God’s eye view

I’ve been working on a set of 21 images of flood risk around the south coast of England, from Sussex to Bristol. That sounds so prosaic. What has emerged is a beautiful forest of sometimes fragile, sometimes twisted trees. I’ve called the series Green|Blue, and you can see more on my website. It channels my enjoyment of playing with data, my wonder at the beauty that can be found in unexpected places, and my concern for the environment and the way we see our place within it:

The view from above has become normalised. Google Maps and OS Maps, city centre plans and ‘you are here’ stickers on the boards at local nature reserves, give the impression of omniscience and omnipotence. The very notion of ‘flood risk’ calls both our knowledge and power into question in the face of uncertainty and the force of nature.

What seems to be the most solid and robust is in reality the most fragile and vulnerable. Changing the perspective, looking slant, confers a new understanding and humility.

Exe-productIf you are interested, I’m producing the images as archive quality prints and greetings cards. I was honoured that TEDxExeter thanked their speakers with gifts of prints and supporters with greetings cards, both of the Exe. I think they make great gifts… although I might not be impartial!

Here are also a few related links that I like:

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Candlemas-ology

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Christ at the Temple, otherwise known as Candlemas. In the reading from Luke’s gospel, Simeon calls Jesus “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:32; NRSV), hence presumably the practice in the western church of blessing the candles for use in the church throughout the year, and the name ‘Candlemas’.

Originally, the feast was a minor celebration. But in 541 AD, bubonic plague broke out in Constantinople, killing thousands. Emperor Justinian I, in consultation with the Patriarch of Constantinople, ordered a period of fasting and prayer throughout the Eastern Empire, culminating in processions and a prayer service asking for deliverance on Candlemas in 542, whereupon the plague ceased. In thanksgiving, Justinian elevated the feast to a more solemn celebration.

Sometime in my first couple of years at the Met Office, I went to a lecture on dendrochronology-palaeoecology. Dendrochronology is the scientific method of dating based on the analysis of patterns of tree-rings, which is then used to determine certain aspects of past ecologies. In areas where the climate is reasonably predictable, trees develop annual rings of different properties depending on weather, rain, temperature, soil acidity, plant nutrition, carbon dioxide concentration, and so on.

In 540 AD, there was a major eruption of the Rabaul caldera near Papua New Guinea, of roughly the same magnitude as Mount Pinatubo in 1991 or Krakatoa in 1883. These sort of events fling huge quantities of ash and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere (Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 pales into insignificance), and appear in the palaeoecology record as ash strata in ice cores and the narrow tree rings resulting from global cooling. The lecturer was relating the science to all sorts of historical events and art, the really fascinating stuff you can get to in science, but only after paying your dues by painstaking counting of gazillions of tree-rings to assemble large enough datasets. He considered the global cooling following the 540 eruption as one of the contributions to the outbreak of plague; cooling would have affected grain crops, leading to famine, greater trade in grain, and hence in rats and fleas, and reduced resistance to disease.

By 542, the atmosphere was recovering, the sun returning and harvests improving. The lecturer didn’t go as far as linking the return of the sun with Justinian’s establishment of the feast celebrating the light for revelation to the nations – that was something I realised after the lecture. Probably there was no such link, but I liked the idea.


This is a repost from my Mucknell Abbey blog. Well, it is Groundhog Day after all!

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Tewlwolow Kernow

It was a hot bright day during the 2013 summer heatwave. I approached from below through the gardens recently planted with exotics from even hotter climes. The land was once owned by the monks of St Michael’s Mount, and the Mount shimmered on the horizon behind, at once below me and above keeping watch.

I passed through a circular seating space, an antechamber, through a narrow door into a low and dark space stoppered by light in front and behind, and opened out suddenly into bright height.

The space is an oval chamber, open to the sky. There is a bench running around the edge. I sat down. It forced me to lean back and look upwards.

I’m told there is background illumination, presumably nestling in the ledge above the seating, but the power of sun overwhelmed all human mediated light. It was at first unbearable, a space seering on the eyeballs. Eventually, I put my sunglasses back on.

SkyspaceSt Michael's Mount

Initially I had seen a flattened image of blue and white. The sunglasses brought the image into three dimensions… not the 3D of a white frame superposed on blue, but the 3D of a blue lozenge mounted on the white ceiling, now decreasing to grey as the blue increased. The edge belonged to the sky instead of the opening in the ceiling. The only tell-tale of reality was a thin bright line reflecting the sun; the edge of the opening cannot be infinitely thin.

Here are the truths mediated by dark protective lenses…

The lozenge was coloured light-blue nearer the invisible sun, shading to dark-blue on the opposite side, and becoming darker as my gaze lengthened. It was a jewel, a cameo brooch, a gift.

It was a film projection, across which clouds and birds were flying.

It was a dish of liquid, through which clouds and birds were swimming.

I could stretch out my hand to touch the face of God.

The ellipse was the entire cosmos. I was being shown the universe as Julian was shown “all that is made” lying as a hazelnut in the palm of her hand.

Anti-shadowThe anti-shadow – made by the sun shining through the oval opening – was an alternative universe brighter than our own. But it was misshapen, swollen above the fault line that ran across it. It was the brightness of a Lucifer, or an Icarus that had approached too near the sun and fallen. Its lines were blurred.

One could not come close to the other.

 

Tewlwolow Kernow is “An underground elliptical domed chamber which James Turrell has designed as a space from which to view the sky, especially at twilight.” It is found in the Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, whch opened in mid-September 2012, located in the golden mile above Penzance. Tewlwolow means half-light, i.e. twilight.

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Wildflower whispers!

Now is the time when we most need our pollinators, and our pollinators need wildflowers to thrive. One of the principles of permaculture is that borders and boundaries are the most productive areas, not least the verges of roadsides, paths and brooks. And wildflowers have an understated beauty that is much greater than showy tame garden blooms.

So I have been feeling sad over the last few days about the acres of wildflowers in the verges in Exeter that are being strimmed through ignorance and wilful tidymindedness, and took it upon myself to protest a little…

 

It turns out that Exeter City Council monitors their Twitter feed properly, and I was quite impressed with their epic response:

… cut grass round the city.
1. Grass around the city (and there are thousands of patches) is cut on a round basis. So if a piece of grass is missed during a round, it usually wouldn’t be cut until the next round which would be 3 weeks away at the least.
2. Whilst some appreciate longer grass, wildflowers etc, there are many other residents who prefer short neatly cut grass and complain if the grass gets (in their opinion) too long.
3. When it does come to eventually cutting longer grass areas it becomes more difficult and requires different machinery
4. Whilst we encourage biodiversity in various ways, and have recently developed specific wildflower areas – it is very difficult to cut grass (or not) reactively because as and when wild flowers take seed. Areas that are to be left longer generally need to be planned.
5. Grass verges are cut under contract to Devon County Council Highways, so they would have to make the final decision about whether a particular verge could be left. There are also issues with some verges where uncut growth could block vision at a junction.

 

And in my reply…

…TwitLonger with my own…
1. Please (please please) err on the side of appreciating longer grass, wildflowers etc, rather than short neatly cut grass. I wonder whether people who want lawn deserts know where their food comes from or how dependent we are on the web of nature. You will of course be damned if you do and damned if you don’t!
2. Presumably you already have the machinery to cut the longer grass and flowers. Cutting it less frequently may then save money?
3. The areas I mentioned are not road-side verges. One was a small bank at the end of Aspen Close leading into Ludwell Valley Park. I’m not even sure whether it belongs to a house or is part of LVP. The other is along the Northbrook (as it is labelled on Google Maps, not Wonford Brook as I thought it was called) between Woodwater Lane and Ludwell Lane.
4. There is a splendid galaxy of wildflowers at the corner of Quarry Park Road turning left into Woodwater Lane. Please protect it! Will tweet this to Devon CC too.

 

And that would probably have been much easier to assemble in Storify.

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#turnedoutgreyagain, a Twoem

What is this big shiny ball in the sky? Will it be my friend?
Blackbird perched precariously in pyracantha,
picking at plentiful berries. #ventriloquismforbeginners
I forgot I’d moved the snowdrops last spring. #februaryjoys
Municipal planting of quince flowering strongly.
Leaves on their way.
Two goldfinches breakfasting on the niger seed.
Gonna have to dig out that hot water bottle again. #springfail

Sun shining. In the garden planting potatoes.
Rain spattering against the windows…
Now it’s hailing. #typicalbritishspring
Two herring gulls harrying a buzzard.
Year’s first lawn mow, and sad farewell to celandine and speedwell.
You don’t know what you’ve got till you’re wantonly destroying it.
Grey and dreich outside. Tea and crumpets inside. #slowstartonsaturday

Happy to see shadows when I opened my curtains this mornings. #sunstarved
Two buzzards wheeling in the blue sky directly over my house.
Unusual, not least the blue sky.
Spur of the moment train to Exmouth to catch the evening sunshine. #bigskies
Glorious blues and yellows walking east,
and west with the sun in my eyes listening to the rush of surf…

First hawthorn, blossom and leaves.
Blackthorn blossom about to burst. #springsigns
A day of goldfinch and skylarks, colour and song.
Sunshine and warmth, swallows and unfurling cowslips.
Pussy willow swirling in the wind like enthusiastic orcs at a music and movement class.
Reed mace standing to attention,
bending from the base before the wind like arthritic emaciated Guards.
Peewits crying in the night.

And so it ends. By turns irritating, digressive, long-winded, scintillating. #lesmis

 

[Twoem: a poem on Twitter. This isn’t a Twoem. It is a poem crafted from earlier tweets. But what should it be termed?]

 

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Autumn audit

In honour of Silent Spring, I spent two hours wandering around my neighbourhood and listening. Listening not just for birds, but for everything, including all those sounds we usually tune out. But yes, especially for birds, even though I could identify only a few and was reduced to trying to describe their calls.

In The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd writes: “Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness, is in itself total experience. This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.” I was attempting, albeit only for a short time, to live in my hearing.

2.35 – I left the house and turned right along Grecian Way

Cars. Wind in the trees. Carpentry. Wind pressure on my ear-drums. Chirping. One crow on a roof-crest and one caw. My boots on the pavement. The zip tag on my hoodie. A distant mew of a gull. School sports (St Peter’s).

Left into Quarry Lane

Chirping. Leaf blown along the pavement. Peeping. Traffic (omnipresent). Churr/caw.

Left into Quarry Park Road

Chitter chirrup. Chirp. Dogs barking. Lawn mower. Peep. Beep-beep.

Right into Woodwater Lane

D and H buses. Peep. Peep-peep-peep. Churr/caw. School playground (Walter Daw). Three-wheeler buggy. Moped nipping past.

Right into Heath Road

Water feature. Chirping. Building. Humming from a BT box by the pavement.

Left into Rifford Road

Digger. Cars, vans, buses, traffic, traffic. Bicycle’s tyres. Light aircraft. Wonford Brook. Loud humming from another telecoms (?) box. Squeal of brakes. Acceleration. Go slow strip. Baby chuntering and two women talking. Music from iPhone earphones. Prolonged chirping. Gull mewing.

Left into Ludwell Lane

Buzz of insect. Reeds in the wind. Water feature. Mewing. Car door and couple laughing.

Right into Wonford Playing Fields

Cheeping. Prolonged mewing. Car fob. Trees in wind. Some crunching of leaves. Churr/caw. Light aircraft. Buzzard’s keen. Glissandeek. Chip chip. Dogs barking. Horns. Herring gulls on the field, mewing in full view. Boots on the grass. Jogger’s tread. Commercial aircraft. Dog. Wings beating as doves start up from bushes. Insect chirping. Baby laugh turning to cry. Scolding mother. Building. Churr/caw. Chirp. Wonford Brook. Boots on gravel. Weir. Falling acorn. Twittering. Shouting children. Insects. Ford. High caw. Squeaky gate. Muddy steps.

By 3.15pm I’m in Ludwell Valley Park

… where I put my notebook away. I found it a struggle to focus on just listening, and not to observe with my eyes or retreat into my head, and I constantly had to retune my attention. And most of what I was attending to was the grating urban noise that I usually and automatically tuned out.

I began to feel very weary as I walked round the perimeter of the Park, so I took it into my head to try out another trick of Nan Shepherd’s: “the senses must be trained and disciplined… I can teach my body many skills by which to learn the nature of the mountain. One of the most compelling is quiescence. No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it. As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid; the body melts; perception alone remains.”

I lay down on the nearest bench, warm in the sun, a couple walking their dog on a distant slope but otherwise in solitude. I wedged my right arm between the backrest and the seat, clasped my fingers, crossed right ankle over left, and shut my eyes. I didn’t actually fall asleep, but in my snoozing found that it was my sense of touch that was sharpened – the warmth of the sun, and the cool as it went behind a cloud, the wind as it rose and fell, the warmth of the bench, my clasped hands and crossed ankles. As Shepherd wrote, “Touch is the most intimate sense of all”, and I truly found that lying down in green pastures restored my soul.

As for my auditory audit, other than prolonged mewing of gulls, birdsong was occasional at best, even in the playing fields and park. It was a rarity that the traffic on Rifford Road parted for long enough to hear background noise, let alone birds. Granted that it was the wrong time of year and the wrong time of day, but I find it sad that there is so little song, and so much drowning out the call to rise above the mundane.

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Silent Spring

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In its honour, I am spending a couple of hours walking around my neighbourhood listening for bird song. In the meantime, here are three short posts I wrote a year and a half ago, reflecting on the book:

White to Carson

I’ve been doing a bit of catch-up reading of a diptych of eco classics; today I finished Gilbert White’s “Natural History of Selborne, and started Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”.

White’s book is in the form of letters, and he often hopes they “may not be unacceptable” to his two correspondents! He was a meticulous observer of birds, weather and other phenomena, and went some way to interpreting and understanding his observations, for example in the wonderful passage on house martins cited in the introduction. His methods were at times questionable, involving shooting many of his subjects! And his theories did not always fit the facts, for example why clear nights are colder, or whether swallows migrated or hibernated. But science is a process of developing theories and collecting evidence to test and accept/reject/refine the theories, or developing new methods of collecting evidence which may lead to radical new theories. Hence White is not content with just observations, but continues to seek understanding and applications: “The standing objection to botany has always been, that it is a pursuit that amuses the fancy and exercises the memory without improving the mind or advancing any real knowledge… The botanist… should be by no means content with a list of names; he [sic] should study plants philosophically, should investigate the laws of vegetation, should examine the powers and virtues of efficacious herbs, should promote their cultivation; and graft the gardener, the planter, and the husbandman, on the phytologist.”

Carson I suspect is just as meticulous. So far, she has been describing the pesticides and herbicides – DDT, malathion, dieldrin, etc. It’s incredible (now at least) to think that some of these chemicals used on food crops were closely allied in structure to the nerve gases developed by Germany and used during the war.

Silent springboard

After a bit of a hiatus, I have finished reading “Silent Spring”. After her early description of the pesticides and herbicides, Carson goes on to describe their effects on ground water, soil and insect life, plants, birds, other wildlife and domestic animals, rivers and inshore waters, human organs and cell-level processes; the brutality of various spraying programmes in the US and their horrendous results; the common availability of chemicals and the build-up of small-scale exposures; the negative effect on the ecological balance and the build-up of resistance in the pests; and finally, alternative pest control methods. All is beautifully written and meticulously references the latest scientific findings.

Predictably, the chemical industry and scientific establishment (funded by the chemical industry) responded ‘robustly’, as described in an afterword to my edition of the book. Carson was attacked for being a hysterical woman, unqualified to write such a book, and for writing for the public, “a calling the scientific establishment consistently denigrated.”

But the attacks only increased the PR for Carson’s book, and it changed the world. While reading, I caught myself thinking more than once: “I hope someone does something about this”. Which of course they did. President Kennedy directed his Science Advisory Committee to investigate Carson’s claims, which led to an immediate strengthening of the regulation of chemical pesticides, arguably a more significant action than the launch of the Apollo programme. And the book is widely credited with helping to get the environmental movement going.

Now in the 21st century, “Silent Spring” is again being criticised by writers who claim that “environmental regulation unnecessarily restricts economic freedom”. Others say that this is “a cynical ‘better living through chemistry’ campaign, intended to discredit the environmental health movement”. And I would ask how much economic freedom do we have, living as we do on one planet and bound by a web of relationships?

Observing boiling frogs

Two more thoughts on Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”…

The book was first published in 1962, and the science and understanding of cell-level processes has moved on hugely in the last 50 years. But Carson’s description of e.g. the specialised roles of enzymes in mitochondria, and small facts like bone marrow producing 10 million red blood cells per second (the current estimate is 2.4 million) highlight again for me how “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139.14; NRSV).

And a quote: “Responsible public health officials have pointed out that the biological effects of chemicals are cumulative over long periods of time, and that the hazard to the individual may depend on the sum of the exposures received throughout his [sic] lifetime. For these reasons the danger is easily ignored. It is human nature to shrug off what may seem to us a vague threat of future disaster.” As with chemicals, so with climate change. Are we in danger of becoming the proverbial frog that, when placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated, doesn’t realise its peril and is boiled alive? Or do we observe nature carefully, and learn that real frogs would probably jump out of the pot… and so could we?

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Woodwater plants

The house martins were gathering and sporting on the wing, prior to departure for warmer climes, and Mark Lane from Wilderness Guide kindly popped over to retrace my June footsteps in Woodwater Lane, and see what plants we could find in September.

Mark also gave me some tips on triangulation, or plant identification through three pieces of evidence from: smell, leaf, flower, season, family (shared characteristics) and habitat. And here are a couple of helpful websites:

Fifty Findings

  1. Darwin’s barberry – small purple fruits can be made into jam, end-July
  2. Quinces – won’t go soft; showing signs of turning red; wait til November to pick
  3. Ash
  4. Field maple
  5. Willow – non-native, by look of bark
  6. Nipplewort – lobed leaves, spring greens; so named as cure for cracked nipples, though uncertain re how to prepare and apply
  7. Garlic mustard or Jack in the hedge – spring greens
  8. Has characteristics of euphorbia
  9. Umbellifer – currently plant is too small to distinguish between cow parsley or chervil
  10. Mint family, possibly red dead nettle – square stem, edible but pungent
  11. Possibly same again, although flower purple not red

Mark lives, works and teaches tracking and foraging. They require different ways of looking. Foraging entails focusing on small areas, and alertness to details of particular plants. The wide view is lost. Tracking requires an alertness to the wide view, to the edges of perception, to divergences from normal. I asked Mark about a birdsong – is that a hedge sparrow? But he listens not to identify, but for signs of alarm, and the ‘sparrow’ song was more a demarcation of territory.

  1. Elm – leaf rough like cat’s tongue, lobes of different size; wood doesn’t rot, difficult to split; crossed strains are more resilient to dutch elm disease, and there are huge specimens at County Hall
  2. Oak – particular tree has a few galls and fewer acorns (try Dunsford Gardens instead); acorns are nutritious, and can be made into e.g. coffee and bread flour, though the tannins need leaching
  3. Holly – pig fodder, or tea; dense wood, good for carving; partners oak – ‘king oak’ victorious at summer solstice but then declines and ‘king holly’ victorious at winter solstice; bad luck to cut tree down
  4. Ribwort plantain – named for ribs in leaves; also broad-leaf variety; edible in spring, becomes fibrous; high tannin, anti-histamine (better for nettle stings than dock), anti-inflammatory so good for wounds; seeds can be ground and used as thickener
  5. Hazel – roofing spars, bow drills, charcoal; milk from early nuts
  6. Beech – third best firewood after oak and ash; mast edible and source of oil
  7. Hawthorn – good firewood but also bad luck to cut down; berries used to make fruit leather or Turkish delight; lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular function
  8. Willow herb
  9. Field maple again
  10. Wych elm, 80 years or more – bigger leaves than elm, fluff in leaf joins; more resilient to dutch elm disease
  11. Bird cherry, not wild – weird Latin
  12. Dogwood – distinctive veins in leaves, which produce latex; straight stems used for skewers and arrows; good artists’ charcoal
  13. Spindle – smooth wood so no splinters and good for spindles, hence name; also known as ‘snake wood’ for the bark; wood good for artists’ charcoal; fruit is bright orange and poisonous
  14. Groundsel or ragwort – poisonous
  15. Pink? Pimpernel? – looks like scarlet pimpernel
  16. Hawkbit or catsear – similar to dandelion
  17. Cinque foil – not edible
  18. Yarrow – tea, medicines, wounds; contains beta thujone, ‘active ingredient’ in wormwood, absinthe
  19. Prunus – garden escapee; damsons in wild will degenerate and become smaller and more bitter
  20. Ash – keys are edible, e.g. pickle; buit as I’m allergic, probably best not…
  21. Privet – poisonous
  22. Wood avens or Herb bennet – roots can be used instead of cloves; roots and leaves for tea; leaves have 3+2 lobes; small yellow flower + burrs
  23. Laurel – crushed leaves smell of almond, i.e. cyanide; wood has nice creamy and red grain, used for bowls
  24. Is this privet?
  25. Or is that privet?

Mark’s immense knowledge of wild plants and their uses was giving out as we encountered suburbia!

  1. Cotoneaster family
  2. Box, variegated garden variety – used to make boxes; compare with privet, leaves are smaller, glossier and 3D-er
  3. Garlic mustard seed pods
  4. Honeysuckle – simple leaves (compare clematis); flower edible and good for sore throats
  5. Herb robert – red stem; neither herb nor edible
  6. Sloes
  7. Viburnum – looks like bay from a distance
  8. Black bindweed – seeds black, three-lobed and edible; at first glance looked like Russian vine to me
  9. Compass plant – in lettuce family, lactates and produces latex, hence Lactuca; leaf has spiny central vein
  10. Snow berry – inedible, ornamental
  11. Yellow fumitory
  12. Pendulous sedge – edible heads; plus lots of other grasses we didn’t really look at
  13. Vetch
  14. Orange hawkbit in my garden

And photos of most of them. Not very good ones, as they were mainly taken in a hurry as aide memoires. Here’s spindle…

Green Lanes

Green lanes typically follow a ridge, have deep banks, and are typically rich in biodiversity with established hedgerows and old trees. The part of Woodwater Lane we explored has the feel of times of yore, almost enclosed in greenery.

Apart from the occasional meander, probably around a property like Ludwell Lane around Mushroom Farm, the green lanes in this part of town tend to run parallel to the river. Mark told me of a mysterious green lane, supposedly starting at a gate on Barrack Road next to the Territorial Army, and running to County Hall. From the Google Maps satellite view, the eastern half is marked by a line of trees and runs next to Gras Lawn, but it’s not easy to make out the western half, and none of it appears on the 1801 OS map of Exeter.

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Ludwell life

It was a happy accident that the house I bought when I moved to Exeter is very close to Ludwell Valley Park. It is my slice of countryside in the city, where I can wander down enclosed lanes, through fields of nodding purple grasses. Where people can walk their dogs, and occasionally grass board down the precipitous bowl edges, or toboggan if there’s the right sort of snow. Where I can pretend for a few minutes that there isn’t a business park just over the brow of the hill and the M5 isn’t a few hundred metres beyond.

Ludwell is one of five Valley Parks within Exeter. It’s a working farm, so from spring to autumn there are cows grazing, churned up mud around the gates, and cowpats a-plenty. A couple of fields are ploughed each year, by shire horses, and sown with barley and linseed to provide food for birds such as the rare cirl bunting. Other fields are maintained as wildflower meadows or scrub, or left as rough grassland. There are two cherry orchards, one new, where traditional varieties of trees are planted each year, and one Georgian, where the old trees are gradually being renewed. The plantation woodlands from the 1980s are being thinned and replaced with native species, and new woodlands planted. The hedges are full of ash, elder, hazel, blackthorn, hawthorn, dog rose and bramble, a real Devon mix allowing wildlife to move around safely.

Yesterday evening, under the sunshine and gentle cumulus, the Park was thrumming with life: luminous fragrant sprays of elderflower; bramble and dog rose bursting with pale pink and the promise of future fruit; hazelnuts and cherries swelling to maturity; rabbits flitting in the edges of the new orchard; a buzzard hunting on the thermals. But in the midst of life, a white calf dead, lying on its side with legs outstretched, eyes half open and swollen tongue lolling from its mouth. And, strangely, not another soul to be seen.

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The migrants’ return

This week I am happy because “my” house martins have returned. It happened on Tuesday. As I was sitting at my desk, suddenly there was a rush of gurgling and chuckling, and I looked out of my window to see madcap aerobatics. According to the RSPB website, they usually return to the UK in April. So 29 May is really late, and I had given up hope of seeing them this year.

I was at Mucknell this time last year, enjoying the swallows. I thought it possible that the martins had given up the neighbourhood, including the nesting site in the eaves over my bedroom window. But it turns out that they had merely been delayed; the weather being so appalling in April and the first half of May, I suppose they holed up in Africa for a bit longer.

So now I can look forward to a summer of lying in bed listening to the chuckling chatter, looking for the tiny heads poking out of the mud nest, and standing vacantly at the window watching the aerobatics.

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