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“….what makes you think the Hare is done with night just because she kicked a badger in the ribs?”
Ever since the days when I thought I might be a druid, the Hare, along with the bear and the wolf, has been an animal of power and magic in my imagination. This triptych is with me daily, three figures adorning my bookshelf, a wolf from the Schleich range of figurines; a brown bear sculpted from who-knows-what rock, a salmon in its jaws; and a hare. The hare is solid carnelian.
Imagine the somersaults in my soul then, when on a unplanned sidestep into The Haslemere Bookstore, heading as I do straight for the nature and wildlife section just by the sales desk, I spy the form of a hare on the cover of a book. Not just any hare this, this is an orange and white poem in paint from the imagination of Carry Akroyd, one of my favourite nature artists. Following the hare I spy fox, barn owl and swan all in the same unmistakeable colours and patterns. As I pick up Hare my fingers delight in the hard spine and rough cover. This is something of substance, an appeal to all the senses as a good book should be. There might be a threshold of stimulation above which the mind dissolves, and suddenly I am aware that the author of this book, these books, is Jim Crumley, and it feels like a dam has been breached somewhere in my head. My brain is so hot it may melt like butter. My cheeks start to sting a little. I feel like I have discovered a treasure hoard, half expect the glittering tail of Smaug the Magnificent to drop from the topmost shelf, backed up by his deadly dentistry. When nothing so dramatic happens, an impulse makes me turn to see if I have been discovered in this intimate moment of joy. I almost set my back to the shelves- this treasure discovered, I will fight all comers; this is too good to share. Instead I walk away as if nothing has happened, calm myself within the earhy logic of the gardening section, then quickly exit the store, £10 poorer but richer beyond my dreams as I slide the paper wrapped……book is such a poor word, this is a doorway…..into my bag.
Jim Crumley has written 30 books and you may imagine from my reaction I have read them all, but my only other encounter with the Scottish nature writer was with The Last Wolf he But what an encounter! In that wonderful book, he told the story of the disappearance of the last wolf in a more or less conventional way through relating the facts of the case and embedding its demise- it’s supposed demise- in a historical context’ He points out how careful we should be about the claims of the killer when such an act could be clearly used for self-aggrandizement and political manoeuvring. Scattered through this interesting read, however, the poet and visionary (dare I say druid?) is shape-shifted into that Last Wolf, and wandered through the glens and lochs that Crumley knows intimately. Through this powerful storytelling technique, despite my own reservations about the possibility of such a thing in the modern human-dominated landscape, I was one with Crumley in his instance that the wolf should be reintroduced to Scotland as an urgent imperative.
Hare is in a series of books called Encounters In the Wild which cover the Barn Owl, Fox and Swan. Each chapter is a different encounter with either (and in one encounter both) the Brown Hare Lepus europeaus and Mountain Hare Lepus lepus. From observations of interactions with fellow denizens of the field and wood in the lowlands, to an inexplicable and solitary quest for the peaks in the mountains, Crumley’s encounters with hares are bought to life through his impeccable attention to the details of how things are and what they do- what a scientist would call morphology and behaviour- shape-shifted with a storytellers heart.
This book is about the hare. There is a chapter about the UK current status of the hare and the appalling slaughter that we wreck on this ever-declining species in the name of sport- both through illegal hare coursing and through state-sponsored massacres in the form of grouse shoots. But Crumley weaves the hare’s tale so much with other animals and with the landscape that it all seems part of the same one thing. And here he is, watching and retelling this tale and it’s clear he is also part of that same magical pattern. But while we know on one level what hares are, we are still far away from fully understanding them, and this series of encounters walks the line of familiarity and mystery perfectly.
“..finally there was a blur of dark brown sodden fur between two clumps of heather, but then it stopped dead still. It could be anything-at-all……The anything at all trembled. The shape shifted. It became taller, developed ears, extraordinary brown and white and grey and black ears that flicked upright and scanned the wood and turned into the wind. To watch a hare reveal itself piecemeal as it both changes shape from low-lying horizontal to tall-sitting vertical and inches back and forward among different clumps of heather and skinny birch clumps is to bear witness to a kind of sorcery.”
Carry Akroyd’s art is a perfect complement to this book. Her work arises from the linocut tradition and is inspired by the wildlife and agricultural landscapes of the East of England, where Brown Hares still do well in decent numbers, and in particular by one of its most famous sons, the poet John Clare. For me it is a reminder of a youth spent at my Aunt, Uncle & Grandparent’s second home in Glinton, outside Peterborough- very near to Clare’s residence and Akroyd’s gallery at Helpston. It was a youth of ladybirds, walks along the edges of vast wheat fields, “hills and hollows” and Peakirk’s Wildfowl, where the sky was huge and forever blue and if you were lucky you would spot Hawker Harrier out from RAF Wittering. But for paralysing hayfever I would have spent more time rooting round rather than looking up at those planes: a story for another day.
As we approach the breeding season when Hares are easily seen in the day, I have been planning with Mammal Group, Wildlife Trust and SBIC colleagues to push on finding out where Hares still exist in Surrey. Watch out for an upcoming blog about a day out searching for them near Cranleigh, almost as far from the snow-covered slopes of Bidean nam Nian as you can be without leaving the mainland. I shall hold these encounters with me; for or an ecologist like me they are a reminder should I need one that looking is the beginning of learning and leads to understanding; but understanding is only part of the story. The head and heart are in one body for a reason.
One line I will also take with me:
“ I realised at this point that the Hare was not in site and neither the badger or I had seen it go.”
Badger and I are will be keeping a careful watch from now on.
This post is about why my blog is so named and how a connection, in this case with ideas in a book can be life changing.
The first book that opened my eyes to science was Fritjof Capra’s book Web of Life: A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter (1996). If I’m honest, sitting here almost 20 years later I don’t remember much of the detail, but it was a bridging point- a profound connection- between a semi- mystical path I had been following exploring the unity and connectivity of living things (I had started to follow the Druidic tradition) and opened my eyes to a life of scientific enquiry. In my head that’s not much of a leap; you could argue druids where really the ecologists of their day, utilising the same observational techniques of the natural world, but based around a different knowledge paradigm.
In the Web of Life, Capra summarises the problems that the world faces- climate change, poverty, population growth, environmental degradation- as integrated and systematic, requiring a totally new approach to thinking about the world. He proposed that a “paradigm shift” is needed similar to that which marked the discoveries of Newton/Einstein and Lamarck/Darwin which permeated every sphere of existence. In the Web of Life he explores the movement to systems thinking away from the reductionist understanding of components. Systems also have emergent properties that are more than the sum of the parts: simply put, the bicycle is an emergent property of the positioning of pedals, wheels, saddle etc in a prescribed manner to produce a functioning system. Importantly the properties of the whole are not present in the parts, so studying components is unhelpful in understanding the properties of the system. Capra explores how systems thinking has transformed approaches across disciplines including mathematics (chaos theory), cybernetics, gaia hypothesis and autopoiesis (self-organising systems).
Systems thinking has important social science repercussions because it moves thinking away from the separation of humans and nature (a big bugbear of mine as my Web of Life will reveal); it implies integration rather than self-assertion and the triumph of ego; and networks underpin systems rather than hierarchical structures.
Capra also explores the deep ecology which broadens ecological science into a philosophy of life. More on that in future blogs.
After reading this book while a care worker at a residential home for people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviours. I started studying part –time an OU Discovering Science course and read the second of two formative books: Edward O Wilson’s Diversity of Life. It became clear to me that I wanted to study ecology- essentially the science of the distribution and abundance of populations because it encapsulated for me the take home message from Capra – the idea of connectivity and complementarity between parts and the whole. Ecology connects with so many other scientific disciplines and I think can embrace non-scientific world views as well, although many ecologists would disagree I suspect.
While the Web of Life was pivotal in changing my life, like the paradigm shifts mentioned here it crystalised some experiences and thinking that were already present; but now I had a framework of knowledge to build my experiences into and to pose more questions to test that framework. For me, as I am sure for you too, a life without at least some kind of filter through which to pass your experiences is, to use one of my father’s favourite quotes from Macbeth “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”
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