A warm wind from the south-east, with disturbed cloud shifting through a blue sky - change is in the air in this part of England, while other parts (Devon, Dorset, Somerset) experience torrential rainfall. Fields of corn and sugar beet are basking in shifting sunlight.
I am walking along a footpath southwards towards Dodd's Wood. The path follows a strip of grassy land, a set-aside or conservation margin, between a wheat field and a hedge. In contrast to the block of uniformly coloured wheat to my right, the field margin and the hedge are alive with a variety of insect and plant life.
- A dusky brown butterfly with slow erratic flight, grey margins to its wings;
- A copper-coloured butterfly, wings ajar as it rests on a leaf;
- A fleshy looking water plant with spear-shaped leaves in the ditch;
- Flowering grasses;
- Pale pink, sweetly-scented dog roses like stars in the hedge;
- A large puff-ball seed head like a dandelion clock but much larger and bolder; has green flower buds...
I search for names to make sense of what I am seeing in the landscape. Sometimes the particulars are there, and sometimes they are not: .
- A big humming insect > a bumblebee > White-tailed Bumblebee Bombus lucorum.
- A wood > a square of deciduous trees > perhaps a plantation 200 years old.
- A field of corn > wheat > I don't know the name of the seed variety (how can I find out)?
|A Small Skipper butterfly Thymelicus sylvestris|
|The dramatic leaves of Water Plantain Alisma plantago-aquatica|
The sheer diversity of the life along the hedgerow and ditch contrasts absolutely with the lack of diversity in the wheat field. A regiment of stalks rise regular and stiff from the bare brown soil. A small moth flies up from my feet and lands in the wheat. Frankly, I am a little afraid for its safety, as if the wheat were laced with pesticide - which it probably is. From a biodiversity point of view, if we could see the field as a painting then the frame would be the most valuable part of the tableau.
I pause on the threshold of the wood, my eyes adjusting to the dim, green light and my skin to the change of temperature. Tree trunks rise up, giving contrasting vistas into deeper places beyond the path. Pale brown, voracious sparks of life - mosquitoes - begin drifting round me. I follow the footpath across ground carpeted by Dog's Mercury and Enchanter's Nightshade, flanked by traces of a ditch brimming with leaf mould. Through the trees, I see that many branches have been gathered into a conical shelter round the base of an ash tree, as if adventurous boys - or Mesolithic man - had recently passed through. It is more likely to be a rough shelter for feeding pheasants in winter.
In contrast to the wheat field, the hedgerow, ditch and the wood are places of richness - visual, cultural and biological. They have developed in a time-depth dimension, as years and centuries have passed by with ecological continuity. There are occasional punctuation marks in their development - cutting, ditching, coppicing - but nothing compared to what happens to the wheat field, reset to ground-zero each year by the farmer.
Of course, all this land was once forested, perhaps a thousand years ago, and the fields were won from the forest by hard labour of humans, horses and oxen. The diversity of life in the field margins, hedgerows and ditches has developed since then. I am thankful for the Environmental Stewardship scheme which allows it to continue flourishing in the face of industrial agriculture. If the wheat field is 'modern', perhaps the conservation margin is 'postmodern'? (answers below, please).
Meanwhile, I am reminded of a quote by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss:
...civilization is no longer a fragile flower, to be carefully preserved and reared with great difficulty here and there in sheltered corners of a territory rich in natural resources... All that is over: humanity has taken to monoculture, once and for all, and is preparing to produce civilization in bulk, as if it were sugar-beet.
- 'Tristes Tropiques'; transl John Russell; 1955.