Sunday, 14 October 2007

BANC AGM & Great Bustard Visit, 13th October 2007

Photos 1-4 & 6 by Mathew Frith. Photo 5 by Rick Minter.

The Bustard Inn
The Bustard Inn, near Shrewton, Wiltshire, venue of BANC's AGM 2007.

Stuffed great bustard in the bar of the Bustard Inn.

We spotted three young bustards, recent releases, on the far side of the release pen.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Also, He Loved A Tree

In ECOS 28 (1) Martin Spray, the assistant editor and sometime editor, mused at length on what it means to love Nature and the implications for its conservation, in his article 'Also he loved a tree'. You can read it here. This piece prompted an exchange with another of BANC's original thinkers, Barry Larking, which correspondence is reproduced here ...

Dear Martin,

In making the subject of your latest essay in ECOS (1) 'love' you have advanced a characteristically contrarian viewpoint. The essay has several strands of thought but they come together over the 'soul' of conservation. Many of us are concerned that, in concentrating on 'materialist' aims and outcomes, conservation is forgetting why - what is it for? This concern is made particularly clear in the last two paragraphs of your essay, which are in marked contrast to what went before. I note that the penultimate paragraph turns away completely from philosophical musings and towards utilitarian ideas: "we might be more successful". What does success mean here?

What use is love? Or is that the point ... that it has no use? Like a cloud outside my window as I write this, it just is. Obviously I realise that cloud is a product of scientifically understood processes, but its cultural impact on me is greater or stronger - and this came first. However, can anyone blame a conservationist or planner from taking the view that what works is pragmatism and having a plan, not thinking about what words mean? I think I have been there ...

Years ago, in a bad tempered team meeting of professional conservationists, I misquoted (from memory) a line from 'Lapis Lazuli' by W.B. Yeats. Put shortly, in this poem Yeats thinks about futility and human endurance.

"Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce."

I fear it had no effect on our conversation except to confirm the other people around the table that I had 'lost it'. At the time it summed up for me the dilemma at the heart of our dispute. What does it matter what we do, in the grand scheme of things?

And yet, what to do? Without love or something like it ("My heart in hiding/Stirred for a bird"(2)) conservation is dead meat on a slab ... maybe just the slab. Without policies, bureaucrats and planning, the land goes to ruin, species die out. What would conservation be like if it were left to poets?

Best Wishes,

(1) 'Also he loved a tree', ECOS Vol. 28, No. 1, pp 27-40.
(2) From 'The Windhover" by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89)

Dear Barry,

You’ve not only read it, but think that the threads come together ... I’m still not sure about that! You’re right, though, about the ending. I struggled with several versions and the words published are the ones I was least dissatisfied with.

Don’t look for insights into what actually to do to achieve conservation. I am merely trying to encourage people to take a wider view, to keep checking that they are still in touch with base, and to walk on both legs. One is the rational leg, the other is the emotional leg. Both are normally needed for balance ... and action. I certainly don’t think either by itself is sufficient for supporting conservation. The latter tends to be the one neglected and I’m afraid that we still think of conservation predominantly in terms of the former: “a philosophy directed at the manner and timing of resource use”, as someone called it.

I don’t know what ‘success’ means. I mean that I couldn’t say with great confidence in which direction we should head, though I’m extremely uncomfortable where we are now. I probably shouldn’t have used that word. I’ll say, though, that it depends on who asks the question. You say “land goes to ruin, species die out”. Well, it’s in the nature of species to disappear, one way or another, and although the land may be ruined from our viewpoint and for our purposes, I’d hesitate to speak for any other being, let alone for all ‘Nature’!

Taking a resourcist rationale as a basis for action – whether arrogantly, paternalistically or as a duty – takes us (i.e. all beings) towards a danger. Its selectivity denies ‘Nature’ some of the freedom to, as it were, do its own thing in the way it wants ... or, you might say, as the gods intended. It’s a bit much to assume that we know better than Nature how Nature works, yet we persist in acting as though we do.

Taking what I shall call a loving attitude is (isn’t it?) understanding and accepting that we don’t know. By ’we’, I mean people generally but also conservationists collectively. In a way, conservation, or being green, or whatever label you want, is simply acting in that understanding.

Heaven forfend that poets (I’ll assume a wide meaning for that word) should run the job one-leggedly. That would be no improvement on BAPists and sloganizers. Is that a bit harsh to both sides? Misquoting my pragmatic alter ego, perhaps we should try to link these divergent approaches into a genuine partnership, an inclusive forum for sharing views and knowledge, as that might result in a powerful voice for conservation. But Martin must be more optimistic than me: I think he hears one voice and I hear several.

Certainly, a better dialogue is needed urgently. I’d love [sic] to know what other readers made of that issue of ECOS. Should we change its name to EROS - A review of conservation?

Meanwhile ... may poets continue a long history of telling us important things. Back in the Middle Ages, for instance, Anon wrote that A man may a while / Nature beguile / By doctrine and lore * / And yet in the end / Will Nature have wend / There she was before. We should wend that way too, as Spenser warns us in the ‘Faerie Queene’: For he, that once hath miss├Ęd the right way, / The further he doth goe, the further he doth stray.

Odd that, if we see ourselves as part of ‘Nature’... but they are only poets’ words! Have I confused you some more?

Best wishes

* We might say ‘theory and acquired knowledge’. Or should that be ’targets and transferable skills’?

Dear Martin,

At once let me say that your suggestion that ECOS be re-named EROS is a winner. BANC might, however, find that they are attracting an odd sort of audience. (But any audience would do ... really? Titles must mean something).

To return to the subject under discussion. There are various examples floating about of the concept of 'love' applied to conservation as outlined in your essay. I feel they come together around the question of sensibility. Sensibility, in an eighteenth century meaning, invokes the concept of holding several motives at once in some kind of balance, reverently. Love is perhaps a close example of this, a complex of emotions and actual effects which, unbridled, cause these same emotions to overpower even rational people. Of course, speaking of the unbridled, the eighteenth century also gave us the Romantics.

The problem is - and the last two paragraphs of your essay seem to say this - the bureaucratic and managerial has pushed these constructs out of sight ... for a reason. Conservation has become, in its daily operation, a matter of policy implementation and organisation, rather than waiting to be swept off one's feet by a contrast or contradiction ("... and he loved a tree"). Managers need to deliver results which can be demonstrated. (Delivery, targets, inputs and outcomes ... Oh! A whole beastly lexicon of terms floats into view!). But could it be any different for practical purposes? One speculates.

Jonathan Miller, doctor of medicine, opera director, writer and sculptor, described how - once upon a time - doctors were encouraged to 'read' their patients by studying their movements and characteristic expressions of speech and gesture, the better to understand them and their reported condition: the physical mediated by the psychological presentation of disorder. This, he lamented, seemed not to occur any more in the training of physicians. Patients are 'things' which might be mended or not. Is a lack of sympathy – or empathy – something which might also apply to professional conservationists in their daily tasks?

Ought we ask budding environmentalists to write about the landscapes of Ruysdael (1), or Thomson's "The Seasons" (2), in the light of current and present questions relating to the environment? (It occurs to me that your students may indeed have been asked to do so - no matter). Maybe an insight into the mainsprings of the music of George Butterworth (3) or Stanford (4)? Is it desirable to produce 'managers' of landscapes for whom landscapes represent more than a set of functional objectives? I think we can agree that it would be.

But again I must ask if we have the right to demand this. Recent floods have underlined how fragile our state is. Without those things we take for granted – electricity, clean water, access – brute old Mother Nature makes life difficult if not unpleasant and, for too many, desperate. Someone has to get their hands dirty for us to have the space to dream. George Gissing in "The Private Papers Of Henry Ryecroft" (5) reminds us, watching women and men weeding a crop field in the rain with old sacks over them to keep the weather off, that only the materially secure have the time and space to wonder at the beauty of Nature. We (as in "I mean people generally but also conservationists collectively"), the inclusive majority, want more or less similar things in our lives, some material, some not. But is the alternative to planned environment a free market in conservation? ("... ‘Nature’ some of the freedom to, as it were, do its own thing in the way it wants"). What would that be like? Let everything do its own thing and just accept the consequences?

In the region where I live Red Squirrels are not uncommon, however, Greys are increasingly sighted and, in the fullness of time if no action is taken, the strong likelihood is that Reds will be replaced across the whole of Great Britain by Grey Squirrels. Will a video record - or a poem - do for coming generations to know these creatures?

Best Wishes,

(1) Salomon van Ruysdael, Dutch landscape artist, (ca.1600 – 1670)
(2) James Thomson, Scottish playwright and poet (1700 – 1748)
(3) George Butterworth, English composer (1885 – 1916)
(4) Charles Villiers Stanford, Irish composer (1852 –1924)
(5) George Gissing, English writer, (1857 – 1903). "The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft" was published in 1903.

Dear Barry,

You ask “Is it desirable to produce 'managers' of landscapes for whom landscapes represent more than a set of functional objectives?” Well, yes, surely it would be ... but can you say how?

Trying to take a wide view of things, I keep seeing a large part of the situation about which we’re both concerned being associated with the colonising of ‘conservation’ - and much else - by a brand of professionalism. I’m no fan of muddling-through as an approach to action, but equally I have not much faith in progress reports and evaluation criteria and other bits of your ‘beastly lexicon’ as a means of saving the world.

Nor have I a great faith in what we call ‘education’. Gaining of information and training in technique, which is commonly mistaken for education, might make us professionally accredited; it might make us skilled, practical conservers too, but it wouldn’t itself make us conservationists. Isn’t that a matter of why you do what you do? Although one can profess them, surely one can’t ‘professionalize’ beliefs and attitudes and emotions. (Sorry about the sanctimonious tone edging in here.) The institutionalizing of conservation into an accredited community is accompanied by a discrediting of the rest of us. In particular, in the present context, it gives no credit to why many conservationists count themselves as conservationists: because of respect, friendship, love, compassion, awe, fellowship, at-one-ness, belief or gut feeling.

My gut feeling at this moment is that I’m becoming disillusioned (again). Should I be? Am I beginning to describe yet another dichotomy in our society: on the one hand, let’s call them the managers, on the other, let’s call them the lovers? My gut goes on to tell me that that’s how the conservation scene looks - BANC and ECOS included - but that the different parties have as yet hardly begun to consider the possible benefits of coming together to present their points of view for open discussion (BANC and ECOS probably included).

I doubt if there would be two ‘poles’ and a void between. Could we hope that there would be a significant move - to steal your words - towards holding several motives at once in some kind of balance?

However, it’s necessary first to start the discussion.


Monday, 30 July 2007

A Few More Water Thoughts ... And Some History

By Martin Spray

Whether down in the water or up on the hill, we’ll all have to pay for whatever comes after the floods. I hope it will be assumed that this summer is not a one-off event and that we act accordingly. Some actions are relatively simple. Water butts built in as a matter of routine is a good example – and not just to collect water for the garden. Thought needs to be given to grey-water storage as well. There are plenty of ideas around at this small scale – some, for instance, came under the heading of permaculture. Not that all could easily be translated into a city context. And this still leaves the big question: what to do about global warming, whatever might be the cause?

Yes, water is quite heavy ... but surprisingly cheap. I can’t remember how much I pay for water. We have a piped supply in, but soakaways, storage tanks and a septic tank, and so a small bill. It would still be small if I constructed a waterfall in the garden and ran tapwater over it all day and every day of the year. As a society, we have a very basic and huge problem here: the change we need to make to our attitudes to, and the way we value, such ‘resources’ as water is a revolutionary one. Conservationists are as reluctant as anyone to face that. Mea culpa. And mea culpa is what most worries me and leads to thoughts about catastrophe theory.

I suppose age is making me a bit impatient. I want new forests, with big herbivores and a few top carnivores, and I want them now. I can see that there are lots of positive things happening out there (including the start of new forests) but, in conformity with human nature, we really aren’t yet facing the big issues. Of course things take time ... but I am persistently and increasingly aware of saying, and of hearing, the same things as thirty, forty years ago. It’s as if (as they say) only the names have been changed.

And finally ...

I am not sure that one can take heart from them, but here are a few fairly random historical comparisons with the recent weather in Britain. They are dippings into J.M. Stratton’s Agricultural Records A.D. 220 – 1977.

Between June 29th and August 15th rain fell on 47 days, and every day but one in July was wet. Only once in the summer did the temperature rise to 76F.

Almost continuous rain fell from the beginning of April to early July. “All low meadows in the kingdom floated ... The damage done almost incredible. In three days five inches of rain fell”.

An excessively wet summer, with almost continuous rain from mid-summer to Christmas. Serious floods followed, and much of the harvest was not gathered. The Black Death caused very heavy mortality.

On June 24th a tremendous storm caused flooding and much damage to cornfields in the west of England ... Owing to almost continuous rains, the harvest was very late, some of it not being gathered until November 1st. Many people in England died of famine this year.

A year of storm and rain, with much consequent disease. This began a series of famine years which lasted until 1066.


Sunday, 29 July 2007

Bowsers, butts, buckets & bottles

By Rick Minter

Martin suggests the gentleman (actually my dad) might be filling his watering can for the garden. Sorry to appear defensive, but all our buckets and containers were already pressed into action catching water alongside the water butts. I'm puzzled at the lack of water butts among my neighbours - why not harness the bountiful precipitation gushing over your roof? Water butts are cheap, effective, low-tech devices and perhaps should come as standard with new homes, as a condition of planning.

Without mains water, it's things like the washing-up that are the challenge: grey water isn't up to it and the bottled stuff seems too precious for the dishes, so hair-washing and the crockery are the main candidates for bowser water in my household. Oh, and like most of the water-deprived Gloucestershire residents, I smell of wet wipes at present. They're a neat way of washing with no, or minimal, water and I feel less guilty having found a supply of biodegradable wipes in Waitrose.

Incidentally, a week ago I'd not heard the word bowser and assumed it was a breed of dog when it was first mentioned. Now it's in common daily use across Gloucestershire and in the media.

There are two lessons I've learnt with the water management this week. Both are simple and obvious, but sink in only at the moment they become real. First, water is heavy stuff. It's tiring to cart water around in buckets and bottles, and I'm glad I don't have that many stairs to negotiate or a baby in the household to magnify the water needs. Of course, carrying water is a daily routine for millions of people elsewhere in the world - aren't we a bunch of softies? The second lesson is how time consuming it all is. I reckon it adds a couple of hours to the daily chores to use water from bowsers, butts, buckets and bottles. Washing up - we do it once at the end of the day to be frugal - takes an age, as do most other mundane functions of rinsing and washing.

Finally, to continue nit-picking Martin's comments, the New Midlands Forest certainly did happen, as the New National Forest (we obviously haven't given it sufficient attention in ECOS), and as for those "puny pumas" we get in Gloucestershire, well, they'll have moved to higher ground as the water rose, meaning even more big cats will be at your door in the Forest, Martin (they prefer deer, rabbits and the odd pet anyway).

Back to the buckets ...

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Thoughts on the Floods

By Martin Spray.

Is the gentleman by the bowser about to fill a watering-can? But his garden’s awash! (Of course I’m smug. I’m only a few miles away, but have a 650-feet advantage over the Plaindwellers.)

It may not be PC to say so, but the events of the past few weeks (aka summer) confirm my fear that catastrophe theory is valid. Only by facing extreme conditions do we begin to accept that the views of "weirdoes" and "extremists" might have some validity. Only when peering into the Abyss do we agree that it was silly to rush towards it. Flood-plains are flood-plains are flood-plains. If you live on one, expect floods.

If water can’t go where it wants to go, it will go somewhere else ... or somewhere else. Maybe that should be in the National Curriculum. We shall soon see that ‘natural hazard’ control is like the NHS: there are many great things we can do - but we can’t afford to do them all - and some things we can't (as yet) do. It seems highly unlikely that we can stop it (or start it) raining, or stop the rivers rising. Cnut demonstrated something similar. It’s said that, in 2205 BC, the great waterway engineer Yu reported: “O Sovereign, the Earth has been reduced to order ... and the treasuries of Nature ... are all truly regulated, and may be depended on for ten thousand generations". He was wrong.

What we humans can do - and are quite good at - is live ‘with’ this thing we call Nature. But it involves backing off a bit. We can live on flood-plains, but it might need houses to be built on stilts, or with easily-evacuated basements, or, indeed, to be floatable (but not necessarily houseboats). It would certainly require the acceptance of greater diversity rather than driving for uniformity – in housing, farming, transport, lifestyle. Easy to say, of course, but if you don’t think much of the status quo then it seems reasonable to say it.

Continuing the (apparent) silliness: I remember being taken by the idea of a ‘New Midlands Forest’. I still think it would be a good idea. We should have gone ahead with it. But I wondered why we weren’t also hearing, for instance, about the New Midlands Bog. Or the New Severn Swamp ... perhaps more enticingly named the Severn Everglades (the Severnglades, even)? It would relieve us of the need to deny geography. It would allow whole communities and economies to develop with a wetland ecology. At the shallower end of 'Ecology', it would offer tremendous recreation opportunities. At the Deep End ... well, what a chance for re-wilding! And with global warming, forget puny pumas. Think alligators!

The Pludds (it means something like 'muddy patch'), Forest of Dean

Friday, 27 July 2007

Business As Usual for ECOS Printer, Severnprint

Loss of power and water in Gloucester on Monday 23rd July, caused by the exceptional flooding in the city, forced ECOS's printer, Severnprint, to close for the day, but a combination of technical innovation, improvised plumbing and the Dunkirk spirit enabled the company quickly to open its doors for business again on the following day, despite the ongoing crisis.

For BANC members and ECOS subscribers, this means that the publication of the upcoming ECOS issue, Vol. 28, No. 2, will proceed on schedule during August.

David Pealing of Severnprint explained to Rick Minter, ECOS editor:

"We recently switched to 'processless plates'. This eliminated our previously largest use of water and so we are working normally, illustrating the benefit of using as few resources as possible. However, without electricity we couldn't work on Monday.

"Our lavatories are working with water that we ship in from outside in our cars and vans. We have rigged up a 12-volt caravan pump which pressurises the cold water system, so we can use the lavatories and cold water sparingly, which is legal!

"So if you have the next ECOS ready, please bring it on!".

For more info and pictures, see

July 2007 Floods in Gloucestershire

Photos and comments by Rick Minter

Residents using a water bowser just yards away from the ECOS office in Gloucestershire in July 2007. The River Severn floodwater contaminated a water treatment plant, affecting water supplies in and around Tewkesbury, Cheltenham and Gloucester, with residents and businesses relying on the distribution of bottled water and bowsers. Many water bowsers in Gloucestershire have been subject to irresponsible use, but residents at this one photographed have remarked how it's like having a village pump meeting place.

One of the benefits of the floods and water crisis has been the emergence of a strong community spirit, and one of the challenges will be to cope with the mass use of plastic bottles, with over one million due to be disposed of in coming days and weeks. People are already debating how they can be re-used and recycled, and pressing the authorities for direction on this.
The night the rains came to Gloucestershire. The Hatherley Brook spills its banks and floods the neighbouring golf course.

This photo was taken at 6:30pm. It is unenhanced, to give an impression of the darkness of an early evening in July!

The River Avon in spectacular flood at the Gloucestershire-Worcestershire border.

The following photos were taken just a mile from the ECOS office, a few days after the main event when the water level had subsided!