The March Canvas

Canvas in the woods seen with a long lens

We set out just before seven, sky pale blue and pink, the air a riot of birdsong: wrens, woodpeckers, blackbirds, blue tits, great tits, chaffinches and others I can’t name. We’re in the Haweswater valley, surrounded by trees, many of them old, lumbering giants, covered with moss and ferns. 

Pre-dawn light on the trees filled with birdsong

To place the March canvas we have chosen this particular area because of the ongoing work to increase biodiversity in the Haweswater Valley. The nature reserve here is overseen by the RSPB, in conjunction with the landowners United Utilities, and has involved measures including a reduction in the numbers of sheep on the fells (connected to the two farms Naddle Farm and Swindale Farm), widespread planting of native trees, and fencing to protect certain areas from nibbling deer and sheep. The valley was once home to golden eagles, but their story is not a successful one – many years without raising a brood, and the last eagle hasn’t been seen since 2015.

Ice-sculpted puddles on the trail
It’s a cold morning, and the frozen water on the track gleams as the sun rises.

Haweswater is not a lake, but a reservoir, created in 1935 by flooding the valley, which meant the destruction of farms and villages. This large scale alteration of landscape, and more recent management decisions that have been made since the establishment of the nature reserve, are driven by visions and aspirations, but do not always unfold without upset. In January we wrote about complexity, and this valley is a good illustration of that: not just what happens when there is change, but the process of making change, how different organisations work together, and how social cohesion can be affected in a region where landscape and lives are so intimately bound.  This is an issue we’ll come back to later.

Young and old. New tree planting above Naddle Farm to fit in with the existing woodland
Young and old: a new tree planted with protective cover beside an old hawthorn.

We had a spot in mind so walked through the woods and onto the open fell. My thoughts are occupied with the idea of wild and wildness, and the term ‘rewilding’ – one which both Rob and I feel gives the wrong impression of work that’s being done in an attempt to improve wildlife. The phrase is a bit exclusive and can be used to imply there was some ‘perfect’ moment of wild that we can return to, or as if the wild is something other, and is often bandied around with some sense of righteousness.

Heading up onto Harper Hills - too windy, too featureless for the canvas

I won’t go into that in too much detail now – suffice to say that the act of raising this question, physically, on the canvas, set us both thinking in a different way about an issue we frequently discuss. But out on the windswept fell, we are walking through a landscape edged with walls and fences and there is little birdsong save the odd lark fluttering from the grass, startled by our presence.We backtrack, closer to the trees, and wander up to a very old oak, and an ash, but the wind is too strong. So we dip back into the woods and there is an instant sensation, as if we are stepping in to wild – the air has the rich living smell of moist earth, the place is loud with birdsong, the tree roots and boulders are covered with moss, dead trees and live trees fill the space – and there is a sense of life. At its essence, is that what it is, this hard to define ‘wild’? Life, a pulse of nature, of living things doing well in their niches, out here in the fresh air?

Harriet taking down the canvas just as the rains started to fall

Wild is a willed word, a willed and willing place.

We have put it up. We are recording the sound of this old and mossy wood and being forced to be quiet  brings about a keener noticing of this place. There is no wind. Everything is so very still – except the soundscape – the noisy unfolding of life that’s possible because of the trees, because of the soil, because of the air. I imagine what this wood might be like in April when fresh leaves shine almost luminescent and the birds are even more vocal.

This is not dramatic but it feels wild. And it’s by no means untouched by humans. We’re in a wood pasture where grazing animals and trees share the same earth, without excessive pressure from the animals. It is how it is precisely because of centuries of farming, years when methods have changed, when types and numbers of grazing animals have altered, and the people involved have changed. In a neighbouring field Galloways are wandering, disturbing the earth as they go, part of a conservation and grazing programme being led here by RSPB and UU.

One of the many mossed-over trees in the ancient woods.

Reflecting on it while I sit on a moss-covered stone, I feel the wild is here, now, with the birds and the moss and the trees – the key for me is life – and a variety of life – supported not inhibited. Perhaps the very word, by nature of it being conjured by intellect, can never contain the truly wild, which may be reasoned about, but is beyond reason. The natural world is so complex in its workings, and inter-connectedness, that we are far, far from understanding it: feeling it, through the senses, is perhaps easier.

to sit and slow down / to let the sounds of birds and river and wind filter in / with the smell of moss and wet earth / and the chill of March morning air

It is not an answerable question / with a single satisfactory answer / but it sets me feeling curious

the moss is wet beneath me / in the sky above, an aeroplane – people heading away, maybe, to find the wild in another continent

While I sit and listen, and observe the ground beneath my feet, noting its details, Rob is considering his own process. The detail of attention to photographing seems to him like a metaphor for the attention that needs to be given to this place – not just the overview, the wider picture, not just the challenge of capturing many different elements in one place, but the small details.

Canvas in the woods seen with a long lens

And there’s something that happens with the unfurling of the cloth: ironically, as it’s in black-and-white, but placing it here after all the preparations inside is like turning on the colour, giving it space to have its own life, become a provocation. While as a question it’s irrelevant to the woods, the birds and the wider landscape, which just gets on with its own cyclical process of living, it’s important for us to ask: if we value the ‘wild’ and want to protect it, make space for it, how will we do this within the context of the less-wild, coerced and tidied, built spaces that we humans tend to inhabit, but are less accommodating of other species?

We have cosseted ourselves, built walls and barriers, pushed the wild away – yet in places like this, in places recognised as Areas of Natural Beauty, Nature Reserves and National Parks, we’re doing our best to make more space for the ‘wild’. A wood pasture is a good example of humans working with the natural world, just one ‘habitat’ of many that can benefit from a close and sensitive human-nature relationship.

Where is the Wild canvas
image shot on Rob’s Linhof panoramic camera

I’m brought out of my reverie by the hammering of a woodpecker in a nearby ash, and rustling in the canopy. The wind is picking up, and a light rain begins to fall. We’re forced by the elements to pack up and we manage to get the canvas down just before the rain becomes heavy. By the time we have walked out of the woods, and back to the car, we are drenched, our faces alive with the scent and slipperiness of rain.

More on the March Canvas, and some poetry, here.

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