The Library as an Ecosystem

I like to think we run an open door policy in our library in Norfolk. That is to say, on warm days in summer the door to the garden is actually open. Anyone’s welcome to come in for a browse. Last summer a stoat wandered in, peered dismissively at the modest shelf of my own titles, sniffed about under my desk and then ambled out. Most Julys the house ants – here long before us and so given due respect – pour out from alarming new holes in the floor, march along the tops of my editions of Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne, and shuffle in a lost and desultory way about the carpet, seeming uninterested in getting outdoors for their nuptial flights. But while I fret about the continuance of their ancient lineage, the culling is already under way. Next through the door come the bolder blackbirds and robins, hoovering them up in front of the shelves. Continue reading

September 2014

This article first published in

  • BBC Wildlife Magazine
  • In one of the out-of-nowhere gales of mid-June, the best-known tree on the planet was blown down. I hasten to add I don’t mean the oldest, or biggest, or most mythologically rich, simply the tree whose image has been seen by probably more people than any other in history, thanks to its appearance as the Whomping Willow in the Harry Potter films. The famously twitchy willow, whose snaky branches hit back when attacked, was a slightly computer-tweaked version of a real beech, which, for more than half my life time, was the tree I knew best.

    It is (‘was’ is the wrong tense for a horizontal tree) a pollard, growing in the National Trust’s Ashridge Estate in the Chilterns, and surrounded by a gothic assembly of only slightly less regal lopped beeches. I’ve known it since the 1950s, and it is the hero (or perhaps heroine : beeches are traditionally female) of my book Beechcombings. So perhaps I may be excused a small and probably over-lyrical quote (it was easy to lose one’s head under its arching cranium) by way of a tribute: “It seems elephantine, an impossible mass for a living thing. It is, I guess, about 350 to 400 years old… its long low branches trail out like the arms of a giant squid. The trunk is like vegetable hide, a mass of burrs, bosses, wounds, flutings, folds of scar tissue congealed around the points where the branches were lopped…”

    What’s surprised me about its fall is how remarkably sensible and positive the response has been. No wailings or funeral rites. No declarations of disaster. Not even a backlash (yet) from Health and Safety, as there was after the 1987 hurricane, with demands that the whole company of unstable freaks should be summarily destroyed. Instead, the local National Trust forester has said “it is a shame, but now it can start a new part of its life in its decay as a different habitat for Ashridges wildlife.”

    Such an ecologically and culturally mature public statement would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. The fading of our everyday intimacy with trees, of our understanding of their workings, encourages us to anthropomorphise them in a directly corporeal way, seeing the trunk, the body of the tree, as analogous to a human body, and therefore killed when severed from its earthly roots. But “a new part of its life” is exactly right. The trunk will take 50 to 100 years to rot down, and during that time successions of fungi – coral spots, brain fungi, dead-man’s fingers, beech tufts – will embroider the trunk. Drapes of wild rose and beechwood flowers will colonise the cliffs of the broken trunk Deadwood insects will hunker down in the extending labyrinth of cracks and hollows. And I will get the chance, at long last, to read the graffiti high up in the tree, some of which are the work of homesick US serviceman stationed nearby in WW2, some of Victorian sweethearts.

    And the Queen, as I liked to call her, may not even be dead in the literal sense. Several of the Ashridge pollards blown down in the gales of the 70s and 80s have sprouted new vertical poles from the underside of their rootplates. At this moment, an heir apparent may be budding in the tangled roots among the flints.

October 2014

This article first published in

  • BBC Wildlife Magazine
  • I’d best make my own feelings clear from the outset. I find the thought of conservationists sitting down and doing business with organisations who illegally kill hen harriers distasteful. I know this is juvenile and self-righteous and idealistic to an unworldly degree. Compromise is the way things get done. The police regularly do deals with criminals for society’s “greater good”. The Troubles in Ireland wouldn’t have been ended if the government hadn’t at last negotiated with the IRA. Realpolitik ain’t pretty or principled but it gets results. So I acknowledge that the Langholm experiment, of providing ‘diversionary feeding’ for harriers on the northern moors, has been partially successful in reducing the harrier’s predation of grouse chicks.

    But my bilious anger won’t go away. These solutions are a pragmatic step too far for my taste, devoid of moral dimension or sense of justice, and of any attempt to make reparation for the barbarity of the harrier vendetta. In his book The Sparrowhawk’s Lament [reviewed July 2014] the distinguished film-maker David Cobham tells of the female harrier he found with its legs cut off and crucified on a barn-door, still alive. This was Norfolk not Northumberland and David’s private version of this horrific story (he has been a close friend for forty years) is even more chilling.

    Nor does the Langholm protocol challenge the central assumption of this whole affair, that the harriers are the villains, and that the protection of the grouse-shooting industry is the overriding goal. For me the ‘diversionary feeders’ uncomfortably echo the divided state of Britain beyond the moors: give the ruffians a soup kitchen and they might not storm High Table. Who do these people think they are that they can commandeer vast tracts of our wild moorland and do pretty much what they like in them? I applaud Mark Avery’s and Chris Packham’s initiative on August 10th at Derwent Dam in Derbyshire, but I fear a group photo of 600 people, 3000 tweets and not a single column inch in the next day’s papers [Ben – as far as I have been able to ascertain] is not going to cause any sleepless nights amongst landowners. And with the classiest northern moors able to charge £40,000 per gun per day, there is not the remotest chance of government intervention. Grouse are “natural capital” in conservation Newspeak, close no doubt to being an element in the FOOTSIE Index.

    I think there are precedents for more robust and effective challenges, which would involve encouraging local authorities to press for ‘Open Country’ agreements over private moorland under the provision of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, 2000. In the south these are already guaranteeing public access over great tracts of country, an army of part-time wardens, and a curtailment of gamekeepers’ criminal excesses. And they have their roots, with a strange symmetry, just a couple miles west of Derwent Dam. In April 1932, the Derbyshire activist Benny Rothman organised the legendary Mass Trespass of the previously impregnable grouse moors of Kinder Scout. 800 people took part and there were scuffles with keepers. Rothman and four others went to jail, and the chain of effects the action started was slow but momentous. The Ramblers Society immediately began campaigning for access to open country, an aim picked up at the formation of the National Parks in 1947, and consolidated in the Act of 2000 (above). Kinder Scout is now an NNR and was purchased by the National Trust in 1982. No hen harrier will be killed there again. So, si monumentum requirat for this kind of action, circumspice.

In Defence of Nature Writing

This article first published in

Not since John Clare lambasted Keats for metropolitan sentimentality has there been such an unwarranted attack on the integrity of nature writers. In a letter written in 1830, nine years after Keats’s death, the poet of the fields accused the cockney Romantic of portraying “nature as she … appeared in his fancys & not as he would have described her if he had witnessed the things he describes”.

I accept that somewhere in Poole’s essay there is a legitimate questioning of the way that nature has been commercialised and commodified, as day-trip redemption, off-prescription Prozac. But that isn’t what is memorable about his essay. I’ve worked in this area for 40 years, and though I am not personally incriminated, I feel insulted and traduced by it, and I know enough of the way this area of literary exploration has been evolving to raise a voice of complaint on behalf of my colleagues. Poole’s phrases “recent nature writing” and “nature writers” amount to an indiscriminate homogenisation; current nature writing is the broadest of secular churches. Oliver Morton’s engaging personal saunter through the world of photosynthesis, Eating the Sun, for example, might be more properly labelled imaginative science writing, just as Robert Macfarlane‘s literal wanderings in his masterpieceThe Old Ways is really imaginative travel literature. Continue reading