Across the High Culm Ridge

This is just a bit of an extract.

I used to think I was getting the hang of the hedges. I walk up the lane to the village several times a week, and in the green tunnels of the deep Devon lanes it’s often hard to see anything except the tunnel walls, especially in May, when the green would be outdone by the purples, yellows, blues and whites if it were not so bright and new. And if the roaring of a three hundred horse power green and yellow John Deere comes the other way, there’s nowhere to go except back-first into the hedge. There’s no better way of getting closely acquainted with the hedgerow species.

But today I’d come in a direction I’ve never taken before, through the churchyard and past the Methodist chapel, heading North and West. And the hedges here were entirely different. Well, not entirely. The species are more or less the same, but their forms are different. Here, the campion is much more pink than red, and the stitchwort has bigger, more ragged flowers. There are bluebells where the ransoms ought to be and jack-of-the-hedge where I’d expect cow parsley. And I can still see St. Mary’s tower.

A South West Water workman had been called out to a rarely-visited water treatment plant, and in his investigations must have disturbed a bat roost. A bat is flitting about in the lane like something between a large moth and house marten, totally disorientated. Swallows, spooked by their night-time rival, lined up along the telegraph wire that follows the lane, and chattered angrily at it. The day was as hot as we’d had so far this May, and in the late morning sun the thing looked quite pitiful. The deep lane climbed steeply up the side of the valley, and straightened out into one of the long, ridgeway routes that cut across the landscape, a prehistoric superhighway that would have followed the same route for millennia. I walked in the footsteps of a million cattle, sheep and tar-footed geese being driven to markets in far distant towns. Stopping for a rest in the shade of a windswept tree, I looked back east. On the slopes of Exmoor, far away across the Taw valley, bright yellow fields of rape break through the haze like shafts of sunlight through cloud. At my back is the last hill before the land begins to drop away into the Torridge valley, and Exmoor will be left behind and out of sight. If I climb the gate and look south, I can just see the shape of Dartmoor coming into view. I felt like a lone asteroid on the extreme edge of my solar system, starting to feel the pull of the next star. This is the watershed, the High Culm Ridge where the spring-fed streams start to flow the other way, and I will no longer be on the sheltered, lea side of the ridge, but facing the wind. Above, a buzzard curls its long, lazy loops in a territory of updraughts and air currents, unconcerned about which way the water falls.

In the fields behind me that make up High Down and Beara Moor, a smallholder on an antique tractor was topping the thistles. For the past few weeks I’d been helping out with a project to digitalise Devon Country Record Office’s collection of Tithe Maps and Apportionments. These are the maps drawn up in the 1840s when reforms to the tax laws meant that the government had to take a proper account of landowners’ wealth. The name, use and ownership details of every field, orchard, copse and brake is meticulously recorded. Land is given a reference number, and the property valued. Some estates seemed to have a theme to their names, such as William Down’s Cliston estate, with its Eastern Ireland, Western Ireland, and Inish Meadow, suggesting a certain amount of homesickness on the part of an Irish migrant. But what I found most interesting was the much more common, often unimaginatively descriptive names attributed to fields. Nine Acre Field, High Orchard, Bennett’s Plot, Emmanuel’s Down. And it came as a surprise, in a way, at how accurate the names were. Now, almost every village has a cul-de-sac called Orchard Close, a Ward’s Cottage or a Fountain Fields, and they’re just rustic names. But every Orchard Close in the tithe apportionment will be an orchard, Ward’s Cottage will come under someone else’s estate, and Foutain Fields will be a ‘waste and spring’.

High Down and Beara Moor are almost indistinguishable today. Where, in 1840, one would have probably been culm grassland and the other moor pasture, today both are highly improved pasture. In a transformation as dramatic as the Bronze Age slash and burn farming that created the moors in the first place, NPK fertilisers and tractors powerful enough to plough even the rockiest ground have left very little in the way of ‘Waste’ or ‘Moor’ on the High Culm Ridge at all.

Writing in the mist

I sometimes feel that my writing has far too much of an agenda, as if it’s always trying to expose something. Sometimes it gets too journalistic. So I wanted to try to just describe something without making a song and dance about it. This morning I went on a ten mile walk over the downs in Wiltshire in the fog. I had to use a compass and everything, it was great. And this is what I saw.

Fog #1 Walking south from Avebury, 15th March 2012.
The close-cropped pasture slipped away around me. The grass was silver with dew, and my shoes wet through. A stock fence ran parallel to my path, mechanically tensioned wire taught between the dead-straight line of posts. It stretched away endlessly, to a vanishing point hidden behind the mist. I could only see perhaps fifty metres. The white blank was an empty sheet of paper, mocking my attempts at description and metaphor with its bright opacity.

I looked west. Was the sky bluer that way? And to the South, surely the mist had thickened from white to the grey of melting snow where Silbury Hill ought to have stood? Or had my retinas been burnt by the relentless whiteness, and were all the colours I was seeing the random replenishment of iodopsin?

The birds did not seem to mind the mist. Skylarks gurgled, invisible. Crows caw for the morning and pheasants call for death. The A4 didn’t mind the mist either, and I followed the noise of cars, lorries, and motorbikes as if they were aeroplanes in the clouds. The sound of the road was another mist, a dull grey nimbostratus of white noise, sometimes punctuated by a rolling bank of sound as a lorry drove by, sometimes as quiet as the pale yellow sphere of the sun glimpsed through the thinner mist, but never silent.

And then trees began to condense at the bottom of the hill, half seen, half imagined, grey on grey, an idea forming in my mind, a half-remembered name on the tip of my tongue, growing in form and density, suddenly lost, the melody in the skylark’s endless song.

#2 More mist
In the mist, everything could be endless. The bridle path followed the sagging, rusted line of a barbed wire fence beside a field of rotting cabbages for eternity. Behind, there was no beginning, and ahead, there was no end. The flints in the chalky mud paved a path to nowhere, only onwards, into the mist. Skylarks haunted the air, their songs interchangeable, impersonal as a rolling cloud. Weeds grew by the wayside, the yellow flowers of the camomile nothing more than a shade of green. Around the fence the dead stems of last year’s fireweed and nettles shivered in the wind that failed to blow the mist away. Sometimes wisps and tendrils of mist were blown across the path, sometimes the way ahead cleared for an instant, and the shape of a stunted hawthorn appeared, unannounced and unexpected, only to slip away again. And the mist rolled on.

Salisbury Plain February 2012

Not even the army Landrovers had broken the ice. The puddles in the ruts were frozen solid, five or six inches thick. Some of the shallower puddles had become detached from their bases, hovering over frozen bubbles of air. These were thin enough to smash through, making the sound of a stone being thrown through a window. Beneath the ice was dust. The chalk road was dry as a desert. Once or twice a pickup truck drove past, kicking up a cloud of dust, golden in the sunlight, which was slowly dissipated by the east wind, covering the ice puddles with a thin layer of dust, desert camouflage.

I was on the edge of Salisbury Plain, following the perimeter road around the Larkhill Camp impact area. This is where the army train their tank drivers and artillery. Guns were firing in the distance in rounds of six. I could see the dust and smoke rise from where they impacted, about four miles to the south. It was the first really cold weather of the winter, the first week of February, just as the first signs of spring had begun to appear.

Between the crumpling of the shells, there was silence. Not, strictly speaking, true silence, but the silence of the plain. Curlews and finches occasionally piping up. The London to Penzance train, on the edge of hearing, down in the valley, out of sight on the other side of the ridge about four or five miles north. Silence sometimes isn’t silence, it’s being able to hear things that are usually too faint.

Somewhere on the Plain, a conservation society has released a colony of great bustards, the county bird of Wiltshire, that became extinct in the UK over a century ago. Apart from occasionally being shelled by incompetent soldiers (who are under strict instructions to leave them alone), the bustards will be entirely undisturbed by people. People say that Salisbury Plain is one of the wildest places in England, full of rare birds and lizards. An unlikely wilderness, like a contaminated industrial estate, an old nuclear testing site, a crack in the pavement.

Just as in most other places that seem wild in the UK, Salisbury Plain is managed to prevent it reverting back to wildwood. Cows graze the pitted and rutted grasslands in the summer, taking care of any birch or hawthorn saplings taking root. But there’s something else, that somehow seems more fundamental, that’s stopping me feeling like I’m looking out over a rare wilderness.

Every hundred metres or so I come to another sign warning me to keep off, to beware of unexploded ordnances, reminding me of the bylaws prohibiting my presence. And every kilometre or so is a red flag. There’s no fence, nothing actually stopping me from heading off into the head of the Plain, to take my chances with the landmines and artillery. But of course I won’t. This perimeter road is as strong as any fence, the signs as impenetrable as razor wire. It’s a Berlin Wall in my head, an Iron Curtain. But what should that have to do with the wilderness? Why do I have to be allowed in for it to feel really wild? In the USA, National Parks and designated wilderness zones are patrolled and access only granted to a certain number of people per year. The waiting list to canoe down the Colorado River runs into decades.

It’s the same as the silence. Nowhere can, strictly speaking, be a wilderness. Atmospheric pollution and anthropogenic climate change effect the whole world. Radioactive isotopes from nuclear testing and meltdowns are carried by the wind, which doesn’t stop to read the No Entry signs. And a wilderness totally separated from humanity would be the silence of a cave, a tree falling in a wood.

Read by the River

I’ve started a new blog (http://readbytheriver.wordpress.com/) to chart my experimentation in reading books ‘on location’. So it’s a load of book reviews really, but reviews that focus more on the process of reading than in a spurious attempt at objectivity. The locations should be appropriate to the book. So far I’ve been to the River Taw to read Tarka the Otter and to a different kind of Taw, a Tor in fact, on Dartmoor to read The Hound of the Baskervilles. I’m interested in how the places change my experience of reading, and so far there have been unexpected results.

Anyway, should be a bit of fun. I’m very happy to take requests! There’s more details over on Read by the River.

20th October, 2011

The twenty or so bullocks that had lived in the field below the house all summer were gone. The soft ground was cratered by heavy hooves, and the turf was drenched silver in undisturbed dew. As I walked down the field to the woods, my boots flicked up drops of dew in front of me, like grasshoppers flinging themselves out of my way. Jackdaws, robins, blue tits and great tits, and far below, I could hear a train in the valley, and in the woods the stream’s more constant gargling. But the morning was silent despite it all. A dog fox, black nose and rusty tail, couldn’t see me where I crouched in the grass to write. He marked his territory on the tall, hollow stump in the field that the cows used to scratch themselves against. In a moment he would wander up the the house, and patrol the orchard, before heading off to the next farm, unless I stand up and disturb him. In the distance, we both heard the two-stroke alarm of a pheasant, and looked up.

I walked down into the woods at the bottom of the field. The Great Wood, as it is called on the maps, along with a hundred other similarly sized oak woods in the area. Maybe they were once a single Great Wood, now divided and dwindling. It’s only about six or seven acres, just enough to lose yourself in, but not enough to get you truly lost. There’s no fence between the field and the wood, and until lately the cows used to roam between them at will. But I don’t think they slept there, preferring the open field.

Once, there must have been a fence or a hedge enclosing the wood. Its straight edge has the watermark of artificiality about it. Nature doesn’t do right angles, and this wood has a right angled corner. The leaves had lost the golden green of summer and were darkening to olive and moss. Now they would only be reignited by the autumn sunshine, which today seems to have no notion of appearing.

I walked under the boughs, and entered another world. The grass gave way to leaves and compost, and the stream was muffled. My feet crunch and rustled like a blackbird in a hedge. A branch snapped, and I half-expected some mythical creature to appear, bow raised, to chide my carelessness. But the silence was unbroken. In the absence of wind the woods would seem silent even if a rave was going on. The stillness of so many millions of leaves is a kind of silence. The motionless trees could easily trick you into believing that time had stopped still too. The jackdaws, in their never-ending turf war with the buzzards, made a shrieking sortie into the woods, laser guns blazing, attracted by the cries of a juvenile buzzard. They circled, and were gone.

The woods were mostly oak, with hazels in the few clearings, and holly bushes threatening to swamp the underbrush in some places. The first job of the woodland manager is to thin out or remove the holly, an invasive species to the English woods, not introduced until Roman times. Archaeologists sometimes use the presence or absence of its pollen in soil samples to date remains. The oaks in this wood were all near enough the same age, if my guess was accurate. Oaks in woods don’t grow into the same shape as oaks in stately gardens, or on the back of pound coins. They aren’t low and spreading, but tall and straight. Some almost as straight as spruce. Amongst the trees were stumps, neatly topped with the clean cut of a saw. But they were old too. Their roots had rotten away, leaving them oddly detached from the earth. A little further on were the rusting remains of a planking table. The circular saw blade was now growing out of the earth like a rusty sunrise.

I walked further on until I found some very late chanterelles by a rotting hazel. I felled them with my penknife and pocketed them for an early lunch, before heading home. And I was wrong about the sun. As I left the wood, it burst into flame behind me. The low sun’s sudden warmth brought the air to life, and flies appeared from whatever nooks they sleep in, filling the air with their drone. There was the sudden smell of the wet earth, leaf mould and moss, so fresh it almost hurts your lungs to breath. I walked back up the field, following the route of the fox, whose warm, dry smell by the hollow stump forced everything else aside.

Blowing in the Wind

I’ve been writing a lot about wind farms and landscape recently (though not much of it has yet found its way onto this blog), and now I’d like to concentrate on the wind itself. The wind has been harnessed as a free source of energy for as long as people have travelled by sail, and Don Quixote is the first recorded anti-windfarm campaigner that I know of, though admittedly he was under the impression that the forty windmills he charged at were giants swinging their arms. But until the Romantic poets revolutionised attitudes towards nature, writers tended to bring the wind into their work as a kind of stock character. Along with the village fool, the lecherous old man and the naïve young lover, there is the cruel winter wind, the wild tempest, and the gentle summer breeze. They play their parts reliably, wreck ships on desert islands, caress Arcadian shepherds, howl around a witches’ coven, and so on. But when Samuel Coleridge was listening to an Eolian harp (something like a wind chime) in August 1795, the wind suddenly came to stand for something much more sacred. It represented to him the ‘one life’ that connects all things.

And what if all of animated nature

Be but organic harps diversely framed,

That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps,

Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,

At once the soul of each, and God of all?

(The Eolian Harp, 36-40)

The wind became the breath of God, breathing life into everything on earth, connecting all living things, the source of all ideas and inspiration, the ‘idle flitting fantasies / [that] Traverse my indolent and passive brain – /As wild and various as the random gales’ (EH 32-34). The wind is no longer a passive actor, but an agent.

In Lyrical Ballads, a collaboration of Coleridge and William Wordsworth, Wordsworth picks up this theme when musing on Nature in Tintern Abbey.

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean, and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man -

A motion and a spirit that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things

(Tintern Abbey 96-105)

This is Wordsworth’s ‘road to Damascus’ moment, when he becomes an acknowledged ‘worshipper of nature’ (156) as a part of God. He entreats his readers to ‘Let the misty mountain-winds be free/To blow against thee’ (138-9). There is a resonance here, though no doubt unintentional, with the popular Irish blessing, ‘May the road rise to meet you,/ May the wind blow always at your back,’ etc. However the contrast is stark – the blessing is a prayer that God will keep you safe from wild weather, whereas for Wordsworth it is in the wild weather that God is found.

Percy Shelley went further still. For him, the wind, and all of nature, was not just sacred, but political and revolutionary. In his Ode to the West Wind, Shelley enlists the support of the wind in the struggle for the rights of man against the repressive forces of the state.

Be thou, spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!

And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

(Ode to the West Wind 61-7)

This is a far cry from the wind being a free supply of green energy. If the wind is a resource to Shelley, then it is a respected, sacred being to be called upon like a Greek god. However not all the Romantic poets saw the wind as a benevolent spirit. In Beachy Head, Charlotte Smith’s wind is totally ambivalent to the suffering of man. She mocked the Coleridgean idea of a ‘soul-reviving gale / Fanning the beanfield’ (BH 677-8), which perhaps alludes to lines in The Eolian Harp. Smith uses a common Worthworthian figure, a hermit, but whereas Wordsworth’s characters learn to become at one with a benign pantheistic Nature, Smith’s spends his days attempting to learn to predict storms by studying the weather, and risks his life to rescue sailors from shipwrecks, with varying success, until one night he too is drowned by a meaningless storm. The ‘wild bellows’ (710) are not fanning any flames of faith or revolution, they do not bring down the judgement of a vengeful god, they are not the result of malign occult activity, they are random and meaningless.

Smith’s attitude is much more modern (post-Romantic) than any of the ‘big six’ Romantic poets. Earlier in the poem she worries about geology and fossils and how they challenge the orthodox religious creation story. She refers to Gilbert White’s notions of changes in sea levels, but scorns Science for its ‘vague theories or vain dispute’ (394). Revolution gets even shorter thrift, ‘Hither, ambition, come!/Come and behold the nothingness of all/For which you carry through the oppressed earth/War and its train of horrors’ (419-22). For Smith, there are no answers blowing in the wind. The wind is unreliable and unsympathetic to any of the schemes of man.

Silent Victories bike tour: Day Six

The traffic island on the almost-island of Portland had become a temporary protest camp. Tents became billboards, “Food not Fuel”, and the Kelly Kettle was boiling water for a tea round. Twenty or so bikes were stacked against a landscaped flowerbed, and the bike-towed sound system competed with the noise of cars. Now the site had been set up, people milled about in the sun, organising the next day’s cycling, or prepared for workshops and meetings later in the day. I sat resting against a stone pillar set up in the centre of the roundabout, a monument to nothing but itself, listening to the conversation of local residents and activists.

“The new government are reviewing the subsides, we’re hoping we can block it there. It can’t run without subsides. There’s people with no jobs here, they’re cutting public services, and the government want to give money to this?”

The bike tour stopped by in Portland to support a local anti-biofuel campaign, No to Oil Palm Energy (NOPE). Planning permission has been granted for a 17MW palm oil-fired power station to be built, despite overwhelming opposition of the local population. Some people objected to the smoke that would pollute the local air. The plant would be at sea level, and even with a tall chimneystack, smoke would be emitted at a level lower than much of the residential area. Others were more concerned about the palm oil plantations that would need to be half the size of Dorset to keep the fuel supply coming, for the same amount of electricity that could be produced by about 18 wind turbines. The port authority stands to gain considerably from the development, and their profit comes at the expense of the islanders feeling disenfranchised about what goes on in their own back yard. The local council seems powerless to oppose the scheme, which feels like an imposition that no-one on the island will benefit from.

“It’s such a Victorian attitude. It’s like what they did with the prison – just stick it on Portland, out of the way. We’ve got big social problems here, and the planning system is just bonkers. People want to come here for the history, the extreme landscapes. We have rock climbers from all over Europe coming here because they can see the wrecks from the cliffs. But they’re determined to ruin it. They treat us like a dumping ground for things they don’t want in Weymouth.”

Later in the day, two councillors crossed the road to meet the protesters. The two grey-haired, well-dressed women were eager to talk, despite their repeated claims of how busy they were and how they really must dash soon. They told me about how a local green space that had been given to Portland by the Queen herself was being built over as part of a new housing development. The harbour is to be host to the 2012 sailing events, and local democratic voices have been overruled by the Olympic’s metropolitan interests. The same thing was happening with the power station. But she disagreed with the protesters’ alternative. “There was a plan to put wind turbines all along the causeway. But they were just too big. It was out of proportion. So no, I can’t agree with that. What we need here is wave power.”

Three protesters had positioned themselves on the central reservation leading up to the roundabout from the mainland. They had a banner that read “Beep Against Biofuels”, and the motorists’ support grew with the advancing rush-hour. When the stream of cars was reduced to a trickle, we packed up our panniers and trailers, and set off up the hill to the St George’s community centre, for dinner and a meeting.

The community centre was built like an upturned ship, the roof’s beams curved into a hull, and the oak joists as dark as pitched timber. But the walls of the centre were made of great blocks of hewn Portland stone, weighing a tonne each easily. It was as if, if it could, the whole island would pack itself up and sail away from the Victorian causeway mooring it to the mainland. After a short struggle to get the PA to work, and a large plate of curry followed by fruit salad had been consumed, the previous day’s journey was beginning to take its toll on the cyclists. The wind, rain and fog that had blanketed the route from Tinker’s Bubble to Portland had stayed with us overnight, disturbing our sleep in wind-tossed tents. It looked like tonight might be just as windy, and we had a long ride to look forward to the next day. The day of relative rest had given our muscles a chance to complain. Tiredness was kicking in.

But there was no time for relaxation yet. Local supporters had come together to share an internet link-up with activists in Columbia who had been driven off their land by palm oil companies, but had fought back and successfully retaken their village. It was a chance for the whole story of palm oil to be told, from plantation to power station. Using a translator, a Columbian activist told the story of his community, and answered questions from the Portland residents. At one point the hall full of people were listening so attentively that the Columbians worried that they were talking to an empty room. For about a minute afterwards we wouldn’t have been able to hear anything he said past the eruption cheering, clapping, stamping and table banging.