In the past year or so I have been undergoing a transition in my thinking and practice away from conservation ecology into a more socio-ecological position. there are no wildlife problems after all,only human ones right? Ive always been interested in systems thinking and complexity ever since reading Fritjof Kapra’s Web of Life, but I’m beginning to explore how these relate to my practice and have inevitably begun a deep-dive with the help of Complexity Explorer and more recently the Human Current.
Thanks to these great podcasts- I’m currently working through them from Episode 1 and have therefore just discovered the work of Diego Espinosa. I listened to the podcast on his book The Certainty Merchants this morning while driving my border collie Magpie to the vets to get his bandage changed. His foot was squished by a slow moving car, but the wound is recovering really well. He loves a bit of complexity science in the car to calm his nerves!
I made some notes on the podcast but i recommend you listen to it, and the one before (Episode 6) which is really a scene setter for the question of interest to me:
How do we build more natural relationships with uncertainty?
 
Post WW2 society became obsessed with certainty and there rose a tribe- The Certainty Merchants- who you could pay to shore up your live against certainty. Using money we buy the things we need to make us feel safe. We have also undermined the basic organic protection mechanisms- 100,000 years of human behavioural heuristics such as strong social networks and generational economic pacts (inherited wealth). The ego-driven drive towards independence has actually increased vulnerability and reduced resilience and led to pathological systemic impacts such as stress-inflammation-diabetes epidemic.
 
We need to re-engage with uncertainty and accept it as part of our human condition. We can learn so much for the natural world, remembering we are part of it. Self is just a construct. Our conscious minds tend towards using statistics and probability in problem solving which remains reductionist and risk averse.
A must-listen, and undoubtedly a must-read.
If you like this then you’ll also like this read on Medium Time To Design Our Networks

 

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Cooling off for six hours in a police cell in Esher, Surrey, in 1997, with King Arthur Pendragon taking up residence in the cell next door, I had a moment to reflect on the power of words, language and stories. We had both been arrested at the protest in Canbury Gardens, Kingston– the site of the annual Kingston Green Fair. While he was calmly debating with the duty officer as to whether Excalibur was a sword, or actually a religious artefact and therefore it should accompany him into his cell, I was contemplating my reasons for getting angry about the proposed felling of fifty six Lombardy poplars so that new residents of luxury riverside flats would have a better view of the river.

The protest included veterans from Twyford Down (1991) and Newbury Bypass (1994), much bigger protests than the one taking place in leafy, well-to-do Kingston. The line of poplars weren’t native woodland threatened by road building. They were introduced trees planted in the 1930s for screening of a now-disused power station. To those of us who attended the annual  Green Fair however, and who couldn’t leave jobs to join the big protest camps, they were a symbol of resistance to the destruction of the countryside.

At the time, the emotional stories around the protection of the trees weren’t enough for me, and importantly didn’t influence the people that seemed to matter: developers, councillors, government, the police.  I wanted more. I wanted indisputable scientific fact as to the importance of theses trees. In that police cell I decided to become an ecologist: armed with those facts- the REAL story-I would be unstoppable. Surely no one would argue with the facts! So I studied a foundation science course in my evenings, then a biology “A’ Level and finally I went to University to study ecology. A Masters Degree in Applied Ecology and Conservation followed directly and here I am, armed to the teeth with science on habitat destruction, fragmentation, invasive species and global warming. Yet its not enough. 97% of all scientist agree (Cook et al 2013) that global warming is anthropogenic in origin and causing runaway climate breakdown. The IPBES are reporting what amounts to a 6th mass extinction. Yet  the response, the action taken to address this is woefully inadequate and glacially slow.

I worked in conservation for 15 years and learned that there were however only so many people who would sit up and take action over the facts of biodiversity loss and climate change. Facts are far too abstract for most people. The economist Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow explains that a large part of our decision making processes are fast, automatic emotional, stereotypic, and unconscious. I was beginning to find that telling people the factual story and asking them to change their lives was not working. A way through began to emerge for me by listening to people’s stories and trying to highlight with them where nature mattered; to help them see they were embedded in ‘nature’ not separate from it. Facts provide architecture but it was the stories that made them relevant. In a world beset by problems caused by human population growth and resource use, things cant be just what they are; they become what people see them as.

Choice of words and language are critical to understanding and they can be used to build bridges or erect walls. Late last year, George Monbiot called for a change in the language we use around the environment and climate change, proposing amongst other changes the use of the words climate breakdown instead of climate change to convey the sense of urgency; and that phrase ecosystem services, much hated by non-ecologists, should be instead called life support systems.

Words, in this case the deliberate removal of them from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, prompted Robert Macfarlane, Captain of the  Modern Nature Writing Ship, to collaborate with artist Jackie Morris to create The Lost Words, a tome of poems and art that have captured the hearts and minds of so many people that local fundraising campaigns to buy Lost Words have sprung up in all over Britain . At this time we are also exploring a Lost Words Ontario.

Working for the Wildlife Trusts we sometimes struggled with scientific language as a barrier to popular communication. That dreaded word ecosystem services for one, but also the concept of a Living Landscape– the landscape-level conservation thinking that is the key mission of the Trusts- defied abbreviation to media-friendly comms. When you start to explain it, it becomes two wordy but when asked to reduce it to something the public would understand it becomes something so amorphous as to lose its meaning entirely. Perhaps, I thought, some concepts are just not easily explained with words.

In Savage Gods Kingsnorth, after years of using words to fight for nature, finds himself in a place where words- the Savage Gods- are failing him, and language might be tricking him into believing he no longer has a sense of purpose.

“None of this is real. The Scot’s pine is real it is a being, a presence, the birds are real, the solidity of the earth is real and the words are nothing. Nothing. The words are not alive. The words are not quickened, they do not dance or stagger, they are not inhabited. They are hammered survey stakes, acrylic falsehoods that die in the reality of the place. All humans do is talk. Talk talk talk and out come the sounds and like poetry they change nothing but we talk talk talk anyway and we mistake the sounds for meaning or action and the tree just stands there silently and we just talk.” p31

” Is Language the Trap? The field is full of language. Everything is speaking to everything else, and some of it i can hear and some of it, because of my biology or my cultural inheritance, i am not equipped to. All nature is language- but none of it is written down.” p117

I was introduced to Paul Kingsnorth’s writing by a good friend who recognised in his works something I was going through in my own personal journey. Kingsnorth was an activist at Twyford Down, Solsbury Hill and the M11 link road. He has worked for Greenpeace and then was deputy editor of The Ecologist. In 2001 he had the honour of being named one of Britain’s Top 10 Troublemakers by the New Statesman. He is a writer of books, poetry and articles exploring place, nature and environmental concern. In 2009 he co-founded, with Dougald Hine, the Dark Mountain Project , a network of writers and artists who have all but accepted that social collapse is around the corner and have named themselves witnesses to the event.

I read ‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist‘ where in a series of essays Paul explored his growing distance from the world of environmental activism. I recognised the sense of it but I wasn’t yet ready to give up ‘the fight’ as Paul seemed to had done. He had gone deeper into the world of environmental politics and protest than I ever had, however. For me, Canbury Gardens had led to Nuclear Testing and anti-WTO protests but I put my energies completely into deepening my scientific understanding.

Savage Gods finds Paul sense-making with his family from his new home in Ireland. The fire in his belly is cooling, becoming something less consumptive, more like the tributaries of a river finding its way through the land. Without the energy from those fires, he is exploring his seemingly frustrated creativity.

“What does a writer do when his words stop working? I dont know. All I know is I’m churning inside and everything I know is windskipping like brown willow leaves in a winter gale”

The move to Ireland brings reflections on place making and connection. How does a self-proclaimed “wanderer through words and worlds” make the connections with place and land that he once had and still craves. Kingsnorth knows that connection to land is an important part of his or anyone’s sense of self, – a ‘sense of reciprocity between a people and the place they live in,‘ yet he finds it almost impossible to bear once he has them.He escaped from his middle-class upbringing and he found no solidarity with his Oxford peers. Now he has also come to hate idealists like the one he used to be.

“I was born in the rootless suburbs and they have given me a rootless soul. I am not a tree. I am some kind of slinking animal in the hedgerow. I am a seed on the wind. I am water. I am coming to the rocks at the lip of the fall.” p25

This style is echoed later in the book when he quotes the Song of Amergin, the invocation of the spirit of Ireland by the mythological poet-druid of the Milesians. As with the original poem perhaps this is a calling to the spirit of the land for recognition, but not this time for a people, but for one man’s uprooted soul.

Language is perhaps our greatest achievement and, if we all just want to connect, to belong to something, language might well be the tool of our demise. Words are an abstraction of things, they are not those things. Language sets us apart in an observers role and defies belonging which we all simultaneously crave and fear. Belonging brings acceptance and annihilation of individuality in the same moment.

The most Savage Gods though seem to be not words or language but the thoughts behind them. The cognitions that form as we unconsciously filter the information from our environment with our evolutionary-sculpted sensory systems. The world we see is the one we inherited through millennia of interactions between us and our environment. The cruel trick begins with thought: the separation starts before words are formed,  because if  we saw things how they really were we would be seeing flow not form, process not state. Yet words and language are part of the road map for survival; they brought us here to where we are today.

In The Language Instinct Steven Pinker, buidling on the work of Noam Chomsky before him, proposed that the ability to learn language is inherited, that we possess a proto-language or ‘mentalese’ which is the same for every language and forms a grammatical structure on which our learning is mapped. This would suggest a thought-prison of our own making, an inability to escape from thinking outside our own box. Recent insights from  Professor of Linguistics Vyvyan Evans in his book The Language Myth challenge this notion. He argues that thoughts aren’t taking place in an abstract mentalese but are “embodied”, arising directly in and from experience. If this is indeed true, thoughts and the language that arise from them aren’t an abstraction at all, but a direct consequence of interaction with the material world, all be it still through a biological filter. It is impossible as yet for an unaided individual to see gamma radiation or smell the world as richly as a dog would.

Where we are could also be a cul-de-sac. In the science fiction novel ‘Blindsight‘ Peter Watts suggests that this separation from ‘being’ through consciousness could actually be an aberration, an evolutionary dead end.

“Evolution across the universe was nothing but the endless proliferation of automatic, organized complexity, a vast arid Turing machine full of self-replicating machinery forever unaware of its own existence. And we—we were the flukes and the fossils. We were the flightless birds lauding our own mastery over some remote island while serpents and carnivores washed up on our shores.”

Life cannot exist for long separated from itself. I am reminded of a time-lapse model of source-sink dynamics, the sink ‘winking’ out of existence unable to maintain itself in a hostile environment without migration from the source.

Savage Gods reads at first like the notebook for a finished work. Something to be honed and crafted and, well……completed. In my head I often asked Kingsnorth why he felt it necessary to publish these ‘workings out’. But if we suffer from seeing form not flow, here he gives us flow. beautifully. Here he is exploring the trap every being falls into when, rather than just doing, begins to ask themselves why?  The answer, if there is one, may not lie in the book, or the bowl or the basket but in the crafting of the book, bowl or basket. We are possessed by ghosts of the evolutionary process which we mistake for purpose. We have come too far down the line of self-reflection which was only ever meant to be a side show to the greater theme of being.

The book also feels aptly titled because it feels like a prayer offered up for a revelation, for insight into the true reality of things, and for meaning and direction.

Perhaps there is only peace to be made with that reality. Defy those Savage Gods, stop fighting and start doing. We can’t easily do both.

Savage Gods was released in early June in Europe and  is available for pre-order in North America through publishers Two Dollar Radio. I am grateful for them for providing a preview copy.

 

 

 

 

 

An article in The Conversation explores the benefits of practicing craft for a healthier life with a similar theme and sources to my previous blog Spooncarving- A Gateway Drug to pro-environmental behaviour and landscape advocacy?

 

We’ve had regularly good class sizes (5-6 people) for the four spoon carving workshops I have delivered here as part of the Ontario Rural Skills Network and interest doesn’t seem to be abating. SpoonfestUK in August 2019 is sold out as well. I cannot keep up with the number of wonderful ‘Spoon People’  out there through social media. A simple web search to try to get to the bottom of the popularity of spooncarving finds a growth in the number of books published on or related to spooncarving in recent years

BooksOnSpooncarving

It’s part of  what seems like growing interest – a revival if you like- in skills and crafts-based learning. Is it a ‘hipster fad’ as The Times newspaper suggested. Or is it something deeper, an attempt to enrich our lives as The Independent reported  Interestingly, but not surprisingly, both these newspaper articles appear in 2017 at the peak of the book-publishing.

My own view is that this revival of skills and crafts is a reaching out by people for something deeper and more connected. Making stuff is a central part of the human evolutionary history, and until recently making involved the whole of our bodies. The creative spark of innovation in our brains was intimately connected with the mechanism of making the vision a reality which involved posture, energy, muscle power and memory and something else, the flow between postures when working which makes practical working something akin to tai-chi or yoga

Perhaps this return to learn these skills is for many of us in more sedentary occupations- and probably more affluent lifestyles-a desire to reconnect our bodies with our minds in the work we do. Of course its important to remember that spoon carving is an introduction to working with wood and tools which may seem a luxury to some but has a serious purpose. In the last few months we have seen global protests build over Climate Breakdown and just this week a report from the UN IPBES documenting the massive declines in biodiversity with gloomy predictions  for the extinction of a million species. Our societies appear to be struggling to come to terms with their own complexities,  built thanks to the availability of cheap fossil fuels. The message is clear: anywhere we can reduce our dependencies on carbon-based energy, we must act to do so.

What part might spoon carving, rural skills and crafts have in transitioning us to low-energy ways of living. Well clearly we try not to use any power tools in spoon-carving- or at least use them sparingly! As has pointed out by researchers at the University of Surrey, when engaged in’ flow’ activities which may include spoon carving, its time spent not consuming (Isham et al 2018). Carving can be done alone, but it is best undertaken socially where ideas can be shared mutual support can be given and stories can be shared.

While spoon carving wont save the world, it might act as ‘gateway drug’ to the adoption of more pro-environmental behaviours. In a recent study by Elf et al 2019, evidence for a ‘spillover effect’ from small ‘environmentally-friendly’ behaviours (switch off lights, avoid food waste) into wider pro-environmental behaviour. Interestingly the authors found a strong influence from group dynamics in their study.

As part of the Ontario Rural Skills Network we are asking workshop attendees to fill in pre- and post- workshop questionnaires to assess attitudes to a range of environmental  questions and whether our workshops help in bringing a wider understanding of the need to transition to sustainable lifestyles, and what role the workshops might play in motivating people to act and adopt a wider pro-environmental identity.  As a project of the Waterloo Institute of Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR), and with our partner the Save The Oak Ridges Moraine (STORM) Coalition we hope to also explore what role these skills workshops might play in advocacy for sustainable landscapes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marker posts for Fixed Point Photography along the TRCA hedgerows. I'll also be taking dimension measurements

Marker posts for fixed point photography points along our hedgerows. I’ll also be taking  measurements (height, width) at regular intervals

Yesterday- Earth Day 2019- felt like the warmest day yet this Spring here in Ontario- a balmy 19 degrees, a perfect day to get started on the monitoring programme for our Mount Wolfe Farm hedgerows.

We  planted two hedgerows here at the farm in 2017 and 2018. The 2017 hedge was started in the fall of 2017 but completed in 2018 and was planted by volunteers and marked the first ‘performance’ of the Hedgerow Rite.  The 2018 Hedge- was planted by a TRCA team last fall. The plantings have been made possible by the generous support of the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) who supplied the plants and labour and continue to support the Hedgelaying In The Ontario Landscape (HOL) Project.

My long-term aim is to set up a long term citizen-science monitoring programme for hedgerows that we plant as part of the HOL project, and also to fine tune recommendations for organisations and groups who want monitoring programmes for their hedges. I have worked with hedgerows and citizen scientists for 10 years, and created the Hedgerows for Dormice project at People’s Trust for Endangered Species (2009-11) and Hedgerow Heroes at Surrey Wildlife Trust (2017-ongoing).  I have created a draft monitoring calendar for a range of taxa associated with hedgerows.

SurveyCalendarAPR2019

This Earth Day was fixed point photograph (FPP) day! I spent the afternoon setting up FPP points around the farm which I will use to capture images of how the hedge grows and transforms the local landscape.

I have had a couple of camera traps (thanks Grant!) set up on Hedgerow TRCA18 with nothing captured so far although there is a good evidence of coyote Canis latrans using the adjacent paths, and the white-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus are already nibbling the tops of some of the plants- though thankfully the damage is localised both on the plant and within the hedge.

 

All pictures were taken with my Samsung A10 Mobile Phone which has serious limitations (offers of a proper digital camera gratefully excepted!), although it does allow me to switch to the compass feature and GPS to get a bearing and location (not that accurate sadly) without changing instruments!

It was a wonderful day to be distracted by the wildlife on the farm though. An American robin Turdus migratorius was searching for insects in a wood chip pile. A Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis was singing its heart out from the top of an old sugar-maple on the drive. While down near Hedge TRCA17, I spied what we had thought was an Eastern Kingbird Tyrannus tyrannus  seen from the house a week earlier. I’d been advised through I-Naturalist I(Sarah and I are using the App to record all widlfe sightings on the Farm) that it was a little too early to see these and my correspondent had suggested instead an Eastern Phoebe Sayornis phoebe. I had recently downloaded the I-Bird App and played both calls through my phone. Sure enough my friend took a real interest when the phoebe calls were played. and so too did another bird which I haven’t seen before- the chipping sparrow Spizella passerina with its dark eye stripe and bright red haircut! Later I sat for a while and watched three tree swallows Tachycineta bicolor whip and dive above the front 10 acres, above the nest boxes where they nested last year. Soaring high above them a turkey vulture Cathartes aura was a crack in the sky.

Today its raining so I’ll be planning small mammal surveys, moth surveys ( Peterson’s Field Guide on order from my local bookstore Forsters Book Garden, along with Robert Macfarlane’s new book Underland!) and butterfly transects. I have seen the first butterfly on site yesterday- a mourning cloak Nymphalis antiopa next to the hedgerow Sarah and I finished laying. I’ll also be sourcing some ‘tins’ for the reptile surveys

Peterson Moths

I’m going to need to up my skill level for the invertebrate surveys and soil fauna- and hopefully find a suitably qualified friend to help out! I expect it is within the invert communities that we might be able to detect differences in the species or functional groups present in and around the hedgerow, from monitoring sites which I will also set up in grassland, wetland and woodland plots. The fact that Mount Wolfe Farm is a site with mixed habitats will make it difficult- perhaps impossible to show an effect from the planting of the hedgerows and so I look forward to being able to develop a project at a site with very little or no woodland where the presence of hedgerows should have an immediate impact on the biodiversity within the landscape.

I’m embarking on these surveys to develop a database on the biodiversity of Canadian hedgerows but also partly to develop my skills identifying Canadian biodiversity and to maintain a survey practice  much as one would develop a for a musical instrument or a for yoga. Its easy to slip out of these important rituals, especially if like me your career had taken you out of the field towards a more strategic focus. Use it or lose it, I think I heard someone once say!

I do need to get some more survey equipment but I haven’t yet found a Canadian equivalent of NHBS or WildCare which were the go-to companies in the UK. Not that I have much in the way of funding to go on a spending spree but even some sampling pots would be useful! And a sweep net. and a bat detector and a….

 

 

 

 

 

 

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