“ Every one of us is now in the position of the indigenous Americans when the Europeans arrived with guns and smallpox; our world is poised to change vastly, unpredictably and for the worse.” (1)
This statement by Jonathan Franzen on the consequences of global warming pulls no punches. Just how shockingly apt this analogy to the fate of indigenous Americans is can be seen by reading P Cozzens monumental work, ‘The Earth is Weeping.’(2)
Certainly, Frantzen’s verdict is an obvious conclusion to much recent breaking news; 2017, the warmest year on record; hand in hand with mass extinctions, global pollution by discarded plastic, melting of the ice caps, deforestation.
Moreover, such news is starting to hit home near to home. A map projecting the rise in sea levels predicts the flooding of eastern England. Peterborough is already being re named Peterborough by the Sea. My old home at Marshland St James will be under water. At the micro level of ones own patch there are alarming signs. Wet summers are having a deleterious effect on butterflies with the last two years confirming the long term decline of two thirds of our 59 species. (3) My own count as part of the Butterfly Conservations Big Butterfly Count revealed just one or two specimens of large whites, peacocks and a painted lady. Birds such as Spotted Flycatchers no longer appear. The sound of a cuckoo is a rare moment.
Is there any respite from this doom laden scenario? Well we have to start somewhere. In my flower and pollen rich garden there were sightings of numerous red admirals. These have increased over recent years, their over wintering in fact due to warmer winters. Indeed at Innisfree on one October day twelve were feeding on my pale blue buddleia. Some observers would regard this as a reason to step back from total pessimism and call for a finer tuned approach to our environmental crisis. “ Climate change is a double edged sword” (4) as warmer seasons have seen a quarter of our species extending their range further north by six miles each year. New habitats are being found. A White -letter hairstreak was discovered at Paxton in Berwickshire brought north by the increasing warmth and the fact that its favourite habitat elm trees still survive here as Wych elms. As for the general catastrophic decline in all insects, so vital within the food chains, then that is ascribed more to industrial farming and pesticide use. If climate change seems too big a problem for nations to tackle cooperatively then how land is used and crops grown within our own country ought to be open to reform. It is when the focus is narrowed and specific trends are considered that other voices can be heard. So notwithstanding the dark words of Frantzen, four days after his article appeared “seven megatrends that could save the world” were reported (5) Reducing methane emissions by replacing meat and dairy products with plant based foods, renewable energy, electric cars, battery technology, tree planting, efficiency measures, decline of coal usage, are all on the increase across the globe. The result? “A cautious optimism” that the worst of climate change can be avoided.
Following on from the above and my local story and observations of butterflies, I can report the work of C. Thomas who seeks to make a case for “nature thriving in an age of extinction.” (6) In the midst of global extinctions his travels have revealed to him how our human induced changes are encouraging new life. In doing so he wants to throw off the shackles of a “pessimism-laden, loss only view of the world”. The new landscapes which have been created by human activity, along with warming of the planet has seen many species adapting, evolving and flourishing. The anthropocene era is for him the genesis of new biological diversity. For Thomas the long view ahead holds promise and not disaster. That though can appear to be a somewhat reckless outlook and raises the question “what of the losers in the here and now? Is there not a moral duty to protect and conserve the precious world we have and at the very least mitigate against the catastrophic fate which faces many living things?” Surely a reflective world looks back while managing the present before opening up the new and in doing so sustains a balanced development.
This for sure is what another contemporary commentator believes is required. For T. Morton (7) “our task is to become haunted beings again, possessed by a spectral sense of our connectedness to everything on this planet,” our collective goal nothing more than a new consciousness, a “quivering awareness of the interconnectedness of everything.”
When I read the review of Morton’s book it immediately struck me that it drew heavily on the writing of Annie Dillard. The analogies to ‘stones’ was the obvious reference and so I revisited a favourite collection of essays.(8) Her sharp observations and crystal clear prophetic prose from1982 gradually brought some clarity to my own thinking.
Our view of the world has, she observed, moved from “pantheism to a pan-atheism” and in doing so “drained the light” from our experience of the world around us. The magical animistic world of spirits and gods has been pushed to oblivion by the socio cultural tide of what Max Weber termed ‘rationality’; that world view which neutralised our ‘enchantment’ with life. Having thus secured our autonomy and capacity to act and control the world what has been the outcome of this pan-atheism? To what end does human kind direct its power and rationality? Surely not the mindless over exploitation and destruction of the life forces of our common home? Well, Frantzen can’t see beyond that fate. What about Dillard herself? In a less flowery anthropomorphic way than Morton she offers suggestions as to some small steps available to all whereby a new consciousness might grow. “take walks” she advises, “keep an eye on things….we are here to witness.” While acknowledging the difficulty in undoing “our damage” she says but “let us listen and hear the still small voice, God’s speaking from the whirlwind, nature’s old song and dance which we drove from town….. at any rate it’s all we can do.”
Outside lies magic. Perhaps if enough people follow this path a new reverence for the commons will grow and our ravages be reined in. We can but hope.
Certainly ten years previously to Annie Dillard writing her essay, Neil Young was composing songs exhorting such change in the direction of modernity. His album of 1972, entitled Harvest (9) struck a deep chord. “look around you, has it found you, walking down the avenue…….See what it brings. Could be good things waiting for you”. Well I didn’t fully know it then but in the fulness of time the words of the title track were answered. “are you ready for the country, because it’s time to go?” Now here at Innisfree I have spent much time “keeping an eye on things, witnessing” and especially growing stuff pesticide free and in tune with nature. Readers will recall how bird, insect and wildflowers have responded, edible crops too. It is the latter aspect of the concept of ‘harvest’ that I want to describe. To paraphrase Neil it “brought a lot” and in doing so offers a small antidote to the grim harvest which is evident on the wider scale and which there is no denying. We can but hope and keep eyes open.
The University of Sheffield (10) is undergoing research on allotments and gardens and what food stuffs they produce throughout the country. I joined the project and recorded my produce over the year. Ten years after hearing Neil Young’s lyrics I was busy reclaiming the forgotten corner of a long abandoned market garden. As I cleared the ground elder, nettles and gardening junk, the prospect of “good things waiting” spurred me on. 25 yards by 12 yards, the plot is flanked by a massive ancient Yew Tree which is probably why it was a dump and not a garden. And I mean ancient. With a girth of 167 inches, its age would be around 300 years. Was it planted or did it self set? With the Battle of Blenheim in 1704 and the Act of Union of 1707 there would have been causes for commemoration. Anyway, undaunted by the shadow cast over part of the plot, I carried on tilling in the hope of “seeing what it would bring.” Thirty five years on this University project allowed me to offer something of an answer. Each harvesting of fruit and vegetables was weighed and recorded and submitted to the project on line. Now enthusiast though I am, be reassured I am not intending to recount the entire list just the highlights and a summary. Of course four eggs were a daily boon, with potatoes (15lbs), rhubarb (14lbs, courgettes (8lbs) and lettuce (5lbs) all providing big yields. Overall fifteen different fruit and vegetables flourished this year. Soft fruit was outstanding. Raspberries (6lbs), gooseberries (5lbs) blackberries 6lbs), along with apples, were all prolific. Star performer though was the grape vine in the unheated green house with 16lbs gathered well into October. Finally a most pleasant surprise and worth waiting for were the two pounds of nuts from two hazel trees.
The year’s harvest was then a good one, organic, all grown pesticide free and nurtured by liquid comfrey feed. I offer it as a small symbol of hope, an indication of a harvest which is in harmony with nature. Gardens are places where we can make a difference. and stave off the despair so prevalent elsewhere.
Patrick Barham writes “everything we make comes out of the ground. Everything we eat depends on soil and pollinating insects. Yet our society is unplugged from the plants and animals we depend on; from what makes us healthy, calm and kind.” Principled gardening is required “more than ever to plug us back in”(11)