The hazel blooms in threads of crimson hue
Peep through the swelling buds and look for spring
Ere yet a whitethorn leaf appears in view
Or March finds throstles pleased enough to sing…
John Clare, First Sight of Spring
The uplifting sense Spring gives to the winter worn soul has changed little since John Clare wrote this poem more than two centuries ago. I was in fact, met by this very scene the other day as I walked up the winding path from the Natural Burial Woodland. A thrush (throstle) pierced the woodland hum from the top of a nearby tall ash with its ecstatic voice, hoping to attract a passing mate. Blushing red buds of hazel, swollen so much that the faint underlying green was barely being contained, and the tender young leaves of hawthorn (whitethorn) in a reassuring hue that marked the turning point away from bleakness.
However there is hope in the dependable cycle of the seasons. At the top of the path I was met by the very embodiment of the beginning of spring; the distinctive sulphurous glow of a brimstone butterfly flitting in the soft, warming sunlight. They hibernate over winter and emerge as the days grow slightly longer and the sun warmer. They feast on the first nectar of the cemetery spring: primrose, cowslips and dandelions. The elegant sweeping curve, prominent veins and small dark blotches on the wings give the adult an uncanny appearance of a leaf. The caterpillars, hatched only onto buckthorn, feed for weeks before pupating into a curled leaf shape. Certainly the sight of a brimstone is likely to be something we’ve all enjoyed, but what would happen if the brimstone was gone? Would it create a cascade effect within the ecosystem, a ‘butterfly’ effect, with far reaching influence?
The notion of Gaia is that the earth is an entire self regulating organism of animate and inanimate components. It is the idea that life maintains conditions for its own survival; a powerful and far reaching realisation. When it was first proposed within a scientific context by James Lovelock in the 1970’s it was almost universally disregarded, but which now is almost universally accepted. If you know of the Yellowstone wolves, the Aleutian sea otters or even the Devonshire beavers then you are well aware of the enormous impact a small change in an ecosystem can have on the whole. In all of these examples it was humans that caused the damage in the first place. It is characteristic of our modern anthropocentric view of the world and an ignorance of that which Gaia does to support us.
Whether you support the idea of Gaia or not, no one can argue that human action has resulted in a damaged and depleted world. Pollution, unsustainable use of resources and destruction of habitats are widespread. Fungicides, selective herbicides and insecticides are used in agriculture to increase yield. Yet, not only do they poison us but also poison the very insects the crops require to be pollinated. Our constant desire to find technical and marketable solutions to these problems almost always underestimate the complexity of the ecosystem. Genetically modified crops have lead to new breeds of super-weeds that have developed resistance to the herbicide – Gaia re-balancing? There is increasing support for the idea that human pressure on the natural environment has lead to a sharp rise of novel diseases jumping from animal to human populations. This includes the current coronavirus. It’s not difficult to understand that if we nurture the world we live on then it will support us in return.
In these times of lockdown, when our distraction-filled lives are transformed, we are reminded that nature is still there. The quietening of the city has joyously amplified the usually muffled voices of winged summer migrants. The soothing sight of glossy fresh leaves calms our uneasy minds and reminds us that spring has arrived. The hardships of winter can be forgotten for now. You may even be lucky enough to spot a nectaring brimstone or even contemplate the same question I did. Concluding that it may not have that much effect overall if we lost the brimstone but that it is probably better that we don’t, if only for the smile it brings us. Our place in the world is as a part of it, not in dominion over it .
Now I stop and ponder the sight of a honey bee buzzing between the flowers of the cemetery’s meadow greedily guzzling nectar. I, like the flower, don’t wonder what it is this bee can do for me, but feel privileged just to glimpse the sight and wonder what life would be like without it.
Blog written by Liam Matthews, Arnos Vale Estate Supervisor
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