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BylineMaryGreen

Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Country matters

Posted on January 15 2012 at 2:38:17 0 comments

Charcoal making

Mary Green explores a new angle in her 2012 Nature Diary.

Last year finished very mild, after one of the driest and warmest years on record, with wonderful fruit and berries everywhere. People still ask me if a heavy berry crop portends a cold winter. It doesn’t.

It is about the weather of the preceding months: a mild spring with good flowering and pollinating leads to a heavy crop, and of course a mild autumn and winter lead to the berries staying on longer as the flocks of birds haven’t come down from the north to feed. So it’s almost the opposite.

I was abroad over Christmas, and was pleased to be back to watch the snowdrops appear, the catkins lengthen and the great tits begin to call. The redwings must have come as all the holly and hawthorn bushes had been stripped of berries while I was away.

I saw an early celandine in flower on the first Alvechurch Village Society walk of the year in January, along with a rather late red campion flower left over from last summer. A sudden shower of beautiful long-tailed tits came to my feeders, driving out the usually dominant great-tits by sheer force of numbers. The mallards were mating on the canal.

By the time you get this in February we should be hearing chaffinches starting their spring songs, and some more native flowers like coltsfoot appearing. I like to use the quiet period of January to think about our local environment and what I want to look at this year.

One thing that has become clear to me over the three years I have been writing for The Village is that the terms “nature” and “wildlife” are a bit misleading. Our native animals and plants are all part of a complex system which, of course, includes us and our domesticated animals and plants.

There is no longer a “wilderness,” and the future of what we call wildlife depends very much on us – as we do on it. So I intend this year to write more widely about us and our country life, including the other animals and plants (and fungi and worms and rocks) that we live with.

The interconnectedness of the natural world, farming and human creativity was brought home to me last year in a visit to a project not far away. It’s called Glasshouse College, and is one of several run by the Ruskin Mill Educational Trust. Glasshouse is based in Stourbridge, in a former glass factory, but also in a farm and wood in nearby Enville.

It runs a programme for 16-25 year olds with complex learning difficulties, especially on the autistic spectrum. I’ve seen many similar schemes in my lifetime in further education, but never one quite like this.

The philosophy behind the project, in essence, is that young people benefit from taking part in really high quality work, and this work is based in a holistic approach to the use of land and natural materials. So, there is a farm run on biodynamic principles, which produces food for the public café and the students’ meals.

It also teaches students to understand farming, starting with the soil and its structure – and its worms – and moving on to growing crops and raising animals from native breeds.

There is a craft centre where the students produce stunning glassware, the sort you would pay a lot of money for, working alongside professional craftspeople. They also produce wonderful textiles. These are made from wool from the sheep on the farm, and dyed with natural plant dyes. So the students can see the connection between the soil, plants, animals and the final piece of cloth.

But that’s not all they do. In the woodland, they spend their days working with their hands and brains. They help cut trees and dress the timber for manufacture. They make furniture and other wooden artefacts. There is a forge, run in a way forges have been run since Bronze Age times, fired by their wood, where they make useful metal objects.

They burn wood for charcoal (pictured above), and there is a pottery. In the middle is the woodland kitchen, where they eat during the day. There is no electricity or gas – the cooker is wood fired. They eat fresh organic produce cooked there. It looks for all the world like something from Robin Hood.

Every year they have an exhibition of the students’ work, and it is the sheer high quality of it that makes you gasp. They also produce a play (plus all the costumes and sets of course) – and it is complex, moving and intellectually challenging. During their two years there the students also do work placements and challenging outdoor activities.

The people who run the Trust believe that understanding the connection between all the elements of life is beneficial for everyone, but especially for these young people who have difficulty making connections. They also believe in the ability of all their students to be successful.

A high proportion of young people have gone on to work or further or higher education, though my guess is that this may be dropping in these difficult times. If you want to find out more you can look at www.rmet.org.uk and visit the centre in Stourbridge.

The lesson for me was that people benefit from actually working in the countryside and in production, getting a deep level of understanding of their environment, and seeing how everything links together. There is no sentimentality about the countryside (or the kids) – it is a working environment.

It’s something we could all learn from. Too often we sentimentalise the countryside as somehow best when it’s empty; free from obvious human marks; “wild”. Or we go the other way, and see our role as taming the wild places and tidying everything so it looks like a garden.

Neither of these will really make our countryside sustainable. Nor will “conserving” it, or special “beautiful” parts of it. Like all our life, it needs developing and nurturing so we and it grow along in harmony. We need farms and roads and wind turbines and solar panels and railways and manufacture and houses for everyone. I hope we can find the connectedness to develop all this while nurturing biodiversity and therefore our health and happiness.

I was interested by the prizewinners in the BBC’s Food and Farming awards. The shortlisted farms were all being run consciously in a way that developed a biodiverse environment – some organic, some not – and very importantly all were also commercially successful.

One winner was a farm that made use of the natural presence of worms, microscopic fungi and other creatures and plants in the soil to develop a healthy base with minimal digging to produce good crops.

Other farmers I have talked to have reminded me that we are, in a way, going back to a time when farming was not a full-time occupation but a part of life in which other work was undertaken. Once we were all farmers, and even after the industrial revolution most people still tried to grow vegetables and keep a pig.

I recently visited Swaledale in Yorkshire, where the old pattern was that farming was traditionally done by the women while the men worked in small local lead and other mineral mines. I remember 40 years ago often meeting Scottish crofters on the trains in spring, going back to their crofts after working on the roads in Glasgow during the winter.

There is a strange new tradition in Yorkshire of women on farms making hats, and of course many farmers now sell their produce directly or make it into everything from sausages to ice-creams. A farmer may well lay you an asphalt drive, or thin your trees for you.

All this makes me hopeful that farming will develop in a more sustainable way, more integrated into the life of the countryside. In this area, intensive arable farming never took hold, and that kind of farming looks more and more like a blip in our history.

Over Christmas I visited Thailand. I went to a project called Cabbages and Condoms, a sort of market garden/restaurant/hotel which also campaigns against HIV (hence the name). They have a huge area of organic garden where they grow all the vegetables and fruit for their kitchens.

All the employees at the hotel and restaurant have a few growing areas which they manage, to make sure they see how the food gets to the table. Everything the plants grow in is recycled from somewhere, and the water is carefully re-used. The project provides employment for people from the poorer parts of the country – and the food is wonderful. Again, the emphasis is on the connections between the plants and their environment and the human beings who live in it.

I hope you are now enjoying the new Village 2012 publication, and that you try out some of my walks. I will be covering a mixture of topics in the main magazine this year: some walks, some details of local wildlife and some more general looks at habitat and country life.

Alvechurch area has quite a high turnover of population, and I often meet new people looking for places to walk. If you are new to The Village, you can email the magazine and ask for a copy of my walks from the last couple of years.

My poem is a recent one that I wrote after the last Alvechurch Village Society walk of 2011.

The photograph

It’s the first Sunday of December
The village walk. Clouds lower and loom
I put on waterproofs, leave my camera at home.
We walk in a raggedy trail, over fields and tracks
Laughing and talking about footpaths and plans
And songs and Christmas and the recession.
We pass playing fields and affordable houses
Here is the dingle where the bluebells come in May,
Here the scruffy farm, spilling down the hill,
The landing strip, “Hopwood International” we laugh,
There the planned site for an improbable holiday village.
Then the sunlight streams behind us. Ahead
A black cloud over the Wast Hills,
And the oaks to right and left afire with gold in their last leaves
More gold than any millionaire could hold.
The rainbow comes, faint strip, then brighter
Finally the complete vivid bow arching ahead
Perfect picture, oaks, rainbow, green grass
And no camera. So I frame it in my head
We all talk about it, laughing at pots of gold
In the straggled farms and blue dingles.
It rains of course, heavy, and we’re soon wet
So I’m glad my camera is safe and dry at home
And the picture is safe and dry in my head
And in all our heads. The rainbow is for hope
Despite the rain and the autumn statements.
After my clothes have dried, it’s still in my head
And now it’s a picture here, for 2012, for us all.


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