Category Archives: Land

Wild orchids

My experience of the wheel of the year is not about celebrating festivals. What I most like to engage with are the seasonal events in my local landscape – the timing of which varies somewhat from year to year. Over time, I’ve built up an understanding of how the seasons occur in the local landscape, and there are certain things that are particularly important to me.

One of those things is getting to see the wild orchids. The hill nearest my home usually has a lot of orchids on it at this time of year. I can’t claim any confidence around telling the pinky purple ones apart. I love the bee orchids especially, and I’ve seen half a dozen this year, which is amazing.

The photo doesn’t really do justice to the profusion out there at the moment.


Living Legends

In the UK we have substantial legal protections for historic sites. If you buy a listed building, you have responsibilities to maintain it appropriately. If you buy a piece of land with an ancient tree on it, there will be no such protections in place for that tree.

When it comes to protecting features in the landscape, we tend to protect sites deemed to be of historical significance – which means sites of human activity. The landscapes we protect tend to be both dramatic and apparently pristine – I have a lot of issues around this because our protected landscapes are often dramatic land shapes that have been stripped of life. These are places devoid of trees, undergrowth and wild beings, maintained in a state of visual drama for the human gaze. Anything with an urban aspect gets little protection.

It would help considerably if we had more protection in place for ancient trees. It would be good if we could undertake to value the history in our landscapes without it having to be so human-centric.

The Woodland Trust has a Living Legends campaign under way. Most of our oldest trees have few legal protections so there is petitioning under way to try and persuade the Government to grant our oldest and most important trees more robust protections, in line with heritage sites, buildings and protected species. The campaign seeks to emphasise tree protection through policy and legal measures, as well as enabling those who manage our most important trees to care for them more effectively. More information, and the petition, can be found here


At the River

A birthday trip to The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust meant that I got to spend a little time beside the River Severn. It was low tide, with a great curve of sand exposed – no doubt many wading birds were feeding, but only a few were visible. Thanks to the efforts of my fabulous offspring, I was able to see curlews, and I heard them, which was wonderful. It’s been years since that last happened.

There were wild cranes with chicks, kingfishers, avocets and oystercatchers. I think I’ve added shellduck and oystercachers to the small list of birds I can identify by all alone. There were a lot of fluffy baby geese, and a great many orchids.

I grew up on the Cotswold edge, above the Severn plain. The river was always part of my landscape and always part of my sense of sacredness.  


At the red spring

We went to Glastonbury!

I hadn’t been to Glastonbury in more than ten years, even though I’m in the southwest of the UK. It’s not an easy place to reach without a car, and I really don’t travel well on buses. It was lovely to see the town. I’d never been to Chalice Well Gardens before, either. While visiting the gardens it became obvious that there was no way my beleaguered body was going up the tor, and so I stayed and contemplated and engaged with the water and wondered about the reputed healing properties of the red spring.

I was struck by the differences and similarities between tourists and pilgrims. Some people were clearly there for spiritual purposes, quietly doing their own thing. Some were clearly tourists, there to look and take photos – and in some cases allowing their children to undertake noisy and inappropriate rampages. Sometimes the people who appeared to be there as tourists were clearly moved by the place. Sometimes the people who looked like pilgrims turned out to be much more interested in taking photos.

Sitting beside the waterfall for an extended period, I had the opportunity to contemplate a lot of things, including how people engage with places and how easily spirituality becomes performance art. I compared the more elaborate and costumed actions undertaken for a camera, with the quiet reverence of people who looked like tourists but chose to bodily engage with the water. 

I’m very much in favour of sharing beauty. Taking photos for the internet is a reliable way of doing that. But at some point, the photoshoot starts to be more important than the ritual, if you aren’t careful. Trying to look good for the camera can really get in the way of doing anything substantial. There’s a huge temptation around going to special places and wanting to come back with a dramatic story, a revelation and some really attractive photos.

So I sat in the gardens for a few hours, and thought about iron and water, ideas of femininity, how people relate to places and what I might need on my own personal journey. I’m not good at big revelations, but I am good at being present to what’s happening around me.

So here’s a photo of me when I wasn’t in a deep state of contemplation and was still doing a lousy job of looking glamorous!


Tree Targets

In the UK, the Environment Act became law in November 2021. This is the start of a process for the Government to set new environmental targets. Which in turn means that the government is currently asking for public views on which new environmental targets it should introduce. The Woodland Trust is saying that every target proposed needs to be improved if they are to make a real difference.

The UK is a really nature-deprived place. Much of our biodiversity is under threat. It helps if people make it clear that we want a natural landscape, that we want trees and biodiversity. Trying to squeeze maximum profit out of every landscape makes for a terrible environment – for humans and wildlife alike. It isn’t sustainable, or viable and we need long term thinking about regeneration.

One really good thing we could do is to enlarge and reconnect existing woodland. Planting trees isn’t actually enough to create ‘woodland’ because a wood is considerably more than its trees. We need all the other plants, the insects, birds, mammals, etc. We need the life of the soil, the fungi especially. Planting new woods often doesn’t do that. Connecting existing woods gives all those other vital species the chance to spread. 

Habitat fragmentation is a massive problem. Little pockets of beings who are cut off from their wider gene pool cannot flourish for the longer term. We need green corridors, and we need to make connections between fragments of trees in the landscape. 

If you’d like to help, there’s guidance for what to say on the Woodland Trust website and it doesn’t take long to make a few helpful points.
https://campaigns.woodlandtrust.org.uk/page/99612/action/1


What if we re-thought land ownership?

Land ownership is mostly about violence.  There are places around the world where land is held collectively by the people who live on it, but that’s not mostly what we get. Where land is bought and sold, it’s all about those with the most resources being entitled to control the bounty freely available from the Earth. This tends to have its roots in conquest. Land has gone from common ownership, to being under control of relatively few people. At some point, this will probably have involved war or aggressive colonialism.

There is no moral justification for letting a few people benefit from the violence in our shared history.  That your ancestor had a big sword and was willing to kill should not be a basis for deciding who now has control of land. All too often, we see vast areas of land exploited for the benefit of the few, with no eye to the good of most people, the needs of nature or the urgent need for decarbonisation.  In the UK, the grouse moor is the prime example of this – areas of land that are burned to provide habitat for grouse so that rich people can hunt them. Grouse moors are known to contribute to flooding elsewhere, they deprive regular people of land access, and for what?

Meanwhile in our urban environments, homes and areas of land are bought as investment and may be left empty because the people who own them are only thinking about their personal profits. We’re not obliged to allow this. Laws could be changed to prevent this kind of behaviour. We could have a much more equitable approach to land.

We could cap how much land a person can own. We could penalise people for misusing the land. We could redistribute land ownership more fairly, or bring more land into public ownership. We could require public green spaces as part of urban planning permission.

While we’re at it, we could challenge ideas around private ownership. With a small percentage of people owning far more than they can use while vast numbers of people have little or nothing, we could afford to rethink how we distribute resources. We could start rejecting the violence inherent in certain kinds of ownership. We could decide that exploiting masses of people so that a few people can have far more than they need, isn’t an acceptable way to carry on. We could re-write some of our narratives around entitlement and fairness and question whether ‘deserve’ really should mean being able to profit from someone else having taken land by force at some point in history.

We could question the whole idea of owning land.


Water in the landscape

While we haven’t had heavy rain here for a while now, there’s a lot of water in the landscape still. The rivers and streams are fast flowing and high in their banks. Streams that only exist when it’s wet are very present, and there are a number of new springs that I’ve seen, and probably many more that I haven’t. The odds are many of those will disappear, but there’s no knowing when.

As I live on limestone, the secret, underground life of water is very much part of the landscape. The spring line on the hills informs where the villages are and where the oldest houses were built. With the weather so unpredictable and so much more heavy rain than is normal, springs can pop up all over the place. I love seeing them, and the arrival of a new one is exciting to me – but that may be in no small part because I don’t live close against a hill and they aren’t in my foundations. I have no idea how big an issue that might be for people locally.

Yesterday I saw a field that had previously had a lot of standing water on it. It’s low lying, it should be a flood meadow and I wonder about its history. Perhaps once it was proper wetland, and carried water through more of the year. We’ve lost so much wetland from the UK, and I often wonder where it was and how differently the landscape would have looked with more of those watery, liminal places.


Walking, stories and landscape

I experience the landscape around me in a way that is full of story. At this point, these stories are a mix of local folklore, history, personal experience and fiction.

If I walk from my home to the top of Selsley Hill, I go through a tunnel where I once had a rather magical encounter with a fox. I pass a corner where there was a slowworm one time. I walk past a community garden where I used to be involved. There is a pub, which has a few personal stories associated with it. Then I walk past the field where the were-aurochs first transformed in my Wherefore stories. I will tend to remember the first time going up over the grassy part of the hill and saying there was a chance we’d find orchids and then being blown away by how many orchids there were. There is a path where the bee orchids grow, and I remember who I’ve taken to see them in previous years. There is a signpost that gave me a strange experience once in the mist. Finally, there is the barrow, and all that I’ve done there. And all the other points in the landscape visible from the hilltop and all the stories that connect to those.

Each re-visit adds layers to the story of my relationship with this landscape. Over time, some of the personal experiences turn out to be more enduring than others. The fictional stories build alongside this.

Part of the reason my relationship with the land is like this, is that I walk. At walking speed, there is time for memories of a place to come to the surface. There is time to share a story or a bit of folklore. At walking speed, the landscape becomes much bigger because we have more time in it, and that allows room in all kinds of ways.

The car is a rather new thing in terms of human history. Our ancestors walked, for the greater part. There were no road signs. Finding your way through a landscape may well have been a matter of having a narrative map in your head. We know that some early mapping – like establishing the boundaries of a parish, was a narrative that you walked in order to reinforce it. If you can tell a walk as a story, you can teach it to someone who has never been there. Stories make a journey more entertaining and can help you keep going in rough conditions – I’ve certainly used them in that way. Stories help us place ourselves in the landscape – as individuals, as communities, as people with a tradition of being in the landscape.

I don’t have that unbroken lineage that traditional peoples have living in deeply storied landscapes. But, my people have been here a long time, and I have a feeling of rootedness. Most of what I have, I’ve put together for myself, from the local oral tradition, from folklore books, from history, and shared experience. This kind of relationship with a landscape is available to anyone, anywhere – sometimes you have to mostly work with your own material, but that’s fine. Every tradition starts somewhere.


We need a tree strategy

At the moment in the UK, we are cutting down irreplaceable ancient woodland to build a high-speed railway. There are people who feel that the railway will deliver environmental benefits and that this means it is worth cutting down the trees for. There are people (me amongst them) who are deeply uneasy about the idea of the ends justifying the means in this way. The argument that we can and should trash wild places and unique habitats to save the greater whole is, I think, deeply suspect. It ignores the importance of specific places, focuses on human benefits and it turns care for wild things into a numbers game. And numbers are so easily manipulated to tell whatever story suits you.

Recently the PM announced that there are no trees in the UK over 200 years old. This staggering ignorance only increases the danger to our ancient woodland. If decisions about national projects and the spending of public money are going to be made on the basis of what uninformed people imagine is going on… we’re in trouble.

Ancient woodland is real. Trees over 200 years old are very real. You can get involved with The Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory here – https://ati.woodlandtrust.org.uk/

The National Trust has a page on our most ancient trees – https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/enter-a-world-of-ancient-trees

Lack of access to green space has been a real issue during lockdown. The evidence for the impact of trees on mental health, and the necessity of green space for exercise and physical wellbeing, exists. It’s not a controversial subject. However, we’re short of trees, short of urban trees and short of access to trees and this needs to change.

A strong England Tree Strategy is crucial. It is the plan that will determine what the Government does to protect, plant and restore woods and trees for years to come. A plan informed by reality rather than the whims of those in power, would be a great help.

There is a DEFRA consultation underway. It is split into four key sections and below is some guidance to help people write their own personalised responses.

*   expanding woodland cover: target of 18,000 ha of new native woodland.

*   protecting existing trees and woods: at least 75% of native woods need to be in either good condition or improving for nature by 2030.

*   connecting trees with people: it needs to be mandatory for every local authority to have its own tree strategy.

*   trees as part of the economy: ensure that all trees bought with public money are UK sourced and grown.

You can share your thoughts here – http://www.woodlandtru.st/x5nAg

 


The Barrow People

There is a long barrow on one of the hills near my home. It is not signposted or protected in any way so it gets a lot of foot traffic. Children run over it and it is popular with mountain bike riders. I assume most of them have no idea that they’re on an ancient monument, and that it could do with kinder treatment from them.

It is a place I like to go, although I really struggle with how other people treat the site. I’ve spent a lot of time there, getting things in perspective – there is a lot of open sky on the hilltop and it tends to help. I go there to listen to the barrow, and to be with it. I’ve had a few interesting experiences there, but nothing it is easy to put into words. The barrow people do not talk much.

I realised at my most recent visit, that they only ever come up behind me and that not looking is clearly part of the deal. Pretty much all that ever happens is that sometimes I will have a feeling that someone is stood behind me. If there’s anything else going on, it isn’t getting through to me. But, my feeling is that nothing else is going on, that they want nothing from me and are not offering anything other than their presence. I find that presence very powerful, and comforting. I always feel better for spending time with them.

There was a beautiful moment yesterday when the temperature dropped. I was lying down on the flank of the barrow, with my eyes shut. It felt like a rush of energy, and people left. There was too much wind noise for me to hear them going, but I felt the land clearing, felt the descending peace of absence, and it was lovely. I’m not terribly good at being around people, and I find people who are out and about consuming the landscape as a product for their enjoyment to be especially difficult. They took their noise, their dogs, their destructive children, and they went away.

I stayed longer, and put up with the cold, and relished the quiet.

It isn’t a park, it’s a should-be-wild landscape full of small flowers in the grasses, larks, and ancient history. But most people who go there treat it like a park, and I hate that.