Disco Badgers

I’ve seen some things you won’t believe,
Whilst jogging in the park.
I once saw a duck eat a chocolate eclair,
But the strangest things come after dark.

Last year I saw two postmen,
Who appeared to be in distress.
The first’s trousers had fallen down,
And the second seemed quite out of breath.

But the oddest thing I ever saw,
And I swear I wasn’t drunk,
Were disco-dancing badgers,
Taken over by the funk.

They’d built a dancefloor in the woods,
Just outside their sett.
One had silver hotpants on,
And a Chaka Khan cassette.

I couldn’t quite believe my eyes,
I stood there quite askance.
They used a pine cone for a glitterball,
And boy, those guys could dance.

If you’ve never seen a badger strut,
And shimmy on the floor,
Think of Travolta in a stripy suit,
Crawling around on all fours.

I’ve looked in all the textbooks,
I’ve spoken to the nerds.
But all I get are funny looks,
And i’m told that it’s absurd.

But I know what I saw that night,
Don’t patronise me please.
Glamour, sequins and funky moves,
From the Badgery Bee Gees.

I rushed back there the very next day,
To see what I could find.
But all I saw was a plain old sett,
And no sign of bump, nor grind.

I felt a bit downhearted,
A sadness in my soul.
Until I saw, whilst walking away,
A silver flash from a rabbit hole.

It feels strange to tell you this,
I’ve kept it to myself.
But a pair of hotpants (badger sized),
Are sitting on my shelf.

The government will tell you,
That the badgers are no good.
But that’s a lie, I know the truth,
They’re the dancing queens of the wood.

Lay Us Down

Winter mist hangs in the air,
As we sit and plan our great escape.
Down from the village by the secret path,
To where the wooded valley waits.

Hand in hand we skirt the barley,
We climb the fences and the dry stone walls.
Beech and ash reach out to meet us.
As we enter the wood where the ring dove calls.

Lay us down amid the leaf-fall,
Where the fungi grow and the foxes play.
Lay us down amid the leaf-fall.
We’ll close our eyes and drift away.

We’ll take the track down to the river,
That silver stream where the dippers dwell.
Let’s clamber over mossy rocks,
And bid our urban lives farewell.

One last push will see us free,
One last climb up to the ridge.
We’re miles away from the place we left,
Far past the vale and the river bridge.

Lay us down amid the leaf-fall,
Where the fungi grow and the foxes play.
Lay us down amid the leaf-fall.
We’ll close our eyes and drift away.

Each step from here on is uncharted,
As we walk toward the setting sun.
Twin souls with a shared desire,
To melt into old Albion.

So lay us down amid the leaf-fall,
Where the fungi grow and the foxes play.
Lay us down amid the leaf-fall.
We’ll close our eyes and drift away.

Inglorious

 

The vixen lay dying in the undergrowth, wracked with searing pain where the cruel snare bit deep into flesh and sinew. She was used to being hurt, indeed her whole life had been one of pain and hardship, but she knew that her struggle was nearing an end. The hunters had found one of the places where she came to drink, and had concealed their crude wire traps in the bracken that lay along her regular path to the woodland stream. Traps with one purpose, to devastate that which had previously been so full of life and spirit.

Her final act was to drag herself into the undergrowth, as far from her natal den as her maimed leg could manage. Her kits were strong and nearly full-grown, yet their chances of surviving the winter without her were slight. She knew that her moribund form would attract attention from animal and human alike, so finding a secluded spot to wait for the inevitable end was critical. Her final act of motherhood would be to try to keep the evil fuckers as far from her younglings as possible. In seclusion lay safety, and in safety lay a chance.

The fine divide between life and death was a constant in her short life, and she herself had been the angel of death and destroyer of worlds. She was a killer, but she was different to those that were soon to take her life. She killed to live, and to ensure the survival of her offspring. She killed because she was part of nature, and nature is primal and vicious. Yet she never killed when she didn’t have to, and she never killed for pleasure. Her conquerors were different. They were not part of nature, but instead saw it as something to be owned and controlled, to assert dominion over. It’s true that their species had once killed to live, but those days were many generations past. Now they killed for sport and took pleasure from apportioning pain. They hunted for the sheer joy of taking life, self-proclaimed gods intoxicated by their own importance.

None of this mattered now, of course, as she lay still in the undergrowth. Her breathing grew laboured and shallow, her eyesight milky and dim. The fading light of day picked out the crystalline sparkle of the leaf litter, the cold air turning evening dew to the first hoar-frost of winter. She had so nearly made it. She had so nearly escaped the brutal end met by so many of her kin, and yet the hunters had won in the end. In some ways her ending was more peaceful than those meted out to others of her kind, be it by the crack of a shotgun or evisceration by the baying hounds, however the result was always the same. One more life exchanged for a fleeting moment of satisfaction, soon forgotten. One fewer scrap of beauty in the world.

She thought she could feel the sun on her back as she closed her eyes, never to open them again. The hunters never found her.

The Park

This is a piece I’ve been sitting on for a few weeks. It was written as an entry to a competition for an anthology of stories by amateur writers to raise money for PTSD victims from the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Sadly it wasn’t good enough, but hopefully you can find some pleasure in it.

The girl sat on the worn wooden bench, gazing out over the small parcel of green and brown that the council called ‘the park’. It paled in comparison to London’s other great parks, of course, but to the local community it was everything. It was Hyde Park, Green Park and Regent’s Park all rolled into one, and it was their little patch of urban wilderness. A garden for the gardenless.

She’d been coming here for as long as she could recall, but over the past five months she’d found herself drawn to the same spot almost daily. Early morning was her favourite time, when the park was empty and beads of dew glistened on the unmown grass. London was never truly silent of course, but at this hour the sounds of traffic and life were an unobtrusive hum, yet to reach the discordant crescendo that would last until nightfall. The hum of the waking city comforted her in her parkland sanctuary. It had been almost six months, and she thought about them every day.

A small number of regulars used the park at this time, and she’d come to recognise them all. The young man with the briefcase was usually first, dashing along the central footpath towards the bus stop on the main road. He never spoke, but they occasionally exchanged a friendly nod if eye contact was made. The elderly lady with the tubby beagle was an ever present, shuffling slowly through the east gate at around half past six before completing a slow lap around the small, unimpressive pond. The lady puffed, and the beagle panted, but they always made it round. She’d known of the lady for years, a local character, but they’d never spoken. Not until today.

It was the dog that stopped first, coming to a wheezing halt on the path in front of her. “Lazy sod” the old lady remarked cheerfully, gently lowering herself onto the bench beside the girl. They exchanged pleasantries, passing comment on the weather as all Londoners are duty bound to do. A brief lull in the nascent conversation followed, only ended with an excited whoop from the old lady. “Orange tip!” she cried, startling the girl and making her jump. The old lady’s eyes shone with delight. She seemed to be watching something, but the girl couldn’t see what.

The source of the excitement soon became obvious, as a small white butterfly took to the wing from a nearby mess of nettle and bramble and floated lazily over the concrete path past the bench. “Just look at that. Beautiful”. The girl had never paid any attention to the myriad of bugs and beasties that shared the park before but, enthused by the old lady, she looked at the butterfly. What had originally appeared to be a floppy white smudge was revealed as anything but. As it’s name suggested, the butterfly had vivid orange tips at the end of each wing, as if carefully dipped in paint by a skilled craftsman. The underside of the wings were equally beautiful, etched with a calligraphy of rich greens and yellows. The butterfly was a masterpiece, and the girl felt a knot of excitement in her stomach. It had been months since she last had that feeling.

“They’re common, you know. One of the first signs of spring”. The girl confessed that she had never noticed butterflies in the park before, in fact she’d never noticed anything beyond the ubiquitous pigeons that covered every inch of the city. Sensing that the girl was interested, the old lady began to talk. Clutching the girl’s arm she told of the wildlife that inhabited the park. Their park. She spoke of hedgehogs and house sparrows, of bees and blackbirds, of peregrines and parakeets. She described the old dog fox, a mange-eaten shadow that slunk around the park at dusk. She even described the trees, giving names to the vegetation that surrounded them. Faceless forms became oak, sycamore and rowan. The untidy hedge became hawthorn, masses of white buds preparing to burst into flower. Sensing that the old lady was in storytelling mode, the beagle lay spreadeagled and began to snore softly.

She had lived in the same part of London all of her life, born in the mid 1930s less than three miles from where they sat. The borough has been very different back then, of course, with factories and terraces occupying that land that the high-rises would later colonise. The war would change the landscape irreparably, and she described the sounds and smells of the blitz as remembered from the bedroom that she shared with a younger brother. The blitz had devastated the area, whole streets flattened in the blink of an eye, but she seemed to remember this period with an unexpected fondness. “We were like a family, everyone helping everyone else. There we no squabbles or divides, just a sense of togetherness”. She explained that it was during the years after the war that her life-long love of wildlife had taken hold. “The plants soon started to grow on the bomb sites you see, fireweed and poppy turning the ground mauve and crimson. Then the plants brought the insects and the birds back. They’ve been here all my life”.

A ring-necked parakeet, one of London’s newest and most beautiful arrivals, shot overhead like a noisy green firework as the lady got slowly to her feet. The beagle barked excitedly at the prospect of returning home for second breakfast, getting tangled in his lead as they bid the girl farewell. “It’s nice to have someone to share this place with. Nature has been a friend to me all my life, through bad times and good”. After a few steps she hesitated, turning back to look at the girl, still sat on the bench. “Things will be alright”.

The girl sat thinking, long after the old lady had gone. The old lady’s spirit was infectious, and her unexpected introduction to the healing power of nature filled her with an excited glow. The community would always remember, but she knew that they would heal in time. Old and young, black and white, united by a shared experience. She resolved to spend more time in the park, observing and enjoying, and she knew she would bring her friends here too. Love and nature would be her constants, just as they had been for the old lady.

A robin sang joyously from the top of a dog bin, and the girl felt happy.

Dirty Old Town

There are parts of the city where the remnants of heavy industry remain, relics of a bygone age when factories outnumbered offices. It wasn’t long ago that these areas bustled with activity, but many are now little more than urban wastelands, a stark reminder of how quickly ‘progress’ can render things obsolete. These places were collateral damage as the industrial revolution gave way to the digital revolution. Ghosts of a vanished world.

There’s a bleak beauty about these places (as opposed to Black Beauty, who was a horse). One of my favourite spots sits in the shadow of two giant gas towers, painted in claret and blue in honour of the local football team. These cast-iron monoliths, scheduled to be pulled down at any time as part of decommissioning of the long-abandoned gas works, are a familiar and much-loved part of the city skyline, and will be fondly remembered by many. Extending away from these towers in every direction is a desolate landscape that shows the influence of the hand of man at every turn, including the infamous monstrosity known as ‘Spaghetti Junction’ (or the Gravelly Hill Interchange to give it it’s correct moniker).

Two of the city’s many rivers flow through this dystopian dreamworld, both of which having been straightened and forced through concrete box sections and culverts to fit around the roads and factories. The canalised rivers sit directly alongside actual canals, constructed to transport goods in the days before road and rail. In the industrial heyday of the early to mid 20th century these watercourses would have shown a resplendent array of colours and odours resulting from the reaction of myriad heavy metals and chemicals discharged from sundry businesses (incidentally the term ‘heavy metal’ was coined to describe the music that was born in these industrial areas, the pounding rhythms a facsimile of the noise from presses and forges that would operate around the clock). Thankfully environmental standards are much higher now, and many of these urban waterways are rich in wildlife, including the charismatic kingfisher. They remain the lifeblood of the area, vibrant green and blue corridors through a desert of concrete and steel.

The concrete desert is surprisingly diverse. A small number of active businesses still remain, survivors of a dying age, but these are vastly outnumbered by a mosaic of factories closed and factories gone, vast tracts of urban waste in their stead. The term urban waste has a negative connotation, but it’s something of a misnomer. It describes an endlessly fascinating range of land uses, the most interesting of which are those areas where nature has begun to gain a toehold once again, having been kept at bay for so long. A proper ecologist would never use the term urban waste, of course. Us nerdy types prefer descriptions such as ‘early pioneer successional vegetation’ or ‘open mosaic habitat on previously developed land’, both rather dry descriptions of what planning policy refers to as brownfield land (to distinguish it from the green belt, you see). The plants and animals that thrive in these areas are an intriguing and hardy bunch, forming a unique community type that is rare outside of these anthropogenic zones. Characteristic species include ragwort, rosebay, mugwort and nettle, all things that are the bane of gardeners but provide a superb nectar source for pollinating insects. The loose, friable substrate of many demolished sites also provides nesting opportunities for a broad range of invertebrates, including solitary bees and wasps. Coupled with the omnipresent butterfly-bush, the value of these areas to insects is obvious, and where things are valuable to insects they tend to support a host of additional species further up the food chain. One such species is the black redstart, a beautiful bird about the size of a robin, which is amongst the rarest of breeding species in the country. This bird has a curious habitat niche, favouring those remnant industrial landscapes (often near water) that provide a rich selection of potential nest sites and abundant invertebrate prey. Traditional heartlands for this species have included the London docklands and cities including Birmingham and Sheffield, although it remains scarce and elusive to this day.

Our half-demolished industrial landscapes have long inspired artists of all descriptions, from the classic to the modern. One of my favourites is Eliot Hodgkin, perhaps most known for his depictions of WWII bomb sites after the blitz. These sites are often strikingly similar to the brownfield land that I describe above, and in Rus In Urbe (1946) he captures a host of familiar pioneer plant species with a backdrop of wartime London beyond. These species: rosebay, dock, dandelion and nettle, are all common sights on a walk through the urban wasteland. His work has a simple beauty, and I urge you to seek it out.

Sadly, many of the landscapes similar to those painted by Eliot Hodgkin are disappearing, lost to urban regeneration. It’s entirely understandable; to most these sites are inherently unattractive when compared to ‘green’ sites, and often occur in areas where investment in new infrastructure is desperately needed. One could argue that the tendency to develop these areas as cinema complexes or retail parks with the same five shops and restaurants isn’t the best use of the land, but that’s a discussion for another day. What is very clear is that the loss of these wonderful urban biodiversity sinks is as regrettable as it is inevitable.

Sometimes the ugliest things can be the most special, or at least that’s what I was told frequently as a child. These brownfield mosaic habitats are a true national treasure, but are destined never to be valued as such.

First Light

I’m often out before the world awakes,
Earning my keep as the folk slumber on.
Studying old Albion before first light breaks,
Observing the changes that come with the dawn.

Night into day is a gradual progression,
Ephemeral twilight whilst the two overlap.
The sun brings relief from night’s sombre oppression,
Brightening the sky and banishing the black.

The colours of daybreak are subtle and strange,
Showing shades of rich indigo and burgundy red.
The new sky signals time for a natural shift change,
As songbirds serenade the night beasts to bed.

Dawn is the place where old magic still dwells,
The air thick with traces of enchantments and spells.

Polemic With Blobfish

It’s something that we rarely contemplate, but we humans are a species. Arguably the most intelligent species, and unquestionably the most adaptable, influential and destructive species, but a single species regardless. Homo sapiens, the ‘wise man’.

If we strip away the ego and artifice that we have constructed to describe ourselves, we are a simple taxonomic unit, sitting on a list with fellow units such as the naked mole-rat, the blobfish and the potato. Admittedly the blobfish has yet to evolve the ability to shape the entire planet in its own image, but who can truly say that there isn’t an alternate reality in which the blobfish has dominion (the multiverse theory at the heart of quantum physics makes blobfish world a genuine and wonderful possibility).

There are many species on earth that wield huge influence over their ecosystems. These are generally described as keystone species: those species that are fundamental to the successful function of a particular ecosystem. Beavers, for example, fundamentally change the structure and hydrology of their home ranges through dam building, creating habitat for species that could otherwise not survive. Many apex predators are also considered to be keystone species because they control populations of smaller herbivores, which in turn allows diverse botanical communities to flourish. A sound example is the Eurasian lynx, a large cat that predates species such as rabbit and small deer that could otherwise graze out vast areas of vegetation. A common theme that unites all keystone species is that they are relatively few in number, and their influence on their ecosystem far exceeds their abundance. This is where any attempt to portray mankind as a keystone species begins to crumble somewhat. We are certainly not few in number, and we don’t inhabit a particular ecosystem. In fact, with the exception of the marine world (for the time being) there are few terrestrial ecosystems that we have not found a way to infiltrate and change. Our influence is extraordinary. We are legion, and we transcend the definition of a keystone species. That puts us in our own category, where many of the adjectives we use to describe other organisms just don’t fit. Some authors have referred to humans as a virus which, whilst technically false, does act as a useful metaphor to describe our influence.

Over a relatively short period of time we have developed the ability to engineer our environment on a massive scale. Deforestation converted much of our wildwood to agriculture, which in turn allowed the population to expand, leading to further deforestation. Huge tracts of land have disappeared completely beneath cities and roads, which require extensive quarrying to plunder the land of its resources. Fossil fuels have driven the expanse of industry, which in turn has influenced the climate. This has subsequently altered the oceans, the one ecosystem where mankind has yet to gain a foothold. Ocean warming, coupled with changes in chemical composition and the drastic effects of manmade plastics on many marine species, means that although we haven’t colonised the ocean, we have still influenced it hugely, and not for the better. I don’t approve of the influence that humans have had in the planet, but I can accept that it was inevitable. Had any other species evolved so greatly in such a short time then doubtless the planet would have been shaped in their image instead, with equally disastrous results. Especially those sodding blobfish.

The success of our species is a product of our ingenuity, which has allowed us to overcome the things that would normally inhibit the growth of populations. As mentioned above, apex predators generally occur in small numbers that are restricted by the availability of prey, and the balance of predator and prey tends to find a natural equilibrium. If the predator reduces the prey population too much then weaker individuals can’t feed and die out, at which point prey numbers increase and predators feast, thus beginning the cycle afresh. We humans have found a way to stay ahead of the game in this respect by developing a diverse diet and giving over huge tracts of land to the farming of crops and livestock to sustain us. This has traditionally been very successful, but there are many shocking examples of where our control over nature wains and the needs of a rapidly growing population can’t be met. The horrific scenes of African famine from the latter half of the twentieth century to the present day provide a stark example. In recent years there has been a shift in political rhetoric, and the fact that we live on a small orb with finite resources has finally been realised. It is, however, only 30 years since the concept of sustainability was first introduced to global politics by the Brundtland Commission. With hindsight it seems like a case of ‘too little, too late’. We can’t cheat the system forever.

The rate of measured biodiversity decline over the past century is astonishing. A pessimist might say that this is just the beginning, and that the habitat loss required to sustain further exponential population growth will prove the death knell for global biodiversity. A slightly more optimistic view is that the value of nature is now realised, and that this value encapsulates more than just pounds, shillings and pence. For this reason there is a genuine desire from some quarters to retain and protect the jewels of the natural world, and even to redress some of the damage we have inflicted by creating and restoring new habitats. I don’t know which of these views I most closely align with, but suspect I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m heartened by efforts to enhance biodiversity and to think beyond the immediate needs of people, but I also feel that protecting a few trees whilst the rape of the rainforest continues is little more than tokenism. A more fundamental change is needed to have any kind of measurable benefit on a global scale, and it’s hard to see where that change might come from.

It’s sad to think that in a few generations iconic species like the giant panda, the tiger or the mountain gorilla might be little more than photographs in dusty old textbooks, but it’s also realistic. It’s very clear that we, as the most influential species by a great margin, have assumed stewardship over our planet, and therefore it’s our responsibility to address these declines in biodiversity. We each need to realise that we are not separate from nature, but a part of it, a species like any other. By destroying biodiversity we are slowly destroying ourselves. It might already be too late, the flywheel effect of actions already committed may have taken us across the Rubicon, but we have to try, if for no other reason than the act of immersion in nature is one if life’s purest pleasures, and one of the greatest releases from the pressure and stress of modern existence. We owe it to ourselves to resist.

As you read this there are teams of scientists working day and night on developing a means of terraforming mars, effectively creating a backup earth for when this planet can no longer sustain us. The virus moving to new host, if you’ll forgive a moment of indulgent hyperbole. Personally I’m investing my time in creating a wormhole to the blobfish world.