What Can Change

The light is changing from moment to moment, fast clouds skitting across the sun, and the sun itself sinking with that rapidity that characterises the days now, so close to midwinter. One moment the canvas is bright, the next it is in shade. Behind it, Skiddaw holds onto the light. This is the first blue sky day we’ve had in just under two weeks, and it’s very welcome.

The breeze is dying down. Today England woke to fierce winds. Storm Atiyah which had sent its full force over Southern Ireland, was kicking its hind legs over us as it retreated and ran out of power. In contrast, the air now feels peacefully still.

We’re on a crag on the northern edge of St. John’s in the Vale, close to a spot marked as Low Rigg on the map. At our feet, the grass sprouting from saturated ground is yellow, tussocks rising between patches of nibbled heather and wet pillows of moss. The land drops steeply from the site we’ve chosen for the canvas, down to a flat ‘moss’, a boggy, grassy patch of land punctuated with a few outcrops of lichen covered rock. Then there’s a further drop, where the land makes a steep descent into the Threlkeld Valley where the fields are green, and dotted with sheep and trees. Above Threlkeld, the two hulking massifs of Skiddaw and Blencathra dominate the scene.

The valley we are looking over felt the force of Storm Desmond in 2015: the path that ran along the old Keswick-Threlkeld railway line was washed away and the river Greta altered its course, biting through earth and rocks and felling trees as it carved its swollen way through the drenched land. Bridges gave way, and paths disappeared; the impact of one night’s unprecedented heavy rain, falling on land already soaked with at least a month’s relentless downpours. But this followed on from decades, from centuries, of the erosion of soil in the hills and the reduction in tree cover. Changes made centuries ago, almost exclusively for reasons of progress measured in money and the comfort of living, have had a long, slow, impact on the land. And now the land is revealing its damage.

The temporary loss of the Keswick-Threlkeld path for so long was just one consequence of those storms. It has been a monumental task to rebuild the path, which should be fully open again in 2020 (more here). While the most severe, the floods caused by storm Desmond have been only some of the many floods Cumbria has been hit by over the past two decades; in many areas, people are still picking up the pieces.

These are the severe events we see, and instantly feel, as a result of change that has taken place over time. Other significant events that are less visible or and less easily felt include the degradation of soils. Here in Cumbria there has been some restoration of peatland, with almost 5000 hectares restored since 2015 under the direction of the Cumbria Peat Partnership; here’s a great example of what can change. There’s a desperate need for work to restore the quality of further areas of peat, and of soils on lower ground. Soil is often kept out of the limelight, unseen, undiscussed, but it’s fundamental; and its quality is linked to the quality of rivers, tarns and lakes. Perhaps the least visible change of all, but the most pressing, is the rising levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere. We are all feeling the changes now – or more accurately, we, as a local, national and global society, are waking up to the changes and talking about them more openly. Thirty years ago scientists were well aware of what might change if emissions continued to rise … the predictions are now showing themselves to be true.

Now the question of what can change could be phrased with the addition of ‘to slow down and reverse damage to the natural world’. It is one of the biggest questions of our time.

Rob wondered if the words ‘what can change’ were too passive – and whether the question, or the statement, should instead be ‘what must change’. This is the challenge we all face: knowing what needs to change, what must change, yet being tied into a system and a way of life that appears to put the brake on change. We cannot do everything, right now; but we can do some things, and each of those things that we are able to do, as individuals and as society, at a personal and a policy level, adds up.

The UK is in the grip an election. There will, I hope, be a change – but what this may lead to is beyond guessing. Promises are not the same as actions; and not all actions lead to anticipated results. We talk of climate change and biodiversity loss so often in the abstract but ultimately what changes comes down to people. National government policies around people – protecting vulnerable people, being compassionate and inclusive rather than increasing the numbers of people who are living in a state of need, or on the streets, without access to good health care, without nutritious food … how can we as a society make progress for the wider good when there is fundamental inequality? Lines cannot be drawn between the haves and have-nots allowing shared problems to be ignored. We are all here.

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We’ve come to the twelfth canvas of the year. December. We’re not far from the track beneath Wolf Crag where we placed the January canvas. Tick Tock. The year has raced by, we have counted the months in footsteps and in words. The sequence of words for the canvas, which I wrote in November 2018, has come to its close, and we’ve walked with this emerging poetic sequence in our minds, our thoughts turning now to what marks the start of positive changes. Where are things happening that are making a good impact, where people are working together and the beginnings of positive change are clearly visible? In the midst of so much dark news, and in the breath-holding pause of election day before the results come in, it feels like this is a time to shine a light on positive actions and positive changes, and take them as examples to be followed, either as sparks of inspiration to promote place-relevant site-specific thinking, or as models that can be repeated. From January this blog will share stories from people we meet around the county whose dedication and passion is driving change.

The wind has been playing with the canvas, setting it billowing like a sail, and also sending clouds across the sky. I am standing full face in sunshine, so bright that I have to close my eyes, loving its brightness but the cold wind whips away its heat. I turn to face the northern fells, which are glowing with a painterly light: soft yellows and browns against the pure blue of the sky. Skiddaw is turning to rust now, and Blencathra is showing off its rocky pleats, catching the low sun and throwing it back with the quality of hematite. Above them, the clouds are beginning to take on a subtle purple. To the west, Grisedale and Codale fells sit in a watercolour haze, dreamy. Far, far in the east the long back of the Pennines is rosy in the dying light. It’s three o clock; sunset isn’t far away.

3.45pm
Twilight, and the pace of change slows. All sunlight has left the fells and now the land is a spread of subdued browns, a soft pause before darkness. The moon is a bright pearl orb over Clough Head, teased in and out of sight by clouds. In the lee of the fell, forest grows where once there was a quarry, hiding the scars of cut rock. The sky is slowly, slowly pinking. On the A591, traffic seems to be increasing, tail lights like a red hem around the skirts of Blencathra. This is the slow change of day to night, of moon’s shape, and as I contemplate the scene, and my own thoughts, the statement, or the question, becomes not what can change but who can change. Who is heard, who listens, and who acts. We are all here, we are all in this together, and a new shape of dialogue is needed.

We’re almost at the mid-point of winter; the time of change as the earth turns and these dark, dark days will begin to shift, to let a bit more light in. The land around us is sleeping, quiet beneath the pounding of rain and the passing of winds. In the neighbouring valley, the earth gives itself up to the digging of trenches for pipes; on the flanks of Skiddaw and around Braithwaite, it has been disturbed and dug into for the planting of new trees. Across the fells, it lies passive beneath the passing of feet, and everywhere, it holds potential. Change will come with the arrival of spring, but there can be more change; and the land is at the mercy of people’s choices. It will give, and flourish, wherever it is given space to do so.

In forty years’ time, what might have changed here? What new conversations and collaborations will allow people to come together, to share passion and ideas, research and skills? Rob and I hope for woodlands in some of the spaces where there are none; for great spreads of wild flowers; for improved water quality; for greater connectivity between landscapes; for improved soils; and for the babies of today who are not yet even walking to know, in forty years’ time, what it feels like to stand with the wind in your face and the smell of wet earth in your nostrils, and to witness the fells turning from rust to pink as the nearly full moon rises into a purple sky.

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