Posts Tagged ‘woodland’

The Commute

September 18, 2016

…it’s not enough that we learn a location, a way of being that’s in balance with nature. We must also learn a direction, a way of moving toward wildness. The mythology of our civilization is onto something when it says “we can’t go back.” We (individually and collectively) find it psychologically much easier to drift deeper into comfort and control and predictability, than to open ourselves to rawness and otherness and flux. How often does a child who wears shoes become an adult who goes barefoot? Have you ever seen a “property” owner remove a lock from a door? How many people, as they get older, have fewer possessions and care less whether those possessions get scratched? We try to go “back to nature” by moving to the woods and installing buildings and utilities, but how many people move to the city and take them out?

We have to learn, if not these changes, then thousands of changes like them, and the relentless focus and expansive awareness to drive them. If we don’t, as long as we favor domesticating motion, we’ll get a ratcheting effect that will seduce us from the healthiest society straight through self-absorption into hell. (Ran Prieur, ‘The Animal in the Dark Tower‘)

In pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped. (Tao Te Ching, v.48)

(Advance warning: there will be a lot of photos in this post.)

Last November I moved to a rented room on the edge of a village much closer to where I work. The bike journey went down from 40-45mins each way to more like 15mins, saving me time and effort, allowing me to set my alarm a little later in the morning and to get back a little earlier in the afternoon, arriving a little less exhausted/cold/wet/sweaty than I did before. Other aspects of life here give me a bit more of a headache, eg: distance from shops, scarcity of public transport, dependence on lifts when carrying stuff that’s too heavy for a bike, eg: guitar amp, but for the most part I’ve improved the quality of my day-to-day life, not least because I’m basically out in the countryside now: minimal traffic noise (some passenger jets), no street light outside my window, the occasional tractor, garden machinery, dogs and all the birds coming and going… It’s pretty nice all things considered.

Anyway, the reason for this post was to share another small way I’ve improved my life over the last couple of months. I was prompted by advice to stay off my bike for an extended period in order to give a chronic inflammation I’ve been getting in the perineum/prostate area a proper chance to heal. So instead of cycling up a busy-ish country road to work I’ve been walking a series of footpaths, tracks and backroads along a different route. My commute now takes around 45mins in the morning and more like an hour in the afternoon, the extra time taken up by bits of foraging, interactions with farm animals & wildlife, general dawdling and the fact that I’m usually barefoot (I figured this was a bad idea in the mornings in case I got stuck by a thorn or splinter which I couldn’t easily get out). But I don’t view it as a loss over all, although it did take a surprising amount of self-persuasion to get started:

“Don’t think about it as dead time, extended from your compulsory working hours, but as an intrinsically pleasant activity to fill your time. Something you’re doing through an active choice, not because you’ve been reluctantly forced into it. You claim to love being out in the wilder places, yet spend nearly all of your time in intensively managed gardens and allotments or sitting indoors in human-only spaces, more often than not on your own. You claim to enjoy walking at your own pace and in directions of your choosing, but most of your walking is done in lockstep behind a mower staring at straight lines on the ground and going back and forth, back and forth… You know hardly anything of the land here – start to make a commitment. See the changes through the seasons. See what the wildlife is up to. Slow things down and take time to look at things a little deeper rather than whizzing past, thinking ‘that looks nice but I’ve got somewhere to get to and don’t want to run late’. Gather food & medicine along your way. Spend less time reading media describing faraway places which you’ll never see and more time reading (and participating in!) the news of your actual locality.” etc etc.

So here’s a photo record from a day back in July with comments (references to Patrick Whitefield go to his excellent book How To Read the Landscape, which I highly recommend, especially to UK-based readers). Click to embiggen and scroll through:

It’s started getting dark in the mornings now, so I don’t know how much longer I’m going to keep doing this. Probably for a while still because I’m getting rewarded by sightings of deer now that I’m travelling through their preferred time of day (it’s surprisingly easy to creep up on them, especially when bare feet are keeping the noise levels down – just freeze when they look up at you and wait until they persuade themselves they’re just being paranoid and go back to their browsing. My best so far was around 15m before they barked at me and bounded off into the trees. Magic…) The inflammation hasn’t gone away yet, sadly, so I’ll have to look to other possible remedies for that, but the whole experience has been so enriching thus far I don’t really mind. Would be nice to do the walk on a few frosty mornings in winter, with the light spearing through leafless trees… if there is any light by that point!

What other opportunities do we have to slow things down, go back in time, slip into deeper, infinitely more satisfying modes of being and how can we rearrange our lives to make the space for these things? Closing words from Martin Shaw, who has made inspiring attempts to sink deep into the land he describes as having ‘claimed’ him in Dartmoor:

Fertility – Less or More?

June 22, 2012

A few of us have been discussing, among other things, soil fertility, pastoralism, deforestation, reforestation, agriculture (of course) and permaculture-type solutions for restoring the ecologies impoverished by this culture over on this Leaving Babylon thread. Here’s my most recent contribution on the topic of soil fertility vs. conservation:

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I’ve been thinking lots lately about this issue of soil fertility. On the one hand we’re living through a period of extraordinary fertility thanks to the nitrates and phosphates in petroleum-based fertilisers – ‘more atmospheric nitrogen is fixed by man (as fertilizer) than by all natural sources combined’ (Ken Thompson, No Nettles Required, p.160) – and all gardening and farming is geared towards maintaining or increasing this. And on the other hand we have a legacy of plant and animal species uniquely adapted to the impoverished soils resulting from hundreds/thousands of years of intensive, organic farming, grazing and forestry; a biodiversity that dies out when the soils get too fertile or specific management practices are discontinued. Here’s Michael Allaby writing in the Woodland Trust’s Book of British Woodlands:

The trees that are coppiced regenerate and go on regenerating for a very long time: far from injuring them, coppicing seems to extend their lifespans, so they become an almost perpetual source of wood. Chemically, the wood is composed of substances obtained from the air and soil, like any part of any plant, and cropping removes those substances. Livestock grazing among the trees returned some plant nutrient, but they, too, were removing vegetation by their grazing. The overall effect is a slow but steady export of plant nutrient and a decline in the fertility of the soil. This makes it sound as though the coppicing system is harmful, but harmful to what, or whom? Some plants are better than others at exploiting rich supplies of nutrient. Feed them well and they grow vigorously and, in relation to the plants around them, aggressively. On a fertile soil, therefore, the natural succession by which plants colonise an area will proceed fairly quickly to a situation in which a small number of aggressive species dominate the vegetation.

On a less fertile soil this cannot happen, because the aggressive species are denied the nutrients they need for more vigorous growth. This allows the less vigorous species, with more modest requirements, to thrive. The final result is a great diversity of plant species. The ecological rule-of-thumb is that the greater the fertility of the soil, the fewer plant species will establish themselves on it; and if you prefer a great diversity of species you need a poor soil. Over the years coppicing produces poor soils, and so coppiced woodlands tend to have a rich diversity of plant species. The greater the diversity of plant species, the greater will be the diversity of animals feeding on them, and since the arrival of herbivorous animals is followed by the arrival of predators and parasites of those animals, the entire ecosystem is enriched. (p.106)

So what direction do we pull in? Obviously the petro-fertiliser era is a blip which is going to end in short order, yet I’m less-than-convinced about the longterm viability of the systems that preceded it. Intentionally working to impoverish the soil? Surely sooner or later that will starve the ecosystem to death (although I’m not aware of any coppice rotations that have been stressed to breaking point in this way, even when supplying charcoal for industrial purposes). I think I agree that we have a responsibility to do right by the species we’ve in effect provided the selection pressure for over all these centuries of domesticating the landscape, whether that’s helping them adjust to the changing circumstances or, if that’s not possible, allowing them to die out with dignity. But I think the conservationists are wrong about greater fertility equating to lesser diversity. Maybe this would be the case in the short term, but after a while I expect it will simply be a different kind of selection pressure leading to an explosion of diversity in the more nutrient-hungry plants. How many different hybrid forms of Bramble, Nettle & Dandelion are there already in existence?

Fire-setting is another case in point. From what I’ve read it sounds like N American Indians burned grasses and forest understory purposefully to release the nutrients locked up in the standing dead plants, changing them into a form that was bio-available to the herbs, shrubs and annuals that would be growing on that spot by the next season. This was also an active selection for plants that provided edible, medicinal and other uses for the Indians (and, I assume, for the wildlife they shared the habitat with). It would be interesting to know the mix of woodland plants in Paleo/Mesolithic NW Europe – whether fire management caused this to differ in a similar way. A local conservationist has told me to look for Nettles and Brambles growing in places where our group had previously set fires in old coppice woodland, due to the nutrients released in the wood ash.

Over all it seems to be the case that humans are associated with enriched fertility in soils. That’s one line of archeological evidence for habitation by prehistoric man – at least in Europe you find seeds or pollen grains of Nettle, Plantain, Goosefoot and other associated ‘weeds’. We pitch camp somewhere for the season, eat, shit, do some burning and maybe a bit of gardening before moving on. My best nettle crops have come from places disturbed by people (the very best being where those people fenced off special areas in parkland for their dogs to come and do their business in the times before the ubiquitous small black plastic bags – mmm, dog poo nettles…) Anyway, the main problem with coppicing and other woodland management seems to be the same old civilisational problem of exporting resources far away from their point of origin. If people lived in the woods, building homes, cutting fuel, crafting necessary artifacts from the trees around them, and letting it all rot down on site, I think that could lead to a thriving & enriched ecosystem, supportive of a wide variety of plants and animals.