Monday, 10 April 2017

Country Roads (Take Me Home)

I am not, and I don't think I ever will be, a 'city girl'. I was brought up in Hertfordshire which, as I found when I first arrived at university, is apparently a county seen as 'basically London innit?' No. For the most part, no, it is not.

My Hertfordshire has very little to do with London, or any other city for that matter. My Hertfordshire is a small town with a street of shops and a street of restaurants, a wide town park, and beyond it fields on fields of crops, spattered here and there with tiny villages of increasingly ridiculous names (my favourite is 'Loudwater', because it truly belongs to a Tolkien novel). It's home to narrow country lanes and wide open spaces and the occasional forest. Not well known (9/10 people assume that I said 'Herefordshire' when they ask where I come from), nor very large, and certainly not a 'city' place, it has put deep roots in me that long to be surrounded by skies and grass, not buildings.

But so much of modern life demands buildings. Buildings are where jobs are. Cities are where jobs are. And, for me, cities are where universities are - so, through weeks of planning and applying and deliberating, I ended up in Sheffield.

I have often read of Sheffield that it is one of England's 'most under appreciated' cities. Its merit is then argued in many ways - the culture, the music (nearly always hand in hand with mention of the Arctic Monkeys), the food...

For me, the greatest merit of Sheffield is that, quite by chance, in it I stumbled across one of the least 'city-like' cities I've ever been in. Sheffield is on my Dark Peak OS map. Sheffield has more trees per person than any other city in Europe (a fact I genuinely quoted when explaining why I wanted to come here), outnumbering people 4 to 1. Over a third of the Sheffield district lies within the Peak District National Park. It has more types of habitat than any other city in the UK, and large parts are designated Sites of Scientific Interest.

I live approximately 35 minutes from Sheffield city centre. I live approximately 6 minutes from the start of a valley walk that brings me into the Peak District, that makes me feel at home.

I may live in a city, but if I walk 20 minutes from my home, I am a equal distance from that city and from one of England's most beautiful National Parks.

My new 'local patch', if you will, is the Porter Brook Valley. It says something about Sheffield that this valley - one of at least 5 which lead into Sheffield - has its own charity, the 'Friends of Porter Brook Valley'. It says something even more that the symbol of this charity - of a river which lies IN Sheffield, is a dipper.

Walking the Porter Valley from Sheffield outward is like an exercise in rewilding.. The river widens, the trees thicken, houses give way to rolling fields of sheep; sometimes I swear you can even feel the air getting fresher around you.

The walk along the Porter Brook essentially consists of walking through a succession of parks, each less suburban than the one before. Every time you cross a road, from one park to the next, the habitat gets slightly denser and the landscape becomes less manicured, until you've escaped urban life altogether.

Endcliffe Park, the first and nearest to the city centre, feels almost-but-not-quite like a city park. 'Almost', because it is, for the most part, long and narrow and surrounded by houses, and has ponds where claggy bread floats on the surface from over-enthusiastic duck feeding...but 'not quite', because of the dedication of the space to nature.

This is not just a 'recreation ground' style park - it is taken over in majority by deciduous trees that lean over the bubbling Porter brook, which itself runs in cascades of tiny waterfalls, the water the glorious brown of a wild river. It is landscaped, with a main concrete path, ponds, bridges, some too-big-to-possibly-be-real stepping stones - but not so much that it feels artificial. My favourite route is the dirt track on the nearside of the river to where I enter the park, which is narrow and muddy and best trodden in walking boots. At the moment, the far banks of the brook here are carpeted in purple crocus, waving daintily up at the tree boughs above them. Some are trodden down by dogs or plucked by children, but most stand tall, the unfailing sign that Spring is on the way.

From Endcliffe Park, you cross the road into Bingham Park, which is as urban or as rural as you want to make it. The main park has bowling greens and tennis courts, and lies a brisk walk up the steep valley side, while continuing on the lower path brings you into Whiteley Woods. Legend has it that the park came about just after the death of Queen Victoria, when the wealthy Mr Bingham asked his wife if he should buy her a set of pearls, or buy all the land within sight and donate it to the city for the children to play on. She chose the latter. The extent to which this is true, I'm not sure of...but it's a nice thought.

A steep, muddy climb on a narrow path through the trees leads you up the side of the valley to a wide track through the woodland, where the air is still and you feel quite alone. The sun gleams through the trees, illuminating the slippery drop down to the valley bottom through row on row of shrubs interspersed with saplings and their parents. This is the place for finding fungus, the place for finding quietude and peace. If you don't feel like peace and quiet, or you're wearing nice shoes, a concrete path leads along the valley bottom into Whiteley Woods.

I've made the lower path seem like the worse option - it isn't. Along the valley bottom, the Porter Brook is a gurgling backdrop to what is starting to feel like a proper woodland. On the other side of the river, allotments spring up, and houses start to give way to nature. This part of the valley is laden with history, and home to the Shepherd's Wheel Museum, a tiny building packed with Sheffield's industrial past. The mill pond beside it is a mirror, reflecting trees so clearly you forget that they aren't real.

Crossing another road brings you truly into Whiteley Woods. This is where the real nature starts, where areas off the path are wild and boggy and, from a stone in the river, the grey wagtail bobs in greeting. You walk on, cross another road, reach my favourite place - a set of stepping stones beside a ford, which are often covered by rising water after rain. This is a place to be intrepid, a place to be glad you put on walking boots. Something about crossing stepping stones is innately childlike - it triggers memories of leaping them when you were little, crossing them with your hand clasped tightly by a parent who's certain you'll slip and fall. If you're like me, you'll remember falling in, too. The story of how I 'jumped' into the River Dove as a two year old is legendary in my household.

The woods now are dense around you, like a cloak. The houses are concealed behind them, the steep valley sides rising to enclose the tree-lined river in its own private world.

Now you have to start making decisions. The path to the left of the river is incredibly well-maintained; without being concrete, it is well-constructed with drainage tunnels, preventing the quagmire that Winter in Sheffield does its best to encourage. A higher path runs beside a large pond, with views up hill to the twisting road to Ringinglow and the fields of sheep that run up to it, now that the houses are gone for good. A lower path runs beside the river, with frequent bridges lest you regret your choice of path and wish to switch. The left-hand path is steeper and muddier, but runs closest to the river and gives impeccable views of the light shafting through the green leaves, the rich browns of the Earth and water, and the 'wildest' (muddiest!) experience. If you can't decide, not to worry - you can always take the other path on the return journey!

Just as you've been walking for a little while, and are thinking that perhaps you might like to stop and have a drink and a little snack of something, and perhaps a sit-down to breathe in the fresh air you've travelled to, you reach Forge Dam.

Forge Dam is a remarkable place for, though I know it's barely a five-minute walk from Fulwood, a full suburb of houses and streets and cars, it feels as though you've driven to a remote place somewhere in the Peak District. There is a little park (with an extraordinary slide!), and an adorable café which serves, though I may be biased, some of the most delicious food a walker could possibly ask for. The amount of cake concentrated in that one small building is incredible. The wide array of chips and breakfast food and, if you're feeling slightly fancier, paninis, on offer, along with full meals, is all you could want and more. To top it all off, there's an all-year-round ice cream kiosk, and lots of seating outside. There's also a large pond, with plenty of ducks to feed (birdseed please, not bread!).

The café is one of my happy places, but for now we'll bypass it and press on up the river. Taking the steep bridleway up to the left of Forge Dam, looking down on the pond and the people enjoying their gorgeous food, you start to feel as though you are truly, now, in the English Countryside. The field to your left is filled with sheep, to your right is a wood, and in front of you, the landscape opens up and you sigh in satisfaction because, now, you are in the Dales.

From here on in, you're in the National Park. You're in the Peak District. It's been 45 minutes, and you're out of Sheffield so much so that the traffic noise and bustle seems worlds away.

Your options are spread out across the hills before you. Up to the left lies Holly Hagg Community Gardens in the pretty Peak District village of Ringinglow, through whose streets the path up towards Stanage Edge winds. Holly Hagg has recently seen a boom in popularity because of its 'Alpaca Treks' - certainly worth looking into!

The track before you begins to wind uphill, through a wooded valley where the river burbles and cascades every now and again into a proper waterfall; it becomes, in its higher reaches, the free-spirited stream you feel every natural river should be. The trees grow close around you, the floor is dense with leaf litter and slippery now with mud. You are in Porter Clough now, truly wild.

Just as you push your thighs into action, climbing the increasingly steep track, five picturesque bridges cross and recross the path, until you appear out of the trees, blinking in the sunlight, onto a country road. You look behind you now, down the hill, to the buildings of Sheffield far away. This is where you have been. You are in the countryside now, just an hours walk away.

Having walks like this so accessible gives me strength. When I feel alone, when I miss my family, when I need escape, the Peak District is just there on the horizon, and it calls me home. Somewhere in the silence of wild spaces is a voice that soothes me to the bone, and I am privileged to find it so close.

All photographs are taken by and belong to me, Annabel Lever. 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Deep roots are not reached by frost.

A couple of months ago, as happens every so often, I was sent a survey from a student discount organisation with which I have an account. Often I completely disregard these - and if I do complete them, it's the multiple choice answers only, I'm never engaged enough to write anything longer.

This particular survey, however, was from the Woodlands Trust. I'm a Zoology student and a conservationist, and it's safe to say that I care about trees, so I was more than willing to put in a little extra effort. The questions were as you would expect, until one in particular: "Is there any tree in your life with special significance?". I can imagine a lot of people answered a quick 'no' to this question and asked themselves what sort of a person did have a significant tree in their life. 

I am the sort of person that does. My community are the sort of people who do.

A month or so after, when I was home from university at Christmas, I took my dog on a walk of which a part passed through an disused quarry near my home. There are several gravel pits like this in our area: one has been brilliantly transformed into a nature reserve, and another is on its way to becoming equally as good (credit for both of which is owed to Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, not the quarry company). This, the third, is as much a quarry as when it was in use, except that it's deserted. It consists of 'danger' signs and fences, graffiti-ed walls, tracks from dirt bikes and dystopian, lonely, abandoned machines. A path through this wreckage - of which an 'attempt' has been made to salvage by planting some scrubby trees and grassland herbs - leads up and onto a beautiful agricultural field and a wood. On the walk up this path, we encountered an older lady, walking poles in hand and waterproof on, who was stopped and staring over the gravel pit.

"Do you know if they'll manage to do this to the field up there?" she asked.

Her eyes were looking both at the quarry and beyond it into the past, and her tone quavered slightly with emotion. She told me about the times when this marred landscape was a field - when she was young, she said, her family used to walk through it and down into Waterford to the river. She remembered it as green and natural and whole. She, like me, had lived in the area her whole life - but she, unlike me, saw the transformation of this rural, greenbelt beauty into quarry.

We both knew that the opportunity for me to experience it was less that a hair's breadth away, because the field above us was under threat. The feeling hung heavy on the air. It was windy and rainy, desolate weather to match the mood, and her eyes were probably only watering from the cold - but there was enough emotion as we spoke that it could have been tears. My heart felt heavy.

What lightens my heart - what gives me, and her, and many other people in my community hope that this quarry may not come to pass - is the conviction and force with which the locals have risen up in defence of our greenbelt land.

There is a tree in the centre of this field - the Lonely Oak, we've always called it. This is our Significant Tree, and it has come to represent everything we value about the countryside we are so lucky to live beside, that we want to protect. When I saw that question in that survey, and I found myself writing what must have been paragraphs of answer in the small box beside it, I knew I had to write this post.

The truth is, I haven't managed to be that involved in the campaign. I've been too caught up in school work, too busy, too distracted - which only makes me value more the people who have invested so much in it. I'm writing to talk about these people, and this tree, and the strength of the community standing up for it.

This photo belongs to the Stop Bengeo Quarry website,

The force behind this tree, protecting this land which I've loved and lived in and walked through my whole life, is overwhelming. It is a kind of tireless dedication to fundraising and spreading awareness that I did not expect, and it fills me with overwhelming pride. There have been surveys; letters to councillors; petitions; articles in the local paper; videos; meetings; posters; family walks; activities celebrating the field and its natural beauty; bag sales; a fun day to raise money and awareness...the list goes on. The Lonely Oak stands adorned by ribbons and posters; tokens of the love of our people for the greenbelt countryside we grew up in, that we want our children to grow up in.

This is a field that I have adored. A field my family, my friends, my dogs have adored. It's where we walked every Boxing Day since before I was born to get to the pub at Chapmore End; where I took small steps as a toddler and escaped to on summer evenings as a teenager and screamed at the sky on a run when heading towards adulthood was becoming too much. It's where my dog loses his toys and where Red Kites land in the Lonely Oak, and where I go with my Mum to catch up with each other's lives.

It's a field that I don't want to lose. I don't want my community to lose it. I don't want the next generation to be unaware of what it was, to breathe air filled with dust from the quarry, to be kept up by the noise or to drink water that's tainted by it. 

I'm so proud of the people who've taken this into their hands, proud that so many people share this strong attachment to such a simple place. 

It's a hard path, defending something you love; particularly when it can't speak for itself, and the way in which you love it cannot be quantified by numbers or dates. It's easy to feel that the battle is futile, to assume the weight of a foregone conclusion and give in - but we have not. 

We have stood up for our countryside. 

We have stood up for our children. 

We will fight for our fields, our flowers, our birds, our greenbelt.

I hope to God that we win.

Image may contain: text and outdoor
This photo belongs to the Save Bengeo's Countryside Facebook Page

To SUPPORT the campaign, please: 

VISIT the website to find out more about the threats and how you can help:

GO TO the stall in Hertford on February the 18th (details on the Facebook page)

GET INVOLVED, however you can. 


Friday, 10 February 2017

In All Honesty: To Myself and To You

To anyone and no one; and mostly to myself.

I have not posted here in a very long time. To have to say that is not what I wanted when I started this blog. But it is a fact, and I will not pretend that it isn't.

The truth is, that sometimes it can be extraordinarily hard to work out how you really want to spend your time - and even harder to act on it. When I first made this blog, it was because I thought that in the future I might like to become a wildlife or nature journalist, and that to have a blog would be a good idea. I put a lot of pressure on myself to write like a journalist, because I thought that's what I wanted...but all it did was make me feel that I couldn't write what I wanted to write. I thought that I needed to do Serious, Meticulously Researched Articles about important global issues; about conservation; about things that I am passionate about...but that honestly I'm neither informed enough to write about nor blessed with time to research, as I would if it were my job. As a result, I felt defeated before I'd even begun, and so I didn't push myself to progress with writing anything at all, and the blog very quickly fell silent.

I'm not a journalist, and right now, when my life is filled with studying, writing like one doesn't really make me happy. All I am is a person, who loves the country and the wild spaces that made her.

Like a true heroine of a Victorian novel, I was doing some thinking today, on a walk in the pouring, freezing February rain (but, unlike these unfortunate women, I had a waterproof to prevent the classic tragic 'I've caught a cold and died' ending that would make all this thinking redundant) and I realised that how I feel when I'm outside is how writing used to make me feel. It should make me feel empowered, free, happy...not pressured or intimidated.

I consider myself to be a selfless person. A hard worker. I'm conscientious and driven and dedicated to my studies - to an extent that frankly isn't always necessary. These things often result in me perhaps focusing too much away from myself, not giving myself the time and the attention and the love that I deserve. Writing is a part of this; it did - does - make me happy, and it's something I don't want to lose.

Writing is a part of me that feels like it's been missing for a long time, that got lost somewhere in the exams and the revision and the Learning to Achieve. If I'm going to stand any chance of getting back into it again, into loving it like I used to, I need to write on my own terms, in my own way - and I need to be brave enough to do that, even if it means that no one wants to read what I write.

So, as of 2017, there are going to be some new rules:

1 - I will write what I want, when I feel like it, and I will not put pressure on myself to write anything in particular or a certain number of times per week or month or year.
Disclaimer: This probably means some random pieces of fiction may appear in the form of short stories or snapshots.

2 - I will do more to further other creative interests. This one is already in play! I've started a photography Instagram with the username clutteredmind_wildheart (Go to it here!). Posting on it and getting such positive responses is making me very happy and really inspiring me to continue - if you've managed to read this much of this post, reward yourself by checking it out! It's all photos of the outdoors, mostly in the Lake District (and quite a few of my dog) :)

3 - I will write in my own voice. Blogs are supposed to be personal, and I know that I can write about the outdoors and the natural world, all the things I'm passionate about, without feeling pressured to sound like an article or a journalist. I can write like me. Even if no one else wants to read it, I will enjoy writing it.

4 - I will not be afraid to be creative - if I want to write a poem, I'll write a poem. No one has to enjoy it but me.

5 - I will make the time to write. I will make time to get out into the outdoors, where I feel most at home. I will enjoy my time. I will stop standing in my own way.

I am the heroine of this story, and I will write with my heart.

I hope you decide to stick with me and see what comes out! Thanks for getting through this one; it's mostly been a cathartic exercise for me, but I hope good things are inspired by my starting over.
Here's a picture of Pippin looking very happy on his first ever visit to the Peak District, to reward you for getting through all this Annabel Stuff :)


Thursday, 2 June 2016

The Epic Ballad of Springtime

It begins with the whispering of a wind which speaks of warmth and Winter's ending. The soft sprinkling of dew on grass that isn't frozen to tiny ice castles. It begins with a sun whose rays are nourishing, slanting through trees whose leaves are buds of green, waiting to burst forward. 

It begins with blossom on a cherry tree, the lining of a street with radiant blooms and the slow hum of pollinating insects; the unhurried waltz of a bumblebee whose legs are stained with pollen. Listen. The insects sing of a Spring awakening as the slim, delicate form of an Orange-Tip Butterfly settles on a newly budded wild mustard plant somewhere by your toes. 

'I want to do to you what Spring does to cherry trees': you read the creased words by Neruda and look up from the book as a blossom falls beside you, its petals a tiny perfection of pink, winking the sun towards you with all the hope of new beginnings. Feel. 

It spreads from the cherry trees to the woodland, where trees which not long ago shed their glowing gowns of autumn auburn before the cold kiss of Winter, clothe themselves again now in the blushing bright green of the beginning of Spring. It spreads to their carpet, now a glowing blanket of bluebells, an inescapable perfume of secret, hidden, precious things, which gives way later to the rampant ramsons, wild garlic, a waving swathe of white flowers against the browns and greens of the woodland floor, dotted with jewels of primroses. Hidden wood anemones and celandines bow their heads before their companions, shy smiles by the wayside. The dark caterpillars of a Red Admiral butterfly make their important ascent up and down leaves of the newly leafed stinging nettles, the labyrinth of holes behind them often the only indication they are there. Watch. 

It spreads from the abandoned nests and sleepy dreys of last year to the wild, frantic activity of mating time. The river livens from its frozen slumber to a babbling, giggling Spring flush of water, rich with oxygen and wild movement within which the cuckoo flower starts to grow and the reeds rise lush and tall. The cuckoo spit arrives, the frogspawn, the hustle and bustle of a river that is not just a home but a hive of activity. The old bank, having survived the unpredictability of winter, is home now to nests; the bright flash of a kingfisher streaks from river to home, river to home, determined to do the best for its brood. Wait. 

The garden becomes a riot, home to more drama than a Shakespearian tragedy, as everyone attempts to do the best for their family. Slugs entwine indiscreetly in trees, their slime trails followed eagerly by hedgehogs just woken from hibernation and determined upon as much prey as can be found. On the bird table, families do battle for the best spots, first pickings on new food. The starling families arrive suddenly in hordes, the blue tit parents chirp anxiously from the nest and, above my window, the house sparrow male calls quietly to his female in her nest under the eaves, and receives the chirps of seven hatchlings in reply. The sparrowhawk mother watches on from her nest as her mate makes a kill, the young of one family essential to the survival of her own. A fox family play amongst the dandelions of an urban garden after the family have all tucked themselves away in bed, their yips and playful fighting likening them to puppies as the parents watch on. Stay awake. Become enthralled. 

In the corn fields, as the crops grow tall under the luxurious sun, the soaring song of skylarks fills the air as you walk slowly down the dirt track worn by many feet of Sunday walkers. Among the stems, a rustle reveals a field mouse, crouched, small nose twitching. An earthworm dries out slowly on the path. At twilight, the crepuscular barn owl swoops silently with wings that make no sound, waiting for the prey that will sustain its brood: hidden in the oak tree, downy chicks hatched days apart to increase the chances of at least one surviving. Back in the wood, the shy badgers emerge from their den with cubs following at heel, enjoying the last warmth of the sun in twilight as they sit and scratch amongst the bluebells. Be patient.

The bubble of activity spreads not only around our waters but in them too. In the ocean, the longer days and increase in sunbeams penetrating the swirling surface give rise to plankton blooms as they photosynthesise more effectively, beginning the food web of so many ocean species. The migration begins; as the days lengthen the terns arrive, partnered with the smartly dressed guillemots, the puffins with their caricature summer beaks, the dashing razorbills. Rocks that have stood untouched all Winter become havens for hundreds of families, cleaving out a life on the bare rock, as the pink tufts of thrift begin to bloom. Experience.

It is the beginning again of a cycle that never ends, that surrounds us and encompasses us just as it always has and always will. 

Listen for the whisper of Spring; the dramatic unfolding of life which is all around. 


Monday, 28 March 2016

Easter: Eggs, Evolution and Existentialism

Easter is the time of year when card-designers get highly excited about Spring. You can't move without a picture of a lamb, or a chick, or a daffodil, dipping it's yellow head softly in an imaginary breeze; a motion Wordsworth would be proud of, immortalised on a card. As a fan of daffodils, chicks and lambs, I'm not against this in the slightest. But, as an aspiring biologist, as I receive my colourful Easter eggs from kindly relations, and read the cards whose pretty yellow borders sing of sunny Spring, I can't help but wonder what made the human race act like this - why is it that we are so devoted to what is essentially just a Sunday? What makes us hold onto this concept that, because of a story that approximately only 32% of the world population believe in, this day is a special time deserving of celebration?

The surface answers are obvious: for Christians, Easter is a celebration of Jesus' resurrection, raised from the dead, from death on the cross for the sins of humanity, by God. It is arguably the most important date in the Christian calender, and the celebration of the most joy, as it illustrates freedom from suffering, the triumph of life after death. Others perhaps, who are not devoted to belief in Christianity - a group I would currently place myself in - perhaps celebrate and enjoy Easter still for the representation of new life and life defying death, but in the more pagan following of Winter with Spring, respite from the darkness and cold and the beginning of new life in the natural world. Eggs, therefore, represent this new life, and work both for delicious satisfaction and for metaphorical meaning as gifts of joy at this time. 

The deeper question, however, the one I really wanted to answer, is this: genetically speaking, why is it that humans have evolved to have this need to celebrate religious occasions, to come together in this way and celebrate what is, in actual fact, just a Sunday. Evolution, of course, is the answer - an idea that would freeze the hearts of the religious population of Victorian Britain: science is behind religion. 

Religious behaviour has occurred in all societies throughout the world at all stages of population development. It holds a genetic basis, which means it is an evolved behaviour, existing in our DNA because natural selection determined it useful for survival. Evolution in this way has given people a genetic pre-disposition, as is also present for language, to learn the religion of their community. From there, culture, not genetics, determines what we learn and what we choose to believe. 

Scientifically, there are two schools of thought as to why this evolution occurred. The first is that religion itself evolved due to natural selection for survival, and is therefore an adaptation giving evolutionary advantage. The second follows the belief that religion was a by-product of different adaptations, without being initially selected for for its own benefits.

This image belongs to Nick Biemans/Shutterstock
It is easy, perhaps, to see how in a hunter-gatherer society, as the human race began in, religious activities and rituals lead to stronger bonds and therefore higher chance of survival through the age old 'safety in numbers'. Rituals such as dancing created social bonds which lead to greater cohesion and cooperation within the group. This in turn makes it more efficient, and leads to a better chance of survival and reproductive success. Social bonds are illustrated in a similar way in chimpanzee groups, wherein grooming between two chimpanzees leads to increase levels of the hormone oxytocin, which plays an intrinsic role in non-kin cooperation. Religion would have served these early human societies, formed of small collaborative groups, as a sort of intangible law through which individuals would be socially obligated to put the needs of the group before the needs of the self, in fear of a 'divine punishment' or social ostracisation. As a result, the group both had a reason to avoid harm to each other, and a belief to inspire confidence in warfare and conflict, resulting in a society which had greater survival rates and social strength. Groups who had some form of religious structure would hence prevail of those that did not, and the allele frequency of genes 'for' religious thought and ritual would become more numerous until they were universal. Religion also became tied to natural occurrences - festivals in Spring and Autumn helping get the crops planted and harvested among celebration, inspiring labour and organisation. The 'God Gene Hypothesis' suggests that a particular gene, VMAT2, predisposes humans towards spiritual or ritualistic experiences, and is seen by some to act as an agent to increased optimism, leading to positive effects on other factors like health and reproductive success, though this has not been convincingly proven. 

The theory of religion as a by-product follows really the evolution of the human mind for consciousness, the realisation that we are mortal and the realisation that one must deal with their
inevitable death. Religion therefore served a fitting purpose for our anxieties - for ourselves, our lives, and about things we cannot, or could not, explain. The coordinated anxiety with others, through the outlet of religion, may have served a reassuring purpose, in which we feel meaning and can therefore manage our fear through the outlet of action.  

belonging to
It is easy, perhaps, to assume a biologist is an atheist. Indeed, when Darwin first published the Theory of Evolution it was considered incredibly blasphemous, against all concept of religion. But really, the idea of religion as an evolved trait perhaps negates neither atheism or religion. Critics of religion emphasise the negative effects caused by extreme religious leaders - in particular warfare and the act of extremist groups who by no means represent the entire religious population. But religion as a means of social cohesion, as a means for survival, in its most basic function of encouraging morality and humanity, is still very much a part of the functioning of today's society. The beliefs of entire religions is in no way represented by the extremist acts of the few, and even the most solid of atheists feel a unanimity in their mutual unbelieving. As a social bond, and a means of facing the reality of human existence, we can see indeed how religion is a trait naturally selected for to improve our chances of survival, as a species. 

After all, religious or not, we are brought together at Easter, to celebrate together new life in the form of eggs and chicks and lambs and daffodils. Whatever social significance it holds and stimulus it arises from, we all feel it.  


Monday, 14 March 2016

From Death comes Life

There is a small churchyard a few roads from my house. It's where I was christened, where my mother rang the bells for twenty years, where my younger brother was christened and countless family friends married. Though I myself am not overtly religious, I still value the church for its memories, and for the tranquillity that can always be found there.

Surrounded on three sides by roads, one of which I walk home along every day, the quiet and stillness maintained between its walls are a small miracle, and this time of year, the yew trees and tall building are lit below with a riotous carpet of colour, the beginnings of Spring.

As I first enter the churchyard, through the small wooden gate that so many different versions of me over the years has passed through, the sound of the road dies away and is replaced by the soft song of a blackbird, hopping along the path in front of me. As I crouch to admire the tree's blanketing cover of crocuses, a robin watches me from the branches, small beady eye daring me to try to get closer to him.

I think about the birds beginning their nests, as I walk the transition from crocuses to primroses to snowdrops, the occasional lesser celandine just starting to poke its head in too. Most of the graves hold cut flowers, but some have beds of living daffodils planted over them, bowing gracefully in the light chill breeze.

While I'm not sure how I feel about religion, I know how I feel about science, and to me the understanding of how these plants death and life and the death and life of the humans around them all influence each other in nutrient cycles to keep new life going, is almost reassuring. The cyclical nature of the seasons and life in this way comforts me in it's simplistic success: it gives death a reason, maybe. I read an article a few weeks ago about renewable ways for your body to return to nature after you die, one of which included using your ashes to plant and grow a tree. I would like that, I think. To give something back.

As I round the corner by the crumbling wall of the church tower, down rows of planted beds of flowers - hyacinth, bell hyacinth, row upon row more daffodils - and my blackbird friend hops behind me, I note the lack of one thing - insects. Perhaps it is too early in the year, the frost still biting too sharp, but I miss them. The lazy butterflies of summer moving gently from flower to flower, first sighting of  a Brimstone and then the Orange Tips and Whites and Blues. But butterfly species are really suffering, at the moment, with a 76% decline of the UK's resident and migrant butterflies in abundance or occurrence over the last four decades ( Butterfly Conservation UK). It makes me sad to think we might run the risk of losing even some of their beauty, so in addition to the huge buddleia bush that flowers decadently at the back of my garden every year, I'm going to try to introduce more butterfly-friendly species into my garden this year, including Ox-Eye Daisies, Dahlia, and Marigolds, all of which will also help support bees, my personal favourite insect, despite the fact I'm allergic to them. I'm also going to try to get involved with the Garden Butterfly survey also run by Butterfly Conservation UK, to do my bit towards their conservation. It's easy, free, and encourages you to sit in the garden just enjoying the life there for a while! For more information follow the link:

I would also encourage all of you to go and spent approx. 15 minutes in your local churchyard, like I did, not only to admire the beautiful life that has a chance to flourish in its sheltered habitat but also, as I did, to find peace.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Spring is springing?

Just a short one now, following the mammoth writing effort of this morning! I wasn't going to write anything at all for a little while, but, important writings call for effort, and today was officially my first blossom sighting of the year :) 

Blossom is one of my favourite favourite things, which I always forget about until the beginning of Spring comes around and I first start to see it again and I remember that I love it almost as much as I love the burnished reds and yellows of autumn leaves. 

I would like to point out, before you even see the photo, that this is my first blossom of the year. It is very tiny, and very new, and was perched too high up on a tree for my (not tiny) reach to get a decent picture with a steady hand. Nonetheless, evidence, I felt, was required, and so I endeavoured to find a blossom that was at least sort of in reach. It was, of course, the last tree in the Sainsburies car park which I checked. And was, of course, right beside a car with a family just getting out of it, who looked at my ecstatic face with no small amount of fear...

Anyway, here it is. I honestly don't know what species it is, for which I am truly sorry; looking it up has so far proved fruitless (potential pun intended) partially because, as I've mentioned, it's very tiny and the photo is very bad, and secondly because of the lack of arboreal knowledge I've lamented in past posts. My apologies also for the darkness of the photo, it wasn't particularly nice weather and was pretty late in the day. Apologies over; here it is. 

If anyone can tell me what species it is by this truly terrible picture which does the joy I felt no justice at all, I will be forever grateful!

So, tiny and new and struggling against the wind in a Sainsburies car park, here it is, my first blossom of the year, Pioneer of Spring.