What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.
— William Henry Davies
Each year that passes I become more despairing over the lack of action to contain climate change, a despair echoed by George Monbiot. This last year both the Earth Summit in June and the Doha Climate Change meeting in November were notable only for the reluctance yet again of those in power to take any real action. We British are known for talking about the weather, living as we do in a gentle changeable climate; weather that follows well-defined seasons, is not too hot nor too cold, damp enough to make our islands green but sunny enough to ripen our fruit and grain; weather where extremes were remarkable for their rarity rather than frequency. Yet even we do far too little, and while our government makes promises, their actions take us backwards.
Are politicians so important, so busy, that they cannot take the time to see what is happening in their own back yard? For the last few years I have been noting the changes in our seasons, changes not just to the weather but in those things that depend on the weather – flowers blooming, birds migrating or nesting, animals breeding. Sometimes everything seems to be out of kilter, with the trees as much as the birds appearing muddled about what they should be doing.
When I was a child, we moved from where I had been born to a tiny rural village in Nottinghamshire. Everything in that village seemed secure. Life followed the rhythm of the seasons. It felt safe, predictable. That doesn’t mean that there were no tragedies, no horrific accidents, no gales and blizzards. But they all somehow fitted in to the flow of life. There were floods, but they came in the season of floods. There were fierce storms, but they mostly happened in March or September, the time of equinoctial gales. There were personal tragedies, and the village noted and supported, or in the case of physical abuse, took action.
This is how it is in small communities – everyone knows everyone else’s business. There can be a loss of privacy and times when gossip, prejudice and wild assumptions take over, but community can also be a public watchdog, a deterrent to crime, and a galvaniser of concerted action when action is needed. And I fear that, with the changes I see, combined with the facts I am given by climate scientists, that the time will come when the support network of local communities will be all that we can depend on for our survival. For us in the West life is still safe, but the security and predictability of our lives is beginning to disappear.
I grew up with the saying ‘In with the lion, out with the lamb; in with the lamb, out with the lion’. This was what governed our weather in March, and it was something one could pretty well depend on. If the month started with mild weather, it would finish with storms. If it started with storms, it would end in a mild spell. I was born near the end of March, and on the night I was born there was a terrible storm. Nothing to do with me, but it was still ‘my fault’ in the eyes of my eldest brother and sister that on that night the wind blew the roof off the henhouse and of all the hens living there, it was their pet hen Brownie that was killed. Oh yes, I grew up knowing about ‘out with the lion’.
I was used to the fact that where we lived it would, more often than not, snow and freeze in January when the village children would slide around on the frozen ponds. No farm worker’s child had ever had skates, but that didn’t stop the fun – except the year that George slid too far and had to have his face stitched up. It thawed in February when the river, two fields away from our house, flooded and my mother had to drive the long way round out of the village. March always had storms at some point, and April had its ‘April showers’. May started the real blooming of flowers and fruit swelling on the trees. June through to September I remember for towels and tablecloths draped over the currant bushes, bleaching in the sun. I remember nights too hot to sleep. I remember the smell of hay drying in the meadows, helping my mother pick the soft fruit and the kitchen full of the paraphernalia of jam making. Harvest time came and the fields were full of stooks of wheat, oats and barley (not many combine harvesters then), and the kitchen was given over to bottling the gooseberries, currants, plums, pears, and finally apples that fed us through the winter. And as we went into autumn, I remember the potato crop being put into clamps in the field the other side of the lane past our house, my mother pickling the walnuts from our walnut tree, and helping her to preserve the eggs for winter by dipping them in isinglass.
It sounds idyllic, but once October passed and the fallen leaves gathered in drifts, November brought endless damp fog and cold. I remember helping my father with his garden bonfires, begging my mother for a potato to put under the smoking leaves; raking it out of the ashes and burning my fingers peeling off the charred skin to eat the delight inside. Nothing but nothing tastes like a potato that has been cooked in the hot ash of a fire. And I remember the scent of bonfires that impregnated my woollen coat for days afterwards, and made everyone else’s coat on the line of coat-hooks smell too. But looking back, mostly I remember the damp.
I had to walk to the village school along the road, instead of taking the shortcut across the fields. The school had earth closets instead of flushing toilets and one stove in the main room that did little to dry us out or warm us up. I remember nights too cold to sleep, hugging a hot water bottle in a cold bed, and putting on shoes and coat still damp from the day before for my walk to school. I remember the chilblains and skin chapped from cold. I remember the kitchen full of damp sheets drying on the rack that hung from the ceiling, my mother having given up on hanging them outside to dry. And I remember, during the cold frosty days of December, when she had put them outside to dry, helping her to bring in sheets and towels that had frozen on the line, sheets that wouldn’t be folded over the rack, they were so stiff with ice.
But I also remember the brief rich time of Christmas, the excitement of finding a stocking stuffed full of tiny goodies at the end of my bed – always a few nuts in the toe and a whole orange in the heel, and some sweets saved from our rations by my mother in between, because even though the war had been over for some years, the country still suffered from shortages. Sweets were rationed longer than anything else and I remember the glorious day when rationing finished, and I and the boy next door went to the village shop clutching our pocket money to buy our sweets. We ate ourselves sick on the result and decided to go back to our mothers’ routine of one small sweet per day.
My mother put by all the ingredients she needed for the Christmas puddings weeks before the grand stirring of the large bowl full of dried fruits. A heavy job but I was always allowed to have my stir while I made a wish. I remember, when it was finally brought to the table, hot and steaming on Christmas Day and I was given my plate, the careful chewing as I ate in case I was lucky enough to be served one of the silver charms I had helped to stir into the mixture, charms that were supposed to tell you what your year ahead would be like. I remember Christmas cake and the pulling of Christmas crackers, with everyone reading out the jokes and mottos they found inside; and sitting by the fire singing carols while my father played the piano. In reality, it was just two brief days of holiday, but it was a precious time that helped break up the cold gloom of short winter days and long nights.
Life in rural England back in the early1950’s was not easy. People were poor, the country was still recovering from the damage of war, and although people in the towns and suburbs had things we now take for granted – central heating, washing machines – villagers still aspired to that level of living. There was only one television in the village, owned by our neighbours, and I remember the crowd of people who gathered in their house to watch the coronation of our Queen. But, and this is a big but, there was a sense of community. The whole village came together to celebrate events like the coronation. People shared with and supported their neighbours. We knew everyone and strangers were remarkable, where now strangers are the norm and we struggle to know all our neighbours. And we lived in the endless march of the seasons, where things flowered and fruited at the proper time and birth and death were part of everyday life, not hidden away in hospitals.
Things have changed, are changing. That march is no longer endless, the seasons are not the familiar friends they used to be. There is a strangeness in the air. Some of the changes are so small that one scarcely notices, and it is only when I trawl through my memories of ten, twenty or thirty years ago, that I begin to appreciate them and to understand that life isn’t as secure as it appears. The one advantage to getting older is that one can look back. Living where I do, with so much wildlife on my doorstep, so much of natural life to study and observe, I cannot doubt that we are well into climate change and I know we cannot turn back the clock.
For some years now I have seen violets that should bloom between March and May flowering in November. Wild primroses too bloom before Christmas when I would expect to see them in March. I’ve seen birds nest-building in early December. For two years in succession we have had summer weather in April and the following months have been cold, cloudy and damp. Our gentle kindly climate, that keeps our island green, has lost its April showers. We now have drought then rain in downpours that the rock-hard earth can’t absorb, so that we have out-of-season floods. Last year, after a long drought, mid-summer rivers broke their banks and flooded the fields two or three times in a month. So many of our native flowers now bloom a few days earlier than they did ten years ago. Each year autumn hangs on as the trees hang on to their leaves, so that the next spring some species of tree seem to come into leaf later and later.
The calendar that migrating birds follow has changed. Some arrive earlier and some later. This year the cuckoo was late, and I only heard it call once, when ten years ago I would hear it calling in the valley for weeks before it flew away. And the swallows that come all the way from Africa to nest in the valley were far fewer than before, and arrived nearly a month later than the swallows in villages over the hill. I was told our swallows had run into bad weather on the way, and, of course, migrating birds have to cope with the changing climate all along their route, not just the changes here. But because we only note the little changes in our very local climate, we often fail to realise how very big the changes are when you add them all up, all across the world.
Two years ago the flower that symbolises England for me, the wild rose, was in bloom at the end of April, its delicate pink flowers covering the hedges in masses. But the wild rose is a summer flower – it shouldn’t start blooming until June. The honeysuckle also bloomed early and there were far too many strawberries in May. Yet all through June and into July the evenings were so cold I was putting on sweaters normally kept for winter, and I and other gardeners noted that the runner beans didn’t want to climb up their poles. It was too cold, and they preferred to hug the ground.
On the other hand, the wild clematis, which began to trail its vines all over the place early in May, flowered late, only just coming into bloom at the very end of July. But for all the late start, in August the hedges and trees were completely covered in cream blossom. It made my drive to town or station live up to its name – Travellers Joy. The story goes that back in the days before inn signs were common, when ale houses and small inns wanted to advertise their presence to a passing traveller they hung bunches of Travellers Joy on a pole outside. It meant shelter and food, a roof over your head instead of a cold wet night under a hedge, joy for the traveller indeed.
But soon the flowering was over and the dead flowers turned into hairy tufts. Travellers Joy took on its other name – Old Mans Beard – as all the hedges and trees were covered in little grey-white beards. Grey beards are meant to symbolise old age and wisdom, but how much wisdom do we gather through the year? So much of summer’s riches get spent while it is still spring. Will there be any autumn left by the time we reach October?
Last year the elderflower bloomed in season, then bloomed again in October, something I have never seen before. Will we go on ignoring all the little changes creeping up on the earth until we get to the day when we wake up to find a late blooming has turned into no blooming at all, that there are no more cuckoos and swallows, and no more joy, no matter how far we travel?