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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

‘Changes’

Posted on December 30 2014 at 2:05:02 0 comments

Longhorn cattle

Mary Green suggests we embrace the changing scenes of life.

At this time of year, we make resolutions and look forward to the start of something new. The Roman god Janus, who gives his name to this month, was portrayed with two faces, one looking backward and one forward. I think that’s a good reminder that the past year hasn’t gone and lives with us through the future.

This is especially so when we look at the natural world. Already, the pattern of the coming year has been established. Catkins are already there on hazel, leaf buds are formed, and snowdrop leaves are piercing the soil.

Ancient lore and religion always celebrated the cycle of life, death and new life. Plants were seen as emblems of the eternal cycle of the world. “Unless a grain of wheat falls and dies, there will be no harvest next year.” Sometimes this was made into myths of people or animals.

In Celtic countries, including Britain, there is a figure called John Barleycorn. He grows up to be a man with a beard, is cut down and beaten, and then is born again in bread, ale and whisky!

The Green Man in some traditions also lives and dies every year, and the old Father Christmas partly came from the midwinter form of this figure. The mummers’ plays common in midwinter always have death and rebirth at the heart of their story, and at New Year, Old Father Time (or Death) with his scythe is accompanied by a baby.

Other myths include a battle around midwinter between the old life and the new. One is the battle between the holly and the ivy, in which the holly wins (“the holly tree bears the crown”). Holly is the plant of fire and light, ivy the darkness.

There was a similar battle between the robin and the wren, in which the robin won – again the red fiery bird overcoming the dark one. These rituals were later Christianised, with Christ seen in the holly, as in the carol The Holly and the Ivy.

The wren hunt was on St Stephen’s Day and came to represent the killing of the first Christian martyr.

The wren was later believed to be complicit in the killing of St Stephen by not sounding a warning to him, and was cursed ever after to fly low along the hedgerow and not take to the air (which is true of its movements).

But in the earlier myths it was the co-hero, who had to die so new life could begin. All the ancient stories about midwinter had this theme: death was necessary as well as birth.

Putting the myths aside, we can see the truth of this in the cycle of nature. The fallen leaves and dead birds and animals return to the earth, worked on by worms and insects, aiding the spread of vital fungi and lichen, and enriching the soil so new life can grow.

I can’t quite understand our modern desire to sweep up leaves, since they are so important for the soil.

And of course we weren’t always so squeamish about how human beings contributed to this process. In our graves we were “pushing up daisies”, and in the old folk songs a briar and a rose grew from the graves of dead lovers and twined together.

Death may have meant the end of an individual in one way, but they were still there contributing to the growth of new life.

Nowadays we tend to interfere with the cycle of natural life. The way we chop away at hedges and verges stops the proper process of maturing and fruiting and new growth. We see fungi and moulds as bad things, rather that a key element of life.

Lawns are the best (or worst) example. We want the lawn to be always green and smooth, never allowing the grass to change, grow and seed and die as it should. It’s like keeping it in perpetual babyhood, denying the change that is inherent in life. Strange thing to do, when you think about it!

Garden plants are dead-headed, the seed-heads of plants all removed leaving nothing for re-growth or the birds. And they look beautiful if left. I

don’t think it’s too far-fetched to connect our desire for gardens that never show the signs of natural ageing with the cult of youth we have for ourselves – filling in our beautiful wrinkles with Botox and treating middle-aged women as unsuitable images for our television.

Human practices can be in sympathy with natural change – we don’t have to leave “nature” alone. A good example is the old practice of coppicing and pollarding trees. The wood is used and the trees kept in perpetual growth, with some trees seeming almost eternal because they regrow every few years.

The management of old meadows is similar. The hay is cut when the plants have flowered, and the land grazed to speed up the dying process (and fertilised by cattle), so they grow beautifully the next year.

Just recently, farming and gardening are beginning to change again to be more in harmony with the natural cycle.

I have seen several good examples of this in the past year. I visited the farm where I grew up, in Devon. When we moved there from Birmingham just after the war, it was a traditional mixed farm: cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, wheat, barley, oats, beans… the lot.

I remember the fields being full of wild flowers and fruit, and eating mushrooms for breakfast. In the sixties and seventies, the farm was “modernised” and then produced beef and barley.

It wasn’t an excessively intensive farm – the cattle still grazed on fields most of the year, and then on our barley in the winter – but wasn’t as diverse any more.

Now, it has become a farm with the highest level of environmental stewardship. It is organic and there are huge numbers of cattle and sheep moving around the fields keeping them in shape, together with some organic arable crops.

The public has access to quite a lot of the farm. There is a new pond with water plants and dragonflies.

It is all nice and untidy and I found some wild flowers I hadn’t seen for ages, like henbane, and a hedge full of wilding apples. And we picked mushrooms for breakfast every morning.

It must be hard work, and the farm has had to diversify into other things too. But the rare bird, the cirl bunting, which is only found now in some parts of Devon and Cornwall, has come back to the farm.

My dad’s ashes are scattered there, part of the farm.

Here at home, one of my neighbours tells me he has taken over the management of Eades Meadow. He mows the hay (as in the picture a few Villages ago) and then grazes his old-breed cattle on it.

Some of the hay is cut quite early, collected and taken away to help start new meadows, mostly on other Wildlife Trust meadows to enrich the flowers. But some has been spread here near Withybed, and he tells me we have orchids coming. I won’t have to go to Eades, because Eades has come to me!

He is practising a pasture-fed method of cattle raising, approved by the wildlife trusts, which produces good meat and biodiverse countryside. The fields immediately around me, which used to be a bit poor in diversity, are beginning to look and feel like proper meadows.

I attended a very interesting meeting of Barnt Green Waters, including the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Canals and Rivers Trust. I was impressed by the work they were doing on the water quality of the lakes and River Arrow, and the biodiversity of the surrounding area, including cattle-grazing.

Problems include excess phosphates from run-off from fertilised fields, and sewage leaks. It was a good example of how scientific knowledge and understanding were being used to benefit the well-being of the countryside, and correct human damage to it.

Change has also come to Newbourne Wood. I’m writing this too early to know how it went, but the local community were involved in December in replanting it. The area was once old woodland, but much of this was lost when it was worked for gravel pits.

When it was replanted in the mid-20th century it was with alien conifers. These were planted all over England at that time in the hope they could be useful for timber – they are fast growing.

But the market for timber changed, and the trees turned out to be very bad for biodiversity – they alter the environment so other plants and insects don’t thrive.

Now many of the conifers in Newbourne have been cut down and used, and new trees planted – predominantly oak but with many other native species. It will take a long time for them to grow, but will be interesting watching the changes.

I have seen something similar done on the North Yorkshire Moors, including the year all the foxgloves came. We need to be patient!

It’s sometimes tempting to suggest we should “leave nature to itself” and it is certainly interesting to watch what happens when land is neglected. But I don’t think we would really want this.

The nearest thing here is the land between the canal and the dead arm – the last bit of Crown Meadow. When I came here 28 years ago, it was an open field with meadow flowers like moon daisies. Now it has all grown into scrub woodland.

There are quite big trees – oak and alder – and lovely blackberries, and much of it is pretty impenetrable now. Soon it will be a wood, unless someone decides to do something else with it.

So, to talk of “nature conservation” is really irrelevant. The world changes and what we can do is think about the future and help it change in the right direction.

We are out of touch with cyclical changes now. Eating food in season helps to get the sense of it back, as well as noting the changes in the plants and animals around us.

Perhaps people would fear change less if they felt how they were living with it all the time. This year I will look each month at how changes in the natural world are reflected in human calendars.

Happy New Year!

I wrote this poem in the autumn, but the theme fits with “changes”.

Bonfire

Autumn. Such a warm word
Vowels like buckets to fill
With apples and leaves, till sharp winter
Turns our words into spikes.
At its heart, the fire
Bonfire, banefire, bonefire
Diwali, Guy Fawkes, Samhain
Flames and skyrockets
Piercing the veil between
This world and the others.
The trees fire too: ash, beech, oak
Leaves vivid and falling to cinders
Don’t sweep them up
They are next year’s life.
Unless this year dies, next year will not be born.
And the fire, what of the fire?
Can you put your past in it
Unwanted baggage, burn it up
Move on? Fire is not like that
Fire burns but nothing goes
Wood becomes ash and the soil grows new leaves
Fire transforms earth ore into gold and iron
Make food toothsome and distils the barley
Into molten gold. Put your past in it
And you still have it with you
Lighter, drifting in the air, or in your bones
Making next year a different time
Born from the foundry of fire and life.


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