An Open Letter to Paul Kingsnorth

Dear Mr. Kingsnorth

I came across a reference to you in the online magazine “UnHerd”. A few clicks later and there was “Dark Ecology”. It made a deep impression on me because it drew together, in a way that moved me deeply, many of the strands which make up my own psyche. I knew  the name. In my notes somewhere is a quote from you about withdrawing from the world. What I didn’t know was that you were, like me, a devotee of the scythe – “this thin crescent of steel”. Scything and me go back a long way. I first learnt how to handle one in my teens in Wiltshire in the late 50s. My teacher was a dairy farmer from down the lane with the memorable name of Mr. Lait.

The scythe became an element in a growing fascination with smallholdings, beekeeping and the books of Ethelind Fearon. That was the beginning, but my deeper involvement with what was then called Ecological politics began with a television interview: Joan Bakewell was talking to Satish Kumar, the editor of a magazine called “Resurgence”. I subscribed to the magazine. I even went to see him and as a result of that visit was invited to the inaugural meeting, in Red Lion Square in London, of what later became the Green Party.

There were other strands: the books of John Seymour, Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” the writings of  Phil Drabble, the CAT near Machynlleth, Appropriate Technology, Stonehenge, and a club I co-founded in Marlborough called “The Green Phoenix Club”. At the heart of my politics was the certainty, which has never left me, that our civilisation is based on a cheat. Our prosperity depends on cheating the natural ecology of the world by exploiting resources we cannot replace.

If you are reading this you are probably thinking something along the lines of “another old greenie”. Not quite. At some point in the mid 70s a group of “alternatives” were tramping the length of Britain pushing a huge cartwheel to publicise and fund the founding of an eco-community. When they reached the Marlborough area my wife and I invited them to our home for a meal. They were clearly what we then called “crusties”, and they smelt bad. That I could tolerate, but as someone who has been self-employed for most of my life, what shocked me and engendered a deep and lasting dislike of “hippie” culture, was the fact that their version of self-sufficiency was propped up by unemployment benefits – they were all on the dole.

Before I read your essay I had many times watched in bewilderment as teams of council employees, with three or four vehicles, in full protective gear set about our roadside verges with strimmers and brush cutters. I felt like shouting “I’m paying for all this; get a scythe.” From your analogy of the brush cutter on, your essay pulled together all sorts of strands in what has become a deeply uncomfortable political position. I love  your scorn for the meaningless mantra “sustainable development”, your identifying as male and American the peculiar phenomenon of the neo-enviromentalists, but I also loved your list of the things they get right, for example that “9 billion people all seeking the status of middle- class consumers cannot be sustained by vernacular approaches.”

Green politics has got so much wrong – Peak Oil for example – yet the core belief is now vindicated. It is quite likely that a majority of the literate world now subscribe to some sort of Greenwash, but even with this level of support, we have not been able to dent the onward march of “progress”. In my own case it is even more complicated because I have, for most of my life, worked with power tools and machines in various forms of woodworking. I have a profound love and respect for clever technology, and am deeply fascinated by IT in all its forms except one: the Singularity. Our technology must move us towards nature, not away from it.  I do believe we have it in our power to restore the ecology of our world and that appropriate technology could have a central role, but to do so means trying to change that pioneer instinct which lies deep in our genetic make-up; that part of us which “will remain buried in the ancient woodland floor of human evolution and in the depths of our old ape brains”.  You ask the question “why would any (human) community move from hunting and gathering to agriculture”. Your answer is profound:  “because they had to”. They had fallen into a progress trap.

My core belief now is that we humans are part of an ancient ecosystem and that we cannot sustain a way of life in conflict with the natural world. If it were ever possible for me to influence the society I live in and how we manage our lives, it is now too late. At 76 and deaf I am too old, handicapped and disillusioned, so what would not be a waste of time for me? You list five possibilities:

  • To withdraw. Yes, but I am far too restless to do so without some way of occupying hands and brain.
  • Preserving non-human life. Absolutely.
  • Getting my hands dirty – I do this already and have for most of my life.
  • Valuing nature – of course
  • Building refuges – Not places of physical refuge, that idea is much too tainted by another group of mad male Americans: the Preppers. But networks as refuge, or a refuge  of skills – now that is an idea.

I’m good with my hands but a poor teacher. Could you teach me how to teach scything?

Yours Sincerely

Richard S Turner



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The Season of Disappointment

How will you remember this Christmas? The tree that nobody saw? Did you begin the month in hope and end in despair? Misery, grief, or just tedium and boredom?

I had great things planned. I was to spend the best part of a week at Steart Marshes. This extraordinary peninsula seaward of Bridgwater is the biggest of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s reserves and a pioneer in new flood management techniques. At low and neap tides it can be very disappointing – acres of uninhabited mud – but the December spring tide, when the whole area would be flooded, was predicted to fall around  the 17th My aim was to study and photograph in particular Short Eared Owls, and I was promised as much help as I needed from the staff in exchange for records and pictures.

In theory I could have gone, but it seemed against the spirit if not the law of the lockdown rules in Wales and the restrictions in England. Instead I concentrated on trying to increase the list of birds coming to our feeders, and setting up  disguised viewing areas from where I could photograph them. I set up two feeding stations in the “orchard” area of our garden and a screen with a bench seat to enable me to photograph whatever turned up. To attract raptors I bought a pack of frozen day-old chicks, a few of which were prominently displayed. I expected first Jackdaws, Crows and  Jays and hoped their movements would attract Buzzards, Kites and even a Sparrowhawk. The wretched little yellow corpses were completely ignored, until one or two were taken at night, presumably by the neighbours’ cats which dominate the night time videos I have taken with a trail camera.  I did however get a few interesting pictures of the Sparrows, Nuthatches and Starlings.  With only the prospect of more of the same, I gave up the idea in the end and took down the extra feeders and the screen – a fitting seasonal disappointment.

Maddened perhaps by the constant rain, thinking of my bucket list and sorely tempted by one of the iconic big telephoto lenses produced by Sony, I negotiated a deal with the Camera Centre in Newport. Here are a few of the shots I achieved with this lens over the weeks that followed. If you are interested in how a 400mm f2.8 lens works I will cover this in a separate post. 

I particularly liked this close up of two tiny drops of water which picked up the low sunshine:

Suddenly, around the 17th there was a window of fine weather with no travel restrictions. I decided to do a day trip in the car to Slimbridge, and had the idea to ask my daughter Hannah to join me there. The pictures were mostly disappointing, partly because I had a focus setting wrong when shooting birds in flight. Some of the long distance shots though were impressive. This Barnacle Goose was 300 metres away, and the Golden Plover even further. This picture was just a small part of a huge flock.

It was wonderful to spend the day with Hannah doing something we both enjoyed. One day I hope to do the same with my other daughter, Natalie. As things turned out it was the last chance of this disappointing year to hug my closest relative.

Later in the month I returned to some of my spring lockdown favourite local places. One, further up on the Towy involved hacking a 500m path through the brambles which had grown up since my last visit. Laden with camera, lens, tripod, pop-up hide, and machete it was worth it. As soon as I got the hide set up this young Cormorant appeared, and spent the next 20 minutes preening and drying off his feathers. (Curiously cormorants can’t waterproof their plumage with oil like other sea-birds.) The low sun was directly behind him which made for some interesting light effects:After Christmas the rain began to recede and I went in search of the flock of Redwings which spends the winter around the old Neuadd. I had seen them nesting in Iceland where they are quite approachable. Here though they flee at the first sight of people so are difficult to photograph. Are they different birds of have they learnt to behave differently? The Gwenlais valley past Penstacan is gorgeous in the other seasons, but in damp cloudy winter, uninspiring until I got to a clearing above the forestry and could look out over the Towy valley. Could be worse! 

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Best of November

The month began in the middle of the two week “Circuit Breaker” in Wales during which we were told not to travel. Infections had been rising to a dangerous level in parts of the country and this 2 week lockdown was intended to take the pressure off the health service.

On Guy Fawkes day – now scarcely celebrated in the village, most preferring the American festival of throwing-stuff-away which is Halloween – the sun came out. Walking out of the village I captured something of the light and colour of the season here.

Half of all British families feed birds in the winter with the result that, at the same time as most species of farmland birds are in rapid decline, those which can adapt their feeding habits to our preferences are now at maximum numbers. I have set up 3 feeders and try to vary the offerings in the hope of encouraging and photographing slightly less common bird table visitors. It has been a partial success, and no wildlife-based list of seasonal pictures could omit the Greater Spotted Woodpecker.

One of our neighbours has recently taken up Pigeon racing, and I was delighted to be able to photograph his small flock doing circuits and then landing on the church tower.

By the 15th I was free to travel again and did a two day tour of our nearest bit of coast – Pembury, Bury Port and Llanelli. The highpoint for me was catching a Spring Tide and watching a  huge flock of Oyster Catchers wheeling round the long redundant pier at Pembury Harbour.

Another thrill was the flock of Black Tailed Godwits at Penclacwydd.It was a cold and blustery day with little to see, but a patch of golden light through the sleet gave me this image.

I have a sort of tradition of visiting  Dryslwyn castle in the winter. This time it was draped in a luminous mist which seemed to give some special tonal quality to this Song Thrush, but that may be just me.

Back at the bird feeders the sparrows were frantically flapping to keep their places against more agile and more powerful competitors.

At the end of the month I did a longer trip west to Newport, Aberteifi and Bosherston. Most of the visual highlights were covered in my posts here:  and here:  but I didn’t mention a bird known to those who visit the bridge at Newport (Pembs) regularly. This Magpie has learnt how to beg for food and waits around for visitors, especially favouring those carrying long lenses!

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Winter Light in West Wales

Teifi Marshes occupy a flat valley floor to the east of Aberteifi. The nature reserve, run by the Wildlife Trusts, was linked to the county town (aka Cardigan) by rail and water. The trains are long gone, but the line of the track now provides road access to the visitor centre. Although so close to the town, there is no road link and it feels a very wild place.

It was cold, frosty and misty when I was there and the light in the afternoon and early morning was spectacular.

This is not a place where the wildlife watcher is likely to find exciting rarities, but I spent a glorious hour watching a common buzzard searching for food, and my early morning encounter with the Curlew was recorded here:

The next day I was in Newport Pembs. In Welsh it is Trefdraeth which means “Town by the Beach”. If it ever was a port it is no longer, and the main beach is the other side of the estuary, but it is still one of the most beautiful and fascinating towns in Wales and the estuary is pretty good for birds too. 

Usually. This time all the geese had gone and only a few of the relatively  common Dabchicks, Curlews and Sandpipers diluted the flocks of Gulls, Mallards and Wigeon. They are all lovely creatures, but my best pictures in the gently fading light were landscapes:A rainy day was spent exploring the country to the east of the Mynydd Preseli, and then I headed south, crossing the Landsker Line between Llanddowror  and Red Roses.  I’m always fascinated by this ancient linguistic boundary which still divides North from South Gower and North East from South West Pembrokeshire. What history is in those very un-Welsh names: Robeston Wathen, Puncheston, Landshipping, Red Roses, Manorbier, and my destination Bosherston and Stackpole, and best of all Barafundle Bay. 

I didn’t get to Barafundle on this trip and there were no lilies on Bosherston Lily Ponds, but there was a quiet and poignant beauty to the almost monochrome scene:

Later in the morning the sun began to filter through the mists, the Jackdaws delighted in the updraft from the cliffs, the Ravens preened and I felt sad for the Irish saint Govan who hid from pirates in a cleft in the cliffs and then had a tiny chapel built round him – or perhaps not.

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I Curlew

Dawn. It has been a cold night here on our little island in the marshes. Here we can sleep safe from the animals, the rufus and brown, the teeth and claws and the cracking of bones and scattering of feathers. Safe from all the animals but one: the big brown one that lives in the water, but he eats fish. Some say there is another, black and terrible, but I have not seen one here. 

There is a brown human square box thing with dark patches, and something moves inside it, but whatever moves inside it does not look like humans. They make noises. The water birds swim around, heads in the water, searching for food. The little diver dives again and again and I can see where he is swimming from all the bubbles. The big grey fisher bird is here too, slowly flapping in and standing stiff by the water.

Something catches his eye and he wades out into the water, but it’s nothing and he wades back again.

She pretends to sleep, my mate there with her head under her wing. I see the eye open and close again.

Ah, my little friend the fisher bird with his gaudy colours is here. The creatures in the box point round black things at him. There are clicks.

The little brown stripy birds are hiding in the dead reeds by the fat quacker. One of them has flapped over to our island.

The light is good now and my stomach is empty. There is no food for us at the island, but all around are big patches of wet mud full of Curlew food. I call out. “Weeper loo loo loo”, stretch my wings and fly over the brown square thing. She follows. We come here every winter, and in the spring we fly inland to our nest site on the moors. There is something wrong with our patch. Every year she lays eggs, but the animals find us, the big black birds find us, the big red birds too and they all eat our babies. The grass is too short now to hide in.  The big white animals eat it all. Every year there are more of them and with them come the big killer birds. Peck peck  and the egg is broken open. They suck up what they can, but most of it is left to die. One year we had three chicks but the animals and the birds took them all.

Every winter there are less of  us locals at the mud. Most of those with us are foreigners. They fly in from the cold places in the north to eat and roost with us. It’s good to have them round us. It gets lonely in Spring when they all fly away.

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