Wednesday, 4 March 2015

On Rivers & Woods

Rachel Carson wrote a book called Silent Spring  in the 1960s. It was about the impact of pesticides on the natural world. She was the first person to question them and to say she was vilified by the agro-chemical industry and scientists of the time is an understatement. Fifty years later and her work is heralded as ground-breaking. I have found my thoughts turning to her tonight after a day spent working in the woods.


I feel at home in woods. The trees call to something ancient in the soul. Today, the sun shone brightly and the sky was blue, chased across with white powder puff clouds that raced high up in the air pretending to be harbingers of summer. A pair of Red Kites twisted and sliced above us, acrobatic adept dancers of the sky, while below Kingfishers called from the depths of the wood, secretively hidden among ditches filled with water. But despite the brave show the air remained cold, suggesting that Winter hasn't done with us yet.

Trees were felled today. They came down as part of an attempt to create clearings in the wood and I'm not sure why. I don't understand what the benefit of a clearing in a wood is. Woodland rides, yes, I get those. They can be corridors for wildlife, they can be helpful for butterflies and bees and other inverts and they allow light in that helps ancient woodland indicator plants blossom. But woodland clearings? A hole in the middle of a wood? I am struggling with that.

In younger, less considered days I felt a thrill at the sound of a chainsaw welling up throatily from the silence of a wood, but not any more. Now I shudder at the intrusiveness and instinctively mourn the passing of the tree whose life is being ended. The splitting sound of a trunk breaking, the tearing of fibres and sinews reverberates through me and makes me wince and feel sad. I don't like the finality of a tree falling to earth, of that deep contact with its roots being permanently severed.

Once, many years ago, I cared for a young racehorse. She was four, and she had won more or less every race she had entered. She was destined for greatness and I had her for one summer when I was twenty one before she went back into training. 

It was a dry, rainless summer that year and by August the earth was hard packed and unforgiving. I turned her out one afternoon after riding her, putting her in the paddock with her friends and they all took off as young horses will, racing each other across the parched earth, joyful in the fluidity of their youth and the freedom of their speed and movement. As they reached the bottom of the paddock she turned sharply with the herd and I saw her slip and fall. 
I heard the crack of her shoulder as she hit the ground, and even as I was running as hard as I could down the field to reach her I knew that she wouldn't survive it.

One of the worst things I have ever had to do in my life was force that mare, under the urgings of the head groom, to limp back up that field to the stables. She groaned at every step, an uncomfortably close to human pain sound, she shook, she dripped with sweat and her shoulder stood out inches from where it should have been with the inflammation. The vet, when he came, dithered for far too long, because the mare was a worth a fortune and she wasn't insured. Her shoulder was smashed in eight places and when they eventually decided to put her to sleep the head groom sent me away, down the field, but even so the crack of the shot when it came went straight through me. Sometimes you block out the recollection of difficult things, but I have a very clear memory of standing in the middle of that field when the gun went off with tears pouring down my face. I didn't want to not remember, because she mattered to me.

Seeing trees fall reminds me of that - all that nobility and grace felled in one, swift, permanent moment. Big things shouldn't fall down and not get up again.

It isn't just the tree I feel for: I am also indignant on behalf of all the small things that call it home and find themselves cast out as a result. I feel the same way, increasingly, about being asked to cut back vegetation, especially at this time of the year when inverts have almost made it through the winter and their shelter is suddenly, arbitrarily and brutally removed, leaving them stranded and vulnerable. At home we make a deliberate choice not to cut back dead plants until April has more or less ended, when most of the inverts who have been sheltering in the stalks will have woken up/ e-closed and come alive again.

It's not a popular view in ecology circles, leaving cutting back till April. Traditionally, the months between October and March are prime time to cut hedges/ trees/ vegetation. But what I am thinking tonight is that established wisdom only works for as long as no one challenges it or proves that it is wrong. Rachel Carson demonstrated that. Science, like any other discipline, moves and evolves over time according to the thoughts and experiences of the people working within it. Sometimes you have to question established wisdom if only to check that it is still right. 








 

42 comments:

  1. A very moving and thought-provoking post CT. The story of the mare is such a tragedy, you must have been devastated. I hate to see woodland being cleared as well, and trees being felled. I shall remember what you say about waiting until April. CJ xx

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    1. Thank you CJ. It's funny how some posts just appear from nowhere and almost write themselves. Have a lovely weekend xx

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  2. So sorry about your horse.
    Jane x

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  3. Without reading back through your archives, I think you have written my favourite ever post. Powerful, evocative and one that deserves to be widely shared.

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  4. It is never nice when anything is lost that cannot be replaced. Hugs. xx

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    1. It's the finality that's hard. Hugs back to you xx

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  5. the story of the mare is sad but reality I guess. That doesn't make it any easier though which is the hard thing. I wonder if the trees they felled were rotten?

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    1. They weren't rotten, just ear marked to come down on a management plan for the wood.

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  6. A very well written but sad post.

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  7. After your beautifully powerful writing I needed those pictures, as a sort of breathing out. I know those feelings brought from tree felling - we had some ancient and huge Yews felled here in the village some time ago, the saw slashes bled red, I cried, it was needless. I went and apologised to the stumps, and took away some sections of trunk. They're in my workshop still.

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    1. We lost lots of old oaks in the '87 hurricane. I listened to them falling all through the night and it was very affecting seeing them all lying in a jumbled, broken mass on the earth when the dawn came the next morning. I understand your emotions about the Yews and would have done (and have done) exactly the same thing.

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  8. You sure know how to drive a point home. Although it was awful to read, the comparison of the horse to the trees was just perfect. We often camp in the northern woods, and now the trend for managing the forests is to leave all dead wood and dying trees in the woods to provide the micro environments so important to the whole forest. As good as this sounds, logging still continues in a big way both here in the east and out west (Canada). But I really think the "greens" are being taken more seriously as we are made more aware of the harm we do to our planet. I'm glad you leave all your winter stalks till late spring. I do the same, but never really thought of the bugs, I was just leaving the flower seeds for the birds (and I personally like seeing dead stalks in winter), and then I see lots of little birds pass through my yard during migration, so I don't clear away much debris until the bug catchers work through the yard at the beginning of spring. You've now made me think more about the bugs' lives too.
    Wendy

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    1. Small things are easy to overlook, but they are as important to the ecosystem (and food chain) as the big things and they need their homes intact as well. I'm so pleased the post helped you think about them.

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  9. Hey CT,
    This post has really moved me. At the moment there is a campaign to protect a section of woodlands that developers want to destroy in order to build holiday homes. I have signed the petition, and Olly and I have waved a placard. Stuff like that makes me so mad. Needless development that will benefit the pockets of the few. There have been several dubious planning applications granted here. A couple of years ago the new owners of The Porthminster just felled some terribly old trees without any approval. It was to open up a sea view for the owners of the luxury apartments that they were constructing. There was uproar, but of course the deed was done.
    Fabulous thought provoking post today, CT. Thank you.
    Leanne xx

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    1. So frustrating to hear about the threatened wood near you. Clearing trees to improve a view is a hard one to take and cutting them down for holiday homes is even worse! Good luck with the protest: you are a warrior woman when it comes to things that matter and I know you will make your voice heard. Great example for Olly too xx

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  10. This post was beautiful written - I felt your pain when the Mare had to be put down. This is one of your best posts my dear and everyone should read it. Thank you for sharing.

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  11. Well written & well argued post CT, it is always important to question & keep an ever open-mind.

    Hope you are well :-)

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    1. Many thanks David. Lovely to hear from you. Hope all is well with you and yours :o)

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  12. "Science, like any other discipline, moves and evolves over time according to the thoughts and experiences of the people working within it. Sometimes you have to question established wisdom if only to check that it is still right."

    I like this paragraph .... and I felt your pain and anguish about having to have your mare put down - but it was the only thing to do.

    I hope you are having a good week after writing such a thoughtful post

    All the best Jan

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  13. A well written post,and very moving.
    Amanda xx

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  14. A beautifully written and moving post - really felt your pain over the horse and felled trees. The photos at the end are lovely.

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  15. A beautifully written and very captivating post. It's sad that a tree can grow for years and years, yet with a few minutes of chainsawing it's almost as if it was never there at all. x

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    1. I think that's part of what upsets me about felling - they take such a long time to grow and, as you say, it's all gone in seconds. Perhaps in the days of hand saws when more time was taken it felt a little easier for the conscience?

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  16. I know what you mean about felled wood CT. I walked last week in an area of woodland which is managed commercially and there was so much felled wood it felt like a building site rather than woodland. I have very mixed feelings I suppose. The working of the wood ensures its survival and the changes which follow working the wood are themselves extraordinary and beautiful. But it needs to be done very sensitively and generally it is not. I usually cut back in March leaving quite a bit wild even then. Is that too early do you think? We have a lot of native hedge which we cut back in February, trying to hit the point when it has been harvest as a food source and before the nesting birds start to use it. Never sure if we get it right!

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    1. Management of woods for commercial reasons is a fact of life, you're quite right. The economics are there, like it or not.
      March is probably fine for cutting back old plants, as long as it's a warm March. I tend to wait till the first bees and hover flies are evident, then cut back at the base of the plant and place the stems in an undisturbed area (compost heap) so the small things can stay inside if needs be for a while longer.

      Hedgerows are more difficult aren't they? We do ours in Oct but try and leave berries and ivy in situ. Spring has been getting earlier over the past 30 years and I heard reports last week of some birds already having hatchlings, so it is really hard to time it right. I think you can only do your best at the end of the day.

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  17. A beautiful and very moving post.xx

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  18. This was a wonderful post, and the story of the horse brought tears to my eyes. I can't imagine how awful that must have been as you stood there in that field, helpless and hurting, while the horse was being put down.

    There is one good reason they could have been taking down the trees, and that would be if there was an insect infestation that threatened the whole forest. It happens sometimes, and then it becomes a case of sacrificing the few to save the many.

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    1. I've lost lots of animals over the years and have mourned each one, but nothing was ever quite so brutal as the loss of that beautiful mare.

      The trees were felled as part of the management plan for the wood- felling trees to open clearings for biodiversity purposes - rather than for insect infestation. I question the need for it and doubt the positive impact on biodiversity. It is something I will be thinking more and questioning more.

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  19. I could have sworn I commented on this post. :-( It's difficult from my Kindle as it's so slow to load blog posts, but anyway, what I'd said was that the story of the mare's death was very sad. I also feel when a mature tree is felled. And I wanted you to know that I got a big fat zero on your tree bark quiz! :-))))) Actually back upstairs on my Mac with my rubber rings to sit on, so I'll be able to catch up better now...... xx

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    1. I'm very glad you're back upstairs with your rubber rings and able to access your mac :o) Thank goodness for modern technology, in more ways than one! xx

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  20. I remember first reading "Silent Spring" back in the 80's when we set up a local group of FOE and were campaigning about the use of pesticides. It was so sad reading your memories of the racing horse. It seem so vivid I felt as if we were standing in the field with you sharing that pain. Sarah x

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    1. Rachel Carson's book should be on everyone's reading list I reckon. xx

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Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x