October Canvas: Each Act Matters

Voices travel featherlight on the wind, like a kind of music, and then drift off and the air is a tumble of water once more, the chill of October edging in on the tail end of the year. The grasses around me have faded to brown. Heather too, withdrawn and quiet now, forgetting flowers and its warm pink August flush, holding energy instead in roots and leaves.

We are on a flank of Fleetwith Pike, close to Striddle Crag, under a greying sky – the forecasted clarity of the afternoon has not come to pass. In the northwest and on the high top of Great Gable the sun is still making the land sing bright – but here, the clouds are, stealing the sun’s glow from the canvas. Rob is frustrated. For him, it is always about the light, and he’s waiting for the clouds to shuffle on, and let the light through.

For me, it’s about the light and about the feel, about the place. I’m sitting above the canvas, looking over three bodies of water: Buttermere, Crummock, and the distant Solway Firth. Warnscale Beck flows noisily down the hill and into the valley bottom, feeding into Buttermere. The valley is a patchwork: spreads of rust-brown bracken, walled in intakes of pale green and brown, bright green improved pastures, bright blue lakes, and woodlands catching the soft sun.

It’s a rocky land too: the steep fells that embrace the valley are sheer faces of crags and swathes of stone. Just as the valleys have been used for farming, the fells here have been used: this area has a distinctive grey-green slate that has been mined since the early 1700s. Back then, the slate was dug out by hand and lugged off the fell, load by load, by men pulling sledges, then taken out of the valley on pack ponies. The routes they took are the footpaths of today, industrial heritage woven in paths of leisure. But slate mining has not stopped: it continues today at Honister Quarries, and on our way to this spot we have walked past diggers and trucks, and piles of slate ready to be hauled away.

The quarries are at my back now, and I look instead over woodland on the banks of Buttermere. I remember the first time I walked through them, on a visit to the Lake District from my home in Manchester. I was overwhelmed by the size of the woods, tree after tree after tree, worlds of moss, wet rocks, greens, the rivulets running down the hill. From up here that wood seems so tiny, such a small patch in a surround of open ground that’s used for grazing. I think back to Fishlake National Park in Utah, where we’ve recently been, and the extent of the forests there – further than my eyes could see, thousands and thousands of acres of trees – and the contrast in f Illinois where extensive farmland has displaced both woodland and prairies. All these landscapes, here, in America, and even in the furthest reaches of Antarctica, are shaped by and rely on human actions, on choices about where to live, what to grow, about resources and lifestyles. Always there are consequences. The words on the canvas provoke me into some kind of negative thinking, but it doesn’t have to be: each small act, beginning with intent, can make a positive difference. Each wetland protected, for instance, provides habitat for species that have been pushed to the brink of extinction, and offers carbon storage for the future. Each tree planted adds to a woodland. Each act matters: and its consequence follow the undeniable process of cause and effect. One thing follows another, and no one event or material can exist without its connections to every other. Careful navigation through life can involve changing course as new information comes to light, and the impact of each one act is better understood.   

The canvas stands up here above a land shaped by choices and history, a managed land where human endeavour has always been pressed up against the inclination of mountains, the intentions of water, the vagaries of wind, the context of economics, and the need to put food on the table. The fields in the valley bottom have been hard fought for, and walls and footpaths have been laid stone by back-jarring stone amid laughter, stories and rain. The mines too are the product of tough work and comradery. The land has been coaxed to give as much as it can while people have made the best of their collective lives.

I see nothing wild about this place at all. Not today. I love it no less but its smallness is so striking after the wide open spaces and vast skies of Utah. The thing is, I love the Lake District for its smallness: I can stand on a summit and see so many hills and valleys, get a feel for the whole place, yet at the same time know that I will never be able to walk every path, or even fully know a single mountain. The smallness that is its appeal, though, is also its vulnerability – and the source of the immense challenge of making it somehow more wild, in the sense of enhancing biodiversity and habitat variety, yet keeping it a lived in, loved, and accessible place.

In a larger space – I think now about Utah as an example – where the general and the abstract have more prominence than the small details, the consequences of an action can be hidden. It often is attention to the small things, the individual acts, which trigger a series of knock-on events, that may be most powerful.

Close up shot of canvas letters in situ

The light has dulled across Haystacks and the scene has lost the wonder it offered with the light when we first arrived. There’s a feel now, instead, of wind and cold, and the weather is taking charge. My fingers are freezing. But there’s suddenly a feel of something wild that I couldn’t find before – this place does that to you, makes you feel cosy and safe one minute, then exposed and challenged the next.  

2pm

We have taken the canvas down now, and had a last look, for today, across the Buttermere Valley, where that small but beautiful patch of woodland is in cloud. I imagine again what it is like among those trees, and the sound of birds there, just how much life there is in a small fragment like this. Rob and I dream of a ‘necklace’ of woodlands that offers a connected habitat, all around the lakes, so that you could walk in a complete loop, always with trees at your side … this could begin with many simple individual small acts, with each tree panted counting towards something bigger. Turning our backs on the valley and walking back through the quarried land, I think about the outer and inner landscapes, how they form over time, and the potential for change.

walls and slate heaps – the work goes on / the digging and piling of grey green stone / the laying of tracks, the sculpting of land

machines follow contours, just as water does, or ice / to leave gullies, moraines, plateaus,

the outer landscape shaped and shifting / it’s not so different, inside body and mind / habitual gait or bend of back or train of thought / all these sculpt the landscape of muscles, bones and brain / conditions what comes next

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