – I thought and I charged into action. Not being a computer geek I should have realized that nothing is as easy as it seems and I finally made it work ten hours later, which rather took the shine off my glorious optimism.
I’ll put up a ‘proper’ post later if I can find the energy, but meanwhile I hope you’ll find this a useful opportunity. Do let me know if you agree, I get the sense that there’s a community out there which is struggling, like me, to make a lucid and useful response to our climate and ecological crises by living differently – hence the endless reading, the allotment and the emphasis on food.
We’re now in North Wales for a little while in our exploration of the regions and their different farming challenges. We seem to have been (I suppose we have been) travelling for weeks, but nothing has shaken my conviction that there is a way through this mess.
Home again after a long drive back from the Western Lakes in Cumberland, with an overnight stop in Yorkshire catching up with friends there. A week ago I wrote about our impressions of a depressed economy as we approached Ravenglass from the North. Leaving by the southern route, we caught the full majesty of the fells as we skirted around the other boundary. The whole area could be called by any number of names, because calling it “the Lake District” implies that the lakes are the principal feature whereas I’d say that the fells win hands-down. The lakes themselves, (leaving aside the rather menacing Wastwater) are fully occupied as tourist attractions which somehow diminishes them as the extraordinary environments they are. Many of the peaks are busy in the summer with walkers “doing the Wainwrights”, and compared with the remoter parts of the Yorkshire Dales, they lack peace and tranquility. There’s a whole vocabulary to describe various features of the Pennines – words like ‘moor’, ‘fell’, ‘crag’ and ‘dale’ don’t mean much until you’ve seen first hand that they represent distinguishable features in the landscape. Our trip started in the South Pennines, in Slaithwaite (pronounced ‘slough’it”, and then we spent a week in the Dales at the head of Swaledale, followed by a week by the sea at the edge of the Western Fells. Each is a very different environment, and each of those environments is affected in different ways by the economic and ecological collapses that threaten us. I’ve been reading, catching up with the scary thought that we don’t have much time to act.
But home again, it was good to be back. We quickly get into a familiar routine when we return from one of our trips. There’s always watering to be done, seedlings tended and the allotment inspected. I feed the sourdough starter which I never keep in the fridge because the cold favours the production of acetic acid which I don’t care for – I prefer the fruity, apple flavour I get when it’s left sitting on the side. It’ll go for a fortnight if it’s well fed before we set out. On the other hand we do keep the kefir in the fridge, and again I strained it when we got home and drank a full glass. When it’s been standing you might call it a bit of an acquired taste, a bit ‘character forming’, but I find its rich astringent flavour and slight effervescence really refreshing.
Up on the allotment, the only serious casualties were the grow-bag tomatoes which were laid low by blight. The other outdoor tomatoes which are very blight resistant looked terrific and I’ll be making the first batch of sauce for the winter tomorrow. Best of all (although I’ll never eat them) are two large plants of Habanero chillies which are ripening well making 100% success with the chillies this summer in spite of the strangest weather. We feasted on mashed potato made from our own Red Duke of York which make the best mash ever, our own carrots and today we picked more sweetcorn which the netting had saved from the badgers/rats/deer all of which seem to have a liking for it. Naturally there’s a pile of weeding to catch up on but the winter crops are all looking good and healthy.
All of which leads me to my cryptic remark yesterday “If nonhuman beings become extinct how will we know who we are?” I was perched on the step of the van ready to leave when I wrote it quickly because it seemed important at that moment.
The past two weeks have given me the opportunity to do some serious thinking and reading about our relationship with the natural world. The name Arne Naess keeps coming up, so I’ve read a couple of essays and books by him and about him, and in the process I’ve come to understand a great deal more about what’s become known as ‘deep ecology’. While I was searching for some of his books I came across the following review:
In particular, it would have been helpful if Naess had explained more fully his notions of metaphysical holism (we are part of nature and in some mysterious way “one” with it), biospherical egalitarianism (all living things have equal intrinsic value and an equal right to live and blossom), and Self-realization (we grow and fulfill ourselves by identifying with, and promoting the blossoming of, all other living things and ultimately Nature/Reality as a whole). In the end, these and under crucial aspects of Naess’ ecological thought largely rest on unsupported “intuitions” that many readers will find puzzling at best.
Part of a review of Arne Naess’ book “Ecology, Community and Lifestyle”
My remark yesterday shows how importantly I’ve come to regard the view that we’re all one. But the reviewer seems to be asking for something more like a philosophical ‘proof’ that these ideas are more than ‘intuitions’ which clearly come a good way down his list of validating arguments.
There are a number of ways of approaching this objection. Firstly, without intuition neither science or mathematics would get very far. It’s almost a cliché to observe that many of the greatest theories in both disciplines come from insights that then need to be subjected to careful tests (experiments) to see if they are ‘true’. The original insight isn’t the theory, it’s a postulate – a kind of ‘what if?’ statement.
Anotther approach to the objection would be that the reviewer’s difficulty with ‘unsupported “intuitions”‘ is, in itself, evidence of a closed attitude towards allowable arguments. Our lives are full of intuitions and we act on them all the time without worrying too much about their proveability.
Living as if the ‘what if?’ statements which have been gained not just by unsupported intuitions but by the factual evidence of our collapsing ecosystem are true, is an entirely ‘supportable’ response to an idea that didn’t just pop out of the blue.
The anthropocentric view of humanness demands that we humans are at the apex of some kind of evolutionary thrust (the iron laws of history) that make us the only show in town, able to subject the whole of nature to our will. The emerging evidence suggests that’s the way to extinction because we are not “lords of creation” but ‘part of creation”. Taking that insight on board and shaping our lifestyle by its precepts is a big leap but we’ve already taken much of it aboard already. Surely it’s not such a revelation to understand that human language (especially western versions) is only one among many others. When we ‘read the weather’ by gazing at the clouds and sensing the winds we’re accessing a nonverbal language. When I look at the plants on the allotment and try to understand whether they’re thriving or poorly I’m kind-of speaking ‘plantish’. When I see chemical foam at the base of a waterfall I may be talking ‘earthish’. I was once thrown out of a fly-fishing club for suggesting that one of their waters- which was the outflow from a reservoir – was polluted. They said it was an attack on the reputation of the club????
What ‘deep ecology’ suggests is that we should accept that we are a part of a mind-bogglingly complex community from single celled organisms like bacteria and fungi all the way through the plants to the primates of which we are but one (probably the least pleasant and most stubborn). It goes on to suggest that this complex system is so finely balanced that a sudden change to one part can affect all the others and make the system sick. Our western ‘default’ position is to look for another new technology to save the day – we’re a culture that wants to save the planet but only if we can keep our cars and aeroplanes and cheap food. If Arne Naess is for changing things peacefully and non-violently then I’m with him.
I was on a retreat many years ago where we were invited to take the hands of someone we’d only known for a few hours and say one another’s names out loud with the word ‘behold … n … It was a very powerful experience to recognise the difference between seeing someone and beholding them. So when I saw this hedgehog last week I remembered the retreat and my scientific and naturalist interest in it soared into a different realm.
This holiday is turning into a prolongued commentary on the books I’m reading in the wet and windy evenings here in the Lake District, and the photo is completely out of focus, I know – but it was this little flower that caught my mood and crystallised some thoughts I’d been mulling over earlier.
The flower is a particular favourite of mine and its vernacular name is Fox and Cubs – Pilosella aurantiaca, an irresistably pretty member of the Daisy family. I’ve only ever seen one other plant and that was on a village playing field near Portscatho in Cornwall. But it’s not particularly rare and in fact it’s another garden escape, first planted in gardens in 1629 – according to Harrap’s Wild Flowers (recommended) and first spotted in the wild in Europe in 1793. So we’re not talking Japanese Knotweed!
In the background is Muncaster Castle which was there in 1258, so it’s been long enough for a naturalised plant to take up residence, although I doubt very much if that’s what’s happened in this case.
So that’s the flower and the castle and now the book, which is called “Deep Ecology – living as if nature mattered” by Bill Devall and George Sessions. It’s a primer of extracts and a commentary on most of the main philosophical threads of the environmental movement in general, and in particular a ‘deep’ ecology that goes beyond conservation in its generally accepted sense; and so “wildness” is one of the concepts that gets explored in great detail. We spent today at the castle and part of the experience was to visit and watch two displays of owls and vultures being flown. I’m not keen on zoos, but there was no opt-out at the ticket desk and so we went with the crowd and saw the caged birds and also watched them flying in the displays. Ironically (or perhaps not), among all the rarities, the one bird that tugged most at my heart was a Tawny owl that sat in its cage and called persistently. We often heard Tawny owls when we lived in the countryside, and the very first night we moved to our flat, we heard a Tawny calling outside as if to say “don’t worry I’m still here”. It’s amber listed in the UK , and I’m sure it was only there because it had been rescued but ….. all that space and woodland around and it was in a cage.
It was a fabulous place to sit and watch the birds flying so close that we were warned to duck if they were heading directly towards us. I was trying (displacement activity) to use the display to watch the birds – there were owls as well as vultures – and to admire and understand the way they were using their wings so differently but my underlying feeling was that there was something sad about these magnificent creatures being kept in cages for much of their lives. I was involved in a silent conversation with the keepers whose commentary was largely concerned with conservation. Vulnerable and threatened species of all kinds may disappear altogether if we don’t do something. Breeding programmes, game reserves and all the available bureaucracy of grant aid and legislation are turned towards the preservation of these species but I can’t help feeling that it’s us who have to change. We’re still inclined to think of the natural world as being essentially there for us – for our education, leisure and entertainment; as a resource for geneticists and drug companies, as a raison d’être for conservationists, rangers and wardens, but we rarely understand them as existing entirely in their own right within a family of which we are only a part.
If we want to save these creatures we – WE – have to stop exploiting and destroying their habitats, not gift aid a tenner to a charity at Christmas. Do we care about them enough to relinquish our cars, feed ourselves differently, stop kidding ourselves that mass tourism into ever more remote areas brings much needed development, preserve our remaining wild areas while turning a blind eye to deforestation in Brazil so we can go on eating cheap meat. We, collectively, are the biggest threat to wildlife on the planet and the planet needs us to turn around.
Of course the other threatened species on display at the castle was the building itself. My heart goes out to the owners who must struggle every day to keep the show (and their ancestral home) on the road. I confess I’m a bit of a propeller head when it comes to drainpipes, I’ve seen some beauties over the years, and among the (cheap) cast iron downpipes outside the building there were some beautiful hand-made lead pipes. Clearly the hand-to-mouth restoration of the building is being done one drainpipe and one ceiling at a time.
So how do we resolves these issues of preservation and conservation? There’s a growing thread of purism in the conservation world that demands huge reductions in human populations and industrial growth, with the re-creation of vast amounts of ‘wilderness’. It is, some say, a spiritual issue. If that means that we have to change our culture at the very deepest levels of our being then I totally agree, but not if it means forcing the solution on to the most vulnerable people on earth, because we are all too often the cause of their poverty.
Is the orange daisy lookalike wild or cultivated? Does it really matter in the great scheme of things? Is a sperm bank or a seed store in the permafrost the best way of addressing the extinction crisis? – don’t be silly! Is a castle worth saving when there are millions of homeless out there? Well why not build some (eco) houses rather than forcing the owner to sell it off to a hotel group and leaving another family to be housed and most of the present staff unemployed.
“All my life I have been in and around wild nature, working – exploring, studying and even living in cities. Yet I realized a few years ago that I had never made myself into as good a botanist or zoologist or ornithologist as so many of the outdoor people I admire have done. Recalling where I had put my intellectual energies over the years it came to me that I had made my fellow human beings my study – that I had been a naturalist of my own species. That I had been my own object-of-study too.”
Gary Snyder – in ‘Blue mountains constantly walking’ from his collection “The practice of the wild”.
Twobooks were very much at the top of my mind as I was writing this post. First, as the title suggests, I was remembering William Cobbett’s book describing rural poverty in 1830, (and incidentally, citing a book doesn’t mean I agree with all the writer’s sentiments. Cobbet was probably a very unpleasant man who, in this instance, had his finger on the pulse because he went and saw for himself). But secondly I was reading Gary Snyder’s book “The Practice of the Wild” while I was writing it and I’m sure it’s leaking through every line. This is a truly important and inspiring book for our times although it was published in 1990, and I can’t recommend it too highly.
The net result of this reading and the reason for the quotation from Gary Snyder was that I found myself putting aside my hand lens and county lists in favour of pondering just what we’re doing to ourselves and how and where we allowed our humanity to be so diminished. I had to become “a naturalist of my own species”.
Holidaying together on the border between Cumbria and Yorkshire, we are one of those temporary communities that forms and re-forms from time to time in different places. Our extended family flows like a busy stream around the large kitchen table in this eighteenth century farmhouse. Noise and conversations are continuous – everyone talking at once and nobody listening, children tugging at me and racing about with swords and shields enacting a fight I hope they never see for real. I play the elder, and I am straining to understand who is cross with whom today, who had too much to drink last night, where are the cracks in the family brickwork. The big range at the end of the kitchen is in constant use as we take it in turns to cook according to the rota and so the whole symphony is punctuated by cries of “hot!” and “watch out!” as we swirl like advancing and retreating waves, occasionally pausing to eat and clear and wash up once again. The children have their own cycle between excited chatter in the mornings as they visit us all in our bedrooms to steal biscuits and cuddles, and howls of anguish and rage as they are put to bed in the evening and the first bottles are opened. Yesterday it was announced that the government intended to suspend parliamentary democracy in order to force through the plan to leave the European Community. Here in the depths of the Yorkshire Dales the news was filtered through a shaky and ancient portable radio.
When the news came on Madame’s little radio I lost it completely and hurled bad tempered abuse at the radio. I’m truly scared by what’s happening. Fear and powerlessness are nasty and unproductive emotions and I was reproached for my outburst for frightening the children. There was nothing for it but to retreat to the river and sit there on a rock watching the peat stained water for half an hour imagining terrible acts of violence and revenge and struggling to allow the river to take the unwelcome thoughts away. It worked, as it always does, and so, sufficiently shriven, and after a supper of bacon, cheese and potatoes accompanied by anxious looks from my family, I consoled myself with Gary Sneider’s book for a while before rejoining the throng.
I never see myself as being particularly patriotic. I think I love this country as I love my family, mindful of all its faults but leaning on the assumption that ultimately we are one. It is only when it is threatened that I become fierce and defensive.
Outside the conservatory window we’ve been watching three brown hares, one much larger and two of them smaller – possibly a doe and her leverets as they relax in the sun and occasionally eat. Up on the hill we found a dead and half rotten raptor beyond identification – possibly shot – this is grouse country. While we followed the river down to a bridge that has been damaged for the umpteenth time by a passing lorry, we heard the thrilling liquid song of curlew and watched lapwing flying across. These remote places are the breeding grounds for many threatened species of bird. Down by the river we watched a yellowhammer, a bird I haven’t seen in ages. Here the landscape and its inhabitants look familiar enough from a distance but when I get my eyes down to ground level I discover that my knowledge of natural history is more appropriate to the western coastal regions. There are strangers here among the flowers and wildlife, just as there are among the “larger than wolf, smaller than elk” humans who work this landscape and speak in a totally unfamiliar dialect that can speak Slaithwaite as ‘Slough’it’ which makes me feel like a stranger.
This could read rather like a Cobbettian travelogue in the bad-tempered mould of Rural Rides, because much as I’d like to bathe in the silent beauty and rustic charm of it all, it’s impossible not to be alarmed at the fragility of both communities and landscapes. To drive from the West Country to Huddersfield, and thence across this huge county to the Yorkshire Dales is to experience all the contradictions that are throwing this country into a civil war whose deadliest weapon is passive aggression. We fear the climate crisis and yet we cannot manage without the cars and lorries that turn traffic jams into toxic clouds. Just to get here we queued for miles on slow moving motorways that turned our journey time on both of the first two stops from four hours to six. Last year it took us longer to drive from Cornwall To Bristol than it used to do 50 years ago before the A38 was relegated to history by the M5 and extensive dual carriageways.
Our friends in Huddersfield share a great part of our history and values. They are highly active in the community, avid gardeners and implacable in their opposition to destructive chemical use by farmers, even going so far as to engage with one of the largest producers face to face. They describe the efforts of these companies to justify their noxious products as “greenwashing” and it’s hard not to agree when you read the notes taken at the meetings. ‘S’ has made several poncho’s by ironing together plastic supermarket bags, an operation which she says is best carried out carefully and outside because of the smell.
There are many signs of hope and they have helped the MASTT build a lovely community orchard complete with its own complement of bees. The bees were the idea of a Syrian asylum seeker who has now moved on to run a community beekeeping project close by. Why this delightful man and his family with so many gifts to offer should be regarded as a threat, escapes me altogether. We never needed writers so much as we need heirs to Cobbett and Dickens to lead the charge against the mendacity of the politicians who are leading the country into catastrophe.
As if to drive home the point we spent part of a day walking on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, built in the heat of the last industrial revolution, and which never really turned a profit. These days its principal use is for tourism, and even that is limited by narrow width, daunting sequences of locks and the longest, deepest and highest canal tunnel in the UK. We drank tea outside the entrance to Standedge tunnel and talked to a man with an intimate knowledge of the feeder lakes and reservoirs, who told us that the recent collapse of Whateley Bridge dam, a canal feeder reservoir in Derbyshire, was the direct result of the management failure to respond to weather forecasts by lowering the reservoir level. We were told that they are absolutely paranoid about running the reservoirs low for fear of negative publicity if a prolongued drought should increase the demand for water in the canals. We were also told that this was not the only nineteenth century dam liable to collapse after sudden floods, and that other centres of population are equally under threat from old dams being subjected to excessive loads by keeping them full. Whether any of this will emerge during the enquiry is doubtful as the more senior levels fight to cover their arses and blame the weather as if it were a surprise. No doubt “lessons will be learned” but there is no hope that among those lessons the government will put any extra money into averting a disaster. One day, perhaps, dozens or even hundreds of people will be killed, and a minister will visit for a photo opportunity in a hi-viz jacket, but the facts on the ground will not change – nature is not there to be controlled and farmed for our own benefit.
After an equally testing drive westwards to the other side of the county (it was a bank holiday weekend) we came into the Yorkshire Dales. We had rented a cottage right alongside the upper reaches of the River Swale, miles from anywhere and entirely without phone signal or internet, which made it so much easier to unwind. But the news every day is so awful that even in this peaceful setting I woke in the night with the horrors after dreaming about the situation. Driving through the much diminished places that were once centres of industry, mill and mining towns where houses can be bought for next to nothing because there is no work is so obviously depressing that it hardly warrants attention any more. We’ve got used to poverty, food banks and Pound Stores.
But anyone who comes to the Dales, which still seem the same as ever, and thinks the landscape – which really does take your breath away – is ‘natural’ in any way at all, is deluded. These dales are the product of not one but many forms of agriculture over the millennia. The ancient landscape was not so long ago buried under hundreds of metres of ice and with no flora at all; there’s nothing immemorial about it, and it could change again in the blink of an eye or the stroke of a pen far away in London. The farmers here rely on public subsidy for 80% of their income and, trust me, they are not rich. Were it not for the support they get, the land – which is marginal and unproductive – would be left ungrazed and would swiftly become scrub. Woodland and forest, desirable though they may be in the right place, are not ‘free’. In historical terms the whole landscape was intensively managed and if it is to remain in the form that we love, open and available to us with its biodiverse communities, and able to achieve the balance between sustainable food production and intensive farming leading to ecological breakdown, we will need to invest money, and farmers will still have to do the work. When a whole farming community disappears we lose the skills that have been honed over centuries and built into common life. The media like to fret about disappearing tribes in the Amazon, but don’t get sufficiently excited about the prospect of losing the hill farming communities in our own country.
Here the becks and rivers seem eternal. The landscape is sculpted by forces we can barely conceive of, and at the human level everything seems uncompromising. When it rains, it rains with a scale and intensity that sends hack journalists towards words like ‘biblical’, except it isn’t. It could never be tamed and put in a box with Jesus and the others. What the journalists never want to mention is that in the Genesis myth, the flood was a punishment for the over-reaching greed and promiscuity of the human race. But rain is rain, that’s it – fierce, driving, scarifying, clarifying rain gathered from the oceans and hurled back at the hills that gout it back at us. Hills that float on water, notwithstanding their great age and mass. The wind searches at the doors of the farmhouse and rattles the doors at night as if seeking entry to level us to dirt again.
But stuff happens and things do change. The circus has moved on and it’s appallingly obvious why people here voted as they did to leave the EU. The collapse of heavy industry was no less predictable than the onslaught of unpredictable weather that presages the climate catastrophe. But the politicians, safe and well-rewarded inside their closed communities had no inclination to think ahead while they profited from strip mining human communities of every shred of extractable wealth: of housing, education, health care and self-respect but more wickedly they destroyed whole cultures.
It’s almost too late as the farmers contemplate the cost to their livelihood, but one thing is sure. We need to reinstate democracy from the ground up. From citizens’ assemblies to parish and district councils, to county councils, regional assemblies, constituencies and only finally government, we must learn to engage democracy for the good of all – and that includes the earth that sustains us. It’s philosophical dualism that’s led us to this – me and ‘it’, the worthy and the unworthy, the future and the past, human and nature, God and servants, rich and poor, clever and stupid.
For the first three days we had almost continual sunshine, and then the weather closed in and reverted to its stereotype, but nothing kept us indoors, and several of the nights were clear enough for stargazing. There are no artificial lights for many miles and so old and familiar constellations and planets (well, Saturn at least) were surrounded by multitudes of stars we’d never seen before. One of our party had brought a telescope and after an abortive attempt when we forgot to put in one of the lenses(?) the boys finally found Saturn’s rings. There’s a huge difference between knowing things in your head and knowing them with your senses. They were completely energized when they told us at breakfast the next day.
As we left after a week, we struggled to get the van up the steep and narrow track leading to an equally precipitous and narrow road. I had to reverse the whole 3 ton truck back down and around a sharp corner and then take it at a run with only a tap on a wing mirror as I roared through the first set of gates. As we turned towards civilization we were accompanied by a small flock of half a dozen lapwing who could easily have flown to the left or right on to the fell, but flew in front like a miniature honour guard or possibly they were fighter planes escorting us away from their territory. We all went our separate ways, and with the benefit of a phone signal, photos were exchanged and progress reported. Our journey took us north and west, looping around the Lakes to the coast at Ravenglass past Bassenthwaite Lake where we once almost went to live save for the rainfall – which has subsequently proved to be monumental.
The journey, once again, took us past several depressed mining towns and villages that demonstrate all too painfully that tourist money only sticks in a few places in the Lakes. This was once a great centre for the mining of coal and iron ore and which supported a prosperous and skilled workforce. There had been fitful attempts to build industrial estates and business parks on the abandoned sites but it all seemed too much like sticking plaster. As we approached the coast the looming buildings of the Windscale nuclear reprocessing plant hogged the landscape. Was this where the politicians learned to lie on an industrial scale. Was this where the idea that it was morally acceptable to lie to the population “for the good of the country” was conceived? A large sign on the roadside proclaims “The Energy Coast” without a trace of irony or self-awareness. The radioactive beaches tell a different story.
I want to stop looking and worrying. What I’d really like to do is go back to botanising and growing plants on the allotment and forget all this, but I can’t. The union jacks and crosses of St George flying in the gardens of so many run-down homes and businesses give testimony to the lie – the great lie – that we can have it all. The mainstream political parties still don’t get it – they each peddle the snake oil remedy that they alone possess, to run the country better without changing anything. Best stop here, I think, before I start ranting on (like Cobbett) about turnips. We’re in Ravenglass now on the third leg of the journey and at the point where the Cumbrian fells of the Western Lake District drop from the heights of Scafell down to the sea. It’s mournfully beautiful, a melancholic’s pick-me-up.