A bit of wonder

So this isn’t anything special, as photos go – it was a bit of a studio set-up (if my desk counts as a studio) with a lightbox background and a bit of fill from a lamp and taken on a Pixel 3 phone camera.

Warts and all, then, this picture of a couple of globe artichokes from the allotment, with a fair bit of insect frass and whitefly remains thrown in to add gritty realism. These plants were among our first imports to the allotment but we value them far more for their architectural beauty than for their food content, Sure they taste good, but you’d need to harvest a whole row for a decent feed, and the wastage would be truly shocking. For us they’re a great boundary plant, being horribly prickly and tremendous insect attractors in addition to being stunning to look at. The true harvest is in Madame’s room where they have been the subject of many drawings and paintings over the years.

I’m really interested in the rather messy conjunction between the natural, the aesthetic and the spiritual ‘frames’ within which we try to understand the sense of wonder which grips us, if we’re lucky enough, when we pause to contemplate something as simple as an artichoke, or a dragonfly or even the tiniest detail of a plant. I remember one memorable walk I shared during a pilgrimage with a friend who’d spent most of his life buying and selling grain. It was the day I learned the way to identify cereal crops early in the year, simply by examining their leaves. The day that I first heard the terms ‘ligule’ and ‘auricle’ not from a naturalist but a salesman, and I remember the sense of excitement, approaching awe, at the way the natural world somehow makes sense if you know, or are taught, how to look.

That sense of awe transforms our inner lives in a way that little else can. We can read disturbing stories illustrated with statistics about the state of the earth and push them to the back of our minds, and yet when we try to describe matters of the most profound importance to us we instinctively reach for the imagery of nature.

Our days are like the grass;

We flourish like a flower of the field;

when the wind goes over it, it is gone

and its place will know it no more.

Psalm 103

I’ve long since lost my copy of Raymond Williams’ book “Keywords” but I can remember that he wrote at length on the complexity and ambiguity that surrounds the word natural. I can understand perfectly well – intellectually – that we are a part of nature and I could write at length about the way that changing our understanding of our place as a part of the whole creation is a prerequisite for our return to wholeness, but nothing quite expresses the fragility of life than to observe the brief life of a flower. Nothing quite expresses our grief better than the memory of the wind passing over moorland grass in winter. Our lives are measured in seasons, our passions in roses, our personalities in creatures – we are tigers and sloths, owls and larks, rats and cats. So much of our interior lives is furnished with natural imagery it’s amazing that we treat the natural world as badly as we do; but without being the least religious about it I can understand the way that the fictional story of Adam and Eve embraces the profound sense that we have, through our perverse belief that we are the sole purpose of creation, been cast out from paradise. The story isn’t about sex – it never was – it was about getting too big for our boots. But that’s not a soapbox I want to climb on right now. Religion has done so much damage to the creation myths they’re no longer useable.

Natural history stands as a kind of bridge between nature and science. It’s driven to science by wonder and fascination. But human language is also saturated with natural history and, as I’ve already said, furnishes our sense of the numinous with images from the natural world. So the inner language we use when we think about the global environmental crisis is bound to be expressed in ways that some scientists and almost all economists and politicians would rather dismiss. Talk of God or Gaia or even nature can’t be measured in degrees centigrade or gross domestic product; you can’t quantify wonder and it would be difficult to bring paintings, drawings, poems and drama; music and all the variety of human artifacts as evidence because in thinking about the global crisis we are both the accusers and the accused. Francis Schaeffer, the founder of L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, described human beings as “glorious ruins”

A recent piece in The Ecologist magazine takes a well known paper by Jem Bendell to task for using bad science to back up a cataclysmic view of climate change which, the authors say, is more likely to lead to fear and paralysis than action to stem catastrophic climate change. Within the article there’s a section that deserves repeating –

One reason for its popularity is that Deep Adaptation does a couple of things effectively that other works do not. First, it talks in stark emotional terms about something that is undoubtedly very scary. It does not shy away from describing feelings that all people concerned with the climate crisis feel on a regular basis.

This emotional expression is something that scientific writing and reporting rarely employs, as scientists strive for detached objectivity in presenting facts. While frank discussion of the psychological and emotional impacts of the climate crisis is sorely needed, it must still be a discussion grounded in reality. “

Thomas Nicholas
 Galen Hall
 Colleen Schmidt
 | 15th July 2020

I absolutely agree with that whole sentiment – bad science is a curse , but as long as science, creative language and spirituality continue to eye each other suspiciously and refuse to engage seriously with each others strengths, we’ll never be able to muster the forces we really need to change the world. All great paradigm changes need their novelists and poets and their spiritual leaders as well as their chemists, engineers and sociologists.

The mid nineteenth century was fortunate to have Joseph Rowntree to highlight the horrors of the industrial revolution, Charles Dickens to bring them to the attention of a huge public, Joseph Bazalgette to build the sewers that ended cholera epidemics, Charles Booth to take Christian spirituality to the poorest areas in the country and Charles Darwin finally to put us in our place, not as the purpose, the telos of creation but as a rather gloriously interesting part of it. I could add many more; what about Marx for instance? We’d have to have a space for write-ins, and I can’t imagine them getting on very well, but that’s not the point.

There’s a lovely interview with James Lovelock in the Guardian today in which he speaks about the divisions between scientific orthodoxies as being every bit as damaging to science (and the earth) as sectarian religious disputes.

I realize my argument could easily be parodied as a kind of hippy dippy “why can’t we all be nice to each other?” indulgence, but I’m totally serious. Couldn’t our headlong rush into environmental catastrophe be said to be in need of redemption without invoking the whole ghastly apparatus of religious belief? It makes perfect sense to me that if you want someone to end their self-destructive behaviour you have to present a more powerful image of a possible future for them (that’s the bit that artists and writers are best at) and you also have to embrace some means of relieving the burden of guilt about past behaviour (that’s the spiritual) before you can help them over the threshold into a new lifestyle, that must necessarily be guided by the best science we have. Why try to invent an entirely new way of leading that process when we have all the tools we need at hand?

We have met the enemy, and they are us.”

The updated version was first used in the comic strip “Pogo,” by Walt Kelly, in the 1960s and referred to the turmoil caused by the Vietnam War.

“Not now George?”

With thanks to Joyce Grenfell.

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I’ve a lot of time for George Monbiot and I often find myself agreeing with almost every word he’s just written while contrarily wishing that he’d found a different way of writing it. It concerns me that I feel this way, because it forces me to examine that part of my history that makes me averse to harsh words.  My friends will breathe a sigh of relief that there is at least someone in the brake-van, and the people I’ve sparred with over the years will continue to think what they do.  There is a place for indignation and anger about our present conjoined crises of mass extinction and global heating and to hold back on that anger might feel like tacit support for the guilty.  Do we really have time for the niceties of civilised debate and a coming together of minds towards agreed collective action. Well we’ve had over fifty years of debating time since Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was published, and my entire adult life has been punctuated by warnings about our abuse of the environment. From the terrible post-war smogs in London and other industrial cities during my childhood onwards, the power of legislation and enforcement has been thwarted and emasculated by powerful vested interests. Surely they’ve had their chance.

And I think that sense of urgency is a powerful defence of the language that’s sometimes used in the debate. George Monbiot is just one among the many powerful voices who’ve spoken out and challenged the culture, and if by shouting loudly about the dangers they’ve brought it to the top of the political agenda then we’ve a lot to thank them for.  If our political system (and this is – ultimately – a political and economic issue) is so tin-eared, or wilfully deaf to the mounting scientific evidence, then our leaders can hardly complain when the debate is taken into the streets, because it us who have to breathe the polluted air and our children whose lungs are invaded by diesel particulates and will never hear a nightingale or a curlew.

The problem is that if it comes to a slanging match, the powerful vested interests have by far the loudest voice, and they have not been above using dirty tricks and deliberate lies to prolongue their hegemony. Stupidly, though, they don’t seem to be able to understand that we all breathe this air, we all drink the water (when there is any) we all eat the chemically compromised food. The rise in sea-level will drive millions of people away from their vulnerable homes, including those who can afford to own tropical islands. The problem is that there isn’t a column for the environment on a profit and loss statement, and so the polluters don’t pay. They’d soon stop if it hit their profits.

So yes there’s a bit of me that would like to make them suffer for the damage they’ve done, but if they were all locked up for eternity it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to the crisis. George’s article above particularly takes aim at farmers and the big environmental NGO’s, and reserves special hatred for grouse moors – there’s a picture of one the I took a few weeks ago at the top of this post.

IMG_5321We know the whole environmental culture has to change, and so let’s take the example of tree planting. Should we plant a million trees, say? Well yes, but where should we plant them? – and what trees should we plant? whose land shall we plant them on? who will pay for them, maintain them and keep them healthy? Can we tackle the climate crisis and the extinction crisis at the same time with the same plan – or will the two sides of the larger crisis require a plan modulated to meet both? This is where I part company with some of Monbiot’s comments because one obvious solution is to use the presently indefensible agricultural subsidy system to change the farming culture. To say to farmers “you can do what you like (within the law) with your own land, but we won’t pay you to do it if it doesn’t bring about any public good.”  I’m pretty sure that most farmers would be only too pleased to stop damaging their land so long as it didn’t bankrupt them in the process. Most hill-farms get 80% of their income from subsidies. Monbiot is quite right to say that the hill-country landscape has been turned into a wildlife desert by overgrazing sheep, but whose fault is that when, until recent years, farmers were paid according to the size of their flocks so, of course, they overstocked the sheep. Millions, if not hundreds of millions of trees could be planted on some of that unproductive land but the best possible workforce and custodians of the new forests would be the farmers who presently farm sheep. They’re in place already and they know their land as only farmers do. Calling for an end to sheep farming only makes a dangerous situation worse.  Do we even know what numbers of sheep might constitute a sustainable national flock? Aren’t there economic and ecological benefits to maintainin a much smaller national flock thereby retaining the best of the hill farming culture and reducing overproduction to the point where the market for sheep and wool improves. Would a revival in woollen cloth be a sustainable alternative to more plastics?   I don’t see the point in alienating and threatening farmers with the expropriation of their livelihoods when we know we’re going to need them onside. The grouse moors are much harder to defend, especially when the cost of shooting is so great that only the wealthy can participate, and amid the costs to wildlife by heather burning are the sinister statistics around the shooting and poisoning of birds of prey by gamekeepers who know when to keep their mouths shut.

But this too is where we’ve seen that not all big landowners are capitalizing on their land by running shoots. Neither do they all allow hunting and stalking.   Inevitably some will argue that any change will amount to an attack on their whole “way of life”. Well yes, so was the abolition of slavery and the end of public executions – we can’t go on excusing the destruction of our ecosystem because someone might get upset about not being able to wear their plus fours. I think the majority of landowners, if they are faced with the prospect of losing millions of pounds of revenue unless they change their ways, will grumble a lot and comply, because deep down they do understand. The biggest obstacle to change will be those industries that can’t adapt. The ones that will really go bust if farmers stop using chemicals! The manufacturers of the behemoths that straddle the fields and crush the life out of the soil will find ways of serving a less extractive agriculture, and no-one’s attacking the principle of using farmland productively and efficiently. It might be that instead of half-million pound machines, human beings could do more.  Some of my happiest winter mornings were spent laying hedges on a playing field that didn’t possess or want to flail the hell out of them.

I’m arguing two things simultaneously – firstly that the crisis is so severe that we must take immediate action and secondly that the best strategy for achieving that end is to use both carrot and stick to change farming culture. Aggression, rudeness and threats of expropriation will just make it harder.  I spent 25 years working in farming parishes and I always felt able to question why things were done in the way they were. Apart from one instance where I was shouted at by a (non farming) local councillor who’d got completely the wrong end of the stick, I found the farmers overwhelmingly open to new ideas. They loved their land and they neither wanted to poison it or lose it altogether by going out of business.

George Monbiot’s next targets in the article are the large NGO’s like the National Trust, the RSPB and the other powerful charities.  Again, it’s always better to change what you’ve got than abolish it all and start again. With the National Trust, Monbiot’s main target is the policy of allowing even drag hunting on its land. If this crisis is ever going to be resolved, then dog whistle tactics will have to be set aside.  The very word hunting carries a whole complex of polarizing imagery that makes resolution almost impossible, and lines the opposing views up with an angry chasm between them.  Better let the whole practice die of disgust, like bear baiting and cockfighting did in their day. Where the National Trust can help is in the management of its huge land holdings, and there it’s not heped by it’s foundational ethos of preservation and conservation. It’s not good enough to use huge sums of public subscription to preserve some notional bucolic landscape for sightseers.

The same problem on a larger scale happens within the National Park authorities who can be a positive nuisance when it comes to changing farming practices. Many of these charities and NGO’s encourage a narrow (especially in terms of diversity) view of passive participation in the scenery. Charities supporting single issues like birds, butterflies or  whatever else are not known for their collaboration, and can be positively hostile when other groups with different interests impinge on their “territory”.

So my plea to George Monbiot is to deal with his understanable anger and pursue the goal we all share by reaching out rather than acting out. It really does work better. To use a useful cliché once again, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’  but it’s not invincible. We can’t save the earth by making vote-winning policy announcements, but it can be saved by implacable determination, never losing sight of the goal and never accepting second best delaying tactics from vested interests. The farmers aren’t the enemy, it’s us with our insatiable appetites.

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I guess I’m an alien too!

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Sometimes the gentlest put-down is a tiny work of art.  My son, for instance, was at a party once and recounted an overheard conversation that went something like this:

She: Where do you work then

He: Oh I’m a physicist, I work in Cerne

She: On the Hadron Collider?

He: Yes

She: You mean that big one that goes for miles underground?

He: No I work on the small one.

She: How sweet!

 

One of my many come-uppances came when I was a curate at St Mary Redcliffe.  I was introduced to a very well dressed woman wearing the kind of understated clothing that announces itself silently and tells you exactly where you belong in the great scheme of things. I was wearing an extremely expensive silk cassock that was bought for me as a gift and which lifted me out of my mongrelry into another category of humanity. It was a useful disguise.  When she discovered my name she demanded (no really, she demanded in a voice like melting pack ice) “are you one of the Somerset Poles?” “no”, I replied airily “I’m one of the Kingswood Poles”.  Part of my dad’s family did in fact come from Somerset but they most certainly weren’t part of the Somerset Poles and I didn’t feel obliged to enlarge on my reply.

However my quarry today is a different branch of the put-down family that relates to the way we perceive and value the natural world.  If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that we had a break in St Davids a few weeks ago and I got going on a list of plants I found while we were there – there were well over a hundred in the end. Several, though, turned out to be a bit of a rarity and so I emailed a local botanist with  their names just so he could check them out (referee them) and add them to the records. Yesterday, after a long silence, I had a charming reply to my email thanking me and mentioning in passing that this was the second record for Sedum forsterium he’d received and that the other, found a couple of streets away, was – the finder believed – the garden form, ssp. elegantissimum.  I was instantly deflated, notwithstanding the fact that I’d identified it properly, but a garden plant? 

So how is it in the great scheme of things that a large hadron collider is more important than a small one, a Somerset Pole is more worthy of conversation than a mongrel Pole from Kingswood, and a rare wild plant more important than a hybrid of the same family that manages to escape from a garden and eke out a miraculous living on a streetside wall.  Who is it that determines these things? and does it even matter?

Well yes, it matters a great deal when our environment is becoming more and more degraded, because sympathy, money and research tends to flow to the places determined as ‘more important’ and away from those determined to be less so. I was disappointed with myself that I had fallen into a lazy way of thinking about priorities that had been handed to me as a ‘faite accompli’ and lurked unchallenged at the back of my mind for goodness knows how long.

Opposite where we live there used to be an old industrial site complete with gasometer and suchlike. In Bath there is a desperate need for more housing, and the local council have no money and so like so many other councils they had to allow the desperately needed houses to be built by a developer. But first there was a legal requirement to conduct an environmental impact survey – which I’ve read, along with the promises of low-cost housing, a doctor’s surgery and a new primary school. Here’s a retrospective environmental assessment of what actually happened –

The trend is for steady loss of this habitat type. When Bath Western Riverside was cleared for redevelopment, invertebrate communities of Regional importance that were associated with this habitat were lost.

The school and the surgery were quietly dropped because they impacted on the profits, and the first-time housing that had been so loudly trumpeted as a sweetener started off at £500,000 a flat. The ‘regionally important’ habitat was bulldozed away and replaced by a miserable “park” of municipal ryegrass. Little notice was taken of a wildlife corridor connecting the centre of the city to the countryside to the west and crucially all this was assisted in its passage because the development was taking place on a ‘brownfield site’. Who goes out to demonstrate over a derelict gasworks when there are homeless people living on the streets? Our use of language and imagery really does matter because it colours our priorities, and wrong priorities take us further away from our desired objectives.  Clearly we all agree that the environment is increasingly important because all the evidence stacks up behind that proposition. But expressions like ‘brownfield site’, ‘alien’, and ‘invasive’ subtly embody a hierarchy of  significance that can subvert our behaviour. What if the ecologically diverse environments are now the brownfield sites and the ‘green belt’ land we’re so desperate to protect is so doused in chemicals and so overcropped that the soil is all but dead? In a ‘battle of the priorities’ homes, surgeries and schools will always win over spiders and bryophytes.  It all changes, though, if the schools and surgeries are never built, the houses are utterly beyond the reach of first time buyers and the ecologically diverse environment is destroyed in any case, in the pursuit of profits for developers.

 

It matters that this isn’t an argument about aesthetics, although the riverside development is known among the locals as “The Gulag” and it certainly looks like a Soviet era bonded warehouse. I thought the gasworks site with its abundance of Ragwort and Buddleia looked better and the wildlife certainly thought so! But we’re not facing a crisis of beauty, we’re facing a crisis that entails the death of thousands of species, the destruction of the soil that feeds us and the air that we’re forced to breathe. “We have seen the enemy – it is us”, and we can’t solve the crisis unless we accept that more of the same can only make things worse.

 

Let’s imagine I own the wall with the Sedum forsterianum in St Davids and I want to knock the wall down, dig up the garden and build a car port for a holiday rental. The local council are minded to grant the permission because it knows the city relies absolutely on the tourist trade. A local and enthusiastic amateur botanist comes along and says “you can’t do that it’s a three star rarity”. I appoint an independent enviromental consultant who says – yes you can it’s ssp. elegantissimum which is just a garden escape.  The County Recorder joins the fray and says “not only is it a garden escape it’s an invasive garden escape that’s driving out all the real (i.e pure) Sedum forsterianum from the inaccessible cliffs hereabouts. The local Friends of the Earth get involved and start a petition to prevent any more car ports while the Gardening Club are incensed at the marginalisation of a favourite rockery plant. Plaid Cymru demand an end to holiday lets because the local people can’t affotd to buy houses any more. A local independent councillor says “something must be done!” without specifying what exactly that might be. Meanwhile a tidy minded council worker spots the offending weed in the wall and sprays it with Roundup while he’s doing the cracks in the pavement. 

 

It’s a rare plant, it’s an invasive menace, it’s a garden escape, it’s a hybrid, it’s a weed, its a meal ticket for a host of experts and it’s a vote winner too. It’s the gift that goes on giving for me, the lucky developer because every specialist interest group in town is so engaged in this turf war about a plant that they can’t agree what to do, and I get my application through without any effective opposition. The environmentalists all get to keep their virtue intact and the environment takes another small step in the wrong direction.

 

No amount of home baking, kefir production, artisan gin and allotmenteering is going to save the environment unless we learn to collaborate and that means watching our language and engaging seriously with a flood of data that may feel difficult and counter-intuitive at times. Sometimes I feel like withdrawing to the allotment or propping up the Potwell Inn bar until it’s all over but in my heart I know that the only chance we have is to engage.  The Sirens with their dark money will say we can have it all – but it’s not true and it never was. The sun’s shining and the insects will be out and about this morning so our neighbour Trigger will be up at the allotments with his little hand spray.  He doesn’t tell his wife he’s spraying and she will sometimes say “d’you know these beans were covered with blackfly last week and now they’re all gone.”  He doesn’t tell her about his little secret spray because he knows she’s trying to garden organically and because he loves her, he wants her to succeed. Damaging the evironment doesn’t require evil or malice, just lack of thought will achieve the same end.