“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”.
Two books 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.