environment

What you might not see in winter

It’s like a bereavement, the state of our planet. Not just the fact of loss – I’ll get to that later – but the way it smacks you in the face when you’re not looking, or leaps up in the midst of the everyday, shocking you all over again when you thought you were safe.

I bought a nostalgic treat the other day, a copy of the Ladybird book What to Look for in Winter. I could justify it, almost, as ‘research’ for my MA but really I pressed the button on eBay because I had the book as a child and seeing the cover again made it irresistible.

cover

It’s a beautiful cover. What to Look for in Winter, published in 1959, is part of a series of Ladybird nature books illustrated by the renowned wildlife artist Charles Tunnicliffe. Muted greys and ochres evoke a wintry chill and the sparse beauty of a frozen landscape.

Most striking of all, though, is the sheer quantity of birds on the lake: herons, mallards, widgeon, tufted duck, and a snipe skulking where mud meets ice.  Above, a flock of whooper swans is coming in to land; you can almost hear the ‘wonderful whirring of their wings’, as the author E. L. Grant Watson puts it.

The abundance of birds and other wildlife is repeated throughout the book. Another lake picture shows at least fifteen pairs of coots and, in the bare-branched tree above, a flock of redpolls and siskins.

lake cropped

You can only see part of the thorn tree beside a Dutch barn, but there are seventeen birds in it: greenfinches, bramblings, yellowhammers and chaffinches.

barn cropped

On other pages, fieldfares crowd into a holly tree, golden plovers throng the bank of a lake and a huge flock of lapwings circles above a farmer ploughing a field.

My nostalgic indulgence suddenly turned into a sickening sense of loss.

Perhaps it’s because I live in quite a built-up area that empty or almost-empty, trees have become the norm for me. An occasional flock of long-tailed tits in the silver birch outside our house is something I treasure for days.

Things are a little better on the allotment, where there are often small flocks of goldfinches in the summer, and a colony of rooks in the nearby woods. Sometimes we see large gatherings of lapwings, geese and swifts around the nearby reservoirs.

But the blurb on the inside cover says this book will ‘add considerably to the pleasure of a winter walk’. There’s an implication that the kinds of wildlife pictured are accessible to ordinary readers, and that the abundance is normal. It doesn’t suggest you need to go to a special, out of the way place to experience it.

Was Tunnicliffe exaggerating? I doubt it: as a wildlife artist, his attention to detail was meticulous. What’s more, the book as a whole is instructional in tone: the point of it is to enable children to identify plants, birds and animals.

In 1959, children could learn, from one page of a pocket-money priced book, how to identify five different plants, including two types of fern

In 1959, children could learn, from one double-page spread in a small, affordable hardback, how to identify five different plants, including two types of fern

In any case, the evidence of loss is there in the statistics, if we can bear to look at them. In the last 40 years, humans have killed half of all the animals on earth. The current extinction rate may be 100 times higher than normal.

I don’t know how we reverse this but I do know we can’t care about things we have never seen. You can’t miss flocks of siskins, skeins of geese or a whirring whiteness of migrating swans if they have never been part of your life.

When I was writing the book about Incredible Edible Todmorden, I learnt that looking too hard at the big picture can be paralysing. Confronted with loss on this scale, it’s easy to despair.

Conversely, even very small actions can be energising and lead to bigger things. Going outside and paying attention would be a start. Trying to learn more, and in the learning to care more.

Why not go on a walk today and try to identify a new species? Take a Ladybird nature book with you if necessary. It’ll help you with the identification. It’ll also remind you what we’re up against.

When I was researching this post, I came across a lovely article by the award-winning author Helen Macdonald, on what this book meant to here as a nature-obsessed child. Well worth a read. 

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We need to talk about Cathleen

cathleen

It’s an odd thing to do, deciding to call a tree ‘Cathleen’ and then pinning a name tag to its trunk. But we live in odd times, so out of joint with our surroundings that sometimes it takes strange tactics to get our attention.

‘Cathleen’ is a magnificent elm tree in my home city of Sheffield. Like all trees, Cathleen is a bearer of stories, not just her own but also those of the myriad tiny creatures who depend on her for life, and of the much larger human creatures living in the quiet suburb where Cathleen has stood for at least 150 years.

elm silhouette

elm up.JPG

Now, however, humans may be about to bring Cathleen’s story to a sudden end, felling her along with thousands of others in what has been called Sheffield’s ‘chainsaw massacre’, part of a massive, city-wide scheme to upgrade the city’s roads and pavements.

condemned

There’s no denying that many of the improvements to our streets are both welcome and overdue, but it’s only now that some of us are waking up to the fact that the work is scheduled to involve destroying up to 18,000 trees, many of which are completely healthy. More than 3,500 have already gone.

It’s horribly appropriate that elm trees like Cathleen are traditionally associated with death and the underworld. Elms were often planted in churchyards and their strong, durable wood has been a popular choice for coffins.

There’s also a darker and more recent link between elm trees and death: Dutch elm disease, which since the 1960s has destroyed more than 25 million elms in the UK alone.

Roger Deakin, in his glorious paean to trees, Wildwood, describes Suffolk in the 1970s as ‘a landscape of many elms … cumulus clouds of their canopies on every horizon, elms in the hedges and at the corners of fields, pollard elms like milestones in the green lanes’. But now only a few hundred remain in the entire country and any that live for more than about twenty years are likely to succumb to the disease.

the hay wain from national gallery

Elm trees in John Constable’s quintessentially English painting of 1821, The Hay Wain, which hangs in the National Gallery.

So ‘Cathleen’, reckoned to be between 150 and 200 years old, is a rare tree indeed. It’s still unclear why she and a few dozen more survived the outbreak when others didn’t and it’s possible that her DNA may help scientists develop disease-resistant elms in the future.

You would think, wouldn’t you, that such an extraordinary specimen would be a source of pride anywhere, and particularly in a place that is renowned for having more trees per inhabitant than any other in Europe and was recently rebranded as ‘the outdoor city’.

Yet, unbelievably, Cathleen is at risk of being felled as part of the ‘Streets Ahead’ project run jointly by Sheffield City Council and Amey plc, a company described on Wikipedia as an ‘infrastructure support provider’.

I won’t rehearse here the reasons why felling healthy trees is incredibly stupid, or highlight the appalling lack of transparency there is over the plans, or the council’s inexcusable failure to get the trees assessed by independent arboriculturists. It’s all powerfully summed up by Professor Ian Rotherham on his blog here.

I want to focus on two things that strike me as especially sad about this debacle. The first is that it underscores the extent to which we as humans have become divorced from the natural world, what has rightly been called ‘our common home’.

We are so numbed by our culture of mass production and easy consumption, for example, that Amey has been willing to gamble that it can quash protest by promising to plant a new tree for every one they cut down.

It’s as if trees were washing machines or car tyres, easily replaced and with only minor variations between different models.

They are not. Under the plans, a magnificent mature lime, for example, could be replaced by a different species just seven years old. It’s like knocking down someone’s family home and promising them a new-build in a different area – they both have four walls and a roof so what’s the problem?

As Cathleen’s story demonstrates, even trees of the same species have their own, distinctive stories. This, presumably, is why campaigners are choosing to name threatened trees – as a winsome and clearly necessary way of drawing attention to their individuality.

Each tree also represents a unique habitat. Cathleen, for example, is home to a colony of rare White-letter hairstreak butterflies which almost became extinct when Dutch elm disease destroyed most of their preferred food sources.

white letter hairstreak.jpg

The White-letter hairstreak, named for the scribble on its wings. Picture credit

The story of Cathleen demonstrates how ecologically illiterate most of us are, how blind to the wonders that surround us in the nonhuman world. It beggars belief that we can even contemplate destroying a tree of this stature, rather than doing all we can to protect it.

The second thing, which makes me more angry than sad, is that this is not a ‘Sheffield’ kind of thing to do. My adopted city is a wonderful place with a long and proud history of radical thought, full of poets and artists, and cyclists and runners, with two brilliant universities, and acres and acres of green space, much of it donated to us by our philanthropic forbears. Thoughtless, selfish, stupid actions like unnecessarily destroying trees do not belong here.

A number of local groups in Sheffield are campaigning hard to change the Streets Ahead policy on tree felling. If you would like to find out more, or express your support, visit their joint website here. Even if you don’t live in Sheffield, you could sign the petitions and add your voice: trees are a national treasure, not just a local one.

magical places

potato patch

It looks a bit scruffy, doesn’t it? This corner of our potato patch, the leaves yellowing and the stems flopping every which way. It doesn’t look like something you might love.

Hiding beneath the soil are Pink Fir Apple potatoes; that unpromising foliage is like the X on a treasure map. I will never get tired of pushing my hands into the soil, tugging cool, knobbly potatoes away from the roots of the plants and heaping them like bounty on the grass.

pink fir apples

I dug Pink Fir Apples from this patch to take to my parents the last time I visited them in their home. My dad was ill, dying in fact, and  potatoes from this earth were part of the last meal he ever ate. I steamed them until they were just tender and sliced them onto a side plate, tiny to match his appetite. I liked the way the knife resisted for a second before it slid through the potato flesh.

‘He doesn’t eat much now,’ my mum said. I cut half a salmon fillet into little cubes and set them beside a tiny heap of runner beans, also from the allotment. Dad wasn’t speaking much either by this time but he mumbled: ‘This is lovely,’ and asked for a second helping. I made it even tinier than the first. He ate it all and had two grapes for dessert. Hours later, his swallowing reflex packed up.

For as long as I live, this corner of our allotment will be inscribed with the memory of digging those last potatoes for Dad.

allotment viewIt isn’t the only memory that lives here. There’s the bed I weeded with a deeply distressed friend, who slowly relaxed as she cleared the ground of dandelion, bittercress and thistle. There’s the millpond at the bottom of the site where the herons nested this year; the Bramley apple tree our children gave us the first Christmas we had this plot, and all the beds that Julian and I have dug as we slowly learn how to make this land productive.

This is how it goes when you care for a patch of earth. You and the land become knitted together in a sharing of memory, the creation of what Helen Macdonald, in one of my favourite chapters of her book H is for Hawk, calls a ‘magical place’. Writing of the hill where she has been flying her goshawk she says, ‘I don’t own this land. I’ve only got permission to fly here. but in walking it over and over again and paying it the greatest attention I’ve made it mine.’

I don’t own this allotment. I’ve only got permission to grow food here. But in coming here day after day, learning how to manage weeds, save seed, care for the soil, I have made it mine.

If somebody should force me to give it up, it would be like having a part of myself ripped away. My friend Sara, grower and activist extraordinaire, has written movingly of this exact experience, the severe distress of having her allotment tarmacked over to make way for a bus route. It’s happening up and down the country as hard-pressed councils release more and more land for development.

Sometimes I wonder how different things would be if the people who make decisions for us, day in and day out, all knew what it meant to create magical places.

Life talk

I’ve been spending time lately with someone who is dying. The day I thought I might see him for the last time I went for a run beside the stream near our house. I was trying to work out what to say. Is it better to plan, or to wait and see what comes in the moment?

I was running past a bridge and the sun was falling through the trees and splashing on the path. You should talk to him about life, I thought. Tell him how grateful you are for his gift, the one that made it possible for you to live here. Tell him about the tomatoes slowly ripening in the allotment polytunnel, and the way the light is lying in a shaft across that millstone.

millefleur

I ran beside a stretch of water that is kept for wildfowl. The moorhens’ nest had gone, and the mallards dozing in the early morning sun didn’t even twitch as I went by. You should talk much more about life, I thought. You should talk about the heron flying across the reddening sky last night, and the earthworms that show that the allotment soil is getting healthier, and the fox that appeared out of nowhere after you had put manure around the raspberries and stared you straight in the eyes, as if daring you to try and scare it away.

chocolate cherry

I’m picking up the blog again because I’ve realised that the most important things in life only become visible when you pay proper attention. I’ve been trying to develop that habit of paying attention, especially on the allotment where there is so much to learn, not just about how to grow food but also about the myriad life forms that share the plot with us. It’s a hard habit to embed when so many things clamour for an instant response, when so much seems urgent, pressing, demanding of haste. I hope that  regular blogging will help.

When I saw my dying friend after the run last week, he asked me the usual things born of a lifetime of good manners. How are you, how are the children, did you have a good journey? I told him we were well, that the journey was long but OK. I told him about the red kite hovering over the M1. His eyes lit up.

parsnips and peak oil

parsnipsOne of my top must-read bloggers is Ruth Valerio. I don’t imagine there are many highly qualified theologians who also run pig-keeping enterprises but then there aren’t many Christians thinking as intelligently about environmental issues as Ruth is.

I’m very honoured to be on Ruth’s blog today, writing about the ways that small actions around local food can help people engage with much bigger issues of sustainability.

***

What do radishes have to do with rising sea levels? How can parsnips make a difference in an age of peak oil? Why would rhubarb jam inspire hope?

The answers can be found in the west Yorkshire town of Todmorden, birthplace of the Incredible Edible movement.

Incredible Edible Todmorden began six years ago when a group of residents decided they were fed up with waiting for the powers that be to do something about the problems facing the world.

They were worried about polar bears and melting ice caps, about young people leaving their town because there weren’t any jobs, and about what their children and grandchildren would eat in the future if food and transport costs continued to rise.

But they also knew that statistics about overwhelming global issues like climate change and economic turmoil tend to turn people off. Everything seems too big to engage with.

So they decided to try an experiment:

Jump over to Ruth’s site to read the rest!

Picture of parsnips by KMJPhotography (TillyDog). Used under Creative Commons Licence.

watershed

If someone asks for directions to your home, how do you respond? Our house is some way from the city centre and if I ever get a cab from the railway station I usually have to give the driver a rough indication of whereabouts to go. I generally say something like ‘near the Co-op’ or ‘not far from the shops’.

I do it without thinking. Or I did until I read this very challenging post from Leah Kostamo at the A Rocha conservation group. ‘Where on Earth are you?’ she asks – and ‘near the shops’ is definitely not the right answer.

Kostamo breaks this big question down into ten smaller ones designed to challenge the reader to see how well they really know the area where they live. Getting to know your own place, she says, is the first step towards caring for the natural environment.

Her first question is: ‘What is the name of your watershed?’

Excuse me? I have a watershed? And it has a name?

The question hit me as extraordinary – despite the fact that I walk almost daily beside Porter Brook, the stream at the bottom of our valley.

porter brook

Stupidly, I had never consciously linked this stretch of water, which I love, to the wider context of the landscape that surrounds it.

Yesterday I set off to discover ‘my’ watershed. I pulled out the Ordnance Survey map, traced the Porter Brook to its source and arrived at a place called White Path Moss.

Stanage Edge and White Path Moss

As is the nature of watersheds, it’s a big, boggy area and while it may appear to lack exciting features, it turns out to be the source of three watery landscapes to which I have a huge emotional connection. As well as feeding my beloved Porter Brook, the waters from White Path Moss also flow down to a reservoir where I used to run with a lovely neighbour who has now moved from the area.

IMG_3776

To the south, ‘my’ watershed feeds Burbage Brook in the valley below Higger Tor, a gritstone hill that I have climbed countless times, often in the company of precious people, some family, some fleeting visitors from overseas.

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kite

I wandered in the valley for a while yesterday, enjoying the contrasts of dark green reeds and almost neon moss against the rich, peaty water.

burbage brook

bubbly

As I walked, I realised that understanding how this stretch of water was linked to the one near my house had made me feel more connected to the entire area. I was beginning to see what Leah Kostamo meant by saying that the first step towards caring for a place is to really know it.

What I hadn’t expected was that the discovery would make me feel differently about myself. When I tell people I live ‘near the Co-op’ I am unthinkingly buying into the dominant culture that would define us all as consumers. I situate myself with reference to shops.

To say ‘I live near Porter Brook, which flows from White Path Moss, which also feeds the waters at Burbage and Redmires’ is quite a different thing. It is to situate myself with reference to the landscape and particularly to the water that is so essential for life.

I doubt I’ll be using it as a direction for cab drivers any time soon but I will definitely be saying it to myself. I want to assert my identity as a creature at home in a landscape, not unthinkingly accept one that places me as a consumer whose primary connection is to shops.

In another piece I read this week the outdoor learning specialist Dr Robbie Nicol spoke of the importance of emotion in spurring us to make ethical decisions about the environment.

Few things make us more emotional than a risk to our very identity. I hope that as I gain more understanding of the importance of the land to who I am, so I will be quicker to respond when it comes under threat.

UPDATE: This morning I received an email from Steve Dumpleton, who lives not far from me and clearly knows far more about geology than I ever will. He gently corrected my statements about White Path Moss and then explained how the waters near us actually travel. I thought the sequence of place names read a bit like a found poem, so have copied his words exactly and also included one of his beautiful photographs.

“As you have said, your local water flows via the River Porter into Sheffield and beyond, but you need to think of Stanage Edge as the true watershed divide.

stanage after rain

View NW along Stanage Edge. The photo was taken just after a shower had passed over and everything was sparkling wet and clear.

“Here are two contrasting routes for raindrops depending on exactly which side of Stanage Edge they fall:

“1. East side of Stanage Edge (River Don catchment)
White Path Moss/Hallam Moors -> River Porter; flows into River Sheaf near Midland Station; flows into River Don at Blonk Street bridge; flows into River Ouse at Goole; flows into River Humber at Trent Falls; flows into the North Sea at Spurn Point/Grimsby.

“2. West side of Stanage Edge (Derwent/Trent catchment)
Various streams into Ladybower Reservoir or directly into River Derwent near Bamford/Hathersage; flows into River Trent near Long Eaton (between Derby and Nottingham); flows into River Humber at Trent Falls; flows into the North Sea at Spurn Point/Grimsby.

“Route 1 is the fairly direct route, about 100 miles ignoring minor river ‘wiggles’.
Route 2 is much longer, about 190 miles.”

Thanks, Steve!

Picture of White Path Moss copyright John Topping and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Picture of Stanage Edge by Steve Dumpleton, used under Creative Commons Licence.

seed freedom

seed packets

I am packing up seeds today. One envelope contains too many for me so I am posting a few to my mum. We will smile when the seedlings poke through the earth in a few weeks’ time, each thinking of the other witnessing the same everyday miracle, connected through the shared act of growing food from the same source, even though at the moment we live far apart.

This sharing works horizontally as I post the little packages to her at the other end of the country. It is also a vertical process, connecting me to the past as I remember the way she taught me to sow: lay a bamboo cane on the soil; twist it a bit to make a groove; water the groove; sow the seed sparingly; cover with soil; do not water on top. A mantra she learnt from her mother and who knows when it began in our family?

This year my daughters, both of them facing the challenge of living well on a student budget, also want to grow food. If they move into their new homes in time, I will help each of them prepare a vegetable patch. I will take a bamboo cane and fast-growing salad seeds: mizuna, rocket, lettuce, land cress. I will show them how to twist a groove in the soil. I will remind them: water before you sow and not after.

This practice of passing on skills from generation to generation is as old as the human race. It goes hand in hand with the sharing of seed. It is part of the complex web of ways in which we nurture ourselves from one year to the next, exchanging recipes, comparing growing notes, meeting around tables for our rites of passage: birthdays, weddings, baptisms, wakes.

You could say it is part of what it means to be human.

seeds

The preciousness of seed is written into ancient stories from all parts of the world. Right at the beginning of the Bible, for example, we are told that God gave seed as a gift to every living thing:

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

Genesis 1: 29-30

Seed is sacred.

The sharing and spreading of seed, the saving of it from one harvest as an investment in the next – these practices are a gift from God that bind us to the land and to one another.

That is why I believe the huge corporations that patent seeds so that it is actually illegal to save and share them are committing a terrible profanity.

It is why I think the bureaucrats who want to dictate which seeds we can and cannot use are, at best, a paradigm for the fools who rush in where angels fear to tread. And people who are ruled by fools do not have much to look forward to.

But I am worried that most of us who will be affected by this are asleep.

In our little corner of history we have decided we prefer the hard work of food production to take place where we cannot see it. As a result we are ignorant in ways that would be unbelievable for most people at most times, in most places.

How do we think we will eat if we allow a few corporations to increase their already tight control of food production? What do we imagine we will grow when the legislators have abolished our heritage seeds, the very ones that might help us adjust to the challenges of a changing climate?

What do we think will happen to our relationships to one another and the earth if seed is no longer freely available but yet another commodity to ration, market, hoard and fight over?

We should be scared but instead we are sleepwalking.

We need to recognise seed patenting and seed banning for what they are: acts of sacrilege, attacks on our freedom and autonomy, a kind of war against humanity by the inhuman corporations and bureaucracies who want to trick us into thinking that ordinary people do not have the ability to feed one another.

And we need to fight back. I think we should be linking arms, mother to daughter, father to son, all the growers and the beekeepers, everyone who wants to know how to make food happen, all the people who still understand that the right attitude towards seeds is one of reverence.

For many of us the counter-offensive must begin in acknowledging our ignorance, whether that is ignorance of food production or lack of information about the way corporations are taking control of the global food supply.

Then we must resolve to learn.

The film Seed Freedom from the Gaia Foundation and the African Biodiversity Network is a good start. It’s only about 25 minutes long.

So is simply growing something, even it’s just a few pea shoots on the windowsill. 

And if you live in the EU, please, please contact your commissioner about this potentially catastrophic law they will be considering on 6 May.