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January 2018

Preserving what's common

Upper path to the Chagford Commons

I'm fascinated by the complex history of Common land here in Britain, diminished over the centuries by waves of private enclosure, some of it forced and brutal. This is, alas, a subject that remains painfully relevant today, with national forests and parklands threatened by privatization and extraction industries all across the US and UK. Here in Chagford, we're fortunate that several pieces of our green Common land remain (Chagford Common, Nattadon Common, Stiniel Down, Week Down, etc.) -- but each generation must work to preserve them and never take them for granted. Once lost, they are lost for good.

These thoughts came to mind when I stumbled across "Common Ground" by Helen Baczkowska, about a green space in Norfolk where her family has Commoner rights stretching back generations. She writes:

"In the early summer of 1968, my mum packed us into the grey Morris Minor: myself, just learning to walk, her parents, with their soft Welsh accents, and her, as I see her on the edge of my memory, trim and not yet 30. We would have headed north and east from the outskirts of a London not yet ringed by the M25, on roads that wound through warm brick market squares and linear villages, past the low humped hills of Hertfordshire, slow through Royston, Baldock and the white railed paddocks of Newmarket.

"Our journey ended in Norwich, at the new concrete high rise of County Hall, my mother determined to check that Wood Green, where her mother-in-law owned a tiny, clay block cottage, was entered into the recently commissioned register of common land. Without this, she knew, the common and the rights associated with it would be lost, rights that historically went with the hearth of the house and allowed the occupier to graze two horses or cows, two sheep or goats and, with a festive echo, three hundred geese. Modest rights compared to those whose commoning spreads out across upland moors, but enough, my mother knew, to stop the rough grassland, gorse and ponds being ploughed or planted with conifer trees, fenced and accessible only, forever, to the lord of the manor.

Dartmoor pony by the Commons bench

"My mother’s advice had been taken seriously and there, on a typescript ledger I now have a copy of, is the common land number, the names of the right holders and the rights. The names tell stories all in themselves, for this place, where I now live, offered sanctuary to my father’s family after long years of being pursued across Europe; it offered a memory of space and of home, answered a need for seclusion and safety, rich soil and the grass for a handful of animals. My paternal grandmother and her neighbour, a former prisoner of war, had registered rights in names incongruous next to the listing of Norfolk place names: Irene Maria Honorata Baczkowska and Vigilo Nicoli.

Pony and hound

"Without those signatures and my mother’s wisdom, I may not now be able to daily walk this common; it is not large, maybe only 8 or 9 hectares, but sits as green as an island in the arable sea of South Norfolk. There is a change of soil and habitat every few paces here; on the clay soil grows nationally scare sulphur clover and three species of buttercup -- meadow, creeping and the often over-looked bulbous, with its sepals turned sharply down to the ground. In the wet hollows are ladies smock and lesser spearwort, another of the buttercup family. Each of the ponds is different, some holding water all year, others ephemeral, only emerging in winter or the wettest of years. The sandy dome of the centre is close grazed by rabbits that dive under dense clumps of furze when disturbed and where, since I brought a pony to graze here, tiny fragrant flowers of heath bedstraw and the pink heath speedwell have flourished.

"To the west is a near circle of blackthorn and to the north a twisted oak copse, the trees not old, but stunted by wet, poor soils. For me, this place is home, grazing, hay, firewood and beanpoles from the coppiced scrub, an autumn bounty of elderberries, blackberries, crab apples and parasol mushrooms. It is also, for others as well as for me, the peace and greenery of unbounded land, not a formal park, or a purposeful nature reserve, but just a place to walk, so that, at any time of day, there are people on the interlaced hollows of informal tracks, often alone and silent. All this rests on the acts that placed those typescript words enshrined in County Hall....

Dartmoor pony

Later in the essay, Baczkowska notes:

"The commons of England slip and slide through our history, barely noticed until they are sought, or until the eye becomes accustomed to looking; they are like the grass snakes that live at here at Wood Green, seen once or twice in a summer, with joy, but shy. I hunt for commons in shadows, until I have become a collector of commons, pinning fragments of them to maps and notebooks, like a Victorian study crammed with butterflies, fossils and bones, searching for them in place names, paintings and stories until the eye becomes accustomed to looking; they are like the grass snakes that live at here at Wood Green, seen once or twice in a summer, with joy, but shy. I hunt for commons in shadows, until I have become a collector of commons, pinning fragments of them to maps and notebooks, like a Victorian study crammed with butterflies, fossils and bones, searching for them in place names, paintings and stories."

What a lovely thing that must be, to become a "collector of commons."

Tilly and friend

To read Baczkowska's essay in full, go here.

To read my previous post on the history of the English commons, go here.

Lower Commons gate

Words: The passage above is from "Common Ground," published in EarthLines magazine (November 2014), and available online on the author's website. The poem in the picture captions is from The Possible Past by Canadian poet Aislinn Hunter (Polestar, 2004). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Tilly with equine and canine friends on Chagford Common.


The secular sacred

Herring Gulls by Ekaterina Bee

Here's another lovely passage from Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore -- a book that I keep returning to over the years, and love afresh with each re-reading. In her essay "The Time of the Singing of the Birds," Moore writes:

"This is a story a friend gave to me. I am giving it to you.

"There was a man who searched and searched for the sacred in nature -- in the forest, at the beach -- and sure enough: one day as he was walking along the coast, he heard a voice, loud and clear.

" 'Stand here,' it said, 'and God will speak to you.'

"The man stood. What else could he do? What would you have done? He stood for a very long time, shifting his weight from one leg to another. His back stiffened up. A flock of brants flew down the trough between the breakers. The wind came up and died back. The tide flowed in. He zipped his jacket and unzipped it, zipped it again as the sun went down and gulls cried out and flew to their roosts. He shivered in fog that came with the night, and finally he went home.

''Realm of the Seychelles'' by Thomas Peschak

Weddell seals by Laurent Ballesta

"I'm not sure what he hoped to hear. The sound of the wind bringing rain, the rattle of surf-driven stones -- these didn't tell him what he needed to know? That he is alive in this place, at this time, alive in the midst of all this life. That he is aware in the midst of all that is mysterious, every fact that might have been and yet is. Stinging sand, the storm-driven waves, the swirling gulls --they are all cause for surprise and celebration.

Sperm whales in Sri Lanka by Tony Wu

Night of the Turtles by Ingo Arndt

"Instead of standing still and waiting for instructions, what if he had laid his back in the midst of the mussels, laid there with barnacles poking his scalp, felt -- in the hollow echo chamber of his ribs -- the breakers pound against rock, listened to the shouts of faraway children and the pop of sand fleas next to his ear, as all the while tide crept in around him and surf exploded closer and closer to his brain?

"Then what would he have heard?

Female humpback whale  by Wade Hughes

"I don't want to say he would have heard the voice of God.

"I want to say he would have heard -- really heard, maybe for the first time -- the squeak of mussels, the smash of surf, the peeping of sandpipers. Maybe a fish crow cawing or a chainsaw cutting cedar drifted in on storms.

"And I want to say this is enough. I want to say that this is astonishing enough -- the actual Earth, the extraordinary fact of the ticking, smashing, singing, whistling, peeping Earth -- to make me feel I live in a sacred place and time.

"I want to say there is a secular sacred, that this phrase, paradoxical as it seems, makes good and profound and important sense.

Nesting leatherback turtle by Brian Skerry

"Here is what I believe: that the natural world -- the stuff of our lives, the world we plod through, hardly hearing, the world we burn and poke and stuff and conquer and irradiate -- that THIS WORLD (not another world on another plane) is irreplaceable, astonshing, contingent, eternal and changing, beautiful and fearsome, beyond human understanding, worthy of reverence and awe, worthy of celebration and attention.

"If the good English word for this combination of qualities is 'sacred,' then so be it. Even if we don't believe in God, we walk out the door on a sacred morning and lift our eyes to the sacred rain and are called to remember our sacred obligations of care and celebration.

65

"And what's more, is the natural world is sacred and 'sacred' describes the natural world; of there are not too worlds but one, and it is magnificent and mysterious enough to shake us to the core; if this is so, then we -- you and I and the man on the beach -- are called to live our lives gladly. We are called to live lives of gratitude, joy, and caring, profoundly moved by the bare fact that we live in the time of the singing of birds."

Great Crested Grebes by Knut Erik Alnæs (Norway)

If we allow for the concept of the "secular sacred," then I suppose that Wild Comfort is one of my sacred texts -- along with books by Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner, Patricia McKillip, John Crowley, Jane Yolen, Lloyd Alexander, David Abram, Lewis Hyde, Rebecca Solnit, and so many others. They honor the mystery. Restore my sense of wonder. Remind me to be astonished by the world, and call me to gratitude and joy.

Spanwing brook trout David Herasimtschuk

Pictures: The glorious photographs above are from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, running at The Museum of Natural History in London until the May 28th. They are identified & credited in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) You'll find more on the NHM website.

Words: The passage above is from Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore (Trumpeter Books, 2010); all rights reserved by the author.
 


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Illustration for The Wild Swans by Helen Stratton

Today, women's voices from England and Scotland:

Above, "Dh’èirich mi moch, b’ fheàrr nach do dh’èirich" by Julie Fowlis, from the Isle of Uist in the Outer Hebrides. The song appears on her magical new album, Alterum -- named for a Latin word that means "otherness" or "the other."

The mythical, dreamlike video (directed by Craig Mackay) was conceived as a spiritual and otherworldly interpretation of loss. "My own work is steeped in tradition and historical reference specific to the Highlands," says Fowlis, "with a leaning to many beliefs and cultures," so the video features both sea and land, "the two most contrasting elements we exist in." The owl feathers symbolize journeys, transitions, and silent flights through the dark of the night, used in a headdress to link them to these more ancient associations.

Below, "The Swan Swims" by Ione Fyfe, a fine singer and ballad collector from Aberdeenshire in north-east Scotland. The song is a variant of Twa Sisters (Child Ballad #10), and will appear on Fyfe's much-anticipated new album, Away From My Window (March 2018).

Above and below: two songs from Emily Mae Winters' stunning new album, Siren Serenade (2017). Winters was born in Birmingham, raised on the south coast of Ireland, and is now based in London.

The first is the album's title song, inspired by the sirens of myth, with backing vocals by Lauren Bush, Hannah Sanders and Lauren Parker. The second is "Down by the Sally Gardens," with lyrics by William Butler Yeats, from a poem published in The Wanderings of Oisin, 1889.

To end with, two classic songs by Robert Burns sung by two more wonderful Scottish singers...

Above: "Ae Fond Kiss" by Robyn Stapleton, from Stranraer, on the south-west coast.

Below: "Green Grow the Rashes, O' " by Siobhan Miller, from Penicuik, near Edinburgh.

Wild Swans by Helen Stratton

The art today: two drawings for Hans Christian Andersen's "The Wild Swans" by Helen Stratton (1867-1961). Stratton was born in India, raised in Bath, and spent  her adult life in Kensington, London, working as an illustrator.


Wild prayer

Rainbow 1

After weeks of rain storms, yesterday there was blue sky and a rainbow over our village. In a long, dark season of water-soaked fields and foot trails ankle-deep in mud, it felt a blessing.

Today, it is clear over Meldon Hill,  though a bank of dark clouds hovers over the moor. Sun or rain, I am ready for both. Rainbow-blessed and vision restored, I'm reminded to love the earth's full palette: the delicacy of winter blue, the wet vibrancy of green and gold, but also the spectrum of color that gives us grey days, comfortless as they sometimes seem. Grey is the color of mist, mystery, mythic entrances to the Otherworld. Grey is the hidden and the unseen -- which we sometimes need to be ourselves.

Meldon Hill

In her essay collection Wild Comfort, Kathleen Dean Moore takes sorrow and the hardships of life into nature, seeking clarity, solace, and a form of prayer unattached to the religion she was raised in and no longer practices. Alone in her kayak on a small mountain lake, she is enclosed in the grey world of falling snow, cut off from sight of the land by the storm. In the thick of the snow squall, she writes:

"a frog began to sing. It must have been a tree frog, Hyla regilla. Of course I couldn't see it; I couldn't see anything but snow beyond my vanished bow. But I knew that song, and I could imagine the tiny frog up to its eyes in water, snowflaked falling on its head fiery green enough to melt the snow.

 "As long as the frog sings, I will not be lost in the squall. The song tells me where the cattails are, and the cattails mark the shore. I am sure of this much, that Earth lights these small signal fires -- not for us, but among us -- and we can find them if we look. If we are not afraid, if we keep our balance, if we let our anxious selves dissolve into the beauties and mysteries of the night, we will find a way to peace and assurance. Signal fires burn all over the land."

Rainbow 2

Here is the prayer Moore finds in the middle of the storm, and that she offers to us:

"May the light that reflects on this water be a wild prayer. May water lift us with its unexpected strength. May we find comfort in the 'repeated strains of nature,' the softly sheeting snow, the changing seasons, the return of blackbirds to the marsh. May we find strength in light that pours under the snow and laughter that breaks through the tears. May we go out into the light-filled snow, among meadows in bloom, with a gratitude for life that is deep and alive. May Earth's fires burn in our hearts, and may we know ourselves to be part of this flame -- one thing, never alone, never weary of life."

May it be so. Mitakuye Oyasin.

Rainbow 3

Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore

The two passages quoted above are from Kathleen Dean Moore's essay "Never Alone or Weary" in Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature (Trumpeter Books, 2010); the poem in the picture captions is from The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (New Directions, 2013); all rights reserved by the authors. I wrote about rainbows in my own personal symbology here, back in 2010.