August Canvas

August 'Sense of Here' Canvas: In Our Hands, placed in the River Duddon

A buzzard’s high-pitched call mixes with the sound of the River Duddon as we approach. The day is calm, and the river shallow at this spot, but water has been on my mind. Yesterday, nineteen flood warnings were in place in the north of England, and there have been evacuations from flooded towns.

I have been sitting with thoughts about what’s going on, worldwide, and the choices we have: the future that’s in our hands. Despair creeps over me like stubborn fog when I think of the loss of Amazon forest, the use of pesticides, floods, glacial melting in the north, Trump’s attitude to climate change and reports that America’s Environmental Protection Agency is turning to industry, rather than science, for direction. I struggle.

Then we walk through the grass and my gaze is caught by the tiny and vibrant scarlet heads of Devil’s matchstick lichen, reaching out like curious eyes from the green world at my feet. The lichen – actually a partnership of fungus and algae – is playing its small, important part in creating soil and new habitats for plants, as it slowly breaks down the rock on which it’s growing. As I walk I’m completely focused on the uneven ground of tussocky humps, rocks and boggy holes. A few steps further on, my attention is taken by the brightness of tender new leaves and the intricate rectangular patterns of a spider’s web, a pattern of near-square boxes like the old dot-to-dot games I used to play as a child. Woven overnight, and with the spider still busy at its centre, this wide silk hammock is now catching dew and moths, both flickering in the cool early morning light. The air is full of the sound of the river flowing over stone.

The canvas is in place

This valley is a valley of stories, individual and collective human acts and memories laid over the passing of seasons. Rob and I have helped here with the thinning of Sitka spruce, which isn’t suited to this place, and the reintroduction of native tree species through the Hardknott Forest Restoration project. You can read our blog about cutting down trees, and planting others, here, and find out more about the restoration project, and how you can get involved, here. In time the aim is for this valley to become the longest continuous broad leaf woodland in the Lake District. We’ve also helped gather sheep off the fells and into this valley on a few occasions, welcomed in by a local farmer whose shared not just his knowledge of the land, but his mastery here, sure-footed and in tune with the ground at his feet, his dogs, and his flock.

This land is, in every respect, hand crafted; alongside the flow of rivers, the weaving of webs and the flutter of moths, the shape of land, the way we use it, compartmentalise it, care for it, is ‘in our hands’.

When we drove in this morning over Wrynose Pass and down to Cockley Beck I was struck by the number of trees planted along the valley, on the flanks of high fells. Small trees are finding their way out of the top of their plastic tubes. Around fifteen thousand trees have been planted along the fell that runs along Wrynose Bottom, by Cockley Beck, and several thousand more near the pass, much higher up. Give it twenty years and this valley will have been transformed; visitors who come here then, for the first time, may have no idea as they drive through woodlands that for many decades the land was an open stretch of grass, bracken and rocks. This tree planting is one example of what’s happening in many locations across Cumbria: new trees can be hard to notice for the first 2-5 years, yet within 15 they can change the very spirit of a place.

Where do we – collectively – go from here? It’s clear that we are at a pivotal time, with climate change still accelerating, and biodiversity loss continuing globally. No single one of us on our own can turn the situation around, but together, it might be possible. Right now it seems as if we’re on the cusp of change, with reports about the troubling state of the environment being shared, and believed, more widely, and protests urging governments to prioritise the reduction of fossil fuel use and take heed of the urgent need to protect habitats, the world over. Locally in Cumbria, it’s encouraging to see increased tree cover in some areas, projects being run by organisations such as Cumbria Wildlife Trust, and shifts in approach to land management in collaborative work such as the Ullswater Catchment Management CiC. We’ll be highlighting some of this work soon in separate blogs: these are some of the things that are positive, but there’s a long way to go in improving the condition of the environment across the national park and Cumbria, and reducing carbon emissions. What changes shall we all make? And how shall we come together to plan these? The decision, like the land, the sea, the soil, the air, the climate, is in our hands.

It feels as if this short poem of canvases has found its turning point – a moment of pause, time to think – before moving on with the year.

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