Yesterday evening I went up to a favourite spot on the high tops not far from where I live. As I approached, a Lapwing was herding three tiny chicks along the lane. I wandered amongst wonderful rock formations, appreciating the immense views, the silence – and the soul stirring call of curlews. As the sun went down they all seemed to join together in a chorus of trilling bubbling celebration. Then everything went quiet, and it was suddenly rather dark and cold.
When I first entered a caption for the photo above I wrote ‘Pole Trap Set on Widdale Fell near Hawes, 1916’. An easy mistake to make given that these brutal devices, that can inflict horrendous injury on any bird settling on the ‘post’, were banned in the U.K in 1904! Yet on the 6th May 2016 three pole traps were discovered on a grouse moor near Hawes in North Yorkshire, a county notorious for raptor persecution. A female Hen Harrier was hunting nearby. As many readers will know, ecological studies have established a firm link between the critical conservation status of the Hen Harrier in England and driven grouse shooting. Despite large areas of suitable habitat they have not managed to breed in North Yorkshire since 2007. R.S.P.B. staff hurried to the scene and installed remote cameras that enabled police to identify the individual who was setting up the traps. Shockingly, however, he was let off with a caution. For more on this latest development in a long running saga, see here and here.
I had been reading Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm, and once again pondering the relationship between the animist fringes of ‘natural history’ -most visible perhaps in autobiographical nature writing such as this- and why it is that some folk are able to feel ‘joy’, appreciation, and/or love (of a more than sentimental kind) in the presence of our other-than-human neighbours, and wonder at the dauntingly complex beauty of it all, whilst so many others remain disconnected or fearful, and a significant minority behave abusively.
McCarthy, who was an environmental correspondent for the Independent, is eloquent about the loss of biodiversity over his life time. “We who ourselves depend upon it utterly are laying waste to the biosphere, the thin, planet-encircling envelope of life, rushing to degrade the atmosphere above, the ocean below, and the soil at the centre and everything it supports”. What he particularly mourns is ‘the great thinning’, the loss of abundance, exemplified in the ‘moth snowstorms’ that anyone who remembers driving, or being driven, at night, forty or more years ago, is likely to remember. Car windscreens no longer have to cope with a detritus of moths. And this matters, of course, for all the birds that depend on invertebrates.
An engaging autobiographical thread in the book describes how the author first found solace in the beauty of butterflies at the age of seven when he was sent away to live with his aunt when his mother was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Seven years after her death he realised that he needed help, and embarked on ‘a slow, painstaking process of unfolding layer after layer of emotions and memories’ with the help of a therapist. At the core of the book is a potentially important message, about how the recovery of love can deepen our connection with the rest of nature. Having opened up emotionally, the author seems to have become attuned to experiences of the kind that (following Heidegger, via various writers on divination) I like to call showings.
He eventually took his children, then aged twelve and seventeen, to visit the grave of the grandmother they had never known. As the family stood contemplating what was written on the headstone, ‘a dead leaf came tumbling through the air towards us on the wind and fell at our feet, right at the grave’s very edge. And then in the thin sunlight it opened its wings: it was a peacock … at once it set something alight in me.’ Butterflies -the ancient Greeks used the same word for butterfly and soul- had entered his soul. He thought about it all that day, and on the next day proposed a project of attempting to see all 58 species of British buttterflies during one summer, and inviting his readers to participate.
As readers of this blog will know, I (and others) have logged many instances of birds turning up at significant biographical moments, particularly around deaths and bereavements. I have also come across several other references to butterflies making similarly timely appearances at graves. My conclusion, after much careful consideration, is that such events go well beyond cold co-incidence, and reflect a profound and subtle communicativeness and generosity that permeates the very fabric of ‘nature’. A communicativeness that ‘we’, collectively, have lost the ability to respond to.
Echoing the writings of Theodore Roszak, Ted Hughes, and many others, Michael McCarthy talks about how urban culture has lost touch with the rythms and processes of the earth, and about the loss of an intimate feel for the natural calendar, especially the ‘tiny signs’ and ‘hints’ of the world’s re-awakening after winter, and the importance of the winter solstice as a moment of rebirth. The emergence of snowdrops around the festival of Candlemas (a.k.a. Imbolc), and the appearance of the first butterfly, should surely be moments when more of us feel the elation that McCarthy shares with us.
Noticing this kind of sign is an important first step, perhaps, towards learning to read signs of a more personal nature. Again, like Roszak, Hughes, and others, McCarthy bemoans the modernist suppression of non-rational ways of knowing -alchemy, magic, folk religion- that ‘allow the imagination to flourish’, and, for example, acknowledges ‘a hint of the supernatural’ about the hare. Contemporary animists, who may or may not refer to animism in terms of spirituality, tend to agree on the need to move beyond the notion that non-ordinary or magical phenomena are super-natural, seeing them as intrinsic to cosmic nature, but would no doubt appreciate the author’s tentative direction of travel here
The Moth Snowstorm is thought provoking on species loss, and moving as a memoir, but rather than appealing to a ‘hard wired’ capacity for joy (or presumably abuse), my inner sociologist would like to have seen more upacking of the collective human ‘we’ who, here as in many other ecological texts, are said to be ‘wrecking the earth’. Whilst it may be important to acknowledge that all of us in the developed world participate to some extent in the orgy of overconsumption and militarisation that fuels ecocide, as Michael McCarthy clearly knows, ‘we’ are not all equally culpable. Most of us are not the C.E.O’s of global corporations, nor for that matter, owners of grouse moors.
Reading the background to the persecution of raptors in England, for example, its hard to avoid the conclusion that an obscure class war is still being waged by a powerful elite. I would like to see further discussion of this in terms of assumptions about access to, ownership of, and knowledge about, the countryside, and ‘nature’, in relation to class, gender, and ethnicity. Mark Avery, who comments on some gaping silences surrounding the case to date, points out that those pole traps were being set on a hill near Hawes by a twenty three year old man. But he was, no doubt, following orders.
As an animist I would also like to see much more discussion about other ways of knowing and relating to the ‘natural world’, informed by recent debates in animism. All sorts of cultural and institutional obstacles will have to be overcome before the mainstream is ready for that though, Graham Harvey’s efforts notwithstanding.
Yesterday evening I also watched red grouse giving their strange staccato calls as they flew over the cotton grass, in peace for once.
B.T. 3rd June 2016.
Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm, Nature and Joy, John Murray, 2015. and The Loss of Nature and the Nature of Loss.
R.S.P.B Forum Blog: “Proceed with Caution”
Graham Harvey, Animism, respecting the Living World, Hurst (2005) and Handbook of Contemporary Animism, Acumen (2013).