My Countryside

The countryside isn’t the countryside. Not really. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that much of the countryside isn’t my idea of what countryside should be. Allow me to explain…

If I asked you to think of the countryside, what would you imagine? My guess is that many may think of the things that they can see from the car window. Woodlands, lakes and mountains would hopefully feature heavily, but I suspect that vast, rolling fields of farmland would be the most common response.

I want to be very clear in stating that I have nothing against agriculture. It is hugely important to sustaining the population of the UK, and indeed some of our farmland is exceptionally valuable to wildlife. There are large numbers of species that wholly rely on farmland, including some of our most beautiful bird species and our most charismatic mammals. I have no beef with agriculture (excuse the pun), but I have a real problem with the bastardised form of agriculture that dominates many rural parts of the UK. Endless fields where ancient hedgerows have been deemed an inconvenience and ripped out. Fields that are cropped to their boundaries to maximise yield. Tracts of grassland given over to sheep and castle grazing to keep our failing dairy industry alive. The increasing trend towards crops such as oilseed rape and maize, both of which are like wildlife deserts in comparison to more traditional wheat or barley crops. Each of these practices has dealt a harsh blow to biodiversity in this country, sterilising huge areas of land for native wildlife and destroying valuable topsoil. This topsoil in turn is washed into our streams and rivers as silt, where it it clogs the gills of fish and contributes to our ever growing problem with flooding by reducing the carrying capacity of the wetland infrastructure upon on which we are so reliant. In addition, the use of pesticides and herbicides that are needed to keep these areas at their most productive has an equally devastating effect on nature. We’ve all heard about the extent to which bees are being damaged by pesticides, but the same problem extends to a myriad of other species. Fish are poised, insects are wiped out, and in turn the species that rely upon them for food slowly starve and reduce in numbers. Intensive agriculture is tantamount to concreting over our green and pleasant land.

The farmers aren’t to blame. The blame lies with the politicians that have created an economic race to the bottom, wherein farmers are under extreme pressure to produce more and more in exchange for less and less. Money is pumped in via subsidies to create an illusion of a healthy, functioning market, but it’s not hard to see beneath the veil. Farming in this country is broken, and the farming communities and our wildlife suffer equally. This is the true price of a cheap loaf or bread or pint of milk.

It’s heartening that many landowners are in agreement that the current situation is unsustainable, and that there is a better way. There is an observable trend towards lower intensity land use, and in recent years EU funding has seen an increase in better environmental stewardship. It’s incredible what the retention of arable field margins and areas of set-aside can do, and it’s also evident that there is a market out there for ethical produce. People want to support sustainable farming and wildlife, but that’s still not enough. Without a fundamental sea change in policy and the economics of farming, the rate of biodiversity loss will continue. I’m optimistic that we can make real improvements, but it’ll be a long road.

My perfect countryside is an unachievable utopia, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.

My countryside is one of ancient woodland, of hedgerows enclosing small fields, of wildflower meadows and field margins, of rare breed livestock on organic land.

My countryside has clean water and rich soil, and crop fields are thick with skylarks, pipits and partridge.

My countryside is one where foxes and badgers can sleep safely at night, without fear of being murdered to appease a vocal minority.

My countryside is driven by self sufficiency and a love of nature, rather than tariffs and quotas.

My countryside is about 500 years in the past. Let’s make it the future too.

Threnody for the White Queen

The lanterns burned brightly over the marsh, illuminating the only dry path through a sodden expanse of sedge and rush. The soldiers trod carefully, a sparse vanguard clearing the way for the six hooded men that followed. These were the holiest men of their order, the men with the grave responsibility of carrying her body to its final resting place. They bore her prone form at shoulder height on a crude wooden palanquin, lovingly wrapped in a snow-white shroud.

The White Queen had been beautiful, but more than that she had been honourable and just. A true leader, who had negotiated the longest period of peace between the twin cities in written record. Her death had been as shocking as it was sudden, a brief illness that had taken away her lustre and eventually her life. The rumour and speculation regarding her decline had already started, but today the voices had fallen silent as the people lined the streets to pay their respects to her cort├Ęge.

One might think that a leader of her stature would be given an appropriately grand funeral, but those in power were still very much wedded to the old ways. The monks would carry her body to the coastal cave to perform the ritual, as they had done for her father and for countless generations that preceded them.

The procession moved slowly on, silence broken by the sporadic chanting of the monks, their close harmonies given sombre resonance by the bleak beauty of their surroundings. They were close to their destination, moving slowly through the peatland bog that would soon give way to a treacherous path down to the cliffs. All the while the lanterns continued to light their way, some glowing an eerie blue as the spongy peat gave up mysterious gases underfoot. The chanting grew ever more intense as their journey neared its end.

She had achieved so much in her lifetime, and yet she was still in her prime when death’s hand had taken her. Men, women and children had wept openly in the streets upon hearing the news, as though a much loved family member had been snatched away without warning. Her first-born was only twelve years old, and the debate around his succession already raged. She herself had been but fifteen years when she became leader, and her son showed every sign of continuing her legacy. They had never yet crowned a leader that was not of the holy bloodline, but with every succession the murmurings grew more vociferous. Times were changing. A decision would need to be made soon, but not today.

The friable stone of the sinuous coastal path was made slippery by the coastal spray, slowing the caravan yet further. They wound their way down to the coast at a glacial pace, waves being born and dying in a thunderous churn below them, eventually reaching a grassy plateau that sat above the rugged granite outcrop. The trail down from the burial chamber led south away from here, but the soldiers would go no further. Only the holy order could enter the cave.

Four monks with blazing torches formed a guard of honour at the cave entrance, flames casting grotesque shadows on the dark granite walls. Her body was laid gently on the cold stone dais in the centre, the same final resting place that had welcomed her predecessors for time immemorial. They gathered around her, performing the sacred ritual that would sever her ties with the realm of the living and commit her to the pantheon of the gods. One final prayer was uttered, and the holy men left the cave.

The sky darkened as they made their way back to the cliff top to join the rest of the party. Lightning split the sky as the waves rose higher, flooding the cavern where her body lay. The men stood watch as the storm died as quickly as it had come. None returned to the cave, but they knew that if they did they would find it empty. The gods had observed the ritual, and had come to claim her. She was one of them now, and the people would remember her in their prayers.

Nautilus

Entirely by accident he found himself in his early 30s, a fully grown man with responsibilities and a crap beard.

He was older now than his parents had been when he was born, dragged kicking and screaming into a bleak world of Thatcher and synthpop. He still felt like a child in many respects, and he supposed that his parents must have felt the same way back then. He had always assumed that there was a hard divide between childhood and the realm of grown-ups, a point of crossing the rubicon where innocent thoughts were left behind and you were issued with a mortgage and a poorly-paid job by a man in a grey suit. It had never really happened that way though. His experience, and he expected the experience of a great many others too, was one of perpetual childhood around which he had formed a concrete shell to protect him from the hammer blows that the past few years had dealt him. Behind the emotional wall he was a little boy, weak and fragile. He was glass.

His childhood memories were bizarrely selective, his mind having disposed of or suppressed huge tranches of what he assumed must have been banal normality. The bits that he did remember, however, were rendered in vivid technicolour. Each of these memories was linked to extreme emotion, moments of heightened joy, sadness and despair that had remained with him as if experienced only yesterday. A painful fall, a moment of embarrassment, a cruel insult or a death, each given equal emotional weight and importance by his odd mind. He could only assume that his brain knew what it was doing, as he had very little control over it. The abiding memory of his childhood was one of failure to live up to expectations, and being crushed beneath the weight of them. He was held up as the golden boy, only for the lustre to fade to grey. His mother had only lived long enough to see him disappoint, and sometimes that still troubled him.

His late teens and early twenties had been a shambles, characterised by confusion, loneliness and a pathetic absence of focus. He didn’t know who he was, or indeed who he wanted to be, and he drifted around the fringes of academia, overweight and angst ridden. He was arrogant enough to know that he was more intelligent than most, but what intellectual capacity he had was wasted within a shell that lacked emotional maturity and social skills. He could mask these flaws to some extent with alcohol, but when sober he was at best tedious, and at worst, plain bad company. Still childlike at this time, but without the self awareness to start building the shell.

His mid to late twenties were a brighter period, and a time when he experienced some of the emotional development that should have happened years before. His life was changed by two things: a girl who taught him to see himself from the outside, and a job that gave him the sense of purpose that he’d always lacked. His confidence and self belief grew exponentially during this time, aided by great friends and new experiences. This buoyant period would be shattered in time by tragedy, but the progress he made would stay with him always.

His mother’s unexpected death would change him profoundly. Perversely, through the sadness and confusion the defining feeling would be one of acceptance and defiance, firing his desire to move on, to set aside the last vestige of childishness and to look forward rather than inward. More difficult times would come in the following years, including a formal diagnosis of the depression that had lain dormant for years, and the slow decline and eventual death of his father. It would be logical to assume that the hardships of the past decade might have broken him, and he wouldn’t deny that there were times that it came close, but entering his 34th year he found himself more confident and buoyant that ever. Certainly more comfortable in his own skin, and more optimistic than at any time he could recall. He had realised recently how primitive he was, how his spirits could be lifted instantly by a ray of sunlight bursting through the clouds, and this primal kinship with nature gave him great comfort.

He was me. He still is.