In light of the UN report on species extinction just unveiled, many people are talking about how worrying it is that we have so many species close to the brink of annihilation due to our activities.
And at the same time, it’s hard to move people towards doing very much in the way of helping reverse the trend.
Nature is seen as something outside our own environments, nowadays. It’s an abstract idea, or at best something we visit. We’ve become used to not having it especially present in our daily lives. Even a fly entering a classroom is viewed as an event.
And because we’ve gotten used to living without nature, we don’t value it very much, and often see it as an inconvenience.
Where we do allow it to exist in our city, it must be controlled and tidy.
Pamplona is a very green city, with plenty of parks and farmland around us, and mountains visible from almost every street, yet even here, wildlife must conform. The ducks in the park have few places to nest because any undergrowth is cleared, the scrub needed to house any other birds than pigeons, sparrows, magpies and a few blackbirds is practically non-existent outside building lots left abandoned until the apartments pop up in new neighbourhoods.
Take a simple city lawn. As soon as the dandelions bloom it’s time to mow. Citizens complain if the city is slow to mow, since the seed heads look untidy.
I passed a lawn full of dandelions, daisies and clover yesterday.
There wasn’t a bee to be seen. The horse chestnut trees are blooming right now, their scent amazing. But there are very few bees to be seen or heard pollenating them.
Coincidentally, upon arriving home, my neighbours warned me of a swarm which had just settled on the Persian blinds of a nearby (empty) flat, and were going to call the city council to come and remove them. It’s all right having some bees up high in a tree, but down here amongst the houses, they induce fear.
I don’t know where bees used to live in cities, but there were more of them, and they must have lived somewhere. Now, though most people appreciate the work of bees, a hive is only acceptable outside our daily surroundings.
The local newspaper has been busy talking about a bear recently released in France which has the temerity to enter Navarra and attack some sheep flocks. The bears have declined in the western part of the Pyrenees to such an extent that only two males, father and son survive. Two females from Slovenia are hoped to start saving the population, but bears are only tolerated if they stay well away from humans and their buildings.
There might be some basic understanding that bears should not go extinct in the Pyrenees, though they are close to that right now. Bears are still tolerated in the Picos de Europa, further west of Navarra, but here the local farmers’ union is opposed to this attempt and recovering/rewildling/conservation/call-it-what-you-like-putting-bears-ahead-of-sheep.
The first photo is today’s back page of the local paper. I will translate the last few lines… the farmers union call on the Navarra Government to ….. “demand the French authorities cease their actions of reintroducing a wild species in a humanized terrain. “We are not in Yellowstone,” they conclude.
What else can one say about that?
Nothing comes to mind that I could print in that paper.
Bears, you might say, are a pretty big nuisance when they want to be.
They kill sheep, which, whatever one’s personal opinions of them, are the basis of a type of farming that some still cling to. And I will grant that, despite my immediate question as to how they’re alive and thriving in Asturias and Slovenia – surely they’re an inconvenience there, but a tolerated one, by farmers who are used to doing a bit more work to look after their stock.
And yet, another iconic species is also slowly disappearing in Navarra, according to the same local paper.
Now, doesn’t love storks?
They bring us babies, they don’t attack sheep…
Because they are annoying, inconvenient.
Or at least, their nests are.
So nests are destroyed in the towns and cities where they’ve traditionally nested. Some have made nests in large trees, where these are still available – it’s common for mature trees to be heavily pruned in cities, and really old ones are felled as soon as they show signs of rot for fear of falling and causing damage or injury.
And a pair that can’t build a nest is a pair that has to go elsewhere, or doesn’t breed.
There are seven fewer pairs than last year, for a total of 939.
There are many reasons for our ecosystems collapsing. Wilful destruction, wilful ignorance, and wilful rejection of any inconvenience it might mean to our lives. The last is what most of us will be guilty of.
Though the rains have returned, it’s still kinda nice enough to get out of the city these days.
And it’s so nice to do so.
The orchids are up in the Valdorba, and the thyme blooming.
Unfortunately, the rains have increased the erosion in many places where there’s not enough vegetation to hold the soil. This bunch of thyme is clinging on, but you can see the rocks breaking away from the side of the gully behind it.
And yes, that is recently burnt vegetation behind the orchid… some farmers just don’t get that scrub serves to hold their soil from washing away down to the Ebro and silt it up, which they complain about later when the farms on the floodplain… flood.
Hopefully the other plants can grow and help slow down further breaks.
Here’s a poem I wrote recently about getting into the countryside.
Birdsong Outside the City
Something calls, unseen, to me
Hidden in a willow tree of a copse
Alongside a swift river tugging
Tangled dangling fronds and
Flooding islands, a place
Providing people only invitation,
Unheard above the cars of
The city where blackbirds scream,
A small, soft, birdsong twittering
Like a signal, reverberating in
This stillness, resonating
As far as childhood; deeper,
Into bones, birth, bringing
Relief like a lost boy seeing
Family, safety, a memory.
A song saying stay, for whenever
Could one return?
While Spring officially started at the beginning of the month back home in Ireland, in Spain we are still in the middle of winter, with the next season only set to start in another month on the 21st of March.
It is, I admit, the height of skiing season, but even here, the daffodils are shooting up and will soon burst buds, the crocuses in the parks are spotting the grass, and I even saw a few daisy and dandelions the other day. The trees are mostly still bare, but showers of catkins have popped out on a few.
Mostly, though, you can just smell it. The air is different. Despite the snow that we had last week, there’s a feeling of spring that even humans living in a city still experience.
Spring is here, as far as I am concerned.
And summer isn’t far behind. For I saw the bats take their first flight of the year and it reminded me of a poem I wrote last year on the subject of signs of summer, more than spring. It’s perhaps a little premature to be thinking about butterflies and bees, but since I haven’t posted a poem in a while, here it is.
Signs of Summer
There are many signs of summer coming, here,
Starting perhaps with cuckoo calls and swallow sighting
And the return of the swifts, or
The first flight of the bats at twilight,
The scent of honeysuckle through open balconies and
The abundance of butterflies on the garden lavender,
Some are specific to Spain, like closing the blinds
Against sunlight to keep the house cool, and
Sleeping with the windows open all night
Pouring water to fill the swimming pool and others
Seen only in this city: setting up the tombola,
Putting the fences around the flowers in the park
In preparation for the festivals and digging up
The road to get it ready for the running of the bulls,
And lastly, putting up with the stench of piss
Upon opening up the street door every morning.
It’s been a while. It’s been busy.
But I’ve been doing a bit of writing.
I have a few poems to share, over the next few weeks, as the summer proper hits us.
Meanwhile, if you want me, I’ll be on the porch….
The House Stands Built, the Garden Lies Laid
If we needed lumber, I’d gladly go into the wood,
Cut logs and split them all afternoon.
Were there a shelf to put up, a cupboard fixed,
A picture to hang, I’ve no problem lending a hand.
Should the lawn need mowing, or the hedge trimming,
The garden path cemented, a fence erected,
Bicycle mended, stone wall constructed, a pond dug
Or a border weeded, you can count on me;
I’m always happy to go to work.
But the house is built, the garden laid,
There’s left little to do but watch the grass growing
So if you want me, I’ll be on the porch.
(This is a short video of what’s in front of said porch….)
An Absence in Abundance
Lavender lays sideways under the weight of wind and blossom
But the bees clinging to the swaying stalks are few and far between.
An exuberance of blooms festoon the garden; from geraniums to clover,
But the butterflies are almost all white. Where is the abundance?
The humming profusion we should see before us?
The insects are ever scarcer on the farm – apart from houseflies –
And sparrows are ousting the house martins.
Those looking closely can see the cracks and give voice
To our misgivings that something’s got to give.
A colourful afternoon in the countryside.
Northern Spain, April 24th, and though breezy, a bright and sunny day.
Spring seems to have come early after a very mild winter.
But there’s something missing….
The oil seed rape is in full flower.
The barley heads are already up, and the wind is sending waves through it.
Thyme splashed pink along the banks and slopes between fields
The orchids are blooming.
Back in Pamplona, the lilacs are out already.
But there were no bees.
No Butterflies, on any of all these flowers.
It might have been the cold breeze… but there was an apiary not far (50 yards?) from that huge field of colza, and though I don’t like to get too close, I couldn’t see any commuting bees from that corner.
And it was disconcerting.
I read an interesting article about rewilding today – calling it the “new Pandora’s box in conservation.”
Hardly a title to inspire confidence…
One problem the authors see with rewilding is that the term is fluid and quite ill-defined as yet. It would be better to firm up exactly what rewilding is and is not, and define what it aims to achieve.
I agree, as a scientist, that it would be better to know exactly what we are talking about.
But I think there is room for maneuvering yet.
Rewilding is a new term that has yet to come into its own. It has yet to capture the public consciousness.
And in order to let that happen, I think the term should be as broad as possible for as long as possible.
In fact, perhaps we can have two meanings – just like the word “theory” has two meanings – one in common parlance, and the other in scientific terms. It won’t be that problematic if we have a broad meaning for the wider public discussion and then a more precise, concise or even split terms for use in ecology – for example, the Palaeolithic rewilding, or passive rewilding as mentioned in the article.
I say this because what we don’t want to have happen is that the general public decide that rewilding is some scientific activity which only trained ecologists can pursue, or have a hand in, or a stake in.
Because we will need lots of rewilding, of all types, if we are to get through this century with functioning ecosystems. There are some, such as passive rewilding, which the general public can have a great, and direct, impact on. There are things they can do themselves at home, in addition to supporting more extensive projects and translocations by voting, signing petitions and going to visit places which have had formerly extinct species reintroduced.
An article in the Guardian today, about not mowing the lawn so often so that dandelions can flower and feed the multitude of insect species that rely on them highlights this.
As we live in a world steeped in pesticides, we will need the gardens of our suburbs and cities to give a refuge to the species which would otherwise die out. While research suggests that farmers should plant wildflowers themselves to aid keep pests down in their crops, it’s plain that insects like bees are suffering as we continue to spray.
Luckily, the terrain of the farms I visit near Pamplona makes wildflower verges almost unavoidable, though even here the number of butterflies seems to have plummeted in recent years.
To a certain extent, rewilding is just allowing that little slice of wildness to exist alongside our lives and our lawns, instead of keeping wilderness far from us as we push into that very wilderness.
The man on the street with a garden can help this rewilding, just as the building companies who can’t get financing to build on the lots they bought during the boom can let the weeds grow in the meantime. It might not provide habitat for wolves, or bison, but it can keep bees alive, let butterflies and lizards and small mammals survive.
Instead of even planting grass for lawns, home owners, and councils and building management companies, can plant wildflower meadows instead. I showed an example of one in Pamplona last summer. I look forward to it blooming again this spring.
Wildflower meadow planted in Pamplona park about to bloom in 2015
One type of rewilding that the article didn’t mention, but George Monbiot among others does, is rewilding ourselves – getting back in touch with the nature we have too long either ignored or tried to tie up, impound, mow short and neat. I’ve seen the kids approach this wildflower meadow in a much different way to how they’d approach a lawn. I’m sure you can imagine which they’re more excited by.
We might be disinclined to let our kids dig in the muck these days when everyone’s so obsessed with cleanliness, but allowing them romp through a few flowers will set us smiling more than any pretty new frock or well-maintained playground.
What child can resist making petal angels? And collecting conkers can be done in a clean frock.
And just as we might one day be delighted to have dandelions, we will be grateful for the general public’s work in keeping our lives just a little bit wild.
This is a new park in Pamplona. I cycle past it everyday. They took down the temporary fence a couple of weeks ago.
When I noticed the poppies growing in the grass, I smiled.
I was glad the company responsible for maintenance was a bit slow to get the lawnmower onto the newly seeded grass.
A few days later, I was glad that the recent rain must be keeping them off the soft sod.
But then I saw other flowers. Beautiful wildflowers I’d never seen before.
And I stopped my bike on the way up this very steep hill.
But you know how when your worldview doesn’t include something, it takes a while to see it.
I’d never seen this shit before.
But it was true.
And I took a photo to prove it.
There was no grass…
They’d sown wildflower seeds.
In a new park.
Not lawn. Wildflowers.
My mind is blown.
Rewilding is possible. It’s simple. It’s easier and lower maintenance than keeping wildlife cut back.
And it will be beautiful.
That feeling you get when you’re writing a novel and you finally get to the point where you can see your way out of the middle of the book and know there is an ending….
You’ve been trashing around the marsh that is the book’s middle for weeks and now, though you’re covered in mud and still have a slog through boot-sucking bog holes ahead, at least you know what direction you’re going, where the dry land is ahead, and that glimmer of hope you held for so long turns to confidence you’re not, in fact, going to sink into the middle of all this shit without even a story to show for it.
I got that today.
That means I deserve to start outlining the next project, right? Right? Oh…. oh well…
let me just get this boot back on…
Meanwhile, here are a couple of poems: one for easter, the other for spring. Yes, already distracted…
A Watcher on Calvary
A man named Barabbas was once heard sighing,
From an alley on the path to Calvary, upon spying
A raucous crowd, carrying crosses to the top, go by,
And saying, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Lured, like a bee to the bloom,
The scent of narcissus arrests my senses,
Dancing swallows draw eye away
From swirling script, distracted by the act;
Evening singing wins me over,
Dawn chorus charms me from my slumber,
Calling cuckoos invade my concentration.
The flowering pulls me from my room;
Sucking from the soil such beauty,
So I wish to sit before them, soaking
All they display, watching every form unfold.