The story so far – fifteen months on the disaster trail

The shadow over politics, the Brexit shadow, is one vast distraction. I feel I have to escape the shadow before I address other political subjects. But those other subjects – they’re all impacted in some way by Brexit, not least by the uncertainty associated with Brexit.

Take the environment, for example. UK environmental law is tied into European. Projects are EU-financed, standards, ideals, aspirations are shared. I remember at Finistera, at the end of the Camino, last autumn, noting how environment projects there were funded by the EU. I’d shared the Camino with many nations, and I loved that confirmation that many nations shared those standards, lived by a common framework. We know that Brexit free-traders cosy up to climate-change deniers, are casual about man-made changes to the environment – human ingenuity, they argue, has coped, and will always cope. All hinges on that one word ‘cope’.  Does the world we have around us, and that we’re projecting for our futures, mean that we’ve ‘coped’?

Human rights – the European Convention on Human Rights, which followed on from the UN Convention, and unlike the UN Convention is legally enforceable. Before the European courts. So for that reason we should exit it, according to Theresa May. As Philippe Sands (author of the remarkable East-West Street) pointed out when talking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last Sunday, more than any other country we – the UK – gave Europe the convention. It was a British inspiration. Hersch Lauterpacht, who pioneered so much (beginning life in Lviv, in modern Ukraine: he left in the 1920s, his family were wiped out in the holocaust), was latterly a Cambridge professor.

Farming policy: how will policy change, how will farmers be financed, once we exit the EU, and exit the Common Agricultural Policy? CAP funding is based primarily on the amount of land farmed , so big farmers (mostly Tory supporters) benefit most. On the other hand, to quote a Scottish hill-farmer in a Reuters report: ‘The bloody-mindedness of the French or the Irish in standing up for agriculture was not just standing up for their farmers but brought a good deal for us as well.’ Post-Brexit, where will the money be directed? We are promised ‘a major policy overhaul’. Will the acreage farmed continue to dictate funding?  How might our landscapes change? Will the much-hyped new trade deals bring in cheaper farm imports , with knock-on effects on farm prices – other farming countries have more clout than we do. And what of cheap farm labour from Eastern Europe?  Michael Gove wants to prioritise the environment in any new scheme. But we’ve no idea how that will work out in practice, and legislation will be fast-tracked through parliament – fundamental changes pushed through with minimal public debate.

The Cheltenham Literary Festival has brought to the town an impressive range of politicians, journalists, singers (Peggy Seeger), mountaineers (Chris Bonington), sportsmen (Mike Brearley, Jonny Bairstow), TV stars, performers, poets, novelists….

Among the politicians was Chris Patten. I’ll leave his words to speak for themselves.

Referenda ‘are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them’. (I can’t recall Patten’s exact words in Cheltenham – I’m quoting from another interview he gave.) Leavers in the Brexit campaign peddled a dubious notion of sovereignty (‘dubious’ was his polite word in Cheltenham – I see that elsewhere he’s spoken of ‘all this ideological crap about sovereignty and taking back control’). Brexit itself is ‘the single most calamitous act of self-harm in my lifetime’.

Philippe Sands, also at Cheltenham, put the remarkable achievement that the EU represents in the context of the preceding centuries of war. How casual can we be to turn our backs? He mentioned that Boris Johnson has been a friend for thirty years. How, he wondered, do you sustain such friendships in present times? Brexit has brought the obsessive tendencies of the further reaches of the Right, and Left, to centre stage. The centre ground of rational idea-based, truth-invigilated debate, is out of fashion.

Boris’s dad, Stanley, has written a novel. He and Vince Cable, also a new novelist, were a Cheltenham double-act. Boris’s novel assumes a Russian plot behind Brexit, enough to bring Brexit down. But he himself has changed sides from EU-supporting environmentalist to that contradiction in terms, a Brexit-supporting environmentalist.

Vince Cable outlined how higher education, the number of foreign students in the UK, intra-university cooperation across Europe were being threatened by Brexit. Stanley’s response, ‘Vince may be right, but he may not be.’ That was the limit of his response.

‘He may not be’ – that is standard Brexit-speak. You don’t need to address the detailed argument. It’s enough to suggest these days that’s there’s another point of view, however weak. And that point of view gets equal billing. The climate-change debate over again.

Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, is a one-time Remainer, now a Leaver – the damage, he suggests, to the economy that leaving was supposed to cause hasn’t happened. Is he now a convert to the hard-Brexit free-traders’ prognosis of a free-trade nirvana which will somehow subvert a world where protectionism and self interest are ever more asserting themselves? Or the Hammond soft version?

As the economy,  we haven’t left yet, we’re in a phoney-war period, a state of suspended grace which might just allow us to pull back from the brink – but the brink is too enticing. That itself is another aspect of Brexit – how supposed conservatives, the slow and steady incremental movers of politics, overnight become practitioners of brinkmanship.

Brexit is not only a bizarre course in terms of the economy, it is extraordinarily damaging to the democratic process, not just by giving referenda precedence over parliamentary democracy (so we have the question, can an act of parliament over-ride a referendum result – where does sovereignty lie?) but by polarising debate, taking out the common ground that most of the Right and Left shared until 2015.

Not only is the common ground not shared – it’s now scorned. So the John Majors, Chris Pattens, Nick Cleggs – they are old-school, flag-wavers of a different age. That would apply to me, and to most of my peers …

 

Never moving from a small patch of land…

Ten days of silence, no communication, ten days to meditate, and inbetween times to think a little.

The site must once have been a small farm, and on its eastern edge there’s a delightful patch of mixed woodland, and over the ten days I watched the leaf canopy reduce, and the leaf cover and mulch underfoot increase. The wind caught the birches rising above the canopy, and the sycamores and the beeches still held their colour. One morning the first rays of sun poured into the woodland from across the valley below the wood, and the beeches glowed, and a redbreast hopped in alongside me as I stood, motionless for ten minutes, watching, and there was a brilliant moment of colour when it turned to face the sun.

All the while the moon was waxing, from a crescent to full (the moon closer and therefore larger than at any time since 1947 I learnt afterwards) and I could just catch sight of Venus above the horizon as an evening star. Bed at 9pm. We were up at 4am, and Orion, Sirius and all the winter stars were brilliant, a crust and crunch of frost underfoot. Meditate for two hours, then breakfast at 6.30, and if the morning was bright back again to the woods.

A clearing gave big views of the sky, and vapour trails snaked across, the silver of the planes just visible as they began their descents to Heathrow and maybe Birmingham. To the west, a line of low hills, all meadow, green, a patch of woodland or two, and beyond I knew more open fields and the Black Mountains. And silence. I couldn’t even hear church bells. That puzzled me. Where were the villages? Curiously leaving on the Sunday I drove past Llanwarne, not more than a mile or two away, and the hollow shell of its parish church. (Abandoned in the 1860s because of constant flooding.) No bells ringing there.

My paths never varied over the ten days, and I picked up on all the nuances of the weather. No forecasts of course. But the wind backing south-easterly I knew probably meant rain would come the following days, even if the sky was blue and the sun brilliant at that moment. And the rain came. I felt like the farmers of old must have done, knowing what wind and wisps of cloud might presage for my small patch of land.

Meditations and musings, quiet perambulations, mealtimes where we observed noble silence – silence of body, speech and mind. So maybe I allowed myself too much licence with my musings. But watching weather and landscape I was, I think we all were, in the moment, and while the meditation could be hard, and the hours strict, my thoughts were gentle, and my burden was light….

All Hallows

Yesterday was All Hallows’ Eve, which makes today All Saints’ Day. Yesterday was also in warm and brilliant sunshine the last day of autumn (by my calculations anyway!) – the autumn colours burnt in the sun as I’ve rarely seen them, a multitude of shades, with their own luminescence – as if they didn’t need the sun to make them glow. Today is the first day of winter – the cloud is down on the hills, there’s a chill, the fire must be lit soon, and the leaves are thick on the ground. I raked them in the sunshine yesterday, but they’ve returned, and if I rake again, this time in the damp and gloom, they will return again, until the last one has fallen and I can put the rake away.

Yes, there’s an elegiac quality to all this. I listened to the adagio from the Elgar violin concerto driving back along the A419 heading toward the Cotswolds yesterday. That caught the mood. I knew this was the last day, the last of autumn, and there were not two hours till sunset.

The day before I’d listened to David Mellor on Classic FM, playing music from the Philharmonia under Otto Klemperer. A recording of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony when the great conductor was already in his 80s. He took it slowly. About the same time the recording was made I was, I remember, at a party at Professor Gombrich’s house. Ernst Gombrich was my professor at the Warburg Institute. Frau Gombrich mentioned they were going to hear Otto the following day. Otto being Klemperer. All with Viennese Jewish backgrounds, and the connections were still strong.

Klemperer had been recommended sixty  years before by Gustav Mahler (also that Jewish connection) to an orchestral position, and I felt my own connection listening to the final ecstatic bars of the symphony to Klemperer and Mahler. Almost a laying on of hands. Ridiculous in its way, but the music took me to another level. Triumphant – but also elegiac, and intensely moving.

Mahler died young, and two world wars had to work themselves out before Klemperer stood before the Philharmonia in the late 1960s.

I’ve felt betrayed by events this year – my values betrayed, values by which I’ve conducted by life over almost seventy years. The autumn leaves, the music, a sense of loss I wouldn’t ordinarily indulge. But I did this time, this once, just this once.

Norwegian wood 

And when I awoke I was alone, this bird had flown/ So I lit a fire, isn’t it good, norwegian wood? (Norwegian Wood, The Beatles, Rubber Soul)

One surprise Christmas bestselling book in the UK has been ‘Norwegian Wood’, which has the great virtue of being exactly what it says on the tin, or the book cover, ‘chopping, stacking and drying wood the Scandinavian way’, and more particularly, the Norwegian way.

I knew I must have a copy. Why? In my partner Hazel’s Cotswold home there’s a woodburning stove, and a stack of wood outside, under cover, partly seasoned – that is, partly dried, and I have the regular and rather enjoyable task of bringing it inside and keeping the log basket by the lounge fire well-filled. Sometimes the wood – I believe it’s all local beech (though we have some old indeterminate wood recycled from the rebuilding of the house next door) – flames up and lights the room, and we damp it down, and the room warms quickly, other times it’s slow and we open the vents and still it’s reluctant to flame. It has a mind of its own. But then of course  – it doesn’t.

Read Lars Mytting’s book and all will be revealed. Wood as a highly practical activity, but also pastime, mindset, lifestyle, craft and (check out some of the woodpiles illustrated in the book) art form.

‘Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection.’ (Henry Thoreau, by Walden Pond, in the 1850s.)

I remember my step-mother’s father, in his 70s by the time I knew him, building his woodpile along a garden path facing south, several hundred feet above Lake Lucerne, where his family had lived for generations. The woodpile may also have been there for generations. I was 13 years old, and impressed. I watched a total lunar eclipse from the same path, the woodpile, maybe I should call it a woodpath, behind me, the lake below, the mountains reaching up beyond, and the moon a deepening shade of red above.

‘The ideal way to dry wood is to stack it as loosely as possible.’ 

Keep the surface exposed to wind and sunlight. ‘Logs dry best when the surface contact between them is minimal.’ And I love this quote:

‘In Norway, discussions about the vexed question of whether logs should be stacked with the bark facing up or down have marred many a christening and spoiled many a wedding when wood enthusiasts are among the guests.’

There’s the sun-wall woodpile, the firewood wall, the round stack, cord stacking, the closed square pile – just a few of the stacking options.  There’s a wonderful photo in the book of a stack in the shape of a fish.

‘Splitting the wood is the part of the job Arne enjoys most.’ (Arne Fjeld, quoted by Mytting.)

And there’s sawing and chopping and splitting, though all are pretty much denied me. I don’t have a chainsaw, or a trailer, and that’s what you need in the Norwegian birch woods. But I do have memories of hand- and felling-axes from my Boy Scout days. How did we get away then with wielding such dangerous items? I loved the big felling-axe, lifting it up and bringing it down from well above my head, sliding my hand down the shaft, the smooth and mighty downstroke.

‘I don’t think people in the old days had a particularly personal or romantic attitude toward wood.’ (Arne Fjeld again)

These days it’s different, in England as well as Norway. Wood is a source of comfort, where once it was simply a matter of life and death over the long winter months. Piling and chopping and feeding the flames are these days recreation as well as necessity.

‘Wood is best when dried quickly.’

Drying gets conversations going. Cut trees down in the winter or spring, before the sap rises (and fungus and mould can’t get established in the cold) and let the wood dry during the summer for next winter use. And keep the leaves on! Strip the bark in two or three places and let the logs breathe. All apparently arcane but in reality hard, practical and close-to-the earth advice. (But not too close to earth – stack your wood off the ground.)

But many argue that you should leave it two summers. I guess it has much to do with space and time (a touch of relativity here): if you’re well set up, as a Norwegian farmer would be, then one summer’s drying may be enough.

‘Wood is the simplest form of bioenergy there is.’

Each wood burns in its own way, but what matters in the end is the density. An oak log will generate 60% more heart than an alder log of the same size, but ‘pound for pound (they) produce the same amount of heat’. The hardest wood makes the best firewood, but quick-burning woods may well be better for chilly early or late winter days.  Mix them with a harder wood of beech or oak.  For kindling use pinewood or twigs from deciduous trees. And there’s coppicing: ‘birch can have a rotation period of fifteen to twenty years and more.’

You can calculate how many kilowatt-hours of energy a tree can produce, and put a financial value on it.

Birch is ‘queen of the Norwegian forest’, not least because it grows tall and straight, with obvious advantages for felling and stacking. Ash is tough and strong, and ‘regenerates from the stool, and therefore is ideally suited for coppicing’. It’s also, for many cultures, Yggdrasil, the tree of life, so the symbolism as well as the reality of the threat from ash dieback is powerful. Green pine is almost impossible to burn.

I remember as a Boy Scout going on many a ‘woodfag’, and building fires for cooking that sometimes flourished and sometimes struggled. And with them the evening stew, and the immediate welfare of the small patrol of four boys in my charge. I’d have done well to know more about the kinds of wood I was collecting. But I do remember – we didn’t starve. The main criterion then as now is – collect dry wood. If you can break it with your hands, or it breaks easily under the axe, that’s what matters.

‘… thick woollen socks hung up to dry dripped and hissed onto the woodstove.’

Back to Gersau on Lake Lucerne, and my Swiss step-grandparents’ house on the hillside. Everything was wood-fired and there was a fine traditional stove in the sitting-room. (The earth closet extended a long way down into the ground, and was regularly emptied into a neighbouring field. But that’s another story!)

Modern clean-burning stoves compared to old-fashioned stoves have an extra supply of heated air. There are different kinds of stove: closed iron, soapstone, kitchen, tiered, tiled …. each with its own story. In so many areas of life we have lost touch with story, or we have story without history. Wood in Mytting’s hands, beneath his axe, is all about story, all about history.

‘Even in oil-rich Norway an astonishing 25% of the energy used to heat private homes comes from wood.’

Here in the UK woodstoves will never be a way of life as they are in Scandinavia. We’ll never have stacks of wood decorating our landscape. But as one source within an energy mix of renewables, with renewables part of wider mix of oil, gas, coal, nuclear, with the former growing as the latter diminish, wood could have a big future. Time is on its side, as stoves become more efficient, and if we take on board all the wisdom in Mytting’s book renewable woods might be more part of our own landscape, and carefully planned they wouldn’t need to be the scars on the landscape that pine forests have been.

And finally, there’s a poem I wrote a poem (The Woodman) two years ago, inspired by the sound of someone chopping one early morning, and that’s how I’ll end:

Across the field the woodman drags/ The log he would reduce with axe/ Raised high above his head it falls/ A wrench of sound breaks the still/ Of morning and there’s a rhythm/ As each repeated stroke is given/ A little extra force or thrust 

For he who cuts alone would still be best/ Of all the woodmen, though no-one knows/ But he how so sharp blade so cold/ Could cut to such design/ Or how he to such contracted space/ Could aim his axe and lay to waste/ In single moments a century of time 

Flooding

I went out running a few mornings ago for the first time since I walked the Camino. My left foot remains a little sore, and I’ve been taking precautions, but I have to get out there! Running over Cranham Common, the wind blowing strong but no longer a gale, a rare touch of blue in the grey above, and big views over winter woods and hills on all sides.

My mind all the while has been on my favourite Lake District haunts, many overwhelmed by floods. The A591 torn away at one point, the bridge at Pooley Bridge undermined, and floods in Keswick, and up the Eden valley in Appleby. And now Glenridding.

Helicopter camera shots, TV cameramen, are after the event. Rivers race, streets are flooded. But the deluge itself doesn’t get recorded. Living through the rain, and the apprehension as it doesn’t stop.

And then there are the torrents debouching from the mountains, from the Helvellyn range, from the Scafells, the sheer force of water which tore through Glenridding. TV is after the event.

The fields were flooded as far south as Cheshire when I was there two weeks ago. The rain has nowhere to go. Further north still more so. Down south it’s grey and the wind howls, as it’s doing now, as a new depression wings its way in. But by comparison we’re no more than damp.

The rain follows a more northerly track, and still the depressions pile in.

A paler shade of green

Are we entering the anthropocene, a new, man-created geological epoch? I don’t like the term: there’s an implicit assumption that we’re in charge. Climate change has a very different message for us.

One Labour MP commented on Hilary Benn’s recent speech in the Syria debate, ‘If only a shadow Foreign Secretary would talk about climate change with such passion.’ Unfair, not least because it’s not his brief. But it is an issue that’s inspired some fine rhetoric in Paris this week. Compared to Copenhagen in 2009, the hard truths of climate change are accepted by almost everyone, right-wing US diehards excepted.

The issue is how we deal with them (the hard truths, that is) – by investing more heavily in green forms of energy and/or looking for technological solutions. The earth as a self-regulating system (in James Lovelock’s terms), effectively an organism in its own right, which we disrespect at our peril, or the earth as servant of mankind, mankind ultimately omnicompetent, pushing back frontiers of knowledge and technology, destined to find answers to everything, well, almost everything.

I go with the former, because it keeps us grounded, keeps us in touch with our lives and our world as it is, and doesn’t posit some technology-driven future which could undermine that sense of connection with the Earth (inadvertently but appropriately capitalised!), and ultimately our very humanity.

But I am, that said, all in favour of investing in technological solutions. If India continues to build up its coal-mining capacity, and burn more and more, how might clean coal technologies make a difference? And carbon capture not just from coal. There’s also ongoing research into making clouds more reflective. And much else.

Awareness is everything. Having won the argument over climate change – it is for real, we have to face those who argue that current wind and solar technologies are too inefficient or too expensive, and use that to make a case for reducing or withdrawing funding now.  (The UK government being a case in point.) Their argument in one sentence: put funding, and it could be vast funding, into new technologies, and some will work, and some will not, but trust in technology and we will find an answer.

As a strategy it’s high risk. It’s dangerous to trust in hypothetical futures. There are current strategies which may be inefficient, and still small scale, but they have impact, and will in time – as, for example, solar cells become much more efficient and energy storage is improved – put subsidy behind them, and be fully commercial. We can’t risk losing the momentum we have.

I can’t get into carbon taxes and cap-and-trade here (expertise I haven’t got!), but they are of course another strand of the argument.

In the meantime we rely on imported gas, nuclear (handing over to the French for expertise and the Chinese for finance, high risk, given the importance of energy security), and fracking (also, high risk, this time in terms of local environments). How we strike a balance is not something this blog can address.

There’s a letter in a recent edition of The Times arguing for the potential, in the longer term, for turning CO2 into fuel – ‘artificial hydrocarbon fuels’. (CCU – carbon capture and utilisation.) It’s a process that requires vast amounts of energy, but as the writers say, ‘it is no use burning hydrocarbons to make hydrocarbons’. We’d need to use renewable energy sources, and that, they argue, should include nuclear power, with the ‘ultimate solution’ being to use solar power.

That struck a chord with me, not least because it sums up the dilemmas we face.

IPCC report – understanding the evidence

A letter to the Economist about the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report encourages us to see climate models not as ‘a prediction machine’ but as ‘living maps, drawn up by scientists with the most recent evidence available…’

It’s the phrase ‘living maps’ I like. Wouldn’t it be great if policy discussions generally could use living maps, mapping out options and actions and consequences, with full context, and a decent attempt at impartiality?

The press would hate it, and so too the politicians. Maybe I would too, to be honest. Democracy as we know it is all about confrontations. But a few occasional living maps are useful, so well done the IPCC.

And, yes, the IPCC is impartial. Errant reporting of the movements of Himalayan glaciers doesn’t vitiate reams of irrefutable evidence. How we respond is a different matter: are consequences manageable, how much does it matter if they’re not, what on balance is best for the world? But we need to accept the evidence before we can have that debate. Increasingly acidified oceans and retreating ice sheets and, yes, glaciers, are there to remind us.

We need those living maps, to work out our options. There are different routes to take and we may get lost. Routes we can argue. But we’re mad to challenge the contours. When the deluge comes we don’t want to find ourselves in a river valley all the while claiming the mountains don’t exist.