Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts from the ‘People’ category

Galloway

Galloway, Scotland

John Keats (1795-1821) died aged 25 thinking himself a failed poet. Today he is revered as a great. I mine his poems for evocations of nature, the nightingales, the bees ‘bustling down in the bluebells’, and his recurring musk rose. For these moments, from a wet and gloomy winter, I find great pleasure in peering back 200 years to Keats’s descriptions of a London that had not yet swallowed Hampstead entirely, or my borough, the 800-year-old parish of Lewisham. In Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, he describes much of what makes birdsong a cure for human pains, the continuity of wildlife and nature gives us a place in the world, for we are not the first to hear a blackbird, song thrush or nightingale sing, nor will we be the last:

Thou was not born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown (p. 220[i])

Birds do not discriminate against any audience, their songs can be heard by any person who happens to be passing, be it the song of a robin singing at midnight in central London or a nightingale firing in the morning from a blackthorn hedge in a Dorset field. And perhaps real nature conservation has this at its heart, though often unsaid from a fear of sounding eccentric or elitist. Nature is vital to humanity in many ways, humanity is inseparable from nature, but in dealing with dissonance and social discord brought about by contemporary austerity and financial inequality, its inclusiveness is what makes it most relevant to us living in the 21st century. The song of the blackbird can be heard by anyone who might happen to hear it, more so if conservation is supported by communities and authorities.

Loch Trool

Loch Trool, Galloway Forest Park, Scotland

On a recent visit to Dumfries and Galloway in south-western Scotland I brought Andrew Motion’s hefty biography of Keats with me. It appears more and more that it is not so much Keats’ poems I like the most, but the many aspects of his story, which poetry seems such a big part of. He lived a very short and full life, his published poems barracked by what we might today equate with critics or journalists of the propagandist right’s ilk. And many people thought that he had died from the heavy blows of his critics. Motion points to his wildly ambitious walking tour of Scotland and Ireland, arguing that it was the conditions a weary and exhausted Keats experienced on the Isle of Mull that began his descent into critical illness. Keats had embarked on a mission to collect experiences to influence his writing, and he was astounded by Scotland’s sublime mountains and wild landscapes. He ‘forgot himself’ and found that nature took away all resentment he might have for other people, or his critics, at that time:

The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance. I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever, for the abstract endeavour of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials, by the finest spirits, and put into ethereal existence for the relish of one’s own fellows. […] these scenes make man appear little. I never forgot my stature so completely – I live in the eye, and my imagination, surpassed, is at rest. (p. 269)

Keats has been knocked down by nature’s visual power and, eventually, by its impacts on his body. He cracks open the heart of the genre of nature writing. Surely the whole point of casting nature as the central theme in anything is so that ‘these scenes make man appear little.’ In the face of the sublime image of Scottish mountains, human problems are made to feel minute. It’s the same feeling people experience today in British woods, on those same Scottish mountains and by the sea. Surely if Keats were alive today his thoughts might have turned to conservation of larger landscape areas – in the same way that his biographer, Andrew Motion, once Poet Laureate, now works for the Campaign to Protect Rural England, defending National Parks from a development lobby which seems to hold sway with government. National Parks are an idea created by John Muir, the Scottish adventurer who helped to found Yosemite National Park with his grand and flawed ideas of wilderness. In Scotland, protected landscape areas such as the Trossachs National Park, Cairngorms National Park and Galloway Forest Park are key to preserving the impact of those places on the human mind, at the same time protecting their prehistoric ecosystems and wildlife. A National Park or protected landscape area is an admission or celebration of the fact that nature can show us how small we really are. For John Keats and visitors to mountains today, if underestimated or not treated with respect these landscapes and their conditions can kill.

[i] The Complete Poems of John Keats, Wordsworth Poetry Library, 2001

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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Mutěnice fish ponds

South Moravia, Czech Republic, July

I’m standing in the street waiting for Moravian ornithologist Karel Šimeček. From here I can see a serin on a TV aerial across the road, and from over the houses I hear a golden oriole releasing a few phrases of its fluty, unmistakable music into the morning air. In the road is a dead animal, a common sight, and an indicator of just how much wildlife there is here. Another common image, especially on the roads leading out of town, is squashed hedgehogs. In England we barely have dead ones anymore. A car pulls up on the other side of the road and out steps Karel, binoculars round his neck, eye pieces covered by grey duct tape. He crosses the road, making sure not to be run down like a hedgehog. He shakes my hand and turns to the squashed animal in the road:

‘Turdus philomelos,’ he says.

A song thrush, my favourite bird. We get into Karel’s silver Peugeot estate with Radiohead’s Kid A on the stereo, a welcome reminder of home, and we set off. The roads are mostly empty but then it is 8:30am on a Sunday morning. I ask Karel about his interest in wildlife.

‘I became interested in birds as a boy when my mother bought me a book,’ he says. ‘I have been watching birds for more than thirty years. But there are not as many as there used to be, when I look at my notes I can see that there are less birds now.’

Why is that?

‘Different reasons. Agriculture is very important but it is probably the main reason,’ he says.

I was astonished to see how large the fields were in South Moravia. My host is conservationist Zuzana Veverkova, and she told me that the average field size is 500 hectares, meaning that small-scale, sustainable farming is impossible. Young people cannot find a way in other than through inheritance. And there are reasons why farms are so large: inspired by Stalin’s collectivisation of Russia’s agriculture, the Czech communists did the same, forcing farmers off their land and into prison if they refused. Today you have the corporate farming practice with monocultures of what Karel calls ‘the yellow evils’ of wheat, corn, sunflower and rapeseed. In some places, there are miles of these plants and nothing else.

But back to birds. I’ve never seen a goshawk and have read they are one of the most common raptors in the Czech Republic:

‘They are at 20% of what they were when I started,’ says Karel. ‘They are hunted and poisoned by people who think that anything with a curved bill and talons should be killed.’

‘Do you know the hunters?’ I ask.

‘Yes, I know them, and there is no reason for their killing of these birds.’

‘And are goshawks protected by law?’

‘Of course.’

We pass out through the fields, a pine wood on the horizon.

‘A few friends and I managed to get the pine forest protected as a nature reserve,’ says Karel.

That was not enough to save its most unique resident. 20 years ago it was home to more than twenty singing male ortolan buntings. Today there are none. Karel laments this fact as we take a swerve in the road, our passage halted by a pair of white storks treading through a field. Karel reverses and I photograph these graceful birds. They watch us, too, turning away and moving further into the pasture.

White stork

Arriving at Mutěnice fish ponds we stand on the rickety wooden footbridge where the River Kyjovka dams, the water splitting off into the ponds. Leaves cover the surface, a red admiral arriving to bask on the enforced stillness. Karel points to a stand of dead poplar trees on the other side of the river.

‘That’s the beaver’s work,’ he says.

They’ve been here for thirty years. About five years ago the manager of the ponds attempted to eradicate them, but he failed and so the beavers remain. They arrived here from Austria from the Morava, the river that gives this district its name, running the border with Austria and reaching the Danube in Slovakia. When they first appeared here one beaver was captured and interred in the local zoo. It escaped within 24 hours and returned to the fish ponds.

Turning to step off the footbridge, over a few missing slats, Karel glimpses a kingfisher as it lands on a rock in the Kyjovka. I lift the camera to it but can’t switch it on in time to get the shot. Off it goes, electric blue bolt into the willowy shadows of the river. And as we trample through the long grass alongside the river Karel picks out the calls of young kingfishers and a perch that bears the signs of the birds, no leaves, just bare and worn.

One abiding memory of these ponds will be the stench of the water. It’s nasty. More than once Karel has stopped and pointed at the water’s edge and said, ‘this is not water, this is coffee.’ It’s brown, frothy and pungent so not far off. We continue along the Kyjovka, the large pond on our left meeting the path which we’ve already passed down this morning. Karel has seen something up high in the hazy summer sky:

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘White tailed sea eagle.’

Marsh harrier attacking white-tailed eagle

Marsh harrier attacking white-tailed eagle

Through the binoculars I see a huge animal beating its great wings, with primary feathers so long they look like fingers that could dictate some deep, magical changes to the world below. But no animal is safe or indeed at peace for long on Earth. Karel has seen alongside the eagle a marsh harrier attacking it, and moments later another appears. I set my camera and start clicking. The eagle looks overdressed in its Gogolian greatcoat of brown feathers, its white head and neck protruding out from under, yellow talons dangling out below like down-turned coat hangers. The marsh harrier strikes again and again, forcing the eagle away from the sky above the huge pond and towards the trees, until the battle is over and all three have left my field of vision.

‘We had no idea that the eagles were here,’ Karel says. ‘A Swedish hunter had a permit to hunt in the forest and when he was leaving he said, “I see that you have eagles nesting in the forest”. Our response was, “we didn’t know that!”.’

We tread the path already taken, a dead bat splayed on the ground, its deathly grin drawn wide and rotting. It’s our waymarker. A small van rolls along the track, a Czech man with short black hair and ski-glasses steps out, handing Karel a metal tag that reads ‘Budapest’. They discuss something and then say goodbye, the man getting back into the car and driving away. The ring is from a young cormorant that was shot the other day. It had been ringed by ornithologists in Hungary and died here at Mutěnice. This seems familiar to Karel:

‘The migration patterns of cormorants are well known,’ he says.

This is an extract from an upcoming collection, Travels in South Moravia

Links:

Karel’s website

Conservation in South Moravia

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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Sika deer

Newton Stewart, Galloway, Scotland, February 2014

A lady with a crutch and white hair slipping from a woollen hat stops me in the road. She saw me photographing the upturned soil and root plate of a gigantic spruce. Her accent suggests she has moved here from England:

‘I’ve seen about half a dozen deer in the woods just up there,’ she says. ‘If you’re quiet you might see them.’

I thank her and take my camera from the bag, pulling my hood up to shade out my face. The day is bright, sunny and warm. Beyond the dry stone wall the woodland begins, a line of evergreens creating a dense bank of shade along the wall, before the characteristically decrepit and mossy trees of an old Scotch wood. I look into shadows and see that a deer is watching me. It’s a sika deer, the first one I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t seem frightened. It turns to me, then away again, grazing behind the line of dark trees. I follow it along, it doesn’t gallop or run. Its path leads me to two more animals, one of them a stag, new antlers primitive but still impressive. It stares at me behind the wall – there’s a good twenty-metres between us. I’ve been photographing them the entire time. I think back to the venison sausages I had at the Galloway Arms, the conversation I had with the bar man:

‘Everyone thinks they’re all cute and cuddly, like Bambi,’ he’d said. ‘No one wants to kill them.’

‘But not everyone knows what they do to woodlands,’ I’d said, thinking aloud.

‘Well, exactly!’ he’d affirmed in his thick Scotch accent.

I know their numbers are at their highest in the United Kingdom since the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago (so are ours, by the way). I know the link between the nightingale’s sudden decline in England and deer overgrazing woods, not that the nightingale makes it up here to Scotland. But I could not kill one of these animals. I’d rather leave that to the lynx, or even the wolf. I put my camera away and make my way along the empty road.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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Farthing Downs

Full set of photographs here on Flickr

Farthing Downs, London, January 2014

The long shadow of a jogger crosses me and at first I think it’s someone approaching. A peek over my shoulder shows the silhouette of a toiling woman, but is it new resolution or good habit? She is followed over time by a trail of cars, parents clutching the hands of young children, and finally the huffing shape of a cyclist rolling past. The world of the Downs reminds me again that the earth is something of a cauldron, everything is always changing. Groups of people walk along the lane, shadows breaking and reforming, pausing to watch something, perhaps a bird, perhaps the view of houses creeping up the hill, or views of a distant, spiralling city.

Jackdaws dot the horizon in the east, their indentations against the sky encourage the play of human language. They are a slow swarm of insects, embers from a smokeless blaze, or simply jackdaws doing their winter dance. Woodpigeons pass them in the foreground, redwing, too. I sit and watch. On New Hill, the land beneath the jackdaws, the small ash trees are indeed like matchsticks, or else the stiff hairs of a broad and worn broom. More have been felled, chopped and piled, and against the brown wash of wood and winter grasses the shock of the heartwood is telling.

The sun slips down to me, the ant hills like boulders at the edge of a lake, dropping chunky shadows from the daylight. Squirrels cavort, their music one of scratched syllables, like little huffing corvids. We regard them with equal disdain, forgetting their own intelligence and desires. They feel a dislike for their kind, too, sometimes. A helicopter careers overhead, a primitive design still, but how long until tiny drones trail through these skies, how long before they snag in the branches of oaks or the tangle of hawthorn? Who will collect them and what will be done with them. The helicopter is navy blue and white, it heads south-west towards the North Downs as vulnerable as flesh and feathers.

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It dawned on me a few months ago, when a cull looked to be too stupid and ugly a prospect, that we can show no real mettle in the battle to stop the slaughter of wildlife overseas if we are seen to be slaying it without scientific basis.

I have spent time recently with Andrew Lynch, an MSc student who is voraciously charting the former range of badgers in an area of London from which they disappeared in the 1990s. A few weeks ago we entered a wood of ancient origins that is closed to the public armed with a rusty key and the permission of the landowner. We crunched through leaf litter rarely trodden by humans, through spider webs, brambles and holly. There were no paths. We discovered two specimens of Solomon’s seal, an ancient woodland plant that was surviving here in the deep shade of an unmanaged but very old and undisturbed woodland. The next day Andrew discovered a crumbled badger sett, its former inhabitants long gone. Why did they go? It’s hard to say, but that’s the point of Andrew’s work. In my view it is probably because the human population rose and the local environment felt the eventual impact of the post-war development of open fields and other pockets of woodland. They were most likely cut off from badgers living on London’s periphery. This is an animal that likes to create new colonies and does not like inbreeding. The badgers were reintroduced but their roaming nature led them to their deaths on main roads a few miles away. Amazingly we have recently had a record of badgers returning to one of the woods that is open to the public and well used. It was a moment of immense satisfaction and gave us hope for this network of dysfunctional woodlands. To think that badgers could be returning to woodlands which suffered disturbance in the Victorian times but still makes a home for owls, bats and other woodland animals, feels like a crowning moment. They will not have a sett in this area of London for many, many years, but to think that they have been by is, in part, a conservation triumph for the local community.

I find it difficult to respond to the fact that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) are contracting the slaughter of badgers in Somerset and Gloucestershire with anything other than anger. The cull is wrong, expensive, bloodthirsty, unscientific, barbaric and worst of all, it is happening. It angers me like nothing else that afflicts our environment. For British wildlife conservation today it’s worse than the Lydd Airport trump, the shameful Oaken Wood debacle, the threat to privatise the public woodland estate, the idea of 50 ancient woodlands lost to HS2, and far more sinister than the threat of ash dieback disease or oak processionary moth. I feel a deep seated sense of injustice. A cull has already been done and proved ineffective in reducing bovine TB (bTB) in any meaningful way. I believe the National Farmer’s Union and DEFRA should take greater responsibility for biosecurity and that badgers and cattle should be vaccinated, that the government should show a greater willingness to invest in this rather than focusing solely on political gains for 2015. They have, however, turned more than 300,000 people against them, perhaps for good. I am convinced, from what I’ve read and heard from all involved that it is based on political ideology – much like the government’s attempts to downgrade Lewisham A&E (deemed unlawful by the High Court) – and is purely to accrue political support from the farming lobby at the next election. I feel there is a bloodthirsty element to the cull, just like the killing of hen harriers to the point of extinction in England, the poisoning of buzzards and golden eagles in Scotland. With the badger cull we are in the throes of a witch hunt. It has the hint of Chairman Mao’s communist war on tree sparrows which backfired completely. This is the very thing we as leaders of the global conservation effort are attempting to halt overseas and now, it seems, at home.

Life and people have moved on from the days of the hunt, when the aristocracy took to the countryside to chase foxes on horseback. Wildlife is valued for more than its fur and flesh, many people in the UK have come to value the need for a connection with the natural world, and science has taught us the need for humans to maintain the environment and to repair degraded ecosystems. The repair takes on many different forms – the work of the Great Bustard Group, reintroducing this charismatic and iconic bird to Wiltshire after it was hunted to extinction in the UK; the resurgence of otters, another animal ‘clashing’ with humans where it forages from commercial fish ponds, but a welcome sign of healthier rivers in England; and then there’s the crane, a bird that was slaughtered in its thousands and now returning, like the spoonbill, to breed for the first time in over 400 years. It’s hard to say why the crane is back, but it could be because larger areas of land are being set aside for wildlife, larger reserves rather than pockets. These are great moments in the history of British wildlife conservation and are not all because of human action. Another great thing is the thriving badger population in England, of which there is no set figure. However, one thing that the badger cull reminds us is that whenever wildlife does well – foxes and cormorants being examples – it is treated with disdain and someone, often on the right wing of government, will call for a cull. Take Boris Johnson’s recent attack on London’s foxes. It is an instinctive, atavistic response, rooted in a love for slaughter that is abhorred by more modern attitudes towards animal welfare and the environment. Most pertinently it is a human failing, an inability to look at the impact we have on species and ecosystems we believe ourselves to be free from and above. When it comes to natural resources no species is more invasive and damaging than we and yet no other species has the ability to think and reflect over how we might improve our behaviour, to evolve, and improve the health of the environment not merely for ourselves.

Perhaps my lifestyle is implicated somewhere in the decline of the hedgehog but the badger is not to blame.

For me, the beauty of badgers is their very nocturnal nature, something which has inspired artists, scientists, conservationists and authors down the centuries. The image of a twilight woodland is one of the most magical, with badgers beginning their nightly forage for worms (and yes, even hedgehogs sometimes), moths taking to the wing with the moon as their guide, and tawny owls calling from the canopy, their prey of mice and voles scrabbling around in the leaf litter. If I were to talk like this to many people who are for a badger cull, I would be labelled as emotional and naïve or worse, only against a cull because I think badgers are sweet. I know that badgers predate hedgehogs but I don’t blame them for the decline in their prey. It’s an excuse used by individuals who have no scientific grounds to defend the cull. Perhaps my lifestyle is implicated somewhere in the decline of the hedgehog but the badger is not to blame. The blame for that can firmly remain with human impacts on the landscape, the lack of suitable habitat, a loss of food sources after the tidying up and poisoning of the English landscape through mass expansion of intensive agriculture after the Second World War (note that in modern times Owen Paterson went against the will of the people when voting to continue with neonicotinoid-laced systemic pesticides that kill wild pollinators and ruin the soil).

It dawned on me a few months ago, when a cull looked to be too stupid and ugly a prospect, that we can show no real mettle in the battle to stop the slaughter of wildlife overseas – migrating birds in Malta and Cyprus, lions in Africa, tigers in India – if we are seen to be slaying wildlife without any scientific basis. England is just as bad as everyone else. In the same way that we are looking to destroy our own version of the rainforests through development, we cannot truly argue with deforestation in the Amazon, the Congo and Eastern Europe when we are championing the very same thing at home. Overseas these people are barbarians, at home they are ‘doing the right thing’. And as we look for badgers in a landscape that has lost them, the loss feels peculiar with the government’s mindless slaughter of this beautiful and vital wild animal echoing in the background. I just hope that in twenty years people in Somerset and Gloucestershire will not be retracing old setts mindful of the senseless brutality that was inflicted in the past. Looking at the state of things it appears a distinct possibility.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2013
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Fly orchid 4

Farthing Downs & New Hill, London, July 2013

On the Downs the butterflies are immediately evident, the week old broods of meadow brown ferry amongst the long grasses, rarely stopping to feed on flowers. Breeding season is ending but still the song of skylarks comes from over the slope, some ancient language remembered, its translation lost. Greater yellow rattle blooms now, the spring buttercups lost to a swathe of Yorkshire fog and other grasses I don’t know. The suntan lotion on my arms acts as an adhesive, my skin covered with seeds. The grasshoppers are conjuring up their rickety, wooden percussion. I am hopeless in finding them, except for one that hops between seed heads, a micro Tarzan in this meadow jungle. But where are the people? A man drives a BMW sports car along the lane, revving its engine. I know where I’d rather be. Men in England are bare chested at the slightest chance and here a couple stroll along the lane drinking from big bottles of water. The tattoo stamped on the man’s back stands out in this simple landscape of slopes and flowers.

Lovers

Ghostly day-flying moths spread at my every step through the long grass. Bumblebees forage on clovers, dropwort and yellow rattle, small heath butterflies appear again, two fly together, eager to fulfil their short lives with as much fornication as is possible. I cut back on to the path I know best. A chiffchaff sings in the hedgeline at the bottom of the hill, a single blackbird and a whitethroat, too. There’s no sign of spring’s willow warblers or their clutch of young. A crowd of peacock caterpillars munch through nettle leaves, leaving only the dreadlocks of flowers. A yellowhammer appears from across the lane, landing in a small hawthorn bush, its strong yellow plumage brighter than dandelions, a South American yellow, and at its brightest here. I take a few photos. Along with skylarks, this is a bird I have to travel to see, when once, before my time, you might have woken to it flocking in the hedges and fields.

Peackock caterpillar

Leaving the Downs I enter the chalky wooded hollows at the bottom of the slope, with tor grass growing along the track, an indicator of the calcareous soil. My sweat cools with the breeze that slips through here. In the dappled shade I scan the path edges for orchids, black bryony creeping out from the darkened hedges. And there it is: the fly orchid. I change lenses and struggle to get the image right, sweat dripping, bringing lotion down my face. But it’s beautiful to look at – a bit like a bumblebee pinned and proffered by the long spike, with its little eyes and short antennae. A family are passing behind the hedge, discussing how to control the dog.

‘She’s pulling me down into these weird places,’ says the mother.

‘Just let her off the lead, let her off the lead,’ the dad says.

They arrive on the path heading down hill. Their daughter warns the dog to stay with them. I only see the mother, she’s dressed in an apricot coloured dress and heeled shoes. She’s young and glamorous, so fitting with the array of flowers bursting from the hillside.

‘Who needs Box Hill when you can come here, eh?’ says the dad. They disappear down towards Happy Valley.

Speckled wood egg crop 1

I carry on along the ridge and settle on the desire line drawn down the hill and through the flowers. Ringlets move through the meadow, the first I’ve seen this year. They move at the same time and, stitched together, they are a tapestry of flickering wings. In my silence and stillness wildlife begins to move around me, perhaps more trusting. I see more plants now: twayblades, common spotted orchid, salad burnet, marjoram, ox eye daisy, rough hawkbit and bladder campion with its inflated, balloon like calyx-tubes. The wind blows through the trees. A speckled wood butterfly flaps about me, its wings audible as it hits my khaki shorts and leaf stalks. It clasps hold of a spear-like grass stem and curves its abdomen, laying a tiny pearl of an egg. This, for me, is something new.

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