Thursday, July 20, 2017

Counting Mountain Crows

Image: Fine Art Museums of San Francisco
When I was exploring the craggy little Snowdonia peak of Yr Arddu after a typewritten climbing guide to the mountain’s diminutive little cliffs, written by Showell Styles, had fallen into my hands, my visits were inevitably greeted by a posse of raucous crows who-as crows generally do- were just hanging around the crags before taking off and wheeling around the sky before landing on a nearby outcrop and lettering rip. 'The clapperclaw of crows’ was Edward Abbey’s poetic description of their vocal powers. Of course the correct collective name for a group of crows is ‘A murder of Crows’, and sadly, this reflects society’s negative view of corvids in general, as dark, menacing necromancers. Black as coal and with a refined taste in rotting flesh.

British folklore had long condemned corvids to the dark margins of myth and imagination, long before Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Ghastly grim and ancient Raven’. Even Ted Hughes, a poet of rare perception and respect for the natural world, painted the crow as the ‘King of Carrion’....’His palace is of skulls. His crown is the last splinters of the vessel of life. His throne is the scaffold of bones, the hanged thing’s Rack and final stretcher. His robe is the black of the last blood. His kingdom is empty’.

Referring to ‘Crow: From the life and songs of the crow’. Professor Neil Roberts, Emeritus professor of English Literature at the University of Sheffield’......

‘Crow holds a uniquely important place in Hughes oeuvre.  It heralds the ambitious second phase of his work, lasting roughly from the late sixties to the late seventies, when he turned from direct engagement with the natural world to unified mythical narratives and sequences. It was his most controversial work: a stylistic experiment which abandoned many of the attractive features of his earlier work, and an ideological challenge to both Christianity and humanism. Hughes wrote Crow, mostly between 1966 and 1969, after a barren period following the death of Sylvia Plath. He looked back on the years of work on Crow as a time of imaginative freedom and creative energy, which he felt that he never subsequently recovered. He described Crow as his masterpiece.’

Despite the traditional misplaced fear of crows and those within the Corvus genus- Ravens, Jackdaws, Magpies and Rooks- in recent years there has been a marked upturn in the amount of attention and respect these birds are now receiving. Acknowledged as possibly THE most intelligent of bird species and one of the few capable of using logic and tools to solve problems, the crow and the Corvus clan in general are finally losing their sinister image and gaining a new legion of admirers.

Perhaps those in the outdoor community can claim to be in the forefront of the crows rehabilitation, given how we’ve shared the mountains with them for as long as man has frequented the high places. For climbers in particular, the sight of a crow perched on a nearby rock. Casually surveying his mountain kingdom, cannot fail to diffuse tension and lift the spirits. This extract from Guido Rey in ‘The Matterhorn’, written in 1946 in the immediate aftermath of one of the darkest periods in mankind’s history exemplifies this perfectly.

The Crows of the Matterhorn

The crows of the Matterhorn are strange,large birds with jet-black shiny feathers, with long bills and beautiful blood-red claws. They are a strange tribe, who live up in the heights in summer, concealed in unexplored recesses on inaccessible precipices of the Zmutt and Furggen faces. They are well disposed towards the few men who climb the mountain; they know they are harmless folk and much too busy with other matters to wish to go after them.

When the weather is fine, they watch from above, parties of climbers as they make their toilsome ascent; they fly down to meet them and circle about them, as dolphins in the sea swim about in the wake of a ship. If the weather be threatening, they utter their sad, unpleasing cry, as if to tell me of the coming tempest. They restlessly come and go, and beat up against the wind with their strong wings,sometimes hovering almost motionless in the air; then they dash headlong into the mist with folded wings, dropping like stones to flee the storm.

As will be discerned by the titles and imagery associated with these blogs, my fondness and respect for this most attractive, entertaining and beguiling of bird species, echoes the sentiments expressed by Guido Rey above.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Unesco's Lake District award: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The news that The English Lake District has received UNESCO World Heritage status-up there with Machu Picchu and The Great Barrier Reef- has been met with mixed reactions depending on one’s perspective. For environmentalist, George Monbiot, writing of the possibility back in May, it would be...and now is presumably..’a disaster!’. For like a lot of environmentalists, George sees the Lake District as one of many UK ‘Sheepwrecked landscapes’. An artificial environment where a once healthy and diverse ecosystem has been bludgeoned to near death by the heavy hand of man. All in the interest of profit above ecological sustainability.

In particular, the farming and landowning community who own so much of the Lake District and who have left the mountains and valleys tamed and de-wilded through their agricultural and forestry activities. Hillsides once richly laden with trees now grazed to the bone. Valleys similarly tamed, manicured and reworked in the accepted contemporary tourist chocolate box image.

For the Lake District Tourist Chief Executive, Richard Leafe, it’s ‘Great News!’ which will see at least a 20% increase in the number of Lake District visitors. Great News indeed...if you are looking forward to sitting in an 8 mile tailback on the Kendal By-Pass approaching Windermere, instead of a 5 mile tail back! The thing is, the last thing the Lake District needs is more tourists. As someone who does in fact like the Lakes, even though it is in effect a manicured park as opposed to a wild mountain area-like many people, I wouldn’t go within a hundred miles of the place during the summer holidays. Winter and late autumn are the best times to visit although compared to North Wales and Scotland, it’s still fairly busy. Spring is an option although by then it becoming noticeably busier, but come the third week in July....Release Hell!’

Places like Bowness, Ambleside and Keswick resemble London’s Oxford Street for crowds and who in their right mind would put themselves through that?? So...what exactly will UNESCO World Heritage status bring to the table? Actually...nothing really. The same planning laws will apply. The same wages will be paid to Polish bar staff and Romanian hotel chamber maids. The car parks will still be full. The B&B’s and self catering cottages will still charge an arm and a leg and the pubs will still sell their beer at marked up prices compared to northern town and city prices. People will still queue to climb on Raven crag, walk in a slow convoy up Helvellyn, tear arse around Grizedale Forest on mountain bikes and picnic in great numbers on Catbells.

But it will give Tourist advertising agencies another angle to sell the dream. The images will inevitably show snow topped mountains, a boat gently bobbing on empty waters, red squirrels, daffodils and long dead poets. The UNESCO award could though be seen as rewarding farming bad practice. Furthermore it rewards a ruthlessly exploited property system, driven by wealthy outsiders, which has led to social cleansing of local people. Victims of sky high property prices and the second home boom which brings in train the inevitable social consequences. Lake District second homes equals school closures, shops and post offices closed down. Bus services ended. Once living villages reduced in winter to slumbering film sets where no dog barks, the windows are shuttered and the chimneys are dead and cold.  It rewards short sighted bureaucrats who are more concerned with profits and numbers than sustainability, and it uses a very narrow market definition of what constitutes a site worthy of world heritage status.

I will still visit the Lakes to pick off some of the summits I’ve never done and take a sup for old times sake in the ODG, but the whole UNESCO thing leaves me quite cold I’m afraid. You do have to question the credentials of UNESCO officials AND the Lake District blow in Petite bourgeoisie who have driven this ill conceived exercise in self promotion over environmental impact.