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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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….

 

 

 

 

 

 

A major frustration to putting on any outdoor workshops this time of year is the inclemency of the weather. The site where we held our first spoon-carving workshop in September last year  is now under a thin blanket of snow (which is thickening even as i write!) and the temperature with wind chill is  -4 0C. Not great for the fine-motor skills needed for whittling!

However, the Crandall family, owners of Mount Wolfe Farm, have come to the rescue of the Caledon chapter of the fledgling Ontario Rural Skills Network (ORSN). On the ground level of the bank barn at the farm, Seymour Arnold Crandall (aka SAC or just Arnold) carved out a space for a workshop. “Poppa’s” workshop hasn’t really been used as a workspace since 2000 and is a treasure trove of timeless tools and a miscellany of assorted wonders, bric-a-brac, and curiosities – a testimony to his love of collecting.

With a bit of tidying and sorting there is space for a small group of spoon-carvers, and even a lathe to practice on until I can build the pole-lathes that we will use in the outdoor setting.

Arnold Crandall was passionate about woodworking and the Crandall sisters think their dad would be tickled pink to see life in the workshop again.

Sign up for one of winter/spring workshops on the ORSN website here and come and see what the place looks like!

 

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Sarah is very excited about our new hedgerow

Its Autumn! Its Fall! Its Hedge-Time!

I love this time of year as the leaves lose their chlorophyll pigment and the anthocyanins and carotenoids reveal a harvest of ochre, carnelian, caramel, crimson, and ruby.

Chemistry-of-Autumn-Leaves-2018

Perhaps its my conservation background that makes me feel its a time to tinker, or maybe its just a revealed human trait that we are called to interact with the world around us. I’m led towards autumn walks and to woodland work and of course to hedges..

The Hedgelaying in Ontario’s Landscape project is organising the planting of  three new hedgerows  and finishing off an existing site this autumn and the first one is now complete. On Wednesday and Thursday this week a team from the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) came to plant up the second hedge at Mount Wolfe Farm, our site for demonstrating how a managed hedge can transform a landscape and provide many benefits for landowners, farmers and the community.

Farm Manager Sarah and I started preping for the arrival of the TRCA on Monday by bush-hogging, ploughing and tilling a strip up along the ‘Bowl’. We were concerned at first that the job would be hard but the plough made short work and soon we were admiring the rich crumbly soil our new plants were going to call home.

 

There had been a slight snowfall when the TRCA arrived on Wednesday morning and the 7-strong team were all bundled up against the cold. They quickly began to unload the plants consisting of American Hazelnut Corlus americana (300), Serviceberry Amelanchier arborea (300), Chokecherry Prunus virginiana (300),  Chokeberry Aronia melanocarpa (150) and Fragrant Sumac Rhus aromatica (150). Their previous job had been planting fill on a development site, so seeing the prepared ground and almost stoneless soil really made their day! I wanted them to get a real sense of the excitement of the novelty of this hedge-planting they were undertaken so at the first break for coffee I gave them a quick talk about hedgerows, the Hedgelaying in Ontario’s Landscape project and the workshops available under the Ontario Rural Skills Network we have started on the Farm. Sarah was on hand to mention the CSA programme at Mount Wolfe too.

“This is your hedge” I told them. ” As you plant this hedge you will have thoughts,ideas and memories that arise that will be woven into its structure. I had in my head the upcoming  Fall Farm Fest on Saturday 27th where I launched a more formal way to bind these stories into the hedge which I’m calling  The Hedgerow Rite (more on this soon). In the mean time I left out a pad for the team to share any thoughts, ideas and “offerings” they had during the planting. I also left out a small basket filled with pieces of paper, which i encouraged them to use to share private thoughts and wishes by burying them beneath the hedge as they planted.

“Its snowed as we planted, wondering if it will be a cold winter this year”- Meggie

“I usually enjoy planting hedges but this preparation is excellent. Knowing the trees and shrubs are going to love soil. I hope i can see this in 10 years!” – Ryan

“Cool project. thanks for having us”- Will

“I was excited to find out the crew were planing here because I have visited the farm before. I will for sure have to come back in a few years and see how the hedge is progressing. thank you!”- Colleen

“Love this place! Beautiful farm! Thank you so much for your warm welcome!”- Gavin

“Thank you for the tea and coffee, so nice!” -Meggie (?)

“If there is a hedge competition there should a planting competition and if there isn’t we should invent it”- Ryan (?)

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The hedge is planted along what was originally planned as a fence line. The 10cm diameter pine posts had long since rotted however and my visiting godkids Fraser and Sophie had great fun knocking them down to make way for the hedge. Now the hedge would ascend the hill creating a green-way between it and the adjacent  mixed woodland of Cold Creek, it would then curve around the base of the hill and along the upper path across the top of the bowl. The purpose of the hedge here serves at least four purposes:

(i) Aesthetic- providing  a new and exciting experience for  the family, CSA members and visitors as they walk up the green-way, with the grassy bowl and hill revealed through 5m gaps. From the bowl, the hedge will provide a ‘skirt’ to the tall white and red pines behind creating a dense and thick structure with flowers, berries and rich foliage during autumn.

(ii) Cultural- this hedge together with another planted in 2017 and being finished off at the Fall Farm Fest help demonstrate the Crandall Family’s commitment to the shared experience of land-based stewardship and community participation. New stories are being made in the landscape, bound together with the old.

(iii) Biodiversity– this dense well-manged hedgerow will provide many habitats for small birds and mammals and shelter from the sun for shade tolerant butterflies in the green lane.

(iv) Living Fence-the farm hopes in the future to bring in seasonal conservation grazing for the management of the grasslands in the bowl  The hedge will eventually be a stock-proof barrier to livestock.

Thank you Christina, Ryan, Will, Meggie, Colleen, Gavin, and all involved in planting. Thanks to Elizabeth Celanowicz ,TRCA Planting & Stewardship Project Manager, for funding and organising the plants for us. Do come back and visit your hedge.

Coming soon..The Hedgerow Rite in full…

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Just back from sending off the Mount Wolfe Farm Environmental Farm Plan for review, which I have been helping Farm Manager Sarah and her aunt Debbe Crandall complete as part of my work for the University of Waterloo Hedgelaying in Ontario’s Landscape Project 2018.

The EFP is a voluntary programme driven by the farming community with technical support provided by the Ontario Ministry of  Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). It is run by the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA).

EFPs are assessments voluntarily prepared by farm families to increase their environmental awareness in up to 23 different areas on their farm. After attending two workshops with Sarah and Debbe we risk-assessed the 23 different areas which included Water Wells, Pesticide Handling & Storage, Fertilizer Handling & Storage, Treatment of Household Wastewater, Livestock Mortality , Field Crop Management and Woodlands and Wildlife.

The overall purpose is to assess the impacts of farm operations- particularity nutrient enrichment from manure, pesticides and tilling practices on ground and surface water resources. There are however useful sections on sustainability of water resources where we looked at how much water the farm uses; on energy use, and on wildlife. Scoring for each question 1-4, any answers with 1 or 2 require an action plan to be completed.

Completing the EFP opens the door to cost-share funding under the Canada-Ontario Farm Stewardship Program

From my UK experience this is more a Catchment Sensitive Farming Plan than a Farm Environment Plan. I would like to have seen more emphasis on wildlife, particularly in identifying endangered species  or species of conservation concern and creating actions to benefit them.

However the EFP was an undeniably useful process for Mount Wolfe and would be for any farm interested inreducing their environmenatl impact. I especially found the mapping component useful, where i got to flex my QGIS muscles (slightly more than the hand drawn plan required by the EFP but useful for long-term farm planning especially for woodland management). It did take us, a small Community Supported Agriculture Farm, a number of days to get all the information together and think through answers, even if many of the 23 worksheets were not applicable to our operation. I think a larger farm would need more support than two workshop days in completing the form.

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