Saturday, 19 May 2018

No Larking About?

I can't get wildly excited about insects and I suspect I'm not alone. However, skylarks love them, especially flying insects, so that's good enough for me. In fact skylarks just can't get enough of them  - which is a big problem as I'll attempt to explain.

Bugs are an important part of the planet's ecology and are a vital element in a complex food chain that sustains all manner of diverse life forms including farmland birds. Unfortunately, the right sort of bugs are disappearing fast and it's all our fault.

Over half a century ago, E.B. White, author of the brilliant children's story 'Charlotte's Web' made this sage pronouncement: "Our approach to nature is to beat it into submission. We would stand a better chance of survival if we accommodated ourselves to this planet and viewed it appreciatively instead of sceptically and dictatorially."

He was an inspiration to Rachel Carson, whose own treatise 'Silent Spring', published in 1962, did so much to raise awareness of the damage being done by the unregulated use of pesticides, DDD/DDT in particular. Carson's book was quite probably the main catalyst of the whole ecological movement of the last fifty years.

I joined Friends Of The Earth in the early 1970s as the first wave of concern for what our parents' generation was doing to the planet swept across the western hemisphere - and for a while it appeared that consciousness-raising was having a positive effect and the silent spring might be avoided. A range of the more destructive pesticides was banned (including DDT); there were pan-global treaties and regulations aimed at arresting the tendency to beat nature into submission; subsidies were agreed for food producers adopting 'green' principles and organic approaches.

However, the stark and awful truth of the matter is that the such changes were largely token. The dictates of agribusiness have been driving us relentlessly towards more intensive farming practices which are decimating the insect and by extension the bird population.

The volumes of insecticides sprayed onto farmland have increased enormously in recent years and the chemicals themselves are becoming more potent. Add to that changes in farming patterns - removal of hedgerows, a tendency to monoculture, more intensive crop growing (earlier planting, two crops per year) and two very unfortunate things happen: the flying insect population which is the staple food of farmland birds is hugely reduced - down by 75% in the last twenty years - and the habitat that skylarks (and linnets, partridges, yellowhammers) traditionally live and breed in is also disappearing fast.

The alarming result of this double-whammy across the whole of western Europe is a rapid and escalating decline in farmland bird populations. The French National Museum of Natural History has conducted a nationwide survey and when it analysed the findings declared bird numbers to be at a "level approaching an ecological catastrophe"; the RSPB in the UK reported in 2015 "our beleaguered farmland birds have declined by nearly 60%. We need urgent action."

Already the beautiful skylark (see below), so long a symbol of pastoral England, has disappeared completely from large swathes of the south, East Anglia and the midlands.

Insectivorous but endangered skylark
After not having heard one for years, I was lucky enough to see and hear a skylark just the other Sunday morning as I was out walking by the Wyre estuary a few mile from Blackpool. It was a thrilling encounter. The bird flew up from the sedge and started to sing as it climbed into clear blue sky, spiralling higher and higher until it was a black speck showering the countryside with exuberant song for a good twenty minutes. I knew then that I was going to try and capture the experience in a poem as soon as the opportunity presented itself - and here it has, courtesy of insects!

Showering the countryside with song
For the sake of the skylark, I will join the fight for the right kind of insects - that means working to restore traditional structures in the countryside: replanting hedgerows, leaving grass margins around fields, growing hay in the old-fashioned way. It can be done in tandem with high yield crops, when farmers work with wildlife and not against it, just as E.B. White advocated. The charitable Countryside Restoration Trust is proving the point at its model Lark Rise Farm in Cambridgeshire.

Such projects have to succeed. Otherwise the dreaded day might arrive when there will be no more larking about in our skies, only silence and the ghosts of past glories at heaven's gate.

Riffing On High
First hint of spring, walking by Wyre,
you're still here, as am I.
That's a relief.
These are the good days
of golden dawns and azure mornings.

I know why your soul soars,
crested skylark king,
spiralling empyrean
to the fifth harmonic circle of heaven,
fanning away on quivering wing
rapid as a heartbeat
until you're a mere black speck
above the sere,
from where you shower the countryside
with exuberant song,
a twenty-minute long riffing on high.

Rooted to the spot as am I,
by your dazzling symphony of joy
and warmed by the sun,
my soul soars too,
These are the good days,
glad to be alive.

Thanks for reading, S ;-)


Anonymous said...

What a lovely poem.

Anonymous said...

Spot on, Steve.

Anonymous said...

An exaltation of larks! Very good Mr R. I haven't seen or heard a skylark in years. They used to be quite common round here. Worrying times.

Anonymous said...

Those are quite shocking statistics. It's staggering to find out what's going on. Your poem was heartfelt and I can understand why, having read your blog.

Anonymous said...

Skylarking also an LP by the band XTC - very good if you've not come across it.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written and with a powerful message.

Matt West said...

Good poem, man.

Anonymous said...

As others have said, a powerful blog + beautiful photos and a great new poem. Loved it Steve.

Adele said...

So proud to have shared the day and your wonderful poem.

Anonymous said...

Nice one Steve. Ken.

Anonymous said...

Great blog. Loved the poem too. Top man.

Anonymous said...

I've really enjoyed your bird poems (except for the one about seagulls). Thanks for this, it's very good.

Steve Rowland said...

Thank you Adele, Ken, Matty. As for the Band of Anonymi, I really have no idea who you are but your comments are also much appreciated.

I'm gratified you all enjoyed the blog (it's an important topic) and I was happy with the poem. Oh yes, XTC - I do have their Skylarking album, great stuff.

Onwards and upwards ;-)

Anonymous said...

Right On, Saturday blogger! Loved this. Great poem. Keep them coming.

Anonymous said...

Exquisite poem Steve.

Anonymous said...

Another fabulous poem. Well done you.

Anonymous said...

What you describe (disappearing insects and birds) is very worrying but I thought the poem was fantastic.

Anonymous said...

Great blog Steve. One of your best. I'd say.

Anonymous said...

Just brilliant. So evocative.

Anonymous said...

Chris Packham on the radio yesterday was stressing the point that we are on the brink of ecological disaster and hardly anyone realises it. Thank you for speaking out.

Anonymous said...

A worrying analysis but a fabulous poem.

Anonymous said...

How cool is that!

Fensman said...

A very good blog and poem. Are you familiar with the works of John Clare? His Skylark poem is worth reading:
".....up the skylark flies
And o'er her half-formed nest with happy wings
Winnows the air - till in the cloud she sings,
Then hangs, a dust spot in the sunny skies" etc