Spring again, and our neighbours are restless

Spring again, and our neighbours are restless

We have been entertained these past few days by the busy bustle of spring among the birds in our garden: a blue tit has found a hole in the sandstone wall and flies back and forth carrying nesting material, disappearing inside what should be a safe and warm shelter for its chicks, while a pair of magpies sift through the flower beds and fly off with beaks laden with twigs and leaves. Continue reading “Spring again, and our neighbours are restless”

John Clare celebrated in terrific 750th episode of In Our Time

John Clare celebrated in terrific 750th episode of <em>In Our Time</em>

Terrific In  Our Time this morning (the 750th broadcast!) on John Clare, with his biographer Jonathan Bate joining Melvyn Bragg and other experts to discuss the Northamptonshire labouring class poet. The small cottage in Helpston he shared with his parents, his wife Patty and their six children still stands, now renovated by the John Clare Trust. Continue reading “John Clare celebrated in terrific 750th episode of In Our Time

The meaning of trees: the way we see the world

The meaning of trees: the way we see the world

Is the rowan tree still there in the garden of the house where I grew up? The thought occurred to me as I listened to the second of five talks by Fiona Stafford on The Meaning of Trees, broadcast last week in BBC Radio 3’s Essay strand (and available as a podcast download). Stafford had begun by explaining the Rowan’s popularity as a tree for suburban gardens – it’s easy to grow, is good on all kinds of soil, is low maintenance, and doesn’t grow too large.

Rowan

For gardeners the tree has several benefits.  It’s a tree for all seasons – a kaleidoscope of changing colours  throughout the year, from creamy spring blossom and pistachio summer green to autumn’s bright scarlet berries.  It’s popular with bird-lovers because it’s a favourite of blackbirds and thrushes.  The result is that rowans found in suburban streets and gardens all over Britain.

Yet this is a tree that first flourished in wild upland areas.  And, as Fiona Stafford suggested, it’s long experienced something of an identity crisis, bearing a confusion of names at various times.  ‘Rowan’ reflects the Viking influence in Scotland, since the word derives from the Old Norse reynir,meaning red. The tree’s popular name Mountain Ash is a double misnomer: although it had its origins in highland areas, the tree is now just as common in the south.  Moreover, it is not related to the Ash (the confusion arose because of the similarity between the pinnate leaves of the two species). Then there’s the Old English name of cwic-beám, which survives in the name quickbeam (where ‘quick’ = life). Fiona Stafford considered various explanations as to why, from Anglo-Saxon times, the tree should have acquired its association with life. Perhaps it derived from its use as charm for infertile land, or from the therapeutic value of the berries (they make an excellent gargle for sore throats, apparently), or maybe it was something to do with the quivering leaves.

So the rowan comes in many guises: white ash, mountain ash, quickbeam, whispering tree, witchwood. As Fiona Stafford explained, this shifting identity suits a tree that is at once safe and suburban and a tree sacred to antiquity, renowned for its protective powers. She spoke of how the rowan figures prominently in Irish, Scottish and Scandinavian traditions, its berries considered the food of the gods. It features in old Irish poems, and has many associations with magic and witches. Its old Celtic name is ‘fid na ndruad‘ which means wizard’s tree. It also crops up in poems by Seamus Heaney, such as ‘Song’:

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

This is the second series on The Meaning of Trees presented by Fiona Stafford, Professor of Literature at Somerville College Oxford. Like the first, this one explored the symbolism, economic importance,  and cultural significance of five trees common in the UK. While the first series considered the yew, ash, oak, willow and sycamore, in the second Stafford discussed the rowan, pine, poplar, hawthorn and apple.

Klimt -pine-forest

Gustav Klimt, Pine Forest, 1901

Before the discussing rowan, now flourishing in suburban gardens, Fiona Stafford had begun her series with another domesticated species – one that has found a place in almost every room of the house – and in providing key ingredients of many household products. Stafford was talking about the pine.  She began:

The year is 1975.  The summer is scorching, and people are starting to strip.

She’s talking about the new wave in furniture:

In the kitchen we have pine tables, dressers, cupboards; in the bedroom pine headboards, wardrobes and drawers; in the bathroom there’s more pine for the cabinets, towel rails, shelves and brush-holders.

Everyone, Stafford exclaimed, is going pine mad.  How true!  This was the era of Habitat and local artisans retailing reclaimed and freshly-stripped pine (or, with effort, you could do it yourself).  We, too – a young couple setting up home in our first flat – were part of this pine revival that was, in Stafford’s words, ‘a reaction against the polythene, plastic and polyester space age’.  Instead of lino and Formica that mimicked wood, we wanted the real thing.

A native of Scotland, economically the pine is the world’s most important tree.  There are not only the obvious uses in the furniture, building and paper industries, but also its medicinal properties in treating bronchitis and pneumonia for millennia and its resin, used to manufacture glues, gums, waxes, solvents and fragrances.  It’s the ultimate versatile tree, providing the base oil for emulsion paint, turpentine for cleaning brushes, pitch for waterproofing ships’ timbers – and licorice allsorts.

Drowned pine forest

The drowned pine and oak forest of Borth

The pine has been a British native tree for over 4000 years, with dark pine forests entering legends and fairytales.  Fiona Stafford told how, after the ferocious February storms, a prehistoric  drowned forest of pine and oak from between 4,500 and 6,000 years ago was revealed when thousands of tons of sand were stripped from beaches in Cardigan Bay.  At Borth the remains were exposed of a forest that once stretched for miles before climate change and rising sea levels buried it under layers of peat, sand and saltwater. The trees echo the local legend of a lost kingdom, Cantre’r Gwaelod, drowned beneath the waves.

Pines on the Mediterranean

Wind-tossed pines on the Mediterranean coast at Giens, near Hyeres

Stafford spoke of the pine’s time-old ‘tendency to help and to heal’, now revealed in a new sense as scientists discover that pine scents create a cooling, aerosol effect as they rise. So a pine forest can actually create cloud cover – a natural mirror that reflects sunlight back into the stratosphere and away from the overheated earth.  But there was one use of pine not mentioned by Fiona Stafford – one to which I am addicted.  The seeds of the tree – called pine nuts – when harvested make a wonderful addition to many dishes, as well as being an essential ingredient of pesto sauce.  Stafford did, however, mention the heady scent of pine trees which I particularly associate with the Mediterranean.

Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cezanne, 1887

 Paul Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1887

Cezanne, The Great Pine, c.1896

Paul Cezanne, The Great Pine, c.1896

Something else overlooked by Stafford, but which I would have to mention in any discussion of pines, are Paul Cezanne’s paintings of pine trees which frame Mont Saint Victoire in his many paintings of that mountain.  Most powerful of all – and one of my absolute favourite paintings – is his portrait of The Great Pine.

Hawthorn

A hawthorn in the Yorkshire Dales

“There is a Thorn—it looks so old,
In truth, you’d find it hard to say
How it could ever have been young,
It looks so old and grey.
Not higher than a two years’ child
It stands erect, this aged Thorn;
No leaves it has, no prickly points;
It is a mass of knotted joints,
A wretched thing forlorn.

This is the opening stanza of Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Thorn’, cited by Fiona Stafford as an example of the fearsome reputation of the hawthorn, regarded throughout history as so unlucky that its blossom should never be brought into the house or displayed. Indeed, I remember when I was a child, my mother, who hailed from rural Derbyshire, would be horrified if we came back from a walk with hawthorn in amongst a bunch of wild flowers). This fear probably derived from the erroneous belief that Christ’s crown of thorns was of hawthorn. From the belief flowed the idea that to bring any part of the tree into a house – but most importantly the flowers – would result in someone in the house dying. Attacking or cutting down a hawthorn tree was a bad idea for the same reason. As Stafford remarked in her talk, ‘Some terrifying force seems to lurk within this formidable tree – or rather in the minds of those who feel so threatened by its deeply feminine beauty’.

In spring, the hawthorn bursts into beautiful ‘May’ blossom. Every year, in Stafford’s words, ‘almost overnight the hawthorn turns white; huge heaps of flowers seemed to be dropped along the branches as if by some careless cook. For David Hockney, this is ‘action week’.  At his landmark exhibition in London a couple of years ago, a whole room was filled with ‘these huge, disturbing, custard-coated forms’ – a massive celebration of the magical, shape-changing hawthorn’.

Hockney, May Blossom on the Roman Road, 2009

Hockney, ‘May Blossom on the Roman Road’, 2009

Despite the hawthorn’s association with bad luck, the tree’s main association is with May, its blossom crowning May queens and adorning maypoles.  Its alternative name of May or May blossom reflects the fact that the flowering of the hawthorn is a sign that winter is over and spring is underway (although, given the British climate, May blossom might appear in April or as late as June).  Interestingly, the old saying ‘Ne’er cast a clout ’til May be out’ (a warning not to be precipitous in shedding any clouts or clothes) refers, not to the month of May, but to the understanding that summer has not arrived until the May blossom is out.

May blossom on Wenlock Edge, May 2007

May blossom on Wenlock Edge, May 2007

Coincidentally, Paul Evans, one of the finest observers of the natural world writing at present, has this week devoted his Country Diary in the Guardian to the hawthorn.  I think the piece merits being reproduced in its entirety:

The last May blooms like a bride on Windmill Hill. White in the evening light as the sky begins to clear from a cool, drizzly day, she stands as a lightning rod, still dazzling with energy from the recent storm. From lightning, according to myth, she originated. Her branches are filled with corymbs of five-petalled flowers, each with a ring of red, match-head stamens. Her earthily erotic musk draws flies for pollination and sends them into a trance. A sacred tree to European peoples, her wood was used in wedding torches in Greece, as protection against hauntings and evil spirits in Germany, and in magical healing for warts, toothache, rheumatoid arthritis and childbirth.

Crowns of mayflower were found on the dead of Palaeolithic cave-dwellers long before they were used as bridal wreaths in Greek and Roman weddings dedicated to Maia and the Virgin Mary. In Celtic culture, lone bushes like this one were places of fairy power and protected for fear of reprisals. There is something in this. I have long admired this particular tree: impenetrable and cloud-shaped, it flowers late and produces a big crop of scarlet haws. It is frequently full of birdsong and the hum of insects, and has a distinctive presence up on top of the hill as a kind of beacon. It would feel like sacrilege to interfere with it and I can well believe its beauty could turn to malevolence. Most May trees or hawthorns in the landscape have gone smudgy, their petals fading and dropping in the rain.

Paths and lanes all around are sprinkled with the white confetti of the great wedding of May, and now the month and its tree are nearly over. The next wave of rose relative flowers – bramble and dog rose – is about to break out of hedges and scrub. Until then, this tree says it all in dazzling simplicity: flowers and thorns, beauty and pain – the marriage of May.

The hawthorn, as Stafford rightly stated, has changed the entire face of Britain: it’s a palimpsest of old land practices. This hardy tree, when cut and laid, is in many ways responsible for our very idea of the British countryside because of its usefulness for hedging. When much of Britain was enclosed in the eighteenth century, the new fields were marked by hawthorn tree hedges, shaping the landscape into the familiar patchwork of fields. Fields bounded by hawthorn hedges form a deeply-ingrained mental image of the English landscape – which is why the uprooting of old hedgerows in modern farming practice can be such a psychological shock. More than that, the loss of hawthorn hedgerows has also had an impact on wildlife, contributing to the decline of many species of bird.  In his poem ‘The Thrush’s Nest’, John Clare observed the close affinity between hawthorn and thrush:

Within a thick and spreading hawthorn bush
That overhung a molehill large and round,
I heard from morn to morn a merry thrush
Sing hymns to sunrise, and I drank the sound
With joy; and often, an intruding guest,
I watched her secret toil from day to day –
How true she warped the moss to form a nest,
And modelled it within with wood and clay;
And by and by, like heath-bells gilt with dew,
There lay her shining eggs, as bright as flowers,
Ink-spotted over shells of greeny blue;
And there I witnessed, in the sunny hours,
A brood of nature’s minstrels chirp and fly,
Glad as the sunshine and the laughing sky.

A typical Poplar Tree lined road - south of France photo by Brian Jones httpbracken.pixyblog.com

A typical poplar-lined road in the south of France (photo by Brian Jones, http://bracken.pixyblog.com)

When, in the 1970s, we began travelling through France to campsites in the Dordogne or Cevennes, the element of the landscape that most impressed itself upon me was that of miles of poplars that lined the routes nationales as we drove south.  In her essay on the poplar, Fiona Stafford noted that many of those in northern France were planted all in one go, on the instruction of Napoleon, in order to shade troops as they marched towards the French border.  The fact that they rapidly grew tall in orderly rows meant that they were perfect for lining trunk roads, or for gentlemen – who, on the Grand Tour, had seen the ‘Lombardy Poplar’ lining roads and rivers in northern Italy and had decided to utilise them line avenues on their country estates.

Poplars by the Mersey near Sale

Poplars by the Mersey near Sale

Poplar, said Stafford, is not much good as wood these days  (it’s mainly used for matches), but is, surprisingly, the most modern of trees, being the first tree to have had its complete DNA sequenced. This breakthrough has allowed experiments in tree breeding to begin – with objectives such as combating carbon emissions, and developing bio-fuels and bio-degradable plastics.

For such a plain, column like tree there are, surprisingly, many literary references to poplars.  Among those mentioned by Fiona Stafford was ‘Binsey Poplars’, written by Gerard Manley-Hopkins as an early protest against tree-felling – an act of ‘spiritual vandalism’ – when the poplars in the water meadows at Binsey were cut down.  It was a landscape that Hopkins had known intimately while studying at Oxford, and the felling ‘symbolized the careless destruction of nature by modernity’:

 felled 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Then there are the many artistic representations of poplars – ranging from Turner and Monet (the many paintings in all seasons of the poplars on the banks of the river Epte) and Van Gogh (who painted poplars many times in his life) to Paul Cezanne and Roger Fry.

Turner, A distant castle with poplar trees beside a river,1840

JMW Turner, A distant castle with poplar trees beside a river,1840

Monet Poplars on the River Epte,

Poplars on the Epte by Claude Monet, 1891

Claude Monet, Sunlight Effect under the Poplars, 1887

Claude Monet, Sunlight Effect under the Poplars,1887

Paul Cézanne, Poplars, 1890

Paul Cézanne, Poplars, 1890

Roger Fry,River with Poplars, 1912

Roger Fry,River with Poplars, 1912

Avenue of Poplars at Sunset by Vincent van Gogh, 1884

Avenue of Poplars at Sunset by Vincent van Gogh, 1884

Vincent van Gogh Two Poplars on a Road Through the Hills, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, Two Poplars on a road through the hills, 1889

Earlier I mentioned Cezanne’s obsession with painting the pines that framed the view of Mont St Victoire he saw every day when he climbed the hill above his home outside Aix-en-Provence.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think he ever painted the poplars cypress [see comment below!] which rise in the foreground of that view.  Maybe they weren’t there in the 1880s, though they were present when I photographed the scene a few years ago.

Poplars and Mont St Victoire

Poplars and Mont St Victoire

Whatever their economic or utilitarian value, the thing about trees for me is their daily presence in the world around us – ‘constant as the northern star’ as Joni Mitchell wrote in an entirely different context.  Constant and yet ever-changing: they may be the most important means by which we measure the seasons.  There is, too, something almost inexpressible about how we live out our lives amongst living things which – if they can escape the chainsaw – can survive for centuries or even millennia. They are truly, in the words of a poem by WS Merwin which coincidentally appeared in Saturday’s Guardian, the way we see the world:

‘Elegy for a Walnut Tree’ by WS Merwin

Old friend now there is no one alive
who remembers when you were young
it was high summer when I first saw you
in the blaze of day most of my life ago
with the dry grass whispering in your shade
and already you had lived through wars
and echoes of wars around your silence
through days of parting and seasons of absence
with the house emptying as the years went their way
until it was home to bats and swallows
and still when spring climbed toward summer
you opened once more the curled sleeping fingers
of newborn leaves as though nothing had happened
you and the seasons spoke the same language
and all these years I have looked through your limbs
to the river below and the roofs and the night
and you were the way I saw the world

See also

The right to roam land and shore, ‘but for the sky, no fences facing’

The right to roam land and shore, ‘but for the sky, no fences facing’

Path Dorset

The other day I posted about how access to the river Mersey was restricted by the Cressington and Grassendale private estates. ‘As a freeborn Englishman’, I wrote, ‘I can’t understand the idea that a private estate should have the right to deny people access to a great river’.  That provoked a fair amount of debate, so I thought I’d look at the question of the right of access and the notion of public space in a bit more detail, exploring how the struggle for common land and the right to wander where you will has reflected sharply-differing interpretations of the legal and moral meaning of private property.  From the resistance to the enclosure of common lands to the hard-fought struggle for the right to roam, it’s a stirring story, and one that is far from over; new battle-lines are being drawn over access to the British coastline and its beaches, and the rapid privatisation of public space in our cities.

No man made the land, it is the original inheritance of the whole species. The land of every country belongs to the people of that country.
– John Stuart Mill, 1848

When you step back and take a historical view, what is clear is that access to the land has been a defining issue in British society for a thousand years.  Rebecca Solnit, a writer thrilled by the extent of the English network of paths and rights of way compared to her native America, has nevertheless observed that in this country ‘accessing the land has been something of a class war’. For a thousand years, landowners have been sequestering more and more of the island for themselves, and for the past hundred and fifty, landless people have been fighting back.

For some, it’s all down to the Normans; conquering England in 1066, they embarked on a swift land grab, establishing huge deer parks for hunting (the nearest here being Toxteth Park and the hunting forest of Mara and Mondrum, now known as Delamere).  Fierce penalties for poaching or in any way encroaching upon these hunting lands were visited upon the poor or landless in the centuries that followed – castration, deportation, execution (after 1723, for example, taking rabbits or fish, let alone deer, was an offence punishable by death).

The deer parks were gouged from the commons: lands which might be (usually were) privately owned,  but on which locals retained rights to gather wood and graze animals – and to follow their noses.  Over time a principle had been established in common law: that the public had the right to walk no matter whose property they traversed, following rights-of-way-footpaths across the fields and woods that were necessary for work and travel.

There’s a proud tradition of English folk rising up to resist the trashing of these entitlements by the rich and powerful, and it stretches back a long way.  Between 1509 and 1640 there were more than three hundred riots in England, many of them sparked off by the enclosure of common land or the denial of customary rights of pasture. Some were large enough to be regarded as risings or rebellions; others were small and insignificant, a handful of villagers levelling someone’s hedges and letting their cattle in.

The Norfolk Rising of 1549 began as a local demonstration against the enclosure of common land, but quickly developed into a revolt against the whole system of enclosures. It is considered, after the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the most significant of all the peasant risings.  In an organized response to the general oppression of the poor, 16,000 rebels attacked and took possession of Norwich, then the second city of the kingdom, and for three weeks administered the district until attacked and defeated by a government army. This is how a chronicler at the time reported the sense of injustice felt by those who rose up:

For, said they, the pride of great men is now intolerable, but their condition miserable. These abound in delights and compassed with the fullness of all things, and consumed with vain pleasure, thirst only after gain, and are inflamed with the burning delights of their desires: but themselves almost killed with labour and watching, do nothing all their life long but sweat, mourn, hunger and thirst . . .

The common pastures left by our predecessors for the relief of us and our children are taken away. The lands which in the memory of our fathers were common, those are ditched and hedged in, and made several. The pastures are enclosed, and we shut out: whatsoever fowls of the air, or fishes of the water, and increase of the earth, all these they devour, consume and swallow up; yea, nature doth not suffice to satisfy their lusts …

Shall they, as they have brought hedges against common pastures, inclose with their intolerable lusts also, all the commodities and pleasure of this life, which Nature the parent of us all, would have common, and bringeth forth every day for us, as well as for them? We can no longer bear so much, so great and so cruel injury, neither can we with quiet minds behold so great covetousness, excess and pride of the nobility; we will rather take arms, and mix heaven and earth together, than endure so great cruelty. Nature hath provided for us, as well as for them; hath given us a body and a soul, and hath not envied us other things. While we have the same form, and the same condition of birth together with them, why should they have a life so unlike to ours, and differ so far from us in calling?

We desire liberty, and an indifferent [equal] use of all things: this we will have, otherwise these tumults and our lives shall end together.

In the Putney debates of 1647, the Leveller Colonel Rainborough argued that, ‘the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the richest he’; two years later, on 1 April 1649, Gerrard Winstanley (who hailed from Wigan) and his fellow diggers started cultivating land on St George’s Hill, Surrey, and proclaimed a free Commonwealth.

We come in peace, they said
To dig and sow
We come to work the land in common
And to make the waste land grow
This earth divided
We will make whole
So it can be
A common treasury for all.

The sin of property
We do disdain
No one has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain
By theft and murder
They took the land
Now everywhere the walls
Rise up at their command.
– Leon Rosselson, ‘World Turned Upside Down’

In their first manifesto the Diggers asserted:

The earth (which was made to be a Common Treasury of relief for all, both Beasts and Men) was hedged into Inclosures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made Servants and Slaves. … Take note that England is not a Free people, till the Poor that have no Land, have a free allowance to dig and labour the Commons, and so live as Comfortably as the Landlords that live in their Inclosures.

As well as joining in the collective labour on the occupied land at St Georges Hill, Winstanley wrote pamphlets defending the Diggers’ cause. This was not just a local matter, but a national issue. The traditional village was breaking up under the pressures of an emerging capitalist market. Richer farmers were beginning to produce for the market, employing the labour of villagers who had been evicted from their smallholdings and become dependent on wages. Yet, Winstanley (whose proto-socialist argument was couched in religious terms, as most debates were at the time) pointed out, one third of England was uncultivated wasteland –  barren while children starved:

Let all men say what they will, so long as such are Rulers as call the Land theirs, upholding this particular propriety of Mine and Thine; the common-people shall never have their liberty, nor the Land ever [be] freed from troubles, oppressions and complainings. O thou proud selfish governing Adam, in this land called England! Know that the cries of the poor, whom thou layeth heavy oppressions upon, is heard. […]

Therefore you dust of the earth, that are trod under foot, you poor people, that makes both scholars and rich men your oppressors by your labours, take notice of your privilege, the Law of Righteousnesse is now declared. All the men and women in England, are all children of this Land, and the earth is the Lord’s, not particular men’s that claims a proper interest in it above others, which is the devil’s power.  This is my Land …

Therefore if the rich will still hold fast this propriety of Mine and Thine, let them labour their own land with their own hands. And let the common-people … labour together, and eat bread together upon the Commons, Mountains, and Hills. For as the enclosures are called such a man’s Land, and such a man’s Land; so the Commons and Heath, are called the common-people’s, and let the world see who labours the earth in righteousnesse, and . . . let them be the people that shall inherit the earth. …Was the earth made for to preserve a few covetous, proud men, to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that they might beg or starve in a fruitful Land, or was it made to preserve all her children?

Diggers

The Diggers’ occupation of the land on St Georges Hill lasted only five months before they local landowners went to court to have them evicted. In 1649, St George’s Hill was a stretch of wasteland. Today, ironically, it is an exclusive gated private estate, with multi-million pound mansions, golf course and private tennis courts. In 1995 and 1999 The Land is Ours, the group founded by George Monbiot, organised a mass trespass there in order to dramatise the issues of open access to the countryside of how the land is used.

St Georges Hill

In Scotland, common land was abolished in 1695, while in England enclosure acts and unauthorized but fiercely enforced seizures of hitherto common land accelerated in the eighteenth century.  Between 1760 and 1870, about 7 million acres (about one sixth the area of England) were changed by Acts of Parliament from common land to enclosed land.  In Das Kapital, Marx described how, from the 15th century to 19th century, ‘the systematic theft of communal property was of great assistance in swelling large farms and in ‘setting free’ the agricultural population as a proletariat for the needs of industry’.

Many did indeed see the process as a war; in 1803, the President of the Board of Agriculture, writing at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, saw the colonization of the commons around London as a patriotic duty:

Let us not be satisfied with the liberation of Egypt or the subjugation of Malta, but let us subdue Finchley Common, let us conquer Hounslow Heath; let us compel Epping Forest to submit to the yoke of improvement.

North of the border, in the Clearances, thousands of Highlanders were evicted from their holdings and shipped off to Canada, or forced to seek work as wage labourers in the industrial towns as landowners turned their estates over to profitable sheep farming. Some cottagers were literally burnt out of house and home by the agents of the Lairds. Betsy Mackay, who was sixteen when her family was evicted from the Duke of Sutherland’s estates, gave this account of their eviction:

Our family was very reluctant to leave and stayed for some time, but the burning party came round and set fire to our house at both ends, reducing to ashes whatever remained within the walls. The people had to escape for their lives, some of them losing all their clothes except what they had on their back. The people were told they could go where they liked, provided they did not encumber the land that was by rights their own. The people were driven away like dogs.

In England, as E.P. Thompson wrote in The Making of the English Working Class,’the years between 1760 and 1820 are the years of wholesale enclosure in which, in village after village, common rights are lost. … Enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery’. In 1809, when John Clare was 16, an Enclosure Act was passed to enclose lands in the parish of Helpstone in Northamptonshire and in neighbouring parishes. This was the land where he had been raised, and it formed his world, his horizon:

Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
– John Clare, from The Moors, 1824

The central aim of enclosure was to increase profits, but the price of ‘Improvement’ was the loss of the commons and waste grounds, which according to the Act ‘yield but little Profit’:

Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once, no more shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave
And memory’s pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now
– John Clare, from The Moors, 1824

Clare was devastated by this violation of his natural and social environment. For Clare, the open-field system fostered a sense of community, the fields spread out in a wheel with the village at its hub. Fences, gates and ‘no trespassing’ signs went up. Trees were felled and streams diverted so that ditches could follow a straight line:

There once was lanes in natures freedom dropt
There once was paths that every valley wound
Inclosure came & every path was stopt
Each tyrant fixt his sign where pads was found
To hint a trespass now who crossd the ground
Justice is made to speak as they command
The high road now must be each stinted bound
–Inclosure thourt a curse upon the land
& tastless was the wretch who thy existence pland
– John Clare, from ‘The Village Minstrel’, 1821

George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian in July 2012, observed how, as Clare moved from his teens to his thirties, acts of enclosure granted the local landowners permission to fence the fields, the heaths and woods, excluding the people who had worked and played in them. For Clare, everything he sees falls apart:

Almost everything Clare loved was torn away. The ancient trees were felled, the scrub and furze were cleared, the rivers were canalised, the marshes drained, the natural curves of the land straightened and squared. Farming became more profitable, but many of the people of Helpston – especially those who depended on the commons for their survival – were deprived of their living. The places in which the people held their ceremonies and celebrated the passing of the seasons were fenced off. The community, like the land, was parcelled up, rationalised, atomised. I have watched the same process breaking up the Maasai of east Africa. […]

What Clare suffered was the fate of indigenous peoples torn from their land and belonging everywhere. His identity crisis, descent into mental agony and alcohol abuse, are familiar blights in reservations and outback shanties the world over. His loss was surely enough to drive almost anyone mad; our loss surely enough to drive us all a little mad.

For while economic rationalisation and growth have helped to deliver us from a remarkable range of ills, they have also torn us from our moorings, atomised and alienated us, sent us out, each in his different way, to seek our own identities. We have gained unimagined freedoms, we have lost unimagined freedoms – a paradox Clare explores in his wonderful poem ‘The Fallen Elm‘. Our environmental crisis could be said to have begun with the enclosures. The current era of greed, privatisation and the seizure of public assets was foreshadowed by them: they prepared the soil for these toxic crops.

In John Clare: A Biography, Jonathan Bate follows E.P. Thompson in describing Clare as a poet of ‘ecological protest’, a political poet angered by the destruction of ‘an ancient birthright based on co-operation and common rights’:

These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine
But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho’ the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go
Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade goodbye
And much they feel it in the smothered sigh
And birds and trees and flowers without a name
All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came
And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes
Have found too truly that they were but dreams.
– John Clare, from The Moors, 1824

No public right of way

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing’
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
– Woody Guthrie, ‘This Land Is Your Land’

When Britain was still a rural economy of land workers, the struggle over access to the land was about economics, about survival. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, half the nation’s population lived in cities and towns.  It was in this period that the conflict over common land and rights of way changed from being about economic survival and became – as Rebecca Solnit puts it in Wanderlust – about ‘psychic survival, about a reprieve from the city’. As more and more people chose to spend their spare time walking, more and more of the traditional rights of way were closed to them.  The issue became the right to roam.

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You can date the desire to roam freely in the countryside back to the Romantic poets.  Rebecca Solnit tells the story of a confrontation at Lowther Castle in Cumbria, where Wordsworth was being entertained by the Earl of Lonsdale. At dinner, the earl complained that his wall had been broken down and that he would have horsewhipped the man who did it. At the end of the table, Wordsworth heard the words, the fire flashed into his face and rising to his feet, he answered: ‘I broke your wall down, Sir John, it was obstructing an ancient right of way, and I will do it again.’

Solnit is a great admirer of the English tradition of establishing, and fighting to hold onto, rights of way:

Certainly one of the pleasures of walking in England is this sense of cohabitation right-of-way paths create – of crossing stiles into sheep fields and skirting the edges of crops on land that is both utilitarian and aesthetic. American land, without such rights-of-way, is rigidly divided into production and pleasure zones, which may be one of the reasons why there is little appreciation for or awareness of the immense agricultural expanses of the country. British rights of way are not impressive compared to those of other European countries – Denmark, Holland, Sweden, Spain – where citizens retain much wider rights of access to open space. But rights-of-way do preserve an alternate vision of the land in which ownership doesn’t necessarily convey absolute rights and paths are as significant a principle as boundaries.

Nearly 90 percent of Britain is privately owned, but Solnit expresses her admiration for ‘a culture in which tresspassing is a mass movement and the extent of property rights is open to question’.  The movement that fought – and continues to fight – for unfettered access to land and shore began in the late 19th century.  The Liberal MP James Bryce, who introduced an unsuccessful bill to allow access to privately held moors and mountains in 1884, declared a few years later:

Land is not property for our unlimited and unqualified use. Land is necessary so that we may live upon it and from it, and that people may enjoy it in a variety of ways. and I deny therefore, that there exists or is recognized by our law or in natural justice, such a thing as an unlimited power of exclusion.

Today, campaigns for footpaths and the right to roam may have support from people of all social backgrounds, but at the dawn of the 20th century, the issue was seen in class terms and became a significant strand in the socialist movement. In 1900 the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers -a socialist organisation – was formed, followed in 1907 by the Manchester Rambling Club.  In 1928 the nationwide British Workers Sports Federation and in 1930 the Youth Hostels Association began to provide lodging for young hikers and working class walkers with limited means. Historian Raphael Samuels observed that, ‘hiking was a major, if unofficial, component of the socialist lifestyle’.  By the 1920s and 1930s, tens of thousands of workers spent their Sundays walking; in 1932, some 15,000 headed for the hills from Manchester alone each weekend. But they found their access blocked by rich landowners.

Kinder Scout, the highest and wildest point in the Peak District, became the focus of the most famous battle for access.  It had been public land until 1836, when an enclosure act divided the land up among the adjacent landowners, giving the lion’s share to the Duke of Devonshire, owner of Chatsworth House. The fifteen square miles of Kinder Scout became completely inaccessible to the public. Walkers called it ‘the forbidden mountain’.

Fighting between gamekeepers and ramblers during the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932

In April 1932, over 400 people participated in a mass trespass onto Kinder Scout. The event was organised by the Manchester branch of the British Workers Sports Federation. Walkers encountered gamekeepers with clubs and police with truncheons (above) during the mass trespass, and five men from Manchester, including the leader, Benny Rothman, were subsequently jailed. One of Ewan MacColl’s greatest songs, ‘Manchester Rambler’, was written in celebration of the Kinder trespass:

I’m a rambler, I’m a rambler from Manchester way
I get all me pleasure the hard moorland way
I may be a wage slave on Monday
But I am a free man on Sunday

I’ve been over Snowdon, I’ve slept upon Crowden
I’ve camped by the Waine Stones as well
I’ve sunbathed on Kinder, been burned to a cinder
And many more things I can tell
My rucksack has oft been me pillow
The heather has oft been me bed
And sooner than part from the mountains
I think I would rather be dead

The day was just ending and I was descending
Down Grindsbrook just by Upper Tor
When a voice cried ‘Eh you’ in the way keepers do
He’d the worst face that ever I saw
The things that he said were unpleasant
In the teeth of his fury I said
‘Sooner than part from the mountains
I think I would rather be dead’.

He called me a louse and said ‘Think of the grouse’
Well I thought, but I still couldn’t see
Why all Kinder Scout and the moors roundabout
Couldn’t take both the poor grouse and me
He said ‘All this land is my master’s’
At that I stood shaking my head
No man has the right to own mountains
Any more than the deep ocean bed

So I walk where I will over mountain and hill
And I lie where the bracken is deep 
I belong to the mountains, the clear-running fountains
Where the grey rocks rise rugged and steep
I’ve seen the white hare in the gulley 
And the curlew fly high over head
And sooner than part from the mountains
I think I would rather be dead

On its 75th anniversary, the trespass was described by Roy Hattersley as, ‘the most successful direct action in British history’ because, just over  a decade later, it achieved a result. The Ramblers’ Association had started its own right-to-roam campaign in 1935 and in 1945, within days of taking office, the Attlee Labour government set up a series of official committees which recommended establishing a system of national parks and establishing the right to roam across all open and uncultivated land.  Ten national parks were created but the only access improvement achieved was to strengthen the existing system of public footpaths.

No public right of way

In Finland, Norway and Sweden, the right to walk where you wish is enshrined in the principle of allemansrätt, or ‘every man’s right’. In Sweden, allemansrätt, guaranteed in the national constitution, is considered a central tenet of the national approach to tolerance, its origins stretching back in part to medieval provincial laws and customs.  In Scotland the Land Reform Act 2003 grants an extensive right to roam almost anywhere, as long as it is exercised responsibly. But England has always lagged behind.

On the fiftieth anniversary of its creation, the Ramblers’ Association began holding ‘Forbidden Britain’ mass trespasses of its own and in the 1997 election the Labour party promised to support ‘right to roam’ legislation that would at last open the countryside to the citizens. More radical new groups such as This Land Is Ours (founded by George Monbiot) began to take direct action to highlight a situation in which just 6,000 landowners, mostly aristocrats, own about 40 million acres – or two thirds of the land in the UK – over which public access was largely prohibited.  But, increasingly it’s not just about aristocrats: since the 1980s the trend has been towards land being bought up by multinational corporations and financial institutions.

Marion Shoard, author of A Right to Roam (1999) has written that ‘underlying successive skirmishes between owners and landless has been a simmering war of competing ideologies in which the supposed right of ownership of the environment has come up against a growing sense that the earth belongs in some sense to all’.

In A Right to Roam, Shoard wrote:

Seventy-seven per cent of the UK’s land is countryside, and this still includes much magnificent scenery. Yet the increasing numbers of people setting off in search of it find their simple quest ends all too often in disappointment and frustration. They can visit the ever more crowded country parks, picnic areas, and other enclaves provided by public and voluntary bodies, but if they try to venture beyond such places and roam freely they soon run up against a harsh reality. Most of Britain’s countryside is forbidden to Britain’s people. They may look at it through their car windscreens but they may not enter it without somebody else’s permission – permission which will be withheld more often than not. The rural heritage they may have loved unthinkingly since childhood turns out to be locked away from them behind fences, walls, and barbed wire. Where they have been expecting relaxation and peace they find instead warnings to keep out and threats of prosecution.

Our law of trespass holds us in its grim thrall throughout our country. Most of us are vaguely aware that those omnipresent ‘Trespassers will be Prosecuted’ signs are partly bluff. But all of us also know that trespass is indeed illegal, whether or not our wanderings are likely to put us in the dock. When an owner or his representative confronts us, we do not usually choose to argue the toss with him about our right to walk in our countryside. If we did, we should lose the argument. He has the right to use force to remove us. As a result, more than 90 per cent of woodland in Oxfordshire, for example, is effectively out of bounds to the walker. […]

Of course no one challenges today the idea of private property. But other societies hesitate to regard the land itself as something that can be owned as absolutely as a piece of jewellery. Our own laws of compulsory purchase and development control implicitly challenge this idea. Deep down we all know it is wrong. Throughout human history, the notion of which of the planet’s resources might reasonably be held as property by individuals has changed as different peoples at different times have developed different ideas of what is right.

In 2000 the Labour government of Tony Blair introduced legislation that established a limited right to roam over mountain, moorland, heath and downland. The bill was passed in the teeth of opposition from landowners (and from the Prime Minister himself, who backed landowners’ calls for voluntary arrangements instead of a public right).  Members of the House of Lords called the bill ‘an attack on property and the rights of ownership’ and ‘a travesty of justice’, and warned that it would lead to drug parties, devil worship and supermarket trolleys in Britain’s wild places.  Implementation of the Act was completed in 2005, but it didn’t grant a Scottish or Scandinavian-style right to walk anywhere you like, limiting access on foot to 936,000 hectares of mapped, open, uncultivated countryside.

All of this raises the question: Who owns Britain?  Some answers are provided in figures from a surprising source.  In 2o10, Country Life Magazine published ‘Who Owns Britain?’, thought to be the most extensive survey of its type undertaken since 1872.  The findings were revealed via another unlikely source: the Daily Mail:

The top private landowner, not just in Britain but Europe, is the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensbury, whose four sumptuous estates cover 240,000 acres in England and Scotland. But while his land is the most vast, it is not the most valuable, as the net worth depends on how much is farmland, as well as the value of the property and sporting and heritage activities on it.

The most valuable land belongs to Number 4 on the list, the Duke of Westminster, whose Grosvenor Estate, worth a whopping ­£6 billion, takes in the wealthiest areas of London, including ­Belgravia and Mayfair [and, I might add, a sizeable chunk of central Liverpool – more about that in a ‘mo].

Simon Fairlie writing in Land magazine highlights the undemocratic and increasingly unequal pattern of land ownership:

Over the course of a few hundred years, much of Britain’s land has been privatized — that is to say taken out of some form of collective ownership and management and handed over to individuals. Currently, in our ‘property-owning democracy’, nearly half the country is owned by 40,000 land millionaires, or 0.06 per cent of the population, while most of the rest of us spend half our working lives paying off the debt on a patch of land barely large enough to accommodate a dwelling and a washing line.

Yet the individual millionaires are now dwarfed by the incredible reach of corporate land-ownership, which barely existed 100 years ago.  As the biggest 19th-century landowners such as the Church have been sidelined by economic and social changes, their land has been snapped up by the private sector. Pension Funds  own 550,000 acres.  Catching up swiftly are foreign investors and even supermarkets. Waitrose owns a 4,000-acre estate in Hampshire, which it runs as a farm, while Tesco’s 2,545 stores alone take up 770 acres.

During the 18th and 19th century, before the advent of local government, the enclosures parcelled up so much of the countryside for country landowners that, according to today’s estimates, only 4% of land in England and Wales is registered as ‘commons’.

And it’s not just the countryside: in the last few decades the enclosures have moved into our towns and cities. Large sections of cities such as London, have long been owned by a small group of wealthy landlords. For example, the Duke of Westminster owned the whole of northern Mayfair, Belgravia and Pimlico, the Duke of Bedford owned Covent Garden while the Earl of Southampton owned the Bloomsbury Estate.

But, generally speaking, for much of the 20th century the ownership and management of property in cities has been in the hands of a diverse patchwork of private landlords, institutions, local government and private individuals.  In the last few decades, however, city centre regeneration, especially in declining industrial areas has often taken the form of very large new developments owned and managed by a single private landlord. In Liverpool, the city council handed a single private landlord, Grosvenor Estates, 42.5 acres of land extending over 34 streets for redevelopment on a 250-year lease.  This is Liverpool One – a highly successful retail development that has contributed to the resurgence of the city – but one of a type that raises concerns about the erosion of public space in our cities.

An aerial view of Liverpool One

It began with Canary Wharf and Liverpool One; now many commentators are drawing attention to a creeping privatisation of public space. Streets and open spaces are being defined as private land after redevelopment.  There are now privatised public spaces in towns and cities across Britain.

In the past decade, large parts of Britain’s cities have been redeveloped as privately-owned estates, extending corporate control over some of the country’s busiest squares and thoroughfares. These developments are no longer enclosed shopping malls; they retain much of the old street pattern, spaces open to the sky, and appear to be entirely public to casual passers-by.  But the land is private, and members of the public enter the area subject to rules and restrictions set by the developers – and enforced by their own security personnel.

The writer who has done most to map this process is Anna Minton, author of Ground Control.  In her book, Minton explains that the current wave of land privatisation started in the 1980s, with the development of Canary Wharf. New Labour gave the process a boost in 2004 when it changed the legal basis by which Compulsory Purchase Orders were assessed. Previously they had to show they were in the public interest; now they need only to demonstrate ‘economic interest’.

The opportunity to reconstruct urban space so radically, Anna Minton argues, was created by the de-industrialisation of the city, and the closure of the factories, works, warehouses and docks which used to dominate the urban landscape. What we’re seeing as a result is a rapid reversal of the long trend through the 19th century by which roads and highways were ‘adopted’ by the local authority.  Minton calls this ‘the creeping privatisation of the British public realm’.

From Liverpool One to Cabot Circus in Bristol, privately owned and privately controlled places, policed by security guards and featuring round the clock surveillance, came to define our cities. In London, Westfield Stratford City and the Olympic Park represent the latest stage of this process, based on property finance and retail, and underpinned by large amounts of debt.

The subtitle of Anna Minton’s book is ‘Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First Century City’. She explains how urban space is increasingly owned by private corporations and watched over by CCTV as developers fear disruption, crime, filth, and chaos. The result, she argues, are standardized urban spaces that look and feel alike wherever they arise: spaces that are impersonal, anonymous, hostile and not inclusive. There are rules and security guards to police them: no music, no busking, no picnics, no  alcohol, no photography, no street theatre, no ball games, no skateboarding, no roller-blading, no cycling. And, above all, no protests. Surveillance is widespread, usually via CCTV. ‘The streets’, says Minton, ‘have been privatised without anyone noticing’.

In Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit, drew a bead on the political aspect of this enclosure of once open and public urban spaces. Writing about her native San Francisco, and its tradition of parades and protests, she wrote:

This is the highest ideal of democracy – that everyone can participate in making their own life and the life of the community – and the street is democracy’s greatest arena, the place where ordinary people can speak, unsegregated by walls, unmediated by those with more power. It’s not a coincidence that media and mediate have the same root; direct political action in real public space may be the only way to engage in unmediated communication with strangers, as well as a way to reach media audiences by literally making news. ….. Parades, demonstrations, protests, uprisings and urban revolutions are all about members of the public moving through public space for expressive and political rather than merely practical reasons.

Paul Kingsnorth writing in his book Real England, put it another way:

It is the essence of public freedom: a place to rally, to protest, to sit and contemplate, to smoke or talk or watch the stars. No matter what happens in the shops and cafes, the offices and houses, the existence of public space means there is always somewhere to go to express yourself or simply to escape. … From parks to pedestrian streets, squares to market places, public spaces are being bought up and closed down.

The economist Diane Coyle, writing during the Occupy encampment outside St Paul’s,  observed how public life is being designed out of our cities:

One of the striking aspects of the Occupy movement is its claiming of some open spaces in major cities, striking because it puts a line in the ground (literally) against the steady erosion of urban public space during the past quarter century.  […]

The enclosure of open space in private malls, the design of street furniture to make sitting down (never mind sleeping) a challenge, the bearing down on demonstrations and gatherings and even photography on the grounds of law and order or security, have all contributed to discouraging public gatherings.

It was the Occupy movement that brought into sharp focus the issue of urban land and its ownership. Occupy in London were camped on ground owned partly by St Paul’s Cathedral and partly by the City of London Corporation. The drawn-out, but ultimately successful legal moves to evict the camp symbolized how urban land is increasingly owned or managed by private interests, even when it appears to be public space. This is the new enclosure movement.

The resistance to enclosure in earlier centuries is an old story, narrated by historians; but the same battles are being fought today against the enclosure of common spaces in our city centres.  Once it was physical fences and hedges that demarcated the private ownership of the fields of England; now invisible, metaphorical fences mark out the new enclosures.   In a broader context, other common resources, such as the production and sale of seeds, have been enclosed by global corporations wielding intellectual property laws as they scour the world, extracting genetic material, and then patenting these finds as their discoveries.  In this way, Third World farmers have lost the rights to use the seeds they have harvested and shared for generations.

Waquoit Bay

But what about the question raised in my post about access to the Mersey shore? Should we have right of access to every inch of our country’s coastline and its beaches? For many, this is a dream to aspire to, alongside the right to roam through fields and across mountain and moorland. At present, it is only a dream, glimpsed fitfully in new legislation.

The Danes and the Swedes have complete right of access to beaches, the foreshore, dunes, cliffs and other uncultivated land. In France, Portugal and the Netherlands the foreshores and beaches are in public ownership. Polls suggest that most English people think they have similar rights. But they don’t. There is a legal right of access only to about half of the English coast. And there is virtually none to beaches.  At present, we are only allowed to visit the seaside by a system of often confusing ad-hoc arrangements: when we venture onto a beach we are technically trespassing.

The Ramblers’ Association has long campaigned for a right to roam the entire coastline and beaches of the British Isles.  Now the Marine Act 2010 has begun a process – which will take ten years to complete – that aims to achieve exactly that.  The intention is to establish a ‘coastal margin’ or ‘strip’ which will be a clear access route, with clifftop walks complemented by ‘spreading room’ such as beaches, dunes, headlands and viewpoints, to allow people not just to walk along a linear path but to take diversions to viewpoints or have a picnic. The Act requires Natural England to publish a coastal access scheme, based on stage-by-stage negotiations with landowners.  They’ve got a big job on.

The Crown Estate controls about 45 per cent of England’s foreshore; the remaining beaches are in a variety of hands, from the National Trust and Ministry of Defence, to local authorities and private individuals.  When it comes to those private individuals the response to the idea of access is often, in the words of one who commented on my earlier blog, that ‘those who have been successful enough to be able to afford a little privacy’ ought to be left to enjoy their just desserts. Kate Bush, for example, spent £2.5m on 17 acres of Devon coastline, complete with a 1920s cliff-top villa, and private beach.

Another high-profile example (though in a different jurisdiction) involved Jeremy Clarkson who bought a lighthouse on the Isle of Man and then blocked a traditional right of way with barbed wire, arguing that having a public path so close to his property breached his human rights. He lost a legal battle when the court ruled in favour of the rights and freedoms of the general public to walk in the area. The ruling said that although everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, the footpath should remain.

In an example of a successful individual taking a different stance, the novelist John Le Carre gave a stretch of coastline beneath his house near Land’s End in Cornwall to the National Trust in 2000 to protect it against future development and safeguard the rights of walkers using the Southwest coastal path.

When all the negotiating is done and Natural England produces its plan there will be no right of appeal, nor any compensation to the owners of private beaches, hotels, nature reserves, wildfowling clubs or golf courses for any loss of income or capital value. Reporting this, the Telegraph was typically incensed and quoted David Fursdon, the president of the Country Land and Business Association, as saying: ‘This proposal is the sort of conclusion that might have been reached by the Bolshevik politburo, with the same lack of recognition of the legitimate rights of rural business people and property owners. The coast means different things to different people and some have invested heavily in residential environmental and business assets that derive their value from seclusion and tranquillity’.

There’s a long way to go before, like citizens of other European countries including Scotland, we achieve complete freedom to roam where we will over hills and moorland and along the coast of this land we call home; until, as the troubadour sang:

But for the sky
There are no fences facing

See also

Privatisation: a modern enclosure movement

Privatisation: a modern enclosure movement

Is there any part of Britain’s private sector that is free from corruption, mismanagement and blatant profiteering?  The banks, G4s, etc, etc: day after day, evidence of the scale of the rip-off being endured by British taxpayers piles up.  But are sufficient numbers of us angry enough?  Seumus Milne writing in today’s Guardian claims that public opinion in Britain has always opposed privatisation. But:

after the G4S fiasco, even paid-up Conservatives are getting restless. The Tory MP Michael Ellis told Buckles the public was “sick of huge corporations like yours thinking they can get away with everything”. And the Thatcher minister William Waldegrave warned Conservatives in Monday’s Times never to “make the mistake of falling in love with free enterprise”, adding that people who believe “private companies are always more efficient than the public service have never worked in real private enterprise”. […]

Milne reminds us of some recent examples of private sector disasters:

The G4S saga is only the latest in a series of recent outsourcing scandals: from the alleged fraud and incompetence of A4E’s welfare-to-work contract, to the “staggering losses” incurred by Somerset council in a disastrous private-sector joint venture, to the shipping of vulnerable children half way across the country to private equity-owned care homes in Rochdale. That’s not to mention the exorbitant private finance initiative to build and run schools, hospitals and prisons, which, it is now estimated, will cost up to £25bn more than if the government had paid for them directly; or the £1.2bn of public money lost every year because of rail privatisation and fragmentation; or the water shortage achieved in rain-drenched southern England this summer by a privatised water company that had sold off 25 reservoirs over the past 20 years while rewarding shareholders with £5bn in dividends.

Meanwhile, today the Liverpool radical magazine Nerve has this:

Former Labour Cabinet member John Reid who originally gave G4S contract for Olympic security is now a director at G4S. Teresa May has shares in Prudential, owned by G4S and Goldman Sachs have the most shares in G4S. How cosy!

Milne concludes:

The privatisation juggernaut isn’t unstoppable. Just as energy and water were brought under public control through the “municipal socialism” of a century or more ago, services and industries can be taken into modern forms of democratic social ownership today.  But while unions can resist outsourcing on the ground and groups like UK Uncut take direct action against the privateers, the emerging consensus against a discredited neoliberalism now has to find a real voice in national politics. Labour frontbenchers, such as Maria Eagle and Jon Trickett, have started to float the case for returning rail to public ownership and a “change of direction” on public services. But after G4S, what’s needed is a political sea change.

Back in March, on openDemocracy, Mel Kelly described how, with precious little public scrutiny, G4S – the world’s largest security company – has gained astonishing influence over our government and our lives.  Meanwhile – to take another example – in the Education section of yesterday’s Guardian, a revealing article explored the ever-growing influence of Pearson, the giant multinational that is the world’s largest education firm, on the English education system. Pearson is at the heart of what goes on in English secondary schools and FE colleges through its ownership of Edexcel, the largest UK exam board.  At the same time, Pearson’s education publishing business, via the brands of Heinemann, Longman, and Edexcel publishing sell textbooks and computer-based resources to schools, parents and pupils. Since 2009, Pearson, through Edexcel, has also had a contract to administer the marking of Sats tests for England’s 11-year-olds.

Now Pearson is moving closer to the heart of English education, running and funding several government-sponsored inquiries into aspects of the education system, and, crucially, developing a computer-based curriculum – ‘the Always Learning Gateway’ – currently being trialled in secondary schools.

In other words, there is now a multinational company at the heart of the English education system which is gaining the position in which it designs the secondary curriculum, sells the educational resources to support that curriculum, and sets and marks the tests that assess student outcomes.  The Guardian article quotes Stephen Ball, professor of the sociology of education at London University’s Institute of Education as saying: ‘I think it’s … an overall strategy: they want to offer products and services in all areas of school practice: assessment, pedagogy, curriculum and management, and they want to create the possibility for that through policy work. … It’s a very well thought-out business strategy. I think we should be thinking about it, because a lot of it is going unnoticed’.  While Alasdair Smith, national secretary of the Anti Academies Alliance, which is critical of corporate influence in education, says: ‘This stuff frightens the life out of me. My concern is that business dictates the nature of education, and especially the aims of education, when it should be one voice among others’.

Stuart Weir has been issuing bulletins on ‘the full enormity of what is going on’ on openDemocracy; writing again in June, he spoke of ‘the huge expansion of privatisation’:

According to the Financial Times, Britain is poised “for the biggest wave of outsourcing [that word again] since the 1980s”. More than £4 billion in tenders are being negotiated this year, according to studies of contracts published in the Official Journal of the European Union and analysis of companies’ bid pipelines. According to analysts, the FT reports, contracts involving the prison service – which is going to be almost wholly taken over – police forces, defence and health are “coming to market this year”.

Three government departments – the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Defence and Department for Work and Pensions – are the big drivers, but the expansion in privatisation includes local government, transport and education.  Local authorities are losing 27 per cent of their grant over four years and government is under increasing pressure to use the private sector in order to maintain frontline services in the face of the cuts.

In March, Weir characterised what is happening as ‘no less than a modern enclosure movement’:

Cameron and co – a group which includes Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander – and their two parties are engaged in the destruction of the historic postwar compromise between the public and private sectors with the wholesale transfer of public functions to private enterprise.  Their project amounts to no less than a modern enclosure movement, in which it is not common land but what is still left in the public sphere as a whole that is being wrested from the people.

In his poem To a Fallen Elm that railed against enclosure, John Clare saw precisely how those who hypocritically promote the interests of profit before the community ‘Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free’.  The poem concludes:

With axe at root he felled thee to the ground
And barked of freedom – O I hate that sound
It grows the cant terms of enslaving tools
To wrong another by the name of right
It grows a liscence with oer bearing fools
To cheat plain honesty by force of might
Thus came enclosure – ruin was her guide
But freedoms clapping hands enjoyed the sight
Tho comforts cottage soon was thrust aside
And workhouse prisons raised upon the scite
Een natures dwelling far away from men
The common heath became the spoilers prey
The rabbit had not where to make his den
And labours only cow was drove away
No matter- wrong was right and right was wrong
And freedoms brawl was sanction to the song
Such was thy ruin music making Elm
The rights of freedom was to injure thine
As thou wert served so would they overwhelm
In freedoms name the little so would they over whelm
And these are knaves that brawl for better laws
And cant of tyranny in stronger powers
Who glut their vile unsatiated maws
And freedoms birthright from the weak devours

George Monbiot, in another of his increasingly urgent missives from the frontline of modern encroachments on our commons and our liberty, wrote yesterday in The Guardian of the Diggers 2012, a group being hounded from land adjacent, ironically, to the meadows at Runnymede where the Magna Carta was sealed almost 800 years ago.

Writing this, a lyric by Joni Mitchell comes to mind.  The other day I watched a rather good account of her life and artistic career, Woman of Heart and Mind.  In part, the film touched on the albums of the late ’80s and early ’90s (albums such as Dog Eat Dog, Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, and Turbulent Indigo) on which Mitchell expressed discontent with the way things were heading, politically, socially and environmentally. ‘Dog Eat Dog’ seems particularly apposite in these times:

Where the wealth’s displayed
Thieves and sycophants parade
And where it’s made
the slaves will be taken
Some are treated well
In these games of buy and sell
And some like poor beast
Are burdened down to breaking

Dog Eat Dog
It’s dog eat dog ain’t it Flim Flam man
Dog eat dog you can lie cheat skim scam
Beat’ em any way you can
Dog eat Dog
You’ll do well in this land of
Snakebite evangelists and racketeers
You could get to be
a big wig financier

Land of snap decisions
Land of short attention spans
Nothing is savored
Long enough to really understand
In every culture in decline
The watchful ones among the slaves
Know all that is genuine will be
Scorned and conned and cast away

Dog eat dog
People looking seeing nothing …

Crow Country: the path of the free

Crow Country: the path of the free

Rooks at Buckenham Carrs

Rooks at Buckenham Carrs (from East of Elveden blog)

Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.
– William Shakespeare, Macbeth

At this time of year, as the afternoon light begins to fade, the open fields in Sefton Park gradually fill, first with a handful and then hundreds of rooks.  As the sun sets and the sky darkens, groups will rise and settle on the tops of nearby trees. This is a small-scale example of the phenomenon of the rooks’ night-time roost that Mark Cocker has spent the best part of the last decade observing, and which he writes about in his book I read recently, Crow Country: A Meditation on Birds, Landscape and Nature.

The goings-on in Sefton Park underline the fact that Crow Country is to be found just about everywhere in Britain.  But whereas the display in our local park is a pretty intimate affair, Cocker is drawn to the stadium performances in which this spectacle involves tens of thousands of birds.  He’s travelled Britain to the places where the most dramatic gatherings can be seen, though most of his observations have been made near his Norfolk home, where, at Buckenham Carrs in the Yare valley, he has seen as many as 40,000 rooks and jackdaws gather to roost.

For me, the most characteristic trait of rooks or crows (hard to tell apart, even for experienced birdwatchers) is their casual insouciance: approached by human or dog they will lift off lazily at the last minute and descend after a few desultory wing flaps a few yards further on, those always maintaining an alert and possibly amused watchfulness with those eyes like deep, dark pools.

But what has impelled Mark Cocker to pursue his obsession with rooks and to write about it with the same sort of passion that nurtured another Norfolk bird book, J A Baker’s ecstatic paean to The PeregrineThe answer for Cocker would seem to consist of several elements: one the one hand, he admires rooks as migrants, their behaviour embracing a spirit of freedom and community.  He quotes a passage from ‘I Love, I Love the Free’ (1840) by Eliza Cooke:

The caw of a rook on its homeward way,
Oh these shall be the music for me
For I love I love the path of the free.

At the same time, Cocker concludes that studying the life of another living creature in depth and with total engagement is ‘a way of being intensely alive, and recognising that you are so’.  Towards the end of his book, he writes:

It is a form of valuing life and of appreciating the fundamental tenet of all ecology: that every thing is connected to everything else.  So I would argue that rooking isn’t merely about a single raucous black bird.  It is about the whole world  – the landscape, the sunlight, the very oxygen we share – all that lies between myself and the bird.

Cocker’s style differs in certain respects from JA Baker’s: he is more of a scientist, more the expert and more  informative. Early in the book, Cocker notes that although crows are widespread they are mightily misunderstood, often to the extent of being confused with rooks and other corvids. He suggests that an easy way to distinguish crows from rooks at a distance is to count their numbers: a crow, he says, ‘passes its life as one of a pair isolated from neighbours by a fierce territoriality . . . Rooks, by contrast, live, feed, sleep, fly, display, roost, fall sick and die in the presence of their own kind’. Hence the old East Anglian adage ‘When tha’s a rook, tha’s a crow; and when tha’s crows, tha’s rooks’.

Despite its title, the book celebrates rooks in particular. His opening chapter is a rapturous account of how watching ‘a long ellipse’ of several thousand rooks and jackdaws head for their evening roost  fills him with ecstatic delight:

I am awaiting the arrival of night and all that it means in this landscape. Ahead of me lies a great unbound field of stubble sloping gently down towards the hamlet of Buckenham in the Yare valley. At the settlement’s southern margin is a tiny railway station, where I stepped down from a train more than thirty years ago on one of my earliest expeditions to this part of the Norfolk Broads. Beyond that steel line is the flat expanse of the Yare’s flood plain proper, and from my position on this upper northern slope I gain a sense of the entire valley, the whole flow of its contours, the way that the land dips down then rises again on the far shore like a shallow saucer, like a natural amphitheatre, fit for the spectacle about to unfold.

As day draws into its final hour, our own falling star has dwindled to a lens of brightness on the southern horizon resting in its own bed of lemon and rose light. I watch the clouds being pushed towards it by a biting northerly. They loom overhead like icebergs in an ocean of cold winter blue, and through this interplay of light and darkness arrive the birds I’ve come to watch.  A long ellipse of shapes, ragged and playful, strung out across the valley for perhaps half a kilometre, rides the uplift from the north wind directly towards my location. The birds, rooks and jackdaws heading to their evening roost, don’t materialise gradually – a vague blur slowly taking shape – they tunnel into view as if suddenly breaking through a membrane. One moment they aren’t visible. Then they are, and I track their course to the great skirt of stubble flowing down below me.

Along the margins of these fields stand rows of stately ivy-clad oaks, where the birds that have already arrived clothe the bare canopy, creating a heavy foliage of black. The whole effect of animal and vegetation reminds me momentarily of the great flat-topped acacias of the African savannah. In the failing light they are mere silhouettes and even the birds that have landed on the ground, wandering among the jagged stalks of stubble, create a simple, fretted chiaroscuro of pale and dark.

My attention cannot rest on the perched birds for long because I’m drawn back inexorably to the drama of the fresh arrivals. The long cylinder of birds, perhaps a thousand in total, has started to coil and circle the sky above the landing ground. They wind up into a single swirling vortex that breaks apart as small groups fling themselves to Earth. It is an extraordinary performance. I am so mesmerised by the flock’s sudden and convulsive disintegration that I fail to absorb the trajectory followed by any one individual. But all cease briefly to resemble birds. They become wind-blown rags or scraps of paper. The best I can think of is a moment I saw once in Jaipur, India. Above the city’s white-washed skyline floated a thousand small multi-coloured kites all at play in the hot desert gusts on that Rajasthani afternoon. The rooks and jackdaws acquired the same brief power of wild movement, straining against gravity and wind in equal measure.

Even this dramatic show holds me just a matter of seconds because each new development seems more compelling than the last. From the east, from rookeries that I know intimately around the village of Reedham, comes an even larger flock. Perhaps 4,000 birds arrive in a single river of movement and then perform the same wheeling downward plunge of the previous group.  All the while that the visual drama intensifies, their accompanying vocalisations become ever more voluble and excited.

In this description of the process by which the rooks gather and settle on the fields, Cocker is merely describing the prelude to the main event – the sudden lift-off to settle in the trees and roost for the night:

It begins almost casually.  A single concentrated stream of birds breaks for the trees, the stands of trees that have remained almost  unnoticed until this point. Inconsequential while the drama built all around them, the woods known as Buckenham Carrs have grown steadily darker with the onset of night. Now that they have moved centre stage they have become a brooding cavity in the landscape. The birds pour into the airspace above it in ever- growing numbers, and they mount the air until there are so many and the accompanying calls are so loud that I instinctively search for marine images to convey both the sea roar of sounds and the blurry underwater shapes of the flock. It becomes a gyroscope of tightly packed fish roiling and twisted by the tide; it has the loose transparent fluidity of a jellyfish, or the globular formlessness of an amoeba – one that spreads for a kilometre and a half across the heavens.

Cocker compares this vision to ‘black dust motes sinking steadily through the gentle oil of sleep’ but admits that he is at ‘the limits of what my mind can comprehend or my imagination can articulate.’

Whilst many a mingled swarthy crowd —
Rook, crow, and jackdaw,—noising loud,
Fly to and fro to dreary fen,
Dull Winter’s weary flight again;
They flop on heavy wings away
As soon as morning wakens grey,
And, when the sun sets round and red,
Return to naked woods to bed.
– John Clare, from ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar – January’ (1827)

Crow Country draws in autobiographical elements as well observations of bird behaviour. Cocker describes how he and his family moved from a city life in Norwich to make a home in the deep country of the nearby Yare valley. He writes about this move as an act of migration which is bird-like because he senses that it is driven by instinct.  As he settles into the new landscape, he discovers that rook-watching charges ‘many of the things I had once overlooked or taken for granted . . . with fresh power and importance’.  The birds, he says, are ‘at the heart of my relationship with the Yare . . . my route into the landscape and my rationale for its exploration’.

He recalls how, waking in their new home, he heard the rooks each morning, ‘the notes clattering on to the road and the rooftops of the village like flakes of tin’. Then he would see them in the evening, a long silent procession of birds heading north. He began to follow them to what seemed to be their roost, assuming that once they had settled on the hedges and trees that would be the end of the matter. But it was not:

It was virtually dark. There was so little light, I was barely sure if my binoculars were focused or not… Suddenly birds started to fly up in a purposeful jet of black shapes spurting for the trees. The movements of some seemed to act as a detonator on the others. Before I knew what was happening the whole host was airborne and swarming towards Buckenham Carrs.

When the flock was centred over the wood it began to swirl and twist. The birds were wrenched back and forth as if each was caught by the same conflicting impulses. When portions of the flock turned in unison through a particular angle the entire surface of the wingspan… was reduced to a single pencil line. The net effect in the quarter-light of dusk was that whole sections vanished and reappeared a split second later. It was as if a tonne of birds was being conjured and re-conjured from thin air.

He explains the distinction between the birds’ roosts and the rookeries where they breed from late February to June in the nesting season, and contemplates the sense of community endeavour that seems to underpin their behaviour:

In the nesting season, the abundant supply of worms is the key to the rook’s success. The onset of the breeding cycle in earliest spring is timed to coincide with the maximum availability of prey for the chicks. But the food items aren’t spread evenly, they’re clustered randomly…It’s thought that rooks have evolved to share resources and capitalise on the shifting and temporary abundances by pursuing a feeding strategy of follow-my-leader…. Each bird discovering a food hotspot faces the disadvantage of competition from neighbours, but it is more than compensated by the opportunity, on all occasions when it is less successful, to share the good fortune uncovered by others.

Roosts, by contrast, are located elsewhere and inhabited from October through to February.  They are usually in the middle of woods, even though these are birds that feed in grasslands (they often fly up to 25 miles to feeding grounds for the day), and Cocker suggests that protection from weather and predators are an important part of the roosting behaviour. But the biggest advantage for rooks in gathering together in huge numbers in roots  or rookeries is, he concludes, the spread of information about food sources.

Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.
– Edward Thomas, ‘Thaw’

Cocker quotes other writers who have been entranced by rooks:  Thomas Browne and Andrew Young, John Clare and Edward Thomas. There’s no mention of Ted Hughes and his Crow poems, but I think that’s because Hughes’ conception of  a bird with violent, rapacious and disorderly qualities doesn’t quite fit in with Cocker’s rather more sublime vision.  Thinking of Hughes, I came across this poem by Sylvia Plath, ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’, which seems inspired by the iridescent, purplish-blue glossy sheen of the bird’s plumage: ‘a rook/Ordering its black feathers can so shine/As to seize my senses’.  Not simply black, but ‘Tricks of radiance/Miracles’.

On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain –
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall
Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can’t honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Lean incandescent

Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then –
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honour
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical
Yet politic, ignorant

Of whatever angel any choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur.
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance
Miracles. The wait’s begun again,
The long wait for the angel,

For that rare, random descent.

Rook flying with stick by C.F. Tunnicliffe

This poem, by Norfolk writer Martin Figura, was written in response to Mark Cocker’s Crow Country:

‘Rooks: for Mark Cocker’

Their broken voices call against the hard ground
of a day’s work. They are the dark coming home
in dissonant scores until this field of stubble
is soft-black with them, the telephone wires
thick and bowed. Ten thousand grey tongues
honour the dusk, the Lowestoft commuter train,
the woods of Buckenham Carrs.
Thrown like muck from a wheel until the sky
is blind with them, they are the exact opposite
of stars. And here they come, all bluster,
their ostentatious flight across the moon
to the hierarchy of branches, to the rough
belonging of bark in their claws.

Rooks going to roost on a Winter evening in Norfolk

To finish, I like these words by Matt Sewell on the Caught By The River site:

It’s almost as if they shouldn’t belong to the Crow family; sociable and generally vegetarian, Rooks are just out for a laugh really. With a clownish, daft face and a shaggy, dishevelled appearance, these croakers aren’t out to cause mischief like their cousins. In fact, when not in their rookery, they spend most of their time in fields not being scared by scarecrows (maybe if all the farmers got together and changed the name to ‘scarerooks’, that would work better). But farmers should just leave them alone as they eat as many pests and crop-eating bugs as they do seeds. Good old Rooks.

Encounter with a badger: most ancient of English beasts

Encounter with a badger: most ancient of English beasts

We heard the animal before we saw it: crashing through the undergrowth at the edge of a dirt road in Shropshire in the deepening glow of a late summer’s evening nearly thirty years ago.  Bulldozing its way out of the copse, distinctive long black and white striped snout to the fore, appeared the bulk of a full-grown badger, less than fifteen feet from where we stood.

Badgers come out in the evening when worms – their staple food – rise to the surface.  This one was up early for some reason, lumbering across the path in front of us, before disappearing into the foliage on the other side.  We stood, entranced, for a moment, as the sound of the beast crashing through the undergrowth faded from our ears.  Since badgers are shy creatures and largely nocturnal, most people never see a badger unless on TV. We were very privileged, and that moment remains vivid, a precious memory of a golden summer.

It was August 1983; the previous summer we had gone our separate ways, the result of an action taken in haste and error, and a failure of understanding on my part.  But a year later our paths had entwined once more, and we had found a cottage up a country lane near Clun, standing on its own in a fold of the hill on a bend in the road.  Windows with diamond leads looked out over golden fields of ripening grain and the gentle wooded hills of the Shropshire landscape.

These memories came back to me as I listened last week to Ruth Padel on Radio 3 talk about the badger in her series of essays, Wild Things, in which, drawing on a range of literary and historical examples, she considered how attitudes to five different creatures in the British landscape have changed and developed through the centuries and what each means to us now.  Her assertion was that the badger holds a very special place in British culture, both greatly loved for their character, but also ruthlessly harried and butchered – illegally for sport, and more recently, for reasons claimed to be justified by science.

The Tale of Mr Tod cover

Padel’s examples of badgers in literature included my own introduction to the beast – in Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Mr Tod.  As Padel pointed out, this is an uncharacteristic representation of the animal, since Potter says at the outset that hers is a tale ‘ about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and Mr Tod:

Tommy Brock was a short bristly fat waddling person with a grin; he grinned all over his face. He was not nice in his habits. He ate wasp nests and frogs and worms; and he waddled about by moonlight, digging things up. His clothes were very dirty; and as he slept in the day-time, he always went to bed in his boots.

Tale of Mr Tod Tommy Brock

As a child, I chuckled at Potter’s illustrations, especially the ones where Tommy Brock was shown lying in bed, grinning from ear to ear, with big teeth:

By degrees he ventured further in—right into the bedroom. When he was outside the house, he scratched up the earth with fury. But when he was inside—he did not like the look of Tommy Brock’s teeth.  He was lying on his back with his mouth open, grinning from ear to ear. He snored peacefully and regularly; but one eye was not perfectly shut.

Mr Tod sets out to trick Tommy Brock

‘At a very deep level’, argued Ruth Padel, ‘the British love and identify with old Brock’.  Like humans, she argued, they live communally, are omnivorous, and deeply territorial, inheriting their burrows from parents and grandparents and extending them down the generations.  They are very fussy over hygiene, demarcating separate areas for latrines, frequently renewing their bedding, and burying their dead. A more typical example of a book that has embedded the badger in the national conciousness is Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In The Willows:

They waited patiently for what seemed a very long time, stamping in the snow to keep their feet warm. At last they heard the sound of slow shuffling footsteps approaching the door from the inside. It seemed, as the Mole remarked to the Rat, like some one walking in carpet slippers that were too large for him and down at heel; which was intelligent of Mole, because that was exactly what it was.

There was the noise of a bolt shot back, and the door opened a few inches, enough to show a long snout and a pair of sleepy blinking eyes.

`Now, the very next time this happens,’ said a gruff and suspicious voice, `I shall be exceedingly angry. Who is it this time, disturbing people on such a night? Speak up!’

`Oh, Badger,’ cried the Rat, `let us in, please. It’s me, Rat, and my friend Mole, and we’ve lost our way in the snow.’

`What, Ratty, my dear little man!’ exclaimed the Badger, in quite a different voice. `Come along in, both of you, at once. Why, you must be perished. Well I never! Lost in the snow! And in the Wild Wood, too, and at this time of night! But come in with you.’

The two animals tumbled over each other in their eagerness to get inside, and heard the door shut behind them with great joy and relief.

The Badger, who wore a long dressing-gown, and whose slippers were indeed very down at heel, carried a flat candlestick in his paw and had probably been on his way to bed when their summons sounded. He looked kindly down on them and patted both their heads. `This is not the sort of night for small animals to be out,’ he said paternally. `I’m afraid you’ve been up to some of your pranks again, Ratty. But come along; come into the kitchen. There’s a first-rate fire there, and supper and everything.’  […]

When at last they were thoroughly toasted, the Badger summoned them to the table, where he had been busy laying a repast. They had felt pretty hungry before, but when they actually saw at last the supper that was spread for them, really it seemed only a question of what they should attack first where all was so attractive, and whether the other things would obligingly wait for them till they had time to give them attention. Conversation was impossible for a long time; and when it was slowly resumed, it was that regrettable sort of conversation that results from talking with your mouth full. The Badger did not mind that sort of thing at all, nor did he take any notice of elbows on the table, or everybody speaking at once. As he did not go into Society himself, he had got an idea that these things belonged to the things that didn’t really matter. (We know of course that he was wrong, and took too narrow a view; because they do matter very much, though it would take too long to explain why.) He sat in his arm-chair at the head of the table, and nodded gravely at intervals as the animals told their story; and he did not seem surprised or shocked at anything, and he never said, `I told you so,’ or, `Just what I always said,’ or remarked that they ought to have done so-and-so, or ought not to have done something else. The Mole began to feel very friendly towards him.

When supper was really finished at last, and each animal felt that his skin was now as tight as was decently safe, and that by this time he didn’t care a hang for anybody or anything, they gathered round the glowing embers of the great wood fire, and thought how jolly it was to be sitting up so late, and so independent, and so full; and after they had chatted for a time about things in general, the Badger said heartily, `Now then! tell us the news from your part of the world’….

Badgers may be shy, but they are fierce fighters when provoked.  Their tough skin and hide, and thick layers of subcutaneous fat make them hard to kill.  As a consequence, badger-baiting has a long history on these islands.  John Clare wrote about it in his poem, ‘Badger’:

When midnight comes a host of dogs and men
Go out and track the badger to his den,
And put a sack within the hole, and lie
Till the old grunting badger passes by.
He comes an hears – they let the strongest loose.
The old fox gears the noise and drops the goose.
The poacher shoots and hurries from the cry,
And the old hare half wounded buzzes by.
They get a forked stick to bear him down
And clap the dogs and take him to the town,
And bait him all the day with many dogs,
And laugh and shout and fright the scampering hogs.
He runs along and bites at all he meets:
They shout and hollo down the noisy streets.

He turns about to face the loud uproar
And drives the rebels to their very door.
The frequent stone is hurled where’er they go;
When badgers fight, then everyone’s a foe.
The dogs are clapped and urged to join the fray’
The badger turns and drives them all away.
Though scarcely half as big, demure and small,
He fights with dogs for hours and beats them all.
The heavy mastiff, savage in the fray,
Lies down and licks his feet and turns away.
The bulldog knows his match and waxes cold,
The badger grins and never leaves his hold.
He drives the crowd and follows at their heels
And bites them through – the drunkard swears and reels

The frighted women take the boys away,
The blackguard laughs and hurries on the fray.
He tries to reach the woods, and awkward race,
But sticks and cudgels quickly stop the chase.
He turns again and drives the noisy crowd
And beats the many dogs in noises loud.
He drives away and beats them every one,
And then they loose them all and set them on.
He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men,
Then starts and grins and drives the crowd again;
Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and crackles, groans, and dies.

Although British legal protection of animals began in 1835 with the Cruelty to Animals Act, and continued with further legislation that outlawed ‘unnecessary suffering’, wild animals had no protection.  By the 1960s, with badger-digging increasingly popular, badgers were in decline.  In the 1970s protection was extended to badgers in the wild. But now, they are threatened more than ever – both by illegal badger-digging, and by plans to cull the badger population.

Today there are around 400,000 badgers in the UK.  50,000 are killed every year on the roads, while illegal badger-diggers account for 15,000 more.

The prospect of culling the badger population is a result of their association with bovine tuberculosis, one of the most difficult and costly animal health diseases facing the farming industry. The association between bovine tuberculosis in cattle and badgers is a complex and contentious issue. In 2007 the Independent Science Group published its final report , concluding that culling badgers was not an effective method of controlling the disease, and that increased cattle measures, including vaccination, would be more efficacious.

The badger was established in these islands two millenia before the arrival of humans.  They are, as Edward Thomas observed in ‘The Combe’, the ‘most ancient Briton of English beasts’:

The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark.
Its mouth is stopped with brambles, thorn, and briar;
And no one scrambles over the sliding chalk
By beech and yew and perishing juniper
Down the half precipices of its sides, with roots
And rabbit holes for steps. The sun of Winter,
The moon of Summer, and all the singing birds
Except the missel-thrush that loves juniper,
Are quite shut out. But far more ancient and dark
The Combe looks since they killed the badger there,
Dug him out and gave him to the hounds,
That most ancient Briton of English beasts.

Kenneth Grahame, in The Wind In The Willows, has Badger say:

People come – they stay for a while, they flourish, they build – and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I’ve been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again. We are an enduring lot, and we may move out for a time, but we wait, and are patient, and back we come. And so it will ever be.

Ruth Padel concluded her essay with this observation:

Of all our British wild animals, it is the badgers which require us to ask: why should we value the wild, and what is a landscape anyway?  Is it ‘wild nature’ seen in human terms as ‘countryside’?  No, it’s wider, bigger, older than us.  It is not just for us, but outside us, and every wild species is part of it, including the badger. […]

These days we have to do something that sounds like a paradox: manage the wild.  Which also means managing aspects of ourselves, our own sense of entitlement to kill.  Blaming the wild is always the easiest option.  The greatness of a nation, and its moral progress, said Gandhi, can be judged by the way it treats its animals.

WH Auden wrote ‘Address to the Beasts’ in the summer of 1973, just months before he died:

For us who, from the moment
we first are worlded
lapse into disarray,

who seldom know exactly
what we are up to,
and, as a rule, don’t want to,

what a joy to know,
even when we can’t see or hear you,
that you are around,

though very few of you
find us worth looking at,
unless we come too close.

To you all scents are sacred
except our smell and those
we manufacture.

How promptly and ably
you execute Nature’s policies
and are never

lured into misconduct
except by some unlucky
chance imprinting.

Endowed from birth with good manners
you wag no snobbish elbows,
don’t leer,

don’t look down your nostrils
nor poke them into another
creature’s business.

Your own habitations
are cosy and private, not
pretentious temples.

Of course, you have to take lives
to keep your own, but never
kill for applause.

Compared with even your greediest
how Non-U
our hunting gentry seem.

Exempt from taxation,
you have never felt the need
to become literate,

but your oral cultures
have inspired our poets to pen
dulcet verses,

and, though unconscious of God,
your Sung Eucharists are
more hallowed than ours.

Instinct is commonly said
to rule you; I would call it
Common Sense.

If you cannot engender
a genius like Mozart,
neither can you

plague the earth
with brilliant sillies like Hegel
or clever nasties like Hobbes.

Shall we ever become adulted
as you all soon do?
It seems unlikely.

Indeed, one balmy day,
we might well become,
not fossils, but vapour.

Distinct now,
in the end we shall join you
(how soon all corpses look alike),

but you exhibit no signs
of knowing that you are sentenced.
Now that could be why

we upstarts are often
jealous of your innocence
but never envious?

And so, always and forever, a breeze riffles the pages of the book as the heat of the afternoon lifts from the garden, and we close the gate behind us to turn up the lane through the copse  for that magical encounter, at the end of a golden summer, when we met our badger. For millenia human encounters with other animals have woven a common thread through cultures as we have found meaning in them.  For us, the badger that crossed the track in Shropshire and came so close on that summer’s evening crystallizes a very special moment.  Nine months, later our daughter was born. Soon, we were reading to her: the Tale of Mr Tod and Wind In The Willows.

An Exmoor sunken lane

An Exmoor sunken lane

We left  Mortehoe and drove along the A39 – that amazing route through Lynton, Lynmouth and Porlock that no amount of modern road engineering can change.  Porlock Hill and Countisbury Hill still keep drivers on their toes with their steep gradients and hairpin bends.

Exmoor signpost

Past Porlock we turned onto Exmoor to find our overnight stay at The Dunkery Beacon, a former Exmoor hunting lodge just outside the village of  Wootton Courtenay, with superb views out to Dunkery Beacon itself, a high point of the moor.

In the evening we ate in Porlock at the Ship Inn, the oldest on Exmoor.  Leaving the pub, the town was completely silent and still.

In the morning we went for a stroll before setting off for the Forest of Dean.  We crossed a field and dropped down into a sunken lane that seemed to hurl us back into the world of John Clare.

O who that lives as free to mark the charms
Of nature’s earliest dress far from the smoke
And cheerless bustle of the city’s strife
To breathe the cool sweet air, mark the blue sky
And all the namless beauties limning morn
So beautifully touches, who when free
By drowsy slumbers e’re would be detained,
Snoring supinely o’er their idle dreams,
Would lie to lose a charm so charming now
As is the early morn—come now we’ll start,
Arise my dog and shake thy curdled coat
And bark thy friendly symptoms by my side,
Tracing the dewy plains we’ll muse along
Behind us left our nooked track wild wound
From bush to bush as rambling in we tread,
Peeping on dew-gilt branch, moist grassy tuft
And nature’s every trifle e’re so mean –
Her every trifle pleases much mine eye –
So on we hie to witness what she wears:
How beautiful e’en seems
This simple twig that steals it from the hedge
And wavering dipples down to taste the stream.
I cannot think it how the reason is
That every trifle nature’s bosom wears
Should seem so lovely and appear so sweet
And charm so much my soul while heedless passenger
Soodles me by, an animated post,
And ne’er so much as turns his head to look
But stalks along as though his eyes were blinded
And as if the witching face of nature
Held but now a dark unmeaning blank.

– from A Ramble, John Clare

Wood Pictures in Summer

The one delicious green that now pervades
The woods and fields in endless lights and shades
And that deep softness of delicious hues
That overhead blends-softens-and subdues
The eye to extacy and fills the mind
With views and visions of enchanting kind
While on the velvet down beneath the swail
I sit on mossy stulp and broken rail
Or lean oer crippled gate by hugh old tree
Broken by boys disporting there at swee
While sunshine spread from an exaustless sky
Gives all things extacy as well as I
And all wood-swaily places even they
Are joys own tennants keeping holiday

– John Clare, ‘Wood Pictures in Summer’

Photo: Painswick wood, 5 July 2010

John Clare: ‘I found the poems in the fields’

John Clare: ‘I found the poems in the fields’

I found the poems in the fields
And only wrote them down

– John Clare, ‘Sighing for Retirement’

Jonathan Bate’s biography of John Clare, which I have just finished reading, is a magnificent account of the life and work of the ‘peasant poet’ (an appellation he hated) that brings you as close to Clare as is conceivable at the distance of some 150 years. Continue reading “John Clare: ‘I found the poems in the fields’”

The Song of the Earth

I’ve been reading The Song of the Earth by Jonathan Bate, first published in 2000 when he was King Alfred Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool. It’s a book that has been described as ‘the first ecological reading of English Literature’. As Bate explains in the preface:

This is a book about why poetry continues to matter as we enter a new millennium that will be ruled by technology. It is a book about modern Western man’s alienation from nature. It is about the capacity of the writer to restore us to the earth which is our home.

In a book that’s about both writing and philosophy, the English Romantic tradition is the essential thread, with readings to Wordsworth, Keats,  John Clare, Edward Thomas, and Ted Hughes, set alongside philosophical ideas from Rousseau and Martin Heidegger,to develop the idea of ‘ecopoetics’. Bate also draws in the work of 20th century poets  from other places, such as Gary Snyder, Elizabeth Bishop, and Les Murray, calling the latter ‘the major ecological poet currently writing in the English language’. Poetry, Bate concludes, can be ‘the place where we save the earth’.

In Chapter One, ‘Going, Going, Gone’, Bate discusses the divide between nature and culture that opens up with the Enlightenment, illustrating his argument with reference to the novels of  Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. These ideas are developed further in the second chapter, ‘State of Nature’, where Bate sets out how, from Oliver Goldsmith to Cobbett to Austen and Hardy and up to Philip Larkin, the rural idyll, the state of  nature, is always just behind us. But this myth of rural nostalgia is important :

Myths are necessary imaginings, exemplary stories which help our species make sense of its place in the world. Myths endure so long as they perform helpful work. The myth of the natural life which exposes the ills of our own condition is as old as Eden and Arcadia, as new as Larkin’s ‘Going, Going’ and the latest Hollywood adaptation of Austen or Hardy. Its endurance is a sign of its importance. Perhaps we need to remember what is “going, going” as a survival mechanism, as a check upon our instinct for self-advancement.

I thought it would last my time –
The sense that, beyond the town,
There would always be fields and farms,
Where the village louts could climb
Such trees as were not cut down;
I knew there’d be false alarms

In the papers about old streets
And split level shopping, but some
Have always been left so far;
And when the old part retreats
As the bleak high-risers come
We can always escape in the car.

Things are tougher than we are, just
As earth will always respond
However we mess it about;
Chuck filth in the sea, if you must:
The tides will be clean beyond.
– But what do I feel now? Doubt?

Or age, simply? The crowd
Is young in the M1 cafe;
Their kids are screaming for more –
More houses, more parking allowed,
More caravan sites, more pay.
On the Business Page, a score

Of spectacled grins approve
Some takeover bid that entails
Five per cent profit (and ten
Per cent more in the estuaries): move
Your works to the unspoilt dales
(Grey area grants)! And when

You try to get near the sea
In summer . . .
It seems, just now,
To be happening so very fast;
Despite all the land left free
For the first time I feel somehow
That it isn’t going to last,

That before I snuff it, the whole
Boiling will be bricked in
Except for the tourist parts –
First slum of Europe: a role
It won’t be hard to win,
With a cast of crooks and tarts.

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.

Most things are never meant.
This won’t be, most likely; but greeds
And garbage are too thick-strewn
To be swept up now, or invent
Excuses that make them all needs.
I just think it will happen, soon.

– Going, Going by Philip Larkin (1972)

Bate’s principal argument is that writers in the Romantic tradition, beginnning in the late eighteenth century, have been especially concerned with the progressive severance of humanity from nature that has licensed the ravaging of the earth’s finite resources. Romanticism, Bate asserts,  declares allegiance to what Wordsworth called ‘the beautiful and permanent forms of nature’. It proposes that when we commune with those forms we live with a peculiar intensity, and conversely that our lives are diminished when technology and industrialization alienate us from those forms. Bate regards poetic language as ‘a special kind of expression which may effect an imaginative reunification of mind and nature, though it also has a melancholy awareness of the illusoriness of its own utopian vision’. He labels  this broad  reinterpretation of  Romanticism as an ‘ecopoetic’, from the Greek poiesis (‘making’) of the oikos (‘home’ or ‘dwelling-place’). He says:

The freedom of birds – Keats’s nightingale, Shelley’s skylark – is a necessary imagining. I stand in the field behind my house, watching and listening as the skylark rises. My heart leaps up. But my mind has fallen into knowledge: a biologist will be able to explain to me why the lark rises. Freedom has nothing to do with it. The freedom ofthe lark is only in my imagination, just as the state of nature – Arcadia, Ariel’s island – is but a necessary dream. Maybe the true poets are those who hold fast to the dream even as they rccognize it as a dream. We have [been] thinking back to the island of the Shakespearean imagination which forces the European mind to re-examine itself. To end …let us hear a voice from a real island where Western man has again and again been forced to confront the strangeness, the beauty and the violence of a nature that is Other. The voice is that of Les Murray, Australia’s truest poet, meditating on a bird’s flight, then coming down to earth with knowledge of the food chain:

ARIEL
Upward, cheeping, on huddling wings,
these small brown mynas have gained
a keener height than their kind ever sustained
but whichever of them fails first
falls to the hawk circling under
who drove them up.
Nothing’s free when it is explained.

Not free when explained. But that does not stop us gaining the keen height each time we read the poem.

Bate compares Gary Snyder’s ‘Mother Earth: Her Whales’ with Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Moose‘, which, he argues, exemplifies the ecopoetic:

Worthy as [Snyder’s] sentiments may be, they do not in any sense grow from the poetry. The poem has been written as an expression of a set of opinions, not as an attempt to transform into language an experience of dwelling upon the earth. In this respect, it is not what I call an ‘ecopoem’; it is not a thinking of the question of the making of the oikos [ie, earthly dwelling place]’. By contrast, Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Moose’ celebrates the non-human without making a paraphrasable pronouncement.

Bate quotes Mariane Moore on Bishop: ‘At last we have someone who knows, who is not didactic. Bate argues that ‘The Moose’ is ‘a poem which knows why we need wild animals’. He goes on:

Bishop knows that we can only know nature by way of culture. The wood [described there] is “impenetrable”. The moose is encountered on the road, a road being a piece of land that has been transformed by the demands of culture, from city to city. The moose comes to the bus, rather than vice-versa. This is a poem not about getting back to nature, but about how nature comes back to us. It is a poem of wonder in the face of the sheer physicality of the moose: its smell, its size.

As a demonstration of what this approach to poetry might involve Bate analyses the poetry of John Clare: ‘the record of his search for a home in the world’ and, in Bates view,a form of early ecological protest. Here, Bate reflects on Clare’s ‘The Pettichap’s Nest’:

A human being can do everything except build a bird’s nest. [Bate is quoting an old French proverb.] What we can do is build an analogue of a bird’s nest in a poem. We can make a verbal nest by gathering and cherishing odd scraps of language, the words which stand in for the bits and pieces of hay, rotten leaf and feather that are the pettichap’s material. We spend our time as well in gathering words as in working over things. Even if you have never found a bird’s nest and wondered at it, you may by means of Clare’s poem begin to find a sense of why bird’s nests matter… For Clare, to be drawn to a nest, to stoop towards it but still to let it live, is to be gathered into the fabric of the earth and in being so gathered to secure the identity of the self.

Well! In my many walks I’ve rarely found
A place less likely for a bird to form
Its nest – close by the rut-gulled wagon-trod road,
And on the almost barefoot trodden ground,
With scarce a clump of grass to keep it warm!
Where not a thistle spreads its spears abroad
Or prickly bush, to shield it from harm’s way;

And yet so snugly made, that none may spy
It out, save peradventure. You and I
Had surely passed it in our walk today,
Had chance not led us by it! – Nay, e’en now,
Had not the old bird heard us trampling by
And fluttered out, we had not seen it lie,
Brown as the roadway side.
Small bits of hay
Plucked from the old propt haystack’s pleachy brow,
And withered leaves, make up its outward wall,
Which from the gnarled oak –dotterel yearly fall,
And in the old hedge-bottom rot away.

Built like an oven, through a little hole,
Scarecely admitting e’en two fingers in,
Hard to decern, the birds snug entrance win.
’tis lined with feathers warm as silken stole,
Softer than seat of down for painless ease,
And full of eggs scarce bigger even than peas!
Here’s one most delicate, with spots as small
As dust and of a faint and pinky red.

We’ll let them be, and safely guard them well;
For fear’s rude paths around are thickly spread,
And they are left to many dangerous ways.
A green grasshopper’s jump might break the shells,
Yet lowing oxen pass them morn and night,
And restless sheep around them hourly stray;
And no grass springs but hungry horses bite,
That trample past them twenty times a day.
Yet, like a miracle, in safety’s lap
They still abide unhurt, and out of sight.

Stop! here’s the bird – that woodman at the gap
Frightened him from the hedge: ’tis olive-green.
Well! I declare it is the pettichap!
Not bigger than the wren, and seldom seen.
I’ve often found her nest in chance’s way,
When I in pathless woods did idly roam;
But never did I dream until today
A spot like this would be her chosen home.

The Pettichap’s Nest by John Clare

There’s a poem by Les Murray (not quoted in the book) that I think contains the essence of its argument:

Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, rivers, time
know nothing else. They express it
moment by moment as the universe.

Even this fool of a body
lives it in part, and would
have full dignity within it
but for the ignorant freedom
of my talking mind.

– The Meaning of Existence, Les Murray

Links

April …with dandelions

Plenty of dandelions around this April, which set me thinking about this  plant, regarded as a weed, hated if you’re a gardener (those damned taproots) and, in urban areas at least, an indication of  unkemptness. Yet subconciously we  recognise the dandelion as a welcome sign of spring, and associate it with childhood memories (blowing on the seed heads to tell the time of day, making dandelion chains). And I remember the wagon that came round every summer delivering dandelion and burdock in great stone jars.

The English name dandelion is a corruption of the French dent de lion meaning “lion’s tooth”, referring to the coarsely-toothed leaves.In modern French the plant is named pissenlit, which means “urinate in bed”, apparently referring to its diuretic properties. In Chaucer’s time the English called it ‘pissabed’ for the same reason.

I came across a book all about the dandelion: The Teeth of the Lion: The Story of the Beloved and Despised Dandelion by Anita Sanchez.  In it she outlines many of the bene-fits of this plant. It is packed with vitamins and minerals, full of antioxidants, and is great at breaking up poor soil and extracting nutrients from difficult soil. Ecologically, it is an important plant in the recovery of damaged systems, and can serve as a marker for the health of an ecosystem. Dandelions also provide nectar to bees, butterflies, and birds at times when other flowers are not blooming.

Within the context of the debate over whether dandelions are good or bad – whether they are fondly appreciated memories of childhood, pretty yellow flowers, or stubbornly wicked weeds – Sanchez confronts the widespread use of great volumes of herbicides on those recently adopted elements of the cultural landscape known as ‘lawns’. Perhaps no other plant is the target of such a barrage of deadly chemicals, but the herbicides not only fail to eliminate dandelions but also poison birds and other parts of the ecosystem.

Andy Goldsworthy is an artist who has utilised dandelions  on many occasions in his work; these were created at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, April-May 1987:

Not surprisingly, John Clare wrote about the dandelion:

Tis May; and yet the March flower Dandelion
Is still in bloom among the emerald grass,
Shining like guineas with the sun’s warm eye on–
We almost think they are gold as we pass,
Or fallen stars in a green sea of grass.
They shine in fields, or waste grounds near the town.
They closed like painter’s brush when even was.
At length they turn to nothing else but down,
While the rude winds blow off each shadowy crown.

Emily Dickinson’s The Dandelion’s Pallid Tube has similair reflections:

The Dandelion’s pallid tube
Astonishes the Grass,
And Winter instantly becomes
An infinite Alas —

The tube uplifts a signal Bud
And then a shouting Flower, —
The Proclamation of the Suns
That sepulture is o’er.

Looking back on this April, today’s Country Diary in The Guardian sums it up:

April saved the best till last: fine days full of the arrival songs of chiffchaff, blackcap, redstart and garden warblers; orchard blossom, wood anemone and stitchwort; high blue skies zipping with swallows. This has been one of the most beautiful months in a long time and spring is timely this year.

After the winter, spring emerged within the traditional timings of events such as migrant bird arrivals, frogspawn and leaf opening, unlike many previous years when it all went askew. Is this a return to a seasonal rhythm we thought had been lost, or an aberrancy? Time will tell. But for now, the old rhyme about tree leaf opening as an omen of the summer’s weather seems pertinent because it’s raining.

The oak leaves are out before the ash, which means we’re going to have a splash instead of a soak. Heavy rain has certainly been the soaking norm for the last couple of years, when the ash has leafed out before the oak. This year it’s the other way around, so the omens are for good weather.

If the leaves are loaded with omen, there are other auguries and symbols opening within spring wildflowers. As the bluebells and wild garlic flower in the woods, there seems a greater feeling this spring of what the German artists called Stimmung – a perhaps untranslatable word meaning something like sentiment, mood, emotive state which is a tuning of the soul to Nature.

Although many will feel this with birdsong and bluebells, I think it is strongest in more subtle appearances: the pale parasitic toothwort flowers and the deeply exotic early purple orchid. The rain has brought a quickening zing to the end of April as spring careers over hills and woods towards May Day.

Mary Newcomb: Dandelion Lands