White’s Ecology

‘Always include the local nature in the membership of the local community’ Wendell Berry

By any reckoning, Reverend Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne – staggeringly, the fourth most published book in the English language – is an unlikely success story. Essentially a journal of the fauna and flora found in one eighteenth-century Hampshire parish, its littleness is undoutedly the clue to its appeal. Unlike many clergy today, whose hands wring at global dynamics well beyond their influence, White’s principal pastoral concern appears to have been the varying movements of toads across his rectory garden. Such micro-level attention – and his role as unwitting pioneer of a progressive view of nature that viewed the welfare of human and non-human culture as inseparably related – means that White emerges today as something of a local hero.

Scan 48In a fascinating introduction to White’s Natural History, Richard Mabey considers that ‘parish’ is the crucial idea behind White’s unparalleled description of local ecology:

‘Parish’ is a very laden concept. It has to do not just with geography and ecclesiastical administration, but with history and a system of loyalties. For most of us, it is the indefinable territory to which we feel we belong, which we have the measure of. Its boundaries are more the limits of our intimate allegiances than lines on a map. These allegiances have always embraced wild life as well as human…

Mabey coins the term ‘parochial ecology’ to capture White’s settled attention to Selborne – ‘the landscape of the pastoral dream made flesh’, but there is no ‘illusory’ nostalgia to this affirmation: for Mabey, it became a guiding theme for his pioneering environmental work, as expressed in, for example, Common Ground (1980) and Second Nature (1984). As he writes in the former: ‘The idea of parish … must underlie … a conservation policy which takes any account of human feelings.’

Highlighting another priest-naturalist, John Stevens Henslow, Rector of Hincham in Suffolk, Mabey argues that, for the man who taught Charles Darwin and encouraged his voyage on The Beagle: ‘Yet it was in his parish that his most important work was done … he was not just Hincham’s rector but its curator.’

Leaving aside the enviable freedom of the single-parish incumbent in this era to attend to broader interests, the essence of Mabey’s tribute to Henslow is profoundly significant. It is not his concern to explore the theological implications of being the ‘curator’ of a locality, nevertheless the resonances with the pastoral ‘cure’ under English law, still retained by the parish priest, are plain – and it may be contended with some force that truly parochial ministry is pastoral on both counts – formed by an ecology of care for a particular place, its people and their relation to the land.

One of the riches of the parochial tradition is thus what Oliver O’Donovan describes as the ‘reciprocal relation between nature and culture … mediating a possibility for human life in community’. By virtue of its territorial stability, the parish is uniquely placed to offer such mediation: a fact that has long been recognised in the pioneering work of Common Ground, the environmental charity that Richard Mabey founded in 1982 with Sue Clifford and Angela King. This saw particular expression in the Parish Maps project, which, for ten years from 1986, encouraged local neighbourhoods to depict in imaginative ways the territory to which they especially identified. Accepting the ways in which this scheme was ‘tugged away from the city’ by the inescapably rural overtones of the term ‘parish’, Crouch and Matless (1996) observed how it:

connects settlement and surrounding land … to a long English cultural tradition of presenting place, especially rural place, in reverential, ritual, sacred terms.

Whilst the imaginative affiliation of ‘landscape’ with rural, rather than urban topography became a conditioning factor on what was produced (and by whom), Common Ground chose the parochial concept, because, as Sue Clifford plainly acknowledges: ‘The ecclesiastical parish has been the measure of English landscape since Anglo-Saxon times.’ ‘Parish’, Clifford argued, offered what no other English term could: an equivalent to the German heimat – a way of describing ‘the intersection of culture and nature’ and ‘deeply felt ties of familiarity, identification and belonging’.

Digging more deeply into the affective connotations of ‘landscape’, however, the charity also offered ‘parish’ as their definition of English particularity expressly because of its rich notes of personal association and attachment – the ‘place of responses’ as Mabey has it. Parish thus becomes an imaginative bridge between ‘real’ space-time community and the less tangible, psychological responses that seek out a place of personal settlement and wellbeing. In Second Nature (1982) Fraser Harrison writes:

At least it can be said that we are saner, more contented people when we have … close familiarity with a small, parish-sized patch of countryside in which we can plant our experience.

The ‘belonging’ resonances of the term are hard to underestimate – and are a theme which the nature writer Roger Deakin picks up, with reference to John Donne’s poem ‘the Good Morrow’:

 A parish accommodates to the imagination because it is framed or contained … by ancient boundaries, natural and supernatural.

In a further assessment of Gilbert White’s parochial ecology, David Elliston Allen, in his landmark History of the Naturalist in Britain, described Selborne as ‘that secret, private parish inside each one of us’. Notwithstanding its need for cultural deconstruction (the ‘each one of us’ in Allen’s statement presumably being only those to whom the word parish carries such emotional significance), the idea of the parish as a secret place of belonging is deeply suggestive. Because, in the English context, notions of belonging are so tethered to a idealized conception of the land – ‘nowhere else is landscape so freighted as legacy’ observes David Lowenthal – such an account must resurface the route between nostalgia, utopia and a genuinely hopeful eschatology, so that parochialism is prevented from becoming, on the one hand, a hopeless quest for unattainable place or, on the other, a stagnant cipher for lost homeland.

The danger – heightened in the current climate – is that debate about place becomes unhelpfully bipolar, such that attachment to territory falls victim to easy caricature as reactionary, exclusive and politically right-wing, whilst liberal geographical discourse can appear detached and curiously placeless. The response must not be to dispense with the territorial principle for being locked into anachronistic perceptions of landscape, but to find the means whereby heritage – and the rediscovery of local ecology – becomes a key to unlock, not barricade, the future. To reverse the old hippie dictum, thinking locally but acting globally may be the best place to begin.

 

 

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Good Fences

“Good fences make good neighbours”. Robert Frost’s early poem Mending Wall, uses this gruff refrain from the old man next door to explore the paradox that boundaries are necessary in order for people to live together. “Before I built a wall”, Frost reflects, “ I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out”.

Despite the creosoted slats and fat batches of privet viewed through my window, physical boundaries give concrete form to a less visible social contract. Though shaped by landscape, gated and punctuated by signs, lines and barriers, a community begins, essentially, as an idea: its border a meniscus formed by the surface tension of people pulling together.

When these are imposed from outside– witness the crude, imperial carve-up of Africa in the 1880s or Europe after the Great War – they tend to end in communal dismemberment. Enduring community is internally conceived and exists as the product of a shared imagination, as the Marxist writer Benedict Anderson observed, in Imagined Communities, his seminal work on nationalism. Nations, he writes, are “conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship”, the limits of which are fixed in relation to one’s neighbours.

Boundaries are thus concerned with belonging – the consequence of what St Augustine called “the common objects of love”, notwithstanding the fact that, when people love in common, the objects of their shared fear and hatred are never far away. So then, to play borders down is not to belong: to love everywhere equally is to love nowhere very much.

Contemporary human geography tends to encourage the view that heavily drawn national and local boundaries are, at best, socially restrictive and, at worst, geographically redundant. In For Space, her apologia for a more ‘open’, dynamic conception of locality, the influential British Geographer Doreen Massey contends that, in the Modern era, space was seen as an essentially static commodity, ripe for conquest and containment. This, she argues, was profoundly flawed, geographically, as space, being a social product, always evades capture by its very fluidity. Her plea for a more ‘messy’ understanding of space and place is at its most winning in its desire that they should enable the ‘thrown togetherness’ that ‘may set us down next to the unexpected neighbour’. Against the rigid mapping of human territory, she writes: “On the road map you won’t drive off the edge of your known world. In space as I want to imagine it, you just might”.

But the vital counterpoint is that boundaries enable one to do just that – by delineating and describing the ‘known world’. Indeed, there is arguably no such thing as a ‘known world’ without a boundary, personal knowledge always being limited. Boundaries are thus a necessary part of human physicality: communities require them as bodies require skin. They exist in order to enable social inclusion, not frustrate it. For the sake of a clear and pleasant worldview, there is a temptation to remove them from sight: to make each one a kind of cultural ha-ha, giving the illusion of free passage until you realize the ground has disappeared underneath you.

As with neighbourhood, so with the nation. Alasdair MacIntyre (1984) has disputed the liberal idea that to act morally, ‘is to learn to free oneself from social particularity’ – to be, effectively, ‘citizens of everywhere’. On the contrary, he argues:

‘Where’ and ‘from whom’ I learn my morality turn out to be crucial for the context and nature of moral commitment, as any form of morality will be intimately connected with specific institutional arrangements.

Loyalty to a particular community, he continues, is ‘a prerequisite for morality’, concluding: ‘deprived of this community I am unlikely to flourish as a moral agent.’ In Mending Wall, Robert Frost questions the wisdom in bricking up a boundary where none seems to be needed – especially when there is so much that ‘wants it down’. As for his neighbour, he reflects:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

Nevertheless, the shared task of reconstructing the wall – dismissed at first as “just another outdoor game: one on a side” – becomes both the occasion and the fulcrum of his relationship to the old man next door. The pressing contemporary challenge is thus not how to dismantle borders, but reconfigure them so that both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ relationships are enabled in morally and socially positive ways.

Fundamentally, this requires starting, not at a community’s limits but at its centre, for boundaries are merely the extension of our core vision and purpose. If your society’s borders have gone haywire, something is badly wrong at the centre. When, however, the ‘soul’ of a community or nation is secure, the borders can afford to be less so, paradoxically, because – to employ the familiar trope of neighbourhood – this is the kind of place where you can leave your door open. May it become so here.

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Crow in the beanfield

Friday’s referendum result marks a seismic shift towards localism and nationalism (essentially two scales of the same thing) in reaction to deeply unsettling global currents. Despite the feeling that we have willingly sliced off one of our limbs, this isn’t unfamiliar territory, especially for an island nation that, throughout my lifetime, has been ambivalent at best about fully connecting to Europe.

Like all political positions, this one has besetting strengths and weaknesses: the latter always being various shades of nostalgic xenophobia – and, under certain conditions, their more chilling progeny. Its contrasting strengths, however, are communal cohesion and – believe it or not – the resulting confidence to engage openly with those beyond our borders. To play down boundaries is to not belong anywhere in particular: which is why internationalism, by denying cultural identity, is equally prone to fostering bigotry. Good fences make good neighbours, as Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall goes.

It is both inaccurate and deeply pessimistic to claim the unhealthy side of this stance as the sole cause and inevitable consequence of yesterday’s result. And if liberal opinion insists that social conservatism and attachment to territory are necessarily a symptom of something sinister, then extremism and insularity become self-fulfilling prophecies – being the only lens people are offered to view these allegiances through.

The problem for English media and politics – and the downfall of this mess of a campaign – has been that hardly anyone from the left dares to engage with the positive side of national feeling. Clearly, this isn’t the case for Scots, whose commitment both to ‘Little Scotland’ and radical social inclusion is something the English can only watch with envy and, after Friday, a heavy measure of despair.

Farage is just a crow in the beanfield: for all he caws, the land isn’t his. To scare away that kind of mutant patriotism, we must understand and affirm what is beneficial in national and communitarian sentiment. Grievous though it feels, Europe as we have known it, and probably the United Kingdom, will likely disintegrate before finding a new integrity. We now have to reconceive what ‘good fences’ look like: installing in our walls broad gates for our neighbours, who are still – as they always were – welcome.

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Gleba

May dawns should be treasured, according to Ronald Blythe. Determined not to fritter mine this year, I spent several in the glebe field adjoining this parish. By wet nettles and mole-earth, scouting for cows and seeing if the Eden Brook was deep enough to swim. On one early run, during a cloudburst, it was – so I launched into a careening ride down the brown rapids, slamming into the scrub, then dashing back for another go. Centerparcs with brambles, this was perfect, primal and, squelching like a sponge into the kitchen afterwards, a little hard to explain.

From the Anglo-Saxon gleba, meaning ‘soil’, glebe fields are one of the most striking relics of the ancient landscape: green islands now impossibly old, with their roots in the early medieval field economy. Glebe was intended for subsistence of the parson, who was expected to cultivate it himself. Eventually incorporated into the jumble of rights or ‘rectory’ that supported the local priest, glebe earthed the English parish in an inseparable bond between soul and soil.

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These lands, like the green belt they often border, have again become totemic: potent symbols of local entrenchment against additional housing. Here, where the North Downs act as a kind of defensive earthwork against urban advance, this is acutely felt, and finds Anglicans involved still in the negotiation of territory. There is a sad fragility to these fields now: every few years, fresh fears of sell-off galvanise another local campaign. But how to protect ancient land as if we were at the dawn, not the dusk of something?

Before breakfast in May, as the M25’s rising noise vies with the chorusing birds, this plot, at least, keeps its promise. Pocked and blotched with cattle, greener than Eden: a rural surprise behind the suburban trampolines.

 

 

 

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Now the green blade riseth

Like the first hatch of midges, Anglicans gathered outside today to celebrate Rogationtide: four spring days when, according to ancient custom, the fields are blessed and processed and the parish bounds beaten. Here in Oxted, we spilled outdoors to find the five sheep in our churchyard had, with Wicker Man-style abandon, swiftly become eleven sheep, the lambs tottering like models over the tombstones.

For centuries, beating the bounds was a fundamental way in which social space was both practised and produced in this country. In his classic work fromScan 32 1973 Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas calls it the ‘corporate manifestation of the village community’, in which natural, spiritual and social strands were closely interwoven – fist fights and ale-gatherings breezily mixing with hymn singing and the recital of Psalms.

Before the advent of accurate mapping techniques, it was an equally vital means of ‘knowing your place’: the practice of beating key landscape markers with sticks (or, if a child, being beaten yourself, as a helpful aide-memoire) imprinting the limits of community upon each member. In her recent research into these ‘boundary perambulations’, Nicola Whyte describes the sheer physicality of this process – recognising, touching and hatching marks in familiar natural features – as a ‘mnemonic language’ through which landscape and memory were internalised, over many generations.

The marks of this social mapping are as indelible as they are invisible – and influence contemporary life in some surprising ways. I became keenly aware of this in my previous parish, at Crystal Palace in South-East London, whose central triangle of roads stands at the intersection of five London boroughs. In The Phoenix Suburb, his fine local history, Alan Warwick unearthed one particular Rogation Day in 1560 that marked the culmination of a longstanding territorial dispute, played out in their annual beating of the bounds, between ‘the Croydon men’ and the ‘Penge men’, over the precise location of their respective parish borders. During his Rogationtide perambulation of the bounds, Richard Finch, the Vicar of Croydon (‘a man of not very determined character’) encountered the equivalent party from Penge and – wisely, in my experience of Penge – backed down following aggressive accusations of trespass, thus conceding to them a significant portion of land, which remains as the borough boundary to this day.

Further details aside, two features of this case are particularly noteworthy: firstly, that the practical peculiarity of the current Croydon borough boundary – running along the middle of Church Road in Upper Norwood, to the confusion of municipal dustcarts – is, as Warwick writes ‘to some extent the outcome of the perambulations of a vicar in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I who was not sufficiently resolute.’

Second, and perhaps of greater interest, is the way in which this particular Church Road has consistently proved to be a site of social tension and boundary conflict: becoming both a ‘front line’ in the 2011 riots and the site of a notorious current planning dispute, regarding the conversion by a Black Majority Church of a former Cinema site along the same stretch of road. The Crystal Palace Cinema Campaign, supported by Mike Leigh and former Church Road resident, the late Ken Russell, is now viewed as a test case for determining equal access to the planning process for opposing community groups. Tudor clergy should have been more careful where they walked.

Scan 33

My grandfather, Henry Rumsey, leading a Rogationtide procession in Quorn, Leicestershire, 1930s.

Recent research by Nicola Whyte and others suggests that this appealingly Ackroyd-esque kind of recurrence may not be an isolated example of how the accidents of parish history converge to influence and, to some degree, explain, present-day patterns of social inclusion. In other words, the routes we take now yield some kind of harvest in the future. Watching my steps, then, I’m humming the old hymn:

Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been;                                                         love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

 

 

 

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Roll over, Vaughan Williams

 

imagesLast Sunday, in the stained sunlight of St Mary’s Church, the hundred or so souls gathered for Communion stood for the sublime folk hymn I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say. We sang to the strains of Kingsfold – one of several dozen traditional folksong melodies collected by Cecil Sharp at the turn of the last century which, via Ralph Vaughan Williams, found their way into the green leaves of Williams’ pastoral masterwork, the English Hymnal.

Nowhere else in our small commuter town does this happen and even the hippest acoustic club in London would be hard pressed to hold, week on week, such a sizeable hootenanny. There are, of course, one or two other things going on among the strange enthusiasms of Anglican practice, but, in musical terms, parish churches are still some of the most significant carriers of the British folk tradition.

Scan 20The English Hymnal – and the continued dissemination of its hymns – is arguably the main reason for this, its largely unsung role in the twentieth century folk music revival being affirmed in Electric Eden, Rob Young’s fine and frequently lyrical account of Britain’s visionary music. The first edition of the Hymnal, co-edited by Vaughan Williams, was published in 1906, in the springtime of a musical renaissance that, in counterpoint to the Arts and Crafts movement, saw Williams, Sharp and others touring the rural landscape in urgent search of long-played melodies already repeating to fade.

Thirty-nine such recently collected folk songs along with a further twenty-four tunes drawn from older printed collections were included by Williams in the English Hymnal, their enjoyably lusty titles often rechristened with more acceptably provincial hymn tune names. ‘The Miller’s Apprentice’ became, ‘Mendip’, for example, and ‘Young Henry the Poacher’ was renamed, with fenland flatness, ‘King’s Lynn’.

Assessment of this placing of folk-song at the heart of the English Hymnal tends to portray the collection as a kind of Trojan horse for the agnostic Williams’ primary aspiration for the recovery of communal folk singing in every neighbourhood. Whilst, unquestionably, Vaughan Williams knew that, as Rob Young writes, ‘the church pews held a captive audience for his folk revivalism’, Williams’ work suggests a more integrated vision. Partly this is because many of the folksongs themselves – including ‘Kingsfold’, a variation of the traditional ballad ‘Dives and Lazarus’ – already dealt with Christian themes; partly because Williams knew that art, like faith, grows from the land – and only becomes fruitful when taking root in a particular cultural soil.

In his series of lectures written up as the volume ‘National Music’, Vaughan Williams writes:

IMG_2451Some music may appeal only in its immediate surroundings; some may be national in its influence and some may transcend these bounds and be worldwide in its acceptance. But we may be quite sure that the composer who tries to be cosmopolitan from the outset will fail, not only with the word at large but with his own people as well. Was anyone ever more local, or even parochial, than Shakespeare?

‘Parochial’ is key, for it was the parochialism of British folksong that meant it was ever fed by a root structure both secular and sacred, pagan and Christian, as surely as the green man gurns from the church gutter. Those in doubt should check The Watersons’ back catalogue. Ralph Vaughan Williams was emphatic that the ancient tension between them was creative: on Sunday, singing beneath Burnes Jones windows, saints exalted in foliage, I’m inclined to agree.

 

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It’ll come to me

Some recent lyrics:

There was something in my head

Did I seem to lose the thread?

It’ll come to me, it’ll come to me

Like the redress of a rhyme

in the fruitfulness of time

It’ll come to me, it’ll come to me.

 

I’m sheltered as a bird’s nest in a bonfire

With peace of mind precarious at best

You could hardly call it bliss

Ignorance is what is

But it’ll come, it’ll come to me.

 

There’s a pencil in your fist

Better make another list

It’ll come to me, it’ll come to me

Sing for you an alibi

From this blue surprise of sky

It’ll come to me, it’ll come to me.

 

We’ll secateur the suckers from the roses

So darling all the garlands you can keep

But the sharpness, you can bet

From this splinter of regret

it’ll come, it’ll come to me.

 

Now there’s something you can do

When the Holy Ghost haunts you

It’ll come to me, it’ll come to me.

Muscadet the stain

Diazapan the pain

But it’ll come to me, it’ll come to me.

 

Cos I’m in a race with the devil

And the prize is the curving of the sea

So may the best man win

And my love, if that’s not him

It’ll come, it’ll come to me.

 

Listen to It’ll Come To Me here…

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February 3, 2016 · 9:45 am