Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Wisdom of Solomon

It is Spring, and flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land.[1]

Sadly I expect turtle doves will be in short supply this year, despite the best efforts of bird conservation organisations, Chris Packham et al to explain the catastrophic decline of this species - along with the cuckoo and other precious summer visitors. According to Project Turtle Dove, its numbers have plummeted by 91% since 1995.[2] Cuckoos have declined by 65% since the 1980s.[3]

Instead, the voice of the lawn-mower is heard in our land, as some people strive to achieve uniform, level, striped surfaces. I suppose such lawns are the outdoor equivalent of a plain fitted carpet. The result is just lawn. It is not even 'lawn with flowers', or 'lawn with flowers and bees', or 'lawn with flowers, bees, ants and moles'. Lawn means lawn. It is monoculture.

Here is an example of a lawnista's approach to gardening.[4]

I'm delighted to have some of these species on my lawn. What is a weed?

About 15 years ago, the Bungalow garden was visited by a local TV reporter. Somehow she had discovered a web page I'd made explaining that I have notable biodiversity here, including
Testacella haliotidea, a rare carnivorous, subterranean slug living in the vegetable patch. As we wandered round the garden trying to find the slug I wittered on about the wildlife, for instance the seven species of grass and sedge I have identified on the lawn, and its notable anthills. She then asked why I did not destroy the ants. They are "bad for lawns", she said. I was dumbfounded. I did not know what to say. I didn't say how much I love watching green woodpeckers probing around in the anthills or that all the piled up earth must indicate the existence of a phenomenal network of subterranean tunnels. I fell silent, struggling with my disgust at her question.

I feel a similar disgust when I see uniform lawns. A biodiverse lawn is more useful to birds, mammals, insects and plants; it has more ecological value. From a biosemiotic point of view, a biodiverse lawn is more meaningful than a monocultural one because it intrinsically contains more encoded 'difference', and hence more meaning. In my eyes that makes it more beautiful. Where a card-carrying lawnista might see disorder I see beauty and a wealth of meaning - and my heart rejoices. This wealth is not just there for me to perceive but for many other organisms to thrive in, as they search for home habitat and food. This is a shared world.

I suspect the lawn here is the last remaining fragment of the ancient parkland surrounding Brome Hall. The rest was been ploughed up many decades ago.

Uniform lawns are instances of the tide of biocidal monoculture flooding through the world. Rainforests are being replaced by plantations.[5] Faced with this creeping impoverishment of biological meaning, I invite all lawn owners to cherish their biodiversity in practical ways. For instance, wait a few weeks before first cutting, and see what species are already present. (It was only after doing this that I discovered I had two orchid species.) Don't use fertilisers or herbicides. Use a rotary mower with a grass box. Leave areas uncut until later in the summer and cut other areas in rotation. Don't kill all moles. 

Perhaps we should also go out and buy a kelim or Isfahan rug for the house - one featuring a Tree of Life or floral design !

Lesser Celandine
Spotted Orchid

As a joke currently doing the rounds has it, God and St Francis would surely approve of both designs.


[1] - The Song of Solomon 2.12.
[2] - Project Turtle Dove - [accessed April 2017]
[3] - 'Cuckoo decline' - [accessed April 2017]
[4] - Lawn Weeds website - [accessed April 2017]
[5] - 'The Impact of Industrial Agriculture in Rainforests' -  [accessed April 2017]

Monday, 24 April 2017

Flat field - Ancient oak


The parish of Bressingham (south Norfolk) is hardly a hilly place, but it does have 'upland' and 'lowland' areas. Its uplands are the gently rolling till plateau north of the A1066 turnpike; its lowlands are the flatlands of the Waveney valley lying south of the road. The one given over to clayland arable farming; the other to pasture and woodland on relict valley fenland.

Prof Tom Williamson (University of East Anglia) gave a walking talk today on the parish's cultural landscape history. The event was hosted by the fledgling Bressingham History Group, courtesy Linda Holly, and was enjoyable and well attended. I contributed a geological dimension to the discussions.

Apart from the congenial company, two features of the walk were outstanding.

Firstly, the view south from Fen Street. A long, narrow field - flat as a runway - leading the eye south towards woods known as Horse Fen and the hidden River Waveney. It looks a suitable pasture for sheep. The BGS map tell us this field is underlain by peat. If so, what we see today are the dried-out and shrinking remnants of the thick mattress of decayed swamp woodland and fen vegetation which has covered this land for most of the last 10,000 years. Our ancestors cut turf here and went wildfowling. According to Faden's map of 1797 it used to be part of Bressingham Fen. Today, drainage has reclaimed much of the the land for farming, and it is a remarkably flat expanse of pasture. It owes its long, thin shape to the historic pattern of 18th and 19th century enclosures in the Fen. This can be seen in the early 19th century tithe map. Four of the old fields have now been knocked into one.

Tithe map [1840s] courtesy Norfolk Heritage Explorer 

Secondly, the view of an immense, ancient oak tree in a clayland meadow at Valley Farm.

The tree has a stalwart trunk and colossal boughs, and is as stag-headed as the horns of Herne. It must be over 500 years old, as Tom suggested. It is truly an ancient, Mediaeval being, worthy of veneration. I wonder when the crown began to die back. Perhaps the field was ploughed for agriculture in one of the World Wars? Nevertheless, I am impressed that the occupants of Valley Farm have come & gone over the centuries without significantly interfering with this extraordinary tree. I am reminded of the celebrated Winfarthing Oak, sited only a few miles away, once the largest in England, which finally died in the 20th century. What makes people preserve such trees rather than fell them for firewood?

Horse Fen field and the Valley Farm oak - the one smooth and the other craggy - are phenomena of the parish; both are products of human cultivation, and both have stories to tell about Norfolk's landscape history.