a school minibus in the distance, driven by sideways rain
heralds the widening of eyes
and the blooming of minds
in the wilderness
As we reflect on the second of three creative activity sessions with young participants on Bolton Fell Moss, I realise we have now really begun to unpack the many layers in the title of the project.
This visit was all about exploring what lives and depends on the moss: plants, insects, spiders, moths and birdlife.
We unloaded moth traps, uncovering beautiful, fragile beasties camouflaged against lichen and logs. We foraged for slugs and beetles and squirmed as a mass of spider babies spilled from their mother’s egg sac. We wafted our sweep nets after butterflies and captured all of the breathless wilderness wonder we could find.
Our final exercise was to guard ‘curlew eggs’ (actually hardboiled chicken eggs), encouraging the students to understand the vulnerability of ground-nesting birds. I had to leave them at this point but the pupils each took an egg and spread out intrepidly to find their own nesting sites out on the reserve.
I turned to face the rain and my trudge to the car park. As I looked back across the vast expanse of heather, I could see little eight-year-old heads hunkered momentarily alone in the moss; sitting grounded like curlews on a nest, looking quietly around themselves with a new wonder and awareness, fully entrenched in their environment. They were totally absorbed, individually forming new ways of understanding the world.
Reinforcing and embedding this experience through creative activity is a challenge, a layer of learning for me and for the other delivery partners too. This time we made collagraph printing plates inspired by the beasties we found, using recycled and repurposed collage materials, embedding another level of environmentally sensitive practice into the project.
One of the most rewarding things about truly multi-disciplinary science-arts engagement is that we can find ways of reaching every individual participant. As an accompanying teacher pointed out last time, literally everyone enjoyed it. A neurodivergent student was completely mesmerised by the insects and moths. This generated a new admiration from their classmates and helped them focus on the follow up creative session too as they were already hooked. Abstract printmaking is satisfyingly inclusive – it doesn’t matter if you ‘can’t draw’ – it’s just mark-making at the end of the day – and the vibrant effects look enticingly cool.
Also enticingly cool are these climate change faces produced during our reflective debrief. We hadn’t talked much about the bigger picture of carbon capture and storage during this session, focusing instead on flora and fauna on quite an intimate scale. But these expressive, striking images paint a thousand words and give me confidence that pupils have made the connection with the broader environmental catastrophe. I hope that by delivering sessions like this, we will help them develop a broad range of tools and knowledge to really make a difference.
As part of the NERC-funded ‘Moss of Many Layers’ project, Helen has been commissioned to create an artist map of Bolton Fell Moss – a 400-hectare site that has experienced large-scale peat extraction and is now being restored. Helen’s map will show the bog’s industrial peat cutting heritage, ongoing restoration, and its future state as a National Nature Reserve, which will also be a massive carbon sink.
Helen has been busy researching from a distance, and has been talking to other members of the Moss of Many Layers team and was finally able to visit the bog to find out for herself just how it looks and feels. The blog is Helen’s description of her day there last week when she visited with Rob Fraser (photographer).
“We walk over the old milling grounds to the Reserve Field, the four of us – the current warden, the volunteer (an ex-warden), the artist and mapmaker. Most of us know the lines of this land. I do not.
I have mapped it in my head, of course, researching online, digitally flicking through the yellowing pages of ancient books written in Cumbrian dialect and old land documents. I have an idea of Bolton Fell Moss but, like those papers viewed through a screen, that idea misses any kind of real life energy.
Now I’m here.
It’s different to how I’d imagined. Wide skies. Less bleak. Parts are still scarred a burnt black, as if scorched. The evidence of peat milling shows as giant scrapes across the land but in places, those lines are softening with moss and rush, or silvered with water reflecting the early spring clouds. The landscape has shifted to something else over the past few years as it’s started to recover.
We stand on the Reserve – the small part of the Moss that was untouched by industry. To demonstrate the surface instability, the warden and the volunteer jump up and down. As they land, I watch ripples spread out across the mounds of moss like a small earthquake. This whole world feels like a strange but perfect animal – part plant, earth and water and forever moving. The sphagnum moss on the surface holds water like a sponge, keeping the peat underneath it wet; exactly how it needs to be for the bog to act as a carbon sink and for its delicate ecology to survive.
We walk further. It’s clear we’re not alone and share this space with many others. We hear the bubbling call of the curlews before we see them. Blunt tailed, they fly as a pair, their scythe-like beaks almost half the size of their bodies. They’re an unlikely-looking bird for sure.
A hare sits against the black earth in the distance. She turns her pale eyes towards us – and then she is gone.
Against the sphagnum and the silver heathers basks an adder, his back a graphic pattern of blacks and whites. The bog trembles as we step closer. The snake must be able to feel us but the sun is too seductive and he flattens his body some more against the highest hillock. We walk on. When I turn back, I’ve lost him, camouflaged against the grey of the ling. The warden finds the spot again, practised in reading the mounds of moss like a sailor can read the waves.
The volunteer and warden offer to take a core from the bog for us. A huge pipe, open on one side, perhaps a couple of centimetres in diameter and many metres in length, is slowly twisted into the ground like a corkscrew. The pipe is pushed down through, perhaps, 8 metres of peat until it hits the bottom. They pull it out with a cheer, as if unbottling champagne. Inside the core it’s clear to see the layers of peat changing in colour and texture as climate and interaction with the land has changed. This place has always been shifting.
At the very bottom of the core sits grey glacial mud full of tiny stones. It comes from a shallow lake that must have been here during the Holocene. I scrape some of the clay out and ball it in my hands, pushing my thumbs in to make a simple pot. An age-old human interaction with the earth.
The colour of the layers in the core rises to warm, wet browns of moss and plant debris that once fell into that lake, eventually to compact and create peat. I find an 8,000 year old birch twig, its bark still preserved, and the husk of a seed, the ghost of a life.
Rob and I tread the boardwalk to a small central island of trees to take photographs. The boardwalk is being relaid and there’s a smell of fresh cut pine. It mixes with the yellowgreen scents of the Moss, cut with sharp ice off the Fells and the warmth of valley silage. The wind brings the calls of lapwing and greylag geese.
We sit on a massive bog oak that reclines languidly now, although at one point, no doubt, it was pulled roughly from the peat as inconvenience to the digging machines. Its dry, silver bark reminds me of the patterns of moth wings.
I look out over the site. It’s a work in progress and will be for decades to come. Ideas are being trialled and constantly readjusted to calibrate to a shifting environment’s needs. The belief in the restoration of Bolton Fell Moss as a carbon sink and nature reserve is unwavering for the future though, however long it takes.
Now I’m here, I’m less certain of my first map drafts – I will need to change them as the restoration work and the bog itself have changed from my initial understanding. I have to accept that this is a place in flux and my map can only be a document of this landscape at one particular moment in time.
I’m happy, though, that I can take some stories from the Moss today, stories I might never have heard had I not visited. On the map I’ll include the larks and the lichen, the creaking frogs in the rushy pool, the voices of the warden, the volunteer and the artist. The science. The history. The hope. They all add to the multi-layered understanding of a place – to be used in a map that’s not simply a reductionist document of roads or territory.
The world’s climate is shifting now; and so must we. We have to find ways to capture carbon and prevent carbon release. Restoring bogland will help us do that, so in order to encourage this equally shifting landscape, this forever changing land of peat and water and moss, we must learn to shift with it too. And on a personal level, on coming to Bolton Fell Moss, I recognise that my own ideas have shifted and subtly, with them, so has my own world.
We walk back to the car. The yellow sunshine-faces of the coltsfoot flowers smile up at us.
The ‘What is Natural Beauty?’ Symposium, run by the PLACE Collective through the Centre for National Parks and Protected Areas, and in partnership with Wye Valley AONB and the Lake District National Park, took place on December 1st, 2021. And what a success it was – the provocative (and unanswerable?) question raised through the symposium invited a diversity of views and opened up many avenues for discussion among more than 100 participants.
A formal report will be shared early in 2022, but for now we thought a perfect way to summarise the symposium would be to share this reflection from Howard Davies, former CEO of the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Read on …
“I think it begins with 3 main sets of questions:
What is beauty?
Does it exist objectively in things themselves? Is it an inherent quality of some landscapes, and not others?
Does it exist only subjectively in the mind of the perceiver?
Do landscapes possess special qualities that are perceived as beautiful in the mind of all perceivers? Is there a shared, cultural component to this? Do perceptions of landscape beauty vary, dependent upon societal values and norms?
What is the scope of things to which beauty can be applied?
Purely sensible – perceived through the senses? See, feel, hear, smell …
Or is it something more profound – is there an Intellectual or moral quality to beauty?
And if the scope is this wide does sensible beauty lead you to moral or intellectual beauty?
The romantic poets spoke of natural beauty as a spiritual, almost other-worldly experience that was accessed through our relationship with nature. For example, Shelley’s ‘Hymn to Intellectual beauty’ – Natural Beauty was what you experienced, as a result of your relationship with nature. It was a natural phenomenon connected to the experience of nature, not nature itself.
How does natural beauty relate to other value concepts?
The functional, the sustainable, the spiritual? And does natural beauty align with the concept of a sustainable, ecologically rich and functioning landscapes?
Kate Humble opened this seminar with reference to the picturesque and the role of landowners in transforming landscapes in accordance with the aesthetic of counterfeit neglect. She challenged us to reconsider what makes our landscapes beautiful and suggested we take a steer from nature.
Desperate Men provided an entertaining take on the notion that the map is definitely not the territory and questioned the full scope of outstanding natural beauty, and whether beauty is entirely in the eye of the beholder
PennyBradshaw introduced us to the romantic poets and writers, the picturesque in more detail, and Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime – the agreeable horror associated with some of our more dramatic landscapes.
Crystal Moore challenged us to rethink how we value our environment within the frame of the climate and human emergency that now faces us, and to reinvent ourselves. SteveRatcliffe also framed natural beauty within the wider context of sustainable development and personal impact, with examples drawn from his experience in the globally important, vibrantly lived-in, distinctively special, Lake District National Park
Mike Collier introduced colonialism into the argument, and talked about the impact of race, class, power and privilege and the history of land ownership. Touching on identity, beliefs, and deep-seated cultural values. He made the case for celebrating beauty in difference, rather than the industrial green landscapes of curated, ‘rural’ Britain.
Anjana Khatwa gave a personal reflection of her lived experience as a woman of colour, geologist, earth scientist, and mother in the British landscape and how these lenses affect her view of beauty. Ruth highlighted the benefits of performing in the natural environment, and some of the barriers that exclude people of colour from the countryside. She asserted that no environment can be outstandingly beautiful if it is exclusive.
Sally Marsh examined how we might consider natural beauty today if we embraced its full scope, not just visual amenity, in the planning and management of landscape.
Matt Larsen Daw drew on our nurturing love-affair with nature and our ultimate inter-dependency on this for the wellbeing of our body and mind. I was particularly taken by his description of landscape as “Time and nature made solid”.
Neil Heseltine took us beyond physical attributes and face value, to remind us of the complexity of nature. He made the point that nature needs space and time to play out its processes and intricacies and that the way land has been stewarded over the last 50 years has limited this. He highlighted the important role that National Parks and AONBs can play in helping people understand the complexity of nature and their impact on it, especially with regards the way we produce our food.
So, by way of a summary – for me, sensible and intellectual beauty strike at the heart of what it is to be human. It is the tension between the finite and the infinite, life and death, permanence and transience, lost and found, past and future, harmonious and discordant – it is this symmetry that we inherit from the classical approach to beauty. The wonder, awe, majesty, and drama of nature and our small place within it, we inherit from the notion of the sublime. These marry together to form the yardstick by which we have historically qualified our current suite of protected landscapes, protected for their natural beauty … a concept that is still valid, and indeed important for our wellbeing. Many landscapes however have difficult histories that have given rise to multiple challenges, many of which have been clearly expressed today, and all landscapes are subject, like us, to the existential crisis that is now upon us.
Landscapes are the product of processes and interventions. Ultimately I think, we need to focus less on the product, and more on our relationships with each other and the environment within which we exist, and on which we depend.
We need to be more creative, recalibrate these relationships urgently, and reposition ourselves, our economic systems, and the way society operates, such that a supportive, functioning, environment is the natural outcome. We might therefore focus our search for natural beauty and elegance in these relationships, and become more comfortable in letting our environment be what it will be.
AONBs and National Parks are the perfect vehicles to lead this change and champion what essentially needs to be a new, more diverse, social contract around landscape and natural beauty, but to do this with the intention of triggering systemic change on the basis of kindness, and active and open listening – the point made my Harriet in the poem that started this discussion.
To find out more about Howard Davies, and the other presenters and performers who took part in the symposium; and to browse through some resources, view the symposium programme here.
I’ve always felt it an honour and a privilege to work in the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). It is now 50 years since the area was designated an AONB, becoming the UK’s 28th AONB in 1971. That was the year I left Infant School, Idi Amin came to power, Britain went decimal, Mick Jagger married Bianca, the first British soldier was killed in Northern Ireland, crash helmets became compulsory for motorcyclists and the Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail was launched.
It’s not within my remit to dwell on all of those in our Golden Anniversary year. But as part of our celebrations I did want to look at where we’ve come from and what the prospects are going forwards. The ‘What is Natural Beauty’ symposium is an opportunity to do just that, in collaboration with the Place Collective, the Centre for National Parks and Protected Areas and the Lake District National Park Authority, celebrating their Platinum Anniversary.
By coincidence rather than design, the symposium will pre-empt the Government’s response to the ‘Landscapes Review’ of National Parks & AONBs in England. This was published in September 2019, and chaired by Julian Glover. In June a Written Ministerial Statement outlined the Government’s initial response to the Glover Review. Included were proposals for Natural England to review the process of designating more areas of the country for their natural beauty and to consider initially 2 new AONBs and extend 2 existing Areas.
So it is particularly pertinent to be asking ‘What is Natural Beauty?’ The Wye Valley AONB Management Plan, that I lead on producing, has a section on ‘What is Natural Beauty?’ which focuses on the legislative origins and concept of the term. The Management Plan then lists the Features and Special Qualities (27 of them) that contribute to the Natural Beauty of the AONB.
Regarded as one of the finest lowland landscapes in Britain, the Wye Valley AONB has dramatic views over limestone gorges and one of the largest remaining areas of ancient semi-natural broadleaved woodland in the country. The renowned woodland ecologist Dr George Peterken noted that as a predominantly wooded and riverine environment, the Wye Valley has a greater combination of ancient and natural features than virtually all the UK’s other AONBs and National Parks.
The juxtaposed habitats and dynamic topography led Rev. William Gilpin to espouse his theory of The Picturesque based on a tour down the Wye in 1770. Artists, writers and tourists subsequently flocked to the Wye Valley to marvel at the picturesque, sublime and romantic views … and they still do!
But the Cistercian monks who chose Tintern for the location of their second Abbey in Britain 900 years ago obviously saw something special in the valley’s tranquillity and productivity. Likewise the Norman lords, King Offa and the iron age Silures found the dramatic topography outstanding for incorporating into their castles, Dyke and hill forts. Meanwhile the complex geology gave the area powerful streams, abundant forest and copious minerals from which early industrialists forged the crucible of the industrial revolution. On the fertile floodplain and red soils farmers cropped cereals, fruit, livestock and fodder. All these goods were traded up and down the Wye, then over bridges.
The palimpsest cultural landscape is an important part of Natural Beauty. But you don’t have to know the detailed history of an area to appreciate that countless generations of peoples have lived, loved and died there.
However, dig deep into a place (literally or metaphorically) and you come to realise that we are all migrants in that landscape, sharing our culture briefly with its nature. We craft the landscape through that interaction, and we craft ourselves.
Stephen Fry mused on “What is it about humans, that we marvel at the only world we know? We are wowed by the absolute ordinary, astonished by the every-day”. We find beauty in the very mundane events of leaves dying in autumn, the planet’s rotation making the sun pass the horizon, birds communicating, water flowing over rocks. These are not just visual stimuli, but totally sensory experiences. When encountered in conjunction – birdsong during an autumnal sunset by a waterfall – we create a deep emotional response to that place and time. Association and memory play a strong part in Natural Beauty, because in knowing that ‘that place’ remains (and places like it) consolidates our appreciation of it. Appreciation comes hand in hand with understanding, (although we may all have differing perspectives). David Attenborough said “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”
The challenge for my day-job, and the presenters on “What is Natural Beauty?” is to discern whether the intrinsic value of natural beauty will shift as the landscapes change and subtly evolve (as they inevitably will). A particularly strong influence may come from the climate and ecological crisis. However, our AONBs and National Parks should continue to enable another two or three generations at least to create deep emotional responses to outstanding landscapes. Then it will be their turn to realise what is natural beauty.
This question from Catriona Manders, Youth Committee & Junior Ranger, Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park, introduces the Protected and Conserved Areas Joint Statement on Climate Change and Biodiversity, which was announced at COP26.
Why are we sharing this? Well, we think it’s spot on – surely it’s a responsibility of protected places to care for life and set a strong example. And, with PLACE sitting within CNPPA, it’s great to know that CNPPA was among the founding signatories pledging to take action to better care for landscapes and seascapes, and to join together – as no one place can do it alone.
To reflect, here’s Lois Mansfield, Director of CNPPA:
“The significance of this accord cannot be overestimated. For the first time ever, those involved in protected and conserved areas have come together to call on world leaders to support their work in the fight against climate change ad biodiversity loss. We are one enormous family of protected areas. The sheer power of multiple agencies coming together to make one statement of intent means we can now work collaboratively and internationally.
Protected areas are not just pretty places, they are the pinnacle of biodiversity, interrelated to living landscapes in many parts of the world. If the battle against climate change and biodiversity loss is to be won, we must win it first in these special and conserved areas. Our role can be transformational.
Signing this Joint statement is really exciting for CNPPA, and it’s happening in the 70th anniversary of our local national Park, the Lake District. It really brings home the importance of being part of wider family, and the need to help each other achieve a sustainable future for everyone who lives and works in, and enjoys, our national landscapes. Finding common ground and being able to speak with one voice empowers protected and conserved areas to address the challenges of the 21st Century.”
Some of the text from the signed document …
“Over 70 countries are members of the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) for Nature and People that champions a global deal for nature and people with the central goal of protecting at least 30 percent of world’s land and ocean by 2030 (30×30). The 30×30 target is a global target which aims to halt the accelerating loss of species, and protect vital ecosystems that are the source of our economic security.
We believe the global family of Protected and Conserved Areas is well placed to respond to the calls to action from the IPCC, IPBES, IRP and UNEP and to support the ambition of countries around the world, including the G7 and the members of the HAC, by taking rapid and far-reaching actions to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.
… we can be the first 30 percent that inspires and informs land and sea use choices across the remainder of the planet, and we can be the places where billions of people connect with nature and become inspired to play an active part in combatting the dual crises.