Impermanence

We conjured a turtle on a Cornish beach last Sunday, and slates gathered on the beach were scales for its back. Five hours later, in the gloaming, I watched the incoming tide, the waves creeping, maybe one in three or one in four, a little closer, until they trickled into the ditch we’d dug around the turtle. The shell held out a little longer, maybe ten minutes, until a small wave sloshed gently over the top, and then the undermining was really underway. By the time I took my leave, reluctantly, ten minutes later, there was barely a hump to be seen, as the tide pushed further in.

Impermanence… I’ve also been walking the coast path, from Trevose Head to Morgan Porth, and back, the same terrain, yes, but different perspectives, as if two separate journeys. The coves bite deep, and the caves and sink-holes provide sounding-boards for the waves. The rocks break and twist, as the strata and lines of weakness, and all the vagaries of weather and climate over many millions of years, dictate. And yet it all seems so permanent. Even the flock of oyster-catchers, which piped on a rock platform far below: they were there both outward and inward, though inward the black-backed gulls had flown.

Looking down on Bedruthan Sands from the cliff top, the sand was fresh-swept – the tide bites the cliff, no soft or littered sand, and four girls were playing boule, and their cries just carried to me. The waves which had been a high surf were lapping low, or seemed to from my elevation, and all seemed … well, yes, permanent.  I didn’t want to walk on, and lose that sense of forever.

I found a grassy slope, and sat and looked out to see, blue under blue, aquamarine closer in, where it shallowed, and the rippling smoothness extended in a great curve around me. Another cliff, another cove – snorkellers were taking advantage of low tide and swimming out to a sandy beach.

Where the cliffs come down to Treyarnon beach there’s a steep gully which you can swim through at lowest tide. This, my imagination tells me, is what they do, what I could do, as the observer, every day, and yet – such moments, such times, are rare. The tide will rise, the mists sweep in, and the storms, and the winter …

Joy and a gentle melancholy combine, and a sense of peace, and fragility … that sense of living in the moment, and yet living forever.

 

 

The Hay Book Festival 2017 

It’s May 2017. The Hay Book Festival surprises yet again. You know it will, one of the great joys is turning up to talks you may have booked in advance – but you never quite know what to expect.

And what you can do of course is not book in advance, head for the box office, see what’s still available, which is most talks, if you’re early enough, and simply take pot luck. Serendipity can have big surprises in store, and rarely disappoints.

Hazel and I took in some talks together, for others we split up and compared notes afterwards.

For anyone interested in getting a flavour of Hay Festival, and not averse to reading something of the ideas and arguments, and the sheer variety of subjects, and the passionate advocacy of many of the speakers – please do read on!

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Wednesday 31st May

11.30. I began with Cambridge historian John Guy on the subject of Thomas More. He traced the remarkable history of More’s ‘Utopia’, its influence worldwide, and disabused us of the notion that More was a serial torturer. John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs, hagiography of the Protestant reformers who suffered in Catholic hands, had a vested interest in accusing More. Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall follows Foxe, but Guy holds back from criticising her too harshly. Like all of us he’s in a little in awe of her ability to brings characters to life. Guy is also an admirer of Paul Scofield in ‘A Man for all Seasons’, but he stressed that More as a man with an individual conscience that he could not deny (Robert Bolt’s spin on More in his play) is a misrepresentation. More belonged in a 1500 year old Catholic tradition, and his conscience was formed within the church’s teaching.

Why did More write ‘Utopia’? A radical democrat? The reverse is closer to the truth.  He was an elitist, who feared the demos, just as Plato had done, and saw a guardian class as the natural protectors and rulers of the land.

Hazel skipped Thomas More and took in Artemis Cooper (biographer of Patrick Leigh Fermor) on Elizabeth Jane Howard, author The Cazalet Chronicle, the wife of naturalist Peter Scott (when she was still a teenager) and Kingsley Amis, and lover of Arthur Koestler and Laurie Lee. Sounds like someone it would have been interesting to know….

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1pm. We followed with Alistair Sawday, famous for his Special Places travel guides. What struck me above all is Sawday’s ability to talk in a relaxed conversational way, and I could imagine him talking to hotel and inn owners all over Europe, charming, enthusiastic, interested. Pulping 25,000 copies of an early travel guide almost brought the company down early on. He’s an enthusiast for earth closets. He fears that special places, which aren’t smartened up and denuded of character, are getting fewer. But they survive. Telling a wider world where to find them is a double-edged sword – great for the hotels, helping them survive, but a wider awareness and clientele can damage that sense of places apart.

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2.30. My day’s highlight was Cambridge lecturer (in public policy), Finbarr Livesey, in conversation with Andy Fryers. ‘From Global to Local.’ Is globalisation the only paradigm, is hyper-globalisation inevitable?

Livesey puts up powerful counter-arguments, well summed up in one comment: ‘As countries commit to harder, binding targets for emissions reductions, the ideas of reuse, remanufacturing, circularity [as opposed to the linear nature of globalisation, long lines of travel across the ocean] and zero waste will all gain more currency and increase the uptake of these ideas across industry.’ In the light of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement (yesterday, 2nd June), Livesey’s comment finds an even sharper focus. Industry around the world, we must hope.

Hazel took in Mary Aiken on The Cyber Effect, on how human behaviour changes online, taking in the impact on the developing child to teen sexting. Quoting the Hay programme: ‘She examines the acceleration of compulsive and addictive online behaviours (gaming, shopping, pornography) and the escalation of cyberchondria (self-diagnosis online), cyberstalking and organised crime on the Deep Web.’

Hazel was impressed – wished I’d been there. An example of how you can’t be everywhere at Hay!

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4pm. We ended our afternoon with Hazel listening to Roy Hattersley talking too fast and quietly about his new book in The Catholics, ‘history from the Reformation to the present day’ – and I took in (Thomas More enough for me for one day!) Jeanette Littlemore, professor at Birmingham University, with a talk entitled The Way You Tell It. Her subject being non-literal expression, in this case metaphor, metonymy, irony and hyperbole, in everyday life. College students who don’t have English as their first language can radically misinterpret metaphor. Parents can enjoy themselves on touchline shouting encouragement to their children – but do their children understand? Advertisers have thought it through rather more – one example was a wonderful Boddingtons ad from the 70 with the head (appalling froth to the modern ale drinker!) combed into a quiff, with a comb nearby.

She brought in a wide range of research findings, could have been too many, but she was mistress of her subject, and handled questions brilliantly. Makes you all the more aware of the way we use language.

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Thursday 1st June

We stayed down in the Usk valley, amid pasture and woodlands, with a trip in bright morning sunshine through the Black Mountains back to the Wye valley and Hay. Valley to valley…

11.30. We began our day with an inspiring talk by doctor and pyschiatrist Lynne Jones on her work with her work in disaster zones from Bosnia, to Indonesia, to Haiti, to the Jungle in Calais. The title of her talk (wait for it!): Outside the Asylum: a Memoir of War, Disaster and Humanitarian Psychiatry. PTSD and counselling is what a lot of funding goes into, but Jones provided ample evidence that listening, patient listening, is what’s required more than anything else. She recalled how a Bosnian man apparently objected to her taking photographs – it turned out he wanted his photograph taken, in front of the ruined house where his mother had been killed. He wanted someone with whom to share the experience. Where there are real and serious psychiatric problems it’s above all medication that’s needed.

Jones has a history as a passionate activist, doctor, psychiatrist. She was probably the highpoint of our Hay visit. She is only happy when involved, when engaged, and she puts politicians who rejoice in a narrow homeland focus to shame.

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1pm. Jeremy Bowen talking about his many years as BBC Middle East Editor was next. Title: Our Man in the Middle East. He’s informed, wide-ranging, tolerant, a natural talker, and I’m sure a listener, and one of the wisest voices on the BBC. That came over strongly. I’ve been critical of (sometimes angry at) the BBC’s coverage of the Middle East over the years – too much focused on immediate calamities and picking up the latest Western government line, which has often been too much focused on the horror of it all, and apportioning blame, at the expense of hard and difficult talk about solutions. Talking to a Hay audience Bowen allows himself a broader understanding, the Saudis in Yemen and Assad in Syria both perpetrators of appalling violence – taking sides and demanding retribution something he avoided. Bowen has to practise his trade in a world of instant news which sometimes runs counter to a proper understanding of the issues – and he copes with this probably as well if not better than anyone else. In short – he’s a good guy.

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4pm. Hugh Warwick, on Linescapes: Remapping and Reconnecting Britain’s Fragmented Wildlife, was our next port of call. Passionate and amusing, he’s probably our greatest expert on the hedgehog which for him is an emblematic animal, which has suffered more than most from our practice of dividing the land by way of roads, canals and railways. Hedges, walks, ditches and dykes are a man-made but natural landscape in which wildlife flourished. Take out a hedge and build a fence and wall – and don’t expect to find hedgehogs in your garden. Warwick is passionate about raising awareness, and optimist about solutions such as the wild areas left by motorways along which wildlife can travel, and green areas left on the margins of cropped fields in which plants and habitats can flourish. He argues passionately against the fracturing of ‘wildlife habitats into ever smaller and increasingly unviable habitats’.

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5.30. At the end of the day Hazel headed for ‘Countryfile star and visionary farmer’, and all-round good guy, Adam Henson, on the subject of his Cotswold farm park, set up by his father (‘Like Father, Like Son.‘) And I went for something TOTALLY DIFFERENT! Physicist Roger Penrose talking to Marcus du Sautoy about string theory, which posits too many extra dimensions to be convincing for Penrose, though he’s a fan of the theory, as a theory… about quantum mechanics and Newtonian physics and their incompatibility when it comes ‘reasonably massive objects’, and the predilection among many scientists that it must be Newtonian physics that ultimately must adjust (must they be compatible?)… and about cosmology, and the origins of the universe, and his own theory that mass may ultimately simply fade away, with only photons surviving, and at that point the universe returns to a singularity, out of which a new universe is born, and that process is beyond either birth or death of the universe… I don’t claim reliability or accuracy for my summary!! Roger Penrose is like Stephen Hawking a marvellous example of mental acuity remaining as sharp as ever with advancing age. And good to see Marcus du Sautoy, who took over as Oxford’s professor for the public understanding of science from Richard Dawkins, and whom I’d not come across in person before.

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Saturday 3rd June. We decided two days were not enough. So on a brilliant sunny morning we took the road to Hay in time for a coffee and then three more talks.

10am. We began with Nick Crane and a talk based around his new book, The Making of the British Landscape. We’re back post Ice age, after the Younger Dryas period, 9,600BC and a time of rapid warming, then almost 4,000 years in the blink of an eye to the major inundation (possibly the result of giant landslides which saw 180 miles of Norwegian coastal shelf slip into the North Sea) which finally put the Dogger Bank under water, and turned us into an island. An island of only 12,000 people, on one estimate, no towns, so Roman towns were a radical landscape change. I’ll have to read the book to discover how he thinks villages changed the landscape, and to compare with WG Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape, which has always been my bible in the subject. One question I tried to ask – but you have to be aggressive waving your hand! – was whether he thinks the proposal to make the Lake District a World Heritage Site is a good thing. George Monbiot in a powerful and I think misguided piece in the Guardian argued against. Monbiot fears stasis, and would like to ‘re-wild’.

Crane, intentionally he said, didn’t mention either the Bronze Age or Iron Age. He put his reason in the context of politicians misrepresenting history. I should have asked a question – I am of course with him all the way. I’m assuming the issue for him is too-easy and misleading labelling.

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11.30: Hazel checked out a hero of hers, Noel Fitzpatrick, Channel 4’s Supervet, on the subject of ‘Global Health in Man and Animal’. He’s arguing passionately for ‘a single shared medicine linking human and animal health’. Cancer in a dog is almost identical to cancer in a human. Medicine would be shared between species, not one species exploiting another for its own gain. How this might work in practice I don’t know – again, wish I could have been there.

Instead I chose almost on a whim to head off to hear the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak talking about her new novel, Three Daughters of Eve. It was an inspired choice. She talked brilliantly about Turkey, about the language (modern Turkish has been pared back to exclude Persian and Arabic words, to its great detriment), about liberals and academics operating in a hostile world where loss of job or imprisonment could follow any kind of mis-step. (Turkey she pointed out has long had a sense of being threatened by hostile countries on all sides, which puts recent events in an interesting context.) English is a third language, and yet she writes her novels in English – writing in a foreign language heightens your awareness – translating, from my very limited experience, does likewise. But Shafik is operating at a whole other level.

Her novel has three Turkish girls, brought up in Istanbul, studying in Oxford. She describes,a seminar where the lecturer tries to separate the pursuit of an understanding of God from religion. Without success. I’d have asked her about the Sufi tradition in Turkey had I had the chance – how it links with the current resurgence of Sunni Islam. Shafik had earlier brought the 12th century poet and mystic Ibn el Arabi into her talk.

If you think that all this suggests she lives in a rarefied world, you’d be wrong. She’s a powerful advocate of feminist and minority including LGBT rights. A long queue formed for her book signing: when we returned to the bookshop 1 ½ hours later she was still signing – and still talking.

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1pm, positively our last talk! QC and human rights lawyer Dexter Dias talking about his new book, The Ten Types of Human. Trying to illustrate some of the ten types in response to questions from an interviewer initially made it hard going. What Dias has done is use the structure of the ten types, all the product of human evolution, to produce a 800 page book passionately arguing for our engagement – the engagement of all of us – with human rights. The case he took up for the mother of a 15-year-old boy who died in custody, the victim of prison officer violence, was his starting -point for both his advocacy of human rights, and for the book.

I found this summary online of his work, and it’s very helpful as background to a remarkable man: ‘As Queen’s Counsel, he has been involved in some of the biggest cases of recent years involving human rights, murder, terrorism, crimes against humanity and genocide. He chaired and co-wrote the influential Bar Human Rights report to the Parliamentary Inquiry into FGM, has briefed and written reports for the UN around gender-based violence, and works pro bono internationally with survivors of modern day slavery, human trafficking and Violence Against Women and Girls.’

It’s encountering people such as this, and being inspired by them, that’s one of the glories of Hay.

**

And that’s it. Another Hay, another year. If you’ve stayed with me this far, thank you – and well done. If you not a Hay habitue, then do head off there, one year, some time soon.

Hay’s slogan this year is Hay 30: Imagine the World. Hay is thirty years old this year. But Hay does more than encourage us to imagine – it inspires us to change it. Advocates of the status quo, or turning inward, of identity politics and self-interest, would get short shrift.

Dawn chorus

The dawn chorus – we all listen in from time to time, often unwillingly if we’re lying wake, sometimes thinking – one day I’ll get up and get out there and …. just listen. You can’t worry about stuff when the trees enclose you, or the garden’s dew-covered in the dawn, or there’s a big sky and the last stars are losing out. You can’t worry about stuff when all you’re doing is listening. And maybe you’ll identify one or two birds amid all that joyful cacophony.

So one Sunday morning, early in May….

4.45 in the Buckholt beechwoods, the rain not long stopped, just enough light through the trees to see our way along a slippery path and avoid the roots. A tawny owl with a too-woo answers his mate’s too-wit. No too-wit: we only hear the answer. The thrushes give voice to the morning ahead of the crowd: their repeating phrases are mesmerising.

Robert Browning: ‘That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,/Lest you should think he never could recapture/The first fine careless rapture!

Browning was thinking of April, and we’re one week into May. But it’s been such a chill spring, April is still the abiding spirit.

A blackbird starts up its more random and fluting song in competition – as we hear it – with the thrush. For him it just might be competition for a mate, or setting out his territory.

It’s many years since I’ve walked through woods at this hour. Back in 1975 it was the tropical forests of Guatemala, and I remember a firefly that startled me, and listening for a jaguar, just in case. The dawn silence broken as I remember more by monkeys which took to swinging through the trees. My destination then was the vast temples of Tikal, in a clearing cut back from the jungle. My destination today – no more than a bacon sandwich, or maybe a return to bed.

But who needs destinations. Enough to be in the wood, and listening to the chorus. A great tit starts up, easy to recognise, then much too easy, and intrusive when we want space for other birds. Maybe take out the robin as well – which I love but its tuneful meanderings sound out from every direction. Without the great tit and robin, we novices would be able to focus more readily on other species. The coal tit, also a repeating call, but more mellifluous. The wren high-pitched, rapid and loud for a bird so small, so difficult to see. The chiffchaff chiff-chaffing. A goldcrest? – but maybe it’s pitched too high for me to hear – so another bird? But which?

We hear no more owls, but there are wood-pigeons, and collared doves. And by the side of the path Roman snails, tough-shelled and edible and enjoyed by the Romans who introduced them, and found more abundantly near Roman sites to this day. Too early for the adders and grass snakes, but who knows, later in the day, beneath the mats which are put out on the common, where adders find shelter.

‘It is the bright day that brings forth the adder. And that craves wary walking…’ (Julius Caesar)

But this is a dawn chorus walk…

The enemy – the pheasant. (We hear them but they belong on the woodland fringes.) 25 million introduced into the countryside each year, and they’re protected. There’s evidence they eat snakes. Which do we prefer? As someone said, you can see who drafted the legislation. Money of course comes into the countryside from the shooters, so the arguments aren’t all one way.

And habitats – we love our woodlands, but a hundred years ago great swathes would be taken out – clear-cut or coppiced or pollarded. The woods were resources not a place for recreation. And a place of mystery and seclusion, a place apart. There were the working woods, and the deep woods. And the deep woods still stir our imagination. One reason I love Buckholt and Cranham woods is that you can get lost there. There is always that frisson.

We try now, as Natural England does, to re-create the wildlife habitats of a one-time working woodland, without the working population. So we take out the saplings, we cut clear and we coppice – but it’s not easy to re-create habitats when we want them for recreation, not for work.

The chorus is better on bright mornings, than on wet, or cloudy. Better where the mix of habitat is greater – meadows next to woods, or gardens. Maybe. But there’s a magic in the woods at 5am, and at 6am – no sunlight reaches path or canopy (the clouds have yet to break), but the pale green, the bright new green, is illumination enough as I lift my eyes from the path. And to either side, a stretch of woods where bluebells thrive. This is mixed-habitat wood, and meant to be that way – there aren’t the great expanses of bluebells we can see elsewhere. Or wood sorrel. And only in a few places is wild garlic abundant.

Near the end of our walk, one crow. Only one. Distant. Too raucous. Round a corner, a field, scouts stirring from their tents – maybe collecting wood for a fire. Takes me back a few years. Then back to the road, and the village.

Fifteen hours later, sitting out on a patio, looking north to the woods where we’d walked. A song thrush strikes up, always inventive, compulsive listening. First bird of the dawn, the last (almost) of the twilight. 9.25 he flies down from the tree to roost. There’s a distant blackbird, and an early owl in the woods, a few seconds, then he’s quiet. And an evening crow. Like the morning just a single caw-caw, and that’s it. Then all is still. 9.30 a single bat flies past. There’s a breath of wind. 9.35, another bat and, a minute of two later, more than a breath of wind. Not only the leaves but the branches move.

All the while I’ve been contemplating a sunset sky which held its colour, its luminous reds, for at least half an hour, and above, alto-cumulus, a gentle bank of grey cloud against the light blue. The sky is as quiet as the land, and I feel I could step off into the woods and around the globe without disturbing a soul. Nearer at hand the oaks and ashes still gaunt in outline against the sky: the day (the 8th of May) has been one of summer warmth, out of the blue, out of the ether, a surprise and a wonder, summer in spring in winter.

It had rained before we began our morning walk, and after we finished. And it will rain tomorrow, then turn cold…

with thanks to Kate Gamez, of Natural England, our walk’s organiser, inspiration and guide

Nature notes from Cranham Common

No more EU, no more referendum, for now.

On a very different tack, or since I’m on land not at sea, on a very different track – the track across the local common, with its glorious sense of space. The valley to Painswick opens to the south and beechwoods lie behind me and to my left and right. And underfoot the closest to a carpet of cowslips that I’ve ever seen. No fertiliser touches this land, and currently it’s grazed on a rotation basis by a few contented Belted Galloway cattle. I can see them often from the bedroom window, beyond the cricket field, each with its single wide white belt.

Last year cowslips just touched the land, now they’ve almost taken over, and I’ve never seen the like. They’re small and they droop, gently, and there’s a kind of mute acceptance, a contendness of place, about them. It’s almost as if they’re apologising for being there, for holding on to one stretch of country when once they covered the fields and meadows of England.

Spring has come suddenly this year. The chestnuts were late, and even now the ash is holding back, no leaf green yet emerging from the buds. But we’re high here, exposed to winds, and Spring is just a little behind the lower country. A few daffodils survive, and the bluebells and wood sorrel are abundant, the celandine reclusive, and the wild garlic anything but. They’re not quite in flower yet, but the smell in places is all-pervasive. Driving back from Oxford last night, passing through woodland, the smell invaded the car, almost as if we had a well-seasoned Sunday roast in the back.

On my morning run, down by the stream beyond the common, by the delightfully named Haregrove Cottage, the birds were in chorus, and it was 9 o’clock – four hours past dawn. How many decibels higher will it be tomorrow when we walk out at 4.30 on an organised dawn chorus woodland excursion? It amazes me how the birds launch into their chorus almost as soon as they stir, sing their hearts out, and then subside into a more occasional chirping and chirruping as the day takes hold.

And here I am writing. Outside she’s mowing the lawn – she turned down my offer. But you can clip the edges she said. So that I will do…

The Lake District – Langdale valley, April, inclement

3pm said the forecast for the weather to go downhill. It’s 1.30 and we’re sheltering in the Sticklebarn pub in the Langdale valley. Only sheep and walkers and rain, or hail and snow and rain, happen in the Langdales. The seasons arrive late, but the weather arrives early.

Climbing up to Crinkle Crag – all hail and snow and gales, all hail Macbeth, and it’s rocky, and I’m wet, but there’s something bizarrely joyful about it all. What – in weather like this – the hell am I doing here?

Lichen, extravagant orange, marks marks grey stone – as if the farmer had thought a stone to be sheep, but his palette, equally extravagant (poor multi-coloured beasts) is red and blue. (And not just the sheep – for tractors his palette is red, yellow and green.)

A line of trees marking the road heading away down the valley appears to be a natural extension of our mountain path – but we must allow for a 1000ft drop down to….

a drowned landscape – every field waterlogged, patterning the land, picking out the rain sky, and the cloud sky, and the fleeting sunlight.

Screes emerge out of rock valleys and spill down the sheer side of Pike o’Stickle – once fifty years I ran the screes but could I have run these screes as once I thought and if I did how come I’m now alive?  Memory playing false. 

We met two other walkers, one having left at 7 and now wet and joyful and talkative and springing done the mountain, and another on the way up, gloomy, a grunt returns a greeting, a plague on other walkers – dealing with inner demons.

We have no inner demons, but it’s our fear of outer demons, interlacing the gale and hail, that drive us off the summit ridge. You can see the lines of hail on a photo of me, bedraggled, smiling – slow exposure (photo not me) in the gloom.

(Four years ago we were here, and walking down to Three Tarns we met someone who’d climbed Everest the previous year – and all four of us took a wrong path down. It was summer, and a 10-minute mistake. But I’ve always felt reassured that we shared our error with an Everest mountaineer.)

We’re back in the hostel. Once a Victorian baronial pile. Silence and you hear the wind in the high-vaulted roof. Talk and words resound – you hear life stories, and they echo round. Hotels are for privacy, hostels are for sharing histories and exploits.

Youth hostels – almost fifty years on, and we’re all ages, and school-holiday children are belting around, making noise, and no-one cares. Who needs hush inside, when all is gale outside. Or in the morning after the gale, when all is still.

Wildwood

In a previous blog I mentioned Roger Deakin’s Wildwood…

He makes habitable the Tudor farmhouse he buys by keeping out the wind and rain but still allowing at least partial free passage for the animal and insect life who had been its previous owners. He sleeps in a caravan to listen to the rooks, he’s part of the moth-makers circle as they cluster round the bright lights that draw the moths in, he recounts the stories of willow-men and the basket-and bat-makers who work the willow.

His is a wonderful but all too little known counter-balance to all the damage we do to our world, to our climate, to our landscape. I wonder at times whether we could impose a back-to-nature requirement on all road-builders, all architects and town-planners, anyone who would spread bricks and especially concrete over the landscape without a thought for future generations who will be left with it when lifestyles and domiciles and transport have moved on. Where once we felled trees in Britain at least we now have open pasture and hedges and copses which hide and nurture their own wildlife. Where we put down concrete nothing can grow, save after decades in the slow-wearing interstices where weeds find a scraggy home.

It would be good to have a long-term damage assessment built into every new project, with a minimum threshold in terms of decay or decomposition, to remind ourselves of the duty we owe not just our children, but to many generations hence.

It seems that the Environment Agency haven’t a clue when it comes to considerations of this kind. Deakin quotes their indifference to the withy (willow) growing tradition in the Somerset Levels. Floods brought poisoned water which ruined the crop one year, and no-one from the agency visited, and now it seems they have plans to flood the withy beds permanently. When I’ve heard stories about the agency in other flood situations I’ve always put it down to shortages of staff, or local misunderstandings, but it seems that it goes deeper, to an institutional level.

On a lighter note, Deakin notes that cricket bat willow only grows really well in England, to the frustration of Australians who must import English willow wherewith to thrash, they hope, the Poms.  Louis MacNeice writes of the drunkenness of things being various. Here we have the singular, the co-incidence of place and time to play which led to a game where the spring of willow and the resilience of cork and leather make for a game perfectly matched to human strength and capabilities. A more stolid bat would propel the ball much less far, and vibrate the hand, a softer bat and the ball would die before it left the square. Without willow where would we be, without the game that’s an antidote to all the frenetic activity which characterises most popular sports. With maybe the exception of snooker, but that’s about paralysis rather than relaxation of mind. But I digress.

20:20 cricket is another game altogether, although it still requires the magic of the willow wand, which however brandished remains something it seems modern materials can’t replicate. Long may it remain so.