A few months ago, I went into a Salvation Army charity shop, which was surprisingly crowded with people looking for second hand clothes. I was able to buy a very large pile of old BBC wildlife magazines which dated back some six or seven years to around 2007. It was interesting to see that all the concerns those few short years ago such as worries about climate change, the loss of wildlife habitat and the extinction of various rare species were pretty much exactly the same as they are now.
It was extremely interesting, though, to read an article by a gentleman called Richard Mabey who at that time was the vice president of the Open Society. Mr.Mabey’s writing stood out from the rest as being so very different and so very perceptive. He wrote, for example, of the richness, the biodiversity, of the English language, which he said, prospers because of its very complexity and because so many words have so many different shades of meaning.
He then developed Charles Darwin’s phrase, the “Survival of the Fittest”. Quite rightly, he made the point that, in the past, this simplistic idea has been used to justify Communist oppression, worldwide slavery and the persecution of the Jews. Mr Mabey extended this idea though, to the present day, with the observation that the phrase is nowadays being used to excuse the ruthless greed that runs unchecked through the world economic system. One banker recently proclaimed, for example, that the forces of the free market are merely the “Survival of the Fittest”. The most interesting point then made though, is that in nature, predation apart, one member of a species will hardly ever prove its fitness by directly killing another, weaker, member of that species. Mr Mabey argued, for example, that few, if any, animals indulge in bloody combat. Birds do not physically fight each other, but compete with song. Snakes may wrestle, but they do not usually use their fangs, and deer will not prolong their potentially life-threatening arguments, if their opponent exposes his unprotected flanks in a gesture of surrender.
When Darwin observed his famous finches in the Galapagos Islands, the thirteen different types of bird were not trying to eliminate each other forever, but instead were living more or less happily alongside each other.
They may have had differently sized or shaped bills, but all the birds were capable of exploiting slightly different food sources. Some birds drank nectar from cactuses. Some birds ate cactus seeds. Some birds stripped bark or chewed leaves or sought out ticks to eat. But all of these creatures were managing to survive alongside each other.
Different species will all be forced to fight their environment, but in the main, they are able to coexist together because of only slight differences between each one of them, differences which in the course of their lives, will always prevent direct competition.
In contrast, as Richard Mabey points out, the lack of regulation in financial markets merely allows the ambition and greed of a very small, very privileged and very hostile few to flourish without limit and without restraint. The financial world is then dominated by a very small number of what in nature would be seen as an aggressive super species. And it is ridiculous, of course, to justify this sad situation by bringing Charles Darwin into the argument.
Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is the complete opposite of this. Evolution produces tens of thousands, if not more, separate species, all of which to a greater or lesser extent, can exist alongside each other.
And to apply Richard Mabey’s arguments to the everyday human sphere, it does not take a major genius to work out that we may eventually finish up with, for example, just three or four gigantic supermarkets who will be able to dictate completely what we should buy and what we should eat. There will be few specialist small businesses, selling their own spicy sausages made in the back of the shop, or cakes that the owner’s wife and family have made at home. There will be no handmade wooden toys for children, built by local craftsmen using their ideas as to what will be liked by their little customers. No health food shops selling organic food made by workers’ co-operatives. No butchers selling local meat and supporting local farmers by paying them a proper and decent price for what they have produced. No market stall which sells both British and Indian made fabrics, which young dressmakers can make into whatever they want.
Farmers will be driven to abandon all idea of leaving untended spaces where wild animals, birds, insects and butterflies can live. How can they afford to do this when a major supermarket offers them just four pence for a cauliflower, a price recently quoted to me by a Cornish farmer?Take it even further and we will have a situation where bankers, whatever their performance, will be able to award themselves gigantic bonuses every single year. Vast corporations will employ armies of people, the majority of whom will be earning the minimum wage, which is itself lower, of course, than the living wage.
And all this because of greed-stricken people, programmed only to make the maximum amount of money, with precious few reasons that they can remember about why they have to do it.
To my shame, I did not appreciate that July 13th, the 121st anniversary of his birth, was “John Clare Day”. I found this out by googling retrospectively “John Clare”, and coming across an absolutely superb article by George Monbiot in the Guardian.
Furthermore, I must confess that I actually knew very little about John Clare other than the fact that he was a poet and that, unlike the vast majority of poets, he was of working class origin. His biographer Jonathan Bate described him as “the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self”.
The first port of call, therefore was Wikipedia.
The bare bones of Clare’s life were that he was born into desperate agricultural poverty in the tiny village of Helpston, just to the north of Peterborough in Northamptonshire.
The area was amazingly rich in wildlife.
He would have seen and heard corncrakes everywhere.
Nightjars too, were as common in England then as they now are in this excellent film from Denmark…
There were ravens in the old, giant oak trees, wrynecks, which still bred in old woodpeckers’ holes, and the last few wildcats…
“Tasteful illumination of the night,
Bright scattered, twinkling star of spangled earth.”
Clare’s cottage, where he spent his childhood, still remains…
Like all his fellows, Clare became an agricultural labourer while still a child, but he attended the school in Glinton church until he was twelve. He also began to write poetry, something which was to cause him great problems throughout the rest of his life among simple farm workers.
“I live here among the ignorant like a lost man in fact like one whom the rest seemes careless of having anything to do with—they hardly dare talk in my company for fear I should mention them in my writings and I find more pleasure in wandering the fields than in musing among my silent neighbours who are insensible to everything but toiling and talking of it and that to no purpose.”
Clare’s first love was Mary Joyce, but alas, she was to die, by our standards at least, a premature death.
Clare was to marry Martha Turner in 1820. Her nickname was “Patty”.
Where are you going lovely maid
The morning fine & early
“I’m going to Walkerd”, Sir she said
&made across the barley
I asked her name she blushed away
The question seemed to burn her
A neighbour came & passed the day
&called her Patty Turner
I wrote my better poems there
To beautys praise I owe it
The muses they get all the praise
But woman makes the poet
A womans is the dearest love
Theres nought on earth sincerer
The leisure upon beautys breast
Can any thing be dearer
I saw her love in beauty’s face
I saw her in the rose
I saw her in the fairest flowers
In every weed that grows”
Clare, though, was to have many bouts of severe depression, which worsened as his family increased in size and his poetry sold less well.
Gradually over the years, his behaviour became progressively more and more erratic. In July 1837, he went of his own accord to Doctor Matthew Allen’s private asylum. In 1841, though, Clare absconded and walked all the way back home from Essex. He thought, in his madness, that he would be able to refind his first true love, Mary Joyce. He believed firmly that he was married not just to her, but to Martha as well, and had children by both women. He refused to believe Mary’s family that she had died accidentally three years previously in a house fire. He stayed a free man at home for a little while, but was back in the asylum by mid-1841, his wife having called for help from them between Christmas and the New Year of 1841.
Clare was sent to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he lived out the rest of his life. He was helped enormously by the kindness and humanity of Dr Thomas Octavius Prichard, who encouraged and helped him to continue writing his poetry. It was at the Northamptonshire County General Lunatic Asylum that Clare wrote possibly his most famous poem…..
I AM! yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish, an oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest–that I loved the best–
Are strange–nay, rather stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below–above the vaulted sky. “
Clare’s problems with depression had not been helped by having to watch his world disappear as, between 1809 and 1820, various Acts of Enclosure allowed the greedy, idle, useless rich to increase their already great wealth by putting fences across the previously open fields, heathland and woodlands., and declaring that everything now belonged to them.
This, of course, was the early nineteenth century equivalent of “Trespassers will be Prosecuted”, and, as it was designed to do, prevented anybody poor from enjoying what abruptly became the rich man’s landscape.
In due course, the idle rich realised that they could make even more money by destroying the ancient countryside, and farming it in an exclusively profit orientated way. There was no room for five hundred year old oak trees or sleepy marshes, no more meandering streams or cool copses to give shade on a hot summer’s day. Faced by the onslaught of Agribusiness, the wild animals, the birds, the insects and the butterflies all began to disappear.
In other words, it was pretty much the beginning of the country landscape we are asked to tolerate today.
This poem was finished by 1824, but was published only in 1935.
Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green
That never felt the rage of blundering plough
Though centurys wreathed springs blossoms on its brow
Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown and grey
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
Spread its faint shadow of immensity
And lost itself which seemed to eke its bounds
In the blue mist the orisons edge surrounds
Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
Is faded all–a hope that blossomed free
And hath been once no more shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labours rights and left the poor a slave
And memorys pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now
The sheep and cows were free to range as then
Where change might prompt nor felt the bonds of men
Cows went and came with evening morn and night
To the wild pasture as their common right
And sheep unfolded with the rising sun
Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won
Tracked the red fallow field and heath and plain
Then met the brook and drank and roamed again
The brook that dribbled on as clear as glass
Beneath the roots they hid among the grass
While the glad shepherd traced their tracks along
Free as the lark and happy as her song
But now alls fled and flats of many a dye
That seemed to lengthen with the following eye
Moors loosing from the sight far smooth and blea
Where swopt the plover in its pleasure free
Are vanished now with commons wild and gay”
For me, Clare’s best work is his nature poetry. Because he was a poor labourer, he saw far more details as he walked along than the rich poets who thundered past in their coaches. John Clare’s nightingale actually was a real nightingale, not another species misidentified.
George Monbiot in his wonderful article urges us to read the poem…
“…Everything he sees flares into life…his ability to pour his mingled thoughts and observations on to the page as they occur, allowing you, as perhaps no other poet has done, to watch the world from inside his head.”
“The Nightingale’s Nest” is indeed a fabulous poem, and is just like going for a stroll into the woods with John Clare himself, to view a bird whose nest he has previously staked out at some point during his working day. The reader becomes a fellow birdwatcher, who can follow John Clare’s instructions about where to look…
“The Nightingale’s Nest
Up this green woodland-ride let’s softly rove,
And list the nightingale – she dwells just here.
Hush ! let the wood-gate softly clap, for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love ;
For here I’ve heard her many a merry year –
At morn, at eve, nay, all the live-long day,
As though she lived on song. This very spot,
Just where that old-man’s-beard all wildly trails
Rude arbours o’er the road, and stops the way –
And where that child its blue-bell flowers hath got,
Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails –
There have I hunted like a very boy,
Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorn
To find her nest, and see her feed her young.
And vainly did I many hours employ :
All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn.
And where those crimping fern-leaves ramp among
The hazel’s under boughs, I’ve nestled down,
And watched her while she sung ; and her renown
Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird
Should have no better dress than russet brown.
Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy,
And feathers stand on end, as ’twere with joy,
And mouth wide open to release her heart
Of its out-sobbing songs. The happiest part
Of summer’s fame she shared, for so to me
Did happy fancies shapen her employ ;
But if I touched a bush, or scarcely stirred,
All in a moment stopt. I watched in vain :
The timid bird had left the hazel bush,
And at a distance hid to sing again.
Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves,
Rich Ecstasy would pour its luscious strain,
Till envy spurred the emulating thrush
To start less wild and scarce inferior songs ;
For while of half the year Care him bereaves,
To damp the ardour of his speckled breast ;
The nightingale to summer’s life belongs,
And naked trees, and winter’s nipping wrongs,
Are strangers to her music and her rest.
Her joys are evergreen, her world is wide –
Hark! there she is as usual – let’s be hush –
For in this black-thorn clump, if rightly guest,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way,
And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs,
For we will have another search to day,
And hunt this fern-strewn thorn-clump round and round ;
And where this reeded wood-grass idly bows,
We’ll wade right through, it is a likely nook :
In such like spots, and often on the ground,
They’ll build, where rude boys never think to look –
Aye, as I live ! her secret nest is here,
Upon this white-thorn stump ! I’ve searched about
For hours in vain. There! put that bramble by –
Nay, trample on its branches and get near.
How subtle is the bird! she started out,
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh,
Ere we were past the brambles ; and now, near
Her nest, she sudden stops – as choking fear,
That might betray her home. So even now
We’ll leave it as we found it: safety’s guard
Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still.
See there! she’s sitting on the old oak bough,
Mute in her fears ; our presence doth retard
Her joys, and doubt turns every rapture chill.”
I have not quoted some of Clare’s poems in full. They are extremely accessible on the Internet, and will fully repay your efforts.
The vast majority of his poetry can be found very easily.
Just find “Poets by Name” on the left of the screen, and click on “J” for “John Clare”.
The poet’s grave is at Helpston….
And, as one of England’s greatest poets, he has a memorial…
Man’s most faithful insect friend is the Bee. Not everybody may like bees. Some people might be frightened of their sting. But everybody respects their industry and their willingness to work hard for the common good. That’s why we have all been saying “As busy as a bee” for the last five hundred years. Buzz, buzz, buzz…
Unfortunately, though, there’s a new type of insecticide around. They are called Neonicotinoids, and appear to be killing indiscriminately vast numbers of insects which are helpful to Man.
I really do hope that this is not the reason that I seem to be seeing so few butterflies, bees, wasps or any other insects in my organic, insecticide and pesticide free garden.
Recent research in Holland has revealed, though, just how catastrophic the widespread use of Neonicotinoids may be, not only for bees and other helpful insects, but for birds and then for animals higher up the food chain. The story in full is revealed at greater length here, but I have selected the most important elements for you here:
Have the patience to read about this grim scenario…
“Neonicotinoids are causing significant damage to insects, and now a new Dutch study has revealed that these pesticides are having a significant negative impact too on birds.
Insects form a large part of the diet of many birds during the breeding season and are essential for raising offspring. We investigated the most widely used neonicotinoid, which is called “Imidacloprid”. Here in the Netherlands, local populations were significantly smaller in areas with high surface-water concentrations of Imidacloprid. At concentrations of more than 20 nanograms per litre, bird populations declined by 3.5 per cent annually. Additional research revealed that this decline appeared only after the introduction of Imidacloprid to the Netherlands, in the mid-1990s. The birds most affected included Starling, Tree Sparrow and Swallow.
The overall impact on the environment is even greater than has recently been reported and is reminiscent of the effects of insecticides like DDT in the past.”
The BBC News Environment Correspondent, Matt McGrath, has several times reported similar worries about the declining numbers of valuable insects. In one report, it was argued that the process of evolution might lead us into some very bad places indeed…
“Neonicotinoids are causing great damage to a wide range of beneficial species and are a key factor in the decline of bees…..the evidence of damage is now conclusive, and the threat to nature is the same as that once posed by the notorious chemical DDT.
When seeds are routinely coated in these chemicals, the resulting plants will then grow up with an inbuilt ability to destroy many species of insect.”
Manufacturers deny totally, of course, that these pesticides are harming bees or any other species (surprise, surprise). Scientists, though, are extremely worried about their use. Professor Goulson, one of a team of 29 researchers, has developed this nightmare scenario one stage further…
“”The more neonicotinoids are used, the likelier it is that pest insects themselves will then become resistant to them. Using them like this is absolute madness.”
The situation is worryingly reminiscent of the crisis described by Rachel Carson in her book “Silent Spring”.
The Los Angeles Times recalls…
“Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” kick-started the modern environmental movement, it suggested that better protection for pollinators and plant life was required for healthy people and healthy agriculture. Without her intelligence and eloquence, we would already be living in a world of unspeakable impoverishment, one with silent springs and fruitless falls.”
Opposition to Neonicotinoids is already enormous.
In addition to protests, there is a large number of petitions you can sign. 363,258 supporters signed this one, which has now closed. There’s another petition for Ontario that has 54,984 supporters . Some other petitions are just starting up, with only 180 signers so far… This is not, though, a cranky minority issue. Another site has a staggering 331,872 signatures…. The comments on this particular petition are even stronger….
“The chemical companies are all and far too powerful – they have friends in high places, they lobby very strongly and are nothing more than drug-dealers. Just research the companies that ex-MPs work for after their stint in public service – that’s who runs the country…..”
“Of course the farmers are denying that they are the problem yet again, just like they claim poverty, always seem to running around in big fancy cars, polluting the atmosphere just like they pollute the earth, and the price of food spirals all the time”
We need to do something about this, or the world will be a much, much poorer place without bees. And a considerably hungrier one. Up to one third of our food is produced by bee pollination.
And then we will all start to be on the side of Alan Partridge.
(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)
As I mentioned in a previous blogpost, I used to be a twitcher and ranged far and wide across Great Britain in search of rare birds. The furthest I ever went in a day from my home in Nottingham was to Glasgow and back, a distance of 633 miles, in a successful attempt to see an American Black Duck, which was, at the time, an extremely rare bird. My greatest ever failure was when I went to an island off the south west tip of Wales and failed to see the little American bird which was then called a Yellow-Rumped Warbler (270 miles). At the other end of the spectrum, I once saw an extremely rare bird from the USA, a Cedar Waxwing, as I drove the mile and a half to work in Nottingham. I hastily parked on the empty pavement, walked across to view a flock of birds, and became the fourth person to see this particular individual, the second ever for Great Britain.
I put together many of my twitching tales into a book called “Crippling Views”. I was unsuccessful with every single publisher, and back in the day, there was no Kindle to help the budding author. So……I published it myself as a ring-bound book, and sold it at £5 for a hundred or so pages. It didn’t make my fortune, but the reserve goalkeeper at Liverpool Football Club, Mike Hooper, bought a copy, so that was good enough for me.
One day, “Crippling Views” may see the light of day on Amazon’s print-on-demand, but for now, here is an extract…
“Saturday, July 14th 1988
…over the weeks, I have become increasingly dissatisfied with the in-flight views of Roseate tern that I had at Rhosneigr, Anglesey, in north Wales, that when a Bridled Tern is found at Cemlyn Bay, only a few miles along the coast, I decide to go for it…”
Bridled Tern may be rare in Great Britain, but it’s not particularly uncommon in New Zealand…
“Bridled Tern and Roseate Tern. I’ll be killing two birds with one stone, as it were. Indeed, I may not even have to go to Rhosneigr since the ternery at Cemlyn Bay is a secret site for breeding Roseates anyway. I feel fairly confident that we’ll get both birds. After all, one good tern deserves another….”
“It’s a very long trip to Cemlyn from Nottingham, well over two hundred miles, and the furthest I’ve been for a bird so far. The roads get gradually narrower and narrower, once we leave the A55, which is like a motorway compared to the increasingly countrified A5 as it approaches Holyhead. One of my friends is delighted that we go through Llanfairpwyllextremelysillylongwelshname and he bores all of us rigid with his ceaseless repetition of it. We finally know that we are nearing our destination, as we find ourselves hurtling down that true Welsh speciality, the Single Track Road Without Any Passing Places Whatsoever. I still can’t really understand why you seem never to meet anything, but you never do. Does Wales have a gigantic nationwide one way system for tourists?
At last, we reach Cemlyn Bay. As we squeal to a halt in the car park, another birdwatcher shouts to us that the bird has just flown in.”
“This is good, since the bird is apparently in the rather dubious habit of disappearing far out to sea for hours and hours on end. We are therefore, rather lucky in our timing, since, theoretically, if the bird has been out fishing, it shouldn’t be too hungry and should stay loafing around for a good while. There then follows a long trek across the relentless shingle to the ternery.”
“The whole place is rather peculiar, and perhaps unique from a morphological point of view.”
“There’s a beautiful, wide sweeping bay, with a shingle bar at one end, and between this and the land, there is a pool of probably salty, or possibly fresh, water. In the middle of this little lake, there is a flat island, covered in dry, scrubby vegetation, with plants all about a foot high. This is where the terns nest. They are mostly Arctic Terns, but with just a few Common Terns, and a whole host of noisy Sandwich Terns with their shaggy caps and black bills, replete with bright yellow tips. There are also a good few Roseates, up to perhaps twelve, sitting on a row of stones, preening.”
“They have lovely all black beaks, and short little red legs. They don’t, however, have the great long tail streamers that they are supposed to have…I presume that they must have broken these off during the busy period of feeding the young. And unfortunately it is also too late in the season for their white breasts to have the pinkish tinge that they are famous for. Nevertheless, they are fairly distinctive birds, particularly in flight, when their broad wings are very noticeable. Overall, they are very pale birds, and we realise that the birds we saw two months ago at Rhosneigr, far out over the sea, were in actual fact Roseates.
The star of the show, the Bridled Tern, stands quietly at the back of the ternery, half masked by vegetation, and other birds.”
“This oceanic bird truly is a magnificent creature, a really tropical looking individual. Its colour is most enigmatic, a kind of brownish black that one of my friends says they use in the fabrics at the factory where he works. As a shade of dress material, it’s called “taupe”. I just don’t know, but it is a rather striking colour. I cannot get over just how exotic the bird looks. After ten minutes or so, it does a series of little flypasts, showing off its darkly coloured upperparts, and its sparklingly white undersides, the whole set off by a kind of negative bandit’s mask, white instead of black.”
“It is straight into my Twitching Charts at Number One.
Probably more significant in terms of bird behaviour though, are the Herring Gulls that perch on top of a distant building, and every now and then swoop down into the ternery , pick up a single unattended tern chick, and then fly off to eat it. They are like Mother Nature’s version of Russian Roulette. If you’re number’s up, it’s curtains. Evolution in action, as the more heedless birds don’t get to pass on their genes.”
That account doesn’t seem almost thirty years ago. It isn’t just Bridled Terns that fly!
They are still, though, a rare bird in this country. Just a month or so ago this year, one was found in the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumbria. In my opinion, these three are the very best of many videos….